I AM NOT a great novelist, albeit a fairly popular one. It is far better to be popular than great and makes all the difference to one's material comfort A great author is rarely appreciated, at least until he is dead, whereas the popular one winters in the Riviera and has portraits of his drawing room furniture in The Strand Magazine. Anyway my work is in good demand. Commissions are plentiful, so plentiful that last summer I rather overdid the thing, the natural consequence being nervous irritability and a tendency to lie awake o' nights, and as a greater writer than myself says, "That way madness lies."
"What you want," remarked my doctor, who is one of those charming practitioners who always precribe exactly what the patient most longs for, "is a thorough change. Give up work altogether for a month. Go to some quiet, breezy spot on the coast and simply live out of doors."
I had no difficulty in summoning up enough will power to follow out this request. Solitude has no terrors for me. I packed up my bag and took the first train to Barnstaple, whence I drifted to a place called Morthoe, and there I pitched my tent—if the expression may be allowed—in a comfortable farmhouse, where the welcome was all that could possibly be expected for the money.
I did not tell anyone what my profession was, and consequently I passed for an ordinary individual. After a time I naturally made acquaintances—the parson and the squire and that kind of thing. There was nobody with whom to talk shop, which was a drawback. But even that comes in time. I found my fidus Achates one morning on the sands, where I had gone in search of a bath. He was a tall, rather melancholy-looking man, with a restless eye. Being anything but a bold swimmer, and the coast being dangerous, I was naturally indisposed to try the briny deep, and my new acquaintance obligingly pointed out a perfect natural bath wherein I could disport myself.
"Almost as if it were made on purpose," he remarked." I always come here myself. I've got a house behind the sand hills there. I shall be pleased to see you any evening that you care to drop in."
I thanked the speaker, and for the time being we parted. Subsequent inquiry elicited the fact that my friend's name was Walter Wanless, and that he was a stranger who had taken a furnished house there for a year. Usually, I was informed, he preserved a reserved attitude. He was inclined to be eccentric, and all is housework, cooking, etc., was done for him by a solitary manservant, who, so the gossips hinted, was employed more In the capacity of a keeper than anything else.
As a novelist this suggestion merely served to pique my curiosity. A writer looks unconsciousiy for copy even in moments of leisure. But I am bound to confess that I saw nothing peculiar in the behavior of Wanless when one day I lunched with him. The sole was done to the turn, a subsequent dish of curry left nothing to be desired, the sherry was really dry and not merely acid, and the lusty servitor waited in a manner which would have done credit to a professional. Yet at the same time I oould not help seeing that Wanless was very much afraid of his man Bellamy. For instance, when he attempted to help himself to a third. glass of sherry, Bellamy calmly removed the glass and placed the decanter at my end of the table. The thing was done so coolly that I could hardly restrain my astonishment. For a moment I saw a lurid light flash into the peculiar dark eyes of my host His hand clinched; then he laughed pleasantly. "Bellamy presumes, as all old servants do," Wanless said. "But he is right, all the same. I am a wretched drinker."
Bellamy said nothing. He did not even smile. He handed round a box of cigars, from which Wanless selected one, and then he locked up the box and put the key in his pocket.
"You don't want to sit here all day, sir," he said respectfully, but firmly. "You had better go for a walk, I think."
Wanless rose obediently, and I followed. As we passed through the hall I caught a glimpse of a small but complete-looking library, which was lined with books. With the fascination that volumes of any kind possess for me, I was about to enter when Bellamy closed the door and locked it. "Sir," he said to his employer, "you are wasting the afternoon."
Well, it wasn't for me to interfere if Wanless was disposed to put up with that kind of thing. We had a very pleasant afternoon upon the sands, when I found my friend to be a wonderfully entertaining companion, exceedingly well read, but shy, I thought, on speaking of modern writers of fiction. We parted at length with mutual regret.
"I shall not see you for the next day or two," Wanless remarked, grasping my hand heartily, "as business calls me away, but I shall be delighted if you will dine with me on Thursday. Bellamy will not be present, as he has a day off, and I shall order dinner to be sent in from the hotel. And now good afternoon, my dear Gibson."
As a matter of fact, my name is Osborne, but it is one of the weaknesses of human nature whenever a man is addressed by the wrong patronymic to allow the mistake to pass. It would have been far better for me had I corrected the mistake instead of allowing it to pass in my haste to accept the invitation to dinner.
At half past 6 on the Thursday night I entered Wanless' dining-room. The dinner was not all that could be desired, but then Bellamy was absent, and the food was brought and served by a waiter from the hotel. The wines, which were my host's own, left nothing to be wanted. The peculiar sherry was there and some wonderful champagne of 1874 vintage to which we both did ample justice. By the time we had completed our repast Wanless' eyes were shining, and his manner had grown a little more boisterous.
"And now no more wine," he said as he dismissed the waiter. "I shall suffer terribly in the morning from what I have had already, and Bellamy will bully me in his polite way for a week. Let us go into the library and smoke. We shall be quite alone and can have a cozy chat. It is not often that I have the nerve to face my books, much as I love them. Time was when things were very different, and—"
Wanless broke off abruptly and led the way to the library. A lamp was on the table. A little fire burned in the grate, and yet in that cheerful, book-lined apartment I felt singularly depressed. I tried to shake off the feeling. I tried to ignore the gleam that flashed in the dark, restless eyes of my companion. With as much ease as I could assume I carelessly examined the well-filled shelves. "You appear to have a good selection here," I remarked. "In so select a gathering I am flattered at seeing a volume of my own."
Any writer will pardon the innocent vanity of the remark. I heard a short sharp exclamation break from my host. I saw his eyes blazing as he looked toward the book on which my hand lay lovingly.
"Oh, so you are that Osborne," he said in a manner most uncomplimentary. "I had no idea that I was entertaining so great a man. Ah, ah!" The laugh was about the most unpleasant I have over heard.
"Sit down," my host commanded. "Oh, I know your work very well indeed. In fact, I know the work of the whole gang of you. But I haven't read a line of that volume of short stories you have there. The stories are quite recent I suppose?"
I replied as quietly as I could in the affirmative, at least as quietly as a man can when his host with eyes "in a fine frenzy rolling," locks the door and puts the key carefully away in his pocket.
"Then of course you remember all the dénouement—hateful word," Wanless said as he opened my innocent book and glanced at the first story. "We will have a little mental amusement and you shall correct me if I am wrong. I see the first story is a ghost tale called 'The White Mystery.' And here, looking casually through, I find are two characters. They are brothers—one a brave military man, the other a nervous, imaginative youth who is scoffed at by the brother because he fears a ghost. Let me forecast the end of the story. The youngster sees the spook and dies of terror on the spot while the other fool can never speak afterwards without trembling when he recounts the story. Doesn't he say that he 'cannot speak of the nameless horror of that awful face'?"
"You have guessed it" I said, with a stifled parody of a laugh. But Wanless did not appear to be at all elated by his success. He smiled with bitter, weary scorn and fluttered over the leaves to the next story. "I take no credit to myself for that discovery," he proceeded, "Here is another little thing, entitled 'My Uncle Dick.' Heavens, what awful memories does that hoary kind of title conjure up! Let me prophesy again. Uncle Dick is a man of money. He is crusty and curt. The hero of the story, written in the autobiographical style, wants to marry a cousin, and the old boy won't let him. Said old boy dies of apoplexy after a fit of passion and leaves nothing to the narrator but an old deed chest, in which are discovered securities of priceless value. So they get married and live happily ever after, eh?"
"Your foresight is really wonderful," I replied. "Any one would think that you had been a writer of current fiction yourself."
Wanless glared at me so threateningly that I involuntarily moved toward the poker. His eyes were filled with horror, hate and loathing.
"Man, you don't know what I am. You cannot understand what has brought me to my present pitiable condition," he hissed. "Let us carry on the ghastly farce to the end. Here is another of your screeds. It is called 'The Black Bag.' I wonder how many thousands of tales have been written with the same title? Again let us pursue the psychological programme. The hero is a young man who gets into conversation with an engaging stranger in a railway carriage. The fascinating one has a black bag. When they change carriages, some one accosts the stranger, who informs his companion he is detained by business. Well, he delivers the bag at an address in Liverpool. It's always Liverpool, by the way. Well, the police arrest the courteous ass, and the bag contains an infernal machine. Man, can you deny that I am correct?"
I couldn't. My head was bowed with shame. Viewing myself in the lurid mirror of those dark eyes, I saw myself as others see me. Never has an author been so at the mercy of a critic before.
"I claim no marvelous foresight," Wanless said sternly. "Let us try again. Here is another story, called *A Strange Coincidence.' Need I say that it refers to a singular dream of a deserted wife which makes such an impression upon her that she telegraphs her husband not to go near a certain place at a time named. He disregards the warning and is murdered. Again, I will ask you to correct me if I am mistaken."
"Well, you are this time," I said as cheerfully as possible. "The husband refrains, and some one mistaken for him is done to death."
This little point in my favor rendered me more cheerful. I was about to give vent to some little jeu d'esprit when my companion gave a cry of rage and horror, at the same time dashing the book to the ground. "I knew it!" he shouted as he bounded to his feet. "I knew that I should come across it in that oursed volume. I cannot even get away from it in my solitary retreat. Is there no originality in the craft at all? Here it is in your volume called 'By Mental Telegraph.' The title explains the story. Oh, I know that mysterious, slender, beautiful maiden, with her visions and hallucinations, but too well—the psychological siren who has driven me to madness. She recovers when she gets a husband and becomes a model queen of the nursery ever afterward. But I shall always be the same. It is you and your class who are responsible for this. You must die."
With the last word ringing on his lips Wanless flew at me and bore me to the ground. Strong as I was, I was powerless in his grasp, for the madman possessed the strength of a dozen beings at that moment. I could feel his hot breath upon my face as he bent over me.
"You are one of the fiends who have robbed me of my reason," he hissed. "You are one of the successful hacks who dress up old tales and try to galvanize paralytic corpses into life until the gibbering dead faces mock us to insanity. Once I deemed the world to be fresh and bright, but the weary monotony of the novels I craved for made me what I am. Make the most of your time. You will never leave this room alive. As a duty to my fellow sufferers I am going to rid the world of one scribbling fiend tonight!"
I tried to expostulate, but the words died on my lips. Wanless bent over me and gripped my throat vith convulsive force. The strength of despair came back to me as I realized that we were in that solitary place alone, and that my life depended upon my own efforts. We rolled over and over, but Wanless was always uppermost From time to time I compelled him to relinquish his grip. The sudden rush of air to m lung s caused m e to feel sick and dizzy. But the contest was bound to end in one way, for as I became weaker my antagonist gathered fresh vigor.
"It is useless," he cried triumphantly. "You have got to die."
I knew it, but would not despair. And then, as I commenced to fail, there came a sound welcome as a voice from heaven—the sound of Bellamy's step in the hall. He tried the door, only to find it fast. He shouted, and in response came a feeble gurgle from me. Bellamy wasted no further time. Something told him that he had arrived in time to prevent a terrible tragedy. As Bellamy's whole weight broke in the door Wanless gave me a squeeze that caused the countless Stars to dance and flicker before my eyes. Then sleep, peaceful and childlike.
When I came to myself again, I was in bed. The windows were open to the breeze, a glorious sun was shining, and Bellamy stood respecfully before me, On the whole, I felt little the worse for my adventure.
"I am extremely sorry for what has happened, sir," Bellamy said politely. "The people here know nothing, and I shall esteem it a personal favor if you will preserve our secret. I ought perhaps to have told you, sir."
"But what on earth is the matter with Mr. Wanless?" I asked.
"Well, sir," Bellamy said deferentially, "my master's name is not Wanless at all. He is Mr. Cultshaw, the critic and essayist who used to be 'reader' to Messrs. Gilley, the great publishers. Of course you know him by name, sir. Two years ago the poor gentleman had brain fever from overwork, and he's never been the same since. If he has three glasses of wine, he's quite mad. Usually he is harmless enough, but when excited he has a perfectly morbid hatred of magazine writers. He attributes his malady to reading the same class of story with what he calls the same motif over and over again. He did not know you by sight and indeed mistook your name, but you he holds in especial detestation, sir. He would have killed you if he could."
"I quite believe that Bellamy," I replied grimly. "But you may trust me to say nothing about what has happened. How is your patient?"
"Perfectly well this morning and without a notion of what took place last night. But on the whole, sir, I would respectfully beg to suggest that you do not meet again. I don't suppose that you are specially attached to the place, and as it agrees with my poor master"—
"Say no more, Bellamy," I replied. "I will get away today. I came out for quiet and rest and not for midnight adventures. And there's a £10 note for you, Bellamy, with my most grateful thanks."
From that day to this I have seen nothing of Wanless, nor am I likely to now, for he died last week, and therefore I am at liberty to publish this singular story, the moral of which is obvious. People say that latterly my stories are less trite than they were. Have any of you noticed it, may I ask?
— Fred M. White in Chambers' Journal.