Roy Glashan's Library
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First published in the Pall Mall Budget, 25 October 1894

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2024
Version Date: 2024-02-13

Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan

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AFTER the regatta there was a firework display on Southsea Common. I turned out after dinner with Bailey—this was before he broke his legs—and Wilderspin and another man, a tall man whose name I forget. The day had been hot and close, and the night was overcast. But this was all the better for the fireworks.

The fun had already begun. A big rocket went hissing up, and burst into a cloud of pink and green sparks that vanished as they drifted down. We heard the people hum. The crimson flare of a Bengal light followed, and the frameworks upon which the transparencies were to appear came suddenly out of the darkness, and we saw the face and hands of a man in a blouse behind the fixtures, blood-red in the glare. There were crowds of people. I should think all Portsmouth and Southsea, and the greater part of Landport and Portsea must have turned out of doors; I never saw so many people on the Common before.

We pushed across to get into the noise and the fun of it. Away to the right the big pier with the pavilion was outlined in a cool white light, but it seemed almost deserted, and to the left, a black squat mass, was Southsea Castle. Against the sea-front of this one could see the sea washing up what looked like the ghosts of breakers, so pale and unsubstantial they were compared with the red glare. Then suddenly the Bengal light went out, and for a minute one had to feel one's way in the dark.

We soon got among the people. There was plenty of noise and stir, of course; everyone seemed moving and talking. In this country people seem to get quite courageous and talkative after dark. There were lots of girls about in light dresses, looking very pretty and mysterious in the dim—so we had to keep an eye on Bailey. There was scarcely any wind, and the smoke hung about close to the ground. It gave one a metallic taste in the mouth, and now and then set one coughing. It was all part of the fun. Every now and then a rocket would go up with a shuddering rush, then perhaps a writhing and hissing flight of golden serpents; crackers were banging; they certainly kept things brisk enough. I remember it was just before they set the transparencies going that I looked up at a big red rocket and saw the clouds all red above it, and driving fast across the sky. I recalled that afterwards when the storm began.

The transparencies were not altogether a success. The middle one went off fitfully, and we got the back of the head and one ear of the Prince of Wales before any of the rest. The profile simply would not catch on. The big transparency to the right took on well, but the ship to the left fizzled about the mainmast. Somehow all this struck the sense of humour of the crowd, and they began cheering wildly. We could dimly see a chap dabbing at the figure's nose with a pole carrying a match.

It was then the storm broke. The thunder seemed to fall right down upon us out of the dim sky. It began at the same time as the lightning, and sounded like a big gun fired close to my ears. And never before or since have I seen such lightning. It was brighter than day. It must have been instantaneous, for not a soul on the Common stirred while it lasted, but it seemed to last an age. I shall never forget all that huge crowd of people agape in that ghastly light, and motionless.

I suppose the thunder reverberated, but I heard nothing but the first report. I stood stunned for a minute in the blank darkness that succeeded. I became aware again of the head and shoulders of the Prince of Wales dotted out in yellow lights, and of people moving and talking round me and looking up at the sky. And then, like a lash, came the hail.

There was a stir. People began to fumble with umbrellas—those who had the forethought to bring them—and then, "I'm off home," said Bailey, and we began running, and everyone round us too, towards the distant houses at the back of the Common.

I shall never forget the storm, even for its own sake. Every moment the lightning winked and flashed and there seemed no end to the thunder. One clap trod on the tail of another. By the flashes one could see all that great flat Common alive with people—little black people—thousands of them—running. They were whooping and screaming, and some of the ladies reefed up their dresses scandalously for better speed. The hail was pouring down upon them out of the height of the sky in ragged grey streamers. And the lightning, blinding white it was, with a blue edge! Here and there short stretches of fence had been put across footpaths to let the grass grow again, and against these the people ran in the dark and formed knots and eddies in the flood, for all the world like water against a rock in a rapid. Far behind us were the transparencies still fizzing away yellow and dim. The profile of the big figure had caught on at last, but his back was burnt out. The Solent, boiling under the hail, and the forts in the distance were livid under the storm.

We were soon drenched, though we ran hard. Somehow we had kept together. Bailey had led us at first, howling cheerfully, and with his jacket pulled over his head, until he collided with one of those beastly little foot-high railings they put along the edge of their turf. That gave Wilderspin the lead, and made Bailey an indifferent fourth. Presently we got out of the rout of the people. The place where we lodged was No. 6 Cholmondeley Parade, facing the sea. Of course, most of the folks made for the throat of one or other of the three great roadways that open upon the Common. The Cricketers' Inn was simply gorged with people, and a crowd struggling outside.

Now, as I say, Wilderspin had got the lead, and he evidently meant to keep it. For my own part, I was out of breath and inclined to slacken my pace, but he spurted as we got near the house. The third man—I forget his name, but I think it was Pryor or Preyer—was running close behind me. I could hear the squash of his boots—for there was now half an inch of water on the ground—and a kind of whooping as he panted.

Then in the dim light of the street lamp I saw Wilderspin tear up the steps to the portico of a house. The lightning blazed livid, and I saw the whole house distinct and brilliant. It was the wrong house!

It was an empty house, as one could see by the black blankness of its windows, and I was aware, without clearly distinguishing what it was, that something black hung over the stuccoed parapet above. Then I saw with a slight feeling of surprise that the door was beginning to open in front of Wilderspin, and then came the darkness again. I heard the door slam.

I gasped out something incoherent about my getting in first after all, and keeping in my chuckle at Wilderspin's mistake against a better opportunity, rushed up the steps to the door of No. 6 and hammered at the knocker. The other man was hard on my heels, and then came Bailey panting.

"What a sell for old Wilderspin!" said Bailey.

"I suppose," said I, "he's groping about in the passage, wondering why the deuce the hall-lamp is not lit."

We stood panting, and expecting every moment to see Wilderspin emerge crestfallen upon the portico next to us. We were too breathless to talk. A couple of minutes passed, and our own door opened.

"He's humbugging," said the tall man; "let's go in and leave him to follow."

"Come along, Wilderspin," I shouted.

The tall man went in and stood dripping on the oilcloth in the hall. "Come along in and change," he said. "Never mind Wilderspin."

We heard the door of No. 7 click and slam again.

"I'm going after him," said Bailey. "He's such a queer chap."

He spoke my thought. Wilderspin was one of those odd, excitable fellows who will start at a shadow. I remember I nearly scared him into a fit once by quietly putting a head of barley in his ear in the course of a country walk. Somehow, I could not imagine him willingly hiding in an empty house after dark.

Bailey made no more ado, but clambered over into the portico of No. 7. The houses, I may mention, are part of a long terrace. There are steps up to each house, and the doors come together in pairs.

"You will ring, sir, when you are coming in," said the servant, a girl inclined to be impertinent, as they often are in boarding-houses. With that she closed the door.

I followed Bailey.

The door of No. 7 was opening slowly and very quietly. Behind it the gradually widening strip of passage was black and silent, except where the corner of the window lighting the staircase downstairs could be seen, clear and pale. We hesitated. The door became stationary, and then slowly closed again.

We looked at one another.

The thing affected me somehow like a trap. I hesitated. "Confound it!" said I. "What is there to be afraid of?" and flung the door open. A flash of lightning lit the hall for an instant.

Now, one can see distinctly by the flash of lightning only when one has something approaching a definite conception of the thing to be seen. I saw the empty hall very clearly, even to the darker patch on the oilcloth where the hat-stand had been, and the window to the staircase winked black as the rest of the things were illuminated. But the black lump at the head of the staircase puzzled me for a moment.

I pulled out a loose wax vesta from my pocket and struck it. It blew out. Bailey came in and shut the door after him, and I struck another.

All this had happened in silence. But as soon as the match flared we both started at once.

"Wilderspin, man!" said I, "what on earth's the matter?"

He was in a kind of sitting position, crouched on the staircase, and jammed hard against the wall. His head was turned towards something round the bend of the staircase that we could not see. One hand was too tense, he was simply cowering away from something and staring at it.

The match suddenly flared and went out. Then I heard a kind of moan, and something blundered towards me in the dark and almost knocked me over. It gripped me convulsively by the coat. I will confess I was scared in the darkness, and then as I put up my hand to defend myself I knew it was Wilderspin.

"Oh!" he cried, "save me! save me!"

His fright infected me. Bailey was frightened too, I think. He suddenly opened the street door, and out we all blundered, Wilderspin sobbing and clutching me.

The door slammed. Then as we stood on the doorstep it began to open again in that noiseless, sinister way it had. It was too much for me, it was too much for all of us. We went down the steps in a hurry.

Wilderspin began to sob louder. Some people under umbrellas were hurrying along the Parade towards us, laughing. "Let's take him in," said Bailey; "he's been scared out of his wits." I will admit I never took my eyes off the portico of No. 7 while we were outside No. 6. I don't quite know what I expected. We helped him up stairs and sat him on his bed. It was no good asking him questions. He simply sat on his bedside and shivered and stared in front of him. The fright seemed to have altered the expression of his face for good.

At last we determined to put some spunk into him with brandy, but it only made him worse. We put him to bed and that seemed to soothe him better. Presently he began crying quietly on his pillow, for all the world like a youngster.

"I will go into No. 7," said the tall man, "if anyone else will come."

"Hang it!" said Bailey, "I'd rather be devoured by ghouls than by this curiosity."

I said I would come too. But we waited until Wilderspin was asleep.

I suppose it was about half-past eleven o'clock when we went out, and things were as quiet as midnight. We went up to the door of No. 7. "Give me a match or two," said the tall man.

It made me jump almost out of my shoes to hear a voice in my ear suddenly. I turned and saw a policeman grinning behind me. He had stolen up to us with those dust-covered shoes of his. "What's the little game?" he said, suddenly blinding me with his lantern.

"There's something wrong in this house," said the tall man. "The door was open."

The policeman examined each of us very deliberately with his lantern. "Not your sort," I think he said, and then went up and lit the hall with his lantern. Then the circle of light came round to the open door. "Looks like chisels," he said. "After the gas-fittings and plumbing, I suppose."

He went into the hall and we followed quietly. The brilliant unsteady circle of his lantern preceded him. Then he gave vent to a sudden "Ugh!" He was almost exactly in the place where we found Wilderspin, and the beam of his light fell through the banisters and followed the direction of Wilderspin's stare.

"Look," he said to the tall man.

Then Bailey looked, and then I.

I don't think it is any use to describe what we saw. I suppose that the peculiar horror of the thing was the way in which the front of the face had been injured. I quite understand what it must have been to Wilderspin, jumping at him out of the dark as the lightning flashed. However, there is no reason why one should descend to details.

Even when we saw it we did not understand. But the tall man presently found an explanation.

The dead man was one of those miserable thieves who rob empty houses of their plumbing and gas-fittings. The house had no lightning conductor, but above it was a flag-staff, stupidly tipped by a gilt spearhead, and braced by zinc wires instead of ropes. It was the charred and splintered remains of this, I found next day, that I had noticed about the parapet of the house. The flash of lightning—very probably it was the first flash that had started the rush from the Common—must have struck the flag-staff, and then come streaming down through the gas-fittings, water-pipes, and whatever other conducting substances afforded it a path to the earth. Above the body, at the turn of the staircase, was a very pretty little brass bracket lighting the landing, and a brass handrail ran down the wall. No doubt the poor wretch had been in contact with these, when he was so suddenly and awfully struck out of the roll of the living.

Poor Wilderspin was in a bad way for many days, and the rest of our holiday went chiefly to comfort him. But there is less permanent injury from the shock than one might expect. He always was nervous and excitable, and so in still greater measure he remains.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.