The Country of the Blind, And Other Stories
H. G. Wells
Part 7 out of 9
"You know--she stood up--
"She stood up, you know, and moved a step towards me--
"As though she wanted to reach me--
"And she had been shot through the heart."
He stopped and stared at me. I felt all that foolish incapacity an
Englishman feels on such occasions. I met his eyes for a moment, and then
stared out of the window. For a long space we kept silence. When at last I
looked at him he was sitting back in his corner, his arms folded and his
teeth gnawing at his knuckles.
He bit his nail suddenly, and stared at it.
"I carried her," he said, "towards the temples, in my arms--as though it
mattered. I don't know why. They seemed a sort of sanctuary, you know,
they had lasted so long, I suppose.
"She must have died almost instantly. Only--I talked to her--all the way."
"I have seen those temples," I said abruptly, and indeed he had brought
those still, sunlit arcades of worn sandstone very vividly before me.
"It was the brown one, the big brown one. I sat down on a fallen pillar
and held her in my arms... Silent after the first babble was over. And
after a little while the lizards came out and ran about again, as though
nothing unusual was going on, as though nothing had changed... It was
tremendously still there, the sun high and the shadows still; even the
shadows of the weeds upon the entablature were still--in spite of the
thudding and banging that went all about the sky.
"I seem to remember that the aeroplanes came up out of the south, and that
the battle went away to the west. One aeroplane was struck, and overset
and fell. I remember that--though it didn't interest me in the least. It
didn't seem to signify. It was like a wounded gull, you know--flapping for
a time in the water. I could see it down the aisle of the temple--a black
thing in the bright blue water.
"Three or four times shells burst about the beach, and then that ceased.
Each time that happened all the lizards scuttled in and hid for a space.
That was all the mischief done, except that once a stray bullet gashed the
stone hard by--made just a fresh bright surface.
"As the shadows grew longer, the stillness seemed greater.
"The curious thing," he remarked, with the manner of a man who makes a
trivial conversation, "is that I didn't _think_--I didn't think at
all. I sat with her in my arms amidst the stones--in a sort of lethargy--
"And I don't remember waking up. I don't remember dressing that day. I
know I found myself in my office, with my letters all slit open in front
of me, and how I was struck by the absurdity of being there, seeing that
in reality I was sitting, stunned, in that Paestum Temple with a dead
woman in my arms. I read my letters like a machine. I have forgotten what
they were about."
He stopped, and there was a long silence.
Suddenly I perceived that we were running down the incline from Chalk Farm
to Euston. I started at this passing of time. I turned on him with a
brutal question with the tone of "Now or never."
"And did you dream again?"
He seemed to force himself to finish. His voice was very low.
"Once more, and as it were only for a few instants. I seemed to have
suddenly awakened out of a great apathy, to have risen into a sitting
position, and the body lay there on the stones beside me. A gaunt body.
Not her, you know. So soon--it was not her...
"I may have heard voices. I do not know. Only I knew clearly that men were
coming into the solitude and that that was a last outrage.
"I stood up and walked through the temple, and then there came into
sight--first one man with a yellow face, dressed in a uniform of dirty
white, trimmed with blue, and then several, climbing to the crest of the
old wall of the vanished city, and crouching there. They were little
bright figures in the sunlight, and there they hung, weapon in hand,
peering cautiously before them.
"And further away I saw others, and then more at another point in the
wall. It was a long lax line of men in open order.
"Presently the man I had first seen stood up and shouted a command, and
his men came tumbling down the wall and into the high weeds towards the
temple. He scrambled down with them and led them. He came facing towards
me, and when he saw me he stopped.
"At first I had watched these men with a mere curiosity, but when I had
seen they meant to come to the temple I was moved to forbid them. I
shouted to the officer.
"'You must not come here,' I cried, '_I_ am here. I am here with my
"He stared, and then shouted a question back to me in some unknown tongue.
"I repeated what I had said.
"He shouted again, and I folded my arms and stood still. Presently he
spoke to his men and came forward. He carried a drawn sword.
"I signed to him to keep away, but he continued to advance. I told him
again very patiently and clearly: 'You must not come here. These are old
temples, and I am here with my dead.'
"Presently he was so close I could see his face clearly. It was a narrow
face, with dull grey eyes, and a black moustache. He had a scar on his
upper lip, and he was dirty and unshaven. He kept shouting unintelligible
things, questions perhaps, at me.
"I know now that he was afraid of me, but at the time that did not occur
to me. As I tried to explain to him he interrupted me in imperious tones,
bidding me, I suppose, stand aside.
"He made to go past me, and I caught hold of him.
"I saw his face change at my grip.
"'You fool,' I cried. 'Don't you know? She is dead!'
"He started back. He looked at me with cruel eyes.
"I saw a sort of exultant resolve leap into them--delight. Then suddenly,
with a scowl, he swept his sword back--_so_--and thrust."
He stopped abruptly.
I became aware of a change in the rhythm of the train. The brakes lifted
their voices and the carriage jarred and jerked. This present world
insisted upon itself, became clamorous. I saw through the steamy window
huge electric lights glaring down from tall masts upon a fog, saw rows of
stationary empty carriages passing by, and then a signal-box, hoisting its
constellation of green and red into the murky London twilight, marched
after them. I looked again at his drawn features.
"He ran me through the heart. It was with a sort of astonishment--no fear,
no pain--but just amazement, that I felt it pierce me, felt the sword
drive home into my body. It didn't hurt, you know. It didn't hurt at all."
The yellow platform lights came into the field of view, passing first
rapidly, then slowly, and at last stopping with a jerk. Dim shapes of men
passed to and fro without.
"Euston!" cried a voice.
"Do you mean--?"
"There was no pain, no sting or smart. Amazement and then darkness
sweeping over everything. The hot, brutal face before me, the face of the
man who had killed me, seemed to recede. It swept out of existence--"
"Euston!" clamoured the voices outside; "Euston!"
The carriage door opened, admitting a flood of sound, and a porter stood
regarding us. The sounds of doors slamming, and the hoof-clatter of
cab-horses, and behind these things the featureless remote roar of the
London cobble-stones, came to my ears. A truck-load of lighted lamps
blazed along the platform.
"A darkness, a flood of darkness that opened and spread and blotted out
"Any luggage, sir?" said the porter.
"And that was the end?" I asked.
He seemed to hesitate. Then, almost inaudibly, he answered, "_No_."
"I couldn't get to her. She was there on the other side of the temple--
"Yes," I insisted. "Yes?"
"Nightmares," he cried; "nightmares indeed! My God! Great birds that
fought and tore."
THE VALLEY OF SPIDERS.
Towards mid-day the three pursuers came abruptly round a bend in the
torrent bed upon the sight of a very broad and spacious valley. The
difficult and winding trench of pebbles along which they had tracked the
fugitives for so long expanded to a broad slope, and with a common impulse
the three men left the trail, and rode to a little eminence set with
olive-dun trees, and there halted, the two others, as became them, a
little behind the man with the silver-studded bridle.
For a space they scanned the great expanse below them with eager eyes. It
spread remoter and remoter, with only a few clusters of sere thorn bushes
here and there, and the dim suggestions of some now waterless ravine to
break its desolation of yellow grass. Its purple distances melted at last
into the bluish slopes of the further hills--hills it might be of a
greener kind--and above them, invisibly supported, and seeming indeed to
hang in the blue, were the snow-clad summits of mountains--that grew
larger and bolder to the northwestward as the sides of the valley drew
together. And westward the valley opened until a distant darkness under
the sky told where the forests began. But the three men looked neither
east nor west, but only steadfastly across the valley.
The gaunt man with the scarred lip was the first to speak. "Nowhere," he
said, with a sigh of disappointment in his voice. "But, after all, they
had a full day's start."
"They don't know we are after them," said the little man on the white
"_She_ would know," said the leader bitterly, as if speaking to
"Even then they can't go fast. They've got no beast but the mule, and all
to-day the girl's foot has been bleeding----"
The man with the silver bridle flashed a quick intensity of rage on him.
"Do you think I haven't seen that?" he snarled.
"It helps, anyhow," whispered the little man to himself.
The gaunt man with the scarred lip stared impassively. "They can't be over
the valley," he said. "If we ride hard----"
He glanced at the white horse and paused.
"Curse all white horses!" said the man with the silver bridle, and turned
to scan the beast his curse included.
The little man looked down between the melancholy ears of his steed.
"I did my best," he said.
The two others stared again across the valley for a space. The gaunt man
passed the back of his hand across the scarred lip.
"Come up!" said the man who owned the silver bridle, suddenly. The little
man started and jerked his rein, and the horse hoofs of the three made a
multitudinous faint pattering upon the withered grass as they turned back
towards the trail...
They rode cautiously down the long slope before them, and so came through
a waste of prickly twisted bushes and strange dry shapes of thorny
branches that grew amongst the rocks, into the levels below. And there the
trail grew faint, for the soil was scanty, and the only herbage was this
scorched dead straw that lay upon the ground. Still, by hard scanning, by
leaning beside the horses' necks and pausing ever and again, even these
white men could contrive to follow after their prey.
There were trodden places, bent and broken blades of the coarse grass, and
ever and again the sufficient intimation of a footmark. And once the
leader saw a brown smear of blood where the half-caste girl may have trod.
And at that under his breath he cursed her for a fool.
The gaunt man checked his leader's tracking, and the little man on the
white horse rode behind, a man lost in a dream. They rode one after
another, the man with the silver bridle led the way, and they spoke never
a word. After a time it came to the little man on the white horse that the
world was very still. He started out of his dream. Besides the little
noises of their horses and equipment, the whole great valley kept the
brooding quiet of a painted scene.
Before him went his master and his fellow, each intently leaning forward
to the left, each impassively moving with the paces of his horse; their
shadows went before them--still, noiseless, tapering attendants; and
nearer a crouched cool shape was his own. He looked about him. What was it
had gone? Then he remembered the reverberation from the banks of the gorge
and the perpetual accompaniment of shifting, jostling pebbles. And,
moreover----? There was no breeze. That was it! What a vast, still place
it was, a monotonous afternoon slumber! And the sky open and blank except
for a sombre veil of haze that had gathered in the upper valley.
He straightened his back, fretted with his bridle, puckered his lips to
whistle, and simply sighed. He turned in his saddle for a time, and stared
at the throat of the mountain gorge out of which they had come. Blank!
Blank slopes on either side, with never a sign of a decent beast or tree--
much less a man. What a land it was! What a wilderness! He dropped again
into his former pose.
It filled him with a momentary pleasure to see a wry stick of purple black
flash out into the form of a snake, and vanish amidst the brown. After
all, the infernal valley _was_ alive. And then, to rejoice him still
more, came a little breath across his face, a whisper that came and went,
the faintest inclination of a stiff black-antlered bush upon a little
crest, the first intimations of a possible breeze. Idly he wetted his
finger, and held it up.
He pulled up sharply to avoid a collision with the gaunt man, who had
stopped at fault upon the trail. Just at that guilty moment he caught his
master's eye looking towards him.
For a time he forced an interest in the tracking. Then, as they rode on
again, he studied his master's shadow and hat and shoulder, appearing and
disappearing behind the gaunt man's nearer contours. They had ridden four
days out of the very limits of the world into this desolate place, short
of water, with nothing but a strip of dried meat under their saddles, over
rocks and mountains, where surely none but these fugitives had ever been
And all this was for a girl, a mere wilful child! And the man had whole
cityfuls of people to do his basest bidding--girls, women! Why in the name
of passionate folly _this_ one in particular? asked the little man,
and scowled at the world, and licked his parched lips with a blackened
tongue. It was the way of the master, and that was all he knew. Just
because she sought to evade him...
His eye caught a whole row of high-plumed canes bending in unison, and
then the tails of silk that hung before his neck flapped and fell. The
breeze was growing stronger. Somehow it took the stiff stillness out of
things--and that was well.
"Hullo!" said the gaunt man.
All three stopped abruptly.
"What?" asked the master. "What?"
"Over there," said the gaunt man, pointing up the valley.
"Something coming towards us."
And as he spoke a yellow animal crested a rise and came bearing down upon
them. It was a big wild dog, coming before the wind, tongue out, at a
steady pace, and running with such an intensity of purpose that he did not
seem to see the horsemen he approached. He ran with his nose up,
following, it was plain, neither scent nor quarry. As he drew nearer the
little man felt for his sword. "He's mad," said the gaunt rider.
"Shout!" said the little man, and shouted.
The dog came on. Then when the little man's blade was already out, it
swerved aside and went panting by them and passed. The eyes of the little
man followed its flight. "There was no foam," he said. For a space the man
with the silver-studded bridle stared up the valley. "Oh, come on!" he
cried at last. "What does it matter?" and jerked his horse into movement
The little man left the insoluble mystery of a dog that fled from nothing
but the wind, and lapsed into profound musings on human character. "Come
on!" he whispered to himself. "Why should it be given to one man to say
'Come on!' with that stupendous violence of effect? Always, all his life,
the man with the silver bridle has been saying that. If _I_ said
it--!" thought the little man. But people marvelled when the master was
disobeyed even in the wildest things. This half-caste girl seemed to him,
seemed to every one, mad--blasphemous almost. The little man, by way of
comparison, reflected on the gaunt rider with the scarred lip, as stalwart
as his master, as brave and, indeed, perhaps braver, and yet for him there
was obedience, nothing but to give obedience duly and stoutly...
Certain sensations of the hands and knees called the little man back to
more immediate things. He became aware of something. He rode up beside his
gaunt fellow. "Do you notice the horses?" he said in an undertone.
The gaunt face looked interrogation.
"They don't like this wind," said the little man, and dropped behind as
the man with the silver bridle turned upon him.
"It's all right," said the gaunt-faced man.
They rode on again for a space in silence. The foremost two rode downcast
upon the trail, the hindmost man watched the haze that crept down the
vastness of the valley, nearer and nearer, and noted how the wind grew in
strength moment by moment. Far away on the left he saw a line of dark
bulks--wild hog, perhaps, galloping down the valley, but of that he said
nothing, nor did he remark again upon the uneasiness of the horses.
And then he saw first one and then a second great white ball, a great
shining white ball like a gigantic head of thistledown, that drove before
the wind athwart the path. These balls soared high in the air, and dropped
and rose again and caught for a moment, and hurried on and passed, but at
the sight of them the restlessness of the horses increased.
Then presently he saw that more of these drifting globes--and then soon
very many more--were hurrying towards him down the valley.
They became aware of a squealing. Athwart the path a huge boar rushed,
turning his head but for one instant to glance at them, and then hurling
on down the valley again. And at that all three stopped and sat in their
saddles, staring into the thickening haze that was coming upon them.
"If it were not for this thistle-down--" began the leader.
But now a big globe came drifting past within a score of yards of them. It
was really not an even sphere at all, but a vast, soft, ragged, filmy
thing, a sheet gathered by the corners, an aerial jelly-fish, as it were,
but rolling over and over as it advanced, and trailing long cobwebby
threads and streamers that floated in its wake.
"It isn't thistle-down," said the little man.
"I don't like the stuff," said the gaunt man.
And they looked at one another.
"Curse it!" cried the leader. "The air's full of lit up there. If it keeps
on at this pace long, it will stop us altogether."
An instinctive feeling, such as lines out a herd of deer at the approach
of some ambiguous thing, prompted them to turn their horses to the wind,
ride forward for a few paces, and stare at that advancing multitude of
floating masses. They came on before the wind with a sort of smooth
swiftness, rising and falling noiselessly, sinking to earth, rebounding
high, soaring--all with a perfect unanimity, with a still, deliberate
Right and left of the horsemen the pioneers of this strange army passed.
At one that rolled along the ground, breaking shapelessly and trailing out
reluctantly into long grappling ribbons and bands, all three horses began
to shy and dance. The master was seized with a sudden, unreasonable
impatience. He cursed the drifting globes roundly. "Get on!" he cried;
"get on! What do these things matter? How _can_ they matter? Back to
the trail!" He fell swearing at his horse and sawed the bit across its
He shouted aloud with rage. "I will follow that trail, I tell you," he
cried. "Where is the trail?"
He gripped the bridle of his prancing horse and searched amidst the grass.
A long and clinging thread fell across his face, a grey streamer dropped
about his bridle arm, some big, active thing with many legs ran down the
back of his head. He looked up to discover one of those grey masses
anchored as it were above him by these things and flapping out ends as a
sail flaps when a boat comes about--but noiselessly.
He had an impression of many eyes, of a dense crew of squat bodies, of
long, many-jointed limbs hauling at their mooring ropes to bring the thing
down upon him. For a space he stared up, reining in his prancing horse
with the instinct born of years of horsemanship. Then the flat of a sword
smote his back, and a blade flashed overhead and cut the drifting balloon
of spider-web free, and the whole mass lifted softly and drove clear and
"Spiders!" cried the voice of the gaunt man. "The things are full of big
spiders! Look, my lord!"
The man with the silver bridle still followed the mass that drove away.
"Look, my lord!"
The master found himself staring down at a red smashed thing on the ground
that, in spite of partial obliteration, could still wriggle unavailing
legs. Then, when the gaunt man pointed to another mass that bore down upon
them, he drew his sword hastily. Up the valley now it was like a fog bank
torn to rags. He tried to grasp the situation.
"Ride for it!" the little man was shouting. "Ride for it down the valley."
What happened then was like the confusion of a battle. The man with the
silver bridle saw the little man go past him, slashing furiously at
imaginary cobwebs, saw him cannon into the horse of the gaunt man and hurl
it and its rider to earth. His own horse went a dozen paces before he
could rein it in. Then he looked up to avoid imaginary dangers, and then
back again to see a horse rolling on the ground, the gaunt man standing
and slashing over it at a rent and fluttering mass of grey that streamed
and wrapped about them both. And thick and fast as thistle-down on waste
land on a windy day in July the cobweb masses were coming on.
The little man had dismounted, but he dared not release his horse. He was
endeavouring to lug the struggling brute back with the strength of one
arm, while with the other he slashed aimlessly. The tentacles of a second
grey mass had entangled themselves with the struggle, and this second grey
mass came to its moorings, and slowly sank.
The master set his teeth, gripped his bridle, lowered his head, and
spurred his horse forward. The horse on the ground rolled over, there was
blood and moving shapes upon the flanks, and the gaunt man suddenly
leaving it, ran forward towards his master, perhaps ten paces. His legs
were swathed and encumbered with grey; he made ineffectual movements with
his sword. Grey streamers waved from him; there was a thin veil of grey
across his face. With his left hand he beat at something on his body, and
suddenly he stumbled and fell. He struggled to rise, and fell again, and
suddenly, horribly, began to howl, "Oh--ohoo, ohooh!"
The master could see the great spiders upon him, and others upon the
As he strove to force his horse nearer to this gesticulating, screaming
grey object that struggled up and down, there came a clatter of hoofs, and
the little man, in act of mounting, swordless, balanced on his belly
athwart the white horse, and clutching its mane, whirled past. And again a
clinging thread of grey gossamer swept across the master's face. All about
him, and over him, it seemed this drifting, noiseless cobweb circled and
drew nearer him...
To the day of his death he never knew just how the event of that moment
happened. Did he, indeed, turn his horse, or did it really of its own
accord stampede after its fellow? Suffice it that in another second he was
galloping full tilt down the valley with his sword whirling furiously
overhead. And all about him on the quickening breeze, the spiders'
air-ships, their air bundles and air sheets, seemed to him to hurry in a
Clatter, clatter, thud, thud,--the man with the silver bridle rode,
heedless of his direction, with his fearful face looking up now right, now
left, and his sword arm ready to slash. And a few hundred yards ahead of
him, with a tail of torn cobweb trailing behind him, rode the little man
on the white horse, still but imperfectly in the saddle. The reeds bent
before them, the wind blew fresh and strong, over his shoulder the master
could see the webs hurrying to overtake...
He was so intent to escape the spiders' webs that only as his horse
gathered together for a leap did he realise the ravine ahead. And then he
realised it only to misunderstand and interfere. He was leaning forward on
his horse's neck and sat up and back all too late.
But if in his excitement he had failed to leap, at any rate he had not
forgotten how to fall. He was horseman again in mid-air. He came off clear
with a mere bruise upon his shoulder, and his horse rolled, kicking
spasmodic legs, and lay still. But the master's sword drove its point into
the hard soil, and snapped clean across, as though Chance refused him any
longer as her Knight, and the splintered end missed his face by an inch or
He was on his feet in a moment, breathlessly scanning the on-rushing
spider-webs. For a moment he was minded to run, and then thought of the
ravine, and turned back. He ran aside once to dodge one drifting terror,
and then he was swiftly clambering down the precipitous sides, and out of
the touch of the gale.
There, under the lee of the dry torrent's steeper banks, he might crouch
and watch these strange, grey masses pass and pass in safety till the wind
fell, and it became possible to escape. And there for a long time he
crouched, watching the strange, grey, ragged masses trail their streamers
across his narrowed sky.
Once a stray spider fell into the ravine close beside him--a full foot it
measured from leg to leg and its body was half a man's hand--and after he
had watched its monstrous alacrity of search and escape for a little while
and tempted it to bite his broken sword, he lifted up his iron-heeled boot
and smashed it into a pulp. He swore as he did so, and for a time sought
up and down for another.
Then presently, when he was surer these spider swarms could not drop into
the ravine, he found a place where he could sit down, and sat and fell
into deep thought and began, after his manner, to gnaw his knuckles and
bite his nails. And from this he was moved by the coming of the man with
the white horse.
He heard him long before he saw him, as a clattering of hoofs, stumbling
footsteps, and a reassuring voice. Then the little man appeared, a rueful
figure, still with a tail of white cobweb trailing behind him. They
approached each other without speaking, without a salutation. The little
man was fatigued and shamed to the pitch of hopeless bitterness, and came
to a stop at last, face to face with his seated master. The latter winced
a little under his dependent's eye. "Well?" he said at last, with no
pretence of authority.
"You left him?"
"My horse bolted."
"I know. So did mine."
He laughed at his master mirthlessly.
"I say my horse bolted," said the man who once had a silver-studded
"Cowards both," said the little man.
The other gnawed his knuckle through some meditative moments, with his eye
on his inferior.
"Don't call me a coward," he said at length.
"You are a coward, like myself."
"A coward possibly. There is a limit beyond which every man must fear.
That I have learnt at last. But not like yourself. That is where the
difference comes in."
"I never could have dreamt you would have left him. He saved your life two
minutes before... Why are you our lord?"
The master gnawed his knuckles again, and his countenance was dark.
"No man calls me a coward," he said. "No ... A broken sword is better
than none ... One spavined white horse cannot be expected to carry two
men a four days' journey. I hate white horses, but this time it cannot be
helped. You begin to understand me? I perceive that you are minded, on the
strength of what you have seen and fancy, to taint my reputation. It is
men of your sort who unmake kings. Besides which--I never liked you."
"My lord!" said the little man.
"No," said the master. "_No!_"
He stood up sharply as the little man moved. For a minute perhaps they
faced one another. Overhead the spiders' balls went driving. There was a
quick movement among the pebbles; a running of feet, a cry of despair, a
gasp and a blow...
Towards nightfall the wind fell. The sun set in a calm serenity, and the
man who had once possessed the silver bridle came at last very cautiously
and by an easy slope out of the ravine again; but now he led the white
horse that once belonged to the little man. He would have gone back to his
horse to get his silver-mounted bridle again, but he feared night and a
quickening breeze might still find him in the valley, and besides, he
disliked greatly to think he might discover his horse all swathed in
cobwebs and perhaps unpleasantly eaten.
And as he thought of those cobwebs, and of all the dangers he had been
through, and the manner in which he had been preserved that day, his hand
sought a little reliquary that hung about his neck, and he clasped it for
a moment with heartfelt gratitude. As he did so his eyes went across the
"I was hot with passion," he said, "and now she has met her reward. They
also, no doubt--"
And behold! far away out of the wooded slopes across the valley, but in
the clearness of the sunset, distinct and unmistakable, he saw a little
spire of smoke.
At that his expression of serene resignation changed to an amazed anger.
Smoke? He turned the head of the white horse about, and hesitated. And as
he did so a little rustle of air went through the grass about him. Far
away upon some reeds swayed a tattered sheet of grey. He looked at the
cobwebs; he looked at the smoke.
"Perhaps, after all, it is not them," he said at last.
But he knew better.
After he had stared at the smoke for some time, he mounted the white
As he rode, he picked his way amidst stranded masses of web. For some
reason there were many dead spiders on the ground, and those that lived
feasted guiltily on their fellows. At the sound of his horse's hoofs they
Their time had passed. From the ground, without either a wind to carry
them or a winding-sheet ready, these things, for all their poison, could
do him little evil.
He flicked with his belt at those he fancied came too near. Once, where a
number ran together over a bare place, he was minded to dismount and
trample them with his boots, but this impulse he overcame. Ever and again
he turned in his saddle, and looked back at the smoke.
"Spiders," he muttered over and over again. "Spiders. Well, well... The
next time I must spin a web."
THE NEW ACCELERATOR.
Certainly, if ever a man found a guinea when he was looking for a pin, it
is my good friend Professor Gibberne. I have heard before of investigators
overshooting the mark, but never quite to the extent that he has done. He
has really, this time at any rate, without any touch of exaggeration in the
phrase, found something to revolutionise human life. And that when he was
simply seeking an all-round nervous stimulant to bring languid people up
to the stresses of these pushful days. I have tasted the stuff now several
times, and I cannot do better than describe the effect the thing had on
me. That there are astonishing experiences in store for all in search of
new sensations will become apparent enough.
Professor Gibberne, as many people know, is my neighbour in Folkestone.
Unless my memory plays me a trick, his portrait at various ages has
already appeared in _The Strand Magazine_--think late in 1899 but I
am unable to look it up because I have lent that volume to someone who has
never sent it back. The reader may, perhaps, recall the high forehead and
the singularly long black eyebrows that give such a Mephistophelean touch
to his face. He occupies one of those pleasant little detached houses in
the mixed style that make the western end of the Upper Sandgate Road so
interesting. His is the one with the Flemish gables and the Moorish
portico, and it is in the little room with the mullioned bay window that
he works when he is down here, and in which of an evening we have so often
smoked and talked together. He is a mighty jester, but, besides, he likes
to talk to me about his work; he is one of those men who find a help and
stimulus in talking, and so I have been able to follow the conception of
the New Accelerator right up from a very early stage. Of course, the
greater portion of his experimental work is not done in Folkestone, but in
Gower Street, in the fine new laboratory next to the hospital that he has
been the first to use.
As every one knows, or at least as all intelligent people know, the
special department in which Gibberne has gained so great and deserved a
reputation among physiologists is the action of drugs upon the nervous
system. Upon soporifics, sedatives, and anaesthetics he is, I am told,
unequalled. He is also a chemist of considerable eminence, and I suppose
in the subtle and complex jungle of riddles that centres about the
ganglion cell and the axis fibre there are little cleared places of his
making, little glades of illumination, that, until he sees fit to publish
his results, are still inaccessible to every other living man. And in the
last few years he has been particularly assiduous upon this question of
nervous stimulants, and already, before the discovery of the New
Accelerator, very successful with them. Medical science has to thank him
for at least three distinct and absolutely safe invigorators of unrivalled
value to practising men. In cases of exhaustion the preparation known as
Gibberne's B Syrup has, I suppose, saved more lives already than any
lifeboat round the coast.
"But none of these little things begin to satisfy me yet," he told me
nearly a year ago. "Either they increase the central energy without
affecting the nerves, or they simply increase the available energy by
lowering the nervous conductivity; and all of them are unequal and local
in their operation. One wakes up the heart and viscera and leaves the
brain stupefied, one gets at the brain champagne fashion, and does nothing
good for the solar plexus, and what I want--and what, if it's an earthly
possibility, I mean to have--is a stimulant that stimulates all round,
that wakes you up for a time from the crown of your head to the tip of
your great toe, and makes you go two--or even three--to everybody else's
one. Eh? That's the thing I'm after."
"It would tire a man," I said.
"Not a doubt of it. And you'd eat double or treble--and all that. But just
think what the thing would mean. Imagine yourself with a little phial like
this"--he held up a little bottle of green glass and marked his points
with it--"and in this precious phial is the power to think twice as fast,
move twice as quickly, do twice as much work in a given time as you could
"But is such a thing possible?"
"I believe so. If it isn't, I've wasted my time for a year. These various
preparations of the hypophosphites, for example, seem to show that
something of the sort... Even if it was only one and a half times as fast
it would do."
"It _would_ do," I said.
"If you were a statesman in a corner, for example, time rushing up against
you, something urgent to be done, eh?"
"He could dose his private secretary," I said.
"And gain--double time. And think if _you_, for example, wanted to
finish a book."
"Usually," I said, "I wish I'd never begun 'em."
"Or a doctor, driven to death, wants to sit down and think out a case. Or
a barrister--or a man cramming for an examination."
"Worth a guinea a drop," said I, "and more--to men like that."
"And in a duel, again," said Gibberne, "where it all depends on your
quickness in pulling the trigger."
"Or in fencing," I echoed.
"You see," said Gibberne, "if I get it as an all-round thing, it will
really do you no harm at all--except perhaps to an infinitesimal degree it
brings you nearer old age. You will just have lived twice to other
"I suppose," I meditated, "in a duel--it would be fair?"
"That's a question for the seconds," said Gibberne.
I harked back further. "And you really think such a thing _is_
possible?" I said.
"As possible," said Gibberne, and glanced at something that went throbbing
by the window, "as a motor-bus. As a matter of fact--"
He paused and smiled at me deeply, and tapped slowly on the edge of his
desk with the green phial. "I think I know the stuff... Already I've got
something coming." The nervous smile upon his face betrayed the gravity of
his revelation. He rarely talked of his actual experimental work unless
things were very near the end. "And it may be, it may be--I shouldn't be
surprised--it may even do the thing at a greater rate than twice."
"It will be rather a big thing," I hazarded.
"It will be, I think, rather a big thing."
But I don't think he quite knew what a big thing it was to be, for all
I remember we had several talks about the stuff after that. "The New
Accelerator" he called it, and his tone about it grew more confident on
each occasion. Sometimes he talked nervously of unexpected physiological
results its use might have, and then he would get a little unhappy; at
others he was frankly mercenary, and we debated long and anxiously how the
preparation might be turned to commercial account. "It's a good thing,"
said Gibberne, "a tremendous thing. I know I'm giving the world something,
and I think it only reasonable we should expect the world to pay. The
dignity of science is all very well, but I think somehow I must have the
monopoly of the stuff for, say, ten years. I don't see why _all_ the
fun in life should go to the dealers in ham."
My own interest in the coming drug certainly did not wane in the time. I
have always had a queer little twist towards metaphysics in my mind. I
have always been given to paradoxes about space and time, and it seemed to
me that Gibberne was really preparing no less than the absolute
acceleration of life. Suppose a man repeatedly dosed with such a
preparation: he would live an active and record life indeed, but he would
be an adult at eleven, middle-aged at twenty-five, and by thirty well on
the road to senile decay. It seemed to me that so far Gibberne was only
going to do for any one who took his drug exactly what Nature has done for
the Jews and Orientals, who are men in their teens and aged by fifty, and
quicker in thought and act than we are all the time. The marvel of drugs
has always been great to my mind; you can madden a man, calm a man, make
him incredibly strong and alert or a helpless log, quicken this passion
and allay that, all by means of drugs, and here was a new miracle to be
added to this strange armoury of phials the doctors use! But Gibberne was
far too eager upon his technical points to enter very keenly into my
aspect of the question.
It was the 7th or 8th of August when he told me the distillation that
would decide his failure or success for a time was going forward as we
talked, and it was on the 10th that he told me the thing was done and the
New Accelerator a tangible reality in the world. I met him as I was going
up the Sandgate Hill towards Folkestone--I think I was going to get my
hair cut, and he came hurrying down to meet me--I suppose he was coming to
my house to tell me at once of his success. I remember that his eyes were
unusually bright and his face flushed, and I noted even then the swift
alacrity of his step.
"It's done," he cried, and gripped my hand, speaking very fast; "it's more
than done. Come up to my house and see."
"Really!" he shouted. "Incredibly! Come up and see."
"And it does--twice?"
"It does more, much more. It scares me. Come up and see the stuff. Taste
it! Try it! It's the most amazing stuff on earth." He gripped my arm and;
walking at such a pace that he forced me into a trot, went shouting with
me up the hill. A whole _char-a-banc_-ful of people turned and stared
at us in unison after the manner of people in _chars-a-banc_. It was
one of those hot, clear days that Folkestone sees so much of, every colour
incredibly bright and every outline hard. There was a breeze, of course,
but not so much breeze as sufficed under these conditions to keep me cool
and dry. I panted for mercy.
"I'm not walking fast, am I?" cried Gibberne, and slackened his pace to a
"You've been taking some of this stuff," I puffed.
"No," he said. "At the utmost a drop of water that stood in a beaker from
which I had washed out the last traces of the stuff. I took some last
night, you know. But that is ancient history now."
"And it goes twice?" I said, nearing his doorway in a grateful
"It goes a thousand times, many thousand times!" cried Gibberne, with a
dramatic gesture, flinging open his Early English carved oak gate.
"Phew!" said I, and followed him to the door.
"I don't know how many times it goes," he said, with his latch-key in his
"It throws all sorts of light on nervous physiology, it kicks the theory
of vision into a perfectly new shape! ... Heaven knows how many thousand
times. We'll try all that after----The thing is to try the stuff now."
"Try the stuff?" I said, as we went along the passage.
"Rather," said Gibberne, turning on me in his study. "There it is in that
little green phial there! Unless you happen to be afraid?"
I am a careful man by nature, and only theoretically adventurous. I
_was_ afraid. But on the other hand, there is pride.
"Well," I haggled. "You say you've tried it?"
"I've tried it," he said, "and I don't look hurt by it, do I? I don't even
look livery, and I _feel_----"
I sat down. "Give me the potion," I said. "If the worst comes to the
worst it will save having my hair cut, and that, I think, is one of the
most hateful duties of a civilised man. How do you take the mixture?"
"With water," said Gibberne, whacking down a carafe.
He stood up in front of his desk and regarded me in his easy-chair; his
manner was suddenly affected by a touch of the Harley Street specialist.
"It's rum stuff, you know," he said.
I made a gesture with my hand.
"I must warn you, in the first place, as soon as you've got it down to
shut your eyes, and open them very cautiously in a minute or so's time.
One still sees. The sense of vision is a question of length of vibration,
and not of multitude of impacts; but there's a kind of shock to the
retina, a nasty giddy confusion just at the time if the eyes are open.
Keep 'em shut."
"Shut," I said. "Good!"
"And the next thing is, keep still. Don't begin to whack about. You may
fetch something a nasty rap if you do. Remember you will be going several
thousand times faster than you ever did before, heart, lungs, muscles,
brain--everything--and you will hit hard without knowing it. You won't
know it, you know. You'll feel just as you do now. Only everything in the
world will seem to be going ever so many thousand times slower than it
ever went before. That's what makes it so deuced queer."
"Lor," I said. "And you mean----"
"You'll see," said he, and took up a little measure. He glanced at the
material on his desk. "Glasses," he said, "water. All here. Mustn't take
too much for the first attempt."
The little phial glucked out its precious contents. "Don't forget what I
told you," he said, turning the contents of the measure into a glass in
the manner of an Italian waiter measuring whisky. "Sit with the eyes
tightly shut and in absolute stillness for two minutes," he said. "Then
you will hear me speak."
He added an inch or so of water to the little dose in each glass.
"By-the-by," he said, "don't put your glass down. Keep it in your hand and
rest your hand on your knee. Yes--so. And now----"
He raised his glass.
"The New Accelerator," I said.
"The New Accelerator," he answered, and we touched glasses and drank, and
instantly I closed my eyes.
You know that blank non-existence into which one drops when one has taken
"gas." For an indefinite interval it was like that. Then I heard Gibberne
telling me to wake up, and I stirred and opened my eyes. There he stood as
he had been standing, glass still in hand. It was empty, that was all the
"Well?" said I.
"Nothing out of the way?"
"Nothing. A slight feeling of exhilaration, perhaps. Nothing more."
"Things are still," I said. "By Jove! yes! They _are_ still. Except
the sort of faint pat, patter, like rain falling on different things. What
"Analysed sounds," I think he said, but I am not sure. He glanced at the
window. "Have you ever seen a curtain before a window fixed in that way
I followed his eyes, and there was the end of the curtain, frozen, as it
were, corner high, in the act of flapping briskly in the breeze.
"No," said I; "that's odd."
"And here," he said, and opened the hand that held the glass. Naturally I
winced, expecting the glass to smash. But so far from smashing, it did not
even seem to stir; it hung in mid-air--motionless. "Roughly speaking,"
said Gibberne, "an object in these latitudes falls 16 feet in the first
second. This glass is falling 16 feet in a second now. Only, you see, it
hasn't been falling yet for the hundredth part of a second. That gives you
some idea of the pace of my Accelerator."
And he waved his hand round and round, over and under the slowly sinking
glass. Finally he took it by the bottom, pulled it down and placed it very
carefully on the table. "Eh?" he said to me, and laughed.
"That seems all right," I said, and began very gingerly to raise myself
from my chair. I felt perfectly well, very light and comfortable, and
quite confident in my mind. I was going fast all over. My heart, for
example, was beating a thousand times a second, but that caused me no
discomfort at all. I looked out of the window. An immovable cyclist, head
down and with a frozen puff of dust behind his driving-wheel, scorched to
overtake a galloping _char-a-banc_ that did not stir. I gaped in
amazement at this incredible spectacle. "Gibberne," I cried, "how long
will this confounded stuff last?"
"Heaven knows!" he answered. "Last time I took it I went to bed and slept
it off. I tell you, I was frightened. It must have lasted some minutes, I
think--it seemed like hours. But after a bit it slows down rather
suddenly, I believe."
I was proud to observe that I did not feel frightened--I suppose because
there were two of us. "Why shouldn't we go out?" I asked.
"They'll see us."
"Not they. Goodness, no! Why, we shall be going a thousand times faster
than the quickest conjuring trick that was ever done. Come along! Which
way shall we go? Window, or door?"
And out by the window we went.
Assuredly of all the strange experiences that I have ever had, or
imagined, or read of other people having or imagining, that little raid I
made with Gibberne on the Folkestone Leas, under the influence of the New
Accelerator, was the strangest and maddest of all. We went out by his gate
into the road, and there we made a minute examination of the statuesque
passing traffic. The tops of the wheels and some of the legs of the horses
of this _char-a-banc,_ the end of the whip-lash and the lower jaw of
the conductor--who was just beginning to yawn--were perceptibly in motion,
but all the rest of the lumbering conveyance seemed still. And quite
noiseless except for a faint rattling that came from one man's throat. And
as parts of this frozen edifice there were a driver, you know, and a
conductor, and eleven people! The effect as we walked about the thing
began by being madly queer and ended by being--disagreeable. There they
were, people like ourselves and yet not like ourselves, frozen in careless
attitudes, caught in mid-gesture. A girl and a man smiled at one another,
a leering smile that threatened to last for evermore; a woman in a floppy
capelline rested her arm on the rail and stared at Gibberne's house with
the unwinking stare of eternity; a man stroked his moustache like a figure
of wax, and another stretched a tiresome stiff hand with extended fingers
towards his loosened hat. We stared at them, we laughed at them, we made
faces at them, and then a sort of disgust of them came upon us, and we
turned away and walked round in front of the cyclist towards the Leas.
"Goodness!" cried Gibberne, suddenly; "look there!"
He pointed, and there at the tip of his finger and sliding down the air
with wings flapping slowly and at the speed of an exceptionally languid
snail--was a bee.
And so we came out upon the Leas. There the thing seemed madder than ever.
The band was playing in the upper stand, though all the sound it made for
us was a low-pitched, wheezy rattle, a sort of prolonged last sigh that
passed at times into a sound like the slow, muffled ticking of some
monstrous clock. Frozen people stood erect, strange, silent,
self-conscious-looking dummies hung unstably in mid-stride, promenading
upon the grass. I passed close to a little poodle dog suspended in the act
of leaping, and watched the slow movement of his legs as he sank to earth.
"Lord, look _here_!" cried Gibberne, and we halted for a moment
before a magnificent person in white faint--striped flannels, white shoes,
and a Panama hat, who turned back to wink at two gaily dressed ladies he
had passed. A wink, studied with such leisurely deliberation as we could
afford, is an unattractive thing. It loses any quality of alert gaiety,
and one remarks that the winking eye does not completely close, that under
its drooping lid appears the lower edge of an eyeball and a little line of
white. "Heaven give me memory," said I, "and I will never wink again."
"Or smile," said Gibberne, with his eye on the lady's answering teeth.
"It's infernally hot, somehow," said I, "Let's go slower."
"Oh, come along!" said Gibberne.
We picked our way among the bath-chairs in the path. Many of the people
sitting in the chairs seemed almost natural in their passive poses, but
the contorted scarlet of the bandsmen was not a restful thing to see. A
purple-faced little gentleman was frozen in the midst of a violent
struggle to refold his newspaper against the wind; there were many
evidences that all these people in their sluggish way were exposed to a
considerable breeze, a breeze that had no existence so far as our
sensations went. We came out and walked a little way from the crowd, and
turned and regarded it. To see all that multitude changed to a picture,
smitten rigid, as it were, into the semblance of realistic wax, was
impossibly wonderful. It was absurd, of course; but it filled me with an
irrational, an exultant sense of superior advantage. Consider the wonder
of it! All that I had said, and thought, and done since the stuff had
begun to work in my veins had happened, so far as those people, so far as
the world in general went, in the twinkling of an eye. "The New
Accelerator----" I began, but Gibberne interrupted me.
"There's that infernal old woman!" he said.
"What old woman?"
"Lives next door to me," said Gibberne. "Has a lapdog that yaps. Gods! The
temptation is strong!"
There is something very boyish and impulsive about Gibberne at times.
Before I could expostulate with him he had dashed forward, snatched the
unfortunate animal out of visible existence, and was running violently
with it towards the cliff of the Leas. It was most extraordinary. The
little brute, you know, didn't bark or wriggle or make the slightest sign
of vitality. It kept quite stiffly in an attitude of somnolent repose, and
Gibberne held it by the neck. It was like running about with a dog of
wood. "Gibberne," I cried, "put it down!" Then I said something else. "If
you run like that, Gibberne," I cried, "you'll set your clothes on fire.
Your linen trousers are going brown as it is!"
He clapped his hand on his thigh and stood hesitating on the verge.
"Gibberne," I cried, coming up, "put it down. This heat is too much! It's
our running so! Two or three miles a second! Friction of the air!"
"What?" he said, glancing at the dog.
"Friction of the air," I shouted. "Friction of the air. Going too fast.
Like meteorites and things. Too hot. And, Gibberne! Gibberne! I'm all over
pricking and a sort of perspiration. You can see people stirring slightly.
I believe the stuff's working off! Put that dog down."
"Eh?" he said.
"It's working off," I repeated. "We're too hot and the stuff's working
off! I'm wet through."
He stared at me, then at the band, the wheezy rattle of whose performance
was certainly going faster. Then with a tremendous sweep of the arm he
hurled the dog away from him and it went spinning upward, still inanimate,
and hung at last over the grouped parasols of a knot of chattering people.
Gibberne was gripping my elbow. "By Jove!" he cried, "I believe it
is! A sort of hot pricking and--yes. That man's moving his
pocket-handkerchief! Perceptibly. We must get out of this sharp."
But we could not get out of it sharply enough. Luckily, perhaps! For we
might have run, and if we had run we should, I believe, have burst into
flames. Almost certainly we should have burst into flames! You know we had
neither of us thought of that... But before we could even begin to run
the action of the drug had ceased. It was the business of a minute
fraction of a second. The effect of the New Accelerator passed like the
drawing of a curtain, vanished in the movement of a hand. I heard
Gibberne's voice in infinite alarm. "Sit down," he said, and flop, down
upon the turf at the edge of the Leas I sat--scorching as I sat. There is
a patch of burnt grass there still where I sat down. The whole stagnation
seemed to wake up as I did so, the disarticulated vibration of the band
rushed together into a blast of music, the promenaders put their feet down
and walked their ways, the papers and flags began flapping, smiles passed
into words, the winker finished his wink and went on his way complacently,
and all the seated people moved and spoke.
The whole world had come alive again, was going as fast as we were, or
rather we were going no faster than the rest of the world. It was like
slowing down as one comes into a railway station. Everything seemed to
spin round for a second or two, I had the most transient feeling of
nausea, and that was all. And the little dog, which had seemed to hang for
a moment when the force of Gibberne's arm was expended, fell with a swift
acceleration clean through a lady's parasol!
That was the saving of us. Unless it was for one corpulent old gentleman
in a bath-chair, who certainly did start at the sight of us, and
afterwards regarded us at intervals with a darkly suspicious eye, and,
finally, I believe, said something to his nurse about us, I doubt if a
solitary person remarked our sudden appearance among them. Plop! We must
have appeared abruptly. We ceased to smoulder almost at once, though the
turf beneath me was uncomfortably hot. The attention of every one--
including even the Amusements' Association band, which on this occasion,
for the only time in its history, got out of tune--was arrested by the
amazing fact, and the still more amazing yapping and uproar caused by the
fact, that a respectable, over-fed lapdog sleeping quietly to the east of
the bandstand should suddenly fall through the parasol of a lady on the
west--in a slightly singed condition due to the extreme velocity of its
movements through the air. In these absurd days, too, when we are all
trying to be as psychic, and silly, and superstitious as possible! People
got up and trod on other people, chairs were overturned, the Leas
policeman ran. How the matter settled itself I do not know--we were much
too anxious to disentangle ourselves from the affair and get out of range
of the eye of the old gentleman in the bath-chair to make minute
inquiries. As soon as we were sufficiently cool and sufficiently recovered
from our giddiness and nausea and confusion of mind to do so we stood up,
and skirting the crowd, directed our steps back along the road below the
Metropole towards Gibberne's house. But amidst the din I heard very
distinctly the gentleman who had been sitting beside the lady of the
ruptured sunshade using quite unjustifiable threats and language to one of
those chair-attendants who have "Inspector" written on their caps: "If you
didn't throw the dog," he said, "who _did_?"
The sudden return of movement and familiar noises, and our natural anxiety
about ourselves (our clothes were still dreadfully hot, and the fronts of
the thighs of Gibberne's white trousers were scorched a drabbish brown),
prevented the minute observations I should have liked to make on all these
things. Indeed, I really made no observations of any scientific value on
that return. The bee, of course, had gone. I looked for that cyclist, but
he was already out of sight as we came into the Upper Sandgate Road or
hidden from us by traffic; the _char-a-banc_, however, with its
people now all alive and stirring, was clattering along at a spanking pace
almost abreast of the nearer church.
We noted, however, that the window-sill on which we had stepped in getting
out of the house was slightly singed, and that the impressions of our feet
on the gravel of the path were unusually deep.
So it was I had my first experience of the New Accelerator. Practically we
had been running about and saying and doing all sorts of things in the
space of a second or so of time. We had lived half an hour while the band
had played, perhaps, two bars. But the effect it had upon us was that the
whole world had stopped for our convenient inspection. Considering all
things, and particularly considering our rashness in venturing out of the
house, the experience might certainly have been much more disagreeable
than it was. It showed, no doubt, that Gibberne has still much to learn
before his preparation is a manageable convenience, but its practicability
it certainly demonstrated beyond all cavil.
Since that adventure he has been steadily bringing its use under control,
and I have several times, and without the slightest bad result, taken
measured doses under his direction; though I must confess I have not yet
ventured abroad again while under its influence. I may mention, for
example, that this story has been written at one sitting and without
interruption, except for the nibbling of some chocolate, by its means. I
began at 6.25, and my watch is now very nearly at the minute past the
half-hour. The convenience of securing a long, uninterrupted spell of work
in the midst of a day full of engagements cannot be exaggerated. Gibberne
is now working at the quantitative handling of his preparation, with
especial reference to its distinctive effects upon different types of
constitution. He then hopes to find a Retarder, with which to dilute its
present rather excessive potency. The Retarder will, of course, have the
reverse effect to the Accelerator; used alone it should enable the patient
to spread a few seconds over many hours of ordinary time, and so to
maintain an apathetic inaction, a glacier-like absence of alacrity, amidst
the most animated or irritating surroundings. The two things together must
necessarily work an entire revolution in civilised existence. It is the
beginning of our escape from that Time Garment of which Carlyle speaks.
While this Accelerator will enable us to concentrate ourselves with
tremendous impact upon any moment or occasion that demands our utmost
sense and vigour, the Retarder will enable us to pass in passive
tranquillity through infinite hardship and tedium. Perhaps I am a little
optimistic about the Retarder, which has indeed still to be discovered,
but about the Accelerator there is no possible sort of doubt whatever. Its
appearance upon the market in a convenient, controllable, and assimilable
form is a matter of the next few months. It will be obtainable of all
chemists and druggists, in small green bottles, at a high but, considering
its extraordinary qualities, by no means excessive price. Gibberne's
Nervous Accelerator it will be called, and he hopes to be able to supply
it in three strengths: one in 200, one in 900, and one in 2000,
distinguished by yellow, pink, and white labels respectively.
No doubt its use renders a great number of very extraordinary things
possible; for, of course, the most remarkable and, possibly, even criminal
proceedings may be effected with impunity by thus dodging, as it were,
into the interstices of time. Like all potent preparations, it will be
liable to abuse. We have, however, discussed this aspect of the question
very thoroughly, and we have decided that this is purely a matter of
medical jurisprudence and altogether outside our province. We shall
manufacture and sell the Accelerator, and as for the consequences--we
THE TRUTH ABOUT PYECRAFT.
He sits not a dozen yards away. If I glance over my shoulder I can see
him. And if I catch his eye--and usually I catch his eye--it meets me with
It is mainly an imploring look--and yet with suspicion in it.
Confound his suspicion! If I wanted to tell on him I should have told long
ago. I don't tell and I don't tell, and he ought to feel at his ease. As
if anything so gross and fat as he could feel at ease! Who would believe
me if I did tell?
Poor old Pyecraft! Great, uneasy jelly of substance! The fattest clubman
He sits at one of the little club tables in the huge bay by the fire,
stuffing. What is he stuffing? I glance judiciously, and catch him biting
at a round of hot buttered teacake, with his eyes on me. Confound him!
--with his eyes on me!
That settles it, Pyecraft! Since you _will_ be abject, since you
_will_ behave as though I was not a man of honour, here, right under
your embedded eyes, I write the thing down--the plain truth about
Pyecraft. The man I helped, the man I shielded, and who has requited me by
making my club unendurable, absolutely unendurable, with his liquid
appeal, with the perpetual "don't tell" of his looks.
And, besides, why does he keep on eternally eating?
Well, here goes for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!
Pyecraft----. I made the acquaintance of Pyecraft in this very
smoking-room. I was a young, nervous new member, and he saw it. I was
sitting all alone, wishing I knew more of the members, and suddenly he
came, a great rolling front of chins and abdomina, towards me, and
grunted and sat down in a chair close by me and wheezed for a space, and
scraped for a space with a match and lit a cigar, and then addressed me.
I forget what he said--something about the matches not lighting properly,
and afterwards as he talked he kept stopping the waiters one by one as
they went by, and telling them about the matches in that thin, fluty
voice he has. But, anyhow, it was in some such way we began our talking.
He talked about various things and came round to games. And thence to my
figure and complexion. "_You_ ought to be a good cricketer," he said.
I suppose I am slender, slender to what some people would call lean, and I
suppose I am rather dark, still----I am not ashamed of having a Hindu
great-grandmother, but, for all that, I don't want casual strangers to see
through me at a glance to _her_. So that I was set against Pyecraft
from the beginning.
But he only talked about me in order to get to himself.
"I expect," he said, "you take no more exercise than I do, and probably
you eat no less." (Like all excessively obese people he fancied he ate
nothing.) "Yet"--and he smiled an oblique smile--"we differ."
And then he began to talk about his fatness and his fatness; all he did
for his fatness and all he was going to do for his fatness; what people
had advised him to do for his fatness and what he had heard of people
doing for fatness similar to his. "_A priori_," he said, "one would
think a question of nutrition could be answered by dietary and a question
of assimilation by drugs." It was stifling. It was dumpling talk. It made
me feel swelled to hear him.
One stands that sort of thing once in a way at a club, but a time came
when I fancied I was standing too much. He took to me altogether too
conspicuously. I could never go into the smoking-room but he would come
wallowing towards me, and sometimes he came and gormandised round and
about me while I had my lunch. He seemed at times almost to be clinging to
me. He was a bore, but not so fearful a bore as to be limited to me and
from the first there was something in his manner--almost as though he
knew, almost as though he penetrated to the fact that I _might_--that
there was a remote, exceptional chance in me that no one else presented.
"I'd give anything to get it down," he would say--"anything," and peer at
me over his vast cheeks and pant. Poor old Pyecraft! He has just gonged;
no doubt to order another buttered teacake!
He came to the actual thing one day. "Our Pharmacopoeia," he said, "our
Western Pharmacopoeia, is anything but the last word of medical science.
In the East, I've been told----"
He stopped and stared at me. It was like being at an aquarium.
I was quite suddenly angry with him. "Look here," I said, "who told you
about my great-grandmother's recipes?"
"Well," he fenced.
"Every time we've met for a week," I said--"and we've met pretty often--
you've given me a broad hint or so about that little secret of mine."
"Well," he said, "now the cat's out of the bag, I'll admit, yes, it is so.
I had it----"
"Indirectly," he said, which I believe was lying, "yes."
"Pattison," I said, "took that stuff at his own risk." He pursed his mouth
"My great-grandmother's recipes," I said, "are queer things to handle. My
father was near making me promise----"
"No. But he warned me. He himself used one--once."
"Ah! ... But do you think----? Suppose--suppose there did happen to be
"The things are curious documents," I said. "Even the smell of 'em ...
But after going so far Pyecraft was resolved I should go farther. I was
always a little afraid if I tried his patience too much he would fall on
me suddenly and smother me. I own I was weak. But I was also annoyed with
Pyecraft. I had got to that state of feeling for him that disposed me to
say, "Well, _take_ the risk!" The little affair of Pattison to which
I have alluded was a different matter altogether. What it was doesn't
concern us now, but I knew, anyhow, that the particular recipe I used then
was safe. The rest I didn't know so much about, and, on the whole, I was
inclined to doubt their safety pretty completely.
Yet even if Pyecraft got poisoned----
I must confess the poisoning of Pyecraft struck me as an immense
That evening I took that queer, odd-scented sandal-wood box out of my
safe, and turned the rustling skins over. The gentleman who wrote the
recipes for my great-grandmother evidently had a weakness for skins of a
miscellaneous origin, and his handwriting was cramped to the last degree.
Some of the things are quite unreadable to me--though my family, with its
Indian Civil Service associations, has kept up a knowledge of Hindustani
from generation to generation--and none are absolutely plain sailing. But
I found the one that I knew was there soon enough, and sat on the floor by
my safe for some time looking at it.
"Look here," said I to Pyecraft next day, and snatched the slip away from
his eager grasp.
"So far as I can make it out, this is a recipe for Loss of Weight. ("Ah!"
said Pyecraft.) I'm not absolutely sure, but I think it's that. And if you
take my advice you'll leave it alone. Because, you know--I blacken my
blood in your interest, Pyecraft--my ancestors on that side were, so far
as I can gather, a jolly queer lot. See?"
"Let me try it," said Pyecraft.
I leant back in my chair. My imagination made one mighty effort and fell
flat within me. "What in Heaven's name, Pyecraft," I asked, "do you think
you'll look like when you get thin?"
He was impervious to reason, I made him promise never to say a word to me
about his disgusting fatness again whatever happened--never, and then I
handed him that little piece of skin.
"It's nasty stuff," I said.
"No matter," he said, and took it.
He goggled at it. "But--but--" he said
He had just discovered that it wasn't English.
"To the best of my ability," I said, "I will do you a translation."
I did my best. After that we didn't speak for a fortnight. Whenever he
approached me I frowned and motioned him away, and he respected our
compact, but at the end of the fortnight he was as fat as ever. And then
he got a word in.
"I must speak," he said, "It isn't fair. There's something wrong. It's
done me no good. You're not doing your great-grandmother justice."
"Where's the recipe?"
He produced it gingerly from his pocket-book.
I ran my eye over the items. "Was the egg addled?" I asked.
"No. Ought it to have been?"
"That," I said, "goes without saying in all my poor dear
great-grandmother's recipes. When condition or quality is not specified
you must get the worst. She was drastic or nothing... And there's one or
two possible alternatives to some of these other things. You got _fresh_
"I got a rattlesnake from Jamrach's. It cost--it cost----"
"That's your affair anyhow. This last item----"
"I know a man who----"
"Yes. H'm. Well, I'll write the alternatives down. So far as I know the
language, the spelling of this recipe is particularly atrocious.
By-the-by, dog here probably means pariah dog."
For a month after that I saw Pyecraft constantly at the club and as fat
and anxious as ever. He kept our treaty, but at times he broke the spirit
of it by shaking his head despondently. Then one day in the cloakroom he
said, "Your great-grandmother----"
"Not a word against her," I said; and he held his peace.
I could have fancied he had desisted, and I saw him one day talking to
three new members about his fatness as though he was in search of other
recipes. And then, quite unexpectedly, his telegram came.
"Mr. Formalyn!" bawled a page-boy under my nose, and I took the telegram
and opened it at once.
"_For Heaven's sake come_.--_Pyecraft_."
"H'm," said I, and to tell the truth I was so pleased at the
rehabilitation of my great-grandmother's reputation this evidently
promised that I made a most excellent lunch.
I got Pyecraft's address from the hall porter. Pyecraft inhabited the
upper half of a house in Bloomsbury, and I went there so soon as I had
done my coffee and Trappistine. I did not wait to finish my cigar.
"Mr. Pyecraft?" said I, at the front door.
They believed he was ill; he hadn't been out for two days.
"He expects me," said I, and they sent me up.
I rang the bell at the lattice-door upon the landing.
"He shouldn't have tried it, anyhow," I said to myself. "A man who eats
like a pig ought to look like a pig."
An obviously worthy woman, with an anxious face and a carelessly placed
cap, came and surveyed me through the lattice.
I gave my name and she let me in in a dubious fashion.
"Well?" said I, as we stood together inside Pyecraft's piece of the
"'E said you was to come in if you came," she said, and regarded me,
making no motion to show me anywhere. And then, confidentially, "'E's
locked in, sir."
"Locked 'imself in yesterday morning and 'asn't let any one in since, sir.
And ever and again _swearing_. Oh, my!"
I stared at the door she indicated by her glances. "In there?" I said.
She shook her head sadly. "'E keeps on calling for vittles, sir.
'_Eavy_ vittles 'e wants. I get 'im what I can. Pork 'e's had, sooit
puddin', sossiges, noo bread. Everythink like that. Left outside, if you
please, and me go away. 'E's eatin', sir, somethink _awful_."
There came a piping bawl from inside the door: "That Formalyn?"
"That you, Pyecraft?" I shouted, and went and banged the door.
"Tell her to go away."
Then I could hear a curious pattering upon the door, almost like some one
feeling for the handle in the dark, and Pyecraft's familiar grunts.
"It's all right," I said, "she's gone."
But for a long time the door didn't open.
I heard the key turn. Then Pyecraft's voice said, "Come in."
I turned the handle and opened the door. Naturally I expected to see
Well, you know, he wasn't there!
I never had such a shock in my life. There was his sitting-room in a state
of untidy disorder, plates and dishes among the books and writing things,
and several chairs overturned, but Pyecraft----
"It's all right, old man; shut the door," he said, and then I discovered
There he was, right up close to the cornice in the corner by the door, as
though some one had glued him to the ceiling. His face was anxious and
angry. He panted and gesticulated. "Shut the door," he said. "If that
woman gets hold of it----"
I shut the door, and went and stood away from him and stared.
"If anything gives way and you tumble down," I said, "you'll break your
"I wish I could," he wheezed.
"A man of your age and weight getting up to kiddish gymnastics----"
"Don't," he said, and looked agonised.
"I'll tell you," he said, and gesticulated.
"How the deuce," said I, "are you holding on up there?"
And then abruptly I realised that he was not holding on at all, that he
was floating up there--just as a gas-filled bladder might have floated in
the same position. He began a struggle to thrust himself away from the
ceiling and to clamber down the wall to me. "It's that prescription," he
panted, as he did so. "Your great-gran----"
He took hold of a framed engraving rather carelessly as he spoke and it
gave way, and he flew back to the ceiling again, while the picture smashed
on to the sofa. Bump he went against the ceiling, and I knew then why he
was all over white on the more salient curves and angles of his person. He
tried again more carefully, coming down by way of the mantel.
It was really a most extraordinary spectacle, that great, fat,
apoplectic-looking man upside down and trying to get from the ceiling
to the floor. "That prescription," he said. "Too successful."
"Loss of weight--almost complete."
And then, of course, I understood.
"By Jove, Pyecraft," said I, "what you wanted was a cure for fatness! But
you always called it weight. You would call it weight."
Somehow I was extremely delighted. I quite liked Pyecraft for the time.
"Let me help you!" I said, and took his hand and pulled him down. He
kicked about, trying to get foothold somewhere. It was very like holding a
flag on a windy day.
"That table," he said, pointing, "is solid mahogany and very heavy. If you
can put me under that----"
I did, and there he wallowed about like a captive balloon, while I stood
on his hearthrug and talked to him.
I lit a cigar. "Tell me," I said, "what happened?"
"I took it," he said.
"How did it taste?"
I should fancy they all did. Whether one regards the ingredients or
the probable compound or the possible results, almost all my
great-grandmother's remedies appear to me at least to be extraordinarily
uninviting. For my own part----
"I took a little sip first."
"And as I felt lighter and better after an hour, I decided to take the
"My dear Pyecraft!"
"I held my nose," he explained. "And then I kept on getting lighter and
lighter--and helpless, you know."
He gave way suddenly to a burst of passion. "What the goodness am I to
_do?_" he said.
"There's one thing pretty evident," I said, "that you mustn't do. If you
go out of doors you'll go up and up." I waved an arm upward. "They'd have
to send Santos-Dumont after you to bring you down again."
"I suppose it will wear off?"
I shook my head. "I don't think you can count on that," I said.
And then there was another burst of passion, and he kicked out at adjacent
chairs and banged the floor. He behaved just as I should have expected a
great, fat, self-indulgent man to behave under trying circumstances--that
is to say, very badly. He spoke of me and of my great-grandmother with an
utter want of discretion.
"I never asked you to take the stuff," I said.
And generously disregarding the insults he was putting upon me, I sat down
in his armchair and began to talk to him in a sober, friendly fashion.
I pointed out to him that this was a trouble he had brought upon himself,
and that it had almost an air of poetical justice. He had eaten too much.
This he disputed, and for a time we argued the point.
He became noisy and violent, so I desisted from this aspect of his lesson.
"And then," said I, "you committed the sin of euphuism. You called it, not
Fat, which is just and inglorious, but Weight. You----"
He interrupted to say that he recognised all that. What was he to
I suggested he should adapt himself to his new conditions. So we came to
the really sensible part of the business. I suggested that it would not be
difficult for him to learn to walk about on the ceiling with his hands----
"I can't sleep," he said.
But that was no great difficulty. It was quite possible, I pointed out, to
make a shake-up under a wire mattress, fasten the under things on with
tapes, and have a blanket, sheet, and coverlet to button at the side. He
would have to confide in his housekeeper, I said; and after some
squabbling he agreed to that. (Afterwards it was quite delightful to see
the beautifully matter-of-fact way with which the good lady took all these
amazing inversions.) He could have a library ladder in his room, and all
his meals could be laid on the top of his bookcase. We also hit on an
ingenious device by which he could get to the floor whenever he wanted,
which was simply to put the _British Encyclopaedia_ (tenth edition)
on the top of his open shelves. He just pulled out a couple of volumes and
held on, and down he came. And we agreed there must be iron staples along
the skirting, so that he could cling to those whenever he wanted to get
about the room on the lower level.
As we got on with the thing I found myself almost keenly interested. It
was I who called in the housekeeper and broke matters to her, and it was I
chiefly who fixed up the inverted bed. In fact, I spent two whole days at
his flat. I am a handy, interfering sort of man with a screw-driver, and I
made all sorts of ingenious adaptations for him--ran a wire to bring his
bells within reach, turned all his electric lights up instead of down, and
so on. The whole affair was extremely curious and interesting to me, and
it was delightful to think of Pyecraft like some great, fat blow-fly,
crawling about on his ceiling and clambering round the lintel of his doors
from one room to another, and never, never, never coming to the club any
Then, you know, my fatal ingenuity got the better of me. I was sitting by
his fire drinking his whisky, and he was up in his favourite corner by the
cornice, tacking a Turkey carpet to the ceiling, when the idea struck me.
"By Jove, Pyecraft!" I said, "all this is totally unnecessary."
And before I could calculate the complete consequences of my notion I
blurted it out. "Lead underclothing," said I, and the mischief was done.
Pyecraft received the thing almost in tears. "To be right ways up
again----" he said.
I gave him the whole secret before I saw where it would take me. "Buy
sheet lead," I said, "stamp it into discs. Sew 'em all over your
underclothes until you have enough. Have lead-soled boots, carry a bag of
solid lead, and the thing is done! Instead of being a prisoner here you
may go abroad again, Pyecraft; you may travel----"
A still happier idea came to me. "You need never fear a shipwreck. All you
need do is just slip off some or all of your clothes, take the necessary
amount of luggage in your hand, and float up in the air----"
In his emotion he dropped the tack-hammer within an ace of my head. "By
Jove!" he said, "I shall be able to come back to the club again."
"The thing pulled me up short. By Jove!" I said, faintly. "Yes. Of
He did. He does. There he sits behind me now, stuffing--as I live!--a
third go of buttered teacake. And no one in the whole world knows--except
his housekeeper and me---that he weighs practically nothing; that he is a
mere boring mass of assimilatory matter, mere clouds in clothing,
_niente, nefas_, the most inconsiderable of men. There he sits
watching until I have done this writing. Then, if he can, he will waylay
me. He will come billowing up to me...
He will tell me over again all about it, how it feels, how it doesn't
feel, how he sometimes hopes it is passing off a little. And always
somewhere in that fat, abundant discourse he will say, "The secret's
keeping, eh? If any one knew of it--I should be so ashamed... Makes
a fellow look such a fool, you know. Crawling about on a ceiling and all
And now to elude Pyecraft, occupying, as he does, an admirable strategic
position between me and the door.
THE MAGIC SHOP.
I had seen the Magic Shop from afar several times; I had passed it once or
twice, a shop window of alluring little objects, magic balls, magic hens,
wonderful cones, ventriloquist dolls, the material of the basket trick,
packs of cards that _looked_ all right, and all that sort of thing,
but never had I thought of going in until one day, almost without warning,
Gip hauled me by my finger right up to the window, and so conducted
himself that there was nothing for it but to take him in. I had not
thought the place was there, to tell the truth--a modest-sized frontage in
Regent Street, between the picture shop and the place where the chicks run
about just out of patent incubators,--but there it was sure enough. I had
fancied it was down nearer the Circus, or round the corner in Oxford
Street, or even in Holborn; always over the way and a little inaccessible
it had been, with something of the mirage in its position; but here it was
now quite indisputably, and the fat end of Gip's pointing finger made a
noise upon the glass.
"If I was rich," said Gip, dabbing a finger at the Disappearing Egg, "I'd
buy myself that. And that"--which was The Crying Baby, Very Human--"and
that," which was a mystery, and called, so a neat card asserted, "Buy One
and Astonish Your Friends."
"Anything," said Gip, "will disappear under one of those cones. I have
read about it in a book.
"And there, dadda, is the Vanishing Halfpenny--only they've put it this
way up so's we can't see how it's done."
Gip, dear boy, inherits his mother's breeding, and he did not propose to
enter the shop or worry in any way; only, you know, quite unconsciously,
he lugged my finger doorward, and he made his interest clear.
"That," he said, and pointed to the Magic Bottle.
"If you had that?" I said; at which promising inquiry he looked up with a
"I could show it to Jessie," he said, thoughtful as ever of others.
"It's less than a hundred days to your birthday, Gibbles," I said, and
laid my hand on the door-handle.
Gip made no answer, but his grip tightened on my finger, and so we came
into the shop.
It was no common shop this; it was a magic shop, and all the prancing
precedence Gip would have taken in the matter of mere toys was wanting. He
left the burthen of the conversation to me.
It was a little, narrow shop, not very well lit, and the door-bell pinged
again with a plaintive note as we closed it behind us. For a moment or
so we were alone and could glance about us. There was a tiger in
_papier-mache_ on the glass case that covered, the low counter--a
grave, kind-eyed tiger that waggled his head in a methodical manner; there
were several crystal spheres, a china hand holding magic cards, a stock of
magic fish-bowls in various sizes, and an immodest magic hat that
shamelessly displayed its springs. On the floor were magic mirrors; one to
draw you out long and thin, one to swell your head and vanish your legs,
and one to make you short and fat like a draught; and while, we were
laughing at these the shopman, as I suppose, came in.
At any rate, there he was behind the counter--a curious, sallow, dark man,
with one ear larger than the other and a chin like the toe-cap of a boot.
"What can we have the pleasure?" he said, spreading his long magic fingers
on the glass case; and so with a start we were aware of him.
"I want," I said, "to buy my little boy a few simple tricks."
"Legerdemain?" he asked. "Mechanical? Domestic?"
"Anything amusing?" said I.
"Um!" said the shopman, and scratched his head for a moment as if
thinking. Then, quite distinctly, he drew from his head a glass ball.
"Something in this way?" he said, and held it out.
The action was unexpected. I had seen the trick done at entertainments
endless times before--it's part of the common stock of conjurers--but I
had not expected it here. "That's good," I said, with a laugh.
"Isn't it?" said the shopman.
Gip stretched out his disengaged hand to take this object and found merely
a blank palm.
"It's in your pocket," said the shopman, and there it was!
"How much will that be?" I asked.
"We make no charge for glass balls," said the shopman politely. "We get
them"--he picked one out of his elbow as he spoke--"free." He produced
another from the back of his neck, and laid it beside its predecessor on
the counter. Gip regarded his glass ball sagely, then directed a look of
inquiry at the two on the counter, and finally brought his round-eyed
scrutiny to the shopman, who smiled. "You may have those two," said the
shopman, "and, if you _don't_ mind one from my mouth. _So!_"
Gip counselled me mutely for a moment, and then in a profound silence put
away the four balls, resumed my reassuring finger, and nerved himself for
the next event.
"We get all our smaller tricks in that way," the shopman remarked.
I laughed in the manner of one who subscribes to a jest. "Instead of going
to the wholesale shop," I said. "Of course, it's cheaper."
"In a way," the shopman said. "Though we pay in the end. But not so
heavily--as people suppose... Our larger tricks, and our daily provisions
and all the other things we want, we get out of that hat... And you know,
sir, if you'll excuse my saying it, there _isn't_ a wholesale shop,
not for Genuine Magic goods, sir. I don't know if you noticed our
inscription--the Genuine Magic Shop." He drew a business card from his
cheek and handed it to me. "Genuine," he said, with his finger on the
word, and added, "There is absolutely no deception, sir."
He seemed to be carrying out the joke pretty thoroughly, I thought.
He turned to Gip with a smile of remarkable affability. "You, you know,
are the Right Sort of Boy."
I was surprised at his knowing that, because, in the interests of
discipline, we keep it rather a secret even at home; but Gip received it
in unflinching silence, keeping a steadfast eye on him.
"It's only the Right Sort of Boy gets through that doorway."
And, as if by way of illustration, there came a rattling at the door, and
a squeaking little voice could be faintly heard. "Nyar! I _warn_ 'a
go in there, dadda, I WARN 'a go in there. Ny-a-a-ah!" and then the
accents of a downtrodden parent, urging consolations and propitiations.
"It's locked, Edward," he said.
"But it isn't," said I.
"It is, sir," said the shopman, "always--for that sort of child," and as
he spoke we had a glimpse of the other youngster, a little, white face,
pallid from sweet-eating and over-sapid food, and distorted by evil
passions, a ruthless little egotist, pawing at the enchanted pane. "It's
no good, sir," said the shopman, as I moved, with my natural helpfulness,
doorward, and presently the spoilt child was carried off howling.
"How do you manage that?" I said, breathing a little more freely.
"Magic!" said the shopman, with a careless wave of the hand, and behold!
sparks of coloured fire flew out of his fingers and vanished into the
shadows of the shop.
"You were saying," he said, addressing himself to Gip, "before you came
in, that you would like one of our 'Buy One and Astonish your Friends'
Gip, after a gallant effort, said "Yes."
"It's in your pocket."
And leaning over the counter--he really had an extraordinary long body--
this amazing person produced the article in the customary conjurer's
manner. "Paper," he said, and took a sheet out of the empty hat with the
springs; "string," and behold his mouth was a string box, from which he
drew an unending thread, which when he had tied his parcel he bit off--
and, it seemed to me, swallowed the ball of string. And then he lit a
candle at the nose of one of the ventriloquist's dummies, stuck one of his
fingers (which had become sealing-wax red) into the flame, and so sealed
the parcel. "Then there was the Disappearing Egg," he remarked, and
produced one from within my coat-breast and packed it, and also The Crying
Baby, Very Human. I handed each parcel to Gip as it was ready, and he
clasped them to his chest.
He said very little, but his eyes were eloquent; the clutch of his arms
was eloquent. He was the playground of unspeakable emotions. These, you
know, were _real_ Magics.
Then, with a start, I discovered something moving about in my hat--
something soft and jumpy. I whipped it off, and a ruffled pigeon--no doubt
a confederate--dropped out and ran on the counter, and went, I fancy, into
a cardboard box behind the _papier-mache_ tiger.
"Tut, tut!" said the shopman, dexterously relieving, me of my headdress;
"careless bird, and--as I live--nesting!"
He shook my hat, and shook out into his extended hand, two or three eggs,
a large marble, a watch, about half a dozen of the inevitable glass balls,
and then crumpled, crinkled paper, more and more and more, talking all the
time of the way in which people neglect to brush their hats _inside_
as well as out--politely, of course, but with a certain personal
application. "All sorts of things accumulate, sir... Not _you_, of
course, in particular... Nearly every customer... Astonishing what they
carry about with them..." The crumpled paper rose and billowed on the
counter more and more and more, until he was nearly hidden from us, until
he was altogether hidden, and still his voice went on and on. "We none of
us know what the fair semblance of a human being may conceal, Sir. Are we
all then no better than brushed exteriors, whited sepulchres-----"
His voice stopped--exactly like when you hit a neighbour's gramophone with
a well-aimed brick, the same instant silence--and the rustle of the paper
stopped, and everything was still...
"Have you done with my hat?" I said, after an interval.
There was no answer.
I stared at Gip, and Gip stared at me, and there were our distortions in
the magic mirrors, looking very rum, and grave, and quiet...
"I think we'll go now," I said. "Will you tell me how much all this comes
"I say," I said, on a rather louder note, "I want the bill; and my hat,
It might have been a sniff from behind the paper pile...
"Let's look behind the counter, Gip," I said. "He's making fun of us."
I led Gip round the head-wagging tiger, and what do you think there was
behind the counter? No one at all! Only my hat on the floor, and a common
conjurer's lop-eared white rabbit lost in meditation, and looking as
stupid and crumpled as only a conjurer's rabbit can do. I resumed my hat,
and the rabbit lolloped a lollop or so out of my way.
"Dadda!" said Gip, in a guilty whisper.
"What is it, Gip?" said I.
"I _do_ like this shop, dadda."
"So should I," I said to myself, "if the counter wouldn't suddenly extend
itself to shut one off from the door." But I didn't call Gip's attention
to that. "Pussy!" he said, with a hand out to the rabbit as it came
lolloping past us; "Pussy, do Gip a magic!" and his eyes followed it as it
squeezed through a door I had certainly not remarked a moment before. Then
this door opened wider, and the man with one ear larger than the other
appeared again. He was smiling still, but his eye met mine with something
between amusement and defiance. "You'd like to see our showroom, sir," he
said, with an innocent suavity. Gip tugged my finger forward. I glanced at
the counter and met the shopman's eye again. I was beginning to think the
magic just a little too genuine. "We haven't _very_ much time," I
said. But somehow we were inside the showroom before I could finish that.
"All goods of the same quality," said the shopman, rubbing his flexible
hands together, "and that is the Best. Nothing in the place that isn't
genuine Magic, and warranted thoroughly rum. Excuse me, sir!"
I felt him pull at something that clung to my coat-sleeve, and then I saw
he held a little, wriggling red demon by the tail--the little creature bit
and fought and tried to get at his hand--and in a moment he tossed it
carelessly behind a counter. No doubt the thing was only an image of
twisted indiarubber, but for the moment--! And his gesture was exactly
that of a man who handles some petty biting bit of vermin. I glanced at
Gip, but Gip was looking at a magic rocking-horse. I was glad he hadn't
seen the thing. "I say," I said, in an undertone, and indicating Gip and
the red demon with my eyes, "you haven't many things like _that_
about, have you?"
"None of ours! Probably brought it with you," said the shopman--also in an
undertone, and with a more dazzling smile than ever. "Astonishing what
people _will_, carry about with them unawares!" And then to Gip, "Do
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