Like the best work of Ramsey Campbell, its narrative proceedures force the reader into approximate states of disorientation and uncanny anxiety, rather than just describing the protagonist's experience of them.
The story is available in an inexpensive Ash-Tree Press ebook.
25 June 2017
Brenner’s Boy by by John Metcalfe
WARRANT OFFICER WINTER, in his middle sixties, remained a hard-headed man. Retired in 1904, he now, in 1912, was a member of the Royal Fleet Reserve and lived with his wife in a small whitewashed cottage on the Hampshire coast. ‘Pompey’ was not so far off—about seven miles—and over his nightly tot of lion’s blood in the Calcutta Tavern he would survey, with conscientious censoriousness, the callow antics of occasional too-exuberant ratings off the Excellent—liberty men whose cap ribbons proclaimed them as having come ‘ashore’ not from a ship at all but from the moaning, cordite-reeking Naval Gunnery School upon Whale Island.
Nowadays, it was his conviction, ratings were pampered. Owing, in part, to the ameliorated conditions achieved by Miss Agnes E. Weston, the bluejacket lived soft. The old spirit of natural enmity between the Wardroom and the lower deck was gone. He hummed, under his breath, a ditty, of which a line or two was missing in his memory:
Poll put her arms akimbo
At the Admiral’s house looked she.
To thoughts that were in limbo
She then to vent gave free.
‘Oh you’ve got a roaring fire I’ll bet
And in it your toes are jammed’
(tum tiddy um tiddy um tum tum)
‘Port Admiral, you be damned!’
Port Admirals for aught he knew might, as extreme cases, still be properly detested, especially by starving dollymops, so possibly the ballad, in the context of his scorn, was not entirely appropriate. But, in a rough way, it applied. He mused sourly, twirling the stem of his half-empty glass of rum. In his day almost any Admiral was hated ipso facto—Yes, old Brenner too.
Either he, Winter the hard-headed, had not proved quite insensible to flattery in that encounter, or else he must admit that Brenner wasn’t quite so bad. A dry old stick, however, at the best. His mufti hung awkwardly from clothes-horse shoulders; his voice, even in greeting, had an excoriating rasp. He seemed all knees and knuckles.
Winter, desperately reminiscent for the sake of sanity, strove to give the affair in retrospect a minute documentation. He could be sure of the date anyhow. The Navy had been out of white cap-covers for nearly three weeks. It was the twentieth of October, a snell and gloomy afternoon with a faint driving sting of rain. He was taking the 1.15 to Havant, where an uncle who had a little property to leave had just expired. The funeral was next day and Winter was stopping at Havant for the night.
On his way to Portsmouth he had looked in at the Calcutta. This had delayed him, and when at length he reached the station he had less than half a minute to find room in a crowded train. A football team, accompanied by supporters, was tumultuously en route for Brighton. Winter had finally flung himself into the first-class compartment which fatally happened to contain Rear Admiral Brenner, C.B., M.V.O.
Also there was the boy—stamping on Winter’s boots, squirming and doubling, grimacing with brown minnow-eyes and a mouth stuffed with toffee—which before long exploded stickily on his father’s waistcoat in a burst of raucous laughter. Old Brenner, that supposed martinette, could do nothing with the imp apparently.
‘Be quiet, Tinker . . . Do you hear? Sit still, Sir!’ Owing to these distractions the Admiral’s recognition of the W.O. was frosty. ‘Isn’t your name Winter? On Sutlej I think, in ’98.’
‘Yes, Sir.’ Winter’s gaze was respectfully wooden. That old swine Brenner! He felt, momentarily, a mean glow of cynical gratification at Brenner’s remembering him. Well, if—— Suddenly his mind grew blank in a kind of horror. ‘On Sutlej I think in ’98 . . .’ It was the boy, chanting, mimicking his father. A grey curtain of shame dropped between the two men. The Admiral’s face paled. Hell seemed to be let loose. Winter averted his eyes.
So it went on. There were only the three of them in the compartment, and at Cosham, where tickets were examined, Brenner insisted on paying Winter’s excess fare. Conversation was disjointed, thanks to Hell. Apart from the boy, Tinker, and with due regard to their differing ranks, retired Admiral and retired Warrant could doubtless have exchanged the remarks of two profound realists, neither one of them estimable or imagining himself to be so, yet each convinced that the remaining world was still less estimable. Each, had young Hell allowed him, might have felt for the other a grudging, semi-hostile admiration. . . .
But the boy confused and impaired all this. He swaggered and spat twice—three times, upon the floor, then, crouching, peered out from between his father’s legs like something in a den. His ears were patently unclean. Once, as they were nearing Fratton, Winter had to close his nostrils against an evil smell. Old Brenner sat rigid, raging. The exposé of his impotence turned Winter rather sick. Already he felt a potential blackmailer. At Havant he got out clumsily, half tripped by Tinker’s toes, uttered a sheepishly constrained ‘Good afternoon, Sir.’
What bothered him enormously afterwards was the difficulty he experi-enced in reconstructing the encounter. Had old Brenner really suggested anything about the boy—about his stopping with him, Winter, for a week or two? It seemed extravagantly unlikely. Yet it was true that they had swapped addresses, which was improbable enough. Brenner, however, had coldly promised to look into that entanglement about his Reserve grading and promotion. And possibly, in irony, he might have said something about a visit. ‘Winter’ll give you plenty of rope-pie when you’re with him!’ For an instant the imp had sobered, leaned against Winter’s knee. The minnow eyes grew soft and lush, repugnantly girlish. Winter, embarrassed, had shrunk away a little. From the coach behind them came a hoarse burst of singing. The footballers. ‘Bill Bailey’ and ‘Let’s all go down the Strand!’ And outside it was grey, rain driving on the windows. The whole thing didn’t seem real. . . .
‘Rope-pie, indeed! Yes, some o’ that’d do the little sod no harm!’ Winter had laughed to himself later in bitter awkwardness. He had no child of his own. He had married a woman who had proved barren. Winter would sit in the Calcutta Tavern thinking hard thoughts about her, twirling his rum. And now he could not remember properly what old Brenner had really said. But he must remember. It was terribly important. His brain was splitting. Oh, my head, my poor head, my head . . .
All that he had to go on for some time was a letter, which he had subsequently mislaid. He turned his cottage upside down in vain. The thing was lost.
The letter came at ten a.m. Winter’s dowdy, wistful wife, Chrissie, brought it out to him as he was digging in the back garden. He read it, frowning. ‘It’s from old Brenner. He’s looking into that Reserve business he says. . . .’ Winter had told Chrissie, curtly, about his meeting Brenner in the train a fortnight ago and had even mentioned Brenner’s odious child, but now he did not show her the letter. He had a disquieting notion that there was something very wrong with it. He continued his digging and Chrissie returned indoors.
It was a grey November day, cold but dampish, and very still. Whale island was booming away as usual, and Winter anticipated, with annoyance, that the heavy guns would presently bring the rain down. He felt surly, and that morning, aware of rheumatic twinges, had put on his red flannel body-belt. Even his cottage, frigidly spick and span, with its neatly furled ex-service look of something eternally standing at attention, got on his nerves. He was fed up with Chrissie. Not only had she given him no child but she was a liar as well. She had told him that her sister and brother-in-law, the Pinks, were definitely not coming again for another fortnight, and now it suddenly appeared that they were coming—tomorrow afternoon. His Sunday would be ruined.
Moreover, there was this letter.
Fishing it from his pocket as he strolled off after tea toward the Calcutta Tavern, he considered it uneasily. The body of the missive was satisfactory—a laconic intimation that affairs at the Reserve were being straightened out—and the address was the Cadogan Square address which the Admiral had already given him—but, underneath the crabbed signature, were written in an un-formed, scrawling hand the words ‘on suttledge I think in ninety ate’.
Whilst he was playing Crown and Anchor and other gambling games with a bunch of ex-Marines Winter became increasingly disturbed and out of sorts. The reek of smoke in the crowded room behind the saloon bar, the excited shouts of ‘House!’ or ‘Clickety-click!’, made his head ache. Evidently that little bastard had scribbled on the old fellow’s letter, and Brenner hadn’t spotted it. He must be amazingly careless. And the added words were actually a quotation. Brenner had used them himself and that damned kid had mimicked him. Extremely odd. . . .
The ex-W.O., in general a securely unimaginative individual, grew more and more perplexed. For some days after his meeting with Brenner he hadn’t thought much about the matter, beyond recalling it occasionally with faint ironical distaste. But latterly, instead of letting it lapse in a normal manner, he had fallen to wondering about it, examining it uneasily. Now, with the arrival of the letter, he was obsessed with the feeling that the whole episode had been, in some vague way he couldn’t put his finger on, ‘irregular’. He racked his brains.
‘On Sutlej I think, in ’98.’ What had happened on Sutlej in ’98? Brenner, certainly, was very much aboard, only he hadn’t been an Admiral then of course. He had been a mere Commander, a justly unpopular and peppery old devil, dishing out plenteous 10A. to defaulters, whilst Winter himself had been a C.P.O. On the whole they had rather disliked each other, but there had been no trouble. Winter had left with ‘Excellent’ on his flimsy. It seemed natural enough that the old sod should remember him, and even exert himself about the Reserve business in a friendly way if he felt like it, now that they were both more or less civilians. Unusual, possibly, but yet entirely in order. . . .
Winter set off on his tramp homewards, still morosely brooding. Despite himself, he had been flattered by the Admiral’s recognition, but, with a tight sneer, he had quashed the feeling. In any case, the spectacle of that old sea-dog’s disgraceful incapacity to deal with a ten year’s brat had quickly scandalised him. ‘Old sea-dog’ hell! Winter had been degraded by his involvement, even as a mere onlooker, in something pitiable and faintly ludicrous.
Gaining the foot of the acclivity at the top of which his cottage was situated, he continued to cogitate. He wished he could remember what he and old Faceache had said to each other in the train a bit more clearly. It struck him for a moment as curious that he had forgotten everything but the barest scraps of their conversation, and that even these recollected fragments appeared vague and somehow not quite ‘right’, improbable. For instance, he fancied now that the Admiral had made some remark about young Tinker’s boarding with him for a while—in joke of course. And when the boy had sidled up against his knee Brenner had said, in obvious sarcasm, seems to have taken quite a shine to you. . . .’
Winter, laboriously plodding up the cliff, gave a dry, mirthless chuckle. ‘Perhaps the old fool thought that I could manage him a trifle better than he could himself. Wouldn’t be difficult. If I had . . .’
Suddenly his meditations were interrupted. From behind him at this instant came a burst of laughter. Winter, with a startled oath, swung round. It was dark, of course, but he could make out a low, curvetting figure pursuing him up the path. Winter drew out an electric torch, flashed it upon the approaching form, and stared, incredulous. His heart dropped in a quick dismay. Could this be possible? He peered more closely.
Yes, he was not mistaken. It was him all right, that boy—just as if Winter’s thoughts had brought him here. It was Tinker, Tinker Brenner, carrying a small suit-case in one hand and waving to him with the other.
‘What the . . . what do . . . what do you want?’ Winter had halted, and Tinker was now beside him, laughing still, and—actually—circling round him, stabbing an extended thumb into his, Winter’s, buttocks. The ex-W.O. circled too, to avoid him. ‘Hi—stop it, you. . . . Hold off there. . . .!’ In an unreasoned access of alarm he noticed that the boy had no proper boots; he was wearing patent-leather slippers—dancing pumps or something. And again, despite his astonishment, there came popping up into his mind, like a phrase of complete nonsense which had yet gathered a peculiarly unpleasant flavour, the question—What had happened upon Sutlej—in ’98?
Anyhow, it was exactly twenty two minutes past nine in the evening of the third of November. Winter was destined to cling obstinately to this solid fact, feeling that the possession of a precise date helped him a little in a position which, on the face of it, was fantastic. He and the prancing Tinker had entered the cottage and Tinker was now swilling tea and bolting cold boiled bacon. He had already smashed one cup and stained the tablecloth. In response to feverish enquiries he had merely said: ‘He told me. He said I was going to stay with you.’ Chrissie and Winter, having lost all appetite for supper, stood staring at him from just outside the door-frame. Tinker paid them no attention whatsoever. Presently they retired by mute agreement to the kitchen and discussed the situation in hushed tones.
Chrissie, after the first shock, seemed less put out than Winter. The woman was such a fool that his fierce whispers of bewilderment failed to disturb her mulishly complacent brain. ‘He can’t stay here. What are we to do with the little bastard? Just says “He” said he was to come. “He”--that means the old man, Brenner. But the kid hasn’t got a letter—nothing. I don’t believe it. Only saw him for a few minutes in the train. He’s run away . . . But why should he come here? Fancy his getting the address an’ coming here . . . Only saw him a few minutes, I tell you—in that train. . . .’
They crept back to the living-room to find it empty. ‘Where’s he gorn?’ said Winter. ‘You better go an’ look.’ He waited, whilst Chrissie reconnoitred. Presently she returned on tiptoe, her eyes round. ‘’E’s asleep! ’E’s gorn to sleep—on our bed. Shall I wake ’im?’
Winter nodded, still annoyed with Chrissie. Her face had a wondering, furtive expression he didn’t care about.
Brenner’s boy spent, as nearly as circumstances permitted Winter to calculate, between fifty and fifty-seven hours at the cottage. During this time he was observed at close range by at least three other individuals. These people—Chrissie and the two Pinks—could all, if necessary, have been called on to corroborate the fact of his presence there and to give some description of his clothing, manners and general personal appearance.
He wore a grey tweed knickerbocker suit and heather-mixture ‘golf’ stockings badly in need of darning. His face was usually dirty, and adorned with large ears, like Brenner’s own. Since his suit-case contained no night-apparel, Chrissie lent him for his slumbers an old flannel shirt of her husband’s, which in the morning was found to be seriously defiled. On the first evening he had, as stated, simply thrown himself down on the Winters’ bed and gone to sleep there, but, after some discussion, it was decided to make him undress like a Christian. Chrissie prepared him an impromptu bed in the parlour and Winter, finally losing his temper at the boy’s stubbornness,carried him out of their bedroom and dumped him, squirming, on the sofa.
What was to be done about it? Winter, after a disturbed Sunday breakfast, concoted and posted a letter to the Admiral. He had had half a mind to wire from Portsmouth, but, at the last moment, hesitated to appear too astonished and incredulous. There was, he kept strangely telling himself, just an off-chance that the child really might have come down with old Brenner’s sanction. Yet that seemed quite absurd. Tinker had arrived unannounced; he had come in dancing slippers and without a nightdress; there had been, of course, no previous talk about ‘terms’. And, in any case, Winter would rather have done without the boy and money both.
That was what he thought, savagely, on the first morning. Coming home from posting the letter, he found his News of the World turned into paper darts which littered the small living-room from end to end. The Pinks—Lydia and Harry—were on the scene, and Tinker had grabbed at Mrs Pink’s bead necklace and broken the thread. Chrissie was apologising and picking up the scattered beads. . . .
Without going into details it is enough to say that Tinker, as long as he stayed at the cottage, was a trial, a rare ‘handful’. This is putting it mildly. Even from the start he was, of course, and in a curious way, much worse than that. Winter, before the boy disappeared at last, had struck him twice. Once upon the seat of his knickerbockers with a slipper and once with the flat of the hand on his face. The second time seemed to Winter the more serious. Rather oddly, he could not remember afterwards what especial piece of mischief had made him so angry. Probably Master Brenner had been setting up his usual terrible row, singing (if one could call it singing) in a cracked, caterwauling drone. It must have been that. The ex-Warrant thought he could recall his own words anyhow: ‘Oh, put a sock in it! Oh, for Christ’s sake, pipe down. . . .!’ He had been very riled.
What he did remember, quite plainly, was that, after the blow, Tinker had made no fuss. He had only seemed sobered and a little startled. Winter himself had looked uneasily at the mark, first white then red, which his palm had left on Tinker’s cheek. Going into the hall, he met Chrissie, who had heard the slap. She was frightened again, and Winter felt a furious indignation with her, changing, to his surprise, into a kind of dull unhappiness. A lump even rose in his throat and his eyes grew moist. He and his wife just stared at each other without a word.
This was not everything. Besides the general anomaly of the situation were a good many things which struck the harrassed Warrant as peculiar. Most of all, the kid’s dislike of going out of doors and his determined unwillingness to speak, or explain anything, about himself. On that first evening of his arrival Winter had done nothing but ask him questions, but he could get no proper answers. The brat would sing and swagger, shout for food when he was hungry, and, sometimes, mimic Winter and poor Chrissie in the rudest way, but into ordinary conversation he stubbornly refused to be beguiled. Coaxing and threats had no effect. His behaviour was so remote and standoffish toward other people it was really something like a cat’s.
Harry Pink, whose new kodak had had to be snatched away from Tinker a little earlier in the afternoon and who was still very angry at the narrowness of its escape, whispered to Winter at the doorstep upon taking leave. He moved his head seriously up and down as he spoke, under his breath.
‘Some cough-drop, that, you’ve got! If I was you I’d pack ’im ’ome, George, right away, I would. . . .!’
Lydia nodded too. ‘So rude! And—and ’e’s queer. I wouldn’ keep ’im, George, I wouldn’ reelly. Must be some mistake. ’E’s—well, ’e’s funny, sort of, kind of funny. Sort of gives one the creeps. . . .!’
Sunday had passed. Over the weekend, with its blank postal day, the Warrant had had to resign himself to marking time, but now that Monday morning, chill and overcast, was here and there was still no letter from the Admiral he found it difficult not to feel worried. Usually a phlegmatic and somewhat indurated individual, his mind sardonically schooled in the hard, ‘wangling’ guile of Gun-room politics, Winter was by no means the type to be easily fazed or rattled by any ordinary dilemma, yet, by degrees, the growing mystery of this affair began to tell on him. It certainly was very strange! he would repeat—not, after all, knowing quite what he really meant when he said that.
Whilst he remained anxious not to annoy old Brenner just as the promotion business was being settled, he nevertheless saw clearly that the present state of things could not continue. It was, of course, only the vague, intermittent haunting of his memory by the Admiral’s remarks in the train which had prevented him from wiring to Cadogan Square at once. As it was, he decided to wait one more day and then, if he got no answer to his Sunday’s letter, to send the Admiral a telegram. And, in regard to Tinker’s boarding with them, even for a single week, he would, if necessary, have to write as tactfully as he could, explaining that they hadn’t the accommodation.
In the first place, Winter doubted whether any compensation he was likely to receive would leave him a clear profit, and, in the second, the boy’s society affected him, in morbid and unpleasant ways. If it had simply been a question of Tinker’s unsavoury habits and the depredations he occasioned, Winter, for adequate remuneration, might have borne with him and tried, eventually, to lick him into shape, supposing that was what old Brenner really wanted him to do.
He had lost his temper with the brat and struck him twice yesterday, and, possibly as a result, the kid seemed quieter today, much less unruly. But, beyond this, was something rather more disturbing, something which left him gravelled for an explanation. The child, he put it to himself, was ‘queer’, unlike a normal boy. He had been here now, how long? Almost forty-one hours—and he had hung about indoors all day, still making himself an awful nuisance certainly, and yet hardly saying a word to a soul. Chrissie had even feared he might be sickening for something. It would be a nice picnic if he came down on them with ’flu, for instance! At dinner he had eaten less than usual and after the meal sat idly flicking over the leaves of a copy of Chips and of other ‘comics’ which he had brought with him in his suit-case. As the afternoon wore on, Winter, who had had to abandon a long-projected visit to an old shipmate in Southsea, found himself looking at the boy in growing dissatisfaction. He had a feeling—preposterous of course yet difficult to shake off—that Tinker was not—how to put it?—not quite, not entirely, ‘right’. He now remembered, too, though with contempt, a remark of Lydia’s which Chrissie had retailed to him. Mrs Pink, it seemed, when she had caught sight of Tinker through the doorway, had, in the first flush of amazement, made a curious mistake as to his sex. She had imagined, for a moment, that he was a girl! Winter had a low opinion of Lydia, but, all the same, her foolish error vaguely disconcerted him. Somehow, it tended to re-enforce his own conviction that the child was, in some peculiar way, abnormal, and unnatural, not quite really ‘there’. Yet by the number of cups and other articles of crockery that he had broken he must be reckoned very actual indeed!
After tea Winter followed Chrissie out into the kitchen. ‘That kid’s the bleeding limit! If he was mine I’d show him! If I had a kid . . .!’ He saw Chrissie’s moon face pucker. She was trying not to cry, regarding him covertly with that humble, apologetic glance which invariably exasperated him. He turned with an exclamation of disgust. No, he would never have a kid. It was her fault. He went back softly, his mind weighted with some suspicion that defied analysis, to peep in awkwardly on Brenner’s boy.
Slowly the hours passed. It was dark outside. Dusk had fallen early and a damp moon arisen with a weeping wind. Tinker, sitting in the firelight, was still engrossed with Chips. He made no reply when Winter addressed him gruffly. ‘If I was you I wouldn’t strain me eyes . . . d’yer hear me?’ Winter, after a pause, lit the gas, noisily pulled down the blinds. ‘You’re going home tomorrer anyway . . .’ Tinker stirred at last, looked up. ‘Yes ... all right.’ Merely that. Winter stared at him a few moments in perplexity, then averted his eyes. What the hell was wrong with every thing—wrong with himself? He came over’ all queer when he looked at that boy. Wretched, indeed. He was overcome by an intense gloom, a strange, indefinable depression which had no adequate reason. He, Warrant Officer Winter, had got the pip and no mistake. His insides, he imagined, felt like the insides of a dog baying the moon or howling at music—listening to whatever tune it was the old cow died of . . .
That night, after lying awake for several hours, he had a dream. It was still the previous evening and he had stolen into the parlour to look at Tinker. The kid, in the firelight, fastened his brown eyes upon him in a smile. But the smile was unbearable. Winter couldn’t stand it. It made him remember a tune, the tune and presently some of the words of a song he hated. The tune the old cow died of. It was on Sutlej in ’98. That elderly, grizzled two-and-a-half-ringer, Merrow, was singing it, bawling it from the quarter-deck:
Oh the clang of the wooden shoon
Oh the dance and the merry tue-oon . . .
Winter, with the song in his brain, stood staring in jaw-dropped misery at Tinker. And now Chrissie was beside him, staring too. ‘Oh, George,’ he heard her say, in accents of intense, melancholy reproach, ‘Oh, George—’e’s fond of you, ’e is, fond of you. . . .’ All at once he felt her hand clutch his arm in horror. ‘Look! Look at ’is ’ead! ’E’s going bald!’ The hair thinned as he gazed. It was Brenner and yet not Brenner. A black object like a large cockade with a zig-zag edge came up slowly between the boy’s collar and his neck. Chrissie was screaming.
The Warrant awoke, bathed in sweat, his eyes streaming with tears, to find himself in bed, his wife beside him. Well, he would send a wire off at any rate, possibly take the boy up to old Brenner as he’d told him. After a while he dropped off to sleep again. His slumbers this time were so heavy that he did not wake till Chrissie roused him.
She was half dressed, shaking his shoulder, looking at him alarmedly. ‘Wake up, George! ’E’s gorn! ’E’s gorn, I say!’
It was true. There was no sign of Tinker. He must have left in the night, taking his suitcase with him.
Winter swore. He felt cold and cramped inside, and frightened. ‘If we can’t find him I’ll go up to London. Have to. It’s serious, this. I’ll have to see old Brenner.’
In the train to London Winter reproached himself many times for his gross stupidity. He could not now understand how he had failed to realise from the start that Tinker’s descent upon them was unauthorised, that the whole business was extremely ‘fishy’. He ought to have wired to the Admiral immediately, and he was at a loss to comprehend the way in which he had delayed to do so. But it seemed that, in this predicament, his usual commonsense had been conspicuously lacking. The entire episode was like a dream in which even his own actions had been vague and indistinct. He had to pinch himself to believe that any of it had really happened.
However, he was certainly here, in this train, and on his way to Brenner’s. There was no doubt about that. He had waited for the morning post before leaving his cottage, but there had still been no letter—only a small package, addressed to him in Harry Pink’s familiar hand-writing, which he had thrust into his jacket pocket unopened. None of the few neighbours whom he had thought it worth while to question had seen anything of the decamping Tinker. At Portsmouth he had sent off a telegram to Cadogan Square. It was now eleven thirty, and he would arrive at Victoria a little after one.
As the train rushed and roared through Havant Winter wondered what he was going to say to Brenner. Perhaps he ought to have notified the police. Supposing the kid had not turned up there yet, had not gone home at all. . . .! That would be a pretty state of things! Tinker’s pockets had been found to contain a purse with some money, nearly a pound, so he would have enough to get home on—but there was no telling. Yes, it might have been wiser to have informed the police and waited instead of dashing off precipitately to see Brenner. And the old man would undoubtedly hold him, Winter, responsible for everything. Possibly, if the boy had got home all right, he would have complained to his father about the way Winter had struck him—and Brenner might be furious.
Outside, the day was misty. Thick banks of vapour were forming, blotting out wide patches of the landscape. Winter’s head was throbbing. He hoped devoutly that there wouldn’t be a fog in London to delay him. He was on tenterhooks to get the matter settled, had a sick feeling of suspense and apprehension. Not only was he mortified by what he now regarded as his own unaccountable negligence and culpable lack of ‘savvy’, ordinary ‘nous’, in the affair, and anxious as to what might be its upshot in a practical and worldly sense, but he was still bewildered, haunted by a curious, nagging doubt. The whole business bristled with improbabilities and contradictions. More and more, also, as he pondered it, he found himself relapsing into that state of deep and unexplained despondency which had enfolded him throughout the previous day. What the devil was wrong with him? And why, in particular, hadn’t Brenner wired or written to him, answered that letter he had sent on Sunday?
Putting his hand into his pocket, he drew out Harry’s package, which, as he was setting off for Portsmouth, he had snatched in a hurry from the postman and not troubled to take in to Chrissie. It was a stout brown envelope containing photographic prints, enclosed in a letter. Winter did no more than glance at the letter, but, in a sudden interest, he began to look over the snapshots, one by one. Mr Pink, as he recalled, had been eager to try out his new camera, and had ‘taken’ the little party several times.
The Warrant, looking at the snapshots, knitted his brows together in a frown. He thumbed them over, at first in dim perplexity, and then, more rapidly, in something like dismay. One, two, three, four, five, six—yes, they were all there. . . . A nervous oath escaped him. ‘Well, I’ll be——!’ He was trembling, beset by an actual physical chill. A man, smoking Woodbines in the opposite comer, turned his head in surprise, and Winter met his gaze blankly. The fog was thicker, and inside the compartment the incandescent gas shed a sickly radiance. Winter, with an effort, collected himself and thrust the photos back into his pocket. But he was shaking still. He glanced at his watch. With a feeling of cold aghastness he realised that his suspense must continue for another hour at least.
The house, when at length he did arrive there, cast a further chill upon his spirits. It was a large, severe residence, faced with stone, and ordinarily the Warrant would have felt scornful at the bare idea of his intruding into such a place. But his nervousness now was of a different kind. The fog had made it difficult to find his way. It was past two o’clock already. He rang the bell and waited, shifting impatiently from foot to foot.
Presently the door was opened by a man, a ‘flunkey’ Winter mechanically presumed. The fellow’s face stared out in a hostile manner as if he were shocked. Winter began at once: ‘Can I see Admiral Brenner? My name’s Winter. I’ve——’
He got no further for the man cut him short. ‘See Admiral Brenner? No, certainly you can’t. Certainly not!’ The low, prim voice had a tone of outraged rebuke. From behind the man, from the large, gloomy house, something passed out to Winter like a melancholy breath. The door was closing.
‘But I must see him. It’s important. If——’ Winter, quivering with a strange desperation, had put a foot inside the door. The man, mouthing a horrified exclamation, tried to push him back, unavailingly. Within the house a crowing, raucous voice arose: ‘What’s that? Who’s there? What’s happening?’
It was the Admiral. The lackey, extinguished by scandal, stood rigid. Brenner and Winter confronted each other.
‘You . . . You . . . What do . . .’ Some emotion, evidently painful, choked the old man’s words. His face was suffused. Winter, looking at him, had a dumb presentiment of horror. Yes, this was Brenner—knuckles, knees, and parchment mottled cheeks—He hadn’t been mistaken as to that at any rate. Yet he was afraid, wrapped still in an uncanny speculation. He was terribly afraid of he didn’t quite know what—not quite, but almost.
Admiral Brenner slowly gained control of himself. He motioned the footman to depart. ‘Come in here.’ He opened a door into a room on the left of the hall. Winter, entering after him, experienced an added chill, aware of something that he hadn’t noticed from the foggy road outside. The room, until the Admiral switched on the electric light, was dark. The blinds were drawn.
Winter, fumbling his hat, began hurriedly. ‘I wrote to you on Sunday, Sir, and I sent you a telegram this morning. I hope that, er, Master Brenner’s got back safe, and——’
‘You’re mad!’ The Admiral’s voice rang with suppressed fury. His face was working; his eyes held tears, of grief or rage or both. He looked almost as if he were going to have a stroke. ‘You’re crazy! Your letter—yes, I got your letter, and the wire. . . . How—how dare you. . . . How . . . but you must be mad!’
Ex-Warrant Officer Winter, that usually hard-headed man, felt his mind growing blank, his legs enfeebled. His wits, apparently, had deserted him. It was only his evil genius, a morbid desire to get things straightened out and regularised, which impelled him to go on. He spoke woodenly from a glum trance in a sort of confused remonstrance, as if out of a moody rumination.
‘But, Sir, I don’t quite understand. You see, I wired to you that—that the boy’d given us the slip, gone off, and——’
He stopped. Old Brenner was struggling hard to say something, couldn’t quite manage it. A white intermittent fleck which he rapidly and repeatedly licked away appeared at the comer of his mouth. Winter waited. At length the Admiral spoke.
‘Get out! Get out of here! I—I won’t have it! You’re—you’re mad I say . . . My—my little boy, he’s—He was here all the time. I don’t know what you mean. He’s never left this house. He was—very ill. You’re crazy . He—he died last night. . . .
Winter moved to the door. For a moment he retained a stubborn determination to hear more, but his courage failed him. There was nothing to be made of this—nothing at all. He went out into the hall, opened the front door and closed it softly after him. The fog seemed to have cleared just a little. He put on his hat and stumbled down the steps.
And now, seven hours later, he was back again at the Calcutta Tavern, sipping his rum, utterly giving things up, unable to make head or tail of things at all. The Admiral, he was momentarily inclined to think, was very mad indeed. Obviously that must be so, for didn’t Winter distinctly remember missing that kid only this very morning, setting off in such a God-damned twitter for London to get the matter straight? And it was only yesterday that he had seen the boy, with his own eyes. A man had to believe his own eyes or where the hell was he? Others had seen him too. The idea of a collective hallucination (though this phrase was not actually available to Winter) must be considered too absurd.
But at other moments his faith weakened. There were those snapshots of Harry Pink’s in which Tinker should have appeared but didn’t. It was perplexing. Perplexity and uncertainty were playing the very devil with him. Suddenly he put his hands up to his forehead. ‘Oh, my head, my poor head, my head. . . .!’
One or two fellows in the bar were looking at him curiously. Winter felt disconcerted. Had he let out anything about Chrissie yet? She was the one who had said, in his dream, that Tinker was fond of him. It was all her fault, when you really came down to brass tacks, because she hadn’t given him a kid.
He had been sitting in rather a collapsed posture, in a corner, but now he straightened himself and spoke gruffly to a man he recognised. ‘You know my wife, eh?—Chrissie? Well, I’ve—just done her in. Strangled her, see?—like that!’ He made a grotesque motion with thick fingers, sturdy thumbs.
The man looked at him oddly, laughed in an embarrassed way. Nobody else paid him any attention. The door opened, letting in a breath of colder air. Winter looked out through it vacantly. His eyes were hurting and he had a sharp pain in his temples. ‘Oh, my head, my poor head, my head. . . .!’ he moaned. Between his locked fingers, as long as the door remained open, he could catch a glimpse of misty moonlight. For a moment he could smell the foggy night.