Easily distracted

Easily distracted
Marianne von Werefkin (Russian / Swiss, 1860-1938), Mondnacht [Moonlit Night], 1909-10. Tempera and mixed media on paper laid on board.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Wish we hadn't gone: The Travelling Grave and Other Stories by L.P. Hartley




Last Sunday my long-deferred (decades, not just years) reading of Robert Aickman's story "Never Visit Venice" (1968) finally took place. It was a beautiful story, and I planned to quickly start from the beginning of the collection The Wine-Dark Sea and keep at the book for as long as it took to finish the other stories.  

Seven days later, the other stories remain unread.

What happened?

Well, as an easily distracted reader with high functioning autism and all kinds of deficits in the attention department, what happened was this. I recalled that L.P. Hartley had also written a cautionary tale about Venetian tourism, "Podolo" (1948). It was but the work of a moment, as Hartley himself might write, to look up the 1948 collection The Travelling Grave.

"Podolo" has as many fine points as "Never Visit Venice," and the added advantage of actual physical peril unencumbered Aickmanesque opaquery. Hartley cleverly combines manners and the macabre: we relish every hint of menace and danger up to the climax.

Once "Podolo" was done, I read the other Venice story, "Three, or Four, For Dinner" (1932). In a lesser key than Aickman or "Podolo," it is a ghastly elliptical joke, a type Hartley is found of using in his stories. Two middle class British tourists pull a drowned man into their gondola while heading to a restaurant for dinner. As a jolly practical joke, they decide to send the restaurant pageboy down to the dock to invite the man to dinner. When the pageboy returns, ‘He says that the gentleman accepts our invitation with great pleasure and will be here in a few minutes.’

"Feet Foremost" (1932) could have been the finest story in the book, but it is marred by an airplane crash at the end which robs the heroine of a hard choice and hits the reader like a slap in the face. It knocks impeccably executed Jamesian unities off-kilter.

"The Thought" (1948) might almost be an episode of  M.R. James church history. A sinner, Mr. Greenstream, thinks the Christian God is forgiving his growing list of sinful deeds, which he confesses out loud each week in an empty church. One day, local boys decide to hide in the tower gallery and give him a fright, but the fright is all theirs when the entity actually listening to Greenstream's confessions makes itself felt.

"Conrad and the Dragon" is Hartley's version of a fairy tale. Its black ending has the inevitability of dream logic. The heroine would do Disney proud.

I've read "The Travelling Grave" (1929) several times over the years. This time it really clicked; helped I think by reading it in a single sitting. We could make up an anthology of stories about games of hide-and-seek gone bad, and this one would have pride of place. The story also contains a hilarious scene in dialogue, with two men mutually misunderstanding each other, which Hartley (and Aickman) excelled at.

I'm sure if I were smarter, or if I read them again a few times, I could understand the matter of "The Island" (1924) and "The Killing Bottle" (1927) better. But still, as tales of Larry David-style social catastrophe, they please the eye and ear.

"The Cotillon" (1932) is going into my top ten list. There are many short stories about dark doings at masked balls (Christie and Sayers handle them effortlessly), and here Hartley gives us the characters and context in short scenes that build up a perfect atmosphere of on-rushing horror.

Jay
1 July 2017

*

A few underscored passages:


A VISITOR FROM DOWN UNDER
‘We couldn’t rest in our beds, sir, knowing you was at large. You might do it again. Somebody have to see to it.’

‘But supposing there was nobody?’

‘Sir?’

‘Supposing the murdered man hadn’t any relatives or friends: supposing he just disappeared, and no one ever knew that he was dead?’

‘Well, sir,’ said the waiter, winking portentously, ‘in that case he’d have to get on your track himself. He wouldn’t rest in his grave, sir, no, not he, and knowing what he did.’

PODOLO
....I began to wish we hadn’t come to Podolo; it was not the first time a picnic there had gone badly.

....‘There is someone on the island,’ he said at last, ‘but it’s not the signora.’

THREE, OR FOUR, FOR DINNER
....‘But just for fun, let’s suppose that when he called, the tarpaulin began to move and rear itself up and a hand came round the edge, and-------’

THE TRAVELLING GRAVE
‘A child with hunting instincts,’ said Munt pensively. ‘How can we accommodate him? I have it! Let’s play “Hide-and-Seek.” We shall hide and he shall seek. Then he can’t feel that we are forcing ourselves upon him. It will be the height of tact. He will be here in a few minutes. Let’s go and hide now.’

‘But he doesn’t know his way about the house.’

FEET FOREMOST
....The cat stood by the library door, miaowing. Its intention was perfectly plain. First it had wanted to go out; then it strolled up and down outside the window, demanding to come in; now it wanted to go out again. For the third time in half an hour Antony Fairfield rose from his comfortable chair to do its bidding. He opened the door gently —all his movements were gentle; but the cat scuttled ignominiously out, as though he had kicked it. Antony looked round. How could he defend himself from disturbance without curtailing the cat’s liberty of movement? He might leave the window and the door open, to give the animal freedom of exit and entrance; though he hated sitting in a room with the door open, he was prepared to make the sacrifice. But he couldn’t leave the window open because the rain would come in and spoil Mrs. Ampleforth’s beautiful silk cushions. Heavens, how it rained! Too bad for the farmers, thought Antony, whose mind was always busying itself with other people’s misfortunes. The crops had been looking so well as he drove in the sunshine from the station, and now this sudden storm would beat everything down. He arranged his chair so that he could see the window and not keep the cat waiting if she felt like paying him another visit. The pattering of the rain soothed him. Half an hour and they would be back —Maggie would be back. He tried to visualize their faces, all so well known to him: but the experiment was not successful. Maggie’s image kept ousting the others; it even appeared, somewhat grotesquely, on the top of Ronald’s well-tailored shoulders. They mustn’t find me asleep, thought Antony; I should look too middle-aged. So he picked up the newspaper from the floor and turned to the cross-word puzzle. ‘Nine points of the law’ in nine —ten letters. That was a very easy one: ‘Possession.’ Possession, thought Antony; I must put that down. But as he had no pencil and was too sleepy to
get one, he repeated the word over and over again: Possession, Possession. It worked like a charm. He fell asleep and dreamed.

THE COTILLON
‘I was always an empty-headed fellow,’ he went on, tapping the waxed covering with his gloved forefinger, so that it gave out a wooden hollow sound —‘there’s nothing much behind this. No brains to speak of, I mean. Less than I used to have, in fact.’

Marion stared at him in horror.

‘Would you like to see? Would you like to look right into my mind?’

‘No! No!’ she cried wildly.

‘But I think you ought to,’ he said....

A CHANGE OF OWNERSHIP
....It was a sash-window, hanging loose in
its grooves. Ernest inserted his pocket-knife in the crevice and started to prize it open. To his delight and dismay the sash began to move. Half an inch higher and he would be able to get his fingers under it. He was using the haft of the knife now, not the blade. The sash began to move more easily. He curled his fingers under and round it. His face, twisted with exertion, stared blankly upon the cream-coloured blind inside. The blind stirred. He must have let in a current of air. He redoubled his exertions. The sash slid up six inches, and then stuck fast. And he could see why. A hand, pressed flat along the bottom of the sash, was holding it down.

THE THOUGHT
‘I suppose it couldn’t get up to us?’

‘Not unless it came by the bell-rope,’ said Fred decisively. ‘I’ve locked the door of the stairs and the only other key my dad has. You’re in a funk, that’s your trouble. Only the Devil could shin up one of them ropes.’

'They wouldn’t let him come into church, would they?’

‘He might slip in if the north door was open.’

Almost as he spoke a puff of wind blew up in their faces and the six bell-ropes swayed in all directions lashing each other and casting fantastic shadows.

CONRAD AND THE DRAGON
‘Ha! Ha!’ cried the Princess, rocking with laughter so that the shadow on the wall flickered like a butterfly over a flower, ‘all the same I love this Conrad!’

‘He’s but a lad, your Highness, barely turned seventeen.’

‘The best age—I love him.’

‘He’s a slothful sort, his letter shows; a dreamer, not a man.’

‘I love him.’

‘While you were reading, I summoned his likeness here—he is ill-favoured—has lost a front tooth.’

‘Regular features are my abhorrence—I love him.’

‘He is sandy-haired and freckled and untidy in his dress.’

‘Never mind, I love him.’

‘He is self-willed and obstinate; his parents can do nothing with him.’

‘I could: I love him.’

‘He likes insects and crawling things: his pockets are full of spiders and centipedes.’

‘I shall love them for his sake.’

‘He cares for waterfalls and flowers and distant views.’

‘I love him more than ever!’

‘But,’ said the magician, suddenly grave, ‘I’m not sure that he loves you.’

‘Ah!’ cried the Princess, jubilation in her voice. ‘I love him most of all for that!’

‘Do you know now?’

‘What?’ I said.

‘How I hurt my finger?’

‘No,’ I cried untruthfully, for that very moment all my fears told me.

NIGHT FEARS
‘When the eye doth not see,’ continued the stranger, ‘the heart doth not grieve; on the contrary, it makes merry.’ He laughed, as the night-watchman could see from the movement of his shoulders. ‘I’ve known cases very similar to yours. When the cat’s away, you know! It’s a pity you’re under contract to finish this job’ (the night-watchman had not mentioned a contract), ‘but as you are, take my advice and get a friend to keep an eye on your house. Of course, he w'on’t be able to stay the night —of course not; but tell him to keep his eyes open.’

THE KILLING BOTTLE
….Jimmy was lying on his back, his head sunk on the brightly lit pillow, his mind drowsier than his digestion. To his departing consciousness the ceiling looked like a great five of diamonds spread over his head; the scarlet lozenges moved on hinges, he knew that quite well, and as they moved they gave a glimpse of black and let in a draught. Soon there would be a head poking through them all, instead of through this near corner one, and that would be more symmetrical. But if I stand on the bed I can shut them; they will close with a click. If only this one wasn’t such a weight and didn’t stick so....

***



THE COTILLON

‘But,’ protested Marion Lane, ‘you don’t mean that we’ve all got to dance the cotillon in masks? Won’t that be terribly hot?’

‘My dear,’ Jane Manning, her friend and hostess, reminded her, ‘this is December, not July. Look!’ She pointed to the window, their only protection against a soft bombardment of snowflakes.

Marion moved across from the fireplace where they were sitting and looked out. The seasonable snow had just begun to fall, as though in confirmation of Mrs. Manning’s words. Here and there the gravel still showed black under its powdery coating, and on the wing of the house which faced east the shiny foliage of the magnolia, pitted with pockets of snow, seemed nearly black too. The trees of the park which yesterday, when Marion arrived, were so distinct against the afternoon sky that you could see their twigs, were almost invisible now, agitated shapes dim in the slanting snow. She turned back to the room.

‘I think the cotillon’s a good idea, and I don’t want to make difficulties,’ she said. ‘I’m not an obstructionist by nature, am I? Tell me if I am.’

‘My dear, of course you’re not.’

‘Well, I was thinking, wouldn’t half the fun of the cotillon be gone if you didn’t know who was who? I mean, in those figures when the women powder the men’s faces, and rub their reflections off the looking-glass, and so on. There doesn’t seem much point in powdering a mask.’

‘My darling Marion, the mask’s only a bit of black silk that covers the top part of one’s face; you don’t imagine we shan’t recognize each other?’

‘You may,’ said Marion, ‘find it difficult to recognize the largest, barest face. I often cut my best friends in the street. They needn’t put on a disguise for me not to know them.’

‘But you can tell them by their voices.’

‘Supposing they won’t speak?’

‘Then you must ask questions.’

‘But I shan’t know half the people here.’

‘You’ll know all of us in the house,’ her friend said; ‘that’s sixteen to start with. And you know the Grays and the Fosters and the Boltons. We shall only be about eighty, if as many.’

‘Counting gate-crashers?’

‘There won’t be any.’

‘But how will you be able to tell, if they wear masks?’

‘I shall know the exact numbers, for one thing, and for another, at midnight, when the cotillon stops, everyone can take their masks off—must, in fact.’

‘I see.’

The room was suddenly filled with light. A servant had come in to draw the curtains. They sat in silence until he had finished the last of the windows; there were five of them in a row.

‘I had forgotten how long this room was,’ Marion said. ‘You’ll have the cotillon here, I suppose?’

‘It’s the only possible place. I wish it were a little longer, then we could have a cushion race. But I’m afraid we shall have to forgo that. It would be over as soon as it began.’

The servant arranged the tea-table in front of them and went away.

‘Darling,’ said Jane suddenly, ‘before Jack comes in from shooting with his tired but noisy friends, I want to say what a joy it is to have you here. I’m glad the others aren’t coming till Christmas Eve. You’ll have time to tell me all about yourself.’

‘Myself?’ repeated Marion. She stirred in her chair. ‘There’s nothing to tell.’

‘Dearest, I can’t believe it! There must be, after all these months. My life is dull, you know—no, not dull, quiet. And yours is always so mouvementée.’

‘It used to be,’ admitted Marion. ‘It used to be; but now I——’

There was a sound of footsteps and laughter at the door, and a voice cried ‘Jenny, Jenny, have you some tea for us?’

‘You shall have it in a moment,’ Mrs. Manning called back. Sighing, she turned to her friend.

‘We must postpone our little séance.’



Five days had gone by—it was the evening of the twenty-seventh, the night of the ball. Marion went up to her room to rest. Dinner was at half-past eight, so she had nearly two hours’ respite. She lay down on the bed and turned out all the lights except the one near her head. She felt very tired. She had talked so much during the past few days that even her thoughts had become articulate; they would not stay in her mind; they rose automatically to her lips, or it seemed to her that they did. ‘I am glad I did not tell Jenny,’ she soliloquised; ‘it would only have made her think worse of me, and done no good. What a wretched business.’ She extinguished the light, but the gramophone within her went on more persistently than ever. It was a familiar record; she knew every word of it: it might have been called The Witness for the Defence. ‘He had no reason to take me so seriously,’ announced the machine in self-excusatory accents. ‘I only wanted to amuse him. It was Hugh Travers who introduced us: he knows what I am like; he must have told Harry; men always talk these things over among themselves. Hugh had a grievance against me, too, once; but he got over it; I have never known a man who didn’t.’ For a moment Marion’s thoughts broke free from their bondage to the turning wheel and hovered over her past life. Yes, more or less, they had all got over it. ‘I never made him any promise.’ pursued the record, inexorably taking up its tale: ‘what right had he to think he could coerce me? Hugh ought not to have let us meet, knowing the kind of man he was—and—and the kind of woman I was. I was very fond of him, of course; but he would have been so exacting, he was so exacting. All the same,’ continued the record—sliding a moment into the major key only to relapse into the minor—‘left to myself I could have managed it all right, as I always have. It was pure bad luck that he found me that night with the other Harry. That was a dreadful affair.’ At this point the record, as always, wobbled and scratched: Marion had to improvise something less painful to bridge over the gap. Her thoughts flew to the other Harry and dwelt on him tenderly; he would never have made a scene if he could have helped it; he had been so sweet to her afterwards. ‘It was just bad luck,’ the record resumed; ‘I didn’t want to blast his happiness and wreck his life, or whatever he says I did.’

What had he actually said? There was an ominous movement in Marion’s mind. The mechanism was being wound up, was going through the whole dreary performance again. Anything rather than that! She turned on the light, jumped off the bed, and searched among her letters. The moment she had it in her hand, she realized that she knew it by heart.

Dear Marion,

After what has happened I don’t suppose you will want to see me again, and though I want to see you, I think it better for us both that I shouldn’t. I know it sounds melodramatic to say it, but you have spoilt my life, you have killed something inside me. I never much valued Truth for its own sake, and I am grateful to Chance for affording me that peep behind the scenes last night. I am more grateful to you for keeping up the disguise as long as you did. But though you have taken away so much, you have left me one flicker of curiosity: before I die (or after, it doesn’t much matter!) I should like to see you (forgive the expression) unmasked, so that for a moment I can compare the reality with the illusion I used to cherish. Perhaps I shall. Meanwhile good-bye.

Yours once, and in a sense still yours,

Henry Chichester.



Marion’s eyes slid from the letter to the chair beside her where lay mask and domino, ready to put on. She did not feel the irony of their presence; she did not think about them; she was experiencing an immense relief—a relief that always came after reading Harry’s letter. When she thought about it it appalled her; when she read it it seemed much less hostile, flattering almost; a testimonial from a wounded and disappointed but still adoring man. She lay down again, and in a moment was asleep.

Soon after ten o’clock the gentlemen followed the ladies into the long drawing-room; it looked unfamiliar even to Jack Manning, stripped of furniture except for a thin lining of gilt chairs. So far everything had gone off splendidly; dinner, augmented by the presence of half a dozen neighbours, had been a great success; but now everyone, including the host and hostess, was a little uncertain what to do next. The zero hour was approaching; the cotillon was supposed to start at eleven and go on till twelve, when the serious dancing would begin; but guests motoring from a distance might arrive at any time. It would spoil the fun of the thing to let the masked and the unmasked meet before the cotillon started; but how could they be kept apart? To preserve the illusion of secrecy Mrs. Manning had asked them to announce themselves at the head of the staircase, in tones sufficiently discreet to be heard by her alone. Knowing how fallible are human plans, she had left in the cloakroom a small supply of masks for those men who, she knew, would forget to bring them. She thought her arrangements were proof against mischance, but she was by no means sure; and as she looked about the room and saw the members of the dinner-party stealing furtive glances at the clock, or plunging into frantic and short-lived conversations, she began to share their uneasiness.

‘I think,’ she said, after one or two unsuccessful efforts to gain the ear of the company, ‘I think you had all better go and disguise yourselves, before anyone comes and finds you in your natural state.’ The guests tittered nervously at this pleasantry, then with signs of relief upon their faces they began to file out, some by one door, some by the other, according as the direction of their own rooms took them. The long gallery (as it was sometimes magniloquently described) stood empty and expectant.



‘There,’ breathed Mrs. Manning, ‘would you have recognized that parlour bandit as Sir Joseph Dickinson?’

‘No,’ said her husband, ‘I wouldn’t have believed a mask and a domino could make such a difference. Except for a few of the men, I hardly recognized anyone.’

‘You’re like Marion; she told me she often cuts her best friends in the street.’

‘I dare say that’s a gift she’s grateful for.’

‘Jack! You really mustn’t. Didn’t she look lovely to-night! What a pity she has to wear a mask, even for an hour!’

Her husband grunted.

‘I told Colin Chillingworth she was to be here: you know he’s always wanted to see her. He is such a nice old man, so considerate—the manners of the older generation.’

‘Why, because he wants to see Marion?’

‘No, idiot! But he had asked me if he might bring a guest——’

‘Who?’

‘I don’t remember the man’s name, but he has a bilious attack or something, and can’t come, and Colin apologized profusely for not letting us know: his telephone is out of order, he said.’

‘Very civil of him. How many are we then, all told?’

‘Seventy-eight; we should have been seventy-nine.’

‘Anyone else to come?’

‘I’ll just ask Jackson.’

The butler was standing half-way down the stairs. He confirmed Mrs. Manning’s estimate. ‘That’s right, Madam; there were twenty-two at dinner and fifty-six have come in since.’

‘Good staff-work,’ said her husband. ‘Now we must dash off and put on our little masks.’

They were hurrying away when Mrs. Manning called over her shoulder: ‘You’ll see that the fires are kept up, Jackson?’

‘Oh, yes, Madam,’ he replied. ‘It’s very warm in there.’



It was. Marion, coming into the ballroom about eleven o’clock was met by a wave of heat, comforting and sustaining. She moved about among the throng, slightly dazed, it is true, but self-confident and elated. As she expected, she could not put a name to many of the people who kept crossing her restricted line of vision, but she was intensely aware of their eyes—dark, watchful but otherwise expressionless eyes, framed in black. She welcomed their direct regard. On all sides she heard conversation and laughter, especially laughter; little trills and screams of delight at identities disclosed; voices expressing bewilderment and polite despair—‘I’m very stupid, I really cannot imagine who you are,’ gruff rumbling voices, and high falsetto squeaks, obviously disguised. Marion found herself a little impatient of this childishness. When people recognized her, as they often did (her mask was as much a decoration as a concealment) she smiled with her lips but did not try to identify them in return. She felt faintly scornful of the women who were only interesting provided you did not know who they were. She looked forward to the moment when the real business of the evening would begin.

But now the band in the alcove between the two doors had struck up, and a touch on her arm warned her that she was wanted for a figure. Her partner was a raw youth, nice enough in his way, eager, good-natured and jaunty, like a terrier dog. He was not a type she cared for, and she longed to give him the slip.

The opportunity came. Standing on a chair, rather like the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour, she held aloft a lighted candle. Below her seethed a small group of masked males, leaping like salmon, for the first to blow the candle out would have the privilege of dancing with the torch-bearer. Among them was her partner; he jumped higher than the rest, as she feared he would; but each time she saw his Triton-like mouth soaring up she forestalled his agility and moved the candle out of his reach. Her arm began to tire; and the pack, foiled so often, began to relax their efforts. She must do something quickly. Espying her host among the competitors, she shamelessly brought the candle down to the level of his mouth.

‘Nice of you,’ he said, when, having danced a few turns, they were sitting side by side. ‘I was glad of that bit of exercise.’

‘Why, do you feel cold?’

‘A little. Don’t you?’

Marion considered. ‘Perhaps I do.’

‘Funny thing,’ said her host, ‘fires seem to be blazing away all right, and it was too hot ten minutes ago.’

Their eyes travelled inquiringly round the room. ‘Why,’ exclaimed Manning, ‘no wonder we’re cold; there’s a window open.’

As he spoke, a gust of wind blew the heavy curtains inwards, and a drift of snow came after them.

‘Excuse me a moment,’ he said. I’ll soon stop that.’

She heard the sash slam, and in a few moments he was back at her side.

‘Now who on earth can have done it?’ he demanded, still gasping from contact with the cold air. ‘The window was wide open!’

‘Wide enough to let anyone in?’

‘Quite.’

‘How many of us ought there to be?’ asked Marion. ‘I’m sure you don’t know.’

‘I do—there are——’

‘Don’t tell me, let’s count. I’ll race you.’

They were both so absorbed in their calculations that the leaders of the cotillon, coming round armed with favours for the next figure, dropped into their laps a fan and a pocket book and passed on unnoticed.

‘Well, what do you make it?’ they cried almost in unison.

‘Seventy-nine,’ said Marion. ‘And you?’

‘Seventy-nine, too.’

‘And how many ought there to be?’

‘Seventy-eight.’

‘That’s a rum go,’ said Manning. ‘We can’t both be mistaken. I suppose someone came in afterwards. When I get a chance I’ll talk to Jackson.’

‘It can’t be a burglar,’ said Marion, ‘a burglar wouldn’t have chosen that way of getting in.’

‘Besides, we should have seen him. No, a hundred to one it was just somebody who was feeling the heat and needed air. I don’t blame them, but they needn’t have blown us away. Anyhow, if there is a stranger among us he’ll soon have to show up, for in half an hour’s time we can take off these confounded masks. I wouldn’t say it of everyone, but I like you better without yours.’

‘Do you?’ smiled Marion.

‘Meanwhile, we must do something about these favours. The next figure’s beginning. I say, a fur rug would be more suitable, but may I give this fan to you?’

‘And will you accept this useful pocket book?’

They smiled and began to dance.

Ten minutes passed; the fires were heaped up, but the rubbing of hands and hunching of shoulders which had followed the inrush of cold air did not cease. Marion, awaiting her turn to hold the looking-glass, shivered slightly. She watched her predecessor on the chair. Armed with a handkerchief, she was gazing intently into the mirror while each in his turn the men stole up behind her, filling the glass with their successive reflections; one after another she rubbed the images out. Marion was wondering idly whether she would wait too long and find the candidates exhausted when she jumped up from her chair, handed the looking-glass to the leader of the cotillon, and danced away with the man of her choice. Marion took the mirror and sat down. A feeling of unreality oppressed her. How was she to choose between these grotesque faces? One after another they loomed up, dream-like, in the glass, their intense, almost hypnotic eyes searching hers. She could not tell whether they were smiling, they gave so little indication of expression. She remembered how the other women had paused, peered into the glass, and seemed to consider; rubbing away this one at sight, with affected horror, lingering over that one as though sorely tempted, only erasing him after a show of reluctance. She had fancied that some of the men looked piqued when they were rejected; they walked off with a toss of the head; others had seemed frankly pleased to be chosen. She was not indifferent to the mimic drama of the figure, but she couldn’t contribute to it. The chill she still felt numbed her mind, and made it drowsy; her gestures seemed automatic, outside the control of her will. Mechanically she rubbed away the reflection of the first candidate, of the second, of the third. But when the fourth presented himself, and hung over her chair till his mask was within a few inches of her hair, the onlookers saw her pause; the hand with the handkerchief lay motionless in her lap, her eyes were fixed upon the mirror. So she sat for a full minute, while the man at the back, never shifting his position, drooped over her like an earring.

‘She’s taking a good look this time,’ said a bystander at last, and the remark seemed to pierce her reverie—she turned round slowly and then gave a tremendous start; she was on her feet in a moment. ‘I’m so sorry,’ someone heard her say as she gave the man her hand, ‘I never saw you. I had no idea that anyone was there.’

A few minutes later Jane Manning, who had taken as much share in the proceedings as a hostess can, felt a touch upon her arm. It was Marion.

‘Well, my dear,’ she said. ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’

Marion’s voice shook a little. ‘Marvellously!’ She added in an amused tone:

‘Queer fellow I got hold of just now.’

‘Queer-looking, do you mean?’

‘Really I don’t know; he was wearing a sort of death-mask that covered him almost completely, and he was made up as well, I thought, with French chalk.’

‘What else was queer about him?’

‘He didn’t talk. I couldn’t get a word out of him.’

‘Perhaps he was deaf.’

‘That occurred to me. But he heard the music all right; he danced beautifully.’

‘Show him to me.’

Marion’s eyes hovered round the room without catching sight of her late partner.

‘He doesn’t seem to be here.’

‘Perhaps he’s our uninvited guest,’ said Jane, laughing. ‘Jack told me there was an extra person who couldn’t be accounted for. Now, darling, you mustn’t miss this figure: it’s the most amusing of them all. After that, there are some favours to be given, and then supper. I long for it.’

‘But don’t we take off our masks first?’

‘Yes, of course, I’d forgotten that.’



The figure described by Mrs. Manning as being the most amusing of all would have been much more amusing, Marion thought, if they had played it without masks. If the dancers did not recognize each other, it lost a great deal of its point. Its success depended on surprise. A space had been cleared in the middle of the room, an oblong space like a badminton court, divided into two, not by a net but by a large white sheet supported at either end by the leaders of the cotillon, and held nearly at arm’s length above their heads. On one side were grouped the men, on the other the women, theoretically invisible to each other; but Marion noticed that they moved about and took furtive peeps at each other round the sides, a form of cheating which, in the interludes, the leaders tried to forestall by rushing the sheet across to intercept the view. But most of the time these stolen glimpses went on unchecked, to the accompaniment of a good deal of laughter; for while the figure was in progress the leaders were perforce stationary. One by one the men came up from behind and clasped the top edge of the sheet, so that their gloved fingers, and nothing else, were visible the farther side. With becoming hesitation a woman would advance and take these anonymous fingers in her own; then the sheet was suddenly lowered and the dancers stood face to face, or rather mask to mask. Sometimes there were cries of recognition, sometimes silence, the masks were as impenetrable as the sheet had been.

It was Marion’s turn. As she walked forward she saw that the gloved hands were not resting on the sheet like the rest; they were clutching it so tightly that the linen was caught up in creases between the fingers and crumpled round their tips. For a moment they did not respond to her touch, then they gripped with surprising force. Down went the leader’s arms, down went the corners of the sheet. But Marion’s unknown partner did not take his cue. He forgot to release the sheet, and she remained with her arms held immovably aloft, the sheet falling in folds about her and almost covering her head. ‘An unrehearsed effect, jolly good, I call it,’ said somebody. At last, in response to playful tugs and twitches from the leaders, the man let the sheet go and discovered himself to the humiliated Marion. It was her partner of the previous figure, that uncommunicative man. His hands, that still held hers, felt cold through their kid covering.

‘Oh,’ she cried, ‘I can’t understand it—I feel so cold. Let’s dance.’

They danced for a little and then sat down. Marion felt chillier than ever, and she heard her neighbours on either side complaining of the temperature. Suddenly she made a decision and rose to her feet.

‘Do take me somewhere where it’s warmer,’ she said. ‘I’m perished here.’

The man led the way out of the ballroom, through the ante-room at the end where one or two couples were sitting, across the corridor into a little room where a good fire was burning, throwing every now and then a ruddy gleam on china ornaments and silver photograph frames. It was Mrs. Manning’s sitting-room.

‘We don’t need a light, do we?’ said her companion. ‘Let’s sit as we are.’

It was the first time he had volunteered a remark. His voice was somehow familiar to Marion, yet she couldn’t place it; it had an alien quality that made it unrecognizable, like one’s own dress worn by someone else.

‘With pleasure,’ she said. ‘But we mustn’t stay long, must we? It’s only a few minutes to twelve. Can we hear the music from here?’

They sat in silence, listening. There was no sound.

‘Don’t think me fussy,’ Marion said. ‘I’m enjoying this tremendously, but Jenny would be disappointed if we missed the last figure. If you don’t mind opening the door, we should hear the music begin.’

As he did not offer to move, she got up to open it herself, but before she reached the door she heard her name called.

‘Marion!’

‘Who said that, you?’ she cried, suddenly very nervous.

‘Don’t you know who I am?’

‘Harry!’

Her voice shook and she sank back into her chair, trembling violently.

‘How was it I didn’t recognize you? I’m—I’m so glad to see you.’

‘You haven’t seen me yet,’ said he. It was like him to say that, playfully grim. His words reassured her, but his tone left her still in doubt. She did not know how to start the conversation, what effect to aim at, what note to strike; so much depended on divining his mood and playing up to it. If she could have seen his face, if she could even have caught a glimpse of the poise of his head, it would have given her a cue; in the dark like this, hardly certain of his whereabouts in the room, she felt hopelessly at a disadvantage.

‘It was nice of you to come and see me—if you did come to see me,’ she ventured at last.

‘I heard you were to be here.’ Again that non-committal tone! Trying to probe him she said:

‘Would you have come otherwise? It’s rather a childish entertainment, isn’t it?’

‘I should have come,’ he answered, ‘but it would have been in—in a different spirit.’

She could make nothing of this.

‘I didn’t know the Mannings were friends of yours,’ she told him. ‘He’s rather a dear, married to a dull woman, if I must be really truthful.’

‘I don’t know them,’ said he.

‘Then you gate-crashed?’

‘I suppose I did.’

‘I take that as a compliment,’ said Marion after a pause. ‘But—forgive me—I must be very slow—I don’t understand. You said you were coming in any case.’

‘Some friends of mine called Chillingworth offered to bring me.’

‘How lucky I was! So you came with them?’

‘Not with them, after them.’

‘How odd. Wasn’t there room for you in their car? How did you get here so quickly?’

‘The dead travel fast.’

His irony baffled her. But her thoughts flew to his letter, in which he accused her of having killed something in him; he must be referring to that.

‘Darling Hal,’ she said. ‘Believe me, I’m sorry to have hurt you. What can I do to—to——’

There was a sound of voices calling, and her attention thus awakened caught the strains of music, muffled and remote.

‘They want us for the next figure. We must go,’ she cried, thankful that the difficult interview was nearly over. She was colder than ever, and could hardly keep her teeth from chattering audibly.

‘What is the next figure?’ he asked, without appearing to move.

‘Oh, you know—we’ve had it before—we give each other favours, then we unmask ourselves. Hal, we really ought to go! Listen! Isn’t that midnight beginning to strike?’

Unable to control her agitation, aggravated by the strain of the encounter, the deadly sensation of cold within her, and a presentiment of disaster for which she could not account, she rushed towards the door and her outstretched left hand, finding the switch, flooded the room with light. Mechanically she turned her head to the room; it was empty. Bewildered she looked back over her left shoulder, and there, within a foot of her, stood Harry Chichester, his arms stretched across the door.

‘Harry,’ she cried, ‘don’t be silly! Come out or let me out!’

‘You must give me a favour first,’ he said sombrely.

‘Of course I will, but I haven’t got one here.’

‘I thought you always had favours to give away.’

‘Harry, what do you mean?’

‘You came unprovided?’

She was silent.

‘I did not. I have something here to give you—a small token. Only I must have a quid pro quo.’

He’s mad, thought Marion. I must humour him as far as I can.

‘Very well,’ she said, looking around the room. Jenny would forgive her—it was an emergency. ‘May I give you this silver pencil?’

He shook his head.

‘Or this little vase?’

Still he refused.

‘Or this calendar?’

‘The flight of time doesn’t interest me.’

‘Then what can I tempt you with?’

‘Something that is really your own—a kiss.’

‘My dear,’ said Marion, trembling, ‘you needn’t have asked for.’

‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘And to prove I don’t want something for nothing, here is your favour.’

He felt in his pocket. Marion saw a dark silvery gleam; she held her hand out for the gift.

It was a revolver.

‘What am I to do with this?’ she asked.

‘You are the best judge of that,’ he replied. ‘Only one cartridge has been used.’

Without taking her eyes from his face she laid down the revolver among the bric-à-brac on the table by her side.

‘And now your gift to me.’

‘But what about our masks?’ said Marion.

‘Take yours off,’ he commanded.

‘Mine doesn’t matter,’ said Marion, removing as she spoke the silken visor. ‘But you are wearing an entirely false face.’

‘Do you know why?’ he asked, gazing at her fixedly through the slits in the mask.

She didn’t answer.

‘I was always an empty-headed fellow,’ he went on, tapping the waxed covering with his gloved forefinger, so that it gave out a wooden hollow sound—‘there’s nothing much behind this. No brains to speak of, I mean. Less than I used to have, in fact.’

Marion stared at him in horror.

‘Would you like to see? Would you like to look right into my mind?’

‘No! No!’ she cried wildly.

‘But I think you ought to,’ he said, coming a step nearer and raising his hands to his head.



‘Have you seen Marion?’ said Jane Manning to her husband. ‘I’ve a notion she hasn’t been enjoying herself. This was in a sense her party, you know. We made a mistake to give her Tommy Cardew as a partner; he doesn’t carry heavy enough guns for her.’

‘Why, does she want shooting?’ inquired her husband.

‘Idiot! But I could see they didn’t get on. I wonder where she’s got to—I’m afraid she may be bored.’

‘Perhaps she’s having a quiet talk with a howitzer,’ her husband suggested.

Jane ignored him. ‘Darling, it’s nearly twelve. Run into the ante-room and fetch her; I don’t want her to miss the final figure.’

In a few seconds he returned. ‘Not there,’ he said. ‘Not there, my child. Sunk by a twelve-inch shell, probably.’

‘She may be sitting out in the corridor.’

‘Hardly, after a direct hit.’

‘Well, look.’

They went away and returned with blank faces. The guests were standing about talking; the members of the band, their hands ready on their instruments, looked up inquiringly.

‘We shall have to begin without her,’ Mrs. Manning reluctantly decided. ‘We shan’t have time to finish as it is.’

The hands of the clock showed five minutes to twelve.

The band played as though inspired, and many said afterwards that the cotillon never got really going, properly warmed up, till those last five minutes. All the fun of the evening seemed to come to a head, as though the spirit of the dance, mistrustful of its latter-day devotees, had withheld its benison till the final moments. Everyone was too excited to notice, as they whirled past that the butler was standing in one of the doorways with a white and anxious face. Even Mrs. Manning, when at last she saw him, called out cheerfully, almost without pausing for an answer:

‘Well, Jackson, everything all right, I hope?’

‘Can I speak to you a moment, Madam?’ he said. ‘Or perhaps Mr. Manning would be better.’

Mrs. Manning’s heart sank. Did he want to leave?

‘Oh, I expect I shall do, shan’t I? I hope it’s nothing serious.’

‘I’m afraid it is, Madam, very serious.’

‘All right, I’ll come.’ She followed him on to the landing.



A minute later her husband saw her threading her way towards him.

‘Jack! Just a moment.’

He was dancing and affected not to hear. His partner’s eyes looked surprised and almost resentful, Mrs. Manning thought; but she persisted none the less.

‘I know I’m a bore and I’m sorry, but I really can’t help myself.’

This brought them to a stand.

‘Why, Jane, has the boiler burst?’

‘No, it’s more serious than that, Jack,’ she said, as he disengaged himself from his partner with an apology. ‘There’s been a dreadful accident or something at the Chillingworths’. That guest of theirs, do you remember, whom they were to have brought and didn’t——’

‘Yes, he stayed behind with a headache—rotten excuse—’

‘Well, he’s shot himself.’

‘Good God! When?’

‘They found him half an hour ago, apparently, but they couldn’t telephone because the machine was out of order, and had to send.’

‘Is he dead?’

‘Yes, he blew his brains out.’

‘Do you remember his name?’

‘The man told me. He was called Chichester.’

They were standing at the side of the room, partly to avoid the dancers, partly to be out of earshot. The latter consideration need not have troubled them, however. The band, which for some time past had been playing nineteenth-century waltzes, now burst into the strains of John Peel. There was a tremendous sense of excitement and climax. The dancers galloped by at break-neck speed; the band played fortissimo; the volume of sound was terrific. But above the din—the music, the laughter and the thud of feet—they could just hear the clock striking twelve.

Jack Manning looked doubtfully at his wife.’Should I go and tell Chillingworth now? What do you think?’

‘Perhaps you’d better—it seems so heartless not to. Break it to him as gently as you can, and don’t let the others know if you can help it.’

Jack Manning’s task was neither easy nor agreeable, and he was a born bungler. Despairing of making himself heard, he raised his hand and cried out, ‘Wait a moment!’ Some of the company stood still and, imagining it was a signal to take off their masks, began to do so; others went on dancing; others stopped and stared. He was the centre of attention; and before he had got his message fairly delivered, it had reached other ears than those for which it was intended. An excited whispering went round the room: ‘What is it? What is it?’ Men and women stood about with their masks in their hands, and faces blanker than before they were uncovered. Others looked terrified and incredulous. A woman came up to Jane Manning and said:

‘What a dreadful thing for Marion Lane.’

‘Why?’ Jane asked.

‘Didn’t you know? She and Harry Chichester were the greatest friends. At one time it was thought—’

‘I live out of the world, I had no idea,’ said Jane quickly. Even in the presence of calamity, she felt a pang that her friend had not confided in her.

Her interlocutor persisted: ‘It was talked about a great deal. Some people said—you know how they chatter—that she didn’t treat him quite fairly. I hate to make myself a busybody, Mrs. Manning, but I do think you ought to tell her; she ought to be prepared.’

‘But I don’t know where she is!’ cried Jane, from whose mind all thought of her friend had been banished. ‘Have you seen her?’

‘Not since the sheet incident.’

‘Nor have I.’

Nor, it seemed, had anyone. Disturbed by this new misadventure far more than its trivial nature seemed to warrant, Jane hastened in turn to such of her guests as might be able to enlighten her as to Marion’s whereabouts. Some of them greeted her inquiry with a lift of the eyebrows but none of them could help her in her quest. Nor could she persuade them to take much interest in it. They seemed to have forgotten that they were at a party, and owed a duty of responsiveness to their hostess. Their eyes did not light up when she came near. One and all they were discussing the suicide, and suggesting its possible motive. The room rustled with their whispering, with the soft hissing sound of ‘Chichester’ and the succeeding ‘Hush!’ which was meant to stifle but only multiplied and prolonged it. Jane felt that she must scream.

All at once there was silence. Had she screamed? No, for the noise they had all heard came from somewhere inside the house. The room seemed to hold its breath. There it was again, and coming closer; a cry, a shriek, the shrill tones of terror alternating in a dreadful rhythm with a throaty, choking sound like whooping-cough. No one could have recognized it as Marion Lane’s voice, and few could have told for Marion Lane the dishevelled figure, mask in hand, that lurched through the ballroom doorway and with quick stumbling steps, before which the onlookers fell back, zigzagged into the middle of the room.

‘Stop him!’ she gasped. ‘Don’t let him do it!’ Jane Manning ran to her.

‘Dearest, what is it?’

‘It’s Harry Chichester,’ sobbed Marion, her head rolling about on her shoulders as if it had come loose. ‘He’s in there. He wants to take his mask off, but I can’t bear it! It would be awful! Oh, do take him away!’

‘Where is he?’ someone asked.

‘Oh, I don’t know! In Jane’s sitting-room. I think, He wouldn’t let me go. He’s so cold, so dreadfully cold.’

‘Look after her, Jane,’ said Jack Manning. ‘Get her out of here. Anyone coming with me?’ he asked, looking round. ‘I’m going to investigate.’

Marion caught the last words. ‘Don’t go,’ she implored. ‘He’ll hurt you.’ But her voice was drowned in the scurry and stampede of feet. The whole company was following their host. In a few moments the ballroom was empty.



Five minutes later there were voices in the ante-room. It was Manning leading back his troops. ‘Barring, of course, the revolver,’ he was saying, ‘and the few things that had been knocked over, and those scratches on the door, there wasn’t a trace. Hullo!’ he added, crossing the threshold, ‘what’s this?’

The ballroom window was open again; the curtains fluttered wildly inwards; on the boards lay a patch of nearly melted snow.

Jack Manning walked up to it. Just within the further edge, near the window, was a kind of smear, darker than the toffee-coloured mess around it, and roughly oval in shape.

‘Do you think that’s a footmark?’ he asked of the company in general.

No one could say.




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