The Clock Strikes Twelve and Other Stories is an excellent collection of supernatural short stories. Wakefield tightens the coiled spring at the heart of each tale with impeccable prose. Nothing is left to chance or misunderstanding: when the reader leaps ahead, they land on the spot Wakefield previously swept and garnished.
My notes on a handful of the stories:
Into Outer Darkness • (1938)
'Have you ever seen anything?'
'Never. I haven't the vaguest idea what there is to see—if any. I tell you the subject was so taboo that if my mother had seen something the night before she wouldn't have batted an eyebrow at breakfast.'
'I forgot how many "lets" you've had?'
'And they've all cleared out before their time was up?'
'Yes. Though they were all short terms.'
'Surely they gave you some reason?'
'They each said much the same dumb thing, that circumstances had arisen which forced them to alter their plans. But I've heard gossip from the village. The Sussex peasant is as ghost-ridden as ever he was. You'd think with charabancs and radio—well, it has made precious little difference. Catch one of the Whitlingites going up our drive after dark of his own free will!
'And that's how I've always explained it. That these people brought their own servants, and as soon as they arrived the locals got jawing to them, and it got back to the people in the house and they began seeing things. Anyway, they all left in a hurry, and apparently were glad to go.'
'Nothing more definite than that?'
'Well, there was one rather queer thing. The last people who took it were an American millionaire and his family. And, though they only took it for six months, I'm certain he meant to stay on if it suited him.
'His eldest son was an artist; and after they'd been there a week he disappeared, and so far as I know, was never seen again.
'Possibly it wasn't so funny at that. He was known to be rather weird, and you know what artists are. Well, you know what I mean; you're not an artist, just a penpusher.'
'How d'you mean, "disappeared"?'
'Just like that. They left him reading in the library when they went to bed; and though they did everything, searched, dragged the lake, put the cops on, and whatever, they never found a trace of him.'
'And he left no message?'
'Never even took his hat and coat. Just seemed to pop right off the earth.'
It's one thing to hear about a person inexplicably vanishing from a room in a house of ill omen. It's another to have the author put you as reader in the shoes of the next person to disappear.
* * *
The Alley • (1940)
Camoys had noticed his jumpy, over-volatile mood coming down in the car. He himself was a very senior Civil Servant, forty-nine years of age—a year older than Palliser, of a nondescript, but reassuring appearance with that controlled tendency to misogyny often characteristic of those who have the capacity and inclination to continue to read Greek and Latin authors after passing their last exam.
The electric stove was full on in his room, making it too warm for his liking, so he switched it off and opened the window. He found he could see straight down the sixty yards of drive, lined with willows, to the gate on the lane. The wind was stiffening and the clouds hurrying in from the west at different speeds and levels. It was late dusk, but still enough light remained for his wandering survey to settle on the gate, for there appeared to be someone standing beside it, presumably gazing at the house.
* * *
Jay Walkers • (1940)
At Ledbury I installed myself at a hotel, and set out the next morning to consult the files of the local paper which bottles and dispenses the usual small beer of the regions round about. At the end of eight hours' laborious search I had verified the following facts: there had been six fatal automobile accidents on the Ledbury–M—— Road within the last decade, always roughly at the same spot on the same date, September 10th, and each of these fatalities had occurred between 8 and 9 p.m.— the exact time was not known in three instances as the crash had not been discovered till an uncertain period after its occurrence.
In 1926 a Ledbury doctor was found dead in his car which had left the road and telescoped against a telegraph pole.
In 1929 a local publican was driving his wife and daughter back from Malvern, when he apparently lost control, and his car ran into a ditch. All three were killed instantly, but the crash was heard and the time of its occurrence verified as 8:35.
In 1931 a local parson, driving alone, was killed when his car overturned. His body was discovered at 8:50.
In 1933 a Birmingham business man, touring the locality with his wife and two young sons, drove his saloon obliquely off the road into a field where it fell on its side and burst into flames. All four were burnt to death. This accident took place about 8:30.
In 1935 a Hereford building contractor, driving back from Ledbury, was found dying in the middle of the road having been hurled through the windscreen of his car, which had crashed into the hedge. Just before he died in hospital, he said, 'Did I hit them?' The accident happened about 8:30.
Finally in 1936 this salesman had met his fate as stated. He was found at 8:45 by a passing car, and a doctor testified at the inquest he had been dead for a very short time.
Now it will at once occur to the reader to ask why, if there was some causal link between these accidents, was there no record of any such previous to 1926. Naturally I turned my attention to this problem and got this much enlightenment. Before the War the road was notoriously bad and practically unused by motor traffic. In 1923 the local authorities found the pressure on the neighbouring highways becoming heavy and it was decided to improve this secondary road by re-laying it, trimming hedges, and so on. It was not re-opened till December, 1925. Furthermore, I found a small paragraph recording the inquest on a local labourer's daughter who was found dead beside her cycle on this same stretch on September 10th, 1921. The theory was she had been thrown off onto her head when her cycle struck a stone. She was discovered about nine and had been dead a short time.
* * *
Ingredient X • (1940)
Few writers can match Wakefield's skill at depicting protagonists facing reduced circumstances, down and out in the dismal bed-sitters of London.
....he was not yet properly broken-in to the corollaries of penury. He got out enough for the night, put a bob in the meter, after oathful gropings in a dark cupboard, sat down before the gas-fire, yawned, and ruminated again, and for the hundredth time, on his past, present, and future. He was aged twenty-eight, and three months before had occupied an eight-room flat, mildly renowned for its interior decorations, in Mayfair, and spent rather more than his £3,000 a year on his personal delectation in a robustly decorative way, and practised the art of painting for a dilettante twelve hours a week. However, the solicitor who had charge of his trust funds had decided to employ them in something younger and gayer than Trustee Securities and lost the lot in the Metal Market. So he had retired to Wandsworth and Camley to Clapham. He had been lucky to get a job with a firm of commercial artists and was starting work the next day; and just as the sour soldier found to his indignation that on reaching the front he had not only to fight for king and country but also for his bleeding life, so now Camley found he had to paint and draw for his. Well, he could make it; make one pound do far, far more than its share of what ten had done before.
* * *
Farewell Performance • (1961)
Black comedy about a ventriloquist whose wife died under mysterious circumstances. But the show must go on.
He didn't look too good, thought Granger; too full of whisky, wrong dope for ventriloquists.
'Well, Nobby,' said Nimbo, 'and how are you?'
'I'm okay,' squawked the doll, 'and you, Guv'nor?'
'Very well, thanks.'
'And the wife?'
Granger frowned. 'My God!' he exclaimed to himself, 'I'd have thought he'd cut that out! Whisky talking!' And indeed, a close observer might have noticed an odd look pass across the ventriloquist's face.
'She's well too,' he muttered, pulling hard at his cigarette.
Nobby turned to the audience, pursed up his lips, and winked his right eye in a highly impertinent and incredulous way.
'And how d'you like the army, Nobby?' asked Nimbo.
'I don't like it, Guv'nor. I don't like it!'
'Indeed. Why's that?'
'Always in trouble, Guv'nor. Always up to the gills in the 'ot connsommy.'
'What kind of trouble?'
'Impert'nence to orficers.'
'Impertinence to officers! A very serious offence. What have you done?'
'I ain't done nuffin. It's like this 'ere. T'other mornin' we're 'avin' our chow when the ord'ly orficer comes aroun'. An' 'e ses, "Any complaints?" an' I ses "Yussir," an' 'e ses, "Wha's the matter?" an' I ses, "It's the stew, sir." "What abaht it?" ses 'e. "I don't fancy it," I ses. "Why not?" 'e ses.
' "It's the meat in it," I ses, "gives it a funny taste." 'E ses, "Ain't you the bloke what complained last week there ain't enough meat in it?" "Yussir," I ses. "Well," 'e ses, "we don't want many of your sort in the Dudshires. 'Owsoever I'll taste it." So 'e does an' ses, "Excellent stew, never tasted better," an' I ses, "You really likes it, sir?"
' "Yus," 'e ses, "I'll show yer," an' 'e scoops up another spoonful. "Delishus," 'e ses, "an' don't let me 'ear no more complaints from you!"
' "Okay," I ses, "but you sees that there spud a-floatin' aroun' in that corner?"
' "What abaht it?" 'e ses.
' "Well," I ses, "there's a dead mouse unner it!" Well you never did, Guv'nor! Anyone 'ud think I'd shoved some poison in it!'
Nimbo dropped his cigarette and again that odd, dazed expression came over his face.
'Shouldn't have attempted it,' thought Granger; 'he looks ghastly.'
'Then, Guv'nor, I gets sevin days C.B.,' said Nobby.
'You were confined to barracks?'
'Yus, Guv'nor, an' sevin days E.F.'
'Extry fatigues, guv'nor, swabbin' out the cookhouse, an' sevin days B.F.U.'
'Bloody fed-up, Guv'nor.'
'I've told you not to swear in front of me!' said Nimbo sternly. 'Never swear in front of a gentleman.'
'Are you a gentleman, Guv'nor?'
'One of the Mayfair boys?'
Nobby cocked his head round to the audience and seemed to mutter something.
'What did you say?' asked Nimbo in an urgent angry tone which made the audience roar.
'Nuffin', Guv'nor. An' then I gets anuffer packet. It's like this 'ere. When I joins h'up, the serjunt bloke ses to h'us: "If you wants a quiet life, you'll do just what you're tole, no more, no less, an' no back answers. Never let me 'ear you say, 'I thought,' nor any tripe like that. You're not 'ere to do no thinkin'; an' mos' of you ain't got the works to do it with." '
'That certainly applies to you, Nobby,' said Nimbo.
'H'oh it does, does it! 'Ave you got brains, Guv'nor?'
'Most certainly I've got brains.'
'Is that 'ow you thinks of——?' and the doll leaned over and whispered something in Nimbo's ear. Nimbo shot his head back and his monocle clattered on to the table. Nobby faced the audience again, leered, and winked.
' 'E didn't know I knows that one,' he squawked. 'Well, Guv'nor,' he continued, 'the Colonel, the 'ead bloke, comes up to me on the square one mornin' an' ses, "Look 'ere, my man, d'you know where Corporal Twister is?" An' I ses, "No, I doesn't, sir," an' 'e ses, "Possibly 'e's in the h'enseeos' mess. Go an' see." So I goes there an' finds this Corporal Twister a-washin' 'is map; an' I goes back an' tells the Colonel.
' "Didn't yer say I wants to see 'im?" 'e ses. "No, sir," I ses. "Well," 'e ses, "you're a most stupid an' fat-'eaded soldier," 'e ses, "an' you'll never do for the Dudshires. Go an' tell 'im I wants to see 'im an' put a jerk in it!" So I goes back an tells this Twister the Colonel bloke wants to see 'im. "Okey-dokey," 'e ses, "tell ole curried-guts I'll be there in 'arf a mo." So I goes back to this Colonel bloke an' 'e ses, "Well, what did 'e say?" " 'E said," I ses, " 'Okey-dokey, tell ole curried-guts I'll be there in 'arf a mo.' " Well, Guv'nor, you never see such a shine-up! Anyone 'ud think I'd done a murder!'
Nimbo seemed to start, so that the doll almost fell from his knee.
' 'Ere, what's the gyme!' he squawked; 'if you does that again, you'll be givin' me conwulsions!'
'Imagine saying that!' thought Granger. 'He's not fit to be on. I'll tell him so when he goes off.'
* * *
In Collaboration • (1940)
A grim look at the lack of honor among pals who each think they are writing a novel bound to make them a fortune.
....We were both determined to write a novel.
The composition of British fiction is, of course, primarily designed to feed and clothe British typists, and an unfaked '2nd impression' is a minor literary event. But we didn't realise that, and, if we had, we were young. But neither of us could find a plot, or nucleus, to fire our minds. A conventional love-story was, of course, a hoot and a derision. Even Rowland's Anglican eroticism could not extend itself from fact to fiction. I actually tried my hand at a detective novel, for I heard there was a large boom in, and much boodle to be extracted from, such reeking romances.
I was given to understand that they were delivered in droves to Downing Street, that their perusal, if quite wholesome, was approved in the highest ecclesiastical circles; that the doffing of the episcopal gaiters was almost the invariable prelude to the donning of the episcopal glasses and a quiet hour over The Clue of the Bloody Dumb-Waiter, or The Bumping of Tony the Hop, that they were equally acceptable to mildly sadistic spinsters and unusually 'bookish' bookmakers, and ranked only second to the thighs of chorus girls as recreation material for the leisure hours of round-bellied commercial buccaneers; and that Lazarus feasted eagerly off the gory scraps from Dives's library. For a time I spilt much ink and blood in this enterprise, but the criminal circumstances I devised were so immensely complex and intractable, that in the end I could see no possibility whatsoever of providing a solution for them. The bloody business remained congealed, the corpus delicti began to stink in my nostrils, and my Aristide Citron was left mingling his defeatist mon dieuxs with the baffled 'tut-tuts' of my Inspector Stench; the one dropping un-English tears, the other torn fragments of a Continental and clueless Bradshaw over the unavengeable corruption.
One evening I came back from Fleet Street to find Rowland in a state of great elation.
'I've got it!' he exclaimed. 'Just exactly the idea I wanted.'
'How darling!' I replied disinterestedly, for I had heard that will-of-the-wisp stuff often enough before, and, in any case, what use was his idea to me! He began to give me the outline of it, and because he was glowing with it, he did it with precision and eloquence. Almost at once I was bitterly impressed by it; I felt the blood flooding to, and leaving, my face. I had to practice small subterfuges to prevent him noticing the expression on it. For he had found, purely by chance, the perfect theme for me, and I was immediately menaced by a frightful temptation. He might be able to write that book; I knew I could do it a thousand times better. Subtly and insinuatingly I saw the characters take shape and reveal themselves to me by act and word.
When Rowland finished and looked eagerly and interrogatively towards me, I had already begun to betray him. I approved it tepidly, but forced him to realise my small estimation of it. He was obviously disappointed and irritated.
'Not quite your book, I expect,' he said shortly. The irony of that! Secretly I began to write it that night. For the time I completely forgot Rowland. That 'plot' was mine. I had decided it. Only I could do it justice, and 'justice' was the pregnant word. These characters had an indisputable right to be perfectly interpreted; and only to me would they confide their secrets.
By 'plot' I do not mean a mere series of happenings, causally, or casually connected. I do not mean an arbitrarily selected 'story', a slice out of related lives. I mean simply a central situation, emotional, spiritual, a theme, a psychic 'situation' which at once creates and is created by the characters necessary for its elucidation. At the outset, therefore, I am a fairly rigid determinist, but once I have breathed life into my people they dictate the action, they unshackle my control. So the two methods become fused when I am composing at white heat. When I flung myself down on my bed twenty hours later that complete fusion had been finally achieved.
I shall not detail this plot, it is in no way germane to this document. Suffice it to say it concerned the over-mastering passion of a man of high principle, position, and intelligence for the illegitimate daughter of his wife. As tritely improbable no doubt as the main theme of Hamlet, but it possessed me with irresistible ecstasy.
* * *
A Stitch in Time • (1940)
....to tell the truth, I felt like breaking a rigid rule and going to bed on a stiff whisky and soda. But you sell more nerve than you buy that way.
....When I came in that evening I heard voices from the kitchen. I was always apprehensive about Mrs Medlar marrying again. I am a man of the simplest tastes, but I had to be allowed to retain that one luxury. She maintained—there she is and she still does—that—no offence to the shade of Mr Medlar—once was enough and rather better than a feast. These protestations were not entirely convincing, for she is just the sort of excellent female some lazy, insinuating scamp would try to cajole into waiting on him hand and foot. There had been one such in the country, and I had waited for him hand and foot, and heaved him from the premises. I could see him volunteering for that pond-fatigue.
* * *
Lucky's Grove • (1940)
"Lucky's Grove" is one of several unalloyed masterpieces in the pages of The Clock Strikes Twelve and Other Stories. It is a story of people who know better, but still hope things will turn out differently. Wakefield lets the unsaid and unstated carry the weight.
As a footman was helping them to Sole Meunière Mr Braxton said, 'Curtis has found a very fine Christmas tree. It's in the barn. You must come and look at it after lunch.'
'That is good,' replied his wife. 'Where did he get it from?'
Mr Braxton hesitated for a moment. 'From Lucky's Grove.'
Mrs Braxton looked up sharply.
'From the grove!' she said, surprised.
'Yes, of course he didn't realise—anyway it'll be all right, it's all rather ridiculous, and it'll be replanted before the New Year.'
'Oh, yes,' agreed Mrs Braxton. 'After all it's only just a clump of trees.'
'Quite. And it's just the right height for the ballroom. It'll be taken in there tomorrow morning and the electricians will work on it in the afternoon.'
'I heard from Lady Pounser just now,' said Mrs Braxton. 'She's bringing six over, that'll make seventy-four; only two refusals. The presents are arriving this afternoon.'
They discussed the party discursively over the cutlets and Pêche Melba and soon after lunch walked across to the barn. Mr Braxton waved to Curtis, who was examining a new tractor in the garage fifty yards away, and he came over.
Mrs Braxton looked the tree over and was graciously delighted with it, but remarked that the pot could have done with another coat of paint. She pointed to several streaks, rust-coloured, running through the green. 'Of course it won't show when it's wrapped, but they didn't do a very good job.'
Curtis leant down. 'They certainly didn't,' he answered irritably. 'I'll see to it. I think it's spilled over from the soil; that copse is on a curious patch of red sand—there are some at Frilford too. When we pulled it up I noticed the roots were stained a dark crimson.' He put his hand down and scraped at the stains with his thumb. He seemed a shade puzzled.
'It shall have another coat at once,' he said. 'What did you think of Lampson and Colletts' scheme for the barn?'
'Quite good,' replied Mrs Braxton, 'but the sketches for the chairs are too fancy.'
'I agree,' said Curtis, who usually did so in the case of un-essentials; reserving his tactful vetoes for the others.
The Great Barn was by far the most aesthetically satisfying as it was the oldest feature of the Hall buildings: it was vast, exquisitely proportioned, and mellow. That could hardly be said of the house itself, which the 4th Baron of Abingdale had rebuilt on the cinders of its predecessor in 1752.
This nobleman had travelled abroad extensively and returned with most enthusiastic, grandiose, and indigestible ideas of architecture. The result was a gargantuan piece of rococo-jocoso which only an entirely humourless pedant could condemn. It contained forty-two bedrooms and eighteen reception rooms—so Mrs Braxton had made it at the last recount. But Mr Braxton had not repeated with the interior the errors of the 4th Baron. He'd briefed the greatest expert in Europe, with the result that that interior was quite tasteful and sublimely comfortable.
'Ugh!' he exclaimed, as they stepped out into the air, 'it is getting nippy!'
'Yes,' said Curtis, 'there's a nor'-easter blowing up—may be snow for Christmas.'
On getting back to the house Mrs Braxton went into a huddle with butler and housekeeper and Mr Braxton retired to his study for a doze. But instead his mind settled on Lucky's Grove. When he'd first seen it again after buying the estate, it seemed as if fifty years had rolled away, and he realised that Abingdale was far more summed up to him in the little copse than in the gigantic barracks two miles away. At once he felt at home again. Yet, just as when he'd been a small boy, the emotion the Grove had aroused in him had been sharply tinged with awe, so it had been now, half a century later. He still had a sneaking dread of it. How precisely he could see it, glowing darkly in the womb of the fire before him, standing starkly there in the centre of the big, fallow field, a perfect circle; and first, a ring of holm-oaks and, facing east, a breach therein to the firs and past them on the west a gap to the yews. It had always required a tug at his courage—not always forthcoming—to pass through them and face the mighty Scotch fir, rearing up its great bole from the grass mound. And when he stood before it, he'd always known an odd longing to fling himself down and—well, worship—it was the only word—the towering tree. His father had told him his forebears had done that very thing, but always when alone and at certain seasons of the year; and that no bird or beast was ever seen there. A lot of traditional nonsense, no doubt, but he himself had absorbed the spirit of the place and knew it would always be so.
One afternoon in late November, a few weeks after they had moved in, he'd gone off alone in the drowsing misty dusk; and when he'd reached the holm-oak bastion and seen the great tree surrounded by its sentinels, he'd known again that quick turmoil of confused emotions. As he'd walked slowly towards it, it had seemed to quicken and be aware of his coming. As he passed the shallow grassy fosse and entered the oak ring he felt there was something he ought to say, some greeting, password, or prayer. It was the most aloof, silent little place under the sun, and oh, so old. He'd tiptoed past the firs and faced the barrier of yews. He'd stood there for a long musing minute, tingling with the sensation that he was being watched and regarded. At length he stepped forward and stood before the God—that mighty word came abruptly and unforeseen—and he felt a wild desire to fling himself down on the mound and do obeisance. And then he'd hurried home. As he recalled all this most vividly and minutely, he was seized with a sudden gust of uncontrollable anger at the thought of the desecration of the grove. He knew now that if he'd had the slightest idea of Curtis's purpose he'd have resisted and opposed it. It was too late now. He realised he'd 'worked himself up' rather absurdly. What could it matter! He was still a superstitious bumpkin at heart. Anyway it was no fault of Curtis. It was the finest Christmas tree anyone could hope for, and the whole thing was too nonsensical for words. The general tone of these cadentic conclusions did not quite accurately represent his thoughts—a very rare failing with Mr Braxton.
About dinner-time the blizzard set furiously in, and the snow was flying.
'Chains on the cars tomorrow,' Mrs Braxton told the head chauffeur.
'Boar's Hill'll be a beggar,' thought that person.
Mr and Mrs Braxton dined early, casually examined the presents, and went to bed. Mr Braxton was asleep at once as usual, but was awakened by the beating of a blind which had slipped its moorings. Reluctantly he got out of bed and went to fix it. As he was doing so he became conscious of the frenzied hysterical barking of a dog. The sound, muffled by the gale, came, he judged, from the barn. He believed the underkeeper kept his whippet there. 'Scared by the storm,' he supposed, and returned to bed.
The morning was brilliantly fine and cold, but the snowfall had been heavy.
'I heard a dog howling in the night, Perkins,' said Mr Braxton to the butler at breakfast; 'Drake's I imagine. What's the matter with it?'
'I will ascertain, sir,' replied Perkins.
'It was Drake's dog,' he announced a little later, 'apparently something alarmed the animal, for when Drake went to let it out this morning, it appeared to be extremely frightened. When the barn door was opened, it took to its heels and, although Drake pursued it, it jumped into the river and Drake fears it was drowned.'
'Um,' said Mr Braxton, 'must have been the storm; whippets are nervous dogs.'
'So I understand, sir.'
'Drake was so fond of it,' said Mrs Braxton, 'though it always looked so naked and shivering to me.'
'Yes, madam,' agreed Perkins, 'it had that appearance.'
* * *
The First Sheaf • (1940)
"The First Sheaf" is a harvest folk-horror masterpiece. Wakefield's body of work has many folk horror/rustic-horror pieces worth rereading: his aesthetic predilection for peripheral suggestiveness and elliptical indirection are best-suited to this mode. (For me, first among equals must be "The Seventeenth Hole at Doncaster.")
....To my surprise no one appeared at six, their usual hour for starting work, nor at seven, eight, or nine, when I ate half my bread-and-butter and sipped the bottle. By ten o'clock I had made up my mind that nothing would happen and I'd better go home, when I heard voices in the field behind me and knew it was too late to retreat if I'd wanted to. I could see nothing ahead of me save the high, white wheat, but presently I heard more voices and two men with sickles came cutting their way past me, and soon I could see an arc of a ring of them slashing towards the centre. When they had advanced some fifty yards I had a better view to right and left, and a very strange sight I beheld. The villagers, mostly old people and children, were streaming through the gates. All were clad in black with wreaths of corn around their necks. They formed in line behind the reapers and moved slowly forward. They made no sound—I heard not a single child's cry—but stared in a rapt way straight before them. Slowly and steadily the reapers cut their way forward. By this time the sun had disappeared and a dense cloud-bank was spreading from the east. By four o'clock the reapers had met in the centre round the last small patch of wheat by the stone pillar. And there they stopped, laid down their sickles, and took their stand in front of the people. For, perhaps, five minutes they all stayed motionless with bowed heads. And then they lifted their faces to the sky and began to chant. And a very odd song they sang, one which made me shiver beneath the yew branches. It was mainly in the minor mode, but at perfectly regular intervals it transposed into the major in a tremendous, but perfectly controlled, cry of exaltation and ecstasy. I have heard nothing like it since, though a 'Spiritual', sung by four thousand god-drunk darkies in Georgia, faintly reminded me of it. But this was something far more formidable, far more primitive; in fact it seemed like the oldest song ever sung. The last, fierce, sustained shout of triumph made me tremble with some unnameable emotion, and I longed to be out there shouting with them. When it ended they all knelt down save one old, white-bearded man with a wreath of corn around his brow who, taking some of the corn in his right hand, raised it above his head and stared into the sky. At once four men came forward and, with what seemed like large trowels, began digging with them. The people then rose to their feet, somewhat obstructing my view. But soon the four men had finished their work and stood upright. Then the old man stepped out again and I could see he was holding what appeared to be a short iron bar. With this he pounded the earth for some moments. Then, picking up something, it looked as if he dropped it into a vessel, a dark, metal pot, I fancied, and paced to the stone-pillar, raised his right arm, and poured the contents into the cup at the pillar's top. At that moment a terrific flash of lightning cut down from the clouds and enveloped the pillar in mauve and devilish flame; and there came such a piercing blast of thunder that I fell backwards into the ditch. When I'd struggled back, the rain was hurling itself down in such fury that it was bouncing high off the lanes of stiff soil. Dimly through it I could see that all the folk had prostrated themselves once more. But in two minutes the thunder-cloud had run with the squall and the sun was blazing from a clear sky. The four men then bound up the corn in that last patch and placed the sheaf in front of the pillar. After which the old man, leading the people, paced the length of the field, scattering something from the vessel in the manner of one sowing. And he led them out of the gate and that was the last I saw of them.
Now somehow I felt that if they knew I'd been watching them, it would have gone hard with me. So I determined to wait for dusk. I was stiff, cold, and hungry, but I stuck it till the sun went flaming down and the loveliest after-glow I ever remember had faded. While I waited there a resolve had been forming in my mind. I had the most intense desire to know what the old man had dropped in the hollow on the pillar, and curiosity is in all animals the strongest foe of fear. Every moment that emotion grew more compelling, and when at last it was just not dark it became over-mastering. I stumbled across as fast as I could to the pillar, looking neither to right nor left, clambered up, and thrust down my hand. I could feel small pieces of what might have been wood, and then it was as if my forefinger was caught and gripped. The most agonising pain shot up my arm and through my body. I fell to the ground and shook my hand wildly to free my finger from that which held it. In the end it clattered down beside me and splintered on the stone. And then the blood streamed from my finger, which had been punctured to the bone. Somehow I struggled home, leaving a trail of blood behind me.
The next day my arm was swollen up like a black bladder; the morning after it was amputated at the shoulder. The surgeon who operated on me came up to my father in the hospital and held something out to him. 'I found this embedded in your son's finger,' he said.
'What is it?' asked my father.
'A child's tooth,' he replied. 'I suppose he's been fighting someone, someone with a very dirty mouth!'
* * *
Masrur • (1940)
....Veronica insisted he should get a 'Lost' notice printed and displayed at neighbouring police-stations offering a five-pound reward for Masrur's return. This inanity further exacerbated his nerves.
They dined out, and Veronica was gushingly pathetic over Masrur's disappearance. One of the company was a well-known biologist who had been at Oxford with Pinder, whose liking for him was mingled with fear, for he'd always possessed a diabolical instinct for knowing what was going on in Pinder's baffled and complex mind. While Veronica was plaintively burbling on, this person gave Pinder a quick, quizzical glance which convinced him he'd made another of his damnably inspired guesses. The general opinion seemed to be that Masrur had been placed on the spot by the local feline vigilantes or a panel of outraged spouses. But Carol Portland said, 'Godfrey looks guilty to me. Clamp down to a Lie-Detector, and his graph would reveal all.' Pinder had drunk enough to be viciously personal and he was taking no lip from this grinning gynandromorph.
'I wonder, Carol,' he said, 'why there isn't an operation for turning young men into girls? Why is it always the other way about, when they've "put a shot" an unwomanly distance, and their anatomy been the subject of catty, dressing-room dissection? I'm sure you could be made happier, Carol, if only that were so.' Carol grinned impudently. Their hostess hurriedly changed the conversation to the Exhibition at Burlington House concerning which Pinder laid down the law with paradoxical vehemence.
* * *
Used Car (1940)
"Used Car" reminds the reader Wakefield can be as droll and cold-bloodedly clever as Guy de Maupassant.
Mr Canning, on attaining a certain affluence, had built himself a very comfortable and aesthetically satisfying house in West Surrey. Like everything else about him and his, it suggested super-tax but not death duties. His social standing was well established in the neighbourhood, for Mrs Canning, a handsome, well-upholstered matron, had a shrewd Scottish flair for entertainment, and a flexible faculty for making the right people feel at home; while Angela was lively and decorative and hit balls about with superior skill. On reaching home the next evening he found these ladies had already taken a trip in the car. Their verdict was favourable. Mrs Canning liked the springing and the back seat, though one of the windows rattled, while Angela was satisfied it would do seventy. 'But,' she added, 'Jumbo loathes it.'
'How do you mean?' asked her father.
'Oh, all the time we were out he was whining and fussing, and when we got home he dashed into the garden with his tail between his legs.'
'Well, he'll have to get used to it,' said Mr Canning in a firm tone, which implied that he would stand no nonsense from that pampered and good-for-nothing liver spaniel. 'Has Tonks got that stain off the cloth?'
'He's working at it this evening,' replied Angela, 'it only wants rubbing with petrol.'
After dinner, while they were sitting round the fire in the drawing-room, Jumbo with his paws in the grate, Mr Canning tried an experiment by giving his celebrated imitation of a motor-horn, which usually aroused anticipatory ecstasies in Jumbo. This time, however, he stared up uncertainly at his master and the motions of his tail suggested no more than mere politeness. 'You see,' said Angela, who possessed a deep insight into the animal, 'he doesn't know whether you mean the old car or the new.'
'Oh rot!' said her father, 'he's sleepy.' But he was half convinced. 'Anyhow,' he presently continued, 'I'll take him with me to South Hill on Saturday. I've always said he was a perfect half-wit.'
'He's a perfect darling!' said Mrs Canning indignantly. 'Come here, my sweet.' Jumbo lurched reluctantly over to her, his demeanour suggesting that, while affectionate appreciation of his charms was gratifying, when a fellow was sleeping peacefully with his paws in the grate it was a bit thick to keep on disturbing him. 'We're going over to the Talbots' tomorrow,' Mrs Canning went on, 'but we'll be back in time to send the car to the station if it's raining.' Her husband grunted drowsily and returned to his perusal of Country Life.
'Hullo, William,' said Angela at three o'clock the next afternoon, 'I see you haven't done anything about that stain.'
The chauffeur appeared somewhat piqued at this insinuation, his manner implying that, considering he had taught Miss Angela to drive when her hair was still in a pig-tail, she ought to treat him with more deference. 'I did my best, Miss,' he replied. 'I gave it a stiff rubbing with petrol, but it didn't seem to make no difference.'
'I wonder what it is?' said Angela.
'I don't know, Miss, but last night it felt sticky to the touch.'
'It's quite dry now,' she declared. 'Have another go at it this evening. Ah, here's mother.'
* * *
Knock! Knock! Who's There? • (1932)
....As the shore receded he began to take it easier, occasionally resting on his oars and brushing the sweat from his forehead with a stained and horny hand. Whew, it was hot! As he pulled on, he yawned drowsily, and vague disconnected grumbles chased one another through his brain.
Suddenly he ceased rowing and let the oars hover uncertainly just above the sea. That was queer; he'd got that feeling again! He'd meant to go out another mile to the twenty fathom line where there was a chance of a sizable plaice; yet now he knew he couldn't go another yard. That feeling again! Just as if someone had put a spell on him. And each time he'd been going out with Joe Black and Red Tanner and they'd been swamped by that destroyer off the measured mile. Never found their bodies. Never found his if he'd gone. Just as if a spell had been put upon him. And now he'd got it again, damned queer! Well, there it was!
He shipped the oars, and standing in the bows heaved the anchor-stone over the side and let the rope run through his hands. Presently it spun a snake curl back at him, and he puckered his forehead. That was queer, too. Just as if it had landed on rock—he'd felt the bump. But there was nothing but sand thereabouts. He knew the bottom as well as blind Tom knew the road to the Rack and Rope, and there wasn't a rock for half a mile, north, south, east, or west. He hauled up a couple of yards of rope and let them run slowly back. Bump again! Well, there it was. He sat down on a thwart, his knees outstretched, baited the two lines, ran them out in turn, hitched one round a rowlock, and played the other. Gosh it was hot! He could do with a sleep. Presently he hitched the other line and stared around him. There was nothing in sight except the fanned steamy foam from a speed-boat far to the east. Safe enough! He settled himself down in the bows, his cap keeping the sun from his eyes.
Clang, clang, clang, clang, clang, clang!
He swung up from the waist, his cap somersaulting down his shins. What the hell was that? He cocked his head and listened intently. Not a sound—must have dreamed it. Possessed by a growing, only half-realised, unease, as obscurely bothered as a bird during a sun eclipse, he hauled in the lines, flicked a dab into the bottom of the boat where it puffed and danced, rebaited, and fixed the lines as before. He lay down in the bows, the expression on his face being that of one laying a trap for something he'd no great wish to snare....
* * *
Out of the Wrack I Rise • (1949)
Like the benighted ventriloquist in "I Recognised the Voice," "Out of the Wrack I Rise" features a stage performer enduring a harrowing turn. He's a magician, and it's the one year anniversay of his wife's drowning.
'CHU CHIN'S IN,' said the Assistant Stage Manager to the Manager of the Blackton Empire.
'Oh yes. How's he seem?'
'Much the same, sour as ever, well, even sourer.'
'A superb conjurer,' said the manager, 'but between ourselves a very nasty bit of work.'
'You could be right!' laughed the assistant stage manager.
'Watch his turn tonight,' said the manager. 'A pal of mine told me he was slipping.'
'I was going to—for another reason. D'you remember what this is?'
'How do you mean?'
'Anniversary of his wife's death.'
'Good Lord! How time skips. He has married again, hasn't he?'
'Yes,' said the assistant stage manager, 'that assistant of his.'
'There was a certain amount of—well—talk, when his wife was drowned, wasn't there?'
'Yes; may have been unfair. It always looks a shade odd when you take your wife out night-bathing and she doesn't come back.'
'Her body was never recovered, was it?' asked the manager.
'Well, no, but oddly enough a trawler landed a skeleton, believed to be a woman's, this morning. It had been caught in their nets. It's in the mortuary round the corner now. There'll be an inquest in a day or two, but I understand it's quite unidentifiable.'
'He treated her pretty rough, didn't he?'
'She certainly looked as if he did. And then of course getting married again within a couple of months to a girl half your age, and such a bold, designing minx into the bargain! As a matter of fact I didn't think she looked too happy just now.'
'I can understand that! Is there feeling against him in the town, d'you think? Will they give him the bird?'
'I don't think so. Anyway I'll watch carefully and report to you.'
Chu Chin's real name was Jerry Pullin. He had adopted this stage name because he had the Mongol fold to his eyes and a vaguely Oriental cast of countenance. With a mandarin's skull-cap, a black bootlace moustache, and enveloped in a voluminous priest-robe, he looked the part well enough. He was very tall and always paced the stage in majestic Mr Wu attitudes. He used no patter at all, never opening his mouth from start to finish of his turn. He 'distracted attention' by two means. He fixed his queer eyes on the audience, and the female members of it were often slightly hypnotised by this piercing stare. To lull male alertness he relied on his assistant, a big, bold-eyed, strapping wench. He dressed her in the briefest and tightest of shorts, a low-necked, almost transparent blouse, and a Coolie hat. He made her move frequently behind him, as though arranging the things on his work-tables, and the men gave her plenty of eye. She also did any talking that was necessary. Jerry was around fifty and cordially detested in the profession, being sly, grasping, and utterly unsociable, but he was recognised as a master of his craft, his manual dexterity being unrivalled and his over-all technique superb. He topped the bill everywhere....
* * *
A Black Solitude • (1951)
"A Black Solitude" brings us full-circle to the inexplicable disappearance motif of 1938's "Into Outer Darkness." But with a very different milieu, and all the more pointed for that.
'What's that?' he asked, staring hard at the door.
'Oh, just a bedroom,' I replied.
Suddenly he moved forward quickly, opened the door, and drew a quick, dramatic breath. At once he seemed transformed. You have seen the life come to a drowsy cat's eyes when it hears the rustle of a mouse. You may have noted the changed demeanour of some oafish and lugubrious athlete when he spies a football or a bag of golf clubs. Just such a metamorphosis occurred in Apuleius when he opened that door. He became intent, absorbed, professional. I felt compensatingly insignificant and meagre.
'Nobody sleeps here?' he said.
'No,' I replied.
'Not twice, anyway,' he said sharply.
'Why?' I asked.
He went up to the criminal types and scrutinised them carefully. And then he pointed out to me some things I had not noticed before: a tiny figure of a hare with a human and very repulsive face at the right-hand side of the gentleman, a crescent moon with something enigmatic peering out between its horns on the same side of the lady. 'As I expected,' he observed in his most impressive manner, and left it at that.
'Well, what about it?' I asked impatiently.
'That would take rather a long time to explain, my dear Pelham,' he replied, 'and with all respect, I doubt if you would ever quite understand. Let me just say this. Such places as these are as rare as they are perilous. In a sense this is a timeless place. What once happened here didn't change, didn't pass on, it was crystallised. What happened herein eternally repeats itself. Here time, as it were, was trapped and can't move on. Man is life and life is change so such places are deadly to man. If man cannot change, he dies. Death is the end of a stage in a certain process of change. Only the dead can live in this room.'
'And do they?' I asked, bemused by this rigamarole.
'In a sense, yes.'
This effusion didn't commend itself to me. (Besides, it was still daylight.)
20 February 2021