L.P. Hartley: A Visitor from Down Under

And who will you send to fetch him away?’

 

After a promising start, the March day had ended in a wet evening. It was hard to tell whether rain or fog predominated. The loquacious bus conductor said, ‘A foggy evening,’ to those who rode inside, and ‘A wet evening,’ to such as were obliged to ride outside. But in or on the buses, cheerfulness held the field, for their patrons, inured to discomfort, made light of climatic inclemency. All the same, the weather was worth remarking on: the most scrupulous conversationalist could refer to it without feeling self convicted of banality. How much more the conductor who, in common with most of his kind, had a considerable conversational gift.

 

The bus was making its last journey through the heart of London before turning in for the night. Inside it was only half full. Outside, as the conductor was aware by virtue of his sixth sense, there still remained a passenger too hardy or too lazy to seek shelter. And now, as the bus rattled rapidly down the Strand, the footsteps of this person could be heard shuffling and creaking upon the metal-shod steps.

 

Anyone on top?’ asked the conductor, addressing an errant umbrella-point and the hem of a mackintosh.

 

I didn’t notice anyone,’ the man replied.

 

It’s not that I don’t trust you,’ remarked the conductor pleasantly, giving a hand to his alighting fare, ‘but I think I’ll go up and make sure.’

 

Moments like these, moments of mistrust in the infallibility of his observation, occasionally visited the conductor. They came at the end of a tiring day, and if he could he withstood them. They were signs of weakness, he thought; and to give way to them matter for self-reproach. ‘Going barmy, that’s what you are,’ he told himself, and he casually took a fare inside to prevent his mind dwelling on the unvisited outside. But his unreasoning disquietude survived this distraction, and murmuring against himself he started to climb the steps.

 

To his surprise, almost stupefaction, he found that his misgivings were justified. Breasting the ascent, he saw a passenger sitting on the right-hand front seat; and the passenger, in spite of his hat turned down, his collar turned up, and the creased white muffler that showed between the two, must have heard him coming; for though the man was looking straight ahead, in his outstretched left hand, wedged between the first and second fingers, he held a coin.

 

Jolly evening, don’t you think?’ asked the conductor, who wanted to say something. The passenger made no reply, but the penny, for such it was, slipped the fraction of an inch lower in the groove between the pale freckled fingers.

 

I said it was a damn wet night,’ the conductor persisted irritably, annoyed by the man’s reserve.

 

Still no reply.

 

Where you for?’ asked the conductor, in a tone suggesting that wherever it was, it must be a discreditable destination.

 

Carrick Street.’

 

Where?’ the conductor demanded. He had heard all right, but a slight peculiarity in the passenger’s pronunciation made it appear reasonable to him, and possibly humiliating to the passenger, that he should not have heard.

 

Carrick Street.’

 

Then why don’t you say Carrick Street?’ the conductor grumbled as he punched the ticket.

 

There was a moment’s pause, then:

 

Carrick Street,’ the passenger repeated.

 

Yes, I know, I know, you needn’t go on telling me,’ fumed the conductor, fumbling with the passenger’s penny. He couldn’t get hold of it from above; it had slipped too far, so he passed his hand underneath the other’s and drew the coin from between his fingers.

 

It was cold, even where it had been held. ‘Know?’ said the stranger suddenly. ‘What do you know?’

 

The conductor was trying to draw his fare’s attention to the ticket, but could not make him look round.

 

I suppose I know you are a clever chap,’ he remarked. ‘Look here, now. Where do you want this ticket? In your button-hole?’

 

Put it here,’ said the passenger.

 

Where?’ asked the conductor. ‘You aren’t a blooming letter-rack.’

 

Where the penny was,’ replied the passenger. ‘Between my fingers.’

 

The conductor felt reluctant, he did not know why, to oblige the passenger in this. The rigidity of the hand disconcerted him: it was stiff, he supposed, or perhaps paralysed. And since he had been standing on the top his own hands were none too warm. The ticket doubled up and grew limp under his repeated efforts to push it in. He bent lower, for he was a good-hearted fellow, and using both hands, one above and one below, he slid the ticket into its bony slot.

 

Right you are, Kaiser Bill.’

 

Perhaps the passenger resented this jocular allusion to his physical infirmity; perhaps he merely wanted to be quiet. All he said was:

 

Don’t speak to me again.’

 

Speak to you!’ shouted the conductor, losing all self-control. ‘Catch me speaking to a stuffed dummy!’

 

Muttering to himself he withdrew into the bowels of the bus.

 

At the corner of Carrick Street quite a number of people got on board. All wanted to be first, but pride of place was shared by three women who all tried to enter simultaneously. The conductor’s voice made itself audible over the din: ‘Now then, now then, look where you’re shoving! This isn’t a bargain sale. Gently, please, lady; he’s only a pore old man.’ In a moment or two the confusion abated, and the conductor, his hand on the cord of the bell, bethought himself of the passenger on top whose destination Carrick Street was. He had forgotten to get down. Yielding to his good nature, for the conductor was averse from further conversation with his uncommunicative fare, he mounted the steps, put his head over the top and shouted ‘Carrick Street! Carrick Street!’ That was the utmost he could bring himself to do. But his admonition was without effect; his summons remained unanswered; nobody came. ‘Well, if he wants to stay up there he can,’ muttered the conductor, still aggrieved. ‘I won’t fetch him down, cripple or no cripple.’ The bus moved on. He slipped by me, thought the conductor, while all that Cup-tie crowd was getting in.

 

The same evening, some five hours earlier, a taxi turned into Carrick Street and pulled up at the door of a small hotel. The street was empty. It looked like a cul-de-sac, but in reality it was pierced at the far end by an alley, like a thin sleeve, which wound its way into Soho.

 

That the last, sir?’ inquired the driver, after several transits between the cab and the hotel.

 

How many does that make?’

 

Nine packages in all, sir.’

 

Could you get all your worldly goods into nine packages, driver?’

 

That I could; into two.’

 

Well, have a look inside and see if I have left anything.’ The cabman felt about among the cushions. ‘Can’t find nothing, sir.’

 

What do you do with anything you find?’ asked the stranger.

 

Take it to New Scotland Yard, sir,’ the driver promptly answered.

 

Scotland Yard?’ said the stranger. ‘Strike a match, will you, and let me have a look.’

 

But he, too, found nothing, and reassured, followed his luggage into the hotel.

 

A chorus of welcome and congratulation greeted him. The manager, the manager’s wife, the Ministers without portfolio of whom all hotels are full, the porters, the lift-man, all clustered around him.

 

Well, Mr. Rumbold, after all these years! We thought you’d forgotten us! And wasn’t it odd, the very night your telegram came from Australia we’d been talking about you! And my husband said, “Don’t you worry about Mr. Rumbold. He’ll fall on his feet all right. Some fine day he’ll walk in here a rich man.” Not that you weren’t always well off, but my husband meant a millionaire.’

 

He was quite right,’ said Mr. Rumbold slowly, savouring his words. ‘I am.’

 

There, what did I tell you?’ the manager exclaimed, as though one recital of his prophecy was not enough. ‘But I wonder you’re not too grand to come to Rossall’s Hotel.’

 

I’ve nowhere else to go,’ said the millionaire shortly. ‘And if I had, I wouldn’t. This place is like home to me.’

 

His eyes softened as they scanned the familiar surroundings. They were light grey eyes, very pale, and seeming paler from their setting in his tanned face. His cheeks were slightly sunken and very deeply lined; his blunt-ended nose was straight. He had a thin, straggling moustache, straw-coloured, which made his age difficult to guess. Perhaps he was nearly fifty, so wasted was the skin on his neck, but his movements, unexpectedly agile and decided, were those of a younger man.

 

I won’t go up to my room now,’ he said, in response to the manageress’s question. ‘Ask Clutsam—he’s still with you?—good—to unpack my things. He’ll find all I want for the night in the green suitcase. I’ll take my despatch-box with me. And tell them to bring me a sherry and bitters in the lounge.’

 

As the crow flies it was not far to the lounge. But by the way of the tortuous, ill-lit passages, doubling on themselves, yawning with dark entries, plunging into kitchen stairs—the catacombs so dear to habitués of Rossall’s Hotel—it was a considerable distance. Anyone posted in the shadow of these alcoves, or arriving at the head of the basement staircase, could not have failed to notice the air of utter content which marked Mr. Rumbold’s leisurely progress: the droop of his shoulders, acquiescing in weariness; the hands turned inwards and swaying slightly, but quite forgotten by their owner; the chin, always prominent, now pushed forward so far that it looked relaxed and helpless, not at all defiant. The unseen witness would have envied Mr. Rumbold, perhaps even grudged him his holiday air, his untroubled acceptance of the present and the future.

 

A waiter whose face he did not remember brought him the apéritif, which he drank slowly, his feet propped unconventionally upon a ledge of the chimneypiece; a pardonable relaxation, for the room was empty. Judge therefore of his surprise when, out of a fire-engendered drowsiness, he heard a voice which seemed to come from the wall above his head. A cultivated voice, perhaps too cultivated, slightly husky, yet careful and precise in its enunciation. Even while his eyes searched the room to make sure that no one had come in, he could not help hearing everything the voice said. It seemed to be talking to him, and yet the rather oracular utterance implied a less restricted audience. It was the utterance of a man who was aware that, though it was a duty for him to speak, for Mr. Rumbold to listen would be both a pleasure and a profit.

 

‘ . . . A Children’s Party,’ the voice announced in an even, neutral tone, nicely balanced between approval and distaste, between enthusiasm and boredom; ‘six little girls and six little’ (a faint lift in the voice, expressive of tolerant surprise) ‘boys. The Broadcasting Company has invited them to tea, and they are anxious that you should share some of their fun.’ (At the last word the voice became completely colourless.) ‘I must tell you that they have had tea, and enjoyed it, didn’t you, children?’ (A cry of ‘Yes,’ muffled and timid, greeted this leading question.) ‘We should have liked you to hear our table-talk, but there wasn’t much of it, we were so busy eating.’ For a moment the voice identified itself with the children. ‘But we can tell you what we ate. Now, Percy, tell us what you had.’

 

A piping little voice recited a long list of comestibles; like the children in the treacle-well, thought Rumbold, Percy must have been, or soon would be, very ill. A few others volunteered the items of their repast. ‘So you see,’ said the voice, ‘we have not done so badly. And now we are going to have crackers, and afterwards’ (the voice hesitated and seemed to dissociate itself from the words) ‘Children’s Games.’ There was an impressive pause, broken by the muttered exhortation of a little girl. ‘Don’t cry, Philip, it won’t hurt you.’ Fugitive sparks and snaps of sound followed; more like a fire being kindled, thought Rumbold, than crackers. A murmur of voices pierced the fusillade. ‘What have you got, Alec, what have you got?’ ‘I’ve got a cannon.’ ‘Give it to me.’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, lend it to me.’ ‘What do you want it for?’ ‘I want to shoot Jimmy.´

 

 

Mr. Rumbold started. Something had disturbed him. Was it imagination, or did he hear, above the confused medley of sound, a tiny click? The voice was speaking again. ‘And now we’re going to begin the Games.’ As though to make amends for past lukewarmness a faint flush of anticipation gave colour to the decorous voice. ‘We will commence with that old favourite, Ring-a-Ring of Roses.’

 

The children were clearly shy, and left each other to do the singing. Their courage lasted for a line or two and then gave out. But fortified by the speaker’s baritone, powerful though subdued, they took heart, and soon were singing without assistance or direction. Their light wavering voices had a charming effect. Tears stood in Mr. Rumbold’s eyes. ‘Oranges and Lemons’ came next. A more difficult game, it yielded several unrehearsed effects before it finally got under way. One could almost see the children being marshalled into their places, as though for a figure in the Lancers. Some of them no doubt had wanted to play another game; children are contrary; and the dramatic side of ‘Oranges and Lemons,’ though it appeals to many, always affrights a few. The disinclination of these last would account for the pauses and hesitations which irritated Mr. Rumbold, who, as a child, had always had a strong fancy for this particular game. When, to the tramping and stamping of many small feet, the droning chant began, he leaned back and closed his eyes in ecstasy. He listened intently for the final accelerando which leads up to the catastrophe. Still the prologue maundered on, as though the children were anxious to extend the period of security, the joyous carefree promenade which the great Bell of Bow, by his inconsiderate profession of ignorance, was so rudely to curtail. The Bells of Old Bailey pressed their usurer’s question; the Bells of Shoreditch answered with becoming flippancy; the Bells of Stepney posed their ironical query, when suddenly, before the great Bell of Bow had time to get his word in, Mr. Rumbold’s feelings underwent a strange revolution. Why couldn’t the game continue, all sweetness and sunshine? Why drag in the fatal issue? Let payment be deferred; let the bells go on chiming and never strike the hour. But heedless of Mr. Rumbold’s squeamishness, the game went its way.

 

After the eating comes the reckoning.

 

Here is a candle to light you to bed, And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!           Chop—chop—chop.

 

A child screamed, and there was silence.

 

Mr. Rumbold felt quite upset, and great was his relief when, after a few more half-hearted rounds of ‘Oranges and Lemons,’ the Voice announced, ‘Here We Come Gathering Nuts and May.’ At least there was nothing sinister in that. Delicious sylvan scene, comprising in one splendid botanical inexactitude all the charms of winter, spring, and autumn. What superiority to circumstances was implied in the conjunction of nuts and May! What defiance of cause and effect! What a testimony to coincidence! For cause and effect is against us, as witness the fate of Old Bailey’s debtor; but coincidence is always on our side, teaching us how to eat our cake and have it! The long arm of coincidence! Mr. Rumbold would have liked to clasp it by the hand.

 

Meanwhile his own hand conducted the music of the revels and his foot kept time. Their pulses quickened by enjoyment, the children put more heart into their singing; the game went with a swing; the ardour and rhythm of it invaded the little room where Mr. Rumbold sat. Like heavy fumes the waves of sound poured in, so penetrating, they ravished the sense; so sweet, they intoxicated it; so light, they fanned it into a flame. Mr. Rumbold was transported. His hearing, sharpened by the subjugation and quiescence of his other faculties, began to take in new sounds; the names, for instance, of the players who were ‘wanted’ to make up each side, and of the champions who were to pull them over. For the listeners-in, the issues of the struggles remained in doubt. Did Nancy Price succeed in detaching Percy Kingham from his allegiance? Probably. Did Alec Wharton prevail against Maisie Drew? It was certainly an easy win for someone: the contest lasted only a second, and a ripple of laughter greeted it. Did Violet Kingham make good against Horace Gold? This was a dire encounter, punctuated by deep irregular panting. Mr. Rumbold could see, in his mind’s eye, the two champions straining backwards and forwards across the white, motionless handkerchief, their faces red and puckered with exertion. Violet or Horace, one of them had to go: Violet might be bigger than Horace, but then Horace was a boy: they were evenly matched: they had their pride to maintain. The moment when the will was broken and the body went limp in surrender would be like a moment of dissolution. Yes, even this game had its stark, uncomfortable side. Violet or Horace, one of them was smarting now: crying perhaps under the humiliation of being fetched away.

 

The game began afresh. This time there was an eager ring in the children’s voices: two tried antagonists were going to meet: it would be a battle of giants. The chant throbbed into a war-cry.

 

Who will you have for your Nuts and May,    Nuts and May, Nuts and May; Who will you have for your Nuts and May    On a cold and frosty morning?

 

They would have Victor Rumbold for Nuts and May, Victor Rumbold, Victor Rumbold: and from the vindictiveness in their voices they might have meant to have had his blood, too.

 

And who will you send to fetch him away,    Fetch him away, fetch him away; Who will you send to fetch him away    On a cold and frosty morning?

 

Like a clarion call, a shout of defiance, came the reply:

 

We’ll send Jimmy Hagberd to fetch him away,    Fetch him away, fetch him away; We’ll send Jimmy Hagberd to fetch him away    On a wet and foggy evening.

 

This variation, it might be supposed, was intended to promote the contest from the realms of pretence into the world of reality. But Mr. Rumbold probably did not hear that his abduction had been antedated. He had turned quite green, and his head was lolling against the back of the chair.

 

Any wine, sir?’

 

Yes, Clutsam, a bottle of champagne.’

 

Very good, sir.’

 

Mr. Rumbold drained the first glass at one go.

 

Anyone coming in to dinner besides me, Clutsam?’ he presently inquired. ‘Not now, sir, it’s nine o’clock,’ replied the waiter, his voice edged with reproach.

 

Sorry, Clutsam, I didn’t feel up to the mark before dinner, so I went and lay down.’

 

The waiter was mollified.

 

Thought you weren’t looking quite yourself, sir. No bad news, I hope.’

 

No, nothing. Just a bit tired after the journey.’

 

And how did you leave Australia, sir?’ inquired the waiter, to accommodate Mr. Rumbold, who seemed anxious to talk.

 

In better weather than you have here,’ Mr. Rumbold replied, finishing his second glass, and measuring with his eye the depleted contents of the bottle.

 

The rain kept up a steady patter on the glass roof of the coffee-room.

 

Still, a good climate isn’t everything. It isn’t like home, for instance,’ the waiter remarked.

 

No, indeed.’

 

There’s many parts of the world as would be glad of a good day’s rain,’ affirmed the waiter.

 

There certainly are,’ said Mr. Rumbold, who found the conversation sedative.

 

Did you do much fishing when you were abroad, sir?’ the waiter pursued.

 

A little.’

 

Well, you want rain for that,’ declared the waiter, as one who scores a point. ‘The fishing isn’t preserved in Australia, like what it is here?’

 

No.’

 

Then there ain’t no poaching,’ concluded the waiter philosophically. ‘It’s every man for himself.’

 

Yes, that’s the rule in Australia.’

 

Not much of a rule, is it?’ the waiter took him up. ‘Not much like law, I mean.’

 

It depends what you mean by law.’

 

Oh, Mr. Rumbold, sir, you know very well what I mean. I mean the police. Now if you was to have done a man in out in Australia—murdered him, I mean—they’d hang you for it if they caught you, wouldn’t they?’

 

Mr. Rumbold teased the champagne with the butt-end of his fork and drank again.

 

Probably they would, unless there were special circumstances.

 

In which case you might get off?’

 

I might.’

 

That’s what I mean by law,’ pronounced the waiter. ‘You know what the law is: you go against it, and you’re punished. Of course I don’t mean you, sir; I only say “you” as—as an illustration to make my meaning clear.’

 

Quite, quite.’

 

Whereas if there was only what you call a rule,’ the waiter pursued, deftly removing the remains of Mr. Rumbold’s chicken, ‘it might fall to the lot of any man to round you up. Might be anybody; might be me.’

 

Why should you or they,’ asked Mr. Rumbold, ‘want to round me up? I haven’t done you any harm, or them.’

 

Oh, but we should have to, sir.’

 

Why?’

 

We couldn’t rest in our beds, sir, knowing you was at large. You might do it again. Somebody’d 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.’

 

Clutsam,’ said Mr. Rumbold suddenly, ‘bring me another bottle of wine, and don’t trouble to ice it.’

 

The waiter took the bottle from the table and held it to the light.

 

Yes, it’s dead, sir.’

 

Dead?’

 

Yes, sir; finished; empty; dead.’

 

You’re right,’ Mr. Rumbold agreed. ‘It’s quite dead.’

 

It was nearly eleven o’clock. Mr. Rumbold again had the lounge to himself. Clutsam would be bringing his coffee presently. Too bad of Fate to have him haunted by these casual reminders; too bad, his first day at home. ‘Too bad, too bad,’ he muttered, while the fire warmed the soles of his slippers. But it was excellent champagne; he would take no harm from it: the brandy Clutsam was bringing him would do the rest. Clutsam was a good sort, nice old-fashioned servant . . . nice old-fashioned house. . . . Warmed by the wine, his thoughts began to pass out of his control.

 

Your coffee, sir,’ said a voice at his elbow.

 

Thank you, Clutsam, I’m very much obliged to you,’ said Mr. Rumbold, with the exaggerated civility of slight intoxication. ‘You’re an excellent fellow. I wish there were more like you.’

 

I hope so, too, I’m sure,’ said Clutsam, trying in his muddle-headed way to deal with both observations at once.

 

Don’t seem many people about,’ Mr. Rumbold remarked. ‘Hotel pretty full?’

 

Oh, yes, sir, all the suites are let, and the other rooms, too. We’re turning people away every day. Why, only to-night a gentleman rang up. Said he would come round late, on the off-chance. But, bless me, he’ll find the birds have flown.’

 

Birds?’ echoed Mr. Rumbold.

 

I mean there ain’t any more rooms, not for love nor money.’

 

Well, I’m sorry for him,’ said Mr. Rumbold, with ponderous sincerity. ‘I’m sorry for any man, friend or foe, who has to go tramping about London on a night like this. If I had an extra bed in my room, I’d put it at his disposal.’

 

You have, sir,’ the waiter said.

 

Why, of course I have. How stupid. Well, well. I’m sorry for the poor chap. I’m sorry for all homeless ones, Clutsam, wandering on the face of the earth.’

 

Amen to that,’ said the waiter devoutly.

 

And doctors and such, pulled out of their beds at midnight. It’s a hard life. Ever thought about a doctor’s life, Clutsam?’

 

Can’t say I have, sir.’

 

Well, well, but it’s hard; you can take that from me.’

 

What time shall I call you in the morning, sir?’ the waiter asked, seeing no reason why the conversation should ever stop.

 

You needn’t call me Clutsam,’ replied Mr. Rumbold, in a sing-song voice, and rushing the words together as though he were excusing the waiter from addressing him by the waiter’s own name. ‘I’ll get up when I’m ready. And that may be pretty late, pretty late.’ He smacked his lips over the words.

 

Nothing like a good lie, eh, Clutsam?’

 

That’s right, sir, you have your sleep out,’ the waiter encouraged him. ‘You won’t be disturbed.’

 

Good-night, Clutsam. You’re an excellent fellow, and I don’t care who hears me say so.’

 

Good-night, sir.’

 

Mr. Rumbold returned to his chair. It lapped him round, it ministered to his comfort: he felt at one with it. At one with the fire, the clock, the tables, all the furniture. Their usefulness, their goodness, went out to meet his usefulness, his goodness, met, and were friends. Who could bind their sweet influences or restrain them in the exercise of their kind offices? No one: certainly not a shadow from the past. The room was perfectly quiet. Street sounds reached it only as a low continuous hum, infinitely reassuring. Mr. Rumbold fell asleep.

 

He dreamed that he was a boy again, living in his old home in the country. He was possessed, in the dream, by a master-passion; he must collect firewood, whenever and wherever he saw it. He found himself one autumn afternoon in the wood-house; that was how the dream began. The door was partly open, admitting a little light, but he could not recall how he got in. The floor of the shed was littered with bits of bark and thin twigs; but, with the exception of the chopping-block which he knew could not be used, there was nowhere a log of sufficient size to make a fire. Though he did not like being in the wood-house alone he stayed long enough to make a thorough search. But he could find nothing. The compulsion he knew so well descended on him, and he left the wood-house and went into the garden. His steps took him to the foot of a high tree, standing by itself in a tangle of long grass at some distance from the house. The tree had been lopped; for half its height it had no branches, only leafy tufts, sticking out at irregular intervals. He knew what he would see when he looked up into the dark foliage. And there, sure enough, it was: a long dead bough, bare in patches where the bark had peeled off, and crooked in the middle like an elbow.

 

He began to climb the tree. The ascent proved easier than he expected, his body seemed no weight at all. But he was visited by a terrible oppression, which increased as he mounted. The bough did not want him; it was projecting its hostility down the trunk of the tree. And every second brought him nearer to an object which he had always dreaded; a growth, people called it. It stuck out from the trunk of the tree, a huge circular swelling thickly matted with twigs. Victor would have rather died than hit his head against it.

 

By the time he reached the bough twilight had deepened into night. He knew what he had to do: sit astride the bough, since there was none near by from which he could reach it, and press with his hands until it broke. Using his legs to get what purchase he could, he set his back against the tree and pushed with all his might downwards. To do this he was obliged to look beneath him, and he saw, far below him on the ground, a white sheet spread out as though to catch him; and he knew at once that it was a shroud.

 

Frantically he pulled and pushed at the stiff, brittle bough; a lust to break it took hold of him; leaning forward his whole length he seized the bough at the elbow joint and strained it away from him. As it cracked he toppled over and the shroud came rushing upwards. . . .

 

Mr. Rumbold waked in a cold sweat to find himself clutching the curved arm of the chair on which the waiter had set his brandy. The glass had fallen over and the spirit lay in a little pool on the leather seat. ‘I can’t let it go like that,’ he thought. ‘I must get some more.’ A man he did not know answered the bell. ‘Waiter,’ he said, ‘bring me a brandy and soda in my room in a quarter of an hour’s time. Rumbold, the name is.’ He followed the waiter out of the room. The passage was completely dark except for a small blue gas-jet, beneath which was huddled a cluster of candlesticks. The hotel, he remembered, maintained an old-time habit of deference towards darkness. As he held the wick to the gas-jet, he heard himself mutter, ‘Here is a candle to light you to bed.’ But he recollected the ominous conclusion of the distich, and fuddled though he was he left it unspoken.

 

Shortly after Mr. Rumbold’s retirement the door-bell of the hotel rang. Three sharp peals, and no pause between them. ‘Someone in a hurry to get in,’ the night porter grumbled to himself. ‘Expect he’s forgotten his key.’ He made no haste to answer the summons; it would do the forgetful fellow good to wait: teach him a lesson. So dilatory was he that by the time he reached the hall door the bell was tinkling again. Irritated by such importunity, he deliberately went back to set straight a pile of newspapers before letting this impatient devil in. To mark his indifference he even kept behind the door while he opened it, so that his first sight of the visitor only took in his back; but this limited inspection sufficed to show that the man was a stranger and not a visitor at the hotel.

 

In the long black cape which fell almost sheer on one side, and on the other stuck out as though he had a basket under his arm, he looked like a crow with a broken wing. A bald-headed crow, thought the porter, for there’s a patch of bare skin between that white linen thing and his hat.

 

Good evening, sir,’ he said. ‘What can I do for you?’

 

The stranger made no answer, but glided to a side-table and began turning over some letters with his right hand.

 

Are you expecting a message?’ asked the porter.

 

No,’ the stranger replied. ‘I want a room for the night.’

 

Was you the gentleman who telephoned for a room this evening?’

 

Yes.’

 

In that case, I was to tell you we’re afraid you can’t have one; the hotel’s booked right up.’

 

Are you quite sure?’ asked the stranger. ‘Think again.’

 

Them’s my orders, sir. It don’t do me no good to think.’

 

At this moment the porter had a curious sensation as though some important part of him, his life maybe, had gone adrift inside him and was spinning round and round. The sensation ceased when he began to speak.

 

I’ll call the waiter, sir,’ he said.

 

But before he called the waiter appeared, intent on an errand of his own.

 

I say, Bill,’ he began, ‘what’s the number of Mr. Rumbold’s room? He wants a drink taken up, and I forgot to ask him.’

 

It’s thirty-three,’ said the porter unsteadily. ‘The double room.’

 

Why, Bill, what’s up?’ the waiter exclaimed. ‘You look as if you’d seen a ghost.’

 

Both men stared round the hall, and then back at each other. The room was empty.

 

God!’ said the porter. ‘I must have had the horrors. But he was here a moment ago. Look at this.’

 

On the stone flags lay an icicle, an inch or two long, around which a little pool was fast collecting.

 

Why, Bill,’ cried the waiter, ‘how did that get here? It’s not freezing.’

 

He must have brought it,’ the porter said.

 

They looked at each other in consternation, which changed into terror as the sound of a bell made itself heard, coming from the depths of the hotel.

 

Clutsam’s there,’ whispered the porter. ‘He’ll have to answer it, whoever it is.’

 

Clutsam had taken off his tie and was getting ready for bed. He slept in the basement. What on earth could anyone want in the smoking-room at this hour? He pulled on his coat and went upstairs.

 

Standing by the fire he saw the same figure whose appearance and disappearance had so disturbed the porter.

 

Yes, sir?’ he said.

 

I want you to go to Mr. Rumbold,’ said the stranger, ‘and ask him if he is prepared to put the other bed in his room at the disposal of a friend.’

 

In a few moments Clutsam returned.

 

Mr. Rumbold’s compliments, sir, and he wants to know who it is.’

 

The stranger went to the table in the centre of the room. An Australian newspaper was lying there which Clutsam had not noticed before. The aspirant to Mr. Rumbold’s hospitality turned over the pages. Then with his finger, which appeared even to Clutsam standing by the door unusually pointed, he cut out a rectangular slip, about the size of a visiting card, and, moving away, motioned the waiter to take it.

 

By the light of the gas-jet in the passage Clutsam read the clipping. It seemed to be a kind of obituary notice; but of what possible interest could it be to Mr. Rumbold to know that the body of Mr. James Hagberd had been discovered in circumstances which suggested that he had met his death by violence?

 

After a longer interval Clutsam returned, looking puzzled and a little frightened.

 

Mr. Rumbold’s compliments, sir, but he knows no one of that name.’

 

Then take this message to Mr. Rumbold,’ said the stranger. ‘Say, “Would he rather that I went up to him, or that he came down to me?” ’

 

For the third time Clutsam went to do the stranger’s bidding. He did not, however, upon his return open the door of the smoking-room, but shouted through it:

 

Mr. Rumbold wishes you to Hell, sir, where you belong, and says, “Come up if you dare!” ’

 

Then he bolted.

 

A minute later, from his retreat in an underground coal-cellar, he heard a shot fired. Some old instinct, danger-loving or danger-disregarding, stirred in him, and he ran up the stairs quicker than he had ever run up them in his life. In the passage he stumbled over Mr. Rumbold’s boots. The bedroom door was ajar. Putting his head down he rushed in. The brightly lit room was empty. But almost all the movables in it were overturned and the bed was in a frightful mess. The pillow with its five-fold perforation was the first object on which Clutsam noticed bloodstains. Thenceforward he seemed to see them everywhere. But what sickened him and kept him so long from going down to rouse the others was the sight of an icicle on the window-sill, a thin claw of ice curved like a Chinaman’s nail, with a bit of flesh sticking to it.

 

That was the last he saw of Mr. Rumbold. But a policeman patrolling Carrick Street noticed a man in a long black cape, who seemed, by the position of his arm, to be carrying something heavy. He called out to the man and ran after him; but though he did not seem to be moving very fast, the policeman could not overtake him.

 

 

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Eine Antwort to “L.P. Hartley: A Visitor from Down Under”

  1. Autumn Short-story Literary Countdown! – Matt's Homepage Says:

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