The Dark Side

Truly Terrifying Tales

Susan Price

Kingfisher

Chapter One
<p
THE KIT BAG
<p
ALGERNON BLACKWOOD
<p
When the Words "not guilty" sounded through the crowded courtroom that
dark December afternoon, Arthur Wilbraham, the great criminal K.C. [king's
counsel] and leader for the triumphant defense, was represented by his
junior; but Johnson, his private secretary, carried the verdict across to his
chambers like lightning.
<p
"It's what we expected, I think," said the lawyer, without emotion; "and,
personally, I am glad the case is over." There was no particular sign of
pleasure that his defense of John Turk, the murderer, on a plea of insanity,
had been successful, for no doubt he felt, as everybody who had watched the
case felt, that no man had ever better deserved the gallows.
<p
"I'm glad too," said Johnson. He had sat in the court for ten days watching
the face of the man who had carried out with callous detail one of the most
brutal and cold-blooded murders of recent years.
<p
The counsel glanced up at his secretary. They were more than employer and
employed; for family and other reasons, they were friends. "Ah, I remember;
yes," he said with a kind smile, "and you want to get away for Christmas?
You're going to skate and ski in the Alps, aren't you? If I was your age, I'd
come with you."
<p
Johnson laughed shortly. He was a young man of 26, with a delicate face like
a girl's. "I can catch the morning boat now," he said, "but that's not the
reason I'm glad the trial is over. I'm glad it's over because I've seen the last of
that man's dreadful face. It positively haunted me. That white skin, with the
black hair brushed low over the forehead, is a thing I shall never forget, and
the description of the way the dismembered body was crammed and packed
with lime into that—"
<p
"Don't dwell on it, my dear fellow," interrupted the other, looking at him
curiously out of his keen eyes. "Don't think about it. Such pictures have a
trick of coming back when one least wants them." He paused a
moment. "Now go," he added presently, "and enjoy your holiday. I shall want
all of your energy for my Parliamentary work when you get back. And don't
break your neck skiing."
<p
Johnson shook hands and took his leave. At the door he turned suddenly.
"I knew there was something I wanted to ask you," he said. "Would you mind
lending me one of your kit bags? It's too late to get one tonight, and I leave in
the morning before the shops are open."
<p
"Of course; I'll send Henry over with it to your rooms. You shall have it the
moment I get home."
<p
"I promise to take great care of it," said Johnson gratefully, delighted to think
that within 30 hours he would be nearing the brilliant sunshine of the high
Alps in the winter. The thought of that criminal court was like an evil dream in
his mind.
<p
He dined at his club and went on to Bloomsbury, where he occupied the top
floor in one of those old, gaunt houses in which the rooms are large and lofty.
The floor below his own was vacant and unfurnished, and below that were
other lodgers whom he did not know. It was cheerless, and he heartily looked
forward to a change. The night was even more cheerless: it was miserable,
and few people were around. A cold, sleety rain was driving down the streets
before the keenest east wind that he had ever felt. It howled dismally among
the big, gloomy houses of the great squares, and when he reached his
rooms, he heard it whistling and shouting over the world of black roofs
beyond his windows.
<p
In the hall he met his landlady, shading a candle from the drafts with her thin
hand. "This come by a man from Mr. Wilbr'am's, sir."
<p
She pointed to what was evidently the kit bag, and Johnson thanked her and
took it upstairs with him. "I shall be going abroad in the morning for ten days,
Mrs. Monks," he said. "I'll leave an address for letters."
<p
"And I hope you'll 'ave a merry Christmas, sir," she said in a raucous,
wheezy voice that suggested spirits, "and better weather than this."
<p
"I hope so too," replied her lodger, shuddering a little as the wind went roaring
down the street outside.
<p
When he got upstairs, he heard the sleet volleying against the windowpanes.
He put his kettle on to make a cup of hot coffee and then set about putting a
few things in order for his absence
<p
"And now I must pack—such as my packing is." He laughed to himself and
set to work at once.
<p
He liked the packing, for it brought the snow mountains so vividly before him
and made him forget the unpleasant scenes of the past ten days. Besides, it
was not elaborate in nature. His friend had lent him the very thing—a stout
canvas kit bag, sack-shaped, with holes around the neck for the brass bar
and padlock. It was a bit shapeless, true, and not much to look at, but its
capacity was unlimited, and there was no need to pack carefully. He shoved
in his waterproof coat, his fur cap and gloves, his skates and climbing boots,
his sweaters, snow boots, and earmuffs; and then on the top of these he
piled his woolen shirts and underwear, his thick socks, puttees, and
knickerbockers. The dress suit came next, in case the hotel people dressed
up for dinner, and then, thinking of the best way to pack his white shirts, he
paused a moment to reflect. "That's the worst of these kit bags," he mused
vaguely, standing in the center of the sitting room, where he had come to
fetch some string.
<p
It was after ten o'clock. A furious gust of wind rattled the windows as though
to hurry him up, and he thought with pity of the poor Londoners whose
Christmas would be spent in such a climate, while he was skimming over
snowy slopes in bright sunshine and dancing in the evening with rosy-
cheeked girls—ah! That reminded him; he must put in his dancing pumps
and evening socks. He crossed over from his sitting room to the cupboard on
the landing where he kept his linen.
<p
And as he did so, he heard someone coming softly up the stairs.
<p
He stood still a moment on the landing to listen. It was Mrs. Monks's step,
he thought; she must be coming up with the last mail. But then the steps
ceased suddenly, and he heard no more. They were at least two flights down,
and he came to the conclusion that they were too heavy to be those of his
bibulous landlady. No doubt they belonged to a late lodger who had mistaken
his floor. He went into his bedroom and packed his pumps and dress shirts
as best he could.
<p
The kit bag by this time was two thirds full and stood upright on its own base
like a sack of flour. For the first time he noticed that it was old and dirty, the
canvas faded and worn, and that it had obviously been subjected to rather
rough treatment. It was not a very nice bag to have sent him—certainly not a
new one or one that his chief valued. He gave the matter a passing thought
and went on with his packing. Once or twice, however, he caught himself
wondering who it could have been wandering down below, for Mrs. Monks had
not come up with letters, and the floor was empty and unfurnished. From
time to time, moreover, he was almost certain that he heard a soft tread of
someone padding around over the bare boards—cautiously, stealthily, as
silently as possible—and, further, that the sounds had been lately coming
distinctly closer.
<p
For the first time in his life he began to feel a little creepy. Then, as though to
emphasize this feeling, an odd thing happened: as he left the bedroom,
having just packed his recalcitrant white shirts, he noticed that the top of the
kit bag lopped over toward him with an extraordinary resemblance to a human
face. The canvas fell into a fold like a nose and forehead, and the brass rings
for the padlock just filled the position of the eyes. A shadow—or was it a
travel stain? for he could not tell exactly—looked like hair. It gave him rather
a shock, for it was so absurdly, so outrageously, like the face of John Turk,
the murderer.
<p
He laughed and went into the front room, where the light was stronger.
That horrid case has gotten on my mind, he thought; I shall be glad of a
change of scene and air. In the sitting room, however, he was not pleased to
hear again that stealthy tread upon the stairs and to realize that it was much
closer than before, as well as unmistakably real. And this time he got up and
went out to see who it could be creeping around on the upper staircase at so
late an hour.
<p
But the sound ceased; there was no one visible on the stairs. He went to the
floor below, not without trepidation, and turned on the electric light to make
sure that no one was hiding in the empty rooms of the unoccupied suite.
There was not a stick of furniture large enough to hide a dog. Then he called
over the banisters to Mrs. Monks, but there was no answer, and his voice
echoed down into the dark vault of the house and was lost in the roar of the
gale that howled outside. Everyone was in bed and asleep—everyone except
himself and the owner of this soft and stealthy tread.
<p
My absurd imagination, I suppose, he thought. It must have been the wind
after all, although—it seemed so very real and close, I thought. He went back
to his packing. It was by this time getting on toward midnight. He drank his
coffee and lit another pipe—the last before turning in.
<p
It is difficult to say exactly at what point fear begins, when the causes of that
fear are not plainly before the eyes. Impressions gather on the surface of the
mind, film by film, as ice gathers on the surface of still water, but often so
lightly that they claim no definite recognition from the consciousness. Then a
point is reached where the accumulated impressions become a definite
emotion, and the mind realizes that something has happened. With
something of a start, Johnson suddenly recognized that he felt nervous—
oddly nervous; also, that for some time past the causes of this feeling had
been gathering slowly in his mind, but that he had only just reached the point
where he was forced to acknowledge them.
<p
It was a singular and curious malaise that had come over him, and he hardly
knew what to make of it. He felt as though he was doing something that was
strongly objected to by another person, another person, moreover, who had
some right to object. It was a most disturbing and disagreeable feeling, not
unlike the persistent promptings of conscience: almost, in fact, as if he was
doing something that he knew to be wrong. Yet, though he searched
vigorously and honestly in his mind, he could nowhere lay his finger upon the
secret of this growing uneasiness, and it perplexed him. More, it distressed
and frightened him.
<p
"Pure nerves, I suppose," he said aloud with a forced laugh. "Mountain air will
cure all that! Ah," he added, still speaking to himself, "and that reminds me—
my snow glasses."
<p
He was standing by the door of the bedroom during this brief soliloquy, and
as he passed quickly toward the sitting room to fetch them from the
cupboard, he saw out of the corner of his eye the indistinct outline of a figure
standing on the stairs, a few feet from the top. It was someone in a stooping
position, with one hand on the banister and the face peering up toward the
landing. And at the same moment he heard a shuffling footstep. The person
who had been creeping around below all this time had at last come up to his
own floor. Who in the world could it be? And what in the name of heaven did
he want?
<p
Johnson caught his breath sharply and stood stock-still. Then, after a few
seconds hesitation, he found his courage and turned to investigate. The
stairs, he saw to his utter amazement, were empty; there was no one. He felt
a series of cold shivers run over him, and something around the muscles of
his legs gave a little and grew weak. For the space of several minutes he
peered steadily into the shadows that congregated around the top of the
staircase where he had seen the figure, and then he walked fast—almost ran,
in fact—into the light of the front room; but hardly had he passed inside the
doorway when he heard someone come up the stairs behind him with a quick
bound and go swiftly into his bedroom. It was a heavy, but at the same time
a stealthy, footstep—the tread of somebody who did not wish to be seen.
And it was at this precise moment that the nervousness he had hitherto
experienced leaped the boundary line and entered the state of fear, almost of
acute, unreasoning fear. Before it turned into terror there was a further
boundary to cross, and beyond that again lay the region of pure horror.
Johnson's position was an unenviable one.
<p
"By Jove! That was someone on the stairs, then," he muttered, his flesh
crawling all over; "and whoever it was has now gone into my bedroom." His
delicate, pale face turned absolutely white, and for some minutes he hardly
knew what to think or do. Then he realized intuitively that delay only set a
premium upon fear; and he crossed the landing boldly and went straight into
the other room, where, a few seconds before, the steps had disappeared.
"Who's there? Is that you, Mrs. Monks?" he called aloud as he went, and he
heard the first half of his words echo down the empty stairs, while the second
half fell dead against the curtains in a room that apparently held no other
human figure than his own.
<p
"Who's there?" he called again in a voice unnecessarily loud and that only
just held firm. "What do you want here?"
<p
The curtains swayed very slightly, and, as he saw it, his heart felt as if it
almost missed a beat; yet he dashed forward and drew them aside with a
rush. A window, streaming with rain, was all that met his gaze. He continued
his search, but in vain; the cupboards held nothing but rows of clothes,
hanging motionless; and under the bed there was no sign of anyone hiding.
He stepped backward into the middle of the room, and, as he did so,
something all but tripped him up. Turning with a sudden spring of alarm he
saw—the kit bag.
<p
Odd! he thought. That's not where I left it! A few moments before it had surely
been on his right, between the bed and the bathtub; he did not remember
having moved it. It was very curious. What in the world was the matter with
everything? Had all of his senses gone queer? A terrific gust of wind tore at
the windows, dashing the sleet against the glass with the force of a small
gunshot, and then fled away, howling dismally over the waste of Bloomsbury
roofs. A sudden vision of the English Channel the next day rose in his mind
and recalled him sharply to realities.
<p
"There's no one here at any rate; that's quite clear!" he exclaimed aloud. Yet
at the time he uttered them he knew perfectly well that his words were not
true and that he did not believe them himself. He felt exactly as though
someone was hiding close to him, watching all of his movements, trying to
hinder his packing in some way. "And two of my senses," he added, keeping
up the pretense, "have played me the most absurd tricks: the steps I heard
and the figure I saw were both entirely imaginary."
<p
He went back to the front room, poked the fire into a blaze, and sat down
before it to think. What impressed him more than anything else was the fact
that the kit bag was no longer where he had left it. It had been dragged closer
to the door.
<p
What happened afterward that night happened, of course, to a man already
excited by fear and was perceived by a mind that had not the full and proper
control, therefore, of the senses. Outwardly, Johnson remained calm and a
master of himself to the end, pretending to the very last that everything he
witnessed had a natural explanation or was merely delusions of his tired
nerves. But inwardly, in his very heart, he knew all along that someone had
been hiding downstairs in the empty suite when he came in, that this person
had watched for his opportunity and then stealthily made his way up to the
bedroom, and that all he saw and heard afterward, from the moving of the kit
bag to—well, to the other things that this story has to tell—were caused
directly by the presence of this invisible person.
<p
And it was here, just when he most desired to keep his mind and thoughts
controlled, that the vivid pictures received day after day upon the mental
plates exposed in the courtroom of the Old Bailey came strongly to light and
developed themselves in the darkroom of his inner vision. Unpleasant,
haunting memories have a way of coming to life again just when the mind
least desires them—in the silent watches of the night, on sleepless pillows,
during the lonely hours spent by sick and dying beds. And so now, in the
same way, Johnson saw nothing but the dreadful face of John Turk, the
murderer, lowering at him from every corner of his mental field of vision: the
white skin, the evil eyes, and the fringe of black hair low over the forehead. All
of the pictures of those ten days in court crowded back into his mind
unbidden and very vivid.
<p
"This is all rubbish and nerves," he exclaimed at length, springing with
sudden energy from his chair. "I shall finish my packing and go to bed. I'm
overwrought, overtired. No doubt, at this rate I shall hear steps and things all
night!"
<p
But his face was deadly white all the same. He snatched up his field glasses
and walked across to the bedroom, humming a music-hall song as he went—
a trifle too loud to be natural; and the instant he crossed the threshold and
stood within the room something turned cold around his heart, and he felt
that every hair on his head stood up.
<p
The kit bag lay close in front of him, several feet closer to the door than he
had left it, and just over its crumpled top he saw a head and face slowly
sinking down out of sight as though someone was crouching behind it to
hide, and at the same moment a sound like a long-drawn sigh was distinctly
audible in the still air around him between the gusts of the storm outside.
<p
Johnson had more courage and willpower than the girlish indecision of his
face indicated; but at first such a wave of terror came over him that for some
seconds he could do nothing but stand and stare. A violent trembling ran
down his back and legs, and he was conscious of a foolish, almost an
hysterical, impulse to scream aloud. That sigh seemed in his very ear, and
the air still quivered with it. It was unmistakably a human sigh.
<p
"Who's there?" he said at length, finding his voice; but though he meant to
speak with loud decision, the tones came out instead in a faint whisper, for
he had partly lost the control of his tongue and lips.
<p
He stepped forward so that he could see all around and over the kit bag. Of
course there was nothing there, nothing but the faded carpet and the bulging
canvas sides. He put out his hands and threw open the mouth of the sack
where it had fallen over, being only three parts full, and then he saw for the
first time that around the inside, some six inches from the top, there ran a
broad smear of dull crimson. It was an old and faded bloodstain. He uttered a
scream and drew back his hands as if they had been burned. At the same
moment the kit bag gave a faint, but unmistakable, lurch forward toward the
door.
<p
Johnson collapsed backward, searching with his hands for the support of
something solid, and the door, being farther behind him than he realized,
received his weight just in time to prevent his falling and shut with a
resounding bang. At the same moment the swinging of his left arm
accidentally touched the electric switch, and the light in the room went out.
It was an awkward and disagreeable predicament, and if Johnson had not
been possessed of real pluck, he might have done all manner of foolish
things. As it was, however, he pulled himself together and groped furiously for
the little brass knob to turn the light on again. But the rapid closing of the
door had set the coats hanging on it swinging, and his fingers became
entangled in a confusion of sleeves and pockets so that it was some
moments before he found the switch. And in those few moments of
bewilderment and terror two things happened that sent him beyond recall over
the boundary into the region of genuine horror: he distinctly heard the kit bag
shuffling heavily across the floor in jerks, and close in front of his face
sounded once again the sigh of a human being.
In his anguished efforts to find the brass button on the wall, he almost
scraped the nails from his fingers, but even then, in those frenzied moments
of alarm—so swift and alert are the impressions of a mind keyed up by a vivid
emotion—he had time to realize that he dreaded the return of the light and
that it might be better for him to stay hidden in the merciful screen of
darkness. It was but the impulse of a moment, however, and before he had
time to act upon it, he had yielded automatically to the original desire, and
the room was flooded again with light.
<p
But the second instinct had been right. It would have been better for him to
have stayed in the shelter of the kind darkness. For there, close before him,
bending over the half-packed kit bag, as clear as life in the merciless glare of
the electric light, stood the figure of John Turk, the murderer. Not three feet
from him the man stood, the fringe of black hair marked plainly against the
pallor of the forehead, the whole horrible presentment of the scoundrel, as
vivid as he had seen him day after day in the Old Bailey, when he stood there
in the dock, cynical and callous, under the very shadow of the gallows.
In a flash Johnson realized what it all meant: the dirty and much-used bag;
the smear of crimson within the top; the dreadful stretched condition of the
bulging sides. He remembered how the victim's body had been stuffed inside
a canvas bag for burial, the ghastly, dismembered fragments forced with lime
into this very bag, and the bag itself produced as evidence—it all came back
to him as clear as day . . .
<p
Very softly and stealthily his hand groped behind him for the handle of the
door, but before he could actually turn it, the very thing that he most of all
dreaded came about, and John Turk lifted his devil's face and looked at him.
At the same moment that heavy sigh passed through the air of the room,
formulated somehow into words: "It's my bag. And I want it."
<p
Johnson just remembered clawing open the door and then falling in a heap
upon the floor of the landing as he tried frantically to make his way into the
front room.
<p
He remained unconscious for a long time, and it was still dark when he
opened his eyes and realized that he was lying, stiff and bruised, on the cold
boards. Then the memory of what he had seen rushed back into his mind,
and he promptly fainted again. When he woke the second time, the wintry
dawn was just beginning to peep in at the windows, painting the stairs a
cheerless, dismal gray, and he managed to crawl into the front room and
cover himself with an overcoat in the armchair, where at length he fell asleep.
A great clamor woke him. He recognized Mrs. Monks's voice, loud and
voluble.
<p
"What! You ain't been to bed, sir! Are you ill, or has anything 'appened? And
there's an urgent gentleman to see you, though it ain't seven o'clock yet,
and—"
<p
"Who is it?" he stammered. "I'm all right, thanks. Fell asleep in my chair, I
suppose."
<p
"Someone from Mr. Wilb'ram's, and he says he ought to see you quick
before you go abroad, and I told him—"
<p
"Show him up, please, at once," said Johnson, whose head was whirling, and
his mind was still full of dreadful visions.
<p
Mr. Wilbraham's man came in with many apologies and explained briefly and
quickly that an absurd mistake had been made and that the wrong kit bag
had been sent over the night before.
<p
"Henry somehow got hold of the one that came over from the courtroom, and
Mr. Wilbraham only discovered it when he saw his own lying in his room and
asked why it had not gone to you," the man said.
<p
"Oh!" said Johnson stupidly.
<p
"And he must have brought you the one from the murder case instead, sir,
I'm afraid," the man continued, without the ghost of an expression on his
face. "The one John Turk packed the dead body in. Mr. Wilbraham's awful
upset about it, sir, and told me to come over first thing this morning with the
right one, as you were leaving by the boat."
<p
He pointed to a clean-looking kit bag on the floor, which he had just
brought. "And I was to bring the other one back, sir," he added casually.
For some minutes Johnson could not find his voice. At last
he pointed in the direction of his bedroom. "Perhaps you would kindly unpack
it for me. Just empty the things out on the floor."
<p
The man disappeared into the other room and was gone for five minutes.
Johnson heard the shifting to and fro of the bag and the rattle of the skates
and boots being unpacked.
<p
"Thank you, sir," the man said, returning with the bag folded over his
arm. "And can I do anything more to help you, sir?"
<p
"What is it?" asked Johnson, seeing that he still had something that he
wished to say.
<p
The man shuffled and looked mysterious. "Beg pardon, sir, but knowing your
interest in the Turk case, I thought you'd maybe like to know what's
happened—"
<p
"Yes."
<p
"John Turk killed himself last night with poison immediately on getting his
release, and he left a note for Mr. Wilbraham saying as he'd be much obliged
if they'd have him put away, same as the woman he murdered, in the old kit
bag."
<p
"What time—did he do it?" asked Johnson.
<p
"Ten o'clock last night, sir, the warden says."