In the cold waiting room of a small railway station in the West of England two men were sitting. They had sat there for an hour, and were likely to sit there longer. There was a thick fog outside. Their train was indefinitely delayed.
The waiting room was a barren and unfriendly place. A naked electric bulb lit it with wan, disdainful efficiency. A notice, No Smoking, stood on the mantelpiece; when you turned it round, it said No Smoking on the other side, too. Printed regulations relating to an outbreak of swine-fever in 1924 were pinned neatly to one wall, almost, but maddeningly not quite, in the center of it. The stove gave out a hot, thick smell, powerful already, but increasing. A pale leprous flush on the black and beaded window showed that a light was burning on the platform outside, in the fog. Somewhere, water dripped with infinite reluctance onto corrugated iron.
The two men sat facing each other over the stove on chairs of an unswerving woodenness. Their acquaintance was no older than their vigil. From such talk as they had had, it seemed likely that they were to remain strangers.
The younger of the two resented the lack of contact in their relationship more than the lack of comfort in their surroundings. His attitude toward his fellow beings had but recently undergone a transition from the subjective to the objective. As with many of his class and age, the routine, unrecognized as such, of an expensive education, with the triennial alternative of those delights normal to wealth and gentility, had atrophied many of his curiosities. For the first twenty-odd years of his life he had read humanity in terms of relevance rather than reality, looking on people who held no ordained place in his own existence much as a buck in a park watches visitors walking up the drive: mildly, rather resentfully inquiring-not inquisitive. Now, hot in reaction from this unconscious provincialism, he treated mankind as a museum, gaping conscientiously at each fresh exhibit, hunting for the noncumulative evidence of man’s complexity with indiscriminate zeal. To each magic circle of individuality he saw himself as a kind of freelance tangent. He aspired to be a connoisseur of men.
There was undoubtedly something arresting about the specimen before him. Of less than medium height, the stranger had yet that sort of ranging leanness that lends vicarious inches. He wore a long black overcoat, very shabby, and his shoes were covered with mud. His face had no color in it, though the impression it produced was not one of pallor; the skin was of a dark sallow, tinged with gray. The nose was pointed, the jaw sharp and narrow. Deep vertical wrinkles, running down toward it from the high cheekbones, sketched the permanent groundwork of a broader smile than the deep-set, honey-colored eyes seemed likely to authorize. The most striking thing about the face was the incongruity of its frame. On the back of his head the stranger wore a bowler hat with a very narrow brim. No word of such casual implications as a tilt did justice to its angle. It was clamped, by something at least as holy as custom, to the back of his skull, and that thin, questing face confronted the world fiercely from under a black halo of nonchalance. The man’s whole appearance suggested difference rather than aloofness. The unnatural way he wore his hat had the significance of indirect comment, like the antics of a performing animal. It was as if he was part of some older thing, of which Homo sapiens in a bowler hat was an expurgated edition. He sat with his shoulders hunched and his hands thrust into his overcoat pockets. The hint of discomfort in his attitude seemed due not so much to the fact that his chair was hard as to the fact that it was a chair.
The young man had found him uncommunicative. The most mobile sympathy, launching consecutive attacks on different fronts, had failed to draw him out. The reserved adequacy of his replies conveyed a rebuff more effectively than sheer surliness. Except to answer him, he did not look at the young man. When he did, his eyes were full of an Abstracted amusement. Sometimes he smiled, but for no immediate cause.
Looking back down their hour together, the young man saw a field of endeavor on which frustrated banalities lay thick, like the discards of a routed army. But resolution, curiosity, and the need to kill time all clamored against an admission of defeat.
If he will not talk, thought the young man, then I will. The sound of my own voice is infinitely preferable to the sound of none. I will tell him what has just happened to me. It is really a most extraordinary story. I will tell it as well as I can, and I shall be very much surprised if its impact on his mind does not shock this man into some form of self-revelation. He is unaccountable without being outr6 and I am inordinately curious about him.
Aloud he said, in a brisk and engaging manner, “I think you said you were a hunting man?”
The other raised his quick, honey-colored eyes. They gleamed with inaccessible amusement. Without answering, he lowered them again to contemplate the little beads of light thrown through the ironwork of the stove onto the skirts of his overcoat. Then he spoke. He had a husky voice.
“I came here to hunt,” he agreed.
“In that case,” said the young man, “you will have heard of Lord Fleer’s private pack. Their kennels are not far from here.”
“I know them,” replied the other.
“I have just been staying there,” the young man continued. “Lord Fleer is my uncle.”
The other looked up, smiled and nodded, with the bland inconsequence of a foreigner who does not understand what is being said to him. The young man swallowed his impatience.
“Would you,” he continued, using a slightly more peremptory tone than heretofore, “would you care to hear a new and rather remarkable story about my uncle? Its denouement is not two days old. It is quite short.” From the fastness of some hidden joke, those light eyes mocked the necessity of a definite answer. At length: “Yes,” said the stranger, “I would.” The impersonality in his voice might have passed for a parade of sophistication, a reluctance to betray interest. But the eyes hinted that interest was alive elsewhere.
“Very well,” said the young man. Drawing his chair a little closer to the stove, he began:
As perhaps you know, my uncle, Lord Fleer, leads a retired, though by no means an inactive life. For the last two or three hundred years, the currents of contemporary thought have passed mainly through the hands of men whose gregarious instincts have been constantly awakened and almost invariably indulged. By the standards of the 18th century, when Englishmen first became self-conscious about solitude, my uncle would have been considered unsociable. In the early 19th century, those not personally acquainted with him would have thought him romantic. Today, his attitude toward the sound and fury of modern life is too negative to excite comment as an oddity; yet even now, were he to be involved in any occurrence which could be called disastrous or interpreted as discreditable, the press would pillory him as a “Titled Recluse.”
The truth of the matter is, my uncle has discovered the elixir, or, if you prefer it, the opiate, of self-sufficiency. A man of extremely simple tastes, not cursed with overmuch imagination, he sees no reason to cross frontiers of habit which the years have hallowed into rigidity. He lives in his castle (it may be described as commodious rather than comfortable), runs his estate at a slight profit, shoots a little, rides a great deal, and hunts as often as he can. He never sees his neighbors except by accident, thereby leading them to suppose, with sublime but unconscious arrogance, that he must be slightly mad. If he is, he can at least claim to have padded his own cell.
My uncle has never married. As’the only son of his only brother, I was brought up in the expectation of being his heir. During the war, however, an unforseen development occurred.
In this national crisis my uncle, who was of course too old for active service, showed a lack of public spirit which earned him locally a good deal of unpopularity. Briefly, he declined to recognize the war, or, if he did recognize it, gave no sign of having done so. He continued to lead his own vigorous but (in the circumstances) rather irrelevant life. Though he found himself at last obliged to recruit his hunt-servants from men of advanced age and uncertain mettle in any crisis of the chase, he contrived to mount them well, and twice a week during the season himself rode two horses to a standstill after the hill-foxes which, as no doubt you know, provide the best sport the Fleer country has to offer.
When the local gentry came and made representations to him, saying that it was time he did something for his country besides destroying its vermin by the most unreliable and expensive method ever devised, my uncle was very sensible. He now saw, he said, that he had been standing too aloof from a struggle of whose progress (since he never read the paper) he had been only indirectly aware. The next day he wrote to London and ordered the Times and a Belgian refugee. It was the least he could do, he said. I think he was right.
The Belgian refugee turned out to be a female, and dumb. Whether one or both of these characteristics had been stipulated for by my uncle, nobody knew. At any rate, she took up her quarters at Fleer: a heavy, unattractive girl of 25, with a shiny face and small black hairs on the backs of her hands. Her life appeared to be modeled on that of the larger ruminants, except, of course, that the greater part of it took place indoors. She ate a great deal, slept with a will, and had a bath every Sunday, remitting this salubrious custom only when the housekeeper, who enforced it, was away on her holiday. Much of her time she spent sitting on a sofa, on the landing outside her bedroom, with Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico open on her lap. She read either exceptionally slowly or not at all, for to my knowledge she carried the first volume about with her for eleven years. Hers, I think, was the contemplative type of mind.
The curious, and from my point of view the unfortunate, aspect of my uncle’s patriotic gesture was the gradually increasing affection with which he came to regard this unlovable creature. Although, or more probably because, he saw her only at meals, when her features were rather more animated than at other times, his attitude toward her passed from the detached to the courteous, and from the courteous to the paternal. At the end of the war there was no question of her return to Belgium, and one day in 1919 1 heard with pardonable mortification that my uncle had legally adopted her, and was altering his will in her favor.
Time, however, reconciled me to being disinherited by a being who, between meals, could scarcely be described as sentient. I continued to pay an annual visit to Fleer, and to ride with my uncle after his big-boned Welsh hounds over the sullen, dark-gray hill country in which–since its possession was no longer assured to me-I now began to see a powerful, though elusive, beauty.
I came down here three days ago, intending to stay for a week. I found my uncle, who is a tall, fine-looking man with a beard, in his usual unassailable good health. The Belgian, as always, gave me the impression of being impervious to disease, to emotion, or indeed to anything short of an act of God. She had been putting on weight since she came to live with my uncle, and was now a very considerable figure of a woman, though not, as yet, unwieldy.
It was at dinner, on the evening of my arrival, that I first noticed a certain malaise behind my uncle’s brusque, laconic manner. There was evidently something on his mind. After dinner he asked me to come into his study. I detected, in the delivery of the invitation, the first hint of embarrassment I had known him to betray.
The walls of the study were hung with maps and the extremities of foxes, The room was littered with bills, catalogues, old gloves, fossils, rat-traps, cartridges, and feathers which had been used to clean his pipe-a stale diversity of jetsam which somehow managed to produce an impression of relevance and continuity, like the debris in an animal’s lair. I had never been in the study before.
“Paul,” said my uncle as soon as I had shut the door, “I am very much disturbed.”
I assumed an air of sympathetic inquiry.
“Yesterday,” my uncle went on, “one of my tenants came to see me. He is a decent man, who farms a strip of land outside the park wall, to the northward. He said that he had lost two sheep in a manner for which he was wholly unable to account. He said he thought they had been killed by some wild animal.”
My uncle paused. The gravity of his manner was really portentous. “Dogs?” I suggested, with the slightly patronizing diffidence of one who has probability on his side.
My uncle shook his head judiciously. “This man had often seen sheep which had been killed by dogs. He said that they were always badly torn-nipped about the legs, driven into a corner, worried to death: 76 Peter Fleming it was never a clean piece of work. These two sheep had not been killed like that. I went down to see them for myself. Their throats had been torn out. They were not bitten, or nuzzled. They had both died in the open, not in a corner. Whatever did it was an animal mote powerful and more cunning than a dog.”
I said, “It couldn’t have been something that had escaped from a traveling menagerie, I suppose?”
“They don’t come into this part of the country,” replied my uncle. “There are no fairs.”
We were both silent for a moment. It was hard not to show more curiosity than sympathy as I waited on some further revelation to stake out my uncle’s claim on the latter emotion. I could put no interpretation on those two dead sheep wild enough to account for his evident distress.
He spoke again, but with obvious reluctance.
“Another was killed early this morning,” he said in a low voice, “on the Horne Farm. In the same way.”
For lack of any better comment, I suggested beating the nearby coverts. There might be some…
“We’ve scoured the woods,” interrupted my uncle brusquely.
“And found nothing?”
“Nothing… Except some tracks.”
“What sort of tracks?”
My uncle’s eyes were suddenly evasive. He turned his head away.
“They were a man’s tracks,” he said slowly. A log fell over in the fireplace.
Again a silence. The interview appeared to be causing him pain rather than relief. I decided that the situation could lose nothing through the frank expression of my curiosity. Plucking up courage, I asked him roundly what cause he had to be upset? Three sheep, the property of his tenants, had died deaths which, though certainly unusual, were unlikely to remain for long mysterious. Their destroyer, whatever it was, would inevitably be caught, killed, or driven away in the course of the next few days. The loss of another sheep or two was the worst he had to fear.
When I had finished, my uncle gave me an anxious, almost a guilty look. I was suddenly aware that he had a confession to make.
“Sit down,” he said. “I wish to tell you something.”
This is what he told me:
A quarter of a century ago, my uncle had had occasion to engage a new housekeeper. With the blend of fatalism and sloth which is the foundation of the bachelor’s attitude to the servant problem, he took on the first applicant. She was a tall, black, slant-eyed woman from the Welsh border, aged about 30. My uncle said nothing about her character, but described her as having “powers.” When she had been at Fleer some months, my uncle began to notice her, instead of taking her for granted. She was not averse to being noticed.
One day she came and told my uncle that she was with child by him. He took it calmly enough till he found that she expected him to marry her; or pretended to expect it. Then he flew into a rage, called her a whore, and told her she must leave the house as soon as the child was born. Instead of breaking down, or continuing the scene, she began to croon to herself in Welsh, looking at him sideways with a certain amusement. This frightened him. He forbade her to come near him again, had her things moved into an unused wing of the castle, and engaged another housekeeper.
A child was born, and they came and told my uncle that the woman was, going to die; she asked for him continually, they said. As much frightened as distressed, he went through passages long unfamiliar to her room. When the woman saw him, she began to gabble in a preoccupied kind of way, looking at him all the time, as if she were repeating a lesson. Then she stopped, and asked that he should be shown the child. It was a boy. The midwife, my uncle noticed, handled it with a reluctance almost amounting to disgust.
“That is your heir,” said the dying woman, in a harsh, unstable voice. “I have told him what he is to do. He will be a good son to me, and jealous of his birthright.” And she went off, my uncle said, into a wild yet cogent rigmarole about a curse, embodied in the child, which would fall on any whom he made his heir over the bastard’s head. At last her voice trailed away and she fell back, exhausted and staring. As my uncle turned to go, the midwife whispered to him to look at the child’s hands. Gently unclasping the podgy, futile little fists, she showed him that on each hand the third finger was longer than the second…
Here I interrupted. The story had a certain queer force behind it, perhaps from its obvious effect on the teller. My uncle feared and hated the things he was saying.
“What did that mean?” I asked; “the third finger longer than the second?”
“It took me a long time to discover,” replied my uncle. “My own servants, when they saw I did not know, would not tell me. But at last I found out through the doctor, who had it from an old woman in the village. People born with their third finger longer than their second become werewolves. At least” – he made a perfunctory effort at amused indulgence – “that is what the common people here think.”
“And what does that – what is that supposed to mean?” I too, found myself throwing rather hasty sops to skepticism. I was growing strangely credulous.
“A werewolf,” said my uncle, dabbing in improbability without self-consciousness, “is a human being who becomes, at intervals, to all intents and purposes a wolf. The transformation – or the supposed transformation – takes place at night. The werewolf kills men and animals and is supposed to drink their blood. Its preference is for men. All through the Middle Ages, down to the seventeenth century, there were innumerable cases (especially in France) of men and women being legally tried for offenses which they had committed as animals. Like the witches, they were rarely acquitted, but, unlike the witches, they seem seldom to have been unjustly condemned.” My uncle paused. “I have been reading the old books,” he explained. “I wrote to a man in London who is interested in these things when I heard what was believed about the child.”
“What became of the child?” I asked.
“The wife of one of my keepers took it in,” said my uncle. “She was a stolid woman from the North who, I think, welcomed the opportunity to show what little store she set by the local superstitions. The boy lived with them till he was ten. Then he ran away. I had not heard of him since then till” – my uncle glanced at me almost apologetically – “till yesterday.”
We sat for a moment in silence, looking at the fire. My imagination had betrayed my reason in its full surrender to the story. I had not got it in me to dispel his fears with a parade of sanity. I was a little frightened myself.
“You think it is your son, the werewolf, who is killing the sheep?” I said at length.
“Yes. For a boast, or for a warning, or perhaps out of spite, at a night’s hunting wasted.”
My uncle looked at me with troubled eyes. “His business is not with sheep,” he said uneasily. For the first time I realized the implications of the Welshwoman’s curse. The hunt was up. The quarry was the heir to Fleer. I was glad to have been disinherited.
“I have told Germaine not to go out after dusk,” said my uncle, coming in pat on my train of thought.
The Belgian was called Germaine; her other name was Vom.
I confess I spent no very tranquil night. My uncle’s story had ndt wholly worked in me that “suspension of disbelief” which someone speaks of as being the prime requisite of good drama. But I have a powerful imagination. Neither fatigue nor common sense could quite banish the vision of that metamorphosed malignancy ranging, with design, the black and silver silences outside my window. I found myself listening for the sound of loping footfalls on a frost-baked crust of beech-leaves…. Whether it was in my dream that I heard, once, the sound of howling I do not know. But the next morning I saw, as I dressed, a man walking quickly up the drive. He looked like a shepherd. There was a dog at his heels, trotting with a noticeable lack of assurance. At breakfast my uncle told me that another sheep had been killed, almost under the noses of the watchers. His voice shook a little. Solicitude sat oddly on his features as he looked at Germaine. She was eating porridge, as if for a wager.
After breakfast we decided on a campaign. I will not weary you with the details of its launching and its failure. All day we quartered the woods with 30 men, mounted and on foot. Near the scene of the kill our dogs picked up a scent which they followed for two miles and more, only to lose it on the railway line. But the ground was too hard for tracks, and the men said it could only have been a fox or a polecat, so surely and readily did the dogs follow it.
The exercise and the occupation were good for our nerves. But late in the afternoon my uncle grew anxious; twilight was closing in swiftly under a sky heavy with clouds, and we were some distance from Fleer. He gave final instructions for the penning of the sheep by night, and we turned our horses’ heads for home.
We approached the castle by the back drive, which was little used: a dank, unholy alley, running the gauntlet of a belt of firs and laurels. Beneath our horses’ hoofs flints chinked remotely under a thick carpet of moss. Each consecutive cloud from their nostrils hung with an air of permanency as if bequeathed to the unmoving air.
We were perhaps 300 yards from the tall gates leading to the stable yard when both horses stopped dead, simultaneously. Their heads were turned toward the trees on our right, beyond which, I knew, the sweep of the main drive converged on ours.
My uncle gave a short, inarticulate cry in which premonition stood aghast at the foreseen. At the same moment, something howled on the other side of the trees. There was relish, and a kind of sobbing laughter, in that hateful sound. It rose and fell luxuriously, and rose and fell again, fouling the night. Then it died away, fawning on satiety in a throaty whimper.
The forces of silence fell unavailingly on its rear; its filthy echoes still went reeling through our heads. We were aware that feet went loping lightly down the iron-hard drive… two feet.
My uncle flung himself off his horse and dashed through the trees. I followed. We scrambled down a bank and out into the open. The only figure in sight was motionless.
Germaine Vom lay doubled up in the drive, a solid, black mark against the shifting values of the dusk. We ran forward…
To me she had always been an improbable cipher rather than a real person. I could not help reflecting that she died, as she had lived, in the livestock tradition. Her throat had been torn out.
The young man leaned back in his chair, a little dizzy from talking and from the heat of the stove. The inconvenient realities of the waiting room, forgotten in his narrative, closed in on him again. He sighed, and smiled rather apologetically at the stranger.
“It is a wild and improbable story,” he said. “I do not expect you to believe the whole of it. For me, perhaps, the reality of its implications has obscured its almost ludicrous lack of verisimilitude. You see, by the death of the Belgian I am heir to Fleer.”
The stranger smiled: a slow, but no longer an abstracted smile. His honey-colored eyes were bright. Under his long black overcoat his body seemed to be stretching itself in sensual anticipation. He rose silently to his feet.
The other found a sharp, cold fear drilling into his vitals. Something behind those shining eyes threatened him with appalling immediacy, like a sword at his heart. He was sweating. He dared not move.
The stranger’s smile was now a grin, a ravening convulsion of the face. His eyes blazed with a hard and purposeful delight. A thread of saliva dangled from the corner of his mouth.
Very slowly he lifted one hand and removed his bowler hat. Of the fingers crooked about its brim, the young man saw that the third was longer than the second.