The Camera Fiend
by E.W. Hornung
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5
Home - Random Browse

"I say no more than 'often' because there are special difficulties into which I need not enter here; but they would disappear, or at least be minimised, if the practice received the encouragement it deserves, instead of the forbidding ban of a sentimental generation. It would hurt nobody; it would comfort and convince the millions who at present have only their Churches' word for the existence of an eternal soul in their perishable bodies. It would prove more, in the course of a few experiments, than all the Churches have proved between them in nineteen centuries. Yet how are my earnest applications received, in hospitals where men die daily, in prisons where they are still occasionally put to death? I am refused, rebuffed, gratuitously reprimanded; in fact, I am driven ultimately to the extreme course of taking human life, on my own account, in order to prove the life eternal. Call it murder, call it what you will; in a civilisation which will not hear of a lethal chamber for congenital imbeciles it would be waste of time to urge the inutility of a life as an excuse for taking it, or the misery of an individual as a reason for sending him to a world which cannot use him worse than this world. I can only say that I have not deprived the State of one conceivably profitable servant, or cut short a single life of promise or repute. I have picked my few victims with infinite care from amid the moral or material wreckage of life; either they had nothing to live for, or they had no right to live. Charlton, the licensed messenger, had less to live for than any man I ever knew; in the course of our brief acquaintance he frequently told me how he wished he was dead. I came across him in Kensington, outside a house to which an unseemly fracas had attracted my attention as I passed. Charlton had just been ejected for being drunk and insolent, and refusing to leave without an extra sixpence. I befriended him. He was indeed saturated with alcohol and honeycombed with disease; repulsive in appearance, and cantankerous in character, his earnings were so slender that he was pitifully clad, and without a night's lodging oftener than not. He had not a friend in the world, and was suffering from an incurable malady of which the end was certain agony. I resolved to put him out of his misery, and at the same time to try to photograph the escape of his soul. A favourable opportunity did not present itself for some time, during which Charlton subsisted largely on my bounty; at last one morning I found him asleep on a bench in Holland Walk, and not another being in sight, and I shot him with a cheap pistol which I had purchased second-hand for the purpose, and which I left beside him on the seat. Yet the weapon it was that cast a doubt upon the authenticity of the suicide, despite my final precaution of stuffing a number of cartridges into the dead man's pocket; pot-house associates came forward to declare that he could never have possessed either the revolver or its price without their knowledge. Hence the coroner's repudiation of the verdict at the inquest. Yet it is to be feared that the fate of such as poor Charlton excites but little public interest in its explanation, and that the police themselves never took more than an academic interest in the case."

"To me it was a bitter disappointment on other grounds. I had lost very few seconds between pulling the revolver trigger and pressing the bulb of my pneumatic shutter; but one had to get back into position for this, and the fact remains that I was too late. The result may be found among my negatives. It is dreadfully good of the dead man, if not a unique photograph of actual death; but it lacks the least trace of the super-normal. The flight of the soul had been too quick for me; it would be too quick again unless I hit upon some new method. I had not only failed to leave convincing evidence of suicide, but the fatal pause between pistol-shot and snap-shot was due entirely to my elaborate attempt in that direction. It was not worth making again. The next case should be a more honest breach of the Sixth Commandment; the shot to be fired, and the photograph taken, at the same range and all but at the same instant. There would be no further point in leaving the weapon behind, so I was free to choose the one best suited to my purpose, and to adapt it at my leisure to my peculiar needs. Eventually I evolved the ingenious engine which, no doubt, has already explained itself better than I could possibly explain it; if not, the discoverer of the camera need not hesitate to experiment with the pistol, as it will not be loaded when found."

There was a brief discussion here. The children could not understand about the pistol; but only one of them cared what had become of it. For Phillida it was enough to know that the writer of this shameless rigmarole, with its pompous periods and its callous gusto, must long ago have lost his reason. She had no doubt whatever about that, and already it had brought a new light into her eyes. She would pause to discuss nothing else. It was her finger that pointed the way through the next passages.

"The perfection or completion of my device was the secret work of many weeks; it brings me down almost to the other day, and to what I have described as the supreme folly of my life. I had everything in readiness for another attempt to liberate and photograph a human soul in consecutive fractions of a second. But the right man was never in the right place at the right time; one saw him by the dozen in a crowd, but the people one met all by themselves, in the early summer mornings, stayed one's hand repeatedly by the eager brightness of their eyes or a happy elasticity of step. Once an out-patient at the Brompton Hospital, whom I had dogged all the way down to Richmond Park, was cheated of a merciful end by dusk falling just as I had him to myself. No; the dawn and the drunkard were still my best chance. So it was that the wretch whose name I forget met with his death in Hyde Park last Tuesday morning. I knew him by sight as a pot-house loafer of the Charlton circle, but it was quite by chance that I followed his uncertain footsteps through the Park, and saw him go deliberately to bed in the drenching dew. His face filled in his tale; it was another farrago of privation and excess. This was the type that caused me no compunction: having aimed and focussed at the same time, as my invention provides, I despatched the poor devil as he lay on his side, with his hat over his eyes, and exposed my plate as he rolled over on his face. It may be reckoned an offensive detail, but the click of my instantaneous shutter coincided with the last clutter in his throat."

"I need hardly say that I had looked about me pretty thoroughly before firing, and my first act after taking the photograph was to make another wary survey of the scene. It had the advantage that one could see a considerable distance in three directions, and in none of these, neither right nor left along the path, nor yet straight ahead across the grass on the edge of which my victim lay, was a living creature to be seen. This was very reassuring, as I felt that I could see a good deal farther than the report of my small automatic pistol was likely to be heard; for it is a remarkable feature of most shooting cases, especially where a pistol has been used, and in the open air, how seldom it is that a witness can be found who has actually heard the fatal shot. In the fourth quarter, where there was a bank of shrubbery behind some iron palings, I looked last, for I was standing with my back that way. How shall I describe my sensations on turning round? There was a young lad within a few feet of me, on the other side of the palings; and this young lad was flourishing a revolver in his right hand!"

"At first I made certain he had seen everything; but his blank and frank bewilderment was more reassuring at a second glance, and at a third I guessed what had happened to him. His crumpled clothes were dank with dew. His eyes were puddles of utter stupefaction. He had been sleeping in the Park, and walking in his sleep, and in all probability it was my shot which had brought him to himself; of this, however, I was less sure, and in my doubt I was disastrously inspired to accuse him of having fired the shot himself. It never struck me that he could mistake the body behind me for a living man; it was with a wild idea of being the first to accuse the other, that I asked him if he knew what he had done, and seized his revolver at the same moment. I had the wit to grasp it in my hot hand until the barrel was just warm enough to help me convince the child that he really had fired the shot; but, since he could not see it for myself, I was not going out of my way just then to tell him it was a fatal shot. Already I regretted that I had gone so far, and yet already I saw myself committed to a course of action as rash as it was now inevitable. The boy became convulsed with asthma; I could not leave him there, to tell his story when the body was discovered, to have it disproved perhaps on the spot, at the latest on a comparison of bullets, and the truth brought home to me through his description. Again, when I had taken him to my house, with all sorts of foolish precautions, and still more foolish risks, I had to keep him there. How could I let him loose to blurt out his story and implicate me more readily than ever after what he had seen of me at home? I had to keep him there—I repeat it—alive or dead. And I was not the kind of murderer (if I am one at all) to take a young and innocent life, if I could help it, to preserve my own; on the contrary, I had, and I hope I always should have had, humanity enough at least to do what I could for a fellow-creature battling with an attack which almost threatened to remove him from my path without my aid."

There followed a few remarks on Pocket's character as the writer read it. They were not uncomplimentary to Pocket personally, but they betrayed a profound disdain for the typically British institution of which Pocket was too readily accepted as a representative product. His general ignorance and credulity received a grim tribute; they were the very qualities the doctor would have demanded in a chosen dupe. Yet he appeared to have enjoyed the youth's society, his transparent honesty, his capacity for enthusiastic interest, whether in the delights of photography or in the horrors of war. Baumgartner seemed aware that he had been somewhat confidential on both subjects, and that either his contempt of human life, or his ambitions in the matter of psychic photography, would have been better kept to himself; but, on the other hand, he "greatly doubted whether they taught boys to put two and two together, at these so-called public schools"; and, after all, it was not detection by the boy, but through the boy, that he had to fear.

"The madness of keeping him prisoner, as he had been from the beginning, in spite of all pretences and persuasions to the contrary, was another thing to which Baumgartner had been thoroughly alive all along. He had regarded it from the first as 'the certain beginning of the end'; from the first, he had been prepared with specious explanations for any such inquisitor as the one who had actually arrived no later than the Saturday afternoon. He wrote without elation of his interview with Thrush, whose name he knew; the doctor had not been deceived as to the transitory character of his own deception. It was the same with the letter which he had pretended to post, which could only have kept the boy quiet for a day or two, if he had posted it, but which the boy himself had discovered never to have been posted at all. There was a sufficiently cool description of the desperate mood into which Baumgartner's intuition of the boy's discovery had thrown him on the Sunday night."

"It was then," he wrote, "that I formed a project which I should have been sorry indeed to carry out, though I should certainly have done so if he had given me the chance I sought. It must be understood that my second attempt to photograph the flight of the soul had proved as great a fiasco as the first. Suddenly I hit upon a perfectly conceivable (even though it seem a wilfully grotesque) explanation of my failure. What if the human derelicts I had so far chosen for my experiments had no souls to photograph? Sodden with drink, debauched, degraded, and spiritually blurred or blunted to the last degree, these after all were the least likely subjects to yield results to the spirit photographer. I should have chosen saints instead of sinners such as these, entities in which the soul was a major and not a minor factor. I thought of the saintliest men I knew in London, of some Jesuit Fathers of my acquaintance, of a 'light' specialist I know of who is destroying himself by inches in the cause of science, of certain missioners in the slums; but I did not think twice of any one of them; their lives are much too valuable for me to cut them short on the mere chance of a compensating benefit to mankind at large. Last, and longest, I thought of the boy upstairs. I had not meant to sacrifice him; a young life, of some promise, is only less sacred to me than a mature life rich in beneficent activities. But this young fellow was going to be my ruin. I could see it in his eyes. He had found me out about the letter; he would be the means of my being found out and stopped for ever in the work of my life. It was his life or mine; it should be his; but I was not going to take it there in the house, for reasons I need not enter into here, and I intended to take more than his life while I was about it. But he never gave me the chance. I did my best to get him to go out with me this morning. But he refused, as a horse refuses a jump, or a dog the water. He said he was ill; he looked ill. But I have no doubt he was well enough to make his escape soon after my back was turned. I see he has broken into my dark-room for the clothes I took away from him before I went out; he would scarcely remain after that; but, to tell the truth, I have hardly given him a thought since my return."

The readers shuddered over this long paragraph. More than once the boy broke in with his own impulsive version of the awful moments on the Sunday night and the Monday morning, in his bedroom at the top of the doctor's house. He declared that nothing short of main force would have dragged him out-of-doors that morning, that he felt it in his bones that he would never come back alive. Then he would be sorry he had said so much.

It only increased his companion's anguish. She was reading every word religiously, with a most painful fascination; it was as though every word drew blood. There was a brief but terrible account of the murder of Sir Joseph Schelmerdine outside his own house in Park Lane. It was the rashest of all the crimes; but, apparently, the one occasion on which the doctor had disguised himself before hand; and that only because Sir Joseph and he knew and disliked each other so intensely that a "straight" interview was out of the question. As it was he had escaped by a miracle, after lying all day in a straw-loft, creeping into a carriage at nightfall, and getting out on the wrong side when it drove round to its house. Baumgartner described the incident with a callous relish, as perhaps the most exciting in his long career; he was going on to explain his subsequent return, in propria persona, and yet by stealth, when he paused in the middle of a sentence which was never finished. And his statement concluded as follows, in less careful language and a more flowing hand:—

"I thought the fool had cleared out long ago. The day's excitement must have driven him clean out of my head. I never thought of him when I got back, never till I saw the damage to the darkroom window and missed his clothes. I didn't waste two thoughts upon him then. I had my negative to develop. A magnificent negative it was, too, yet another absolute failure from the practical point of view, perhaps from the same reason as its predecessors. South African mines may produce gold and diamonds (licit and illicit!) but their yield in souls is probably the poorest to the square mile anywhere on earth. Schelmerdine never had one in his gross carcass. So there was an end of him, and a good riddance to rotten clay. I have not thought of him again all night. I have thought of nothing but this perhaps passionately dispassionate statement that I have made up my mind to leave behind me. It has given me strange pleasure to write, a satisfaction which I have no longer the time to attempt to analyse; all night long my pen has scarcely paused, and I not conscious of a moment's weariness of mind, body, or hand. Only sometimes have I paused to light my pipe. I had made such a pause, perhaps half an hour ago, when in the terrible stillness of the night I heard a footstep in the hall. My nerves were somewhat on edge with all this writing; it might be my imagination. I stole to my door, and as I opened it the one below shut softly. I waited some time, heard nothing more, went down with my lamp, and threw open the drawing-room door. There was my young fellow, not gone at all, but sitting in the dark with one whose name there is no need to mention. I do not wish to be misunderstood. It was all innocent enough, even I never doubted that. But somehow the sight of that boy and girl, sitting there in the dark without a word, afraid to go to bed—afraid of me—made the blood boil over in my veins. I could have trampled on that lad, my Jonah whom I had pictured overboard at last, and I did hurl the lamp at his head. I am glad it missed him. I am glad he made good his escape while I was seeing his companion safe upstairs. If I had found him where I left him, God knows what violence I might not have done him after all. The boy has good in him, and more courage than he knows himself; again I say that I am glad he has escaped unscathed. His life was not safe, but now I shall only take my own."

"Yes! I have made up my mind; it is better than leaving it to the common hangman of this besotted country. I know what to expect in enlightened England: either a death unfit for a dog, or existence worse than death in a criminal lunatic asylum. I prefer my own peculiar quietus; it has stood on my table all night long, ready and pointed at my heart; a hand upon the door, a step behind me, and I should have rolled over dead at their feet. So it will be if even now they are waiting for me outside; but, if not, I know where to go, where already it is broad daylight, where the wide open space will quicken and enhance every ray, and the broad river multiply the sun by a million facets of living fire. It is not the light that will fail me, there; and as I have served others, so also will I serve myself, and it may be with better fortune than they have brought me. Who knows? It would be in keeping with the poetic ironies of this existence. At all events, unless waylaid at once, I am giving it a chance. I shall place the camera on the parapet of the Embankment. I have fitted the shutter with a specially long pneumatic tube, and the bulb will do its double work as usual when my fingers relax. I have long had it all in my mind. I have written full instructions on the envelope which I shall stick by the flap to the open slide; if we are found by a reasonably intelligent person, the slide will be shut, and the camera handed over bodily to the police. They, I think, may be trusted to honour one's last instructions, if only out of curiosity; their eyes will be the first to read what I fear they will describe as my 'full confession.' Well, it is 'full,' and the substantive must be left to them. So long as the document does not fall into one little pair of gentle hands, I shall lie easy in whatever ignominious grave they lay me. That is why I hide it where I do: since, if it fell first into those hands, it would never see the light at all."

There was a little more, but Phillida suddenly snatched the MS. away, and wept over the end, bitterly, and yet not altogether in bitterness, while Pocket picked up the camera and set it back in its place on the muddy newspaper. Phillida folded up the packet, and after a moment's hesitation went away with it, jingling keys in her other hand. On her return she stood petrified on the threshold.

Pocket was seated at the table, the red bulb of the pneumatic shutter between his finger and thumb; he pressed the bulb, and there was a loud metallic snap inside the camera; he released the pressure, and the shutter snapped like a shutter and nothing else. Phillida came forward with a cry. Pocket had taken the top off the camera; it was like a box without the lid, and on the one side there was nothing between the lens and the grooved carrier for the slide, but on the other there was an automatic pistol, fixed down with wires, as a wild beast might be lashed, and its muzzle pointing through the orifice intended for the second lens of the stereoscopic camera.

Pocket pressed again, and again the mild clash of the shutter was preceded by the vicious one that would have been an explosion if there had been another cartridge in the pistol.

"And we never guessed it!" said he. "That's why he went in for this sort of double camera, and rigged it up to take both kinds of shot in quick succession. It's the cleverest thing I ever heard of in my life."

He spoke as if it were only clever! Phillida stared at it and him without a word.

"The cleverest part is the way you aim. I do believe he relied altogether on that spot about the middle of the focussing screen. I've been trying it against the window, and where that spot comes the pistol's pointing every time. It's a fixed focus, about ten to fifteen feet, I fancy, and the spot isn't quite in the middle of the screen, but just enough to the left to allow. I don't quite see how the one bulb works everything, but these springs and things are a bit confusing. We shan't understand everything till we take it to pieces."

"You mean the police won't!" said Phillida, bitterly.

"The police! I never thought of them."

"What do you mean to do with this—this infernal machine?" the girl asked, her voice breaking over the perfectly applicable term.

"What do you mean to do with—the writing?" demanded Pocket in his turn.

"Burn it! I've asked for a fire in my room; it's locked away meanwhile."

"Well, this is yours, too," said Pocket, deliberately, "to do what you like with as well."

"They wouldn't think so!"

"They'll never know."

Phillida shook her head, and not without some scorn. "You couldn't keep it to yourself," she said. "You would have to tell."

"Well, but not everybody," said poor Pocket. "Only my father, if you like!" he added, valiantly.

"Mr. Upton would feel bound to tell."

"I don't see that. Didn't you hear what he said about a man's secrets dying with him?"

"He's so kind! He says that; he said it again to me; but this is the mystery of the day. It'll be the talk for months, if not years. And as yet only you and I, in all the world, have found it out!"

She looked at him so wistfully, so sweetly and sadly and confidentially, that he would have been either more or less than human boy if he had failed to see her heart's desire, and how it was still in his power to save her the supreme humiliation and distress of sharing their secret with the world. He made up his mind on the spot; and yet it was a mind that looked both ways at every turn of affairs, and even then he saw what he was going to lose. Fred and Horace would not sit nearly so spellbound as they might have done, would probably back their penetration of the mystery against his! There would be no boasting about it in front of the hall fire at school, no breathing it even to Smith minor out for a walk; no adventure to recount all his days; and Pocket was one to whom the salt of an adventure would always be its subsequent recital. But he could "play the game" as well as Horace himself, when he happened to have no doubt as to the game to play. And now he had none whatever.

"Phillida, if you wish it, I'll never breathe a syllable of all this to a single soul on earth, I don't care who they are, or what they do to me!"

He wanted them to put him on the rack that moment.

"Oh, Tony, do you mean it?"

Her eyes had filled.

"Of course I mean it! I'll swear it more solemnly than I've ever sworn anything in my life so far."

"No, no! Your word's enough. Don't I know what that's worth, after this terrible week?"

And she cried again at its hideous memories, so that Pocket turned away and put the camera together again, and wrapped it up in her waterproof, so that he might not see her tears.

"I'll never breathe a single word to a single soul," he vowed, "except yourself."

She caught at that through her tears. He could talk to her about it, always, as much as ever he liked; it would be a bond between them all their lives. And not until she said it, to be just to Pocket, did he think of a reward or look beyond those days.

But what were they to do with a stereoscopic camera containing an automatic pistol? It was not to be burnt in a grate like a sheaf of MS. They thought about it for some time with anxious faces; for it was getting on towards evening now, though the sun was out again, and it was lighter than the early afternoon; but Mr. Upton might be back any minute. It was Phillida who at last said she knew. She would not tell him what she meant to do; but she put on her waterproof again, little as it was wanted now, and the camera under it as before; and together they sallied forth into the noisy and crowded Strand.

Pocket did not know where he was, and Phillida would not tell him where she was going, neither could he question her in that alarming throng. He felt a frightful sense of guilt and danger, not so much to himself as to her, with that lethal weapon concealed about her; every man who looked at them was a detective in his eyes, and past the policemen at the corners he wanted to run. But they gained the middle of Waterloo Bridge undetected and ensconced themselves in a recess without creating a sensation.

"Now, then," said Phillida, "will you focus Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, or shall I?"

There they were before them against the sunset, the long lithe bridge, the stately towers. But Pocket could not see Phillida's drift until she aimed herself, and, aiming, let the square black box slip clean through her fingers into the depths of the river from which she had only retrieved it a couple of hours before, as a body is committed to the deep.

She bewailed her stupidity; he had the wit to echo her then, and in a loud voice, that any eye-witness or passer-by might be struck with the genuine severity of their loss. But there had been no eye-witness who thought it worth while to rally them on the occurrence, and the busy townsfolk hastening past were all too much engrossed in their own affairs to take any interest in those of the boy and girl who seemed themselves in something of a hurry to get back to the Strand.

And in the Strand the first thing they saw was a yellow poster bearing but four words in enormous black letters:—



Phillida slipped her hand within Pocket's arm. Pocket was man enough to press it to his side.


Printed in Great Britain by Wyman & Sons, Ltd., London and Reading

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5
Home - Random Browse