The Watchers

Chapter I

Tells of a Door Ajar and of a Lad Who Stood Behind It

A.E.W. Mason

I HAD never need to keep any record either of the date or place. It was the fifteenth night of July, in the year 1758, and the place was Lieutenant Clutterbuck’s lodging at the south corner of Burleigh Street, Strand. The night was tropical in its heat, and though every window stood open to the Thames, there was not a man, I think, who did not long for the cool relief of morning, or step out from time to time on to the balcony and search the dark profundity of sky for the first flecks of grey. I cannot be positive about the entire disposition of the room: but certainly Lieutenant Clutterbuck was playing at ninepins down the middle with half a dozen decanters and a couple of silver salvers; and Mr. Macfarlane, a young gentleman of a Scottish regiment, was practising a game of his own.

He carried the fire-irons and Lieutenant Clutterbuck’s sword under his arm, and walked solidly about the floor after a little paper ball rolled up out of a news sheet, which he hit with one of these instruments, selecting now the poker, now the tongs or the sword with great deliberation, and explaining his selection with even greater earnestness; there was besides a great deal of noise, which seemed to be a quality of the room rather than the utterance of any particular person; and I have a clear recollection that everything, from the candles to the glasses on the tables and the broken tobacco pipes on the floor, was of a dazzling and intolerable brightness. This brightness distressed me particularly, because just opposite to where I sat a large mirror hung upon the wall between two windows. On each side was a velvet hollow of gloom, in the middle this glittering oval. Every ray of light within the room seemed to converge upon its surface. I could not but look at it—for it did not occur to me to move away to another chair—and it annoyed me exceedingly. Besides, the mirror was inclined forward from the wall, and so threw straight down at me a reflection of Lieutenant Clutterbuck’s guests, as they flung about the room beneath it.

Thus I saw a throng of flushed young exuberant faces, and in the background, continually peeping between them, my own, very white and drawn and thin and a million years old. That, too, annoyed me very much, and then by a sheer miracle, as it seemed to me, the mirror splintered and cracked and dropped in fragments on to the floor, until there was only hanging on the wall the upper rim, a thin curve of glass like a bright sickle. I remember that the noise and hurley-burley suddenly ceased, as though morning had come unawares upon a witches’ carnival and that all the men present stood like statues and appeared to stare at me. Lieutenant Clutterbuck broke the silence, or rather tore it, with a great loud laugh which crumpled up his face. He said something about “Old Steve Berkeley,” and smacked his hand upon my shoulder, and shouted for another glass, which he filled and placed at my elbow, for my own had disappeared.

I had no time to drink from it, however, for just as I was raising it to my lips Mr. Macfarlane’s paper ball dropped from the ceiling into the liquor.

“Bunkered, by God!” cried Mr. Macfarlane, amidst a shout of laughter.

I looked at Macfarlane wth some reserve.

“I don’t understand,” I began.

“Don’t move, man!” cried he, as he forced me back into my chair, and dropping the fire-irons with a clatter on to the floor, he tried to scoop the ball out of the glass with the point of Clutterbuck’s sword-sheath. He missed the glass; the sheath caught me full on the knuckles; I opened my hand and——

“Sir, you have ruined my game,” said Mr. Macfarlane, with considerable heat.

“And a good thing too,” said I, “for a sillier game I never saw in all my life.”

“Gentlemen,” cried Lieutenant Clutterbuck, though he did not articulate the word with his customary precision; but his intentions were undoubtedly pacific. He happened to be holding the last of his decanters in his hand, and he swung it to and fro. “Gentlemen,” he repeated, and as if to keep me company, he let the decanter slip out of his hand. It fell on the floor and split with a loud noise. “Well,” said he, solemnly, “I have dropped a brooch,” and he fumbled at his cravat.

Another peal of laughter went up; and while it was still ringing, a man—what his name was I cannot remember, even if I ever knew it; I saw him for the first time that evening, and I have only once seen him since, but he was certainly more sober than the rest—stooped over my chair and caught me by the arm.

“Steve,” said he, with a chuckle,—and from this familiarity to a new acquaintance I judge he was not so sober after all,—“do you notice the door?”

The door was in the corner of the room to my right. I looked towards it: the brass handle shone like a gold ball in the sun. I looked back at my companion, and, shaking my arm free, I replied coldly:

“I see it. It is a door, a mere door. But I do not notice it. It is not indeed noteworthy.”

“It is unlatched,” said my acquaintance, with another chuckle.

“I suppose it is not the only door in the world in that predicament.”

“But it was latched a moment ago,” and with his forefinger he gently poked me in the ribs.

“Then someone has turned the handle,” said I, drawing myself away.

“A most ingenious theory,” said he, quite unabashed by my reserve, “and the truth. Someone has turned the handle. Now who?” He winked with an extreme significance. “My dear sir, who?”

I looked round the room. Mr. Macfarlane had resumed his game. Two gentlemen in a corner through all the din were earnestly playing putt with the cards. They had, however, removed their wigs, and their shaven heads gleamed unpleasantly. Others by the window were vociferating the chorus of a drinking song. Lieutenant Clutterbuck alone was near to the door. I was on the point of pronouncing his name when he lurched towards it, and instantly the door was closed.

“It was someone outside,” said I.

“Precisely. Steve, you are not so devoid of sense as your friends would have me believe,” continued my companion. “Now, who will be Lieutenant Clutterbuck’s timorous visitor?” He drew his watch from his fob: “We may hazard a guess at the sex, I think, but for the rest—— Is it some fine lady from St. James’s who has come in her chair at half-past one of the morning to keep an appointment which her careless courtier has forgotten?”

“Hardly,” I returned. “For your fine lady would hurry back to her chair with all the speed her petticoats allowed. She would not stay behind the door, which, I see, has again been opened.”

The familiar stranger laid his hand upon my shoulder and held me back in my chair at arm’s length from him.

“They do you wrong, my dear Steve,” said he, gravely, “who say your brains are addled with drink. Your”—his tongue stumbled over a long word which I judged to be “ratiocination”—“is admirable. Never was logician more precise. It is not a fine lady from St. James’s. It will be a flower-girl from Drury Lane, and may I be eternally as drunk as I am to-night, if we do not have her into the room.”

With that he crossed the room, and seizing the handle suddenly swung the door open. The next instant he stepped back. The door was in a line with the wall against which my chair was placed, and besides it opened towards me so that I could not see what it was that so amazed him.

“Here’s the strangest flower-girl from Drury Lane that ever I saw,” said he, and Lieutenant Clutterbuck turning about cried:

“By all that’s wonderful, it’s Dick Parmiter,” and a lad of fifteen years, with a red fisherman’s bonnet upon his head and a blue jersey on his back, stepped hesitatingly into the room.

“Well, Dick, what’s the news from Scilly?” continued Clutterbuck. “And what’s brought you to London? Have you come to see the king in his golden crown? Has Captain Hathaway lost his Diodorus Siculus and sent you to town to buy him another? Come, out with it!”

Dick shifted from one foot to another; he took his cap from his head and twisted it in his hands; and he looked from one to another of Lieutenant Clutterbuck’s guests who had now crowded about the lad and were plying him with questions. But he did not answer the questions. No doubt the noise and the lights, and the presence of these glittering gentlemen confused the lad, who was more used to the lonely beaches of the islands and the companionable murmurs of the sea. At last he plucked up the courage to say, with a glance of appeal to Lieutenant Clutterbuck:

“I have news to tel1, but I would sooner tell it to you alone.”

His appeal was received with a chorus of protestations, and “Where are your manners, Dick,” cried Clutterbuck, “that you tell my friends flat to their faces they cannot keep a secret?”

“Are we women? “asked Mr. Macfarlane.

“Out with your story,” cried another.

Dick Parmiter shrank back and turned his eyes towards the door, but one man shut it to and leaned his shoulders against the panels, while the others caught at the lad’s hesitation as at a new game, and crowded about him as though he was some rare curiosity brought by a traveller from outlandish parts.

“He shall tell his story,” cried Clutterbuck. “It is two years since I was stationed at the Scilly Islands, two years since I dined in the messroom of Star Castle with Captain Hathaway of his Majesty’s Invalids, and was bored to death with his dissertations on Diodorus Siculus. Two years! The boy must have news of consequence. There is no doubt trouble with the cray fish, or Adam Mayle has broken the head of the collector of the Customs House——”

“Adam Mayle is dead. He was struck down by paralysis and never moved till he died,” interrupted Dick Parmiter.

The news sobered Clutterbuck for an instant. “Dead!” said he, gaping at the boy. “Dead!” he repeated, and so flung back to his noise and laughter, though there was a ring of savagery in it very strange to his friends. “Well, more brandy will pay revenue, and fewer ships will come ashore, and very like there’ll be quiet upon Tresco——”

“No,” interrupted Parmiter again, and Clutterbuck turned upon him with a flush of rage.

“Well, tell your story and have done with it!”

“To you,” said the boy, looking from one to other of the faces about him.

“No, to all,” cried Clutterbuck. The drink, and a certain anger of which we did not know the source, made him obstinate. “You shall tell it to us all, or not at all. Bring that table, forward, Macfarlane! You shall stand on the table Dick, like a preacher in his pulpit,” he sneered, “and put all the fine gentlemen to shame, with a story of the rustic virtues.”

The table was dragged from the corner into the middle of the room. The boy protested, and made for the door. But he was thrust back, seized and lifted struggling on to the table, where he was set upon his feet.

“Harmony, gentlemen, harmony!” cried Clutterbuck, flapping his hand upon the mantel-shelf. “Take your seats, and no whispering in the side boxes, if you please. For I can promise you a play which needs no prologue to excuse it.”

It was a company in which a small jest passed easily for a high stroke of wit. They applauded Lieutenant Clutterbuck’s sally, and drew up their chairs round the table and sat looking upwards towards the boy, with a great expectation of amusement, just as people watch a bear-baiting at a fair. For my part I had not moved, and it was no doubt for that reason that Parmiter looked for help towards me.

“When all’s said, Clutterbuck,” I began, “you and your friends are a pack of bullies. The boy’s a good boy, devil take me if he isn’t.”

The boy upon the table looked his gratitude for the small mercy of my ineffectual plea, and I should have proceeded to enlarge upon it had I not noticed a very astonishing thing. For Parmiter lifted his arm high up above his head as thought to impress upon me his gratitude, and his arm lengthened out and grew until it touched the ceiling. Then it dwindled and shrank until again it was no more than a boy’s arm on a boy’s shoulder. I was so struck with this curious phenomenon that I broke off my protest on his behalf, and mentioned to those about me what I had seen, asking whether they had remarked it too, and inquiring to what cause, whither of health or malady, they were disposed to attribute so sudden a growth and contraction.

However, Lieutenant Clutterbuck’s guests were only disposed that night to make light of any subject however important or scientific. For some laughed in my face, others more polite, shrugged their shoulders with a smile, and the stranger who had spoken to me before clapped his hand in the small of my back as I leaned forward, and shouted some ill-bred word that, though might he die of small-pox if he had ever met me before, he would have known me from a thousand by the tales he had heard. However, before I could answer him fitly, and indeed, while I was still pondering the meaning of his words. Lieutenant Clutterbuck clapped his hands for silence, and Dick Parmiter, seeing no longer any hope of succour, perforce began to tell his story.

It was a story of a youth that sat in the stocks of a Sunday morning and disappeared thereafter from the islands; of a girl named Helen; of a negro who slept and slept, and of men watching a house with a great tangled garden that stood at the edge of the sea. Cullen Mayle, Parmiter called the youth who had sat in the stocks, son to that Adam whose death had so taken Lieutenant Clutterbuck with surprise. But I could not make head or tail of the business. For one thing I have always been very fond of flowers, and quite unaccountably the polished floor of the room blossomed into a parterre of roses, so that my attention was distracted by this curious and pleasing event.

For another, Parmiter’s story was continually interrupted by intricate questions intended to confuse him, his evident anxiety was made the occasion of much amusement by those seated about the table, and he was induced on one excuse and another to go back to the beginning again and again and relate once more what he had already told. But I remember that he spoke with a high intonation, and rather quickly and with a broad accent, and that even then I was extremely sensible of the unfamiliar parts from which he came. His words seemed to have preserved a smell of the sea, and through them I seemed to hear very clearly the sound of waves breaking upon a remote beach—near in a word to that granite house with the tangled garden where the men watched and watched.

Then the boy’s story ceased, and the next thing I heard was a sound of sobbing. I looked up, and there was Dick Parmiter upon the table, crying like a child. Over against him sat Lieutenant Clutterbuck, with a face sour and dark.

“I’ll not stir a foot or lift a finger,” said he, swearing an oath, “no, not if God comes down and bids me.”

And upon that the boy weakened of a sudden, swayed for an instant upon his feet, and dropped in a huddle upon the table. His swoon put every one to shame except Clutterbuck; everyone busied himself about the boy, dabbing his forehead with wet handkerchiefs, and spilling brandy over his face in attempts to pour it into his mouth—every one except Clutterbuck, who never moved nor changed in a single line of his face, from his fixed expression of anger. Dick Parmiter recovered from his swoon and sat up: and his first look was towards the lieutenant, whose face softened for an instant with I know not what memories of days under the sun in a fishing boat amongst the islands.

“Dick, you are over-tired. It’s a long road from the Scillies to London. Very like, too, you are hungry,” and Dick nodded “yes” to each sentence. “Well, Dick, you shall eat here, if there’s any food in my larder, and you shall sleep here when you have eaten.”

“Is that all? “asked Parmiter, simply, and Clutterbuck’s face turned hard again as a stone.

“Every word,” said he.

The boy slipped off the table and began to search on the ground. His cap had fallen from his hand when he fell down in his swoon. He picked it up from beneath a chair. He did not look any more at Clutterbuck; he made no appeal to anyone in the room; but though his legs still faltered from weakness, he walked silently out of the door, and in a little we heard his footsteps upon the stone stairs and the banisters creaking, as though he clung to them, while he descended, for support.

“Good God, Clutterbuck!” cried Macfarlane “he’s but a boy.”

“With no roof to his head,” said another.

“And fainting for lack of a meal,” said a third.

“He shall have both,” I cried, “if he will take them from me,” and I ran out of the door.

“Dick,” I cried down the hollow of the staircase.

“Dick Parmiter,” but no answer was returned, save my own cry coming back to me up the well of the stairs. Clutterbuck’s rooms were on the highest floor of the house; the stone stairs stretched downwards flight after flight beneath me. There was no sound anywhere upon them; the boy had gone. I came back to the room. Lieutenant Clutterbuck sat quite still in his chair. The morning was breaking; a cold livid light crept through the open windows, touched his hands, reached his face and turned it white.

“Good-night,” he said, without so much as a look.

His eyes were bent upon memories to which we had no clue. We left him sitting thus and went down into the street, when we parted. I saw no roses blossoming in the streets as I walked home, but as I looked in my mirror at my lodging I noticed again that my face was drawn and haggard and a million years old.

The Watchers - Contents    |     Chapter II - Dick Parmiter’s Story

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