At the moorland cross-roads Martin stood examining
the sign-post for several minutes in some bewilderment. The names on the four
arms were not what he expected, distances were not given, and his map, he
concluded with impatience, must be hopelessly out of date. Spreading it against
the post, he stooped to study it more closely. The wind blew the corners
flapping against his face.
The small print was almost
indecipherable in the fading light. It appeared, however—as well as he could
make out—that two miles back he must have taken the wrong turning.
He remembered that turning. The
path had looked inviting; he had hesitated a moment, then followed it, caught by
the usual lure of walkers that it "might prove a short cut." The short-cut snare
is old as human nature. For some minutes he studied the sign-post and the map
Dusk was falling, and his
knapsack had grown heavy. He could not make the two guides tally, however, and a
feeling of uncertainty crept over his mind. He felt oddly baffled, frustrated.
His thought grew thick. Decision was most difficult. "I'm muddled," he thought;
"I must be tired," as at length he chose the most likely arm. "Sooner or later
it will bring me to an inn, though not the one I intended." He accepted his
walker's luck, and started briskly. The arm read, "Over Litacy Hill" in small,
fine letters that danced and shifted every time he looked at them; but the name
was not discoverable on the map. It was, however, inviting like the short cut. A
similar impulse again directed his choice. Only this time it seemed more
insistent, almost urgent.
And he became aware, then, of
the exceeding loneliness of the country about him. The road for a hundred yards
went straight, then curved like a white river running into space; the deep
blue-green of heather lined the banks, spreading upwards through the twilight;
and occasional small pines stood solitary here and there, all unexplained. The
curious adjective, having made its appearance, haunted him. So many things that
afternoon were similarly—unexplained: the short cut, the darkened map, the names
on the sign-post, his own erratic impulses, and the growing strange confusion
that crept upon his spirit. The entire country-side needed explanation, though
perhaps "interpretation" was the truer word. Those little lonely trees had made
him see it. Why had he lost his way so easily? Why did he suffer vague
impressions to influence his direction? Why was he here—exactly here? And why
did he go now "over Litacy Hill"? Then, by a green field that shone like a
thought of daylight amid the darkness of the moor, he saw a figure lying in the
grass. It was a blot upon the landscape, a mere huddled patch of dirty rags, yet
with a certain horrid picturesqueness too; and his mind—though his German was of
the schoolroom order—at once picked out the German equivalents as against the
English. Lump and Lumpen flashed across his brain most oddly. They seemed in
that moment right, and so expressive, almost like onomatopoeic words, if that
were possible of sight. Neither "rags" nor "rascal" would have fitted what he
saw. The adequate description was in German.
Here was a clue tossed up by
the part of him that did not reason. But it seems he missed it.
And the next minute the tramp
rose to a sitting posture and asked the time of evening. In German he asked it.
And Martin, answering without a second's hesitation, gave it, also in German, "halb
sieben"—half-past six. The instinctive guess was accurate. A glance at his watch
when he looked a moment later proved it. He heard the man say, with the covert
insolence of tramps, "T'ank you; much opliged." For Martin had not shown his
watch—another intuition subconsciously obeyed.
He quickened his pace along
that lonely road, a curious jumble of thoughts and feelings surging through him.
He had somehow known the question would come, and come in German.
Yet it flustered and dismayed
him. Another thing had also flustered and dismayed him. He had expected it in
the same queer fashion: it was right. For when the ragged brown thing rose to
ask the question, a part of it remained lying on the grass—another brown, dirty
thing. There were two tramps. And he saw both faces clearly. Behind the untidy
beards, and below the old slouch hats, he caught the look of unpleasant, clever
faces that watched him closely while he passed.
The eyes followed him. For a
second he looked straight into those eyes, so that he could not fail to know
them. And he understood, quite horridly, that both faces were too sleek,
refined, and cunning for those of ordinary tramps. The men were not really
tramps at all. They were disguised.
"How covertly they watched me!"
was his thought, as he hurried along the darkening road, aware in dead
earnestness now of the loneliness and desolation of the moorland all about him.
Uneasy and distressed, he
increased his pace. Midway in thinking what an unnecessarily clanking noise his
nailed boots made upon the hard white road, there came upon him with a rush
together the company of these things that haunted him as "unexplained." They
brought a single definite message: That all this business was not really meant
for him at all, and hence his confusion and bewilderment; that he had intruded
into someone else's scenery, and was trespassing upon another's map of life. By
some wrong inner turning he had interpolated his per-son into a group of foreign
forces which operated in the little world of someone else.
Unwittingly, somewhere, he had
crossed the threshold, and now was fairly in—a trespasser, an eavesdropper, a
Peeping Torn. He was listening, peeping; overhearing things he had no right to
know, because they were intended for another. Like a ship at sea he was
intercepting wireless messages he could not properly interpret, because his
Receiver was not accurately tuned to their reception. And more—these messages
Then fear dropped upon him like
the night. He was caught in a net of delicate, deep forces he could not manage,
knowing neither their origin nor purpose. He had walked into some huge psychic
trap elaborately planned and baited, yet calculated for another than himself.
Something had lured him in, something in the landscape, the time of day, his
mood. Owing to some undiscovered weakness in himself he had been easily caught.
His fear slipped easily into terror.
What happened next happened
with such speed and concentration that it all seemed crammed into a moment. At
once and in a heap it happened. It was quite inevitable. Down the white road to
meet him a man came swaying from side to side in drunkenness quite obviously
feigned—a tramp; and while Martin made room for him to pass, the lurch changed
in a second to attack, and the fellow was upon him. The blow was sudden and
terrific, yet even while it fell Martin was aware that behind him rushed a
second man, who caught his legs from under him and bore him with a thud and
crash to the ground. Blows rained then; he saw a gleam of something shining; a
sudden deadly nausea plunged him into utter weakness where resistance was
Something of fire entered his
throat, and from his mouth poured a thick sweet thing that choked him. The world
sank far away into darkness. . . . Yet through all the horror and confusion ran
the trail of two clear thoughts: he realised that the first tramp had sneaked at
a fast double through the heather and so come down to meet him; and that
something heavy was torn from fastenings that clipped it tight and close beneath
his clothes against his body. . . .
Abruptly then the darkness
lifted, passed utterly away. He found himself peering into the map against the
signpost. The wind was flapping the corners against his cheek, and he was poring
over names that now he saw quite clear. Upon the arms of the sign-post above
were those he had expected to find, and the map recorded them quite faithfully.
All was accurate again and as it should be. He read the name of the village he
had meant to make—it was plainly visible in the dusk, two miles the distance
given. Bewildered, shaken, unable to think of anything, he stuffed the map into
his pocket unfolded, and hurried forward like a man who has just wakened from an
awful dream that had compressed into a single second all the detailed misery of
some prolonged, oppressive nightmare.
He broke into a steady trot
that soon became a run; the perspiration poured from him; his legs felt weak,
and his breath was difficult to manage. He was only conscious of the
overpowering desire to get away as fast as possible from the sign-post at the
cross-roads where the dreadful vision had flashed upon him. For Martin,
accountant on a holiday, had never dreamed of any world of psychic
possibilities. The entire thing was torture. It was worse than a "cooked"
balance of the books that some conspiracy of clerks and directors proved at his
innocent door. He raced as though the country-side ran crying at his heels. And
always still ran with him the incredible conviction that none of this was really
meant for himself at all. He had overheard the secrets of another. He had taken
the warning for another into himself, and so altered its direction. He had
thereby prevented its right delivery. It all shocked him beyond words. It
dislocated the machinery of his just and accurate soul. The warning was intended
for another, who could not—would not—now receive it.
The physical exertion, however,
brought at length a more comfortable reaction and some measure of composure.
With the lights in sight, he slowed down and entered the village at a reasonable
pace. The inn was reached, a bedroom inspected and engaged, and supper ordered
with the solid comfort of a large Bass to satisfy an unholy thirst and complete
the restoration of balance. The unusual sensations largely passed away, and the
odd feeling that anything in his simple, wholesome world required explanation
was no longer present. Still with a vague uneasiness about him, though actual
fear quite gone, he went into the bar to smoke an after-supper pipe and chat
with the natives, as his pleasure was upon a holiday, and so saw two men leaning
upon the counter at the far end with their backs towards him. He saw their faces
instantly in the glass, and the pipe nearly slipped from between his teeth.
Clean-shaven, sleek, clever faces—and he caught a word or two as they talked
over their drinks—German words. Well dressed they were, both men, with nothing
about them calling for particular attention; they might have been two tourists
holiday-making like himself in tweeds and walking-boots. And they presently paid
for their drinks and went out. He never saw them face to face at all; but the
sweat broke out afresh all over him, a feverish rush of heat and ice together
ran about his body; beyond question he recognised the two tramps, this time not
disguised—not yet disguised.
He remained in his corner
without moving, puffing violently at an extinguished pipe, gripped helplessly by
the return of that first vile terror. It came again to him with an absolute
clarity of certainty that it was not with himself they had to do, these men,
and, further, that he had no right in the world to interfere. He had no locus
standi at all; it would be immoral. . . even if the opportunity came. And the
opportunity, he felt, would come. He had been an eavesdropper, and had come upon
private information of a secret kind that he had no right to make use of, even
that good might come—even to save life. He sat on in his corner, terrified and
silent, waiting for the thing that should happen next.
But night came without
explanation. Nothing happened. He slept soundly. There was no other guest at the
inn but an elderly man, apparently a tourist like himself. He wore gold-rimmed
glasses, and in the morning Martin overheard him asking the landlord what
direction he should take for Litacy Hill. His teeth began then to chatter and a
weakness came into his knees. "You turn to the left at the cross-roads," Martin
broke in before the landlord could reply; "you'll see the sign-post about two
miles from here, and after that it's a matter of four miles more." How in the
world did he know, flashed horribly through him. "I'm going that way myself," he
was saying next; "I'll go with you for a bit—if you don't mind!" The words came
out impulsively and ill-considered; of their own accord they came. For his own
direction was exactly opposite.
He did not want the man to go
alone. The stranger, however, easily evaded his offer of companionship. He
thanked him with the remark that he was starting later in the day. . . . They
were standing, all three, beside the horse-trough in front of the inn, when at
that very moment a tramp, slouching along the road, looked up and asked the time
of day. And it was the man with the gold-rimmed glasses who told him.
"T'ank you; much opliged," the
tramp replied, passing on with his slow, slouching gait, while the landlord, a
talkative fellow, proceeded to remark upon the number of Germans that lived in
England and were ready to swell the Teutonic invasion which he, for his part,
But Martin heard it not. Before
he had gone a mile upon his way he went into the woods to fight his conscience
all alone. His feebleness, his cowardice, were surely criminal. Real anguish
tortured him. A dozen times he decided to go back upon his steps, and a dozen
times the singular authority that whispered he had no right to interfere
prevented him. How could he act upon knowledge gained by eavesdropping? How
interfere in the private business of another's hidden life merely because he had
overheard, as at the telephone, its secret dangers? Some inner confusion
prevented straight thinking altogether. The stranger would merely think him mad.
He had no "fact" togoupon. . . . He smothered a hundred impulses . . . and
finally went on his way with a shaking, troubled heart.
The last two days of his
holiday were ruined by doubts and questions and alarms—all justified later when
he read of the murder of a tourist upon Litacy Hill. The man wore gold-rimmed
glasses, and carried in a belt about his person a large sum of money. His throat
And the police were hard upon
the trail of a mysterious pair of tramps, said to be—Germans.