Haunted Short Stories ~ 26 ~ ‘The Kit Bag’ by Algernon Blackwood (1908)

Courtesy of Project Gutenberg Australia


When the words ‘Not Guilty’ sounded through the crowded courtroom that
dark December afternoon, Arthur Wilbraham, the great criminal KC, and
leader for the triumphant defence, was represented by his junior; but
Johnson, his private secretary, carried the verdict across to his
chambers like lightning.

‘It’s what we expected, I think,’ said the barrister, without emotion;
‘and, personally, I am glad the case is over.’ There was no particular
sign of pleasure that his defence 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.

‘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.

Be 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.’

Johnson laughed shortly. He was a young man of twenty-six, 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. Bat 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–‘

‘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 your energy for my Parliamentary work when you get back. And
don’t break your neck skiing.’

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 lendang 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.’

‘Of course; I’ll send Henry over with it to your rooms. You shall have it
the moment I get home.’

‘I promise to take great care of it,’ said Johnson gratefully, delighted
to think that within thirty hours he would be nearing the brilliant
sunshine of the high Alps in winter. Be thought of that criminal court
was like an evil dream in his mind.

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 looked
forward heartily to a change. The night was even more cheerless: it was
miserable, and few people were about. A cold, sleety rain was driving
down the streets before the keenest east wind 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.

In the hall he met his landlady, shading a candle from the draughts with
her thin hand. ‘This come by a man from Mr Wilbr’im’s, sir.’

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.’

‘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.’

‘I hope so too,’ replied her lodger, shuddering a little as the wind went
roaring down the street outside.

When he got upstairs he heard the sleet volleying against the window
panes. 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. ‘And now I must
pack–such as my packing is,’ he laughed to himself, and set to work at
once.

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 fraend had lent him
the very thing–a stout canvas kit-bag, sack-shaped, with holes round 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 ear-caps;
and then on the top of these he piled his woollen shirts and underwear,
his thick socks, puttees, and knickerbockers. The dress suit came next,
in case the hotel people dressed for dinner, and then, thinking of the
best way to pack his white shirts, he paused a moment to reflect. ‘Bat’s
the worst of these kit-bags,’ he mused vaguely, standing in the centre of
the sitting-room, where he had come to fetch some string.

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, whilst he was skimming
over snowy slopes in bright sunshine, and dancing in the evening with
rosy-checked 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.

And as he did so he heard someone coming softly up the stairs.

He stood still a moment on the landing to listen. It was Mrs Monks’s
step, he thought; she must he coming up with the last post. But then the
steps ceased suddenly, and he heard no more. They were at least two
flights down, and he came to the conclusion 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.

Be 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 he heard a soft tread of someone padding about over the
bare boards–cautiously, stealthily, as silently as possible–and,
further, that the sounds had been lately coming distinctly nearer.

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 towards him with an extraordinary
resemblance to a human face. Be camas 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 turn, for it was so
absurdly, so outrageously, like the face of John Turk the murderer.

He laughed, and went into the front room, where the light was stronger.

‘That horrid case has got 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 about on
the upper staircase at so late an hour.

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.

‘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 towards
midnight. He drank his coffee up and lit another pipe–the last before
turning in.

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 upon the surface of
still water, but often so lightly that they claim no definite recognation
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 has mind,
but that he had only just reached the point where he was forced to
acknowledge them.

STORY CONTINUES AFTER THE BREAK:
(more…)

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