Above the Dark Circus - Hugh Walpole - ebook

Above the Dark Circus ebook

Hugh Walpole



This novel is served with a psychological detective dressing. In reality, this is a mixture of experiences, feelings and thoughts of the protagonist, describing events that in any case should end in tragedy. This is not hidden from the very beginning. Everything that happens is written very atmospheric, gradually thickening events to an inevitable outcome.

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Liczba stron: 339

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CHAPTER I The Barber

CHAPTER II Spindle-Shanks in a Dark Garden



CHAPTER V Pengelly on Earth

CHAPTER VI Pengelly in Heaven

CHAPTER VII Extraordinary Adventures of a Corpse


CHAPTER VIII Shadow Pursuing


CHAPTER X The Curate

CHAPTER XI The Sandwich Bar

CHAPTER XII Affirmers; Deniers


CHAPTER XIV From the Stars Down


CHAPTER I. The Barber

I am aware, I fancy, of most of the dangers of narrative in the first person, but it appears to me that there is no other possible method for this particular story.

Swiftly following though the incidents of it were, and involving a number of persons besides myself in very definite dangers, it is not the incidents that seem to me now, after nearly five years’ interval, to be of importance, but rather the implications that lay behind them, and especially the implications in Osmund’s purpose.

The chief peril, I suppose, that lurks behind narrative in the first person is that of incredulity. How can anyone remember so clearly and repeat so accurately these conversations? Yes, but one doesn’t either remember clearly or repeat accurately. One gives the gist of the thing, the spirit of it rather than the letter. Then, further, as to the scenes that one did not oneself witness. Well, in this present adventure, there is, as will afterwards be clear, only one scene at which I was not myself present, and here my informant is so close to myself that it makes no matter.

For the rest I, and I alone, can give you, as I think, the point of it all, for I, and I alone, should see it from every angle–yes, from that dizzy catastrophe (for it was a catastrophe) under the guttering candles, from that bizarre procession with the loathsome Pengelly, his hat over his eyes, held up under each arm, to that last scene up among the chimney-pots.

This is a pretty portentous beginning. I hadn’t intended to start seriously at all, but quite simply with my name and address, so to speak.

My name is Richard Gunn. I was born in the town of Totnes, April 4, 1884. When this adventure began I was standing, naked to the world, save for one half-crown, about five o’clock on a December afternoon, in Piccadilly Circus, wondering what would happen next.

And here I hope you will excuse me for vagueness in the matter of the year. Indeed, I will ask your permission to change the names, not only of persons, but of buildings and addresses in general. Not that it matters very much. There is no one left who can object very strongly, but I like to allow myself that amount of licence. You can trace the places for yourself, if you like. They are all, as you will see, within a stone’s throw from one another. The Circus dominated us first and last and all the time, played perhaps a bigger part in the adventure than did any of us individually. I don’t know. That’s for you afterwards to decide.

As to the year, it was after the war and after Eros was removed from its pedestal. Where Eros had been, I remember, was the point at which I was especially staring as I stood on the edge of the kerb, wondering what would happen next.

I had several alternatives in my mind–one was suicide, another robbery, another something not very far from murder. And yet I was not in myself in any way a desperate character–not, probably, desperate enough. I never have been. I was only very cold, very hungry and very hopeless.

My position was in no ways a peculiar one at that time. Many another soldier shared it. Before the war I had held for many years a job as land agent in my own county of Devon. Joining up in 1914 I had trusted to a six months’ conflict and the resumption of my job again, but Harry Carden, my employer and close personal friend, was dead, and his estate sold, long before the fighting was over. I had saved during the war a sufficiency, and in 1918 had invested it, with a brother-officer, in a pair of charabancs. The charabancs failed–we had not perhaps precisely the right talent for charabancs. I was, after that, secretary to an impatient peeress, secretary to a night club, companion to a deaf and dumb gentleman, assistant in Mr. Swell-in-the-head’s Stores and seller-in-ordinary for Fletcher’s Patent Fountain Pens. Whatever I touched failed; whatever touched me crumbled to ruin–so here I was on this December afternoon in the year such-and-such, with exactly one half-crown in my pocket, no food in my belly and the bitterest cold in my entrails.

I had, I fancy, no grudge against anybody or anything, not even myself. I did not find that any of this was my own fault or anyone else’s. I blamed neither God nor my fellow-men.

I only wondered what I would do with my last half-crown. Anyone who has been acutely hungry knows how odd a state of fantasy that condition provides. I was not quite sane, nor did I see the rest of the world quite sanely as I stood at that particular moment, staring at the scaffolding that, guarding the fine new Tube-To-Be, pierced upwards into the London pea-soup sky and the shadowy casual flakes of falling snow.

I was a little cracked, to be honest. I had had nothing to eat since yesterday midday. I had left my lodging very early that morning, without waiting for my breakfast, and that because I knew that I should be unable to pay Mrs. Greene for it. On the preceding evening I had settled my weekly bill, smiled into Mrs. Greene’s kindly, bulging countenance (she had a face just like a large bath-bun), and then, in the sinister silence of my room, examining my resources, found that I had exactly half a crown.

I had been, I must tell you, for the last month, searching every nook and cranny of London for a job. I am aware that it is a commonplace of comfortable and easily circumstanced people to say that any man who really wants a job can find one. I assure them that this is not so. It was not so nearly five years ago, and still less is it so to-day. I had submitted during that month to every sort of indignity. I had approached (hating myself and them) certain old friends, and I do not know which was the more horrible, their consciousness of their unhappy discomfort at being asked or my consciousness of their consciousness.

I was determined that I would neither borrow nor receive the gift of money without some sort of work offered in return. But the trouble was that nobody wanted my work–I was ready to do anything, yes, anything at all, clean the steps, clean the floors, black the shoes, but there was already a multitude of eager persons performing these offices. I was not alone in asking the question at this time–how was it that a war which slaughtered millions of human beings left the world a great deal fuller than it had found it?

What I was not in the least prepared for was the vile and greasy, patronizing, indifferent complacency of Mr. Bilgewater, the founder-and-head of the great Bilgewater Stores in Mannequin Street. He had announced that he was anxious to assist officers who were out of a job, and I secured an interview with him. I can see him still, sitting, a bloated, gray-haired, swollen-with-self-satisfaction spider, inside his fine money-coining web, looking across his shiny desk at me and asking me how a man of my age dared to come and waste his precious time by expecting a job from him. I gently hinted... but I won’t go on. Even after this passage of time my hand trembles when I think of him. I can only hope that one day Saint Peter, who must be on the whole a just soul and quite free of snobbery, gives him, before he admits him through the Golden Gates, a piece of his mind.

This little incident cured me of supplicating. I swore that I would beg no more. Suicide, robbery or murder, they seemed to my starving belly and hot, fiery head, that was bursting with fantastic visions, no impossible alternatives. I had been walking about all day, and yet I was not weary. I was sustained by a sort of glow, a fire fanned and decorated by hunger, a sense of injustice, a sort of exultation, because now, at this desperate moment, I really felt myself to be touching the very heart of life,–and a lot of indignant self-pride.

I had no possessions in the world save some clothes in a drawer at Mrs. Greene’s, the garments I was wearing, and Lockhart’s edition of Motteux’s Don Quixote, four volumes of which were at Mrs. Greene’s and one, the first, in my hand. That book I possessed owing to an act of mad extravagance four days earlier. I had seen the volumes in a second-hand bookshop, moderately priced, and had incontinently gone in and purchased them, thereby ridding myself of twenty-one shillings out of twenty-five, the most unreasonable act possibly of all my life.

It was no excuse that Don Quixote was my favourite book in the world and Lockhart’s my favourite edition. It was a piece of fantastic extravagance, and how could I tell at the time that it was to play so important a part in the wildest sequence of events so shortly afterwards?

In any case, I was holding this, the first volume of the five, in my hand, as I stood there staring at the scaffolding, and I remember quite clearly putting the volume, with its handsome old rose-red cover and crimson leather label, under my overcoat that it might not have damage from the falling snow.

For the rest my clothes were decent; and as I was myself broadly made, ruddy in colour, short and sturdy of build, none of the many who jostled by and around me had, I am sure, the slightest notion of the especial straits that I was in.

The point that I was at this moment debating was the destination of my final half-crown.

When you have only one half-crown left in the world it is astonishing the number of things you can do with it, but on this particular occasion it was quite definitely a choice between two–should it be spent on a meal or a hair-cut? For nearly a month I had not had my hair cut, and this, I imagine, from some sense of its extravagance. It would, in fact, have been cheap at almost any price, for if there is a thing in this world that makes me feel myself a dirty degenerate swine, it is the creeping of long hair about my neck.

The great question was–would half a crown do it, for a shampoo must be included? Was a shampoo enough? You may say that such a hesitation between a meal and a hair-cut was, for a starving man, an impossibility. I can only tell you that I did so hesitate, and that this same hesitation altered not my own life only, but the lives of many others.

I considered the meal. Could I have enough for half a crown? Or would I not, once I had started, be driven by my appetite into a whale of a meal and then be arrested for nonpayment?

On the other hand, would not the cool and cleanliness about my neck, the freshness of the shampoo...? My whole body trembled as I felt the firm hands of the barber pressing into my scalp, the soft foamy luxury of the soap, the touch of the cold water after the hot.... Two rival sensuousnesses–my last, perhaps. Or my first–which way was I to go?

I have said that hunger had made me a little fantastic. It was not the real world that I saw when I looked up and around me. Or was it? Who knows?

I looked up and across the Circus, and the first things that I saw were the green and red lights dancing on walls of the buildings opposite me. These stars of green and red flashed and twinkled, vanished, returned, flashed and twinkled again. There was still in the air a dim gray shadow of departing day, so that these recurrent stars had a particular unreality about them that gave them, in a queer way, an especial urgency for myself. They seemed to be inviting me to something.

High on the wall on the farther side of the avenue was a goblet of gold that rose slowly, tilted itself awkwardly, and then ejected some liquid with an air of quite ridiculous self-satisfaction.

The reflection of its gold and crimson shone dully in the dead windows behind me–the reflection was sulky and vengeful, as though the windows were angry and sullen at the use to which they were being put. Not only did these lights seem to have some especial personal meaning for me, but also for the people who were passing on every side of me. The Circus was only moderately crowded, but I noticed that everyone was clinging to the pavement as though a step forward meant ruin.

In my own excited state this did not seem at all unnatural. Because the day had not quite departed the centre of the Circus was sinking into a dusk that resembled to my heated gaze the gray waters of a pool, and I had the fancy that the omnibuses charging up the hill from the Mall, circling round from Piccadilly, were uncouth and barbarous monsters plunging to the pool for a savage drink.

“Well for us all,’ something said, “that we cling to this pavement. There’s danger at every step.’

So the monsters panted to the pool and, under the twinkling and derisive lights that flashed so meaninglessly now against empty space as the evening darkened, drank their fill.

Then, looking about me, I noticed people. I noticed first the fat shapeless beggar of the especially blind eyes who, with his shiny tin cup and the board across his chest, had just this moment arrived and stationed himself quite close to me against the wall. He, too, seemed to have a peculiar meaning for me. (What an empty stomach can do to your imagination if you only give it rope enough!)

I had seen him arrive, led by a little shabby woman in a black hat and with black cotton gloves on her hands. The moment she had stationed him against the wall she gave his board a twitch and without a word left him, shuffling off into the crowd. There he stood, gazing with piercing blind intentness at the twinkling stars of red and green.

A thin clergyman, with an eager countenance, hesitated beside me, looked as though he would speak, and moved away. Two women, very gay and hustling, ranged at my side. “Well,’ said one over my head to the other, “cheerio.’

“Cheerio,’ said the other. The first one waited a moment, then said again:

“Cheerio, dear.’

“Cheerio,’ said the other. The first one vanished, the second one looked right through me as though I were not there. I felt suddenly dead, dead and buried. No, I was not dead. I was conscious of my beastly hair, hot and uncomfortable against my neck.

“It shall be a hair-cut,’ I decided. Then my belly called out, “Steak and kidney.’ The golden bottle cocked itself up against the dark, scorned me, and ejected its liquid. Something inside me said: “See what the book says!’ So I took Quixote out from under my coat and opened it.

I read:

“The knight was yet asleep, when the curate came attended by the barber, and desired his niece to let him have the key of the room where her uncle kept his books, the author of his woes....’

The barber! There was an omen for you! The fates had decided. I moved forward to my destiny.

These details must seem to you of excessive unimportance, and I can well understand your disbelief in my memory of them, but it is precisely these things that one does remember forever and ever amen, even to the rather worn, semi-shiny buttons on the eager clergyman’s coat.

After a moment’s hesitation I pushed forward across the waters of the Circus, escaped narrowly two charging monsters that seemed to snort fire and smoke at me as they passed, and arrived on dry land on the spot where Eros once was. Here I drew breath. My legs were trembling under me. I felt faint with a gripping pain like a harsh-taloned hand laid at my entrails. Once more (and, as it happened, for the last time) I hesitated. Did I yield to the temptation of the hair-cut I must, afterwards, either finish things once and for all or commit crime for a meal. I faced, I think, in that bitter instant the ultimate degradation. I was ready to do anything for a meal, sell my soul, my body (one often enough involving the other) to anybody for anything. A moral world? It had ceased to exist for me, and in its room there was this strangely beautiful evil place, shot with coloured lights that broke and flashed and trembled across the sky above my head, while at my feet there were these strange sluggish waters, iridescent, cleft by monsters, bordered by walls of grim gray stone. Out of them there stepped to my side a slim horrible creature in a shining top-hat, a black overcoat, with a white camellia in its button-hole.

“Good-evening,’ it said.

“Good-evening,’ I replied.

“There’s more snow coming,’ it continued.

“Probably,’ I answered.

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