Max Hensig, by Algernon Blackwood

3

The New York public want sensational reading in their daily life, and they get it, for the newspaper that refused to furnish it would fail in a week, and New York newspaper proprietors do not pose as philanthropists. Horror succeeds horror, and the public interest is never for one instant allowed to faint by the way.

Like any other reporter who betrayed the smallest powers of description, Williams realised this fact with his very first week on the Vulture. His daily work became simply a series of sensational reports of sensational happenings; he lived in a perpetual whirl of exciting arrests, murder trials, cases of blackmail, divorce, forgery, arson, corruption, and every other kind of wickedness imaginable. Each case thrilled him a little less than the preceding one; excess of sensation had simply numbed him; he became, not callous, but irresponsive, and had long since reached the stage when excitement ceases to betray judgment, as with inexperienced reporters it was apt to do.

The Hensig case, however, for a long time lived in his imagination and haunted him. The bald facts were buried in the police files at Mulberry Street headquarters and in the newspaper office “morgues”, while the public, thrilled daily by fresh horrors, forgot the very existence of the evil doctor a couple of days after the acquittal of the central figure. But for Williams it was otherwise. The personality of the heartless and calculating murderer — the intellectual poisoner, as he called him — had made a deep impression on his imaginations and for many weeks his memory kept him alive as a moving and actual horror in his life. The words he had heard him titter, with their covert threats and ill-concealed animosity, helped, no doubt, to vivify the recollection and to explain why Hensig stayed in his thoughts and haunted his dreams with a persistence that reminded him of his very earliest cases on the paper. With time, however, even Hensig began to fade away into the confused background of piled up memories of prisoners and prison scenes, and at length the memory became so deeply buried that it no longer troubled him at all.

The summer passed, and Williams came back from his hard-earned holiday of two weeks in the Maine backwoods. New York was at its best, and the thousands who had been forced to stay and face its torrid summer heats were beginning to revive tinder the spell of the brilliant autumn days. Cool sea breezes swept over its burnt streets from the Lower Bay, and across the splendid flood of the Hudson River the woods on the Palisades of New Jersey had turned to crimson and gold. The air was electric, sharp, sparkling, and the life of the city began to pulse anew with its restless and impetuous energy. Bronzed faces from sea and mountains thronged the streets, health and light-heartedness showed in every eye, for autumn in New York wields a potent magic not to be denied, and even the East Side slums, where the unfortunates crowd in their squalid thousands, bad the appearance of having been swept and cleansed. Along the water-fronts especially the powers of sea and sun and scented winds combined to work an irresistible fever in the hearts of all who chafed within their prison walls.

And in Williams, perhaps more than in most, there was something that responded vigorously to the influences of hope and cheerfulness everywhere abroad. Fresh with the vigour of his holiday and full of good resolutions for the coming winter he felt released from the evil spell of irregular living, and as he crossed one October morning to Staten Island in the big double-ender ferry-boat, his heart was light, and his eye wandered to the blue waters and the hazy line of woods beyond with feelings of pure gladness and delight.

He was on his way to Quarantine to meet an incoming liner for the Vulture. A Jew-baiting member of the German Reichstag was coming to deliver a series of lectures in New York on his favourite subject, and the newspapers who deemed him worthy of notice at all were sending him fair warning that his mission would be tolerated perhaps, but not welcomed. The Jews were good citizens and America a “free country” and his meetings in the Cooper Union Hall would meet with derision certainly, and violence possibly.

The assignment was a pleasant one, and Williams had instructions to poke fun at the officious and interfering German, and advise him to return to Bremen by the next steamer without venturing among flying eggs and dead cats on the platform. He entered fully into the spirit of the job and was telling the Quarantine doctor about it as they steamed down the bay in the little tug to meet the huge liner just anchoring inside Sandy Hook.

The decks of the ship were crowded with passengers watching the arrival of the puffing tug, and just as they drew alongside in the shadow Williams suddenly felt his eyes drawn away from the swinging rope ladder to some point about half-way down the length of the vessel. There, among the intermediate passengers on the lower deck, he saw a face staring at him with fixed intentness. The eyes were bright blue, and the skin, in that row of bronzed passengers, showed remarkably white. At once, and with a violent rush of blood from the heart, he recognised Hensig.

In a moment everything about him changed: the blue waters of the bay turned black, the light seemed to leave the sun, and all the old sensations of fear and loathing came over him again like the memory of some great pain. He shook himself, and clutched the rope ladder to swing up after the Health Officer, angry, and yet genuinely alarmed at the same time, to realise that the return of this man could so affect him. His interview with the Jew-baiter was of the briefest possible description, and he hurried through to catch the Quarantine tug back to Staten Island, instead of steaming up the bay with the great liner into dock, as the other reporters did. He had caught no second glimpse of the hated German, and he even went so far as to harbour a faint hope that he might have been deceived, and that some trick of resemblance in another face had caused a sort of subjective hallucination. At any rate, the days passed into weeks, and October slipped into November, and there was no recurrence of the distressing vision. Perhaps, after all, it was a stranger only; or, if it was Hensig, then he had forgotten all about the reporter, and his return had no connection necessarily with the idea of revenge.

None the less, however, Williams felt uneasy. He told his friend Dowling, the policeman.

“Old news,” laughed the Irishman. “Headquarters are keeping an eye on him as a suspect. Berlin wants a man for two murders — goes by the name of Brunner — and from their description we think it’s this feller Hensig. Nothing certain yet, but we’re on his trail. I’m on his trail,” he added proudly, “and don’t you forget it! I’ll let you know anything when the time comes, but mum’s the word just now!” One night, not long after this meeting, Williams and the Senator were covering a big fire on the West Side docks. They were standing on the outskirts of the crowd watching the immense flames that a shouting wind seemed to carry half-way across the river. The surrounding shipping was brilliantly lit up and the roar was magnificent. The Senator, having come out with none of his own, borrowed his friend’s overcoat for a moment to protect him from spray and flying cinders while he went inside the fire lines for the latest information obtainable. It was after midnight, and the main story had been telephoned to the office; all they had now to do was to send in the latest details and corrections to be written up at the news desk.

“I’ll wait for you over at the corner!” shouted Williams, in moving off through a scene of indescribable confusion and taking off his fire badge as he went.

This conspicuous brass badge, issued to reporters by the Fire Department, gave them the right to pass within the police cordon in the pursuit of information, and at their own risk. Hardly had he unpinned it from his coat when a hand dashed out of the crowd surging up against him and made a determined grab at it. He turned to trace the owner, but at that instant a great lurching of the mob nearly carried him off his feet, and he only just succeeded in seeing the arm withdrawn, having failed of its object, before he was landed with a violent push upon the pavement he had been aiming for.

The incident did not strike him as particularly odd, for in such a crowd there are many who covet the privilege of getting closer to the blaze. He simply laughed and put the badge safely in his pocket, and then stood to watch the dying flames until his friend came to join him with the latest details.

Yet, though time was pressing and the Senator had little enough to do, it was fully half an hour before he came lumbering up through the darkness. Williams recognised him some distance away by the check ulster he wore — his own.

But was it the Senator, after all? The figure moved oddly and with a limp, as though injured. A few feet off it stopped and peered at Williams through the darkness.

“That you, Williams?” asked a gruff voice.

“I thought you were someone else for a moment,” answered the reporter, relieved to recognise his friend, and moving forward to meet him. “But what’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

The Senator looked ghastly in the lurid glow of the fire. His face was white, and there was a little trickle of blood on the forehead.

“Some fellow nearly did for me,” he said; “deliberately pushed me clean off the edge of the dock. If I hadn’t fallen on to a broken pile and found a boat, I’d have been drowned sure as God made little apples. Think I know who it was, too. Think! I mean I know, because I saw his damned white face and heard what he said.”

“Who in the world was it? What did he want?” stammered the other.

The Senator took his arm, and lurched into the saloon behind them for some brandy. As he did so he kept looking over his shoulder.

“Quicker we’re off from this dirty neighbourhood, the better,” he said.

Then he turned to Williams, looking oddly at him over the glass, and answering his questions.

“Who was it? — why, it was Hensig! And what did he want? — well, he wanted you!”

“Me! Hensig!” gasped the other.

“Guess he mistook me for you,” went on the Senator, looking behind him at the door. “The crowd was so thick I cut across by the edge of the dock. It was quite dark. There wasn’t a soul near me. I was running. Suddenly what I thought was a stump got up in front of me, and, Gee whiz, man! I tell you it was Hensig, or I’m a drunken Dutchman. I looked bang into his face. ‘Good-pye, Mr. Vulture reporter,’ he said, with a damned laugh, and gave me a push that sent me backwards clean over the edge.”

The Senator paused for breath, and to empty his second glass.

“My overcoat!” exclaimed Williams faintly.

“Oh, he’d been following you right enough, I guess.”

The Senator was not really injured, and the two men walked back towards Broadway to find a telephone, passing through a region of dimly-lighted streets known as Little Africa, where the negroes lived, and where it was safer to keep the middle of the road, thus avoiding sundry dark alley-ways opening off the side. They talked hard all the way.

“He’s after you, no doubt,” repeated the Senator. “I guess he never forgot your report of his trial. Better keep your eye peeled!” he added with a laugh.

But Williams didn’t feel a bit inclined to laugh, and the thought that it certainly was Hensig he had seen on the steamer, and that he was following him so closely as to mark his check ulster and make an attempt on his life, made him feel horribly uncomfortable, to say the least. To be stalked by such a man was terrible. To realise that he was marked down by that white-faced, cruel wretch, merciless and implacable, skilled in the manifold ways of killing by stealth — that somewhere in the crowds of the great city he was watched and waited for, hunted, observed: here was an obsession really to torment and become dangerous. Those light-blue eyes, that keen intelligence, that mind charged with revenge, had been watching him ever since the trial, even from across the sea. The idea terrified him. It brought death into his thoughts for the first time with a vivid sense of nearness and reality — far greater than anything he had experienced when watching others die.

That night, in his dingy little room in the East Nineteenth Street boarding-house, Williams went to bed in a blue funk, and for days afterwards he went about his business in a continuation of the same blue funk. It was useless to deny it. He kept his eyes everywhere, thinking he was being watched and followed. A new face in the office, at the boarding-house table, or anywhere on his usual beat, made him jump. His daily work was haunted; his dreams were all nightmares; he forgot all his good resolutions, and plunged into the old indulgences that helped him to forget his distress. It took twice as much liquor to make him jolly, and four times as much to make him reckless. Not that he really was a drunkard, or cared to drink for its own sake, but he moved in a thirsty world of reporters, policemen, reckless and loose-living men and women, whose form of greeting was “What’ll you take?” and method of reproach “Oh, he’s sworn off!” Only now he was more careful how much he took, counting the cocktails and fizzes poured into him during the course of his day’s work, and was anxious never to lose control of himself. He must be on the watch. He changed his eating and drinking haunts, and altered any habits that could give a clue to the devil on his trail. He even went so far as to change his boardinghouse. His emotion — the emotion of fear — changed everything. It tinged the outer world with gloom, draping it in darker colours, stealing something from the sunlight, reducing enthusiasm, and acting as a heavy drag, as it were, upon all the normal functions of life.

The effect upon his imagination, already diseased by alcohol and drugs, was, of course, exceedingly strong. The doctor’s words about developing a germ until it became too powerful to be touched by any medicine, and then letting it into the victim’s system by means of a pin-scratch — this possessed him more than anything else. The idea dominated his thoughts; it seemed so clever, so cruel, so devilish. The “accident” at the fire had been, of course, a real accident, conceived on the spur of the moment — the result of a chance meeting and a foolish mistake. Hensig had no need to resort to such clumsy methods. When the right moment came he would adopt a far simpler, safer plan.

Finally, he became so obsessed by the idea that Hensig was following him, waiting for his opportunity, that one day he told the news editor the whole story. His nerves were so shaken that he could not do his work properly.

“That’s a good story. Make two hundred of it,” said the editor at once. “Fake the name, of course. Mustn’t mention Hensig, or there’ll be a libel suit.” But Williams was in earnest, and insisted so forcibly that Treherne, though busy as ever, took him aside into his room with the glass door.

“Now, see here, Williams, you’re drinking too much,” he said; “that’s about the size of it. Steady up a bit on the wash, and Hensig’s face will disappear.”

He spoke kindly, but sharply. He was young himself, awfully keen, with much knowledge of human nature and a rare “nose for news”. He understood the abilities of his small army of men with intuitive judgment. That they drank was nothing to him, provided they did their work. Everybody in that world drank, and the man who didn’t was hooked upon with suspicion.

Williams explained rather savagely that the face was no mere symptom of delirium tremens and the editor spared him another two minutes before rushing out to tackle the crowd of men waiting for him at the news desk.

“That so? You don’t say!” he asked, with more interest. “Well, I guess Hensig’s simply trying to razzle-dazzle you. You tried to kill him by your reports, and he wants to scare you by way of revenge. But he’ll never dare do anything. Throw him a good bluff, and he’ll give in like a baby. Everything’s pretence in this world. But I rather like the idea of the germs. That’s original!”

Williams, a little angry at the other’s flippancy, told the story of the Senator’s adventure and the changed overcoat.

“May be, may be,” replied the hurried editor; “but the Senator drinks Chinese whisky, and a man who does that might imagine anything on God’s earth. Take a tip, Williams, from an old hand, and let up a bit on the liquor. Drop cocktails and keep to straight whisky, and never drink on an empty stomach. Above all, don’t mix!”

He gave him a keen look and was off. “Next time you see this German,” cried Treherne from the door, “go up and ask him for an interview on what it feels like to escape from the Chair — just to show him you don’t care a red cent. Talk about having him watched and followed — suspected man — and all that sort of flim-flam. Pretend to warn him. It’ll turn the tables and make him digest a bit. See?” Williams sauntered out into the street to report a meeting of the Rapid Transit Commissioners, and the first person he met as he ran down the office steps was — Max Hensig.

Before he could stop, or swerve aside, they were face to face. His head swam for a moment and he began to tremble. Then some measure of self-possession returned, and he tried instinctively to act on the editor’s advice. No other plan was ready, so he drew on the last force that had occupied his mind. It was that — or running.

Hensig, he noticed, looked prosperous; he wore a fur overcoat and cap. His face was whiter than ever, and his blue eyes burned like coals.

“Why! Dr. Hensig, you’re back in New York! “he exclaimed. “When did you arrive? I’m glad — I suppose — I mean — er — will you come and have a drink?” he concluded desperately. It was very foolish, but for the life of him he could think of nothing else to say. And the last thing in the world he wished was that his enemy should know that he was afraid.

“I tink not, Mr. Vulture reporder, tanks,” he answered coolly; “but I sit py and vatch you drink.”

His self-possession was as perfect, as it always was. But Williams, more himself now, seized on the refusal and moved on, saying something about having a meeting to go to.

“I walk a liddle way with you, berhaps,” Hensig said, following him down the pavement.

It was impossible to prevent him, and they started side by side across City Hall Park towards Broadway. It was after four o’clock: the dusk was falling: the little park was thronged with people walking in all directions, everyone in a terrific hurry as usual. Only Hensig seemed calm and unmoved among that racing, tearing life about them. He carried an atmosphere of ice about with him: it was his voice and manner that produced this impression; his mind was alert, watchful, determined, always sure of itself. Williams wanted to run. He reviewed swiftly in his mind a dozen ways of getting rid of him quickly, yet knowing well they were all futile. He put his hands in his overcoat pockets — the check ulster — and watched sideways every movement of his companion.

“Living in New York again, aren’t you?” he began.

“Not as a doctor any more,” was the reply. “ I now teach and study. Also I write sciendific hooks a liddle —”

“What about?”

“Cherms,” said the other, looking at him and laughing. “Disease cherms, their culture and development.” He put the accent on the “op”.

Williams walked more quickly. With a great effort he tried to put Treherne’s advice into practice. “You care to give me an interview any time — on your special subjects?” he asked, as naturally as he could.

“Oh yes; with much bleasure. I lif in Harlem now, if you will call von day —”

“Our office is best,” interrupted the reporter. “Paper, desks, library, all handy for use, you know.”

“If you’re afraid —” began Hensig. Then, without finishing the sentence, he added with a laugh, “I haf no arsenic there. You not tink me any more a pungling boisoner? You haf changed your mind about all dat?”

Williams felt his flesh beginning to creep. How could he speak of such a matter! His own wife, too!

He turned quickly and faced him, standing still for a moment so that the throng of people deflected into two streams past them. He felt it absolutely imperative upon him to say something that should convince the German he was not afraid.

“I suppose you are aware, Dr. Hensig, that the police know you have returned, and that you are being watched probably?” he said in a low voice, forcing himself to meet the odious blue eyes.

“And why not, bray?” he asked imperturbably.

“They may suspect something —”

“Susbected — already again? Ach was!” said the German.

“I only wished to warn you —” stammered Williams, who always found it difficult to remain self-possessed under the other’s dreadful stare.

“No boliceman see what I do — or catch me again,” he laughed quite horribly. “But I tank you all the same.”

Williams turned to catch a Broadway car going at full speed. He could not stand another minute with this man, who affected him so disagreeably.

“I call at the office one day to gif you interview!” Hensig shouted as he dashed off, and the next minute he was swallowed up in the crowd, and Williams, with mixed feelings and a strange inner trembling, went to cover the meeting of the Rapid Transit Board.

But, while he reported the proceedings mechanically, his mind was busy with quite other thoughts. Hensig was at his side the whole time. He felt quite sure, however unlikely it seemed, that there was no fancy in his fears, and that he had judged the German correctly. Hensig hated him, and would put him out of the way if he could. He would do it in such a way that detection would be almost impossible. He would not shoot or poison in the ordinary way, or resort to any clumsy method. He would simply follow, watch, wait his opportunity, and then act with utter callousness and remorseless determination. And Williams already felt pretty certain of the means that would be employed: “Cherms!”

This meant proximity. He must watch everyone who came close to him in trains, cars, restaurants — anywhere and everywhere. It could be done in a second: only a slight scratch would be necessary, and the disease would be in his blood with such strength that the chances of recovery would be slight. And what could he do? He could not have Hensig watched or arrested. He had no story to tell to a magistrate, or to the police, for no one would listen to such a tale. And, if he were stricken down by sudden illness, what was more likely than to say he had caught the fever in the ordinary course of his work, since he was always frequenting noisome dens and the haunts of the very poor, the foreign and filthy slums of the East Side, and the hospitals, morgues, and cells of all sorts and conditions of men? No; it was a disagreeable situation, and Williams, young, shaken in nerve, and easily impressionable as he was, could not prevent its obsession of his mind and imagination.

“If I get suddenly ill,” he told the Senator, his only friend in the whole city, “and send for you, look carefully for a scratch on my body. Tell Dowling, and tell the doctor the story.”

“You think Hensig goes about with a little bottle of plague germs in his vest pockets” laughed the other reporter, ready to scratch you with a pin?”

“Some damned scheme like that, I’m sure.” “Nothing could be proved anyway. He wouldn’t keep the evidence in his pocket till he was arrested, would he?”

During the next week or two Williams ran against Hensig twice — accidentally. The first time it happened just outside his own boarding-house — the new one. Hensig had his foot on the stone steps as if just about to come up, but quick as a flash he turned his face away and moved on down the Street. This was about eight o’clock in the evening, and the hall light fell through the opened door upon his face. The second time it was not so clear: the reporter was covering a case in the courts, a case of suspicious death in which a woman was chief prisoner, and he thought he saw the doctor’s white visage watching him from among the crowd at the back of the court-room. When he looked a second time, however, the face had disappeared, and there was no sign afterwards of its owner in the lobby or corridor.

That same day he met Dowling in the building; he was promoted now, and was always in plain clothes. The detective drew him aside into a corner. The talk at once turned upon the German.

“We’re watching him too,” he said. “Nothing you can use yet, but he’s changed his name again, and never stops at the same address for more than a week or two. I guess he’s Brunner right enough, the man Berlin’s looking for. He’s a holy terror if ever there was one.”

Dowling was happy as a schoolboy to be in touch with such a promising case.

“What’s he up to now in particular?” asked the other.

“Something pretty black,” said the detective. “But I can’t tell you yet awhile. He calls himself Schmidt now, and he’s dropped the ‘Doctor’. We may take him any day — just waiting for advices from Germany.”

Williams told his story of the overcoat adventure with the Senator, and his belief that Hensig was waiting for a suitable opportunity to catch him alone.

“That’s dead likely too,” said Dowling, and added carelessly, “I guess we’ll have to make some kind of a case against him anyway, just to get him out of the way. He’s dangerous to be around huntin’ on the loose.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31