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Besides the departmental men on the New York Vulture, there were about twenty reporters for general duty, and Williams had worked his way up till he stood easily among the first half-dozen; for, in addition to being accurate and painstaking, he was able to bring to his reports of common things that touch of imagination and humour which just lifted them out of the rut of mere faithful recording. Moreover, the city editor (anglice news editor) appreciated his powers, and always tried to give him assignments that did himself and the paper credit, and he was justified now in expecting to be relieved of the hack jobs that were usually allotted to new men.
He was therefore puzzled and a little disappointed one morning as he saw his inferiors summoned one after another to the news desk to receive the best assignments of the day, and when at length his turn came, and the city editor asked him to cover “the Hensig story”, he gave a little start of vexation that almost betrayed him into asking what the devil “the Hensig story” was. For it is the duty of every morning newspaper man — in New York at least — to have made himself familiar with all the news of the day before he shows himself at the office, and though Williams had already done this, he could not recall either the name or the story.
“You can run to a hundred or a hundred and fifty, Mr. Williams. Cover the trial thoroughly, and get good interviews with Hensig and the lawyers. There’ll be no night assignment for you till the case is over.”
Williams was going to ask if there were any private “tips” from the District Attorney’s office, but the editor was already speaking with Weekes, who wrote the daily “weather story”, and he went back slowly to his desk, angry and disappointed, to read up the Hensig case and lay his plans for the day accordingly. At any rate, he reflected, it looked like “a soft job”, and as there was to be no second assignment for him that night, he would get off by eight o’clock, and be able to dine and sleep for once like a civilised man. And that was something.
It took him some time, however, to discover that the Hensig case was only a murder story. And this increased his disgust. It was tucked away in the corners of most of the papers, and little importance was attached to it. A murder trial is not first-class news unless there are very special features connected with it, and Williams had already covered scores of them. There was a heavy sameness about them that made it difficult to report them interestingly, and as a rule they were left to the tender mercies of the “flimsy” men — the Press Associations — and no paper sent a special man unless the case was distinctly out of the usual. Moreover, a hundred and fifty meant a column and a half, and Williams, not being a space man, earned the same money whether he wrote a stickful or a page; so that he felt doubly aggrieved, and walked out into the sunny open spaces opposite Newspaper Row heaving a deep sigh and cursing the boredom of his trade.
Max Hensig, he found, was a German doctor accused of murdering his second wife by injecting arsenic. The woman had been buried several weeks when the suspicious relatives got the body exhumed, and a quantity of the poison had been found in her. Williams recalled something about the arrest, now he came to think of it; but he felt no special interest in it, for ordinary murder trials were no longer his legitimate work, and he scorned them. At first, of course, they had thrilled him horribly, and some of his interviews with the prisoners, especially just before execution, had deeply impressed his imagination and kept him awake at nights. Even now he could not enter the gloomy Tombs Prison, or cross the Bridge of Sighs leading from it to the courts, without experiencing a real sensation, for its huge Egyptian columns and massive walls closed round him like death; and the first time he walked down Murderers’ Row, and came in view of the cell doors, his throat was dry, and he had almost turned and run out of the building. The first time, too, that he covered the trial of a Negro and listened to the man’s hysterical speech before sentence was pronounced, he was absorbed with interest, and his heart leaped. The wild appeals to the Deity, the long invented words, the ghastly pallor under the black skin, the rolling eyes, and the torrential sentences all seemed to him to be something tremendous to describe for his sensational sheet; and the stickfull that was eventually printed — written by the flimsy man too — had given him quite a new standard of the relative value of news and of the quality of the satiated public palate. He had reported the trials of a Chinaman, stolid as wood; of an Italian who had been too quick with his knife; and of a farm girl who had done both her parents to death in their beds, entering their room stark naked, so that no stains should betray her; and at the beginning these things haunted him for days.
But that was all months ago, when he first came to New York. Since then his work had been steadily in the criminal courts, and he had grown a second skin. An execution in the electric chair at Sing Sing could still unnerve him somewhat, but mere murder no longer thrilled or excited him, and he could be thoroughly depended on to write a good “murder story”— an account that his paper could print without blue pencil.
Accordingly he entered the Tombs Prison with nothing stronger than the feeling of vague oppression that gloomy structure always stirred in him, and certainly with no particular emotion connected with the prisoner he was about to interview; and when he reached the second iron door, where a warder peered at him through a small grating, he heard a voice behind him, and turned to find the Chronicle man at his heels.
“Hullo, Senator! What good trail are you following down here?” he cried, for the other got no small assignments, and never had less than a column on the Chronicle front page at space rates.
“Same as you, I guess — Hensig,” was the reply.
“But there’s no space in Hensig,” said Williams with surprise. “Are you back on salary again?”
“Not much,” laughed the Senator — no one knew his real name, but he was always called Senator. “But Hensig’s good for two hundred easy. There’s a whole list of murders behind him, we hear, and this is the first time he’s been caught.”
The Senator nodded in reply, turning to ask the warder some question about another case, and Williams waited for him in the corridor, impatiently rather, for he loathed the musty prison odour. He watched the Senator as he talked, and was distinctly glad he had come. They were good friends: he had helped Williams when he first joined the small army of newspaper men and was not much welcomed, being an Englishman. Common origin and goodheartedness mixed themselves delightfully in his face, and he always made Williams think of a friendly, honest cart-horse — stolid, strong, with big and simple emotions.
“Get a hustle on, Senator,” he said at length impatiently.
The two reporters followed the warder down the flagged corridor, past a row of dark cells, each with its occupant, until the man, swinging his keys in the direction indicated, stopped and pointed: “Here’s your gentleman,” he said, and then moved on down the corridor, leaving them staring through the bars at a frail, slim young man, pacing to and fro. He had flaxen hair and very bright blue eyes; his skin was white, and his face wore so open and innocent an expression that one would have said he could not twist a kitten’s tail without wincing.
“From the Chronicle and Vulture,” explained Williams, by way of introduction, and the talk at once began in the usual way.
The man in the cell ceased his restless pacing up and down, and stopped opposite the bars to examine them. He stared straight into Williams’s eyes for a moment, and the reporter noted a very different expression from the one he had first seen. It actually made him shift his position and stand a little to one side. But the movement was wholly instinctive. He could not have explained why he did it.
“Guess you vish me to say I did it, and then egsplain to you how I did it,” the young doctor said coolly, with a marked German accent. “But I haf no copy to gif you shust now. You see at the trial it is nothing but spite — and shealosy of another woman. I lofed my vife. I vould not haf gilled her for anything in the vorld —”
“Oh, of course, of course, Dr. Hensig,” broke in the Senator, who was more experienced in the ways of difficult interviewing. “We quite understand that. But, you know, in New York the newspapers try a man as much as the courts, and we thought you might like to make a statement to the public which we should be very glad to print for you. It may help your case —”
“Nothing can help my case in this tamned country where shustice is to he pought mit tollars!” cried the prisoner, with a sudden anger and an expression of face still further belying the first one; “nothing except a lot of money. But I tell you now two things you may write for your public: One is, no motive can be shown for the murder, because I lofed Zinka and vished her to live alvays. And the other is —” He stopped a moment and stared steadily at Williams making shorthand notes —” that with my knowledge — my egceptional knowledge — of poisons and pacteriology I could have done it in a dozen ways without pumping arsenic into her body. That is a fool’s way of killing. It is clumsy and childish and sure of discofery! See?”
He turned away, as though to signify that the interview was over, and sat down on his wooden bench.
“Seems to have taken a fancy to you,” laughed the Senator, as they went off to get further interviews with the lawyers. “He never looked at me once.”
“He’s got a bad face — the face of a devil. I don’t feel complimented,” said Williams shortly. “I’d hate to be in his power.”
“Same here,” returned the other. “Let’s go into Silver Dollars and wash the dirty taste out.”
So, after the custom of reporters, they made their way up the Bowery and went into a saloon that had gained a certain degree of fame because the Tammany owner had let a silver dollar into each stone of the floor. Here they washed away most of the “dirty taste” left by the Tombs atmosphere and Hensig, and then went on to Steve Brodie’s, another saloon a little higher up the same street.
“There’ll be others there,” said the Senator, meaning drinks as well as reporters, and Williams, still thinking over their interview, silently agreed.
Brodie was a character; there was always something lively going on in his place. He had the reputation of having once jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge and reached the water alive. No one could actually deny it, and no one could prove that it really happened: and anyhow, he had enough imagination and personality to make the myth live and to sell much bad liquor on the strength of it. The walls of his saloon were plastered with lurid oil-paintings of the bridge, the height enormously magnified, and Steve’s body in midair, an expression of a happy puppy on his face.
Here, as expected, they found “Whitey” Fife, of the Recorder, and Galusha Owen, of the World. “Whitey”, as his nickname implied, was an albino, and clever. He wrote the daily “weather story” for his paper, and the way he spun a column out of rain, wind, and temperature was the envy of everyone except the Weather Clerk, who objected to being described as “Farmer Dunne, cleaning his rat-tail file”, and to having his dignified office referred to in the public press as “a down-country farm”. But the public liked it, and laughed, and “Whitey” was never really spiteful.
Owen, too, when sober, was a good man who had long passed the rubicon of hack assignments. Yet both these men were also on the Hensig story. And Williams, who had already taken an instinctive dislike to the case, was sorry to see this, for it meant frequent interviewing and the possession, more or less, of his mind and imagination. Clearly, he would have much to do with this German doctor. Already, even at this stage, he began to hate him.
The four reporters spent an hour drinking and talking. They fell at length to discussing the last time they had chanced to meet on the same assignment — a private lunatic asylum owned by an incompetent quack without a licence, and where most of the inmates, not mad in the first instance, and all heavily paid for by relatives who wished them out of the way, had gone mad from ill-treatment. The place had been surrounded before dawn by the Board of Health officers, and the quasi-doctor arrested as he opened his front door. It was a splendid newspaper “story”, of course.
“My space bill ran to sixty dollars a day for nearly a week,” said Whitey Fife thickly, and the others laughed, because Whitey wrote most of his stuff by cribbing it from the evening papers.
“A dead cinch,” said Galusha Owen, his dirty flannel collar poking up through his long hair almost to his ears. “I ‘faked’ the whole of the second day without going down there at all.”
He pledged Whitey for the tenth time that morning, and the albino leered happily across the table at him, and passed him a thick compliment before emptying his glass.
“Hensig’s going to be good, too,” broke in the Senator, ordering a round of gin-fizzes, and Williams gave a little start of annoyance to hear the name brought up again. “He’ll make good stuff at the trial. I never saw a cooler hand. You should’ve heard him talk about poisons and bacteriology, and boasting he could kill in a dozen ways without fear of being caught. I guess he was telling the truth right enough!”
“That so?” cried Galusha and Whitey in the same breath, not having done a stroke of work so far on the case.
“Run down to the Tombsh angetaninerview,” added Whitey, turning with a sudden burst of enthusiasm to his companion. His white eyebrows and pink eyes fairly shone against the purple of his tipsy face.
“No, no,” cried the Senator; “don’t spoil a good story. You’re both as full as ticks. I’ll match with Williams which of us goes. Hensig knows us already, and we’ll all ‘give up’ in this story right along. No ‘beats’.”
So they decided to divide news till the case was finished, and to keep no exclusive items to themselves; and Williams, having lost the toss, swallowed his gin-fizz and went back to the Tombs to get a further talk with the prisoner on his knowledge of expert poisoning and bacteriology.
Meanwhile his thoughts were very busy elsewhere.
He had taken no part in the noisy conversation in the barroom, because something lay at the back of his mind, bothering him, and claiming attention with great persistence. Something was at work in his deeper consciousness, something that had impressed him with a vague sense of unpleasantness and nascent fear, reaching below that second skin he had grown.
And, as he walked slowly through the malodorous slum streets that lay between the Bowery and the Tombs, dodging the pullers-in outside the Jew clothing stores, and nibbling at a bag of peanuts he caught up off an Italian push-cart en route, this “something” rose a little higher out of its obscurity, and began to play with the roots of the ideas floating higgledypiggledy on the surface of his mind. He thought he knew what it was, but could not make quite sure. From the roots of his thoughts it rose a little higher, so that he clearly felt it as something disagreeable. Then, with a sudden rush, it came to the surface, and poked its face before him so that he fully recognised it.
The blond visage of Dr. Max Hensig rose before him, cool, smiling, and implacable.
Somehow, he had expected it would prove to be Hensig — this unpleasant thought that was troubling him. He was not really surprised to have labelled it, because the man’s personality had made an unwelcome impression upon him at the very start. He stopped nervously in the Street, and looked round. He did not expect to see anything out of the way, or to find that he was being followed. It was not that exactly. The act of turning was merely the outward expression of a sudden inner discomfort, and a man with better nerves, or nerves more under control, would not have turned at all.
But what caused this tremor of the nerves? Williams probed and searched within himself. It came, he felt, from some part of his inner being he did not understand; there had been an intrusion, an incongruous intrusion, into the stream of his normal consciousness. Messages from this region always gave him pause; and in this particular case he saw no reason why he should think specially of Dr. Hensig with alarm — this light-haired stripling with blue eyes and drooping moustache. The faces of other murderers had haunted him once or twice because they were more than ordinarily bad, or because their case possessed unusual features of horror. But there was nothing so very much out of the way about Hensig — at least, if there was, the reporter could not seize and analyse it. There seemed no adequate reason to explain his emotion. Certainly, it had nothing to do with the fact that he was merely a murderer, for that stirred no thrill in him at all, except a kind of pity, and a wonder how the man would meet his execution. It must, he argued, be something to do with the personality of the man, apart from any particular deed or characteristic.
Puzzled, and still a little nervous, he stood in the road, hesitating. In front of him the dark walls of the Tombs rose in massive steps of granite. Overhead white summer clouds sailed across a deep blue sky; the wind sang cheerfully among the wires and chimney-pots, making him think of fields and trees; and down the Street surged the usual cosmopolitan New York crowd of laughing Italians, surly Negroes, hebrews chattering Yiddish, tough-looking hooligans with that fighting lurch of the shoulders peculiar to New York roughs, Chinamen, taking little steps like boys — and every other sort of nondescript imaginable. It was early June, and there were faint odours of the sea and of sea-beaches in the air. Williams caught himself shivering a little with delight at the sight of the sky and scent of the wind.
Then he looked back at the great prison, rightly named the Tombs, and the sudden change of thought from the fields to the cells, from life to death, somehow landed him straight into the discovery of what caused this attack of nervousness:
Hensig was no ordinary murderer! That was it.
There was something quite out of the ordinary about him. The man was a horror, pure and simple, standing apart from normal humanity. The knowledge of this rushed over him like a revelation, bringing unalterable conviction in its train. Something of it had reached him in that first brief interview, but without explaining itself sufficiently to be recognised, and since then it had been working in his system, like a poison, and was now causing a disturbance, not having been assimilated. A quicker temperament would have labelled it long before. Now, Williams knew well that he drank too much, and had more than a passing acquaintance with drugs; his nerves were shaky at the best of times. His life on the newspapers afforded no opportunity of cultivating pleasant social relations, but brought him all the time into contact with the seamy side of life — the criminal, the abnormal, the unwholesome in human nature. He knew, too, that strange thoughts, idées fixes and what not, grew readily in such a soil as this, and, not wanting these, he had formed a habit — peculiar to himself — of deliberately sweeping his mind clean once a week of all that had haunted, obsessed, or teased him, of the horrible or unclean, during his work; and his eighth day, his holiday, he invariably spent in the woods, walking, building fires, cooking a meal in the open, and getting all the country air and the exercise he possibly could. He had in this way kept his mind free from many unpleasant pictures that might otherwise have lodged there abidingly, and the habit of thus cleansing his imagination had proved more than once of real value to him.
So now he laughed to himself, and turned on those whizzing brooms of his, trying to forget these first impressions of Hensig, and simply going in, as he did a hundred other times, to get an ordinary interview with an ordinary prisoner. This habit, being nothing more nor less than the practice of suggestion, was more successful sometimes than others. This time — since fear is less susceptible to suggestion than other emotions — it was less so.
Williams got his interview, and came away fairly creeping with horror. Hensig was all that he had felt, and more besides. He belonged, the reporter felt convinced, to that rare type of deliberate murderer, coldblooded and calculating, who kills for a song, delights in killing, and gives its whole intellect to the consideration of each detail, glorying in evading detection and revelling in the notoriety of the trial, if caught. At first he had answered reluctantly, but as Williams plied his questions intelligently, the young doctor warmed up and became enthusiastic with a sort of cold intellectual enthusiasm, till at last he held forth like a lecturer, pacing his cell, gesticulating, explaining with admirable exposition how easy murder could be to a man who knew his business. And he did know his business! No man, in these days of inquests and post-mortem examination, would inject poisons that might be found weeks afterwards in the viscera of the victim. No man who knew his business!
“What is more easy,” he said, holding the bars with his long white fingers and gazing into the reporter’s eyes, “than to take a disease germ (‘cherm’ he pronounced it) of typhus, plague, or any cherm you blease, and make so virulent a culture that no medicine in the vorld could counteract it; a really powerful microbe — and then scratch the skin of your victim with a pin? And who could drace it to you, or accuse you of murder?”
Williams, as he watched and heard, was glad the bars were between them; but, even so, something invisible seemed to pass from the prisoner’s atmosphere and lay an icy finger on his heart. He had come into contact with every possible kind of crime and criminal, and had interviewed scores of men who, for jealousy, greed, passion or other comprehensible emotion, had killed and paid the penalty of killing. He understood that. Any man with strong passions was a potential killer. But never before bad he met a man who in cold blood, deliberately, under no emotion greater than boredom, would destroy a human life and then boast of his ability to do it. Yet this, he felt sure, was what Hensig had done, and what his vile words shadowed forth and betrayed. Here was something outside humanity, something terrible, monstrous; and it made him shudder. This young doctor, he felt, was a fiend incarnate, a man who thought less of human life than the lives of flies in summer, and who would kill with as steady a hand and cool a brain as though he were performing a common operation in the hospital.
Thus the reporter left the prison gates with a vivid impression in his mind, though exactly how his conclusion was reached was more than he could tell. This time the mental brooms failed to act. The horror of it remained.
On the way out into the street he ran against Policeman Dowling of the ninth precinct, with whom he had been fast friends since the day he wrote a glowing account of Dowling’s capture of a “greengoods-man”, when Dowling had been so drunk that he nearly lost his prisoner altogether. The policeman had never forgotten the good turn; it had promoted him to plain clothes; and he was always ready to give the reporter any news he had.
“Know of anything good today?” he asked by way of habit.
“Bet your bottom dollar I do,” replied the coarsefaced Irish policeman; “one of the best, too. I’ve got Hensig!”
Dowling spoke with pride and affection. He was mighty pleased, too, because his name would be in the paper every day for a week or more, and a big case helped the chances of promotion.
Williams cursed inwardly. Apparently there was no escape from this man Hensig.
“Not much of a case, is it?” he asked.
“It’s a jim dandy, that’s what it is,” replied the other, a little offended. “Hensig may miss the Chair because the evidence is weak, but he’s the worst I’ve ever met. Why, he’d poison you as soon as spit in your eye, and if he’s got a heart at all he keeps it on ice.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Oh, they talk pretty freely to us sometimes,” the policeman said, with a significant wink.
“Can’t be used against them at the trial, and it kind o’ relieves their mind, I guess. But I’d just as soon not have heard most of what that guy told me — see? Come in,” he added, looking round cautiously; “I’ll set ’em up and tell you a bit.”
Williams entered the side-door of a saloon with him, but not too willingly.
“A glarss of Scotch for the Englishman,” ordered the officer facetiously, “and I’ll take a horse’s collar with a dash of peach bitters in it — just what you’d notice, no more.” He flung down a half-dollar, and the bar-tender winked and pushed it back to him across the counter.
“What’s yours, Mike?” he asked him.
“I’ll take a cigar,” said the bar-tender, pocketing the proffered dime and putting a cheap cigar in his waistcoat pocket, and then moving off to allow the two men elbowroom to talk in.
They talked in low voices with heads close together for fifteen minutes, and then the reporter set up another round of drinks. The bar-tender took his money. Then they talked a bit longer, Williams rather white about the gills and the policeman very much in earnest.
“The boys are waiting for me up at Brodie’s,” said Williams at length. “I must be off.”
“That’s so,” said Dowling, straightening up. “We’ll just liquor up again to show there’s no ill-feeling. And mind you see me every morning before the case is called. Trial begins tomorrow.”
They swallowed their drinks, and again the bartender took a ten-cent piece and pocketed a cheap cigar.
“Don’t print what I’ve told you, and don’t give it up to the other reporters,” said Dowling as they separated. “And if you want confirmation jest take the cars and run down to Amityville, Long Island, and you’ll find what I’ve said is O.K. every time.”
Williams went back to Steve Brodie’s, his thoughts whizzing about him like bees in a swarm. What he had heard increased tenfold his horror of the man. Of course, Dowling may have lied or exaggerated, but he thought not. It was probably all true, and the newspaper offices knew something about it when they sent good men to cover the case. Williams wished to Heaven he had nothing to do with the thing; but meanwhile he could not write what he had heard, and all the other reporters wanted was the result of his interview. That was good for half a column, even expurgated.
He found the Senator in the middle of a story to Galusha, while Whitey Fife was knocking cocktail glasses off the edge of the table and catching them just before they reached the floor, pretending they were Steve Brodie jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge. He had promised to set up the drinks for the whole bar if he missed, and just as Williams entered a glass smashed to atoms on the stones, and a roar of laughter went up from the room. Five or six men moved up to the bar and took their liquor, Williams included, and soon after Whitey and Galusha went off to get some lunch and sober up, having first arranged to meet Williams later in the evening and get the “story” from him.
“Get much?” asked the Senator.
“More than I care about,” replied the other, and then told his friend the story.
The Senator listened with intense interest, making occasional notes from time to time, and asking a few questions. Then, when Williams had finished, he said quietly:
“I guess Dowling’s right. Let’s jump on a car and go down to Amityville, and see what they think about him down there.”
Amityville was a scattered village some twenty miles away on Long Island, where Dr. Hensig had lived and practised for the last year or two, and where Mrs. Hensig No. 2 had come to her suspicious death. The neighbours would be sure to have plenty to say, and though it might not prove of great value, it would be certainly interesting. So the two reporters went down there, and interviewed anyone and everyone they could find, from the man in the drug-store to the parson and the undertaker, and the stories they heard would fill a book.
“Good stuff,” said the Senator, as they journeyed back to New York on the steamer, “but nothing we can use, I guess.” His face was very grave, and he seemed troubled in his mind.
“Nothing the District Attorney can use either at the trial,” observed Williams.
“It’s simply a devil — not a man at all,” the other continued, as if talking to himself. “Utterly unmoral! I swear I’ll make MacSweater put me to another job.” For the stories they had heard showed Dr. Hensig as a man who openly boasted that he could kill without detection; that no enemy of his lived long; that, as a doctor, he had, or ought to have, the right over life and death; and that if a person was a nuisance, or a trouble to him, there was no reason he should not put them away, provided he did it without rousing suspicion. Of course he had not shouted these views aloud in the market-place, but he had let people know that he held them, and held them seriously. They had fallen from him in conversation, in unguarded moments, and were clearly the natural expression of his mind and views. And many people in the village evidently had no doubt that he had put them into practice more than once.
“There’s nothing to give up to Whitey or Galusha, though,” said the Senator decisively, “and there’s hardly anything we can use in our story.”
“I don’t think I should care to use it anyhow,” Williams said, with rather a forced laugh.
The Senator looked round sharply by way of question.
“Hensig may be acquitted and get out,” added Williams.
“Same here. I guess you’re dead right,” he said slowly, and then added more cheerfully, “Let’s go and have dinner in Chinatown, and write our copy together.”
So they went down Pell Street, and turned up some dark wooden stairs into a Chinese restaurant, smelling strongly of opium and of cooking not Western. Here at a little table on the sanded floor they ordered chou chop suey and chou om dong in brown bowls, and washed it down with frequent doses of the fiery white whisky, and then moved into a corner and began to cover their paper with pencil writing for the consumption of the great American public in the morning.
“There’s not much to choose between Hensig and that,” said the Senator, as one of the degraded white women who frequent Chinatown entered the room and sat down at an empty table to order whisky. For, with four thousand Chinamen in the quarter, there is not a single Chinese woman.
“All the difference in the world,” replied Williams, following his glance across the smoky room.
“She’s been decent once, and may be again some day, but that damned doctor has never been anything but what he is — a soulless, intellectual devil. He doesn’t belong to humanity at all. I’ve got a horrid idea that —”
“How do you spell ‘bacteriology’, two r’s or one?” asked the Senator, going on with his scrawly writing of a story that would be read with interest by thousands next day.
“Two r’s and one k,” laughed the other. And they wrote on for another hour, and then went to turn it into their respective offices in Park Row.
The trial of Max Hensig lasted two weeks, for his relations supplied money, and he got good lawyers and all manner of delays. From a newspaper point of view it fell utterly flat, and before the end of the fourth day most of the papers had shunted their big men on to other jobs more worthy of their powers. From Williams’s point of view, however, it did not fall flat, and he was kept on it till the end. A reporter, of course, has no right to indulge in editorial remarks, especially when a case is still sub judice, but in New York journalism and the dignity of the law have a standard all their own, and into his daily reports there crept the distinct flavour of his own conclusions. Now that new men, with whom he had no agreement to “give up”, were covering the story for the other papers, he felt free to use any special knowledge in his possession, and a good deal of what he had heard at Amityville and from officer Dowling somehow managed to creep into his writing.
Something of the horror and loathing he felt for this doctor also betrayed itself, more by inference than actual statement, and no one who read his daily column could come to any other conclusion than that Hensig was a calculating, cool-headed murderer of the most dangerous type.
This was a little awkward for the reporter, because it was his duty every morning to interview the prisoner in his cell, and get his views on the conduct of the case in general and on his chances of escaping the Chair in particular.
Yet Hensig showed no embarrassment. All the newspapers were supplied to him, and he evidently read every word that Williams wrote. He must have known what the reporter thought about him, at least so far as his guilt or innocence was concerned, but he expressed no opinion as to the fairness of the articles, and talked freely of his chances of ultimate escape. The very way in which he glorified in being the central figure of a matter that bulked so large in the public eye seemed to the reporter an additional proof of the man’s perversity. His vanity was immense. He made most careful toilets, appearing every day in a clean shirt and a new tie, and never wearing the same suit on two consecutive days. He noted the descriptions of his personal appearance in the Press, and was quite offended if his clothes and bearing in court were not referred to in detail. And he was unusually delighted and pleased when any of the papers stated that he looked smart and self-possessed, or showed great self-control — which some of them did.
“They make a hero of me,” he said one morning when Williams went to see him as usual before court opened, “and if I go to the Chair — which I tink I not do, you know — you shall see something fine. Berhaps they electrocute a corpse only!”
And then, with dreadful callousness, he began to chaff the reporter about the tone of his articles — for the first time.
“I only report what is said and done in court,” stammered Williams, horribly uncomfortable, “and I am always ready to write anything you care to say —” “I haf no fault to find,” answered Hensig, his cold blue eyes fixed on the reporter’s face through the bars, “none at all. You tink I haf killed, and you show it in all your sendences. Haf you ever seen a man in the Chair, I ask you?”
Williams was obliged to say he had.
“Ach was! You haf indeed!” said the doctor coolly. “It’s instantaneous, though,” the other added quickly, “and must be quite painless” This was not exactly what he thought, but what else could he say to the poor devil who might presently be strapped down into it with that horrid band across his shaved head!
Hensig laughed, and turned away to walk up and down the narrow cell. Suddenly he made a quick movement and sprang like a panther close up to the bars, pressing his face between them with an expression that was entirely new. Williams started back a pace in spite of himself.
“There are worse ways of dying than that,” he said in a low voice, with a diabolical look in his eyes: “slower ways that are bainful much more. I shall get oudt. I shall not be conficted. I shall get oudt, and then perhaps I come and tell you apout them.” The hatred in his voice and expression was unmistakable, but almost at once the face changed
back to the cold pallor it usually wore, and the extraordinary doctor was laughing again and quietly discussing his lawyers and their good or bad points. After all, then, that skin of indifference was only assumed, and the man really resented bitterly the tone of his articles. He liked the publicity, but was furious with Williams for having come to a conclusion and for letting that conclusion show through his reports.
The reporter was relieved to get out into the fresh air. He walked briskly up the stone steps to the courtroom, still haunted by the memory of that odious white face pressing between the bars and the dreadful look in the eyes that had come and gone so swiftly. And what did those words mean exactly? Had he heard them right? Were they a threat?
“There are slower and more painful ways of dying, and if I get out I shall perhaps come and tell you about them.”
The work of reporting the evidence helped to chase the disagreeable vision, and the compliments of the city editor on the excellence of his “story,” with its suggestion of a possible increase of salary, gave his mind quite a different turn; yet always at the back of his consciousness there remained the vague, unpleasant memory that he had roused the bitter hatred of this man, and, as he thought, of a man who was a veritable monster. There may have been something hypnotic, a little perhaps, in this obsessing and haunting idea of the man’s steely wickedness, intellectual and horribly skilful, moving freely through life with something like a god’s power and with a list of unproved and unprovable murders behind him. Certainly it impressed his imagination with very vivid force, and he could not think of this doctor, young, with unusual knowledge and out-of-the-way skill, yet utterly unmoral, free to work his will on men and women who displeased him, and almost safe from detection — he could not think of it all without a shudder and a crawling of the skin. He was exceedingly glad when the last day of the trial was reached and he no longer was obliged to seek the daily interview in the cell, or to sit all day in the crowded court watching the detestable white face of the prisoner in the dock and listening to the web of evidence closing round him, but just failing to hold him tight enough for the Chair. For Hensig was acquitted, though the jury sat up all night to come to a decision, and the final interview Williams had with the man immediately before his release into the street was the pleasantest and yet the most disagreeable of all.
“I knew I get oudt all right,” said Hensig with a slight laugh, but without showing the real relief he must have felt. “No one peliefed me guilty but my vife’s family and yourself, Mr. Vulture reporter. I read efery day your repordts. You chumped to a conglusion too quickly, I tink —”
“Oh, we write what we’re told to write —”
“Berhaps some day you write anozzer story, or berhaps you read the story someone else write of your own trial. Then you understand better what you make me feel.”
Williams hurried on to ask the doctor for his opinion of the conduct of the trial, and then inquired what his plans were for the future. The answer to the question caused him genuine relief.
“Ach! I return of course to Chermany,” he said. “People here are now afraid of me a liddle. The newspapers haf killed me instead of the Chair. Goot-bye, Mr. Vulture reporter, goot-bye!”
And Williams wrote out his last interview with as great a relief, probably, as Hensig felt when he heard the foreman of the jury utter the words “Not guilty”; but the line that gave him most pleasure was the one announcing the intended departure of the acquitted man for Germany.
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 —”
“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.”
So gradual sometimes are the approaches of fear that the processes by which it takes possession of a man’s soul are often too insidious to be recognised, much less to be dealt with, until their object has been finally accomplished and the victim has lost the power to act. And by this time the reporter, who had again plunged into excess, felt so nerveless that, if he met Hensig face to face, he could not answer for what he might do. He might assault his tormentor violently — one result of terror — or he might find himself powerless to do anything at all but yield, like a bird fascinated before a snake.
He was always thinking now of the moment when they would meet, and of what would happen; for he was just as certain that they must meet eventually, and that Hensig would try to kill him, as that his next birthday would find him twenty-five years old. That meeting, he well knew, could be delayed only, not prevented, and his changing again to another boarding-house, or moving altogether to a different city, could only postpone the final accounting between them. It was bound to come.
A reporter on a New York newspaper has one day in seven to himself. Williams’s day off was Monday, and he was always glad when it came. Sunday was especially arduous for him, because in addition to the unsatisfactory nature of the day’s assignments, involving private interviewing which the citizens pretended to resent on their day of rest, he had the task in the evening of reporting a difficult sermon in a Brooklyn church. Having only a column and a half at his disposal, he had to condense as he went along, and the speaker was so rapid, and so fond of lengthy quotations, that the reporter found his shorthand only just equal to the task. It was usually after halfpast nine o’clock when he left the church, and there was still the labour of transcribing his notes in the office against time.
The Sunday following the glimpse of his tormentor’s face in the court-room he was busily condensing the wearisome periods of the preacher. Sitting at a little table immediately under the pulpit, when he glanced up during a brief pause and let his eye wander over the congregation and up to the crowded galleries. Nothing was farther at the moment from his much-occupied brain than the doctor of Amityville, and it was such an unexpected shock to encounter his fixed stare up there among the occupants of the front row, watching him with an evil smile, that his senses temporarily deserted him. The next sentence of the preacher was wholly lost, and his shorthand during the brief remainder of the sermon was quite illegible, he found, when he came to transcribe it at the office.
It was after one o’clock in the morning when he finished, and he went out feeling exhausted and rather shaky. In the all-night drug-store at the corner he indulged accordingly in several more glasses of whisky than usual, and talked a long time with the man who guarded the back room and served liquor to the few who knew the pass-word, since the shop had really no licence at all. The true reason for this delay he recognised quite plainly: he was afraid of the journey home along the dark and emptying streets. The lower end of New York is practically deserted after ten o’clock: it has no residences, no theatres, no cafés, and only a few travellers from late ferries share it with reporters, a sprinkling of policemen, and the ubiquitous ne’er-do-wells who haunt the saloon doors. The newspaper world of Park Row was, of course, alive with light and movement, but once outside that narrow zone and the night descended with an effect of general darkness.
Williams thought of spending three dollars on a cab, but dismissed the idea because of its extravagance. Presently Galusha Owens came in — too drunk to be of any use, though, as a companion. Besides, he lived in Harlem, which was miles beyond Nineteenth Street, where Williams had to go. He took another rye whisky — his fourth — and looked cautiously through the coloured glass windows into the Street. No one was visible. Then he screwed up his nerves another twist or two, and made a bolt for it, taking the steps in a sort of flying leap — and running full tilt into a man whose figure seemed almost to have risen out of the very pavement.
He gave a cry and raised his fists to strike.
“Where’s your hurry?” laughed a familiar voice. “Is the Prince of Wales dead?” It was the Senator, most welcome of all possible appearances.
“Come in and have a horn,” said Williams, “and then I’ll walk home with you.” He was immensely glad to see him, for only a few streets separated their respective boarding-houses.
“But he’d never sit out a long sermon just for the pleasure of watching you,” observed the Senator after hearing his friend’s excited account.
“That man’ll take any trouble in the world to gain his end,” said the other with conviction. “He’s making a study of all my movements and habits. He’s not the sort to take chances when it’s a matter of life and death. I’ll bet he’s not far away at this moment.”
“Rats!” exclaimed the Senator, laughing in rather a forced way. “You’re getting the jumps with your Hensig and death. Have another rye.” They finished their drinks and went out together, crossing City Hall Park diagonally towards Broadway, and then turning north. They crossed Canal and Grand Streets, deserted and badly lighted. Only a few drunken loiterers passed them. Occasionally a policeman on the corner, always close to the side-door of a saloon, of course, recognised one or other of them and called good night. Otherwise there was no one, and they seemed to have this part of Manhattan Island pretty well to themselves. The presence of the Senator, ever cheery and kind, keeping close to his friend all the way, the effect of the half-dozen whiskies, and the sight of the guardians of the law, combined to raise the reporter’s spirits somewhat: and when they reached Fourteenth Street, with its better light and greater traffic, and saw Union Square lying just beyond, close to his own street, he felt a distinct increase of courage and no objection to going on alone. “Good night!” cried the Senator cheerily. “Get home safe; I turn off here anyway.” He hesitated a moment before turning down the street, and then added, “You feel O.K., don’t you?” “You may get double rates for an exclusive bit of news if you come on and see me assaulted,” Williams replied, laughing aloud, and then waiting to see the last of his friend. But the moment the Senator was gone the laughter disappeared. He went on alone, crossing the square among the trees and walking very quickly.
Once or twice he turned to see if anybody were following him, and his eyes scanned carefully as he passed every occupant of the park benches where a certain number of homeless loafers always find their night’s lodging. But there was nothing apparently to cause him alarm, and in a few minutes more he would be safe in the little back bedroom of his own house. Over the way he saw the lights of Burbacher’s saloon, where respectable Germans drank Rhine wine and played chess till all hours. He thought of going in for a night-cap, hesitating for a moment, but finally going on. When he got to the end of the square, however, and saw the dark opening of East Eighteenth Street, he thought after all he would go back and have another drink. He hovered for a moment on the kerbstone and then turned; his will often slipped a cog now in this way.
It was only when he was on his way back that he realised the truth: that his real reason for turning back and avoiding the dark open mouth of the street was because he was afraid of something its shadows might conceal. This dawned upon him quite suddenly. If there had been a light at the corner of the street he would never have turned back at all. And as this passed through his mind, already somewhat fuddled with what he had drunk, he became aware that the figure of a man had slipped forward out of the dark space he had just refused to enter, and was following him down the street. The man was pressing, too, close into the houses, using any protection of shadow or railing that would enable him to move unseen.
But the moment Williams entered the bright section of pavement opposite the wine-room windows he knew that this man had come close up behind him, with a little silent run, and he turned at once to face him. He saw a slim man with dark hair and blue eyes, and recognised him instantly.
“It’s very late to be coming home,” said the man at once. “I thought I recognised my reporder friend from the Vulture.” These were the actual words, and the voice was meant to be pleasant, but what Williams thought he heard, spoken in tones of ice, was something like, “At last I’ve caught you! You are in a state of collapse nervously, and you are exhausted. I can do what I please with you.” For the face and the voice were those of Hensig the Tormentor, and the dyed hair only served to emphasise rather grotesquely the man’s features and make the pallor of the skin greater by contrast.
His first instinct was to turn and run, his second to fly at the man and strike him. A terror beyond death seized him. A pistol held to his head, or a waving bludgeon, he could easily have faced; but this odious creature, slim, limp, and white of face, with his terrible suggestion of cruelty, literally appalled him so that he could think of nothing intelligent to do or to say. This accurate knowledge of his movements, too, added to his distress — this waiting for him at night when he was tired and foolish from excess. At that moment he knew all the sensations of the criminal a few hours before his execution: the bursts of hysterical terror, the inability to realise his position, to hold his thoughts steady, the helplessness of it all. Yet, in the end, the reporter heard his own voice speaking with a rather weak and unnatural kind of tone and accompanied by a gulp of forced laughter — heard himself stammering the ever-ready formula: “I was going to have a drink before turning in — will you join me?”
The invitation, he realised afterwards, was prompted by the one fact that stood forth clearly in his mind at the moment — the thought, namely, that whatever he did or said, he must never let Hensig for one instant imagine that he felt afraid and was so helpless a victim.
Side by side they moved down the street, for Hensig had acquiesced in the suggestion, and Williams already felt dazed by the strong, persistent will of his companion. His thoughts seemed to be flying about somewhere outside his brain, beyond control, scattering wildly. He could think of nothing further to say, and had the smallest diversion furnished the opportunity he would have turned and run for his life through the deserted streets.
“A glass of lager,” he heard the German say, “I take berhaps that with you. You know me in spite of —” he added, indicating by a movement the changed colour of his hair and moustache. “Also, I gif you now the interview you asked for, if you like.”
The reporter agreed feebly, finding nothing adequate to reply. He turned helplessly and looked into his face with something of the sensations a bird may feel when it runs at last straight into the jaws of the reptile that has fascinated it. The fear of weeks settled down upon him, focussing about his heart. It was, of course, an effect of hypnotism, he remembered thinking vaguely through the befuddlement of his drink — this culminating effect of an evil and remorseless personality acting upon one that was diseased and extra receptive. And while he made the suggestion and heard the other’s acceptance of it, he knew perfectly well that he was falling in with the plan of the doctor’s own making, a plan that would end in an assault upon his person, perhaps a technical assault only — a mere touch — still, an assault that would be at the same time an attempt at murder. The alcohol buzzed in his ears. He felt strangely powerless. He walked steadily to his doom, side by side with his executioner.
Any attempt to analyse the psychology of the situation was utterly beyond him. But, amid the whirl of emotion and the excitement of the whisky, he dimly grasped the importance of two fundamental things.
And the first was that, though he was now muddled and frantic, yet a moment would come when his will would be capable of one supreme effort to escape, and that therefore it would be wiser for the present to waste no atom of volition on temporary half-measures. He would play dead dog. The fear that now paralysed him would accumulate till it reached the point of saturation: that would be the time to strike for his life. For just as the coward may reach a stage where he is capable of a sort of frenzied heroism that no ordinarily brave man could compass, so the victim of fear, at a point varying with his balance of imagination and physical vigour, will reach a state where fear leaves him and he becomes numb to its effect from sheer excess of feeling it. It is the point of saturation. He may then turn suddenly calm and act with a judgment and precision that simply bewilder the object of the attack. It is, of course, the inevitable swing of the pendulum, the law of equal action and reaction.
Hazily, tipsily perhaps, Williams was conscious of this potential power deep within him, below the superficial layers of smaller emotions — could he but be sufficiently terrified to reach it and bring it to the surface where it must result in action.
And, as a consequence of this foresight of his sober subliminal self, he offered no opposition to the least suggestion of his tormentor, but made up his mind instinctively to agree to all that he proposed. Thus he lost no atom of the force he might eventually call upon, by friction over details which in any case he would yield in the end. And at the same tune he felt intuitively that his utter weakness might even deceive his enemy a little and increase the chances of his single effort to escape when the right moment arrived.
That Williams was able to “imagine” this true psychology, yet wholly unable to analyse it, simply showed that on occasion he could be psychically active. His deeper subliminal self, stirred by the alcohol and the stress of emotion, was guiding him, and would continue to guide him in proportion as he let his fuddled normal self slip into the background without attempt to interfere.
And the second fundamental thing he grasped — due even more than the first to psychic intuition — was the certainty that he could drink more, up to a certain point, with distinct advantage to his power and lucidity — but up to a given point only. After that would come unconsciousness, a single sip too much and he would cross the frontier — a very narrow one. It was as though he knew intuitively that “the drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness”. At present he was only fuddled and fearful, but additional stimulant would inhibit the effects of the other emotions, give him unbounded confidence, clarify his judgment and increase his capacity to a stage far beyond the normal. Only — he must stop in time.
His chances of escape, therefore, so far as he could understand, depended on these two things: he must drink till he became self-confident and arrived at the abnormally clear-minded stage of drunkenness; and he must wait for the moment when Hensig had so filled him up with fear that he no longer could react to it. Then would be the time to strike. Then his will would be free and have judgment behind it. These were the two things standing up clearly somewhere behind that great confused turmoil of mingled fear and alcohol.
Thus for the moment, though with scattered forces and rather wildly feeble thoughts, he moved down the street beside the man who hated him and meant to kill him. He had no purpose at all but to agree and to wait. Any attempt he made now could end only in failure.
They talked a little as they went, the German calm, chatting as though he were merely an agreeable acquaintance, but behaving with the obvious knowledge that he held his victim secure, and that his struggles would prove simply rather amusing. He even laughed about his dyed hair, saying by way of explanation that he had done it to please a woman who told him it would make him look younger. Williams knew this was a lie, and that the police had more to do with the change than a woman; but the man’s vanity showed throuogh the explanation, and was a vivid little self-revelation.
He objected to entering Burbacher’s, saying that he (Burbacher) paid no blackmail to the police, and might be raided for keeping open after hours.
“I know a nice quiet blace on T’ird Avenue. We go there,” he said.
Williams, walking unsteadily and shaking inwardly, still groping, too, feebly after a way of escape, turned down the side street with him. He thought of the men he had watched walking down the short corridor from the cell to the “Chair” at Sing Sing, and wondered if they felt as he did. It was like going to his own execution.
“I haf a new disgovery in bacteriology — in cherms,” the doctor went on, “and it will make me famous, for it is very imbortant. I gif it you egsclusive for the Vulture, as you are a friend.” He became technical, and the reporter’s mind lost itself among such words as “toxins”, “alkaloids”, and the like. But he realised clearly enough that Hensig was playing with him and felt absolutely sure of his victim. When he lurched badly, as he did more than once, the German took his arm by way of support, and at the vile touch of the man it was all Williams could do not to scream or strike out blindly.
They turned up Third Avenue and stopped at the side door of a cheap saloon. He noticed the name of Schumacher over the porch, but all lights were out except a feeble glow that came through the glass fanlight. A man pushed his face cautiously round the half-opened door, and after a brief examination let them in with a whispered remark to be quiet. It was the usual formula of the Tammany saloonkeeper, who paid so much a month to the police to be allowed to keep open all night, provided there was no noise or fighting. It was now well after one o’clock in the morning, and the streets were deserted.
The reporter was quite at home in the sort of place they had entered; otherwise the sinister aspect of a drinking “joint” after hours, with its gloom and general air of suspicion, might have caused him some extra alarm. A dozen men, unpleasant of countenance, were standing at the bar, where a single lamp gave just enough light to enable them to see their glasses. The bar-tender gave Hensig a swift glance of recognition as they walked along the sanded floor.
“Come,” whispered the German; “we go to the back room. I know the bass-word,” he laughed, leading the way.
They walked to the far end of the bar and opened a door into a brightly lit room with about a dozen tables in it, at most of which men sat drinking with highly painted women, talking loudly, quarrelling, singing, and the air thick with smoke. No one took any notice of them as they went down the room to a table in the corner farthest from the door — Hensig chose it; and when the single waiter came up with “Was nehmen die Herren?” and a moment later brought the rye whisky they both asked for, Williams swallowed his own without the “chaser” of soda water, and ordered another on the spot.
“It’sh awfully watered,” he said rather thickly to his companion, “and I’m tired.”
“Cocaine, under the circumstances, would help you quicker, berhaps!” replied the German with an expression of amusement. Good God! Was there nothing about him the man had not found out? He must have been shadowing him for days; it was at least a week since Williams had been to the First Avenue drug store to get the wicked bottle refilled. Had he been on his trail every night when he left the office to go home? This idea of remorseless persistence made him shudder.
“Then we finish quickly if you are tired,” the doctor continued, “and tomorrow you can show me your repordt for gorrections if you make any misdakes berhaps. I gif you the address to-night pefore we leave.”
The increased ugliness of his speech and accent betrayed his growing excitement. Williams drank his whisky, again without water, and called for yet another, clinking glasses with the murderer opposite, and swallowing half of this last glass, too, while Hensig merely tasted his own, looking straight at him over the performance with his evil eyes.
“I can write shorthand,” began the reporter, trying to appear at his ease.
“Ach, I know, of course.”
There was a mirror behind the table, and he took a quick glance round the room while the other began searching in his coat pocket for the papers he had with him. Williams lost no single detail of his movements, but at the same time managed swiftly to get the “note” of the other occupants of the tables.
Degraded and besotted faces he saw, almost without exception, and not one to whom he could appeal for help with any prospect of success. It was a further shock, too, to realise that he preferred the more or less bestial countenances round him to the intellectual and ascetic face opposite. They were at least human, whereas he was something quite outside the pale; and this preference for the low creatures, otherwise loathsome to him, brought his mind by sharp contrast to a new and vivid realisation of the personality before him. He gulped down his drink, and again ordered it to be refilled.
But meanwhile the alcohol was beginning to key him up out of the dazed and negative state into which his first libations and his accumulations of fear had plunged him. His brain became a shade clearer. There was even a faint stirring of the will. He had already drunk enough under normal circumstances to be simply reeling, but to-night the emotion of fear inhibited the effects of the alcohol, keeping him singularly steady. Provided he did not exceed a given point, he could go on drinking till he reached the moment of high power when he could combine all his forces into the single consummate act of cleverly calculated escape. If he missed this psychological moment he would collapse.
A sudden crash made him jump. It was behind him against the other wall. In the mirror he saw that a middle-aged man had lost his balance and fallen off his chair, foolishly intoxicated, and that two women were ostensibly trying to lift him up, but really were going swiftly through his pockets as he lay in a heap on the floor. A big man who had been asleep the whole evening in the corner stopped snoring and woke up to look and laugh, but no one interfered. A man must take care of himself in such a place and with such company, or accept the consequences. The big man composed himself again for sleep, sipping his glass a little first, and the noise of the room continued as before. It was a case of “knock-out drops” in the whisky, put in by the women, however, rather than by the saloon-keeper. Williams remembered thinking he had nothing to fear of that kind. Hensig’s method would be far more subtle and clever — cherms! A scratch with a pin and a germ!
“I haf zome notes here of my disgovery,” he went on, smiling significantly at the interruption, and taking some papers out of an inner pocket. “But they are written in Cherman, so I dranslate for you. You haf paper and benzil?”
The reporter produced the sheaf of office copy paper he always carried about with him, and prepared to write. The rattle of the elevated trains outside and the noisy buzz of drunken conversation inside formed the background against which he heard the German’s steely insistent voice going on ceaselessly with the “dranslation and egsplanation”.
From time to time people left the room, and new customers reeled in. When the clatter of incipient fighting and smashed glasses became too loud, Hensig waited till it was quiet again. He watched every new arrival keenly. They were very few now, for the night had passed into early morning and the room was gradually emptying. The waiter took snatches of sleep in his chair by the door; the big man still snored heavily in the angle of the wall and window. When he was the only one left, the proprietor would certainly close up. He had not ordered a drink for an hour at least. Williams, however, drank on steadily, always aiming at the point when he would be at the top of his power, full of confidence and decision. That moment was undoubtedly coming nearer all the time. Yes, but so was the moment Hensig was waiting for. He, too, felt absolutely confident, encouraging his companion to drink more, and watching his gradual collapse with unmasked glee. He betrayed his gloating quite plainly now: he held his victim too securely to feel anxious; when the big man reeled out they would be alone for a brief minute or two unobserved — and meanwhile he allowed himself to become a little too careless from over-confidence. And Williams noted that too.
For slowly the will of the reporter began to assert itself, and with this increase of intelligence he of course appreciated his awful position more keenly, and therefore, felt more fear. The two main things he was waiting for were coming perceptibly within reach: to reach the saturation point of terror and the culminating moment of the alcohol. Then, action and escape!
Gradually, thus, as he listened and wrote, he passed from the stage of stupid, negative terror into that of active, positive terror. The alcohol kept driving hotly at those hidden centres of imagination within, which, once touched, begin to reveal: in other words, he became observant, critical, alert. Swiftly the power grew. His lucidity increased till he became almost conscious of the workings of the other man’s mind, and it was like sitting opposite a clock whose wheels and needles he could just hear clicking. His eyes seemed to spread their power of vision all over his skin; he could see what was going on without actually looking. In the same way he heard all that passed in the room without turning his head. Every moment he became clearer in mind. He almost touched clairvoyance. The presentiment earlier in the evening that this stage would come was at last being actually fulfilled.
From time to time he sipped his whisky, but more cautiously than at first, for he knew that this keen psychical activity was the forerunner of helpless collapse. Only for a minute or two would he be at the top of his power. The frontier was a dreadfully narrow one, and already he had lost control of his fingers, and was scrawling a shorthand that bore no resemblance to the original system of its inventor. As the white light of this abnormal perceptiveness increased, the horror of his position became likewise more and more vivid. He knew that he was fighting for his life with a soulless and malefic being who was next door to a devil. The sense of fear was being magnified now with every minute that passed. Presently the power of perceiving would pass into doing; he would strike the blow for his life, whatever form that blow might take.
Already he was sufficiently master of himself to act — to act in the sense of deceiving. He exaggerated his drunken writing and thickness of speech, his general condition of collapse: and this power of hearing the workings of the other man’s mind showed him that he was successful. Hensig was a little deceived. He proved this by increased carelessness, and by allowing the expression of his face to become plainly exultant.
Williams’s faculties were so concentrated upon the causes operating in the terrible personality opposite to him, that he could spare no part of his brain for the explanations and sentences that came from his lips. He did not hear or understand a hundredth part of what the doctor was saying, but occasionally he caught up the end of a phrase and managed to ask a blundering question out of it; and Hensig, obviously pleased with his increasing obfuscation, always answered at some length, quietly watching with pleasure the reporter’s foolish hieroglyphics upon the paper.
The whole thing, of course, was an utter blind.
Hensig had no discovery at all. He was talking scientific jargon, knowing full well that those shorthand notes would never be transcribed, and that he himself would be out of harm’s way long before his victim’s senses had cleared sufficiently to tell him that he was in the grasp of a deadly sickness which no medicines could prevent ending in death.
Williams saw and felt all this clearly. It somehow came to him, rising up in that clear depth of his mind that was stirred by the alcohol, and yet beyond the reach, so far, of its deadly confusion. He understood perfectly well that Hensig was waiting for a moment to act; that he would do nothing violent, but would carry out his murderous intention in such an innocent way that the victim would have no suspicions at the moment, and would only realise later that he had been poisoned and —
Hark! What was that? There was a change.
Something had happened. It was like the sound of a gong, and the reporter’s fear suddenly doubled. Hensig’s scheme had moved forward a step. There was no sound actually, but his senses seemed grouped together into one, and for some reason his perception of the change came by way of audition. Fear brimmed up perilously near the breaking-point. But the moment for action had not quite come yet, and he luckily saved himself by the help of another and contrary emotion. He emptied his glass, spilling half of it purposely over his coat, and burst out laughing in Hensig’s face. The vivid picture rose before him of Whitey Fife catching cocktail glasses off the edge of Steve Brodie’s table.
The laugh was admirably careless and drunken, but the German was startled and looked up suspiciously. He had not expected this, and through lowered eyelids Williams observed an expression of momentary uncertainty on his features, as though he felt he was not absolutely master of the situation after all, as he imagined.
“Su’nly thought of Whitey Fife knocking Stevebrodie off’sh Brooklyn Bridsh in a cocock’tail glashh —” Williams explained in a voice hopelessly out of control. “You know Whhhiteyfife, of coursh, don’t you? — ha, ha, ha!”
Nothing could have helped him more in putting Hensig off the scent. His face resumed its expression of certainty and cold purpose. The waiter, wakened by the noise, stirred uneasily in his chair, and the big man in the corner indulged in a gulp that threatened to choke him as he sat with his head sunk upon his chest. But otherwise the empty room became quiet again. The German resumed his confident command of the situation. Williams, he saw, was drunk enough to bring him easily into his net.
None the less, the reporter’s perception had not been at fault. There was a change. Hensig was about to do something, and his mind was buzzing with preparations. The victim, now within measuring distance of his supreme moment — the point where terror would release his will, and alcohol would inspire him beyond possibility of error — saw everything as in the clear light of day. Small things led him to the climax: the emptied room; the knowledge that shortly the saloon would close; the grey light of day stealing under the chinks of door and shutter; the increased vileness of the face gleaming at him opposite in the paling gas glare. Ugh! How the air reeked of stale spirits, the fumes of cigar smoke, and the cheap scents of the vanished women. The floor was strewn with sheets of paper, absurdly scrawled over. The table had patches of wet, and cigarette ash lay over everything. His hands and feet were icy, his eyes burning hot. His heart thumped like a soft hammer. Hensig was speaking in quite a changed voice now. He had been leading up to this point for hours. No one was there to see, even if anything was to be seen — which was unlikely. The big man still snored; the waiter was asleep too. There was silence in the outer room, and between the walls of the inner there was — Death.
“Now, Mr. Vulture reporder, I show you what I mean all this time to egsplain,” he was saying in his most metallic voice.
He drew a blank sheet of the reporter’s paper towards him across the little table, avoiding carefully the wet splashes.
“Lend me your bencil von moment, please. Yes?” Williams, simulating almost total collapse, dropped the pencil and shoved it over the polished wood as though the movement was about all he could manage. With his head sunk forward upon his chest he watched stupidly. Hensig began to draw some kind of outline; his touch was firm, and there was a smile on his lips.
“Here, you see, is the human arm,” he said, sketching rapidly; “and here are the main nerves, and here the artery. Now, my discovery, as I haf peen egsplaining to you, is simply —” He dropped into a torrent of meaningless scientific phrases, during which the other purposely allowed his hand to lie relaxed upon the table, knowing perfectly well that in a moment Hensig would seize it — for the purposes of illustration.
His terror was so intense that, for the first time this awful night, he was within an ace of action. The point of saturation had been almost reached. Though apparently sodden drunk, his mind was really at the highest degree of clear perception and judgment, and in another moment — the moment Hensig actually began his final assault — the terror would provide the reporter with the extra vigour and decision necessary to strike his one blow. Exactly how he would do it, or what precise form it would take, he had no idea; that could be left to the inspiration of the moment; he only knew that his strength would last just long enough to bring this about, and that then he would collapse in utter intoxication upon the floor.
Hensig dropped the pencil suddenly: it clattered away to a corner of the room, showing it had been propelled with force, not merely allowed to fall, and he made no attempt to pick it up. Williams, to test his intention, made a pretended movement to stoop after it, and the other, as he imagined he would, stopped him in a second.
“I haf another,” he said quickly, diving into his inner pocket and producing a long dark pencil. Williams saw in a flash, through his half-closed eyes, that it was sharpened at one end, while the other end was covered by a little protective cap of transparent substance like glass, a third of an inch long. He heard it click as it struck a button of the coat, and also saw that by a very swift motion of the fingers, impossible to be observed by a drunken man, Hensig removed the cap so that the end was free. Something gleamed there for a moment, something like a point of shining metal — the point of a pin.
“Gif me your hand von minute and I drace the nerve up the arm I speak apout,” the doctor continued in that steely voice that showed no sign of nervousness, though he was on the edge of murder. “So, I show you much petter vot I mean.”
Without a second’s hesitation — for the moment for action had not quite come — he lurched forward and stretched his arm clumsily across the table. Hensig seized the fingers in his own and turned the palm uppermost. With his other hand he pointed the pencil at the wrist, and began moving it a little up towards the elbow, pushing the sleeve back for the purpose. His touch was the touch of death. On the point of the black pin, engrafted into the other end of the pencil, Williams knew there clung the germs of some deadly disease, germs unusually powerful from special culture; and that within the next few seconds the pencil would turn and the pin would accidentally scratch his wrist and let the virulent poison into his blood.
He knew this, yet at the same time he managed to remain master of himself. For he also realised that at last, just in the nick of time, the moment he had been waiting for all through these terrible hours had actually arrived, and he was ready to act.
And the little unimportant detail that furnished the extra quota of fear necessary to bring him to the point was — touch. It was the touch of Hensig’s hand that did it, setting every nerve a-quiver to its utmost capacity, filling him with a black horror that reached the limits of sensation.
In that moment Williams regained his self-control and became absolutely sober. Terror removed its paralysing inhibitions, having led him to the point where numbness succeeds upon excess, and sensation ceases to register in the brain. The emotion of fear was dead, and he was ready to act with all the force of his being — that force, too, raised to a higher power after long repression.
Moreover, he could make no mistake, for at the same time be had reached the culminating effect of the alcohol, and a sort of white light filled his mind, showing him clearly what to do and how to do it. He felt master of himself, confident, capable of anything. He followed blindly that inner guidance he had been dimly conscious of the whole night, and what he did he did instinctively, as it were, without deliberate plan.
He was waiting for the pencil to turn so that the pin pointed at his vein. Then, when Hensig was wholly concentrated upon the act of murder, and thus oblivious of all else, he would find his opportunity. For at this supreme moment the German’s mind would be focussed on the one thing. He would notice nothing else round him. He would be open to successful attack. But this — supreme moment would hardly last more than five seconds at most!
The reporter raised his eyes and stared for the first time steadily into his opponent’s eyes, till the room faded out and he saw only the white skin in a blaze of its own light. Thus staring, he caught in himself the full stream of venom, hatred, and revenge that had been pouring at him across the table for so long — caught and held it for one instant, and then returned it into the other’s brain with all its original force and the added impetus of his own recovered will behind it.
Hensig felt this, and for a moment seemed to waver; he was surprised out of himself by the sudden change in his victim’s attitude. The same instant, availing himself of a diversion caused by the big man in the corner waking noisily and trying to rise, he slowly turned the pencil round so that the point of the pin was directed at the hand lying in his. The sleepy waiter was helping the drunken man to cross to the door, and the diversion was all in his favour.
But Williams knew what he was doing. He did not even tremble.
“When that pin scratches me,” he said aloud in a firm, sober voice, “it means — death.”
The German could not conceal his surprise on hearing the change of voice, but he still felt sure of his victim, and clearly wished to enjoy his revenge thoroughly. After a moment’s hesitation he replied, speaking very low:
“You tried, I tink, to get me conficted, and now I punish you, dat is all.”
His fingers moved, and the point of the pin descended a little lower. Williams felt the faintest imaginable prick on his skin — or thought he did. The German had lowered his head again to direct the movement of the pin properly. But the moment of Hensig’s concentration was also the moment of his own attack. And it had come.
“But the alcohol will counteract it!” he burst out, with a loud and startling laugh that threw the other completely off his guard. The doctor lifted his face in amazement. That same instant the hand that lay so helplessly and tipsily in his turned like a flash of lightning, and, before he knew what had happened, their positions were reversed. Williams held his wrist, pencil and all, in a grasp of iron. And from the reporter’s other hand the German received a terrific smashing blow in the face that broke his glasses and dashed him back with a howl of pain against the wall.
There was a brief passage of scramble and wild blows, during which both table and chairs were sent flying, and then Williams was aware that a figure behind him had stretched forth an arm and was holding a bright silvery thing close to Hensig’s bleeding face. Another glance showed him that it was a pistol, and that the man holding it was the big drunken man who had apparently slept all night in the corner of the room. Then, in a flash, he recognised him as Dowling’s partner — a headquarters detective. The reporter stepped back, his head swimming again. He was very unsteady on his feet.
“I’ve been watching your game all the evening,” he heard the headquarters man saying as he slipped the handcuffs over the German’s unresisting wrists. “We have been on your trail for weeks, and I might jest as soon have taken you when you left the Brooklyn church a few hours ago, only I wanted to see what you were up to — see? You’re wanted in Berlin for one or two little dirty tricks, but our advices only came last night. Come along now.”
“You’ll get nozzing,” Hensig replied very quietly, wiping his bloody face with the corner of his sleeve. “See, I have scratched myself!”
The detective took no notice of this remark, not understanding it, probably, but Williams noticed the direction of the eyes, and saw a scratch on his wrist, slightly bleeding. Then he understood that in the struggle the pin had accidentally found another destination than the one intended for it. But he remembered nothing more after that, for the reaction set in with a rush. The strain of that awful night left him utterly limp, and the accumulated effect of the alcohol, now that all was past, overwhelmed him like a wave, and he sank in a heap upon the floor, unconscious.
The illness that followed was simply “nerves,” and he got over it in a week or two, and returned to his work on the paper. He at once made inquiries, and found that Hensig’s arrest had hardly been noticed by the papers. There was no interesting feature about it, and New York was already in the throes of a new horror. But Dowling, that enterprising Irishman — always with an eye to promotion and the main chance — Dowling had something to say about it.
“No luck, Mr. English,” he said ruefully, “no luck at all. It would have been a mighty good story, but it never got in the papers. That damned German, Schmidt, alias Brunner, alias Hensig, died in the prison hospital before we could even get him remanded for further inquiries —”
“What did be die of?” interrupted the reporter quickly.
“Black typhus. I think they call it. But it was terribly swift, and he was dead in four days. The doctor said he’d never known such a case.”
“I’m glad he’s out of the way,” observed Williams.
“Well, yes,” Dowling said hesitatingly; “but it was a jim dandy of a story, an’ he might have waited a little bit longer jest so as I got something out of it for meself.”
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