The Plattner Story, and others, by H. G. Wells

Pollock and the Porroh Man

It was in a swampy village on the lagoon river behind the Turner Peninsula that Pollock’s first encounter with the Porroh man occurred. The women of that country are famous for their good looks — they are Gallinas with a dash of European blood that dates from the days of Vasco da Gama and the English slave-traders, and the Porroh man too, was possibly inspired by a faint Caucasian taint in his composition. (It’s a curious thing to think that some of us may have distant cousins eating men on Sherboro Island or raiding with the Sofas.) At anyrate, the Porroh man stabbed the woman to the heart as though he had been a mere low-class Italian, and very narrowly missed Pollock. But Pollock, using his revolver to parry the lightning stab which was aimed at his deltoid muscle, sent the iron dagger flying, and firing, hit the man in the hand.

He fired again and missed, knocking a sudden window out of the wall of the hut. The Porroh man stooped in the doorway, glancing under his arm at Pollock. Pollock caught a glimpse of his inverted face in the sunlight, and then the Englishman was alone, sick and trembling with the excitement of the affair, in the twilight of the place. It had all happened in less time than it takes to read about it.

The woman was quite dead, and having ascertained this, Pollock went to the entrance of the hut and looked out. Things outside were dazzling bright. Half a dozen of the porters of the expedition were standing up in a group near the green huts they occupied, and staring towards him, wondering what the shots might signify. Behind the little group of men was the broad stretch of black fetid mud by the river, a green carpet of rafts of papyrus and water-grass, and then the leaden water. The mangroves beyond the stream loomed indistinctly through the blue haze. There were no signs of excitement in the squat village, whose fence was just visible above the cane-grass.

Pollock came out of the hut cautiously and walked towards the river, looking over his shoulder at intervals. But the Porroh man had vanished Pollock clutched his revolver nervously in his hand.

One of his men came to meet him, and as he came, pointed to the bushes behind the hut in which the Porroh man had disappeared. Pollock had an irritating persuasion of having made an absolute fool of himself; he felt bitter, savage, at the turn things had taken. At the same time, he would have to tell Waterhouse — the moral, exemplary, cautious Waterhouse — who would inevitably take the matter seriously. Pollock cursed bitterly at his luck, at Waterhouse, and especially at the West Coast of Africa. He felt consummately sick of the expedition. And in the back of his mind all the time was a speculative doubt where precisely within the visible horizon the Porroh man might be.

It is perhaps rather shocking, but he was not at all upset by the murder that had just happened. He had seen so much brutality during the last three months, so many dead women, burnt huts, drying skeletons, up the Kittam River in the wake of the Sofa cavalry, that his senses were blunted. What disturbed him was the persuasion that this business was only beginning.

He swore savagely at the black, who ventured to ask a question, and went on into the tent under the orange-trees where Waterhouse was lying, feeling exasperatingly like a boy going into the headmaster’s study.

Waterhouse was still sleeping off the effects of his last dose of chlorodyne, and Pollock sat down on a packing-case beside him, and lighting his pipe, waited for him to awake. About him were scattered the pots and weapons Waterhouse had collected from the Mendi people, and which he had been repacking for the canoe voyage to Sulyma.

Presently Waterhouse woke up, and after judicial stretching, decided he was all right again. Pollock got him some tea. Over the tea, the incidents of the afternoon were described by Pollock, after some preliminary beating about the bush. Waterhouse took the matter even more seriously than Pollock had anticipated. He did not simply disapprove, he scolded, he insulted.

“You’re one of those infernal fools who think a black man isn’t a human being,” he said. “I can’t be ill a day without you must get into some dirty scrape or other. This is the third time in a month that you have come crossways-on with a native, and this time you’re in for it with a vengance. Porroh, too! They’re down upon you enough as it is, about that idol you wrote your silly name on. And they’re the most vindictive devils on earth! You make a man ashamed of civilisation. To think you come of a decent family! If ever I cumber myself up with a vicious, stupid young lout like you again —”

“Steady on, now,” snarled Pollock, in the tone that always exasperated Waterhouse; “steady on.”

At that Waterhouse became speechless. He jumped to his feet.

“Look here, Pollock,” he said, after a struggle to control his breath. “You must go home. I won’t have you any longer. I’m ill enough as it is, through you —”

“Keep your hair on,” said Pollock, staring in front of him. “I’m ready enough to go.”

Waterhouse became calmer again. He sat down on the camp-stool. “Very well,” he said. “I don’t want a row, Pollock you know, but it’s confoundedly annoying to have one’s plans put out by this kind of thing. I’ll come to Sulyma with you, and see you safe aboard —”

“You needn’t,” said Pollock. “I can go alone. From here.”

“Not far,” said Waterhouse. “You don’t understand this Porroh business.”

“How should I know she belonged to a Porroh man?” said Pollock bitterly.

“Well, she did,” said Waterhouse; “and you can’t undo the thing. Go alone, indeed! I wonder what they’d do to you. You don’t seem to understand that this Porroh hokey-pokey rules this country, is its law, religion, constitution, medicine, magic . . . They appoint the chiefs. The Inquisition, at its best, couldn’t hold a candle to these chaps. He will probably set Awajale, the chief here, on to us. It’s lucky our porters are Mendis. We shall have to shift this little settlement of ours . . . Confound you, Pollock! And, of course, you must go and miss him.”

He thought, and his thoughts seemed disagreeable. Presently he stood up and took his rifle. “I’d keep close for a bit, if I were you,” he said, over his shoulder, as he went out. “I’m going out to see what I can find out about it.”

Pollock remained sitting in the tent, meditating. “I was meant for a civilised life,” he said to himself, regretfully, as he filled his pipe. “The sooner I get back to London or Paris the better for me.”

His eye fell on the sealed case in which Waterhouse had put the featherless poisoned arrows they had bought in the Mendi country. “I wish I had hit the beggar somewhere vital,” said Pollock viciously.

Waterhouse came back after a long interval. He was not communicative, though Pollock asked him questions enough. The Porroh man, it seems was a prominent member of that mystical society. The village was interested, but not threatening. No doubt the witch-doctor had gone into the bush. He was a great witch-doctor. “Of course, he’s up to something,” said Waterhouse, and became silent.

“But what can he do?” asked Pollock, unheeded.

“I must get you out of this. There’s something brewing, or things would not be so quiet,” said Waterhouse, after a gap of silence. Pollock wanted to know what the brew might be. “Dancing in a circle of skulls”, said Waterhouse; “brewing a stink in a copper pot.” Pollock wanted particulars. Waterhouse was vague, Pollock pressing. At last Waterhouse lost his temper. “How the devil should I know?” he said to Pollock’s twentieth inquiry what the Porroh man would do. “He tried to kill you off-hand in the hut. Now, I fancy he will try something more elaborate. But you’ll see fast enough. I don’t want to help unnerve you. It’s probably all nonsense.”

That night, as they were sitting at their fire, Pollock again tried to draw Waterhouse out on the subject of Porroh methods. “Better get to sleep,” said Waterhouse, when Pollock’s bent became apparent; “we start early tomorrow. You may want all your nerve about you.”

“But what line will he take?”

“Can’t say. They’re versatile people. They know a lot of rum dodges. You’d better get that copper-devil, Shakespear, to talk.”

There was a flash and a heavy bang, out of the darkness behind the huts, and a clay bullet came whistling close to Pollock’s head. This, at least, was crude enough. The blacks and half-breeds sitting and yarning round their own fire jumped up, and someone fired into the dark.

“Better go into one of the huts,” said Waterhouse quietly, still sitting unmoved.

Pollock stood up by the fire and drew his revolver. Fighting, at least, he was not afraid of. But a man in the dark is in the best of armour. Realising the wisdom of Waterhouse’s advice, Pollock went into the tent and lay down there.

What little sleep he had was disturbed by dreams, variegated dreams, but chiefly of the Porroh man’s face, upside down, as he went out of the hut, and looked up under his arm. It was odd that this transitory impression should have stuck so firmly in Pollock’s memory. Moreover, he was troubled by queer pains in his limbs.

In the white haze of the early morning, as they were loading the canoes, a barbed arrow suddenly appeared quivering in the ground close to Pollock’s foot. The boys made a perfunctory effort to clear out the thicket, but it led to no capture.

After these two occurrences, there was a disposition on the part of the expedition to leave Pollock to himself, and Pollock became, for the first time in his life, anxious to mingle with blacks. Waterhouse took one canoe, and Pollock, in spite of a friendly desire to chat with Waterhouse, had to take the other. He was left all alone in the front part of the canoe, and he had the greatest trouble to make the men — who did not love him — keep to the middle of the river, a clear hundred yards or more from either shore. However, he made Shakespear, the Freetown half-breed, come up to his own end of the canoe and tell him about Porroh, which Shakespear, failing in his attempts to leave Pollock alone, presently did with considerable freedom and gusto.

The day passed. The canoe glided swiftly along the ribbon of lagoon water, between the drift of water-figs, fallen trees, papyrus, and palm-wine palms, and with the dark mangrove swamp to the left, through which one could hear now and then the roar of the Atlantic surf. Shakespear told in his soft, blurred English of how the Porroh could cast spells; how men withered up under their malice; how they could send dreams and devils; how they tormented and killed the sons of Ijibu; how they kidnapped a white trader from Sulyma who had maltreated one of the sect, and how his body looked when it was found. And Pollock after each narrative cursed under his breath at the want of missionary enterprise that allowed such things to be, and at the inert British Government that ruled over this dark heathendom of Sierra Leone. In the evening they came to the Kasi Lake, and sent a score of crocodiles lumbering off the island on which the expedition camped for the night.

The next day they reached Sulyma, and smelt the sea breeze, but Pollock had to put up there for five days before he could get on to Freetown. Waterhouse, considering him to be comparatively safe here, and within the pale of Freetown influence, left him and went back with the expedition to Gbemma, and Pollock became very friendly with Perera, the only resident white trader at Sulyma — so friendly, indeed, that he went about with him everywhere. Perera was a little Portuguese Jew, who had lived in England, and he appreciated the Englishman’s friendliness as a great compliment.

For two days nothing happened out of the ordinary; for the most part Pollock and Perera played Nap — the only game they had in common — and Pollock got into debt. Then, on the second evening, Pollock had a disagreeable intimation of the arrival of the Porroh man in Sulyma by getting a flesh-wound in the shoulder from a lump of filed iron. It was a long shot, and the missile had nearly spent its force when it hit him. Still it conveyed its message plainly enough. Pollock sat up in his hammock, revolver in hand, all that night, and next morning confided, to some extent, in the Anglo–Portuguese.

Perera took the matter seriously. He knew the local customs pretty thoroughly. “It is a personal question, you must know. It is revenge. And of course he is hurried by your leaving de country. None of de natives or half-breeds will interfere wid him very much — unless you make it wort deir while. If you come upon him suddenly, you might shoot him. But den he might shoot you.

“Den dere’s dis-infernal magic,” said Perera. “Of course, I don’t believe in it — superstition — but still it’s not nice to tink dat wherever you are, dere is a black man, who spends a moonlight night now and den a-dancing about a fire to send you bad dreams . . . Had any bad dreams?”

“Rather,” said Pollock. “I keep on seeing the beggar’s head upside down grinning at me and showing all his teeth as he did in the hut, and coming close up to me, and then going ever so far off, and coming back. It’s nothing to be afraid of, but somehow it simply paralyses me with terror in my sleep. Queer things — dreams. I know it’s a dream all the time, and I can’t wake up from it.”

“It’s probably only fancy,” said Perera. “Den my niggers say Porroh men can send snakes. Seen any snakes lately?”

“Only one. I killed him this morning, on the floor near my hammock. Almost trod on him as I got up.”

“Ah!” said Perera, and then, reassuringly, “Of course it is a — coincidence. Still I would keep my eyes open. Den dere’s pains in de bones.”

“I thought they were due to miasma,” said Pollock.

“Probably dey are. When did dey begin?”

Then Pollock remembered that he first noticed them the night after the fight in the hut. “It’s my opinion he don’t want to kill you,” said Perera —“at least not yet. I’ve heard deir idea is to scare and worry a man wid deir spells, and narrow misses, and rheumatic pains, and bad dreams, and all dat, until he’s sick of life. Of course, it’s all talk, you know. You mustn’t worry about it . . . But I wonder what he’ll be up to next.”

“I shall have to be up to something first,” said Pollock, staring gloomily at the greasy cards that Perera was putting on the table. “It don’t suit my dignity to be followed about, and shot at, and blighted in this way. I wonder if Porroh hokey-pokey upsets your luck at cards.”

He looked at Perera suspiciously.

“Very likely it does,” said Perera warmly, shuffling. “Dey are wonderful people.”

That afternoon Pollock killed two snakes in his hammock, and there was also an extraordinary increase in the number of red ants that swarmed over the place; and these annoyances put him in a fit temper to talk over business with a certain Mendi rough he had interviewed before. The Mendi rough showed Pollock a little iron dagger, and demonstrated where one struck in the neck, in a way that made Pollock shiver, and in return for certain considerations Pollock promised him a double-barrelled gun with an ornamental lock.

In the evening, as Pollock and Perera were playing cards, the Mendi rough came in through the doorway, carrying something in a blood-soaked piece of native cloth.

“Not here!” said Pollock very hurriedly. “Not here!”

But he was not quick enough to prevent the man, who was anxious to get to Pollock’s side of the bargain, from opening the cloth and throwing the head of the Porroh man upon the table. It bounded from there on to the floor, leaving a red trail on the cards, and rolled into the corner, where it came to rest upside down, but glaring hard at Pollock.

Perera jumped up as the thing fell among the cards, and began in his excitement to gabble in Portuguese. The Mendi was bowing, with the red cloth in his hand. “De gun!” he cried. Pollock stared back at the head in the corner. It bore exactly the expression it had in his dreams. Something seemed to snap in his own brain as he looked at it.

Then Perera found his English again.

“You got him killed?” he said. “You did not kill him yourself?”

“Why should I?” said Pollock.

“But he will not be able to take it off now!”

“Take what off?” said Pollock.

“And all dese cards are spoiled!”

“What do you mean by taking off?” said Pollock.

“You must send me a new pack from Freetown. You can buy dem dere.

“But —‘take it off’?”

“It is only superstition. I forgot. De niggers say dat if de witches — he was a witch — But it is rubbish . . . You must make de Porroh man take it off, or kill him yourself . . . It is very silly.”

Pollock swore under his breath, still staring hard at the head in the corner.

“I can’t stand that glare,” he said. Then suddenly he rushed at the thing and kicked it. It rolled some yards or so, and came to rest in the same position as before, upside down, and looking at him.

“He is ugly,” said the Anglo–Portuguese. “Very ugly. Dey do it on deir faces with little knives.”

Pollock would have kicked the head again, but the Mendi man touched him on the arm. “De gun?” he said, looking nervously at the head.

“Two — if you will take that beastly thing away,” said Pollock.

The Mendi shook his head, and intimated that he only wanted one gun now due to him, and for which he would be obliged. Pollock found neither cajolery nor bullying any good with him. Perera had a gun to sell (at a profit of three hundred per cent), and with that the man presently departed. Then Pollock’s eyes, against his will, were recalled to the thing on the floor.

“It is funny dat his head keeps upside down,” said Perera, with an uneasy laugh. “His brains must be heavy, like de weight in de little images one sees dat keep always upright wid lead in dem. You will take him wiv you when you go presently. You might take him now. De cards are all spoilt. Dere is a man sell dem in Freetown. De room is in a filthy mess as it is. You should have killed him yourself.”

Pollock pulled himself together, and went and picked up the head. He would hang it up by the lamp-hook in the middle of the ceiling of his room, and dig a grave for it at once. He was under the impression that he hung it up by the hair, but that must have been wrong, for when he returned for it, it was hanging by the neck upside down.

He buried it before sunset on the north side of the shed he occupied, so that he should not have to pass the grave after dark when he was returning from Perera’s. He killed two snakes before he went to sleep. In the darkest part of the night he awoke with a start, and heard a pattering sound and something scraping on the floor. He sat up noiselessly, and felt under his pillow for his revolver. A mumbling growl followed, and Pollock fired at the sound. There was a yelp, and something dark passed for a moment across the hazy blue of the doorway. “A dog!” said Pollock, lying down again.

In the early dawn he awoke again with a peculiar sense of unrest. The vague pain in his bones had returned. For some time he lay watching the red ants that were swarming over the ceiling, and then, as the light grew brighter, he looked over the edge of his hammock and saw something dark on the floor. He gave such a violent start that the hammock overset and flung him out.

He found himself lying, perhaps, a yard away from the head of the Porroh man. It had been disinterred by the dog, and the nose was grievously battered. Ants and flies swarmed over it. By an odd coincidence, it was still upside down, and with the same diabolical expression in the inverted eyes.

Pollock sat paralysed, and stared at the horror for some time. Then he got up and walked round it — giving it a wide berth — and out of the shed. The clear light of the sunrise, the living stir of vegetation before the breath of the dying land-breeze, and the empty grave with the marks of the dog’s paws, lightened the weight upon his mind a little.

He told Perera of the business as though it was a jest — a jest to be told with white lips. “You should not have frighten de dog,” said Perera, with poorly simulated hilarity.

The next two days, until the steamer came, were spent by Pollock in making a more effectual disposition of his possession. Overcoming his aversion to handling the thing, he went down to the river mouth and threw it into the sea-water, but by some miracle it escaped the crocodiles, and was cast up by the tide on the mud a little way up the river, to be found by an intelligent Arab half-breed, and offered for sale to Pollock and Perera as a curiosity, just on the edge of night. The native hung about in the brief twilight, making lower and lower offers, and at last, getting scared in some way by the evident dread these wise white men had for the thing, went off, and passing Pollock’s shed, threw his burden in there for Pollock to discover in the morning.

At this Pollock got into a kind of frenzy. He would burn the thing. He went out straightway into the dawn, and had constructed a big pyre of brushwood before the heat of the day. He was interrupted by the hooter of the little paddle steamer from Monrovia to Bathurst, which was coming through the gap in the bar. “Thank Heaven!” said Pollock, with infinite piety, when the meaning of the sound dawned upon him. With trembling hands he lit his pile of wood hastily, threw the head upon it, and went away to pack his portmanteau and make his adieux to Perera.

That afternoon, with a sense of infinite relief, Pollock watched the flat swampy foreshore of Sulyma grow small in the distance. The gap in the long line of white surge became narrower and narrower. It seemed to be closing in and cutting him off from his trouble. The feeling of dread and worry began to slip from him bit by bit. At Sulyma belief in Porroh malignity and Porroh magic had been in the air, his sense of Porroh had been vast, pervading, threatening, dreadful. Now manifestly the domain of Porroh was only a little place, a little black band between the sea and the blue cloudy Mendi uplands.

“Good-bye, Porroh!” said Pollock. “Good-bye — certainly not au revoir.”

The captain of the steamer came and leant over the rail beside him, and wished him good-evening, and spat at the froth of the wake in token of friendly ease.

“I picked up a rummy curio on the beach this go,” said the captain. “It’s a thing I never saw done this side of Indy before.”

“What might that be?” said Pollock.

“Pickled ‘ed,” said the captain.

“What!” said Pollock.

“‘Ed — smoked. ‘Ed of one of those Porroh chaps, all ornamented with knife-cuts. Why! What’s up? Nothing? I shouldn’t have took you for a nervous chap. Green in the face. By gosh! You’re a bad sailor. All right, eh? Lord, how funny you went . . .! Well, this ‘ed I was telling you of is a bit rum in a way. I’ve got it, along with some snakes, in a jar of spirit in my cabin what I keeps for such curios, and I’m hanged if it don’t float upsy down. Hullo!”

Pollock had given an incoherent cry, and had his hands in his hair. He ran towards the paddle-boxes with a half-formed idea of jumping into the sea, and then he realised his position and turned back towards the captain.

“Here!” said the captain. “Jack Philips, just keep him off me! Stand off! No nearer, mister! What’s the matter with you? Are you mad?”

Pollock put his hand to his head. It was no good explaining. “I believe I am pretty nearly mad at times,” he said. “It’s a pain I have here. Comes suddenly. You’ll excuse me, I hope.”

He was white and in a perspiration. He saw suddenly very clearly all the danger he ran of having his sanity doubted. He forced himself to restore the captain’s confidence, by answering his sympathetic inquiries, noting his suggestions, even trying a spoonful of neat brandy in his cheek, and that matter settled, asking a number of questions about the captain’s private trade in curiosities. The captain described the head in detail. All the while Pollock was struggling to keep under a preposterous persuasion that the ship was as transparent as glass, and that he could distinctly see the inverted face looking at him from the cabin beneath his feet.

Pollock had a worse time almost on the steamer than he had at Sulyma. All day he had to control himself in spite of his intense perception of the imminent presence of that horrible head that was overshadowing his mind. At night his old nightmare returned, until, with a violent effort, he would force himself awake, rigid with the horror of it, and with the ghost of a hoarse scream in his throat.

He left the actual head behind at Bathurst, where he changed ship for Teneriffe, but not his dreams nor the dull ache in his bones. At Teneriffe, Pollock transferred to a Cape liner, but the head followed him. He gambled, he tried chess, he even read books, but he knew the danger of drink. Yet whenever a round black shadow, a round black object came into his range, there he looked for the head, and — saw it. He knew clearly enough that his imagination was growing traitor to him, and yet at times it seemed the ship he sailed in, his fellow-passengers, the sailors, the wide sea, was all part of a filmy phantasmagoria that hung, scarcely veiling it, between him and a horrible real world. Then the Porroh man, thrusting his diabolical face through that curtain, was the one real and undeniable thing. At that he would get up and touch things, taste something, gnaw something, burn his hand with a match, or run a needle into himself.

So, struggling grimly and silently with his excited imagination, Pollock reached England. He landed at Southampton, and went on straight from Waterloo to his banker’s in Cornhill in a cab. There he transacted some business with the manager in a private room, and all the while the head hung like an ornament under the black marble mantel and dripped upon the fender. He could hear the drops fall, and see the red on the fender.

“A pretty fern,” said the manager, following his eyes. “But it makes the fender rusty.”

“Very,” said Pollock; “a very pretty fern. And that reminds me. Can you recommend me a physician for mind troubles? I’ve got a little — what is it —? Hallucination.”

The head laughed savagely, wildly. Pollock was surprised the manager did not notice it. But the manager only stared at his face.

With the address of a doctor, Pollock presently emerged in Cornhill. There was no cab in sight, and so he went on down to the western end of the street, and essayed the crossing opposite the Mansion House. The crossing is hardly easy even for the expert Londoner; cabs, vans, carriages, mail-carts, omnibuses go by in one incessant stream; to anyone fresh from the malarious solitudes of Sierra Leone it is a boiling, maddening confusion. But when an inverted head suddenly comes bouncing, like an indiarubber ball, between your legs, leaving distinct smears of blood every time it touches the ground, you can scarcely hope to avoid an accident. Pollock lifted his feet convulsively to avoid it, and then kicked at the thing furiously. Then something hit him violently in the back, and a hot pain ran up his arm.

He had been hit by the pole of an omnibus, and three of the fingers of his left hand smashed by the hoof of one of the horses — the very fingers, as it happened, that he shot from the Porroh man. They pulled him out from between the horse’s legs, and found the address of the physician, in his crushed hand.

For a couple of days Pollock’s sensations were full of the sweet, pungent smell of chloroform, of painful operations that caused him no pain, of lying still and being given food and drink. Then he had a slight fever, and was very thirsty, and his old nightmare came back. It was only when it returned that he noticed it had left him for a day.

“If my skull had been smashed instead of my fingers, it might have gone altogether,” said Pollock, staring thoughtfully at the dark cushion that had taken on for the time the shape of the head.

Pollock at the first opportunity told the physician of his mind trouble. He knew clearly that he must go mad unless something should intervene to save him. He explained that he had witnessed a decapitation in Dahomey, and was haunted by one of the heads. Naturally, he did not care to state the actual facts. The physician looked grave.

Presently he spoke hesitatingly. “As a child, did you get very much religious training?”

“Very little,” said Pollock.

A shade passed over the physician’s face. “I don’t know if you have heard of the miraculous cures — it may be, of course, they are not miraculous — at Lourdes.”

“Faith-healing will hardly suit me, I am afraid,” said Pollock, with his eye on the dark cushion.

The head distorted its scarred features in an abominable grimace. The physician went upon a new track. “It’s all imagination,” he said, speaking with sudden briskness. “A fair case for faith-healing, anyhow. Your nervous system has run down, you’re in that twilight state of health when the bogles come easiest. The strong impression was too much for you. I must make you up a little mixture that will strengthen your nervous system — especially your brain. And you must take exercise.”

“I’m no good for faith-healing,” said Pollock.

“And therefore we must restore tone. Go in search of stimulating air — Scotland, Norway, the Alps —”

“Jericho, if you like,” said Pollock —“where Naaman went.”

However, so soon as his fingers would let him, Pollock made a gallant attempt to follow out the doctor’s suggestion. It was now November. He tried football, but to Pollock the game consisted in kicking a furious inverted head about a field. He was no good at the game. He kicked blindly, with a kind of horror, and when they put him back into goal, and the ball came swooping down upon him, he suddenly yelled and got out of its way. The discreditable stories that had driven him from England to wander in the tropics shut him off from any but men’s society, and now his increasingly strange behaviour made even his man friends avoid him. The thing was no longer a thing of the eye merely; it gibbered at him, spoke to him. A horrible fear came upon him that presently, when he took hold of the apparition, it would no longer become some mere article of furniture, but would feel like a real dissevered head. Alone, he would curse at the thing, defy it, entreat it; once or twice, in spite of his grim self-control, he addressed it in the presence of others. He felt the growing suspicion in the eyes of the people that watched him — his landlady, the servant, his man.

One day early in December his cousin Arnold — his next of kin — came to see him and draw him out, and watch his sunken yellow face with narrow eager eyes. And it seemed to Pollock that the hat his cousin carried in his hand was no hat at all, but a Gorgon head that glared at him upside down, and fought with its eyes against his reason. However, he was still resolute to see the matter out. He got a bicycle, and, riding over the frosty road from Wandsworth to Kingston, found the thing rolling along at his side, and leaving a dark trail behind it. He set his teeth and rode faster. Then suddenly, as he came down the hill towards Richmond Park, the apparition rolled in front of him and under his wheel, so quickly that he had no time for thought, and, turning quickly to avoid it, was flung violently against a heap of stones and broke his left wrist.

The end came on Christmas morning. All night he had been in a fever, the bandages encircling his wrist like a band of fire, his dreams more vivid and terrible than ever. In the cold, colourless, uncertain light that came before the sunrise, he sat up in his bed, and saw the head upon the bracket in the place of the bronze jar that had stood there overnight.

“I know that is a bronze jar,” he said, with a chill doubt at his heart. Presently the doubt was irresistible. He got out of bed slowly, shivering, and advanced to the jar with his hand raised. Surely he would see now his imagination had deceived him, recognise the distinctive sheen of bronze. At last, after an age of hesitation, his fingers came down on the patterned cheek of the head. He withdrew them spasmodically. The last stage was reached. His sense of touch had betrayed him.

Trembling, stumbling against the bed, kicking against his shoes with his bare feet, a dark confusion eddying round him, he groped his way to the dressing-table, took his razor from the drawer, and sat down on the bed with this in his hand. In the looking-glass he saw his own face, colourless, haggard, full of the ultimate bitterness of despair.

He beheld in swift succession the incidents in the brief tale of his experience. His wretched home, his still more wretched schooldays, the years of vicious life he had led since then, one act of selfish dishonour leading to another; it was all clear and pitiless now, all its squalid folly, in the cold light of the dawn. He came to the hut, to the fight with the Porroh man, to the retreat down the river to Sulyma, to the Mendi assassin and his red parcel, to his frantic endeavours to destroy the head, to the growth of his hallucination. It was a hallucination! He knew it was. A hallucination merely. For a moment he snatched at hope. He looked away from the glass, and on the bracket, the inverted head grinned and grimaced at him . . . With the stiff fingers of his bandaged hand he felt at his neck for the throb of his arteries. The morning was very cold, the steel blade felt like ice.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30