Max Hensig, by Algernon Blackwood


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.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52