The Red Hand, by Arthur Machen

The Problem of the Fish–Hooks

‘There can be no doubt whatever,’ said Mr. Phillipps, ‘that my theory is the true one; these flints are prehistoric fish-hooks.’

‘I dare say; but you know that in all probability the things were forged the other day with a door-key.’

‘Stuff!’ said Phillipps; ‘I have some respect, Dyson, for your literary abilities, but your knowledge of ethnology is insignificant, or rather non-existent. These fish-hooks satisfy every test; they are perfectly genuine.’

‘Possibly, but as I said just now, you go to work at the wrong end. You neglect the opportunities that confront you and await you, obvious, at every corner; you positively shrink from the chance of encountering primitive man in this whirling and mysterious city, and you pass the weary hours in your agreeable retirement of Red Lion Square fumbling with bits of flint, which are, as I said, in all probability, rank forgeries.’

Phillipps took one of the little objects, and held it up in exasperation.

‘Look at that ridge,’ he said. ‘Did you ever see such a ridge as that on a forgery?’

Dyson merely grunted and lit his pipe and the two sat smoking in rich silence, watching through the open window the children in the square as they flitted to and fro in the twilight of the lamps, as elusive as bats flying on the verge of a dark wood.

‘Well,’ said Phillipps at last, ‘it is really a long time since you have been round. I suppose you have been working at your old task.’

‘Yes,’ said Dyson, ‘always the chase of the phrase. I shall grow old in the hunt. But it is a great consolation to meditate on the fact that there are not a dozen people in England who know what style means.’

‘I suppose not; for the matter of that, the study of ethnology is far from popular. And the difficulties! Primitive man stands dim and very far off across the great bridge of years.’

‘By the way,’ he went on after a pause, ‘what was that stuff you were talking just now about shrinking from the chance of encountering primitive man at the corner, or something of the kind? There are certainly people about here whose ideas are very primitive.’

‘I wish, Phillipps, you would not rationalize my remarks. If, I recollect the phrases correctly, I hinted that you shrank from the chance of encountering primitive man in this whirling and mysterious city, and I meant exactly what I said. Who can limit the age of survival? The troglodyte and the lake-dweller, perhaps representatives of yet darker races, may very probably be lurking in our midst, rubbing shoulders with frock-coated and finely draped humanity, ravening like wolves at heart and boiling with the foul passions of the swamp and the black cave. Now and then as I walk in Holborn or Fleet Street I see a face which I pronounce abhorred, and yet I could not give a reason for the thrill of loathing that stirs within me.’

‘My dear Dyson, I refuse to enter myself in your literary “trying-on” department. I know that survivals do exist, but all things have a limit, and your speculations are absurd. You must catch me your troglodyte before I will believe in him.’

‘I agree to that with all my heart,’ said Dyson, chuckling at the ease with which he had succeeded in ‘drawing’ Phillipps. ‘Nothing could be better. It’s a fine night for a walk,’ he added taking up his hat.

‘What nonsense you are talking, Dyson!’ said Phillipps. ‘However, I have no objection to taking a walk with you: as you say, it is a pleasant night.’

‘Come along then,’ said Dyson, grinning, ‘but remember our bargain.’

The two men went out into the square, and threading one of the narrow passages that serve as exits, struck towards the north-east. As they passed along a flaring causeway they could hear at intervals between the clamour of the children and the triumphant Gloria played on a piano-organ the long deep hum and roll of the traffic in Holborn, a sound so persistent that it echoed like the turning of everlasting wheels. Dyson looked to the right and left and conned the way, and presently they were passing through a more peaceful quarter, touching on deserted squares and silent streets black as midnight. Phillipps had lost all count of direction, and as by degrees the region of faded respectability gave place to the squalid, and dirty stucco offended the eye of the artistic observer, he merely ventured the remark that he had never seen a neighbourhood more unpleasant or more commonplace.

‘More mysterious, you mean,’ said Dyson. ‘I warn you, Phillipps, we are now hot upon the scent.’

They dived yet deeper into the maze of brickwork; some time before they had crossed a noisy thoroughfare running east and west, and now the quarter seemed all amorphous, without character; here a decent house with sufficient garden, here a faded square, and here factories surrounded by high, blank walls, with blind passages and dark corners; but all ill-lighted and unfrequented and heavy with silence.

Presently, as they paced down a forlorn street of two-story houses, Dyson caught sight of a dark and obscure turning.

‘I like the look of that,’ he said; ‘it seems to me promising.’ There was a street lamp at the entrance, and another, a mere glimmer, at the further end. Beneath the lamp, on the pavement, an artist had evidently established his academy in the daytime, for the stones were all a blur of crude colours rubbed into each other, and a few broken fragments of chalk lay in a little heap beneath the wall.

‘You see people do occasionally pass this way,’ said Dyson, pointing to the ruins of the screever’s work. ‘I confess I should not have thought it possible. Come, let us explore.’

On one side of this byway of communication was a great timber-yard, with vague piles of wood looming shapeless above the enclosing wall; and on the other side of the road a wall still higher seemed to enclose a garden, for there were shadows like trees, and a faint murmur of rustling leaves broke the silence. It was a moonless night, and clouds that had gathered after sunset had blackened, and midway between the feeble lamps the passage lay all dark and formless, and when one stopped and listened, and the sharp echo of reverberant footsteps ceased, there came from far away, as from beyond the hills, a faint roll of the noise of London. Phillipps was bolstering up his courage to declare that he had had enough of the excursion, when a loud cry from Dyson broke in upon his thoughts.

‘Stop, stop, for Heaven’s sake, or you will tread on it! There! almost under your feet!’ Phillipps looked down, and saw a vague shape, dark, and framed in surrounding darkness, dropped strangely on the pavement, and then a white cuff glimmered for a moment as Dyson lit a match, which went out directly.

‘It’s a drunken man,’ said Phillipps very coolly.

‘It’s a murdered man,’ said Dyson, and he began to call for police with all his might, and soon from the distance running footsteps echoed and grew louder, and cries sounded.

A policeman was the first to come up.

‘What’s the matter?’ he said, as he drew to a stand, panting. ‘Anything amiss here?’ for he had not seen what was on the pavement.

‘Look!’ said Dyson, speaking out of the gloom. ‘Look there! My friend and I came down this place three minutes ago, and that is what we found.’

The man flashed his light on the dark shape and cried out.

‘Why, it’s murder,’ he said; ‘there’s blood all about him, and a puddle of it in the gutter there. He’s not dead long, either. Ah! there’s the wound! It’s in the neck.’

Dyson bent over what was lying there. He saw a prosperous gentleman, dressed in smooth, well-cut clothes. The neat whiskers were beginning to grizzle a little; he might have been forty-five an hour before; and a handsome gold watch had half slipped out of his waistcoat pocket. And there in the flesh of the neck, between chin and ear, gaped a great wound, clean cut, but all clotted with drying blood, and the white of the cheeks shone like a lighted lamp above the red.

Dyson turned, and looked curiously about him; the dead man lay across the path with his head inclined towards the wall, and the blood from the wound streamed away across the pavement, and lay a dark puddle, as the policeman had said, in the gutter. Two more policemen had come up, the crowd gathered, humming from all quarters, and the officers had as much as they could do to keep the curious at a distance. The three lanterns were flashing here and there, searching for more evidence, and in the gleam of one of them Dyson caught sight of an object in the road, to which he called the attention of the policeman nearest to him.

‘Look, Phillipps,’ he said, when the man had secured it and held it up. ‘Look, that should be something in your way!’

It was a dark flinty stone, gleaming like obsidian, and shaped to a broad edge something after the manner of an adze. One end was rough, and easily grasped in the hand, and the whole thing was hardly five inches long. The edge was thick with blood.

‘What is that, Phillipps?’ said Dyson; and Phillipps looked hard at it.

‘It’s a primitive flint knife,’ he said. ‘It was made about ten thousand years ago. One exactly like this was found near Abury, in Wiltshire, and all the authorities gave it that age.’

The policeman stared astonished at such a development of the case; and Phillipps himself was all aghast at his own words. But Mr. Dyson did not notice him. An inspector who had just come up and was listening to the outlines of the case, was holding a lantern to the dead man’s head. Dyson, for his part, was staring with a white heat of curiosity at something he saw on the wall, just above where the man was lying; there were a few rude marks done in red chalk.

‘This is a black business,’ said the inspector at length: ‘does anybody know who it is?’

A man stepped forward from the crowd. ‘I do, governor,’ he said, ‘he’s a big doctor, his name’s Sir Thomas Vivian; I was in the ‘orspital abart six months ago, and he used to come round; he was a very kind man.’

‘Lord,’ cried the inspector, ‘this is a bad job indeed. Why, Sir Thomas Vivian goes to the Royal Family. And there’s a watch worth a hundred guineas in his pocket, so it isn’t robbery.’

Dyson and Phillipps gave their cards to the authority, and moved off, pushing with difficulty through the crowd that was still gathering, gathering fast; and the alley that had been lonely and desolate now swarmed with white staring faces and hummed with the buzz of rumour and horror, and rang with the commands of the officers of police. The two men once free from this swarming curiosity stepped out briskly, but for twenty minutes neither spoke a word.

‘Phillipps,’ said Dyson, as they came into a small but cheerful street, clean and brightly lit, ‘Phillipps, I owe you an apology. I was wrong to have spoken as I did to-night. Such infernal jesting,’ he went on, with heat, ‘as if there were no wholesome subjects for a joke. I feel as if I had raised an evil spirit.’

‘For Heaven’s sake say nothing more,’ said Phillipps, choking down horror with visible effort. ‘You told the truth to me in my room; the troglodyte, as you said, is still lurking about the earth, and in these very streets around us, slaying for mere lust of blood.’

‘I will come up for a moment,’ said Dyson, when they reached Red Lion Square, ‘I have something to ask you. I think there should be nothing hidden between us at all events.’

Phillipps nodded gloomily, and they went up to the room, where everything hovered indistinct in the uncertain glimmer of the light from without.

When the candle was lighted and the two men sat facing each other, Dyson spoke.

‘Perhaps,’ he began, ‘you did not notice me peering at the wall just above the place where the head lay. The light from the inspector’s lantern was shining full on it, and I saw something that looked queer to me, and I examined it closely. I found that some one had drawn in red chalk a rough outline of a hand — a human hand — upon the wall. But it was the curious position of the fingers that struck me; it was like this’; and he took a pencil and a piece of paper and drew rapidly, and then handed what he had done to Phillipps. It was a rough sketch of a hand seen from the back, with the fingers clenched, and the top of the thumb protruded between the first and second fingers, and pointed downwards, as if to something below.

‘It was just like that,’ said Dyson, as he saw Phillipps’s face grow still whiter. ‘The thumb pointed down as if to the body; it seemed almost a live hand in ghastly gesture. And just beneath there was a small mark with the powder of the chalk lying on it — as if someone had commenced a stroke and had broken the chalk in his hand. I saw the bit of chalk lying on the ground. But what do you make of it?’

‘It’s a horrible old sign,’ said Phillipps —‘one of the most horrible signs connected with the theory of the evil eye. It is used still in Italy, but there can be no doubt that it has been known for ages. It is one of the survivals; you must look for the origin of it in the black swamp whence man first came.’

Dyson took up his hat to go.

‘I think, jesting apart,’ said he, ‘that I kept my promise, and that we were and are hot on the scent, as I said. It seems as if I had really shown you primitive man, or his handiwork at all events.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58