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Max Afford






FROM some miles away, the train was a worthwhile sight. It slipped across the gently undulating country like a linked string of flame-coloured jewels, now springing across an iron bridge, now vanishing momentarily from sight as it dived into a cutting. In that desolate stretch of country nothing seemed alive save the cold stars, already brightening in a sky dusky with approaching night, and that twisting metal snake with the single flashing eye set in its head.

Distance lent enchantment that was lacking at closer quarters. The evening passenger-train which runs from the Midlands station, branching from the main express line and reaching thin steel fingers into the exiled country beyond, has little to recommend to the sybaritically inclined. The carriages are small and the builders have endeavoured to overcome this economy by crushing as many seats as possible into the confined space. They have likewise exercised almost spartan taste; leather and horsehair are the components of the uncomfortable stalls on which the traveller must spend the monotonous hours. And there are few divertissements save sitting. The passenger may stroll up and down the narrow corridor, bruising himself cruelly as the train lurches and sways on the narrow-gauge track; he may look out of the small windows, provided he is suffi-ciently interested in the drab uniformity of the flat plain rising to low bare hills folded one on the other to the skyline—or he may drag rugs and cushions from the baggage-rack and, by pounding them into a doubtful mattress, attempt to sleep away the journey.

Perhaps this inadequate supply of comforts is in just comparison with the demand. Few travellers care to leave the more reliable pleasures of the express line to explore this route. And on this particular evening, the fourth and last carriage contained only one passenger—a slim, serious-faced young man. He sat quietly in his seat, seeming absorbed in his own reflection thrown back by the window against the shadowy world outside.

For all his calm demeanour, young Hans von Rasch was far from settled in his mind. There was that queer feeling in the pit of his stomach, three parts excitement and one part sickness. Every few minutes one hand would unclasp itself and the long fingers pluck nervously at the fringe of his travelling-rug. A close observer might have noticed that they were the fingers of a medical man—slender, strong, and sensitive.

The young man gave a sudden irritable shrug and, shifting his eyes from the darkened window, leaned his fair head against the stiff leather back of the seat. He closed his eyes. He would not dwell on the future. Let him think of the past.

With a rattling and ringing of steel against steel, the train flung itself across a trembling iron bridge and dived into a cutting. It swayed between the deep clay walls, and it was as though an invisible hand had drawn dark blinds outside the carriage windows. The weak yellow lights in the ceiling glowed brighter. They faded again as the blinds were raised with the passing of the cutting and the train raced across the flat countryside once more.

Hans von Rasch, curled up in his corner, paid little attention. His thoughts were miles away from the dingy little carriage and the monotonous scenery outside. He had deliberately isolated himself from his surroundings, and out of the past crept memories, sweet and bitter. . . .

His student days . . . the thrill of the great wooden Sprungschanze at Oberhaufen and the still, unearthly beauty of the quiet fiords near Gudvagen. Then Stockholm—by night a town of dark spires and whispering waters, a city of stark beauty and cold blue water, its bridges like deep caverns in a glacier, its tall towers flashing as the white pinnacles on an iceberg. There was something else he remembered, too. A young girl with flaxen hair coiled about her head like the golden helmet of a goddess, a girl who smiled shyly and whispered, “Auf Wiedersehen, Hans lieber . . .” The young man moved restlessly, and a shadow crept from his eyes until it darkened the thin, sad face.

“Experience is the name we give to our mistakes.” The British epigrammatist Wilde had said this, von Rasch reflected bitterly. And he had gained experience—unwelcome experience—through a mistake which had been a quixotic gesture to aid a friend. Otto Schlanke was a reckless young fool and should have known that a fourth year medical student could not hope to conduct a dangerous operation successfully. It had been a desperate gamble, and he, Hans von Rasch, had lost. The girl died under his hands and the disgrace sent him roaming far afield. He had arrived in London with exactly ten pounds in his pocket. The position of assistant purser on an Orient steamer bound for Australia had proved a godsend to the destitute medical student. A month later he had landed in Melbourne.

Two weeks later he had sighted an advertisement in a newspaper left at the German Club. He had answered it, never dreaming of success yet hoping against hope. His savings were diminishing and he could not stay at the club indefinitely. He had been frank in his letter, setting forth, without hesitation, the reason for his being stranded in Australia. And he had succeeded.

The young man sat upright and, pushing aside his rug, took a leather wallet from his coatpocket. He drew out a folded letter and first glanced at the newspaper-cutting pinned in one corner.

A position is offered to a third- or fourth-year medical student possessing a fairly sound knowledge of anatomy. Applicants should be without family responsibilities. Apply, giving full particulars of training and qualifications, to “Medicus”, this office.

From the cutting von Rasch lowered his eyes to the letter. There was no printed heading; the address on the top stated briefly “Eldon Towers”, and gave the date. The contents he knew by heart.

Dear Sir,

I have great pleasure in informing you that your application for the position of assistant to Dr. Bernhardt Meyersen, of this address, has been accepted. You will report for duty on Monday, April 8th. Enclosed you will find cheque to cover your travelling-expenses, also directions as to the vicinity of Eldon Towers.

Dr. Bernhardt wishes me to impress upon you the greatest need for discretion about your new position. You are not to discuss the name of your employer nor your destination with any other person.

Please reply to this letter in person. The doctor is expecting you.

Yours faithfully . . .

The letter was signed R. Austin Linton (Secretary).

Von Rasch folded the letter and returned it to his pocket. Of course, there was something very peculiar about the whole business, especially so since the enclosure informed him that he had been picked from among four hundred applicants. The young man realized that positions such as this one were not offered without some very good reason. But he recalled the English proverb of looking the gift horse in the mouth—and there were at least three hundred and ninety-nine young men who would have taken his place at the moment. How fortunate it was that he had learnt to speak good English!

A sudden noise recalled him. The door at the end of the carriage was flung open and a guard entered, rolling his body to the lurch of the train. He was a middle-aged man with a stolid, pleasant face. He paused near the solitary traveller.

“Getting near Greycliffe prison now, sir. Thought you might like to take a look.” As though excusing his uninvited approach, he added: “Most folks do, travelling on this line, you know.”

Von Rasch nodded. The panorama of shadowy lowland and dark sky outside the window had little attraction for him, but he did not wish to appear churlish. He realized that the guard welcomed this opportunity for conversation to break the monotony of the journey.

“Thank you,” he said. He spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. Their guttural accent betrayed his nationality, so that the official glanced at him curiously. “Where is the place?”

The guard leaned closer to the window and peered out with narrowed eyes. “Just over there—on your right. We’re nearing it now. Not the best time for the view, but you’ll be able to see enough.” He slid the window up in its groove, and a sudden swirl of cold wind cut the traveller’s face. He turned up his coat-collar and snuggled down into the warm rug. From this position he stared out across the flat land.

Approaching night made the scene vague and uncertain—a view seen through dark veilings. The stunted trees flanking the line thrust out twisted branches, and the grey rocks rising indistinctly against the night sky took on the appearance of sleeping figures strangely formed. Von Rasch shifted his view, and the massive-wall surrounding the prison came into sight—a stone barricade that climbed doggedly over the rises and dipped into gullies with a grim relentlessness of purpose. Beyond the wall could be seen the high, square buildings of the prison rising one on the other as though even this inanimate stone kept unceasing watch over the unlovely land. Here and there yellow windows pitted the dark walls, straining like weak, tired eyes through the gloom. There was something so harsh and comfortless about the scene that the traveller turned away with a shiver and let down the window. The guard, propped up against a seatback, was rolling a cigarette. Now he glanced up.

“That’s where the chap escaped from a week ago,” he volunteered. “Warders and dogs been hunting the place for days now—stopped the train once, they did, for a search. Guess they’ll never find him now. He’s probably fallen into one of those gullies and broken his neck—sure as sin!”

Von Rasch had heard about the queer volcanic formation of this country; of the hollow earth that opened beneath the feet and the depthless caverns with their wells of green and stagnant water. He averted his head. “That is horrible.”

The guard ran his tongue along the gum of a cigarette-paper. “ ‘Horrible’s’ right.” He spat out a wisp of tobacco. “But then, this chap was a horrible one himself. Oscar Dowling, the Golganna murderer. You remember him—no? Well, he murdered his wife and three children—chopped off their hands. Mad, he was—mad ’s a hatter! That’s why he got life instead of the noose. But I guess he’s dead now all right.”

“I cannot remember the case,” von Rasch replied shortly. “I do not read newspapers.”

The guard lit his cigarette and tossed away the match. He seemed glad to impart the information. “Strange case, it was. Made a lot of talk at the time. This Dowling was a well-educated man—one of those chaps who write books and things. Loving husband and father, the newspapers said. All at once he went off his head—phut.” He clicked his fingers in the air. “Just like that! Been working too hard, doctors said. Anyhow, when he came round again, he knew nothing of what he’d done. In the court he swore they were sentencing an innocent man, said someone else was responsible for the murders. Then he went off again. They locked him in a madhouse for three months, then shifted him down here. When he was sane they set him to work in the cookhouse. That’s how he came to escape. Cunning, you see—cunning.” The guard nodded to himself. “That’s how they all are. But I guess he’s gone for keeps now—and the best thing that could happen, I say!”

He paused in his gloomy recital and leaned closer to the window. Then he straightened and turned back. “You’re for Henbane station, aren’t you?”

“That is right.”

“Well, it’s the next stop.” Reluctantly the guard pinched out his half-smoked cigarette and pocketed it.

“Better get ready. We don’t stop more than a minute or so.” With a nod he moved out of the carriage and vanished with the slamming of a door.

The young traveller glanced at his wristwatch. The tiny hands pointed to seven-thirty. Outside it was deep night. The train sped through a black world with no light save the stars overhead. But atop the highest of the flat hills, a faint reflection of pale gold flickered, growing brighter with the passing of every second. Even as he watched, a great glowing rim of hot brass began to push its way over the hill shoulder, flooding the sky with apricot and touching the tips of the stunted trees so that they glowed like candles. Now it was half-way up and savagely red, a monster moon out of all proportion with its usual slim self. Then it was above the hills, riding high and free, casting long green shadows and flooding the bare slopes with a new and silvery loveliness.

Von Rasch rose to his feet and began to fold the rug. Reaching up, he took the suit-case from the wire rack overhead and, thus laden, began to sway down the corridor. With a harsh grind of brakes, the train slowed and began to pull into the deserted station. It paused only long enough to allow the traveller to alight, then, with a triumphant scream, it was off again with a silver plume of steam at its head and a rocking, winking ruby in its tail. The young man, watching it, had the queer sensation that it was glad to get away, and gathered speed to fly from this uncharitable location. The blinking jewel was suddenly swallowed by the darkness of the track; only a subdued rattling and hissing came back to him. Within a few minutes this was but an echo, and then silence.

Suitcase in hand, he stared about the small ill-lighted station. Uncomfortable though his carriage had been, it was a veritable palace compared to his present surroundings. From the rickety paint-blistered signboard “HENBANE” near the roof to the litter of paper and leaves blown into one corner, it was the epitome of desolation and hopelessness. The spotted timetables on the corrugated iron walls hung in dejected strips, and the faded advertisements here and there were more likely to repel than attract to their particular form of merchandise.

With a grimace he crossed to one of the seats. According to his directions, a servant was to have met him with a conveyance. But the cobbled road that curved away into the hills was, as far as he could see, bare as the palm of his hand. In the green moonlight it looked like a twisted river of ice. The shelter creaked and shuddered as if brushed by some stealthy force, and von Rasch started as a vagrant wind stirred the heap of rubbish. He gave a wry smile and seated himself, legs stretched out on suitcase, hands thrust in pockets.

Ten minutes passed before a sudden commotion aroused him. He jumped to his feet as a man walked into the station and halted a few paces away from him. Von Rasch had a swift impression of a huge, swarthy giant, bearded to the eyes, his great form wrapped from throat to ankles in an old-fashioned Burberry overcoat buttoned about his throat. A slouch hat was pulled low on his forehead. The newcomer stared at the young man for a moment, then asked gruffly:

“Mr. von Rasch?” He barely moved his lips as he spoke.

The young man replied quietly: “That is my name.”

Without another word the big man bent and lifted the heavy suitcase as though it were a child’s schoolbag, then turned and walked out of the station. As the other made no move to follow, he turned and flung the words over his shoulder:

“This way. Carriage’s waiting.”

He vanished outside the station, and the traveller heard his luggage being loaded into the waiting vehicle. He hesitated for a moment longer, then, with a resigned shrug of his shoulders, followed his guide out into the moonlight.


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