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Half Past Two by Marjorie Bowen


THE light had been put out on the stairs. Usually, when he returned late to spend the night in his rooms, he found it burning. Now he had to make his way slowly, striking matches as he went up the old dingy enclosed stairs.

It was a long time since he had spent a night in this house, and he did not greatly care about doing so. It was an ancient, inconvenient residence, hidden away in a small square which had been half demolished, and was hemmed in on either side by massive modern buildings. Only when, as now, the young man had been detained so late at a dance that he had missed the last train to his home in the country did he resort to the expedient of spending the night in this makeshift fashion.

Roger Hoby knew that he would be alone in the house, as he always was when he spent the night there, with a great many other empty houses to right and left of him, and there was something in this silence more oppressive than the silence of the open country—so many buildings around him, so busy and crowded in the day, at night so empty and silent; and he blamed the caretaker who had not left the old-fashioned gas (for there was no electric light in the house) burning on the stairs. So heavy was the sense of oppression on him that he decided the next night he had to pass in town would be in a hotel.

He found his own door, opened it, and entered the suite of chambers he occupied on the second floor, lit the gas in the first room, and passed into the second, which he used as his architect's office.

It was a hateful, raw, cold and foggy night, and Roger Hoby was shuddering and shivering from having passed through the bitter, bleak streets and the damp cold of the dark stairway. He was therefore pleasantly amazed when he felt the genial warmth that met him as he opened the second door and saw the room full of all his own familiar and pleasant possessions, brightly illuminated by the glow of a large fire.

As he had not been there since the afternoon he wondered who could have made up such a large fire to last until this late hour. The caretaker was seldom in the building after six; even as Hoby wondered he noticed that someone was sitting in the large armchair drawn up by the fireplace—a man whose dark shape appeared to be one with that of the chair and was outlined against the bright blaze of the coals.

"Hallo!" cried Hoby, considerably startled, and not without an odd creep of fear in his blood, and more than ordinary amazement.

The figure did not move. One hand was hanging over the edge of the armchair, and Hoby noticed that it was a peculiarly shaped hand, with long splay-ended fingers. Roger Hoby, advancing with considerable effort of will, almost laughed aloud with relief when he saw that the man whom he had seen sitting before the fire was Durant Love-day, who occupied the rooms above his own. He was a man with whom Hoby had no more than the most casual acquaintance, and for whom he did not greatly care. It was more than odd to find him sitting there at this hour.

"Oh, it's you," said Loveday, and he seemed as relieved to see Hoby as Hoby had been to see him.

"What do you want?" asked Roger, briefly. "I didn't know you ever spent the night here. How did you get in?"

"I don't ever spend the night here," replied Durant Loveday, quickly. "This is the first time I have ever been here late. But then, you see, I have an appointment."

"An appointment here at this hour?"

"Yes, it sounds peculiar, doesn't it?"

Roger Hoby thought it sounded very peculiar. He wondered that he had never noticed before that Loveday had such ugly splayed fingers. But then he had never given him more than the most cursory glance on the stairs or in the street. He knew nothing at all about the fellow, and he had never liked the thin dry face, the eyes that were too pale, too deeply cut and deeply set. All he knew of Loveday was that he also was an architect and appeared to have an income independent of his work, which amounted to very little, as far as Hoby knew.

"Well, you didn't make an appointment here, I suppose?" said Hoby, warming himself before the fire which his uninvited guest had kept so generously piled with coal.

"No, it was because I decided not to keep my appointment that I came here," replied the other. "Someone was coming back for me—but I didn't want to see him."

"How did you get in?"

"I slipped in before your clerk went. I hid, and he went and left me locked in."

"Did he?" thought Hoby.

"I'm glad you've come back," said Loveday in a confidential tone, leaning forward from the armchair. "I've been here for hours. I am glad of your company. I kept on piling up the fire to make a bright light, but, still, I am glad of your company."

"Well, I can't keep you company," replied Hoby. "I want to go to bed. It must be two o'clock."

Loveday put up his hand, his thick finger-ends travelled over his thin lips, and those pale, deep-set eyes gazed at Hoby with an expression that the young man had never seen in a human face before—one of absolute terror.

"Why, you're afraid," cried Hoby, involuntarily.

"I've got an appointment," muttered Loveday, "at half-past two."

Hoby went to his cupboard and set out the whisky and soda. "Look here," he said, in a voice he tried to make as practical as possible, "you'd better tell me what this is all about. You seem to have lost your nerve a bit, haven't you? What are you doing here really—hiding?"

"There's someone coming back to see me at half-past two," cried Loveday; "someone whom I have been avoiding for years."

"Then, why on earth," asked Hoby, "did you make an appointment with him in such a place and at such an hour?"

"He forced me," said Loveday, his voice falling to a whimper; "he forced me to it. You don't know what power he's got over me. I met him in the street, and then in a restaurant, but that wouldn't do. He would come here at half-past two. I didn't make the appointment; he did. He told me, 'Half-past two today, and I'll be there.' He came and went, without saying anything except, I'll be back at half-past two tonight.'"

"How is he going to get in?" asked Hoby. "I closed the door behind me."

"He forced me to give him the passkey," said Loveday. "He'll get in all right. But—" his voice dropped to an accent of cunning—"he'll go upstairs to the offices overhead. He won't think of looking for me here. And I'm locked in, aren't I?"

"Yes, I shut the door," said Hoby doubtfully. He took a drink and gave one to Loveday, who, however, refused it. "You had better tell me what it's all about, hadn't you?"

"It would be a very long story," grinned Loveday. "There's a great deal in it; in fact, there's everything in it." Then, seeing that Hoby had taken up some matches, he cried out, "Don't light the gas; he'll know there's somebody here, then, and he might try to get in."

"But he can't," replied Hoby briefly, "and we're two to one if he does."

"You don't know Stiffkey," said Loveday, still with a grin.

Hoby put down the box of matches. The room was really sufficiently illuminated by the fire, and it occurred to him that if anyone did come he would judge by firelight as easily as by gaslight that the room was occupied. He did not, however, mention this to Loveday. He had come to his own conclusions about him, the usual conclusions that the ordinary man comes to when faced with anything peculiar or extraordinary—he thought that Loveday was ill or out of his mind.

"Well," he remarked soothingly, "you can have a shakedown here all night if you like. I sleep in the other room. There's a sofa there, too, if you would like it."

But Loveday said no, he preferred to sit by the fire. He looked at the clock on the mantelpiece, which now showed ten minutes past two.

No one will come, of course, thought Roger Hoby; the man's been badly scared by something, and this is the way it's taken him. He imagines an appointment with an enemy, but no one would come to such a place and at such a time. Observing again that snarl of terror on Loveday's face, he was, however, himself slightly affected by fear, and said, "You had better really tell me something of what it's about if you want me to stand by you in this you know."

"I robbed Stiffkey," confessed Loveday, "years ago when we were in Africa. He entrusted me with something of his to sell—stones, and I brought them over to England and gave them to a jeweller to value, and then I told him that the jeweller had absconded with them. Of course, I had sold them and kept the money. That was the beginning of better times for me. I thought Stiffkey had died in Africa, I didn't hear from him for years...Hush! What was that?" He paused to listen, and Hoby listened, too, but there was no sound in the empty house.

"It sounds a pretty rotten sort of trick," said Hoby, drinking his whisky and soda. "I wonder you care to talk about it."

"There are other things," said Loveday. "We were great enemies, but for years I haven't seen him. I haven't thought about him until I met him just the other day, and he insisted on this appointment—'to settle scores,' he said. I offered him money—a great deal of money—but he said money wouldn't pay for all those years. Hush! I do think that's his step on the stairs."

"It isn't," said Hoby impatiently. "There is no sound of anything. It's too silent." He went to the window. "The fog is quite thick," he added.

"He'll find his way through the fog all right," answered Loveday faintly. "Fie means to have his vengeance."

"Vengeance?" repeated Hoby. "Do you think he'll come here to revenge himself on you?"

"Of course," said Loveday, huddling himself together, "he always said he'd get me in the end."

"Well, I shouldn't have met him in this place and at this time of night," replied Hoby, trying to speak with more confidence than he felt. He also found himself straining his ears to catch the possible sound of a footstep on the stairs, a rap, or a voice at the door. "He would come," whimpered Loveday. "It's his own fault, he would come. Nothing else would do for him, and I was in his power, wasn't I? 'I'll be back,' he said, 'at half-past two tonight.'" Roger Hoby shuddered and drew nearer to the fire. He didn't want to go to bed, after all; he thought he'd prefer to sit up with Loveday, not to leave him anyhow until after half-past two. The clock now showed twenty minutes past that hour.

Hoby had no compassion for him. He had never liked the man, who, on his own showing, deserved no friendship or respect from anyone—a thief, a traitor, and a coward. No, Hoby had no compassion for him, but he was drawn to him by a stronger link than compassion, that of terror. He was infected by the fear that Loveday gave out—fear that was so definite that it seemed another personality in the room, and one that had laid its grip on Hoby, who was seized by this terror that had seized Loveday, and shuddering and dreading—whoever it was—this Stiffkey, who was coming at half-past two. So strongly and suddenly did this terror overwhelm him that he made an impulsive movement towards the clock to stop the hands. Loveday, watching him, grinned: "I thought of that," he said, "but it's no use, there are other clocks outside."

"Look here," said Hoby roughly, trying to keep up his own courage, "this is all nonsense, you know; you're imagining the whole thing; nobody's coming, and even if they did—"

Loveday interrupted, more by his movement and his clutch on the arm of the chair, and the look on his face, than by anything he said, though he did mutter for the third time, "Hush!"

"It sounds like the front door," said Hoby, "opening and closing."

"Can't you hear?" whispered Loveday. "There's someone coming up the stairs."

"No, I can't," said Hoby roughly.

The clock on the mantelpiece struck half-past two.

"Warmth, warmth!" cried Loveday. "I want to get warm." He pulled his chair up to the fire, so closely it seemed that he must scorch.

Hoby went into the outer room and listened; that shivering man was afraid of murder. There certainly was someone coming up the stairs, slowly and deliberately, as if unhindered by the dark. Hoby, moved by some unaccountable impulse of dread, saw that his own door was secure, and then returned to where Loveday crouched lower and lower over the fire. Hoby could still hear the footsteps, slow and deliberate. Had Stiffkey come with the purpose of murder? Hoby looked around—he did not know why—for a weapon, and picked up a heavy stone paperweight, which had been laid carelessly on the chimney piece to hold down a few odd papers beside the clock. He found it was wet. He dropped it, and holding his fingers into the firelight, saw they were red.

"What's this—blood?" cried Hoby.

Loveday began to laugh. "Do you hear a footstep? Half-past two—exactly to his appointment."

Hoby could hear the footsteps. They had passed the door now. He could hear them overhead—tramping to and fro. He had struck a match and was staring at the chimney piece. The papers underneath the paperweight were splashed and spluttered with red. A thin dark line was running down the wall. Hoby, looking up, saw that it was coming from a patch on the plastered ceiling, exactly where it met the wall—a patch that seemed to be spreading as he looked. Loveday's room was exactly overhead, by the dark patch on the plaster.

"Up in your room," whispered Hoby, dropping the flaring match.

"Stiffkey," grinned Loveday, staring, "Stiffkey."

"And who else?" whispered Hoby.

"Only Stiffkey," said Loveday.

The steps were again crossing the room overhead, and coming down the stairs. The two men listened, bending closer together, Loveday farther and farther leaning towards the fire. The footsteps paused at the outer door, and there was a sharp rap.

"I won 't let him in," whispered Hoby.

"It doesn't matter whether you do or not," whimpered Loveday. "The door is open."

"No, I shut the door."

But, even as the young man spoke, he felt a draft of cold outer air. Driven by panic he went into the outer room. The door, which he was certain he had closed, stood open on the black staircase. The sound of footsteps had departed in the direction of Loveday, but he saw no one. Then he heard Loveday from behind him give a gurgle and a shriek of incredible anguish, and he did not dare go back to the tire. He knew that it was useless to do so, that Loveday was dead.

It was quite a long time before he was able to return to the room, light the gas, and stare at Loveday, rigid in his chair, beneath that red patch on the ceiling.

Hoby had known that he would be there alone.

The fog was now so thick that even with the gaslight everything looked dim, monstrous, and misshapen.

Torn by a fearful curiosity, Roger Hoby went up into Loveday's chambers. They were not locked. Hoby, striking matches, found what he had expected to find—a dead man lying by the wainscot, who had been battered to death by the poker which lay beside him. His watch was staring on the floor beside him—it had stopped at half-past two, which must have been the hour when Loveday murdered him.

The appointment was for half-past two, but in the afternoon—not in the night—he had said he would return.

But, who was the other? For whom had Loveday waited all those hours—first upstairs, and then hiding down in Hoby's room? Stiffkey, returning to keep his second appointment again, the next time the clock was at half-past two?


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