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The Call

by Algernon Blackwood and Wilfred Wilson

 

The incident—story it never was, perhaps—began tamely, almost meanly; it ended upon a note of strange, unearthly wonder that has haunted him ever since. In Headley’s memory, at any rate, it stands out as the loveliest, the most amazing thing he ever witnessed. Other emotions, too, contributed to the vividness of the picture. That he had felt jealousy towards his old pal, Arthur Deane, shocked him in the first place; it seemed impossible until it actually happened. But that the jealousy was proved afterwards to have been without a cause shocked him still more. He felt ashamed and miserable.

For him, the actual incident began when he received a note from Mrs. Blondin asking him to the Priory for a week-end, or for longer, if he could manage it.

Captain Arthur Deane, she mentioned, was staying with her at the moment, and a warm welcome awaited him. Iris she did not mention—Iris Manning, the interesting and beautiful girl for whom it was well known he had a considerable weakness. He found a good-sized house party; there was fishing in the little Sussex river, tennis, golf not far away, while two motor cars brought the remoter country across the downs into easy reach. Also there was a bit of duck shooting for those who cared to wake at 3 a. m. and paddle up-stream to the marshes where the birds were feeding.

“Have you brought your gun?” was the first thing Arthur said to him when he arrived. “Like a fool, I left mine in town.”

“I hope you haven’t,” put in Miss Manning; “because if you have I must get up one fine morning at three o’clock.” She laughed merrily, and there was an undernote of excitement in the laugh.

Captain Headley showed his surprise. “That you were a Diana had escaped my notice, I’m ashamed to say,” he replied lightly. “Yet I’ve known you some years, haven’t I?” He looked straight at her, and the soft yet searching eye, turning from his friend, met his own securely. She was appraising him, for the hundreth time, and he, for the hundreth time, was thinking how pretty she was, and wondering how long the prettiness would last after marriage.

“I’m not,” he heard her answer. “That’s just it. But I’ve promised.”

“Rather!” said Arthur gallantly. “And I shall hold you to it,” he added still more gallantly—too gallantly, Headley thought. “I couldn’t possibly get up at cockcrow without a very special inducement, could I, now? You know me, Dick!”

“Well, anyhow, I’ve brought my gun,” Headley replied evasively, “so you’ve no excuse, either of you. You’ll have to go.” And while they were laughing and chattering about it, Mrs. Blondin clinched the matter for them. Provisions were hard to come by; the larder really needed a brace or two of birds; it was the least they could do in return for what she called amusingly her “Armistice hospitality.”

“So I expect you to get up at three,” she chaffed them, “and return with your Victory birds.”

It was from this preliminary skirmish over the tea-table on the law five minutes after his arrival that Dick Headley realized easily enough the little game in progress. As a man of experience, just on the wrong side of forty, it was not difficult to see the cards each held. He sighed. Had he guessed an intrigue was on foot he would not have come, yet he might have known that wherever his hostess was, there were the vultures gathered together. Matchmaker by choice and instinct, Mrs. Blondin could not help herself. True to her name, she was always balancing on matrimonial tightropes—for others.

Her cards, at any rate, were obvious enough; she had laid them on the table for him. He easily read her hand. The next twenty-four hours confirmed this reading. Having made up her mind that Iris and Arthur were destined for each other, she had grown impatient; they had been ten days together, yet Iris was still free. They were good friends only. With calculation, she, therefore, took a step that must bring things further. She invited Dick Headley, whose weakness for the girl was common knowledge. The card was indicated; she played it. Arthur must come to the point or see another man carry her off. This, at least, she planned, little dreaming that the dark King of Spades would interfere.

Miss Manning’s hand also was fairly obvious, for both men were extremely eligible partis. She was getting on; one or other was to become her husband before the party broke up. This, in crude language, was certainly in her cards, though, being a nice and charming girl, she might camouflage it cleverly to herself and others. Her eyes, on each man in turn when the shooting expedition was being discussed, revealed her part in the little intrigue clearly enough. It was all, thus far, as commonplace as could be.

But there were two more hands Headley had to read—his own and his friend’s; and these, he admitted honestly, were not so easy. To take his own first. It was true he was fond of the girl and had often tried to make up his mind to ask her. Without being conceited, he had good reason to believe his affection was returned and that she would accept him. There was no ecstatic love on either side, for he was no longer a boy of twenty, nor was she unscathed by tempestuous love affairs that had scorched the first bloom from her face and heart. But they understood one another; they were an honest couple; she was tired of flirting; both wanted to marry and settle down. Unless a better man turned up she probably would say “Yes” without humbug or delay. It was this last reflection that brought him to the final hand he had to read.

Here he was puzzled. Arthur Deane’s rôle in the teacup strategy, for the first time since they had known one another, seemed strange, uncertain. Why? Because, though paying no attention to the girl openly, he met her clandestinely, unknown to the rest of the house-party, and above all without telling his intimate pal—at three o’clock in the morning.

The house-party was in full swing, with a touch of that wild, reckless gaiety which followed the end of the war: “Let us be happy before a worse thing comes upon us,” was in many hearts. After a crowded day they danced till early in the morning, while doubtful weather prevented the early shooting expedition after duck. The third night Headley contrived to disappear early to bed. He lay there thinking. He was puzzled over his friend’s rôle, over the clandestine meeting in particular. It was the morning before, waking very early, he had been drawn to the window by an unusual sound—the cry of a bird. Was it a bird? In all his experience he had never heard such a curious, half-singing call before. He listened a moment, thinking it must have been a dream, yet with the odd cry still ringing in his ears. It was repeated close beneath his open window, a long, low-pitched cry with three distinct following notes in it.

He sat up in bed and listened hard. No bird that he knew could make such sounds. But it was not repeated a third time, and out of sheer curiosity he went to the window and looked out. Dawn was creeping over the distant downs; he saw their outline in the grey pearly light; he saw the lawn below, stretching down to the little river at the bottom, where a curtain of faint mist hung in the air. And on this lawn he also saw Arthur Deane—with Iris Manning.

Of course, he reflected, they were going after the duck. He turned to look at his watch; it was three o’clock. The same glance, however, showed him his gun standing in the corner. So they were going without a gun. A sharp pang of unexpected jealousy shot through him. He was just going to shout out something or other, wishing them good luck, or asking if they had found another gun, perhaps, when a cold touch crept down his spine. The same instant his heart contracted. Deane had followed the girl into the summer-house, which stood on the right. It was not the shooting expedition at all. Arthur was meeting her for another purpose. The blood flowed back, filling his head. He felt an eavesdropper, a sneak, a detective; but, for all that, he felt also jealous. And his jealousy seemed chiefly because Arthur had not told him.

Of this, then, he lay thinking in bed on the third night. The following day he had said nothing, but had crossed the corridor and put the gun in his friend’s room. Arthur, for his part, had said nothing either. For the first time in their long, long friendship, there lay a secret between them. To Headley the unexpected revelation came with pain.

For something like a quarter of a century these two had been bosom friends; they had camped together, been in the army together, taken their pleasure together, each the full confidant of the other in all the things that go to make up men’s lives. Above all, Headley had been the one and only recipient of Arthur’s unhappy love story. He knew the girl, knew his friend’s deep passion, and also knew his terrible pain when she was lost at sea. Arthur was burnt out, finished, out of the running, so far as marriage was concerned. He was not a man to love a second time. It was a great and poignant tragedy. Headley, as confidant, knew all. But more than that—Arthur, on his side, knew his friend’s weakness for Iris Manning, knew that a marriage was still possible and likely between them. They were true as steel to one another, and each man, oddly enough, had once saved the other’s life, thus adding to the strength of a great natural tie.

Yet now one of them, feigning innocence by day, even indifference, secretly met his friend’s girl by night, and kept the matter to himself. It seemed incredible. With his own eyes Headley had seen him on the lawn, passing in the faint grey light through the mist into the summer-house, where the girl had just preceded him. He had not seen her face, but he had seen the skirt sweep round the corner of the wooden pillar. He had not waited to see them come out again.

So he now lay wondering what rôle his old friend was playing in this little intrigue that their hostess, Mrs. Blondin, helped to stage. And, oddly enough, one minor detail stayed in his mind with a curious vividness. As naturalist, hunter, nature-lover, the cry of that strange bird, with its three mournful notes, perplexed him exceedingly.

A knock came at his door, and the door pushed open before he had time to answer. Deane himself came in.

“Wise man,” he exclaimed in an easy tone, “got off to bed. Iris was asking where you were.” He sat down on the edge of the mattress, where Headley was lying with a cigarette and an open book he had not read. The old sense of intimacy and comradeship rose in the latter’s heart. Doubt and suspicion faded. He prized his great friendship. He met the familiar eyes. “Impossible,” he said to himself, “absolutely impossible! He’s not playing a game; he’s not a rotter!” He pushed over his cigarette case, and Arthur lighted one.

“Done in,” he remarked shortly, with the first puff. “Can’t stand it any more. I’m off to town to-morrow.”

Headley stared in amazement. “Fed up already?” he asked. “Why, I rather like it. It’s quite amusing. What’s wrong, old man?”

“This match-making,” said Deane bluntly. “Always throwing that girl at my head. If it’s not the duck-shooting stunt at 3 a. m., it’s something else. She doesn’t care for me and I don’t care for her. Besides——”

He stopped, and the expression of his face changed suddenly. A sad, quiet look of tender yearning came into his clear brown eyes.

You know, Dick,” he went on in a low, half-reverent tone. “I don’t want to marry. I never can.”

Dick’s heart stirred within him. “Mary,” he said, understandingly.

The other nodded, as though the memories were still too much for him. “I’m still miserably lonely for her,” he said. “Can’t help it simply. I feel utterly lost without her. Her memory to me is everything.” He looked deep into his pal’s eyes. “I’m married to that,” he added very firmly.

They pulled their cigarettes a moment in silence. They belonged to the male type that conceals emotion behind schoolboy language.

“It’s hard luck,” said Headley gently, “rotten luck, old man, I understand.” Arthur’s head nodded several times in succession as he smoked. He made no remark for some minutes. Then presently he said, as though it had no particular importance—for thus old friends show frankness to each other—“Besides, anyhow, it’s you the girl’s dying for, not me. She’s blind as a bat, old Blondin. Even when I’m with her—thrust with her by that old matchmaker for my sins—it’s you she talks about. All the talk leads up to you and yours. She’s devilish fond of you.” He paused a moment and looked searchingly into his friend’s face. “I say, old man—are you—I mean, do you mean business there? Because—excuse me interfering—but you’d better be careful. She’s a good sort, you know, after all.”

“Yes, Arthur, I do like her a bit,” Dick told him frankly. “But I can’t make up my mind quite. You see, it’s like this——”

And they talked the matter over as old friends will, until finally Arthur chucked his cigarette into the grate and got up to go. “Dead to the world,” he said, with a yawn. “I’m off to bed. Give you a chance, too,” he added with a laugh. It was after midnight.

The other turned, as though something had suddenly occurred to him.

“By the bye, Arthur,” he said abruptly, “what bird makes this sound? I heard it the other morning. Most extraordinary cry. You know everything that flies. What is it?” And, to the best of his ability, he imitated the strange three-note cry he had heard in the dawn two mornings before.

To his amazement and keen distress, his friend, with a sound like a stifled groan, sat down upon the bed without a word. He seemed startled. His face was white. He stared. He passed a hand, as in pain, across his forehead.

“Do it again,” he whispered, in a hushed, nervous voice. “Once again—for me.”

And Headley, looking at him, repeated the queer notes, a sudden revulsion of feeling rising through him. “He’s fooling me after all,” ran in his heart, “my old, old pal——”

There was silence for a full minute. Then Arthur, stammering a bit, said lamely, a certain hush in his voice still: “Where in the world did you hear that—and when?”

Dick Headley sat up in bed. He was not going to lose this friendship, which, to him, was more than the love of woman. He must help. His pal was in distress and difficulty. There were circumstances, he realized, that might be too strong for the best man in the world—sometimes. No, by God, he would play the game and help him out!

“Arthur, old chap,” he said affectionately, almost tenderly. “I heard it two mornings ago—on the lawn below my window here. It woke me up. I—I went to look. Three in the morning, about.”

Arthur amazed him then. He first took another cigarette and lit it steadily. He looked round the room vaguely, avoiding, it seemed, the other’s eyes. Then he turned, pain in his face, and gazed straight at him.

“You saw—nothing?” he asked in a louder voice, but a voice that had something very real and true in it. It reminded Headley of the voice he heard when he was fainting from exhaustion, and Arthur had said, “Take it, I tell you. I’m all right,” and had passed over the flask, though his own throat and sight and heart were black with thirst. It was a voice that had command in it, a voice that did not lie because it could not—yet did lie and could lie—when occasion warranted.

Headley knew a second’s awful struggle.

“Nothing,” he answered quietly, after his little pause. “Why?”

For perhaps two minutes his friend hid his face. Then he looked up.

“Only,” he whispered, “because that was our secret lover’s cry. It seems so strange you heard it and not I. I’ve felt her so close of late—Mary!”

The white face held very steady, the firm lips did not tremble, but it was evident that the heart knew anguish that was deep and poignant. “We used it to call each other—in the old days. It was our private call. No one else in the world knew it but Mary and myself.”

Dick Headley was flabbergasted. He had no time to think, however.

“It’s odd you should hear it and not I,” his friend repeated. He looked hurt, bewildered, wounded. Then suddenly his face brightened. “I know,” he cried suddenly. “You and I are pretty good pals. There’s a tie between us and all that. Why, it’s tel—telepathy, or whatever they call it. That’s what it is.”

He got up abruptly. Dick could think of nothing to say but to repeat the other’s words. “Of course, of course. That’s it,” he said, “telepathy.” He stared—anywhere but at his pal.

“Night, night!” he heard from the door, and before he could do more than reply in similar vein Arthur was gone.

He lay for a long time, thinking, thinking. He found it all very strange. Arthur in this emotional state was new to him. He turned it over and over. Well, he had known good men behave queerly when wrought up. That recognition of the bird’s cry was strange, of course, but—he knew the cry of a bird when he heard it, though he might not know the actual bird. That was no human whistle. Arthur was—inventing. No, that was not possible. He was worked up, then, over something, a bit hysterical perhaps. It had happened before, though in a milder way, when his heart attacks came on. They affected his nerves and head a little, it seemed. He was a deep sort, Dick remembered. Thought turned and twisted in him, offering various solutions, some absurd, some likely. He was a nervous, high-strung fellow underneath, Arthur was. He remembered that. Also he remembered, anxiously again, that his heart was not quite sound, though what that had to do with the present tangle he did not see.

Yet it was hardly likely that he would bring in Mary as an invention, an excuse—Mary, the most sacred memory in his life, the deepest, truest, best. He had sworn, anyhow, that Iris Manning meant nothing to him.

Through all his speculations, behind every thought, ran this horrid working jealousy. It poisoned him. It twisted truth. It moved like a wicked snake through mind and heart. Arthur, gripped by his new, absorbing love for Iris Manning, lied. He couldn’t believe it, he didn’t believe it, he wouldn’t believe it—yet jealousy persisted in keeping the idea alive in him. It was a dreadful thought. He fell asleep on it.

But his sleep was uneasy with feverish, unpleasant dreams that rambled on in fragments without coming to conclusion. Then, suddenly, the cry of the strange bird came into his dream. He started, turned over, woke up. The cry still continued. It was not a dream. He jumped out of bed.

The room was grey with early morning, the air fresh and a little chill. The cry came floating over the lawn as before. He looked out, pain clutching at his heart. Two figures stood below, a man and a girl, and the man was Arthur Deane. Yet the light was so dim, the morning being overcast, that had he not expected to see his friend, he would scarcely have recognized the familiar form in that shadowy outline that stood close beside the girl. Nor could he, perhaps, have recognized Iris Manning. Their backs were to him. They moved away, disappearing again into the little summer-house, and this time—he saw it beyond question—the two were hand in hand. Vague and uncertain as the figures were in the early twilight, he was sure of that.

The first disagreeable sensation of surprise, disgust, anger that sickened him turned quickly, however, into one of another kind altogether. A curious feeling of superstitious dread crept over him, and a shiver ran again along his nerves.

“Hallo, Arthur!” he called from the window. There was no answer. His voice was certainly audible in the summer-house. But no one came. He repeated the call a little louder, waited in vain for thirty seconds, then came, the same moment, to a decision that even surprised himself, for the truth we he could no longer bear the suspense of waiting. He must see his friend at once and have it out with him. He turned and went deliberately down the corridor to Deane’s bedroom. He would wait there for his return and know the truth from his own lips. But also another thought had come—the gun. He had quite forgotten it—the safety-catch was out of order. He had not warned him.

He found the door closed but not locked; opening it cautiously, he went in.

But the unexpectedness of what he saw gave him a genuine shock. He could hardly suppress a cry. Everything in the room was neat and orderly, no sign of disturbance anywhere, and it was not empty. There, in bed, before his very eyes, was Arthur. The clothes were turned back a little; he saw the pyjamas open at the throat; he lay sound asleep, deeply, peacefully asleep.

So surprised, indeed, was Headley that, after staring a moment, almost unable to believe his sight, he then put out a hand and touched him gently, cautiously on the forehead. But Arthur did not stir or wake; his breathing remained deep and regular. He lay sleeping like a baby.

Headley glanced round the room, noticed the gun in the corner where he himself had put it the day before, and then went out, closing the door behind him softly.

Arthur Deane, however, did not leave for London as he had intended, because he felt unwell and kept to his room upstairs. It was only a slight attack, apparently, but he must lie quiet. There was no need to send for a doctor; he knew just what to do; these passing attacks were common enough. He would be up and about again very shortly. Headley kept him company, saying no single word of what had happened. He read aloud to him, chatted and cheered him up. He had no other visitors. Within twenty-four hours he was himself once more. He and his friend had planned to leave the following day.

But Headley, that last night in the house, felt an odd uneasiness and could not sleep. All night long he sat up reading, looking out of the window, smoking in a chair where he could see the stars and hear the wind and watch the huge shadow of the downs. The house lay very still as the hours passed. He dozed once or twice. Why did he sit up in this unnecessary way? Why did he leave his door ajar so that the slightest sound of another door opening, or of steps passing along the corridor, must reach him? Was he anxious for his friend? Was he suspicious? What was his motive, what his secret purpose?

Headley did not know, and could not even explain it to himself. He felt uneasy, that was all he knew. Not for worlds would he have let himself go to sleep or lose full consciousness that night. It was very odd; he could not understand himself. He merely obeyed a strange, deep instinct that bade him wait and watch. His nerves were jumpy; in his heart lay some unexplicable anxiety that was pain.

The dawn came slowly; the stars faded one by one; the line of the downs showed their grand bare curves against the sky; cool and cloudless the September morning broke above the little Sussex pleasure house. He sat and watched the east grow bright. The early wind brought a scent of marshes and the sea into his room. Then suddenly it brought a sound as well—the haunting cry of the bird with its three following notes. And this time there came an answer.

Headley knew then why he had sat up. A wave of emotion swept him as he heard—an emotion he could not attempt to explain. Dread, wonder, longing seized him. For some seconds he could not leave his chair because he did not dare to. The low-pitched cries of call and answer rang in his ears like some unearthly music. With an effort he started up, went to the window and looked out.

This time the light was sharp and clear. No mist hung in the air. He saw the crimsoning sky reflected like a band of shining metal in the reach of river beyond the lawn. He saw dew on the grass, a sheet of pallid silver. He saw the summer-house, empty of any passing figures. For this time the two figures stood plainly in view before his eyes upon the lawn. They stood there, hand in hand, sharply defined, unmistakable in form and outline, their faces, moreover, turned upwards to the window where he stood, staring down in pain and amazement at them—at Arthur Deane and Mary.

They looked into his eyes. He tried to call, but no sound left his throat. They began to move across the dew-soaked lawn. They went, he saw, with a floating, undulating motion towards the river shining in the dawn. Their feet left no marks upon the grass. They reached the bank, but did not pause in their going. They rose a little, floating like silent birds across the river. Turning in mid-stream, they smiled towards him, waved their hands with a gesture of farewell, then, rising still higher into the opal dawn, their figures passed into the distance slowly, melting away against the sunlit marshes and the shadowing downs beyond. They disappeared.

Headley never quite remembers actually leaving the window, crossing the room, or going down the passage. Perhaps he went at once, perhaps he stood gazing into the air above the downs for a considerable time, unable to tear himself away. He was in some marvellous dream, it seemed. The next thing he remembers, at any rate, was that he was standing beside his friend’s bed, trying, in his distraught anguish of heart, to call him from that sleep which, on earth, knows no awakening.