A Suspicious Gift by Algernon Blackwood
Blake had been in very low water for months—almost
under water part of the time—due to
circumstances he was fond of saying were no fault
of his own; and as he sat writing in his room
on "third floor back" of a New York boarding-house,
part of his mind was busily occupied in
wondering when his luck was going to turn
It was his room only in the sense that he paid
the rent. Two friends, one a little Frenchman and
the other a big Dane, shared it with him, both
hoping eventually to contribute something towards
expenses, but so far not having accomplished this
result. They had two beds only, the third being
a mattress they slept upon in turns, a week at a
time. A good deal of their irregular "feeding"
consisted of oatmeal, potatoes, and sometimes eggs,
all of which they cooked on a strange utensil they
had contrived to fix into the gas jet. Occasionally,
when dinner failed them altogether, they swallowed
a little raw rice and drank hot water from the
bathroom on the top of it, and then made a wild
race for bed so as to get to sleep while the sensation
of false repletion was still there. For sleep
and hunger are slight acquaintances as they well
knew. Fortunately all New York houses are
supplied with hot air, and they only had to open
a grating in the wall to get a plentiful, if not a
wholesome amount of heat.
Though loneliness in a big city is a real punishment,
as they had severally learnt to their cost,
their experiences, three in a small room for
several months, had revealed to them horrors of
quite another kind, and their nerves had suffered
according to the temperament of each. But, on
this particular evening, as Blake sat scribbling by
the only window that was not cracked, the Dane
and the Frenchman, his companions in adversity,
were in wonderful luck. They had both been
asked out to a restaurant to dine with a friend
who also held out to one of them a chance of work
and remuneration. They would not be back till
late, and when they did come they were pretty sure
to bring in supplies of one kind or another. For
the Frenchman never could resist the offer of a
glass of absinthe, and this meant that he would be
able to help himself plentifully from the free-lunch
counters, with which all New York bars
are furnished, and to which any purchaser of a
drink is entitled to help himself and devour on the
spot or carry away casually in his hand for consumption
elsewhere. Thousands of unfortunate
men get their sole subsistence in this way in New
York, and experience soon teaches where, for the
price of a single drink, a man can take away
almost a meal of chip potatoes, sausage, bits of
bread, and even eggs. The Frenchman and the
Dane knew their way about, and Blake looked
forward to a supper more or less substantial before
pulling his mattress out of the cupboard and
turning in upon the floor for the night.
Meanwhile he could enjoy a quiet and lonely
evening with the room all to himself.
In the daytime he was a reporter on an evening
newspaper of sensational and lying habits. His
work was chiefly in the police courts; and in his
spare hours at night, when not too tired or too
empty, he wrote sketches and stories for the
magazines that very rarely saw the light of day on
their printed and paid-for sentences. On this
particular occasion he was deep in a most involved
tale of a psychological character, and had just
worked his way into a sentence, or set of sentences,
that completely baffled and muddled him.
He was fairly out of his depth, and his brain
was too poorly supplied with blood to invent a
way out again. The story would have been
interesting had he written it simply, keeping to
facts and feelings, and not diving into difficult
analysis of motive and character which was quite
beyond him. For it was largely autobiographical,
and was meant to describe the adventures of a
young Englishman who had come to grief in the
usual manner on a Canadian farm, had then subsequently
become bar-keeper, sub-editor on a Methodist
magazine, a teacher of French and German to
clerks at twenty-five cents per hour, a model for
artists, a super on the stage, and, finally, a
wanderer to the goldfields.
Blake scratched his head, and dipped the pen in
the inkpot, stared out through the blindless
windows, and sighed deeply. His thoughts kept
wandering to food, beefsteak and steaming vegetables.
The smell of cooking that came from a
lower floor through the broken windows was a
constant torment to him. He pulled himself
together and again attacked the problem.
" . . . for with some people," he wrote, "the
imagination is so vivid as to be almost an extension
of consciousness. . . ." But here he stuck
absolutely. He was not quite sure what he meant
by the words, and how to finish the sentence
puzzled him into blank inaction. It was a difficult
point to decide, for it seemed to come in appropriately
at this point in his story, and he did not
know whether to leave it as it stood, change it
round a bit, or take it out altogether. It might
just spoil its chances of being accepted: editors
were such clever men. But, to rewrite the
sentence was a grind, and he was so tired and
sleepy. After all, what did it matter? People
who were clever would force a meaning into it;
people who were not clever would pretend—he
knew of no other classes of readers. He would let
it stay, and go on with the action of the story.
He put his head in his hands and began to think
His mind soon passed from thought to reverie.
He fell to wondering when his friends would find
work and relieve him of the burden—he acknowledged
it as such—of keeping them, and of letting
another man wear his best clothes on alternate
Sundays. He wondered when his "luck" would
turn. There were one or two influential people in
New York whom he could go and see if he had a
dress suit and the other conventional uniforms.
His thoughts ran on far ahead, and at the same
time, by a sort of double process, far behind as well.
His home in the "old country" rose up before him;
he saw the lawn and the cedars in sunshine; he
looked through the familiar windows and saw the
clean, swept rooms. His story began to suffer;
the psychological masterpiece would not make
much progress unless he pulled up and dragged
his thoughts back to the treadmill. But he no
longer cared; once he had got as far as that cedar
with the sunshine on it, he never could get back
again. For all he cared, the troublesome sentence
might run away and get into someone else's pages,
or be snuffed out altogether.
There came a gentle knock at the door, and
Blake started. The knock was repeated louder.
Who in the world could it be at this late hour of
the night? On the floor above, he remembered,
there lived another Englishman, a foolish, second-rate
creature, who sometimes came in and made
himself objectionable with endless and silly chatter.
But he was an Englishman for all that, and Blake
always tried to treat him with politeness, realising
that he was lonely in a strange land. But to-night,
of all people in the world, he did not want to be
bored with Perry's cackle, as he called it, and the
"Come in" he gave in answer to the second knock
had no very cordial sound of welcome in it.
However, the door opened in response, and the
man came in. Blake did not turn round at once,
and the other advanced to the centre of the room,
but without speaking. Then Blake knew it was
not his enemy, Perry, and turned round.
He saw a man of about forty standing in the
middle of the carpet, but standing sideways so
that he did not present a full face. He wore an
overcoat buttoned up to the neck, and on the felt
hat which he held in front of him fresh rain-drops
glistened. In his other hand he carried a small
black bag. Blake gave him a good look, and came
to the conclusion that he might be a secretary, or
a chief clerk, or a confidential man of sorts. He
was a shabby-respectable-looking person. This
was the sum-total of the first impression, gained
the moment his eyes took in that it was not Perry;
the second impression was less pleasant, and
reported at once that something was wrong.
Though otherwise young and inexperienced,
Blake—thanks, or curses, to the police court
training—knew more about common criminal
blackguardism than most men of fifty, and he
recognised that there was somewhere a suggestion
of this undesirable world about the man. But
there was more than this. There was something
singular about him, something far out of the
common, though for the life of him Blake could
not say wherein it lay. The fellow was out of the
ordinary, and in some very undesirable manner.
All this, that takes so long to describe, Blake
saw with the first and second glance. The man at
once began to speak in a quiet and respectful
"Are you Mr. Blake?" he asked.
"Mr. Arthur Blake?"
"Mr. Arthur Herbert Blake?" persisted the
other, with emphasis on the middle name.
"That is my full name," Blake answered simply,
adding, as he remembered his manners; "but won't
you sit down, first, please?"
The man advanced with a curious sideways
motion like a crab and took a seat on the edge of
the sofa. He put his hat on the floor at his feet,
but still kept the bag in his hand.
"I come to you from a well-wisher," he went on
in oily tones, without lifting his eyes. Blake, in
his mind, ran quickly over all the people he knew
in New York who might possibly have sent such a
man, while waiting for him to supply the name.
But the man had come to a full stop and was
"A well-wisher of mine?" repeated Blake, not
knowing quite what else to say.
"Just so," replied the other, still with his eyes
on the floor. "A well-wisher of yours."
"A man or—" he felt himself blushing, "or
"That," said the man shortly, "I cannot tell
"You can't tell me!" exclaimed the other,
wondering what was coming next, and who in the
world this mysterious well-wisher could be who
sent so discreet and mysterious a messenger.
"I cannot tell you the name," replied the man
firmly. "Those are my instructions. But I bring
you something from this person, and I am to give
it to you, to take a receipt for it, and then to go
away without answering any questions."
Blake stared very hard. The man, however,
never raised his eyes above the level of the second
china knob on the chest of drawers opposite. The
giving of a receipt sounded like money. Could it
be that some of his influential friends had heard of
his plight? There were possibilities that made his
heart beat. At length, however, he found his
tongue, for this strange creature was determined
apparently to say nothing more until he had heard
"Then, what have you got for me, please?" he
By way of answer the man proceeded to open
the bag. He took out a parcel wrapped loosely in
brown paper, and about the size of a large book.
It was tied with string, and the man seemed
unnecessarily long untying the knot. When at
last the string was off and the paper unfolded,
there appeared a series of smaller packages inside.
The man took them out very carefully, almost as if
they had been alive, Blake thought, and set them
in a row upon his knees. They were dollar
bills. Blake, all in a flutter, craned his neck
forward a little to try and make out their
denomination. He read plainly the figures 100.
"There are ten thousand dollars here," said the
The other could not suppress a little cry.
"And they are for you."
Blake simply gasped. "Ten thousand dollars!"
he repeated, a queer feeling growing up in his
throat. "Ten thousand. Are you sure? I mean—you
mean they are for me?" he stammered.
He felt quite silly with excitement, and grew
more so with every minute, as the man maintained
a perfect silence. Was it not a dream?
Wouldn't the man put them back in the bag
presently and say it was a mistake, and they
were meant for somebody else? He could not
believe his eyes or his ears. Yet, in a sense,
it was possible. He had read of such things in
books, and even come across them in his experience
of the courts—the erratic and generous philanthropist
who is determined to do his good deed and
to get no thanks or acknowledgment for it. Still,
it seemed almost incredible. His troubles began to
melt away like bubbles in the sun; he thought of
the other fellows when they came in, and what he
would have to tell them; he thought of the German
landlady and the arrears of rent, of regular food
and clean linen, and books and music, of the chance
of getting into some respectable business, of—well,
of as many things as it is possible to think of
when excitement and surprise fling wide open the
gates of the imagination.
The man, meanwhile, began quietly to count
over the packages aloud from one to ten, and
then to count the bills in each separate packet,
also from one to ten. Yes, there were ten little
heaps, each containing ten bills of a hundred-dollar
denomination. That made ten thousand dollars.
Blake had never seen so much money in a single
lump in his life before; and for many months of
privation and discomfort he had not known the
"feel" of a twenty-dollar note, much less of a
hundred-dollar one. He heard them crackle under
the man's fingers, and it was like crisp laughter in
his ears. The bills were evidently new and unused.
But, side by side with the excitement caused by
the shock of such an event, Blake's caution, acquired
by a year of vivid New York experience, was
meanwhile beginning to assert itself. It all seemed
just a little too much out of the likely order of
things to be quite right. The police courts had
taught him the amazing ingenuity of the criminal
mind, as well as something of the plots and devices
by which the unwary are beguiled into the dark
places where blackmail may be levied with impunity.
New York, as a matter of fact, just at
that time was literally undermined with the secret
ways of the blackmailers, the green-goods men,
and other police-protected abominations; and the
only weak point in the supposition that this was
part of some such proceeding was the selection
of himself—a poor newspaper reporter—as a
victim. It did seem absurd, but then the whole
thing was so out of the ordinary, and the thought
once having entered his mind, was not so easily
got rid of. Blake resolved to be very cautious.
The man meanwhile, though he never appeared
to raise his eyes from the carpet, had been watching
him closely all the time.
"If you will give me a receipt I'll leave the
money at once," he said, with just a vestige of
impatience in his tone, as if he were anxious to
bring the matter to a conclusion as soon as
"But you say it is quite impossible for you to
tell me the name of my well-wisher, or why she
sends me such a large sum of money in this extraordinary
"The money is sent to you because you are in
need of it," returned the other; "and it is a present
without conditions of any sort attached. You have
to give me a receipt only to satisfy the sender that
it has reached your hands. The money will never
be asked of you again."
Blake noticed two things from this answer:
first, that the man was not to be caught into
betraying the sex of the well-wisher; and secondly,
that he was in some hurry to complete the transaction.
For he was now giving reasons, attractive
reasons, why he should accept the money and
make out the receipt.
Suddenly it flashed across his mind that if he
took the money and gave the receipt before a
witness, nothing very disastrous could come of
the affair. It would protect him against blackmail,
if this was, after all, a plot of some sort with
blackmail in it; whereas, if the man were a madman,
or a criminal who was getting rid of a portion
of his ill-gotten gains to divert suspicion, or if
any other improbable explanation turned out to
be the true one, there was no great harm done,
and he could hold the money till it was claimed,
or advertised for in the newspapers. His mind
rapidly ran over these possibilities, though, of
course, under the stress of excitement, he was
unable to weigh any of them properly; then he
turned to his strange visitor again and said
"I will take the money, although I must say it
seems to me a very unusual transaction, and I will
give you for it such a receipt as I think proper
under the circumstances."
"A proper receipt is all I want," was the answer.
"I mean by that a receipt before a proper
"Perfectly satisfactory," interrupted the man,
his eyes still on the carpet. "Only, it must be
dated, and headed with your address here in the
Blake could see no possible objection to this,
and he at once proceeded to obtain his witness.
The person he had in his mind was a Mr. Barclay,
who occupied the room above his own; an old
gentleman who had retired from business and
who, the landlady always said, was a miser, and
kept large sums secreted in his room. He was,
at any rate, a perfectly respectable man and would
make an admirable witness to a transaction of
this sort. Blake made an apology and rose to
fetch him, crossing the room in front of the sofa
where the man sat, in order to reach the door.
As he did so, he saw for the first time the
other side of his visitor's face, the side that
had been always so carefully turned away from
There was a broad smear of blood down the
skin from the ear to the neck. It glistened in
Blake never knew how he managed to smother
the cry that sprang to his lips, but smother it he
did. In a second he was at the door, his knees
trembling, his mind in a sudden and dreadful
His main object, so far as he could recollect
afterwards, was to escape from the room as if he
had noticed nothing, so as not to arouse the other's
suspicions. The man's eyes were always on the
carpet, and probably, Blake hoped, he had not
noticed the consternation that must have been
written plainly on his face. At any rate he had
uttered no cry.
In another second he would have been in the
passage, when suddenly he met a pair of wicked,
staring eyes fixed intently and with a cunning
smile upon his own. It was the other's face in
the mirror calmly watching his every movement.
Instantly, all his powers of reflection flew to the
winds, and he thought only upon the desirability
of getting help at once. He tore upstairs, his
heart in his mouth. Barclay must come to his
aid. This matter was serious—perhaps horribly
serious. Taking the money, or giving a receipt,
or having anything at all to do with it became an
impossibility. Here was crime. He felt certain
In three bounds he reached the next landing and
began to hammer at the old miser's door as if his
very life depended on it. For a long time he could
get no answer. His fists seemed to make no noise.
He might have been knocking on cotton wool, and
the thought dashed through his brain that it was
all just like the terror of a nightmare.
Barclay, evidently, was still out, or else sound
asleep. But the other simply could not wait a
minute longer in suspense. He turned the handle
and walked into the room. At first he saw nothing
for the darkness, and made sure the owner of the
room was out; but the moment the light from the
passage began a little to disperse the gloom, he
saw the old man, to his immense relief, lying
asleep on the bed.
Blake opened the door to its widest to get more
light and then walked quickly up to the bed. He
now saw the figure more plainly, and noted that it
was dressed and lay only upon the outside of the
bed. It struck him, too, that he was sleeping in a
very odd, almost an unnatural, position.
Something clutched at his heart as he looked
closer. He stumbled over a chair and found the
matches. Calling upon Barclay the whole time to
wake up and come downstairs with him, he
blundered across the floor, a dreadful thought in
his mind, and lit the gas over the table. It seemed
strange that there was no movement or reply to
his shouting. But it no longer seemed strange
when at length he turned, in the full glare of the
gas, and saw the old man lying huddled up into a
ghastly heap on the bed, his throat cut across from
ear to ear.
And all over the carpet lay new dollar bills,
crisp and clean like those he had left downstairs,
and strewn about in little heaps.
For a moment Blake stood stock-still, bereft of
all power of movement. The next, his courage
returned, and he fled from the room and dashed
downstairs, taking five steps at a time. He reached
the bottom and tore along the passage to his room,
determined at any rate to seize the man and prevent
his escape till help came.
But when he got to the end of the little landing
he found that his door had been closed. He seized
the handle, fumbling with it in his violence. It
felt slippery and kept turning under his fingers
without opening the door, and fully half a minute
passed before it yielded and let him in headlong.
At the first glance he saw the room was empty,
and the man gone!
Scattered upon the carpet lay a number of the
bills, and beside them, half hidden under the sofa
where the man had sat, he saw a pair of gloves—thick,
leathern gloves—and a butcher's knife.
Even from the distance where he stood the blood-stains
on both were easily visible.
Dazed and confused by the terrible discoveries
of the last few minutes, Blake stood in the middle
of the room, overwhelmed and unable to think or
move. Unconsciously he must have passed his
hand over his forehead in the natural gesture of
perplexity, for he noticed that the skin felt wet
and sticky. His hand was covered with blood!
And when he rushed in terror to the looking-glass,
he saw that there was a broad red smear across his
face and forehead. Then he remembered the
slippery handle of the door and knew that it had
been carefully moistened!
In an instant the whole plot became clear as
daylight, and he was so spellbound with horror
that a sort of numbness came over him and he
came very near to fainting. He was in a condition
of utter helplessness, and had anyone come into the
room at that minute and called him by name he
would simply have dropped to the floor in a
"If the police were to come in now!" The
thought crashed through his brain like thunder,
and at the same moment, almost before he had
time to appreciate a quarter of its significance,
there came a loud knocking at the front door
below. The bell rang with a dreadful clamour;
men's voices were heard talking excitedly, and
presently heavy steps began to come up the stairs
in the direction of his room.
It was the police!
And all Blake could do was to laugh foolishly to
himself—and wait till they were upon him. He
could not move nor speak. He stood face to face
with the evidence of his horrid crime, his hands
and face smeared with the blood of his victim, and
there he was standing when the police burst open
the door and came noisily into the room.
"Here it is!" cried a voice he knew. "Third
floor back! And the fellow caught red-handed!"
It was the man with the bag leading in the two
Hardly knowing what he was doing in the
fearful stress of conflicting emotions, he made a
step forward. But before he had time to make a
second one, he felt the heavy hand of the law
descend upon both shoulders at once as the two
policemen moved up to seize him. At the same
moment a voice of thunder cried in his ear—
"Wake up, man! Wake up! Here's the supper,
and good news too!"
Blake turned with a start in his chair and saw
the Dane, very red in the face, standing beside
him, a hand on each shoulder, and a little further
back he saw the Frenchman leering happily at him
over the end of the bed, a bottle of beer in one
hand and a paper package in the other.
He rubbed his eyes, glancing from one to the
other, and then got up sleepily to fix the wire
arrangement on the gas jet to boil water for
cooking the eggs which the Frenchman was in
momentary danger of letting drop upon the