“DEAD OF NIGHT” (1/2).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and the website is presently serialising its contents.
“Dead of Night” is one of two stories from Misadventures which reappeared in Harvey’s The Arm of Mrs. Egan and Other Stories (1951). This explains its inclusion in modern editions of Harvey’s collected fiction. The other, “The Schalcken Replica,” was rewritten and republished as “Old Masters.” I believe that the copyright for all of these stories expired in 2007, but if there are any copyright issues with republishing “Dead of Night” on Tychy, please contact me at email@example.com Ed.]
ATHELSTAN DIGBY lay reading in bed. It was after eleven; the servants had long since retired to rest. All was still except for the ticking of the grandfather’s clock on the landing and the gentle slit, slit of Mr. Digby’s paperknife as he cut the pages of his book: “Across Arabia on Foot.”
He was not a great reader, but he was fond of travel, and he held a theory that for reading in bed no books compared with travel books.
“Every night,” he would say, “we set out on a journey in the dark, and though we are unable to choose the route, it lies in our power to suggest it; and I, for one, prefer to cross the frontier of dreams at Baghdad or Trebizond. I see enough of Bradborough during my waking hours.”
On the present occasion he found the adventures of the young American, whose steps he followed in the blazing heat across the desert, more than usually interesting. The watch on the chest of drawers by the bed side impatiently reminded him of the seconds of slumber wasted, but Mr. Digby read on.
Suddenly the room was darkened. For half a minute he was conscious of a faintly-glowing filament in the globe of his reading-lamp, and then all was blackness.
Mr. Digby jumped out of bed, and putting aside the heavy curtain that hung in front of the window, he raised a corner of the Venetian blind. Somewhere an air raid was in progress in the distance. Not a light was to be seen, except in the hollow to the south, where a faint glow, he supposed it must come from one of the Blackman Lane forges, showed carmine against the February sky. From the next house but one in the terrace came the sound of a window sash noisily lowered; then, as he looked, the lamps in the road went out, not suddenly, but one by one. It takes time for terror to extinguish hope.
Mr. Digby’s heart went pit-a-pat.
“Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day,” he said. “I am glad the maids are in bed and asleep.”
Turning, he groped for the candlestick that stood on the chest of drawers, struck a light and looked at his watch. It was nearly half-past eleven. Then, putting on his dressing gown, he placed the candle on the floor in a corner, where its light would not be directly visible from the road, and went over to the window. The glare was still present in the southern sky; but, as he gazed, an angry tongue of flame shot forth. Fire had chosen that night of nights to betray their sheltering darkness.
“It’s not in Blackman Lane,” he said to himself. “It’s far more like the paper mills in Clancy Street. Ah! there’s the engine!” as from the blackness there came the sound of a clanging bell and the clatter of wheels on the cobbles.
The night’s keen edge of terror was blunted already for Mr. Digby. He was familiar with fire. It was an old enemy. He was a shareholder too, in the Clancy Street Paper Mills. “I shall feel far happier,” he said to himself, “if I see what’s going on.”
He dressed hurriedly and not very carefully. For a collar he substituted a thick woollen muffler, and his coat and overcoat were the oldest his wardrobe contained. Instead of the hard felt hat he usually wore, he put on a cap with flaps which pulled down over his ears. Then, after having pinned a note for Mrs. Wilkinson, the cook, on his bedroom door, in case the servants should wake later and wonder where he had gone, he made his way silently out of the house. The time was twenty minutes to twelve.
To a man like Mr. Digby, who had lived in Bradborough for sixty years, there was no difficulty in finding his way through the darkened streets. Few people were abroad, but something told him that the town was not asleep; there was nothing of the regular snoring rumble of night traffic. At the corner of George Street he came upon a long row of deserted trams, a huge dark clot in the city’s main artery. Bradborough was not sleeping; it was paralysed.
The accident occurred at the corner of Signet Street and Spindle Lane. For some time Mr. Digby had been following an elderly man, who carried a handbag and seemed a little uncertain in his walk. At the end of Spindle Lane he noticed that the man paused, seemingly uncertain as to his direction; then, leaving the pavement, he walked slowly into the centre of the road and dropped the bag, as if seized with sudden pain. Mr. Digby hastened towards him at the same time as a taxi turned out of Signet Street without warning sound or light. For a moment he hesitated. He seemed to be held by the white face of the driver, by the noise of the brakes. He tried in vain to reach the old gentleman and push him into safety. Something caught him on the point of the jaw; he fell like a log.
Far away, as if from another world, came voices talking in a golden vortex of light.
“First door on the right,” said the night-porter. “Jack, tell Mr. Walker that he’s wanted in the receiving room – two ambulance cases. He’s in Mr. Simpson’s room playing bridge. Any news of the Zepps?”
“They were over the east coast, Hull way, half an hour ago,” the policeman who had come with the ambulance answered. “A nasty smash this; taxi bowled ‘em clean over. I’ll just look in their pockets, now that we’ve got a light, to see if I can find out who the parties are.”
“Right you are, constable. Just wait till we’ve got ‘em off the trolley.”
Mr. Digby felt a hand deftly searching him.
“Ah! here’s a card,” said the policeman. “Riley, Gilder and Picture-Frame Maker, 28a, Redpole Street.” And the other man – he doesn’t look as if he’d last very long – no letter or card; linen marked “Jessop.””
Little particles of lilac light swam round in the golden vortex, and the voices died away. Someone lifted first Mr. Digby’s right eyelid and then his left.
“Pupils a bit dilated, but they react all right,” he heard; “concussion and a fractured jaw. He seems to have got off lightly. Well, dad, how are you feeling? What’s your name?”
“The constable’s got his name, sir.”
“All right! Here, Sister, just fix him, until he gets up to the ward. The other fellow’s bad; fractured base. That’s a nasty cut, too, under the chin. I’ll put in a couple of stitches now. Hand me the iodine, Tom. No, I don’t want a clip; the stitches will stop the bleeding. And so, Sister, you don’t like Zeppelins? They mean well, you know. Not failure but low aim is crime.”
“I’ve no time to listen to your nonsense, Mr. Walker. I wonder how many more we shall have to-night.”
“I shall turn in anyhow. Send these two up to Ward 16, Tom. It’s their take-in week.”
“There are no beds vacant, sir. That acute appendix we admitted at eleven took the last.”
Mr. Walker swore. “Shove them in A16 private ward then, till we find room.”
Again there came the golden vortex, but this time the colour was less vivid, and somewhere in the centre was pain, dull and gnawing. A cold draught struck Mr. Digby’s face. The trolley on which he lay was being wheeled along stone-flagged corridors. An iron gate clashed to; now he was in the lift. More stone-flagged corridors, and then a second bump into something which every bone in his bruised and shattered body welcomed as bed.
“You’ll have to manage as best you can,” said Nurse Coates, the senior night-nurse in A16 Ward, to Nurse Farrell. Allison will help you to get his things off. It doesn’t matter about washing; that will have to wait until the lights go on again. There’s a case for the second bed on the way. Allison, don’t be a little fool. The Zepps aren’t here yet, and they’re not likely to be. You can manage all right without a torch? I want mine for 27. I believe he’s started to haemorrhage again; anyhow the dressing is all through.”
Nurse Coates moved away to the other end of the long ward, stopping on her way to bank up the fire with a shovel full of dusty coal. When she had finished, the darkness seemed complete. Though all was silence as she walked to the far end, where the moveable dressing-table stood with its basins and bowls of lotions, the ward was not asleep. Men lay there on their backs, listening, looking up through the floor above, through the roof, to the starlight vault of the February sky, searching for those other men who hovered somewhere in the night.
Nurse Coates finished her dressing, straightened the draw sheet, and wheeled back the dressing-table to the little alcove by the bathroom. Then she walked down the long length of the ward, stopping for a minute by the bed of a boy of fourteen. The old men on either side of him slept peacefully.
“Not asleep yet, Johnny?” she asked. “Why, it’s after one! Your leg is not hurting you now?”
“No,” said Johnny, “I was only thinking how convenient it must be when they drop bombs on hospitals, having everything so handy, doctors and all.”
“You’re an optimist,” she said.
“I don’t know,” he answered with a weary smile, “I never got into the sixth standard.”
When Nurse Coates reached the private ward, which stood just opposite the Sisters’ sitting room at the end of the main ward, she saw the white-coated figure of the house surgeon.
“I’m late to-night,” he said. “It must be pretty bad working up here without lights. They cut us down to practically nothing in the theatre while Mr. Cavendish was doing that appendix. I don’t think he’ll last long,” he went on, with his hand on one of the two beds; “fractured base. The other fellow must have had a nasty knock too. I expect Mr. Darbyshire will want to wire that jaw. How are the others?”
“Fairly comfortable. Most of them are awake, of course. I’ve just re-dressed Number 27. Number 5 was complaining of pain an hour ago, but he seems quiet now.”
“Poor beggar! You can give him a quarter of a grain of morphia, if it comes on again. Have you his bed-board? Never mind, I’ll write it up in the morning.”
“Do you want to be called in case the fractured base…?”
“No, you needn’t bother,” said the house surgeon. “I can’t do anything; he’s bound to go. I wonder if the Zepps will come. I shan’t wait up for them anyhow. Good-night, nurse!”