Authors: Dorothy L. Sayers
HE LITTLE MAN WITH
the cowlick seemed so absorbed in the book that Wimsey had not the heart to claim his property, but, drawing up the other arm-chair and placing his drink within easy reach, did his best to entertain himself with the Dunlop Book, which graced, as usual, one of the tables in the lounge.
The little man read on, his elbows squared upon the arms of his chair, his ruffled red head bent anxiously over the text. He breathed heavily, and when he came to the turn of the page, he set the thick volume down on his knee and used both hands for his task. Not what is called “a great reader,” Wimsey decided.
When he reached the end of the story, he turned laboriously back, and read one passage over again with attention. Then he laid the book, still open, upon the table, and in so doing caught Wimsey’s eye.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” he said in his rather thin Cockney voice, “is this your book?”
“It doesn’t matter at all,” said Wimsey graciously, “I know it by heart. I only brought it along with me because it’s handy for reading a few pages when you’re stuck in a place like this for the night. You can always take it up and find something entertaining.”
“This chap Wells,” pursued the red-haired man, “he’s what you’d call a very clever writer, isn’t he? It’s wonderful how he makes it all so real, and yet some of the things he says, you wouldn’t hardly think they could be really possible. Take this story now; would you say, sir, a thing like that could actually happen to a person, as it might be you—or me?”
Wimsey twisted his head round so as to get a view of the page.
“The Plattner Experiment,”
he said, “that’s the one about the schoolmaster who was blown into the fourth dimension and came back with his right and left sides reversed. Well, no, I don’t suppose such a thing would really occur in real life, though of course it’s very fascinating to play with the idea of a fourth dimension.”
“Well—” He paused and looked up shyly at Wimsey. “I don’t rightly understand about this fourth dimension. I didn’t know there was such a place, but he makes it all very clear no doubt to them that know science. But this right-and-left business, now, I know that’s a fact. By experience, if you’ll believe me.”
Wimsey extended his cigarette-case. The little man made an instinctive motion towards it with his left hand and then seemed to check himself and stretched his right across.
“There, you see. I’m always left-handed when I don’t think about it. Same as this Plattner. I fight against it, but it doesn’t seem any use. But I wouldn’t mind that—it’s a small thing and plenty of people are left-handed and think nothing of it. No. It’s the dretful anxiety of not knowing what I mayn’t be doing when I’m in this fourth dimension or whatever it is.”
He sighed deeply.
“I’m worried, that’s what I am, worried to death.”
“Suppose you tell me about it,” said Wimsey.
“I don’t like telling people about it, because they might think I had a slate loose. But it’s fairly getting on my nerves. Every morning when I wake up I wonder what I’ve been doing in the night and whether it’s the day of the month it ought to be. I can’t get any peace till I see the morning paper, and even then I can’t be sure. …
“Well, I’ll tell you, if you won’t take it as a bore or a liberty. It all began—” He broke off and glanced nervously about the room. “There’s nobody to see. If you wouldn’t mind, sir, putting your hand just here a minute—”
He unbuttoned his rather regrettable double-breasted waistcoat, and laid a hand on the part of his anatomy usually considered to indicate the site of the heart.
“By all means,” said Wimsey, doing as he was requested.
“Do you feel anything?”
“I don’t know that I do,” said Wimsey. “What ought I to feel? A swelling or anything? If you mean your pulse, the wrist is a better place.”
“Oh, you can feel it
all right,” said the little man. “Just try the other side of the chest, sir.”
Wimsey obediently moved his hand across.
“I seem to detect a little flutter,” he said after a pause.
“You do? Well, you wouldn’t expect to find it that side and not the other, would you? Well, that’s where it is. I’ve got my heart on the right side, that’s what I wanted you to feel for yourself.”
“Did it get displaced in an illness?” asked Wimsey sympathetically.
“In a manner of speaking. But that’s not all. My liver’s got round the wrong side, too, and my organs. I’ve had a doctor see it, and he told me I was all reversed. I’ve got my appendix on my left side—that is, I had till they took it away. If we was private, now, I could show you the scar. It was a great surprise to the surgeon when they told him about me. He said afterwards it made it quite awkward for him, coming left-handed to the operation, as you might say.”
“It’s unusual, certainly,” said Wimsey, “but I believe such cases do occur sometimes.”
“Not the way it occurred to me. It happened in an air-raid.”
“In an air-raid?” said Wimsey, aghast.
“Yes—and if that was all it had done to me I’d put up with it and be thankful. Eighteen I was then, and I’d just been called up. Previous to that I’d been working in the packing department at Crichton’s—you’ve heard of them, I expect—Crichton’s for Admirable Advertising, with offices in Holborn. My mother was living in Brixton, and I’d come up to town on leave from the training-camp. I’d been seeing one or two of my old pals, and I thought I’d finish the evening by going to see a film at the Stoll. It was after supper—I had just time to get in to the last house, so I cut across from Leicester Square through Covent Garden Market. Well, I was getting along when wallop! A bomb came down it seemed to me right under my feet, and everything went black for a bit.”
“That was the raid that blew up Oldham’s, I suppose.”
“Yes, it was January 28th, 1918. Well, as I say, everything went right out. Next thing as I knew, I was walking in some place in broad daylight, with green grass all round me, and trees, and water to the side of me, and knowing no more about how I got there than the man in the moon.”
“Good Lord!” said Wimsey. “And was it the fourth dimension, do you think?”
“Well, no, it wasn’t. It was Hyde Park, as I come to see when I had my wits about me. I was along the bank of the Serpentine and there was a seat with some women sitting on it, and children playing about.”
“Had the explosion damaged you?”
“Nothing to see or feel, except that I had a big bruise on one hip and shoulder as if I’d been chucked up against something. I was fairly staggered. The air-raid had gone right out of my mind, don’t you see, and I couldn’t imagine how I came there, and why I wasn’t at Crichton’s. I looked at my watch, but that had stopped. I was feeling hungry. I felt in my pocket and found some money there, but it wasn’t as much as I should have had—not by a long way. But I felt I must have a bit of something, so I got out of the Park by the Marble Arch gate, and went into a Lyons. I ordered two poached on toast and a pot of tea, and while I was waiting I took up a paper that somebody had left on the seat. Well, that finished me. The last thing I remembered was starting off to see that film on the 28th—and here was the date on the paper—January 30th! I’d lost a whole day and two nights somewhere!”
“Shock,” suggested Wimsey. The little man took the suggestion and put his own meaning on it.
“Shock? I should think it was. I was scared out of my life. The girl who brought my eggs must have thought I was barmy. I asked her what day of the week it was, and she said ‘Friday.’ There wasn’t any mistake.
“Well, I don’t want to make this bit too long, because that’s not the end by a long chalk. I got my meal down somehow, and went to see a doctor. He asked me what I remembered doing last, and I told him about the film, and he asked whether I was out in the air-raid. Well, then it came back to me, and I remembered the bomb falling, but nothing more. He said I’d had a nervous shock and lost my memory a bit, and that it often happened and I wasn’t to worry. And then he said he’d look me over to see if I’d got hurt at all. So he started in with his stethoscope, and all of a sudden he said to me:
“‘Why, you keep your heart on the wrong side, my lad!’
“‘Do I?’ said I. ‘That’s the first I’ve heard of it.’
“Well, he looked me over pretty thoroughly, and then he told me what I’ve told you, that I was all reversed inside, and he asked a lot of questions about my family. I told him I was an only child and my father was dead—killed by a motor-lorry, he was, when I was a kid of ten—and I lived with my mother in Brixton and all that. And he said I was an unusual case, but there was nothing to worry about. Bar being wrong side round I was sound as a bell, and he told me to go home and take things quietly for a day or two.
“Well, I did, and I felt all right, and I thought that was the end of it, though I’d overstayed my leave and had a bit of a job explaining myself to the R.T.O. It wasn’t till several months afterwards the draft was called up, and I went along for my farewell leave. I was having a cup of coffee in the Mirror Hall at the Strand Corner House—you know it, down the steps?”
“All the big looking-glasses all round. I happened to look into the one near me, and I saw a young lady smiling at me as if she knew me. I saw her reflection, that is, if you understand me. Well, I couldn’t make it out, for I had never seen her before, and I didn’t take any notice, thinking she’d mistook me for somebody else. Besides, though I wasn’t so very old then, I thought I knew her sort, and my mother had always brought me up strict. I looked away and went on with my coffee, and all of a sudden a voice said quite close to me:
“‘Hullo, Ginger—aren’t you going to say good evening?’
“I looked up and there she was. Pretty, too, if she hadn’t been painted up so much.
“‘I’m afraid,’ I said, rather stiff, ‘you have the advantage of me, miss.’
“‘Oh, Ginger,’ says she, ‘Mr. Duckworthy, and after Wednesday night!’ A kind of mocking way she had of speaking.
“I hadn’t thought so much of her calling me Ginger, because that’s what any girl would say to a fellow with my sort of hair, but when she got my name off so pat, I tell you it did give me a turn.
“‘You seem to think we’re acquainted, miss,’ said I.
“‘Well, I should rather say so, shouldn’t you?’ said she.
“There! I needn’t go into it all. From what she said I found out she thought she’d met me one night and taken me home with her. And what frightened me most of all, she said it had happened on the night of the big raid.
you,’ she said, staring into my face a little puzzled-like. ‘Of course it was you. I knew you in a minute when I saw your face in the glass.’
“Of course, I couldn’t say that it hadn’t been. I knew no more of what I’d been and done that night than the babe unborn. But it upset me cruelly, because I was an innocent sort of lad in those days and hadn’t ever gone with girls, and it seemed to me if I’d done a thing like that I ought to know about it. It seemed to me I’d been doing wrong and not getting full value for my money either.
“I made some excuse to get rid of her, and I wondered what else I’d been doing. She couldn’t tell me farther than the morning of the 29th, and it worried me a bit wondering if I’d done any other queer things.”
“It must have,” said Wimsey, and put his finger on the bell. When the waiter arrived, he ordered drinks for two and disposed himself to listen to the rest of Mr. Duckworthy’s adventures.