MR. CUSS INTERVIEWS THE STRANGER
I have told the circumstances of the stranger's arrival in Iping
with a certain fulness of detail, in order that the curious
impression he created may be understood by the reader. But
excepting two odd incidents, the circumstances of his stay until
the extraordinary day of the club festival may be passed over very
cursorily. There were a number of skirmishes with Mrs. Hall on
matters of domestic discipline, but in every case until late April,
when the first signs of penury began, he over-rode her by the easy
expedient of an extra payment. Hall did not like him, and whenever
he dared he talked of the advisability of getting rid of him; but
he showed his dislike chiefly by concealing it ostentatiously, and
avoiding his visitor as much as possible. "Wait till the summer,"
said Mrs. Hall sagely, "when the artisks are beginning to come.
Then we'll see. He may be a bit overbearing, but bills settled
punctual is bills settled punctual, whatever you'd like to say."
The stranger did not go to church, and indeed made no difference
between Sunday and the irreligious days, even in costume. He
worked, as Mrs. Hall thought, very fitfully. Some days he would
come down early and be continuously busy. On others he would rise
late, pace his room, fretting audibly for hours together, smoke,
sleep in the armchair by the fire. Communication with the world
beyond the village he had none. His temper continued very
uncertain; for the most part his manner was that of a man suffering
under almost unendurable provocation, and once or twice things were
snapped, torn, crushed, or broken in spasmodic gusts of violence.
He seemed under a chronic irritation of the greatest intensity. His
habit of talking to himself in a low voice grew steadily upon him,
but though Mrs. Hall listened conscientiously she could make
neither head nor tail of what she heard.
He rarely went abroad by daylight, but at twilight he would go out
muffled up invisibly, whether the weather were cold or not, and he
chose the loneliest paths and those most overshadowed by trees and
banks. His goggling spectacles and ghastly bandaged face under the
penthouse of his hat, came with a disagreeable suddenness out of
the darkness upon one or two home-going labourers, and Teddy
Henfrey, tumbling out of the "Scarlet Coat" one night, at half-past
nine, was scared shamefully by the stranger's skull-like head (he
was walking hat in hand) lit by the sudden light of the opened inn
door. Such children as saw him at nightfall dreamt of bogies, and
it seemed doubtful whether he disliked boys more than they disliked
him, or the reverse; but there was certainly a vivid enough dislike
on either side.
It was inevitable that a person of so remarkable an appearance and
bearing should form a frequent topic in such a village as Iping.
Opinion was greatly divided about his occupation. Mrs. Hall was
sensitive on the point. When questioned, she explained very
carefully that he was an "experimental investigator," going
gingerly over the syllables as one who dreads pitfalls. When asked
what an experimental investigator was, she would say with a touch
of superiority that most educated people knew such things as that,
and would thus explain that he "discovered things." Her visitor had
had an accident, she said, which temporarily discoloured his face
and hands, and being of a sensitive disposition, he was averse to
any public notice of the fact.
Out of her hearing there was a view largely entertained that he was
a criminal trying to escape from justice by wrapping himself up so
as to conceal himself altogether from the eye of the police. This
idea sprang from the brain of Mr. Teddy Henfrey. No crime of any
magnitude dating from the middle or end of February was known to
have occurred. Elaborated in the imagination of Mr. Gould, the
probationary assistant in the National School, this theory took the
form that the stranger was an Anarchist in disguise, preparing
explosives, and he resolved to undertake such detective operations
as his time permitted. These consisted for the most part in looking
very hard at the stranger whenever they met, or in asking people
who had never seen the stranger, leading questions about him. But
he detected nothing.
Another school of opinion followed Mr. Fearenside, and either
accepted the piebald view or some modification of it; as, for
instance, Silas Durgan, who was heard to assert that "if he chooses
to show enself at fairs he'd make his fortune in no time," and
being a bit of a theologian, compared the stranger to the man with
the one talent. Yet another view explained the entire matter by
regarding the stranger as a harmless lunatic. That had the
advantage of accounting for everything straight away.
Between these main groups there were waverers and compromisers.
Sussex folk have few superstitions, and it was only after the
events of early April that the thought of the supernatural was
first whispered in the village. Even then it was only credited
among the women folk.
But whatever they thought of him, people in Iping, on the whole,
agreed in disliking him. His irritability, though it might have
been comprehensible to an urban brain-worker, was an amazing thing
to these quiet Sussex villagers. The frantic gesticulations they
surprised now and then, the headlong pace after nightfall that
swept him upon them round quiet corners, the inhuman bludgeoning
of all tentative advances of curiosity, the taste for twilight
that led to the closing of doors, the pulling down of blinds,
the extinction of candles and lamps--who could agree with such
goings on? They drew aside as he passed down the village, and when
he had gone by, young humourists would up with coat-collars and
down with hat-brims, and go pacing nervously after him in imitation
of his occult bearing. There was a song popular at that time called
"The Bogey Man". Miss Statchell sang it at the schoolroom concert
(in aid of the church lamps), and thereafter whenever one or two of
the villagers were gathered together and the stranger appeared, a
bar or so of this tune, more or less sharp or flat, was whistled in
the midst of them. Also belated little children would call "Bogey
Man!" after him, and make off tremulously elated.
Cuss, the general practitioner, was devoured by curiosity. The
bandages excited his professional interest, the report of the
thousand and one bottles aroused his jealous regard. All through
April and May he coveted an opportunity of talking to the stranger,
and at last, towards Whitsuntide, he could stand it no longer, but
hit upon the subscription-list for a village nurse as an excuse. He
was surprised to find that Mr. Hall did not know his guest's name.
"He give a name," said Mrs. Hall--an assertion which was quite
unfounded--"but I didn't rightly hear it." She thought it seemed
so silly not to know the man's name.