The Face on the Wall

( E. V. Lucas )

 

       We were talking of events which cannot be explained by natural causes at Dabney's last evening. Most of us had given an instance without producing much effect. Among the strangers to me was a little man with an anxious face. He watched each speaker with the closest attention, but said nothing. Then Dabney wishing to include him in the talk, turned to him and asked if he had no experience he could narrate - no story that could be explained. He thought a moment. "Well," he said, 'not a story in the ordinary sense of the word; nothing like most of your examples. Truth, I always believe, is not only stringer than a made up story, but also greatly more interesting. I could tell you an occurrence which happened to me personally and which strangely enough completed itself only this afternoon."
       We begged him to begin.
       "A year or two ago," he said, "I was in rooms in an old house in Great Ormond Street. The bedroom walls had been painted by the previous tenant, but the place was damp and there were great patches on the walls. One of these - as indeed often happens - exactly like a face. Lying on a bed in the morning and delaying getting up I came to think of it as real as my fellow lodger. In fact, the strange thing was that while the patches on the wall grew larger and changed their shapes, this never did. It remained just the same.
       "While there I fell ill with influenza, and all day long I had nothing to do but read or think, and it was then that the face began to get a firmer hold of me. It grew more and more real and remarkable. I may say that it filled my thoughts day and night. There was a curious curve of the nose and the forehead was remarkable, in fact the face of an uncommon man, a man in a thousand."
       "Well, I got better, but the face still controlled me, found myself searching the streets for one like it. Somewhere, I was convinced, the real man must exist, and him I must meet. Why, I had no idea; I only knew that he and I were in some way linked by fate. I often went to places where people gather in large numbers - political meetings, football matches, railway stations. But all in vain. I had never before realized as I then did how many different faces of man there are and how few. For all faces differ, and yet they can be grouped into few types."
       "The search became a madness with me. I neglected everything else. I stood at busy corners watching the crowd until people thought me mad, and the police began to know me and be suspicious. I never looked at women; men, men, men, all the time."
       He passed his hand over his brow as if he was very tired. "And then," he continued. "I at last saw him. He was in a taxi driving east along Piccadilly. I turned and ran beside it for a little way and then saw an empty one coming. 'Follow that taxi,' I said and leaped in. The driver managed to keep it in sight and it took us to Charing Cross. I rushed on to the platform and found my man with two ladies and a little girl. They were going to France. I stayed there trying to get a word with him, but in vain. Other friends had joined the party and they moved to the train in one group."
      I hastily purchased a ticket to Folkstone, hoping that I should catch him on the boat before it sailed; but at Folkstone he got on the ship before me with his friends, and they disappeared into a large private cabin. Evidently he was a rich man."
       "Again I was defeated; but I determined to go with him, feeling certain that when the voyage had begun he would leave the ladies and come out for a walk on the deck. I had only just enough for a single fare to Boulogne but nothing could stop me now. I took up my position opposite his cabin door and waited. After half an hour the door opened and he came out, but with the little girl. My heart beat fast. There was no mistaking the face, every line was the same. He looked at me and moved towards the way to the upper deck. It was now or never, I felt."
       "Excuse me," I stammered, "but do you mind giving me your card? I have a very important reason in asking it."
       "He seemed to be greatly surprised, as indeed well he might; but he granted my request. Slowly he took out his case and handed me his card and hurried on with the little girl. It was clear that he thought me mad and thought it wiser to please me than not."
       "Holding the card tight in my hand I hurried to a lonely corner of the ship and read it. My eyes grew dim; my head reeled; for on it  were the words; Mr. Ormond Wall, with an address at Pittsburgh, U.S.A. I remember no more until I found myself in a hospital at Boulogne. There I lay in a broken condition for some weeks, and only a month ago did I return."
       He was silent.
       We looked at him and at one another and waited. All the other talk of the evening was nothing compared with the story of the little pale man.
       "I went back,"  he started once again after a moment or so, "to Great Ormond Street and set to work to find out all I could about this American. I wrote to Pittsburgh; I wrote to American editors; I made friends with Americans in London: but all that I could find out was that he was a millionaire with English parents who had resided in London. But where? To that question I received no answer."
       "And so the time went on until yesterday morning, I had gone to bed more than usually tired and slept till late. When I woke, the room was bright with sunlight. As I always do, I looked at once at the wall on which the face is to be seen. I rubbed my eyes and sprang up. It was only faintly visible. Last night it had been clear as ever - almost I could hear it speak. And now it   was a ghost of itself."
       "I got up confused and sad and went out. The early editions of the papers were already out. I saw the headline, 'American Millionaire's Motor Accident.' You all must have seen it. I bought it and read. Mr. Ormond Wall, the Pittsburgh millionaire, and party, motoring in Italy, were hit by a wagon and the car overturned. Mr. Wall's condition was critical."
       "I went back to my room and sat on the bed looking with unseeing eyes at the face on the wall. And even as I looked, suddenly it completely disappeared."
       "Later I found that Mr. Wall died of his injuries at what I take it to be that very moment."
       Again he was silent.
       "Most remarkable," we said, "most extraordinary," and so forth, and we meant it too.
       "Yes," said the stranger. "There are three extraordinary, three most remarkable things about my story. One is that it should be possible for a patch on the wall of a house in London not only to form the features of a gentleman in America but also to have a close association with his life. Science will not be able to explain that yet. Another one is that the gentleman's name should bear any relation to the spot on which his features were being so curiously reproduced by some unknown agency. Is it not so?"
       We agreed with him, and our original discussion on supernatural occurrences set in again with increased excitement, during which the narrator of the amazing experience rose up and said good-night. Just as he was at the door, one of the company recalled us to the cause of our excited debate by asking him, before he left what he considered the third most exciting thing in connection with his deeply interesting story. "You said three thing, you know?" said he.
       "Oh, the third thing," he said, as he opened the door, "I was forgetting that. The third extraordinary thing about the story is that I made it up about half an hour ago. Good-night again."
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