The Cut-in-Half Man
6. The Cut-In-Half Man
Ah, the smell of freshly felled pine. That was like nothing else in the world.
Sir Robert Glottberg took a deep whiff, exhaled noisily, and grinned. Jolly good stuff. Legs braced and arms folded, he stood in the yard just outside the sawmill and surveyed his property. He never tired of looking at it. Ever since he'd struck it rich, rich enough to be awarded a baronetcy, Robert felt he spent more time in his little office and store in the village than he did with the mill he and his father had built with their own hands. It was a Glottberg family enterprise, though for some reason, Robert's younger brother Raymond didn't seem to love it as he did. He seemed content enough with keeping the books and working in the shop. Robert simply didn't understand it. How could one not see the beauty of this place?
Shavings and chips and dust were scattered everywhere. The river which wound its way through the woods and around the village was at its widest and most powerful here, about two miles downstream from the village itself. The roar it made was a vital and powerful sort of sound, at its peak flowing through the waterwheel into the little millpond. The dark forest stood all around, brimming with oak and birch and pine, all ready to be felled. From within the mill came the metallic whir and buzz of the gangsaw and the enormous new head saw. Robert took another deep breath.
Work had been progressing nicely with the birch stand near the village, he saw—there was a pile of newly felled and trimmed spindly trees near the river's edge. Closer to the mill itself, stacked and ready to be loaded into the machinery, was a pile of beautiful oak logs. Finest quality, all ready to be turned into timber and sold.
From living tree to logs to timber, and then granted a long new life as flooring, ships, furniture, everything in between. Beautiful.
Robert took out his pocket watch and checked the time. Time enough, he decided, to meet with Merevale, the head sawyer, and receive an update about the day's work at the mill. Then from there to his private audience with Lord and Lady Everglot. He'd best be careful not to get sawdust in his mustache or wood chips on his suit.
With a sigh he replaced his watch and wondered whether there was any way out of this meeting. Not that he wasn't honored to be asked, of course. Such an offer meant acceptance into the old guard, the old money and old society. Many others in Sir Robert Glottberg's position would give their right hands for an opportunity like this one. The Van Dorts, for instance.
And of course, Robert could do with an heir. There was the mill to think of, and the baronetcy, now. Due to his work and lack of opportunity, he'd somehow managed to make it to forty years of age without ever taking a wife. Married life would be something to get used to. He did not know much at all about Miss Victoria. He knew her by sight, and had attended her coming out party in the spring, but that was all. Miss Victoria seemed quiet and polite, a trifle on the shy side. Pretty enough. Only just nineteen...
"Sir?" came a quiet voice from behind him, so quiet it was nearly swallowed up by the roar of the water rushing through the mill wheel. "Ex-excuse me? Sir?"
Robert turned to find the Van Dort boy coming across the yard toward him. He carried a leather satchel in one hand and a small glass jar in the other. The young man had shot up over the past year, he truly had, just like a sapling. A nice enough lad, but quiet. Tended to blend into the village scenery. Robert had often seen him ambling through the woods, muttering to himself as he took down notes and sketches. Actually, young Master Van Dort had had to be steered away from lumbering operations more than once, having wandered too close while concentrating on something else. For all that, though, a good young man.
"Ah, Master Van Dort!" Robert said jovially, striding over and extending a hand. Victor, who had that certain stoop of the very tall and terminally shy, for a moment looked as though he expected to get a wallop. When Robert grinned, though, his face relaxed.
"How do you do?" the boy said, returning the handshake. Robert was surprised to find it was a firm one.
"What brings you all the way out here, young man?" Robert asked. "Tell your father those packing crates will be finished when they're finished."
"Oh, er, yes, all right," said Victor, scratching the back of his neck. "Though I did come about something else, if it's not too much bother. If it is a bother, of course, I'll leave. Perhaps I will just leave now, and come back when-"
Robert stopped the young man with a firm clasp on the shoulder. When he spoke it was in the careful, quiet tone he used with men who'd just had a finger snipped off by a hatchet. It seemed to be the only way to talk to the boy. "No bother, none at all. What may I do for you?"
"Well, sir," Victor said earnestly, "I've been tracking some moths in the birches near the river. Gypsy moths. They feed on birch trees, and I've found quite a few in that little stand on the far side of the church. Today I went to look, and...well...the birches were gone. I thought perhaps you'd cut them—er, well, had someone cut them down. Sir."
Robert raised an eyebrow. He'd never heard Victor Van Dort string so many sentences together at once. Then he shrugged, and steered Victor toward the pile of felled birch. "If you think you can find what you're looking for, have at, my boy. Just mind you don't upset the pile."
As Victor pussy-footed his gangly way over the felled trees, Robert tucked his thumbs into his lapels and considered. Of a sudden, watching the young man, he felt terribly old. Miss Victoria was this boy's age. She should be clambering over trees and going on rambles in the wood, too. Or whatever it was that aristocratic girls did instead. Dashed if he knew.
"Got it!" called Victor from the birch pile. He held aloft his glass jar, though at this distance Robert could not see what it held. Whatever it was pleased the boy, though, for he stumbled twice over the logs on his way over due to an inability to tear his gaze away.
On the second stumble Robert was close enough to catch him by the arm to steady him. With a sheepish grin Victor held up the jar. Inside was some sort of cocoon, attached to the tiniest wisp of birch bark.
"Thank you very much, sir!" Victor said, stowing his prize in his satchel. "And pleasure to see you, sir."
"Glad to be of service, Master Victor," Robert said, shaking the boy's hand again. With a smile and a wave, Victor began to make his way back down the path toward the village, a subtle but definite spring in his step.
Ah, to be that age again. Free and not quite yet adult, no great weight on one's shoulders, no true responsibilities. Robert did miss that feeling. When Victor had disappeared from view, Robert turned and walked into the cool shadows of the mill.
Inside, the first of the huge oak logs were being loaded onto the mechanized carriage that led to the head saw. Merevale was at the switch, back to him. Robert watched, arms folded, as the logs were fed one by one into the saw. It was hypnotic. No matter how many times he saw the machinery do its work, he was always impressed. The enormous circular saw, tall as a man and then some, moving so fast it was a blur, the deafening buzz, the satisfying clunk as the pieces of split log fell to either side and were pulled away by the junior sawyers. Sawdust filling the air, the scents of wood and heat and metal and work. His mill had a magic all its own.
A young lady, particularly a well-bred one, might not fully appreciate all this. And why should she? No, she deserved dinners and rambles and a life of leisure with a kind young lad her own age, not a dreary life with an old duffer who constantly smelled of sawdust and had half his life behind him. If nothing else, Robert was sure he'd regret it sooner or later. After all, youth called to youth, there was no getting around that. Miss Victoria seemed a nice young woman, hardly the sort he'd want to make miserable.
I will respectfully decline, he decided. The Everglots would be be all right in the end. There must be another prospect about somewhere for their daughter. And Miss Everglot...well, if she stayed about, he could still enjoy looking at her, conversing at parties, suchlike. He was happy enough as an old bachelor, anyway. Old dogs and new tricks and leopards and spots and what have you.
Just then there was a clunk, audible over the sound of the head saw. The next log in line had slipped a bit off the track. With a glance Robert watched the current log being split cleanly and in two, in a hot whir of sawdust. He would have to be quick about it. One leap took him to the platform beside the mechanized carriage. The saw was still running, but he'd been around this machinery for years. He knew precisely how long it took a log to get to the head saw, and was confident he'd have time to set the log right. Robert put his shoulder into it and strained. At last the log rolled back into place, and he made to leap down again only to find that he was unable to move.
His foot. His foot was caught under the log. Panic overrode the pain of his surely broken foot, for a broken foot could be dealt with. Unlike a collision with a massive circular saw.
"Merevale!" he screamed, trying as best he could to lean over the log to get the man's attention. "For the love of Christ, turn off the saw!"
But it was too late. Robert could feel the little breeze made by the ferociously spinning blade at his back. That buzz, so pleasant mere moments ago, now sounded like a shriek. The log kept moving, seeming to crush his foot more with every advancing inch. Desperate, sweating, terrified, he tried to muscle the log off of its carriage so that he could free his foot and leap away. But he lost his precarious balance and fell backward.
The circular saw bit into his back with a sickening wet noise, and then a crunch and squeal as the blade met his bones. The log was pushing him into it, holding him there. If he screamed he couldn't hear himself over the noise of the hot saw eating into flesh and bone. A dark red shower of blood clouded his vision, covering him, the log, and the machinery. Robert was aware of the blinding, inhuman pain only for a few agonizing seconds before he lost consciousness. The last thing he felt was the bite of the blade cutting into the back of his head, the last thing he heard was metal meeting the thick bone of his skull, the last thing he saw was the oak log he braced against coated in his own blood.
Robert's first thought upon regaining consciousness was, Thank God, someone is sounding an alarm!
Opening his eyes he saw that he was sitting in an alleyway, propped up on an overturned box. And next to him sat a skeleton in a plum frock coat.
"Well hello, old chap," said a voice he recognized immediately. It was one he'd not heard in years. "Terribly sorry for you, of course. But it is good to see you again."
"Captain Wadleigh?" Robert asked, confused. The Captain had been a fixture in the village when Robert was a young man, and he'd grown to be a mentor of sorts. He'd been dead for at least fifteen years...Realization slowly dawned. The last few moments he'd spent alive flashed back to him all at once. The blood, the crunch, the squeal...Robert pushed it aside. Those memories were no good now.
And now that he looked more closely, he saw that they were sitting on an overturned coffin. Pine. Made from Glottberg Lumber, if he was not mistaken.
"Eh, titles don't matter much anymore. Do call me Alfred," said Cap—Alfred, his tone genial and avuncular, just as it had been in life. While now he was a dapper skeleton in moth-eaten clothes, the voice and the impressive mustache had not changed a whit. He looked Robert up and down, and added, "By Jove, old Bernie was dead serious. You are in a state."
"I had...a spot of trouble," Robert agreed slowly, noticing now that his voice had a strange echoey quality. His eyes weren't quite aligned, either. He was beyond sensation now, thank goodness, but looking down at himself he could see that he had been cut cleanly in half vertically. The line was clear, particularly in the spots where his two halves didn't quite meet. If he moved just so, he could hear squelches and pops as his halves tried to separate.
"Nice clean cut," Alfred said approvingly. Robert gave half a nod.
"It's what Glottberg Lumber is known for," he said, even now with a spark of pride.
"Come on, come inside," said Alfred as he stood. Robert followed, a bit too quickly it seemed, for his right half made it to its foot before the left did. Once he righted himself as much as he could, he carefully followed Alfred through a little doorway.
They were at the top of a set of stairs, looking out into...My my, a pub! thought Robert. A bloody nice one. A piano, a billiard table, a dart board, a stage. Remarkably clean and well-kept for being full of corpses. Corpses like him. Again Robert pushed away the memory of his death, pushed aside the grief over his loss of life, and tried to be a sport. Awkward, attempting to keep his halves safely together-for he'd spotted a few lady corpses in the crowd-he followed Alfred down the stairs into the pub. Skeletons parted to make way, a few stopping him to shake his hand.
"Ah, there's our new arrival!" cried a stout woman wearing a toque. Robert squinted. He felt he knew her, too. She came up and took his hand in greeting even as she said over her shoulder,"You see, Paul! New alarm works like a charm, I told you so!"
Paul! Paul he remembered. From the Tavern, where he and Wadleigh would meet for a quiet pint now and then. Shame about poor Paul, all that was left of him was his head. A head which was now jauntily coming down the bar toward him.
"Bienvenue, mon ami!" said Paul, spinning in a little circle has the cockroaches that carried him went this way and that. "Ah, it is as they have been saying! You must be happy to be here—you have split at your seam!"
Robert, frankly taken aback by the unexpected and downright terrible joke, was about to retort. But he had barely opened one half of his mouth when more shouts filled the pub.
"Why, you're twice the man I remember!"
"Funny, he's half the man I remember!"
"Oh, now now then, leave him be...he's probably got a splitting headache!"
"So this is the afterlife? This is what death is?" Robert asked Alfred, whose skeleton grin betrayed nothing. "Comedians in a pub, eh?"
"The alarm went off a while ago," Alfred told him, stepping up to the bar. "And then old Bernie found you outside. He came in to tell us you were there and what you looked like. This lot has been working on material ever since."
"I see," said Robert, really having to work at keeping his lips working together. It was as if his entire body was a belligerent team of loggers that he had to keep in line.
"Have a pint?" Alfred asked as he rapped his skeletal knuckles on the bar. "Or perhaps just a half?"
"Very funny indeed, old man," Robert replied. Alfred chuckled and asked Paul for two pints. Of what, Robert was not sure. It was pea-green and burbling, that was all he cared to know.
"It gets a little easier," said Alfred, handing over Robert's pint. "Death, I mean to say. And a bit of fun does help. Here, come have a listen, Mrs. Hughes is giving her Hamlet."
Interested, Robert followed Albert to a small table near the piano. Theatre was unheard of in the village. Even Bowdler's work was deemed improper by popular opinion. And Mrs. Hughes, of all people! In life she'd been an unremarkable village matron, married to one of Van Dort's employees. Who knew she'd have such depths?
But no mistake, that was her indeed, now a desiccated corpse in a maroon dress and matching wide-brimmed hat. Standing center stage, she began to declaim in plummy tones.
"To be, or not to be, that is the question," she began, with the easy grace and tilted knowing smile of a performer who had done her routine many times, and knew precisely what to expect of her audience. Indeed, there arose from the audience a swell of cheering and whistling, and a few anticipatory giggles here and there.
"Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune..."
"I say, get to the good part!" someone shouted, and every corpse in the place seemed to agree.
"To die..." Mrs. Hughes let the sentence hang. A great laugh came from the assembled dead. After a moment a skeleton wearing a bowler hat spoke up from where he leaned against the proscenium arch.
"What is it?" he asked in a gravelly voice. The question was immediately echoed by the rest of the audience, even Alfred. Mrs. Hughes offered a demure smile.
"To sleep!" she said, and another laugh rolled through the pub.
"I'm not tired!" came a shout from the back, and even Mrs. Hughes joined in the laughter this time.
"For in that sleep of death," she continued over the noise, "What dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause..."
"By George," Alfred said when his chuckles had subsided, even going so far as to wipe at the corner of his eye socket with a bony finger, "I never properly understood how amusing the Bard was, not until I arrived down here."
Robert took a swig of his drink. "One really must see it performed," he agreed, having read that somewhere or other.
As Mrs. Hughes continued her soliloquy to general hilarity, catcalls, and the occasional rim shot from the skeleton at the drums, Robert gave himself a moment to settle his mind. Literally, as it seemed to him that one half of his bisected brain was listing ever so slightly to starboard. Raymond would be the baronet now. And after that his son, Ralph. And unless a miracle occurred, Robert could only foresee his beloved sawmill being run into the ground. Oh, but Raymond would like the title well enough…Robert shook his head in disappointment, one half taking a moment to catch up with the other. Later he'd have to find his grave so that he could have a good and proper roll in it. While there was nothing to be done, he couldn't help but feel hurt. His mill, which he'd worked so hard for, had built and lovingly maintained, had been the end of him.
Outrageous fortune, indeed, he thought, and took another drink.