When the unfortunate Skinner got out of the South-Eastern train at Urshot that evening it was already nearly dusk. The train was late, but not inordinately late— and Mr. Skinner remarked as much to the station-master. Perhaps he saw a certain pregnancy in the station-master’s eye. After the briefest hesitation and with a confidential movement of his hand to the side of his mouth he asked if “anything” had happened that day.
“How d’yer mean?” said the station-master, a man with a hard, emphatic voice.
“Thethe ’ere waptheth and thingth.”
“We ’aven’t ’ad much time to think of waptheth,” said the station-master agreeably. “We’ve been too busy with your brasted ’ens,” and he broke the news of the pullets to Mr. Skinner as one might break the window of an adverse politician.
“You ain’t ’eard anything of Mithith Thkinner?” asked Skinner, amidst that missile shower of pithy information and comment.
“No fear!” said the station-master— as though even he drew the line somewhere in the matter of knowledge.
“I mutht make inquireth bout thith,” said Mr. Skinner, edging out of reach of the station-master’s concluding generalisations about the responsibility attaching to the excessive nurture of hens… .
Going through Urshot Mr. Skinner was hailed by a lime-burner from the pits over by Hankey and asked if he was looking for his hens.
“You ain’t ’eard anything of Mithith Thkinner?” he asked.
The lime-burner— his exact phrases need not concern us— expressed his superior interest in hens… .
It was already dark— as dark at least as a clear night in the English June can be— when Skinner— or his head at any rate— came into the bar of the Jolly Drovers and said: “Ello! You ’aven’t ’eard anything of thith ’ere thtory bout my ’enth, ’ave you?”
“Oh, ’aven’t we!” said Mr. Fulcher. “Why, part of the story’s been and bust into my stable roof and one chapter smashed a ’olé in Missis Vicar’s green ’ouse— I beg ’er pardon— Conservarratory.”
Skinner came in. “I’d like thomething a little comforting,” he said, “’ot gin and water’th about my figure,” and everybody began to tell him things about the pullets.
“Grathuth me!” said Skinner.
“You ’aven’t ’eard anything about Mithith Thkinner, ’ave you?” he asked in a pause.
“That we ’aven’t!” said Mr. Witherspoon. “We ’aven’t thought of ’er. We ain’t thought nothing of either of you.”
“Ain’t you been ’ome to-day?” asked Fulcher over a tankard.
“If one of those brasted birds ’ave pecked ’er,” began Mr. Witherspoons and left the full horror to their unaided imaginations… .
It appeared to the meeting at the time that it would be an interesting end to an eventful day to go on with Skinner and see if anything had happened to Mrs. Skinner. One never knows what luck one may have when accidents are at large. But Skinner, standing at the bar and drinking his hot gin and water, with one eye roving over the things at the back of the bar and the other fixed on the Absolute, missed the psychological moment.
“I thuppothe there ’athen’t been any trouble with any of thethe big waptheth to-day anywhere?” he asked, with an elaborate detachment of manner.
“Been too busy with your ’ens,” said Fulcher.
“I thuppothe they’ve all gone in now anyhow,” said Skinner.
“What— the ’ens?”
“I wath thinking of the waptheth more particularly,” said Skinner.
And then, with, an air of circumspection that would have awakened suspicion in a week-old baby, and laying the accent heavily on most of the words he chose, he asked, “I thuppothe nobody ’athn’t ’eard of any other big thingth, about, ’ave they? Big dogth or catth or anything of that thort? Theemth to me if thereth big henth and big waptheth comin’ on— ”
He laughed with a fine pretence of talking idly.
But a brooding expression came upon the faces of the Hickleybrow men. Fulcher was the first to give their condensing thought the concrete shape of words.
“A cat to match them ’ens— ” said Fulcher.
“Ay!” said Witherspoon, “a cat to match they ’ens.”
“’Twould be a tiger,” said Fulcher.
“More’n a tiger,” said Witherspoon… .
When at last Skinner followed the lonely footpath over the swelling field that separated Hickleybrow from the sombre pine-shaded hollow in whose black shadows the gigantic canary-creeper grappled silently with the Experimental Farm, he followed it alone.
He was distinctly seen to rise against the sky-line, against the warm clear immensity of the northern sky— for so far public interest followed him— and to descend again into the night, into an obscurity from which it would seem he will nevermore emerge. He passed— into a mystery. No one knows to this day what happened to him after he crossed the brow. When later on the two Fulchers and Witherspoon, moved by their own imaginations, came up the hill and stared after him, the flight had swallowed him up altogether.
The three men stood close. There was not a sound out of the wooded blackness that hid the Farm from their eyes.
“It’s all right,” said young Fulcher, ending a silence.
“Don’t see any lights,” said Witherspoon.
“You wouldn’t from here.”
“It’s misty,” said the elder Fulcher.
They meditated for a space.
“’E’d ’ave come back if anything was wrong,” said young Fulcher, and this seemed so obvious and conclusive that presently old Fulcher said, “Well,” and the three went home to bed— thoughtfully I will admit… .
A shepherd out by Huckster’s Farm heard a squealing in the night that he thought was foxes, and in the morning one of his lambs had been killed, dragged halfway towards Hickleybrow and partially devoured… .
The inexplicable part of it all is the absence of any indisputable remains of Skinner!
Many weeks after, amidst the charred ruins of the Experimental Farm, there was found something which may or may not have been a human shoulder-blade and in another part of the ruins a long bone greatly gnawed and equally doubtful. Near the stile going up towards Eyebright there was found a glass eye, and many people discovered thereupon that Skinner owed much of his personal charm to such a possession. It stared out upon the world with that same inevitable effect of detachment, that same severe melancholy that had been the redemption of his else worldly countenance.
And about the ruins industrious research discovered the metal rings and charred coverings of two linen buttons, three shanked buttons entire, and one of that metallic sort which is used in the less conspicuous sutures of the human Oeconomy. These remains have been accepted by persons in authority as conclusive of a destroyed and scattered Skinner, but for my own entire conviction, and in view of his distinctive idiosyncrasy, I must confess I should prefer fewer buttons and more bones.
The glass eye of course has an air of extreme conviction, but if it really is Skinner’s— and even Mrs. Skinner did not certainly know if that immobile eye of his was glass— something has changed it from a liquid brown to a serene and confident blue. That shoulder-blade is an extremely doubtful document, and I would like to put it side by side with the gnawed scapulae of a few of the commoner domestic animals before I admitted its humanity.
And where were Skinner’s boots, for example? Perverted and strange as a rat’s appetite must be, is it conceivable that the same creatures that could leave a lamb only half eaten, would finish up Skinner— hair, bones, teeth, and boots?
I have closely questioned as many as I could of those who knew Skinner at all intimately, and they one and all agree that they cannot imagine anything eating him. He was the sort of man, as a retired seafaring person living in one of Mr. W.W. Jacobs’ cottages at Dunton Green told me, with a guarded significance of manner not uncommon in those parts, who would “get washed up anyhow,” and as regards the devouring element was “fit to put a fire out.” He considered that Skinner would be as safe on a raft as anywhere. The retired seafaring man added that he wished to say nothing whatever against Skinner; facts were facts. And rather than have his clothes made by Skinner, the retired seafaring man remarked he would take his chance of being locked up. These observations certainly do not present Skinner in the light of an appetising object.
To be perfectly frank with the reader, I do not believe he ever went back to the Experimental Farm. I believe he hovered through long hesitations about the fields of the Hickleybrow glebe, and finally, when that squealing began, took the line of least resistance out of his perplexities into the Incognito.
And in the Incognito, whether of this or of some other world unknown to us, he obstinately and quite indisputably has remained to this day… .