THE FLYING WORM
JAN. 12. In the room next to me is an old poetess who was celebrated in the ‘nineties. As a child she used to collect names instead of sea-shells or stamps. I have twice been to tea with her. Out of courtesy, I walked across her bare floor as if I were sinking into a luxurious carpet. That pleased her, and the second time I went to tea she gave me sandwiches which she produced from a piece of oil-paper. At the top of the house lives an old Indian, who reads at the British Museum and looks at the moon by night. I have heard him ask Mrs. Crumbles, “Will you please give me half my breakfast at dinner, as I am not very hungry this morning?” Mrs. Crumbles humours him, and I think I know why. After he has gone to the Museum, she steals up to his room and uses his face-cream. Half an hour later, a young Japanese student, who inhabits the basement, also creeps upstairs for his stolen share of cream. I have watched them. I do not know any of the other people who reside at number thirteen, although I have once or twice heard the man who has the best rooms on the first floor. He comes home very drunk. I have not even glimpsed the other residents. They lead mysterious lives of their own. But I feel certain, from the people I have seen and from the fact that I have never seen the others, that there is no one I could go to with my trouble. In London I have no friends. Yet unless I do confide in someone, I believe my powers of resistance may snap. Perhaps the next best thing to do is to keep a diary, in which I can put down fears and, afterwards, attempt to analyse them away. I will try to make my diary some solace, and the effort to write may be a good discipline for me.
Jan. 15. I have dreamed the same dream for three nights. It is as if a spell has been cast on me since I came to London. My father was a country parson of the old school. As far as I know, he had no friends at the time of his death. He had driven them all far away from him by his conduct. It wasn’t exactly his fault, poor man. For years he had suffered, sometimes excruciatingly, from noises in his head. These had, intermittently, become so unbearable that he had taken the advice of a fossilised doctor–an old fogey of his–and had submitted to an operation to make him permanently deaf. Four hours after he had recovered from the anaesthetic, he heard hellish noises; they, of course, had been in his brain, and were in no way affected by the fact that he could no longer hear the speech of his fellow-men. It says a great deal for my father’s strength of character that he was able to carry on, to a ripe old age, outside the walls of an asylum. But I, his child, bore the brunt of his endurance; for my mother chose a wasting Victorian death, leaving Father to redouble his violent tempers and austerities. I used to pretend that I stayed with Father for two reasons: first because it was my duty, secondly because the country was so heavenly. I could step from our front-gate, cross the road, and pass into knee-high bracken and watch sunlight on birch trees; or see little Easter-egg ducks waddling along the bank of a pond, following their mother’s lazy ripples in the water. Well, for my sense of duty! I am now inclined to admit that it was a sense of cowardice. I knew, subconsciously, that I would not be able to face life on my own, to support myself. After Father died, the family solicitor told me that I would receive a pittance, and he bullied me to journey to London and to make a real attempt to secure a position for myself. I am finding that impossible. I have been too long under my father’s dominion. He ruled with such a stern hand that I have now scarcely any will of my own. This awful lethargy, which I am trying to overcome by writing my diary, I owe to my father’s insistent domineering. Instead of making a career, I am slowly becoming adapted to a squalid life on my wretched allowance. I came to Mrs. Crumbles merely by accident. She was the first landlady I discovered who would accept the little money I can afford to pay. Of course, if the dreams go on.
Jan. 16. Life is becoming terrifying. I dreamed again last night: I was in an aeroplane; and I saw, far down, a great pit which seemed to be full of small white worms. As I looked at them and shuddered, the engine of the plane failed. The roaring ceased. With only the deadly swish of air in my ears, we plunged down. The terror came to me when I saw that we were going to crash into the pit. The nightmare terror came when I realised, as we drew nearer and nearer, that the worms were in the fashion of, and the same size as, bloodless men without arms, churning and writhing in their loathsome pit.
Jan. 18. I am upon an evil turgid sea. But the boat moves forward, with me a corpse upon it. Spears of rock gesticulate like giant fingers between the currents. The bowels of the ship are torn apart, and the coffin I lie in splinters open. A dead thing, I am drawn to my feet. I walk across sand and then grass. And on the sand is the body of a man who is lying spread-eagled in the sun. Against my will, the heel of my foot crashes with sickening force on the man’s face. I walk on, but I seem to have eyes behind me. For I know that from the man’s broken skull are pouring white worms.
Jan. 19. There is a dog, barking at a hole. I try to soothe him, to draw him away; but he snaps at me. Suddenly, I know what is happening. By his very fear, the dog is creating things–things that will soon crawl out from the hole.
Jan. 21. What will they do to her? They went to find buried treasure. When the woman spoke of buried treasure, she meant the body of her husband. She was deceived, too. Instead of burying her husband, they interred a tight bundle of white threads. Perhaps the white worms will settle them all?
Jan. 24. Thank God! I did not dream last night. I know that my dreams must have been making me strange. I went to call on the poetess, and she shut the door quickly on me, as if she were frightened of the confidence I might give her. Does it help to write out my dreams? With a slight smattering of modern psycho-analytic principles, I can argue with myself about the causes of my nightmare. But I cannot argue with myself about their effects. The dripping fear in the night does not disappear with any amount of arguing. What is the use of arguing with the phantom face that gibbers at you through the window, with the slimy arm that thrusts itself from behind the curtain? It would only be of use if one could argue with it. I haven’t the courage. I struggle and try to escape; and that is what puts me in the nightmare’s power.
Jan. 25. Just when I had thought of abandoning my diary, I spent another peaceful night. So, maybe, this record does help in some mysterious way. This morning I heard a pecking at my door, and when I heard wings I was prepared to swear that it was the Angel of Death. I fought with myself, and when I opened the door–there was a gaudy parrot. I never knew Mrs. Crumbles had a parrot. She is a grim being, with hollow cheeks and jealous eyes. But she told me that the bird had belonged to her husband. Perhaps it was because I captured the bird for her, that for once she was almost chatty. She told me a little about her husband, how he had been a photographer and how the parrot had never spoken since his death. The conquering of my fear, and then the finding of a natural explanation to the visitation of wings, has done me a lot of good. The weather is so much finer to-day, I think I will go for a walk and pretend that I am back in my beloved country.
Jan. 26. I feel depressed again. Walking in London was so different from walking in the country. I turned to the right after leaving the house, and found myself in a back-lane, with not a soul in sight. The lane passed between endless walls from behind which came the occasional chug of a hidden factory. And, when I found a turning from the lane, I came into a road lined with gasometers. When I got home, it was late. I found a note from the Indian in my room: “Beware the full moon on February 7.” What can he mean? I suppose an elderly Indian who uses face-cream doesn’t worry much about meaning. Yet we have never spoken to one another!
Jan. 28. Worse than the recurrence of the nightmare! I did not see the worms last night, but I heard them. I heard them turning, slipping over moist ground, working their filthy way towards me.
Jan. 29. I have just thought what this may mean. Perhaps my father heard the worms.
Feb. 3. It’s revolting and ridiculous: the worms seem to have taken wings. I can hear them crawling, and then the flap of unnatural wings as the nightmare insects take to the air. Who ever heard of a flying worm? And why should I begin to associate Mrs. Crumbles with my haunting? Yet to-day, when I paid her the week’s rent in advance (as she insists on my doing), I could have sworn that I saw points of light darting from behind her spectacles–points of light that might have been worms, winged worms. I don’t know why, but some impulse then prompted me to ask her what manner of photographs her husband took. She said, “Oh! just sitters.” Then I asked her where he had taken them. She said, “That room! that room was his studio. I’ve kept it locked since his death.” I asked her if I could go in. She said “No.”
Feb. 6. I met the drunk in the hall, last night. He seemed to be having a great deal of trouble in taking off his top hat; he stood plucking at it as if it were a slouch hat. He gave a sudden lurch, and clutched hold of the hat-stand. A drawer slipped out of the stand, and a bunch of keys crashed to the floor. The drunk, thinking that the keys were his (at least I suppose so), picked them up. He had forgotten about his hat, and took the keys upstairs with him, and I heard him cursing. This morning, when Mrs. Crumbles had gone out shopping, I went to the hat-stand and looked in the drawer. The keys had been returned. I took them out, furtively. Although I have never done such a thing before in my life (or imagined myself doing such a thing), I tried the keys in the studio door. My heart beat loudly with guilt, and I nearly abandoned my indiscretion before the key turned in the lock. The studio was a large room, lighted by an immense window. There were the usual paraphernalia of the trade–banks of lights, screens of silk, painted backgrounds. Everything was covered in dust. I wondered why Mrs. Crumbles had kept the room in this condition, and not tried to sell the tools of her late husband’s trade. Perhaps she was more sentimental than I had imagined. In the middle of the studio stood the camera. I realised that I could not walk about without leaving my footprints in the dust. I turned to a great portfolio which stood near me, and I opened the wooden leaves. Inside, were hundreds of mounted photos of a very beautiful girl. Each one had “Nellie” written with a flourish on the mount in pencil, and then Mr. Crumbles’ signature.
Feb. 7. The noises of the worms were with me all last night. When I lay back on the pillow, they commenced their creeping; and when I shut my eyes, they took wings as if they would reach me more swiftly; and, when I partly lost consciousness, I felt the phenomena inside my head–and that was even more awful. I almost cried with relief when Mrs. Crumbles brought up my breakfast. I asked her if I could buy any of her husband’s photographs. She said, “Why?” I said that I had heard that he had photographed a very beautiful model called “Nellie”; if any of the prints were still obtainable, I would like to buy some. She gasped. She looked so angry and malicious, I wondered at the lack of feminine pride that made her think it worth while to steal the Indian’s face-cream. The points of light seemed to dart behind her spectacles. Her voice trembled with anger. She said, “Who on earth told you such a story? Nellie was a slut; she was once our skivvey. I’m sure Mr. Crumbles would never have bothered to photograph her.” I mumbled some apology.
Feb. 8. Oh! God! last night. . . . Why do I think that the Indian may have guessed how terrible my dreams were last night? What can he know of my dreams?
Feb. 9. No dreams last night. No sounds.
Feb. 10. Again no dreams. I thought I would like to call on the poetess, as I was feeling so much better. I know that she likes to pretend to smoke a cigarette after tea; although she confessed to me that she can’t smoke when she tries to write. I went out and bought her a packet of ten Egyptian cigarettes. She accepted the cigarettes–but only, I believe, because she did not want to stand at her door talking to me; she did not ask me into her room. Can Mrs. Crumbles have been telling lies about me, because of the Nellie incident? Oh! if only I had my beloved country to walk in, that would be some consolation! But my last London walk was so sinister; I am frightened of walking in London.
Feb. 15. I woke up last night with the feeling that an enemy had two hands round my throat. I dread that I may dream again to-morrow.
Feb. 18. I am sitting in a train which is travelling very fast through a country I don’t know; I feel a vague apprehension. Then the train plunges into a tunnel, and I know fear. My travelling companions show no sign of panic. They are normal, everyday people. In the middle of the tunnel the train breaks down. People take it rather well. Maybe some of the ladies start to chatter a little too loudly; but theirs is a mild hysteria. By this time I am bathed in perspiration. Then the lights go out, and I begin to jabber like a puny coward. You see, I know what is going to happen; that horrible white worms are going to pour into the tunnel from either end, are going to crawl to the train, are going to enter the compartments. At first it will be possible for the passengers to tread on them, to squash the beastly bodies of white pulp between their fingers, to close the windows against the invaders. But it is all to be of no avail. Millions of worms arrive; a swarm more terrible than any band of avenging locusts. They flatten themselves, intrude under doorways, bore holes in the woodwork, drop from the roof, from the walls, insinuate themselves from under the floor. The carriage becomes full of them. As one fights to tear them from one’s face, they fasten on one’s legs and slowly begin to suck the blood, and afterwards to devour the flesh.
Feb. 20. The Japanese student bumped into me. He drew back with a little cry, as if he had touched something unclean. He made some sign which I did not understand. I was too frightened to ask him to explain.
Feb. 28. The noises have returned. I no longer feel equal to writing about the things I see and hear by night. It does not seem, after all, to be much of a cure. Again I have had a note from the Indian: “Beware full moon March 8.”
March 7. What made me do it? Once more, I waited until Mrs. Crumbles had left the house, with a capacious bag swinging on her arm. I went for the second time to the studio. The portfolio had been emptied. As I bent over it. the door began to creak. I was so terrified that I jumped back, and knocked into the camera. By rights, it should have fallen to the ground; but it stood firm, in spite of the blow my elbow gave it. I examined the floor, to see if the tripod was glued to it. I could discover no sign of glue or nail, or any indication that the tripod was fastened. Then, I thought, there must be something in the camera which is immensely heavy, something which was there and which should not be there. Having no knowledge of cameras, I did not dare to tinker with it. Mrs. Crumbles might return before I had had time to rearrange the camera, and attempt to obliterate my footprints. Besides, what might I
March 8. I have received my notice. I must go to-morrow. She told me when she brought my tray. She would give no reason, but I guessed that she had seen my footprints in the studio, in spite of my strategy in dusting them over. What made her look in the studio? Did I, in knocking the camera, disturb some delicate apparatus? If so, what? The poetess is coughing horribly in her room, as if she were anxious to speed my departure. There is a café near the road where the trains run. I think I will go there and have some hot milk. It mayhelp me to think. At last I am driven to make a new plan, notwithstanding my lethargy.
Later. The Same Day. I must write, in the hope that I can get it straight before the police come to question me. It’s so difficult, because now the noises have started by day. Perhaps it is just my fear, but I can feel the coiling worms twisting in my head. How shall I live if they come by day as well as by night?… I went to the café. While I sat sipping my milk, I heard a boy crying in the street, “‘Orrible Camera Mystery, ‘Orrible Camera Mystery.” At length I could bear it no longer. I went out on to the pavement only to discover that I had been mistaken. There was a street hawker, calling out in unrecognisable accents, “For sile, pretty dolls for sile.” When I got back to my table, I found that a stranger was sitting at it. I tried not to notice him. But, suddenly, he leaned forward and whispered, “Excuse me, sir, I used to be a card tamer.” I didn’t want to make a row. I asked him what he meant, because he looked such an aggressive fellow. “Yes,” he said,” I could tear two packs of cards in half.” Something went click in my brain. He went on to tell me how he used to carry weights for long distances. He had felt, he said, when they took the great weights from him; not as if he would collapse on the ground, but as if he would float up in the air if they did not put the weights back. When he had finished talking, I told him I had a weight he could not lift. I made a bet with him. He did not seem to be unwilling to come to the house with me. In the hall, I paused. How glad I was that most of the lodgers kept to their rooms! I looked in the hall-stand, and found that the keys had been taken away. But some demon prompted me to try the key of my own room. It worked. I pointed to the camera. “Blimey!” he said, “the bet’s already won. What’s your little game, mister? Think I can’t lift that?” He tried to lift the camera, negligently. Then he put his arms around it and tugged. Sweat beaded his forehead. He pulled, and the veins stood out. “For Heaven’s sake, mister what have you put in it?” I thought he was becoming frightened. I taunted him. He redoubled his efforts … then … there was a flash of white, as if wings had sped through the room, and the man was staggering backwards. “Blimey! it’s as light as a feather now.” Then . . . two piercing shrieks from Mrs. Crumbles’ room. Before I could stop him, he called out, “Is anyone hurt?” He pushed me aside, and was in the hall, and had jerked open Mrs. Crumbles’ door. She lay in her chair, and her eyes might have been pecked out by some bird, or . . . bored out by a white slug on wings. The cushions of the chair were covered with blood. “For Christ’s sake,” he said, “tell me what’s happened?”
“Don’t you see, she made it with her jealousy, made it exist by sitting in this room and cursing him. It was the weight of’ her jealousy. And it was white because it lived in the dark, inside the camera.”
He said, “Are you dotty? I don’t understand.” I said, “You would understand if you knew that he spent most of his day photographing Nellie, the kid who was their servant. And you’d be a fool if you’d imagine that an ordinary kind of bird would live in a camera.”
With a swirl of wings, a cracked voice spoke, “Look, Nellie, look at the lens and see the pretty dickey-bird.”
The man burst into peals of laughter; “S’truth, it’s only a parrot, a bloomin’ old parrot. But what made a parrot do such a thing to the old girl?”
It was my turn to laugh, “You fool! can’t you see the parrot’s chained and couldn’t get at her. He’s too old and sleepy to do–that. Why! this is the first time he’s spoken since his master died.”