I first met Bob Masters in the hotel at a place called Fourteen Streams, not very far from Kimberley.
I had for some months been trying to find gold or diamonds by digging holes in the veldt. But since this has little or nothing to do with the story, I pass by my mining adventures and come back to the hotel. I came to it very readily that afternoon, for I was very thirsty.
Many of these older horror stories rely on the shock of the ghastly revelation for their emotional payoff. “The Armless Man” deploys its revelation to shock the reader early, and then uses the fact of it as a plot point to help deliver a more complete resolution.
This text is from a collection of ghastly stories called Uncanny Tales (Edited by C. Arthur Pearson), which is available at Project Gutenberg. Google has little to say about the author and this story appears to be Litt’s only published work. Finally, the original featured some shocking racist language, which has been replaced here, although plenty of colonialist anachronism and racism remains.
A tall man standing at the bar turned his head as I entered and said “Good-day” to me. I returned the compliment, but took no particular notice of him at first.
Suddenly I heard the man say to the barman:
“I’m ready for another drink.”
That surprised me, because his glass was still three-quarters full. But I was still more startled by the action of the barman who lifted up the glass and held it whilst the man drank.
Then I saw the reason. The man had no arms.
You know the easy way in which Englishmen chum together anywhere out of England, whilst in their native country nothing save a formal introduction will make them acquainted? I made some remark to Masters which led to another from him, and in five minutes’ time we were chatting on all sorts of topics.
I learnt that Masters, bound for England, had come in to Fourteen Streams to catch the train from Kimberley, and, having a few hours to wait, had strolled up to the collection of tin huts calling itself a town.
I was going down to Kimberley too, so of course we went together, and were quite old friends by the time we reached that city.
We had a wash and something to eat, and then we walked round to the post-office. I used to have my letters addressed there, poste restante, and call in for them when I happened to be in Kimberley.
I found several letters, one of which altered the whole course of my life. This was from Messrs. Harvey, Filson, and Harvey, solicitors, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It informed me that the sudden death of my cousin had so affected my uncle’s health that he had followed his only son within the month. The senior branch of the family being thus extinct the whole of the entailed estate had devolved on me.
The first thing I did was to send off two cablegrams to say that I was coming home by the first available boat, one to the solicitors, the other to Nancy Milward.
Masters and I arranged to come home together and eventually reached Cape Town. There we had considerable trouble at the shipping office. It was just about the time of year when people who live in Africa to make money, come over to England to spend it, and in consequence the boats were very crowded. Masters demanded a cabin to himself, a luxury which was not to be had, though there was one that he and I could share. He made a tremendous fuss about doing this, and I thought it very strange, because I had assisted him in many ways which his mutilation rendered necessary. However, he had to give way in the end, and we embarked on the Castle liner.
On the voyage he told me how he had lost his arms. It seemed that he had been sent up country on some Government job or other, and had had the ill-fortune to be captured by the natives. They treated him quite well at first, but gave him to understand that he must not try to escape. I suppose that to most men such a warning would be a direct incitement to make the attempt. Masters made it and failed. They cut off his right arm as a punishment. He waited until the wound was healed and tried again. Again he failed. This time they cut off his other arm.
“Good Lord,” I cried. “What devils!”
“Weren’t they!” he said. “And yet, you know, they were quite good-tempered chaps when you didn’t cross them. I wasn’t going to be beaten by a lot of naked natives though, and I made a third attempt.
“I succeeded all right that time, though, of course, it was much more difficult. I really don’t know at all how I managed to worry through. You see, I could only eat plants and leaves and such fruit as I came across; but I’d learnt as much as I could of the local botany in the intervals.”
“Was it worth while?” I asked. “I think the first failure and its result would have satisfied me.”
“Yes,” he said slowly, “it was worth while. You see, my wife was waiting for me at home, and I wanted to see her again very badly—you don’t know how badly.”
“I think I can imagine,” I said. “Because there is a girl waiting for me too at home.”
“I saw her before she died,” he continued.
“Died?” I said.
“Yes,” he answered. “She was dying when I reached home at last, but I was with her at the end. That was something, wasn’t it?”
I do hate people to tell me this sort of thing. Not because I do not feel sorry for them; on the contrary, I feel so sorry that I absolutely fail to find words to express my sympathy. I tried, however, to show it in other ways, by the attentions I paid him and by anticipating his every wish.
Yet there were many things that were astonishing about his actions, things that I wonder now I did not realise must have been impossible for him to do for himself, and that yet were done. But he was so surprisingly dexterous with his lips, and feet too, when he was in his cabin that I suppose I put them down to that.
I remember waking up one night and looking out of my bunk to see him standing on the floor. The cabin was only faintly lit by a moonbeam which found its way through the porthole. I could not see clearly, but I fancied that he walked to the door and opened it, and closed it behind him. He did it all very quickly, as quickly as I could have done it. As I say, I was very sleepy, but the sight of the door opening and shutting like that woke me thoroughly. Sitting up I shouted at him.
He heard me and opened the door again, easily, too, much more easily than he seemed to be able to shut it when he saw me looking at him.
“Hullo! Awake, old chap?” he said. “What is it?”
“Er—nothing,” I said. “Or rather I suppose I was only half awake; but you seemed to open that door so easily that it quite startled me.”
“One does not always like to let others see the shifts to which one has to resort,” was all the answer he gave me.
But I worried over it. The thing bothered me, because he had made no attempt to explain.
That was not the only thing I noticed.
Two or three days later we were sitting together on deck. I had offered to read to him. I noticed that he got up out of his chair. Suddenly I saw the chair move. It gave me a great shock, for the chair twisted apparently of its own volition, so that when he sat down again the sunlight was at his back and not in his eyes, as I knew it had been previously. But I reasoned with myself and managed to satisfy myself that he must have turned the chair round with his foot. It was just possible that he could have done so, for it had one of those light wicker-work seats.
We had a lovely voyage for three-quarters of the way, and the sea was as calm as any duck-pond. But that was all altered when we passed Cape Finisterre. I have done a lot of knocking about on the ocean one way and another, but I never saw the Bay of Biscay deserve its reputation better.
I’d much rather see what is going on than be cooped up below, and after lunch I told Bob I was going up on deck.
“I’ll only stay there for a bit,” I said. “You make yourself comfortable down here.”
I filled his pipe, put it in his mouth, and gave him a match; then I left him.
I made my way up and down the deck for a time, clutching hold of everything handy, and rather enjoyed it, though the waves drenched me to the skin.
Presently I saw Masters come out of the companion-way and make his way very skilfully towards me. Of course it was fearfully dangerous for him.
I staggered towards him, and, putting my lips to his ear, shouted to him to go below at once.
“Oh, I shall be all right!” he said, and laughed.
“You’ll be drowned—drowned,” I screamed. “There was a wave just now that—well, if I hadn’t been able to cling on with both hands like grim death, I should have gone overboard. Go below.”
He laughed again and shook his head.
And then what I dreaded happened. A vast mountain of green water lifted up its bulk and fell upon us in a ravening cataract. I clutched at Masters, but trying to save him and myself handicapped me badly. The strength of that mass of water was terrible. It seemed to snatch at everything with giant hands, and drag all with it. It tossed a hen-coop high, and carried it through the rails.
I felt the grip of my right hand loosen, and the next instant was carried, still clutching Masters with my left, towards that gap in the bulwark.
I managed to seize the end of the broken rail. It held us for a moment, then gave, and for a moment I hung sheer over the vessel’s side.
In that instant I felt fingers tighten on my arm, tighten till they bit into the flesh, and I was pulled back into safety.
Together we staggered back, and got below somehow. I was trembling like a leaf, and the sweat dripped from me. I almost screamed aloud.
It was not that I was frightened of death. I’ve seen too much of that in many parts of the earth to dread it greatly. It was the thought of those fingers tightening on me where no fingers were.
Masters did not speak a word, nor did I, until we found ourselves in the cabin.
I tore the wet clothes off me and turned my arm to the mirror. I knew I could not have been mistaken when I felt them.
There on the upper arm, above the line of sunburn that one gets from working with sleeves rolled up, there on the white skin showed the red marks of four slender fingers and a thumb! I sat down suddenly at sight of them, and pulling open a drawer, found a flask of neat brandy, and gulped it down, emptied it in one gulp.
Then I turned to him and pointed to the marks.
“In God’s name, how came these here?” I said. “What—what happened up there on deck?”
He looked at me very gravely.
“I saved you,” he said, “or rather I didn’t, for I could not. But she did.”
“What do you mean?” I stammered.
“Let me get these clothes off,” he said, “and some dry ones on; and I’ll tell you.”
Words fail to describe my feelings as I watched the clothes come off him and dry ones go on just as if hands were arranging them.
I sat and shuddered. I tried to close my eyes, but the weird, unnatural sight drew them as a lodestone.
“I’m sorry that you should have had this shock,” he said. “I know what it must have been like, though it was not so bad for me when they seemed to come, for they came gradually as time went on.”
“What came gradually?” I asked.
“Why, these arms! They’re what I’m telling you about. You asked me to tell you, I thought?”
“Did I?” I said. “I don’t know what I’m saying or asking. I think I’m going mad, quite mad.”
“No,” he said, “you’re as sane as I am, only when you come across something strange, unique for that matter, you are naturally terrified. Well, it was like this. I told you about my adventures with the natives up country. That was quite true. They cut off both my arms—you can see the stumps for that matter. And I told you that I came home to find my wife dying. Her heart had always been weak, I’d known that, and it had gradually grown more feeble. There must have been, indeed there was, a strange sort of telepathy between us. She had had fearful attacks of heart failure on both occasions when the natives had mutilated me, I learnt on comparing notes.
“But I had known too, somehow, that I must escape at all costs. It was the knowledge that made me try again after each failure. I should have gone on trying to escape as long as I had lived, or rather as long as she had lived. I knelt beside her bed and she put out her arms and laid them round my neck.
“‘So you have come back to me before I go,’ she said. ‘I knew you must, because I called you so. But you have been long in coming, almost too long. But I knew I had to see you again before I died.’
“I broke down then. I was sorely tried. No arms even to put round her!
“‘Darling, stay with me for a little, only for a little while!’ I sobbed.
“She shook her head feebly. ‘It is no use, my dear,’ she said, ‘I must go.’
“‘I’ll come with you,’ I said, ‘I’ll not live without you.’
“She shook her head again.
“‘You must be brave, Bob. I shall be watching you afterwards just as much as if I still lived on earth. If only I could give you my arms! A poor, weak woman’s arms, but better than none, dear.’
“She died some weeks later. I spent all the time at her bedside, I hardly left her. Her arms were round me when she died. Shall I ever feel them round me again? I wonder! You see, they are mine now.
“They came to me gradually. It was very strange at first to have arms and hands which one couldn’t see. I used to keep my eyes shut as much as possible, and try to fancy that I had never lost my arms.
“I got used to them in time. But I have always been careful not to let people see me do things that they would know to be impossible for an armless man. That was what took me to Africa again, because I could get lost there and do things for myself with these hands.”
“‘And they twain shall be one flesh,’“ I muttered.
“Yes,” he said, “I think the explanation must be something of that sort. There’s more than that in it, though; these arms are other than flesh.”
He sat silent for a time with his head bowed on his chest. Then he spoke again:
“I got sick of being alone at last, and was coming back when I met you at Fourteen Streams. I don’t know what I shall do when I do get home. I can never rest. I have—what do they call it—Wanderlust?”
“Does she ever speak to you from that other world?” I asked him.
He shook his head sadly.
“No, never. But I know she lives somewhere beyond this world of ours. She must, because these arms live. So I try always to act as if she watches everything. I always try to do the right thing, but, anyway, these arms and hands would do good of their own accord. Just now up on the deck I was very frightened. I’d have saved myself at any cost almost, and let you go. But I could not do that. The hands clutched you. It is her will, so much stronger and purer than mine, that still persists. It is only when she does not exert it that I control these arms.”
That was how I learnt the strangest tale that ever a man was told, and knew the miracle to which I owed my life.
It may be that Bob Masters was a coward. He always said that he was. Personally I do not believe it, for he had the sweetest nature I ever met.
He had nowhere to go to in England and seemed to have no friends. So I made him come down with me to Englehart, that dear old country seat of my family in the Western shires which was now mine.
Nancy lived in that country, too.
There was no reason why we should not get married at once. We had waited long enough.
I can see again the old, ivy-grown church where Nancy and I were wed, and Bob Masters standing by my side as best man.
I remember feeling in his pocket for the ring, and as I did so, I felt a hand grasp mine for a moment.
Then there was the reception afterwards, and speech-making—the usual sort of thing.
Later Nancy and I drove off to the station.
We had not said good-bye to Bob, for he’d insisted on driving to the station with the luggage; said he was going to see the last of us there.
He was waiting for us in the yard when we reached it, and walked with us on to the platform.
We stood there chatting about one thing and another, when I noticed that Nancy was not talking much and seemed rather pale. I was just going to remark on it when we heard the whistle of the train. There is a sharp curve in the permanent way outside the station, so that a train is on you all of a sudden.
Suddenly to my horror I saw Nancy sway backwards towards the edge of the platform. I tried vainly to catch her as she reeled and fell—right in front of the oncoming train. I sprang forward to leap after her, but hands grasped me and flung me back so violently that I fell down on the platform.
It was Bob Masters who took the place that should have been mine, and leapt upon the metals.
I could not see what happened then. The station-master says he saw Nancy lifted from before the engine when it was right upon her. He says it was as if she was lifted by the wind. She was quite close to Masters. “Near enough for him to have lifted her, sir, if he’d had arms.” The two of them staggered for a moment, and together fell clear of the train.
Nancy was little the worse for the awful accident, bruised, of course, but poor Masters was unconscious.
We carried him into the waiting-room, laid him on the cushions there, and sent hot-foot for the doctor.
He was a good country practitioner, and, I suppose, knew the ordinary routine of his work quite well. He fussed about, hummed and hawed a lot.
“Yes, yes,” he said, as if he were trying to persuade himself. “Shock, you know. He’ll be better presently. Lucky, though, that he had no arms.”
I noticed then, for the first time, that the sleeves of the coat had been shorn away.
“Doctor,” I said, “how is he? Surely, if he isn’t hurt he would not look like that. What exactly do you mean by shock?”
“Hum—er,” he hesitated, and applied his stethoscope to Masters’ heart again.
“The heart is very weak,” he said at length. “Very weak. He’s always very anæmic, I suppose?”
“No,” I answered. “He’s anything but that. He’s——Good Lord, he’s bleeding to death! Put ligatures on his arms. Put ligatures on his arms.”
“Please keep quiet, Mr. Riverston,” the doctor said. “It must have been a dreadful experience for you, and you are naturally very upset.”
I raved and cursed at him. I think I should have struck him, but the others held me. They said they would take me away if I did not keep quiet.
Bob Masters opened his eyes presently, and saw them holding me.
“Please let him go,” he said. “It’s all right, old man. It’s no use your arguing with them, they would not understand. I could never explain to them now, and they would never believe you. Besides, it’s all for the best. Yes, the train went over them and I’m armless for the second time. But—not for long!”
I knelt by his side and sobbed. It all seemed so dreadful, and yet, I don’t think that then I would have tried to stay his passing. I knew it was best for him.
He looked at me very affectionately.
“I’m so sorry that this should happen on your wedding-day,” he said. “But it would have been so much worse for you if she had not helped.”
His voice grew fainter and died away.
There was a pause for a time, and his breath came in great sighing sobs.
Then suddenly he raised himself on the cushions until he stood upright on his feet, and a smile broke over his face—a smile so sweet that I think the angels in Paradise must look like that.
His voice came strong and loud from his lips.
“Darling!” he cried. “Darling, your arms are round me once again! I come! I come!”
“One of the most extraordinary cases I have ever met with,” the doctor told the coroner at the inquest. “He seemed to have all the symptoms of excessive hæmorrhage.”