The Spike or Victoria College Review 1936
A lonely candle burned with a tremulous flame in the centre of a large bare table. The dim oasis of light seemed all too inadequate in that desert of darkness. A blackness as extensive as space itself pressed in upon this diminutive oponent with an intensity that was well-nigh overwhelming.
At one end of the table, almost beyond the reach of those feeble beams, sat a large figure clad entirely in black. Behind his chair stood three silent forms similarly attired—black, motionless, mysterious, they seemed almost to be a part of that dimensionless darkness surrounding them.
At the other end of the table, more clearly outlined in the glow and singularly detached from his surroundings was a thin figure clad entirely in grey.
The two seated figures were dicing.
Somewhere, there was an eerie, unearthly whining, now near, now far of—it might have been the wind. The only other sound that challenged the heavy silence was the hollow rattling of the dice.
The figure at the head of the table addressed the grey one opposite. His words were uttered in a cold, lifeless monotone.
"What have you to stake me?"
The answer was curt but not unpleasant in sound.
The second figure threw—a five and a six!
He leant forward expectantly.
The first with slow deliberation shook his dice.
Noiselessly, one of the black satellites slipped swiftly away and became a part of the darkness.
Death had won and Accident went as his messenger. . .
"Good-morning, Mr. Smith!"
"Good morning. I want to pay my premium. I believe it's due."
"I don't know that it's much use, but I suppose I'll get the benefit of it some day."
"Well, we never know what's going to happen to us in this world, and it's a man's duty to make some provision for his wife and family. I think everyone should have a reasonable cover on his life."
"Naturally you'd hold that view, but all the time you're hoping we'll live to a ripe old age, aren't you?"
Mr. Smith smiled good-humouredly as he took his receipt and left the building. . .
At ten minutes past eight next morning, fresh from his cold bath, Mr. Smith sat down to a breakfast of poached eggs and toast which he consumed whilst perusing the morning paper. Thus he had done at the same time, in the same way for years. This whole business of getting up, eating and being at the Office on time, he had reduced to a smoothly working routine. At twenty-five minutes past eight he rose, put on the overcoat and hat which his wife held ready for him, and kissed both the children good-bye. This morning, however, little Molly demanded a second kiss and, of course, this meant giving Margaret another, too. Consequently, after embracing his wife, he found himself a minute or two late and had to break into a run in order to catch his train.
At eight minutes to nine, one of a crowd of hundreds, Mr. Smith hurried out of the station and set out towards his Office. There was a light drizzling rain in the City and he pulled his coat-collar up round his ears. As he stepped off the pavement, he recalled the recent incident at home. He wondered why children had such delightful little whims. They'd be at school by——
There was a screeching of brakes, the squeal of skidding tyres—but the road surface was wet; no brakes could hope to hold a car on that. Somewhere, a woman screamed—a crowd gathered—an ambulance arrived—but it was too late!
Accident had discharged his duty. . .
Again the black-garbed figure addressed the grey form at the other end of the table. It was the same lifeless, almost inexorable monotone:page 21
"What will you stake me?"
The answer was a little weaker, but still confident.
The figure threw—a five and a two!
With a cold indifference which suggested that the issue was foregone, the other threw.
A five and a four!
One of the two remaining figures shuffled slowly away into the blackness.
Again Death had won and Disease would see him paid. . . .
It was a cold-looking room with white enamelled walls. In the corner near an open window was a bed, half-encompassed by white screens. Around it were three or four persons, all with solemn, drawn faces. A woman kneeling closer than the rest was weeping softly. The slight form, a mere skeleton whose shape hardly disturbed the evenness of the bedclothes, stirred feebly and slowly extended an arm almost as pale and lifeless-looking as the sheets, and touched the woman's cheek.
"Don't cry, Mother. I'll be all right."
The voice, though scarcely more than a whisper, sounded surprisingly clear in that silence.
The mother kissed the pale cheek. The arm rose slowly towards her—then fell limp on the coverlet. The white curtain at the window swayed silently in a gentle breeze. All else was still and quiet. .
Disease had discharged his duty.. . .
Three figures remained in that silent darkness. The grey form was leaning towards his opponent but seemed more isolated than ever. The candle still burned but with a flickering feebleness. The whining of the wind had risen to the howl of a gale. Yet in the midst of that deserted, desolate darkness, there was a terrifying silence.
Once more the large figure spoke, rattling his dice impatiently.
"What have you to stake me?"
The reply was a confident challenge.
He laughed with a hollow, crackling sound, as though the game were already won.
The grey one threw carefully—two fives!
Carelessly the other shook his dice and threw. But ere they had come to rest, there was a roar from somewhere outside. The grey figure leapt up and snuffed out the little flame. Unseen forces seemed to take posession. There remained only impenetrable darkness.
Fate had cheated Death of his last victim.
In a narrow, poorly-furnished room, a young man sat writing. He was tall with a clean, youthful face and a well-shaped intellectual head. His clothes, though neatly cut, were very much the worse for wear.
He finished the few lines he had been writing and arranged the sheet amongst the books and papers that littered the table.
Slowly he walked towards the small dressing-table near the window, took up a glass of water that was standing there and carefully shook into it some powder from a small white package. As it dissolved slowly in the clear liquid he gazed out of the open window and listened to the sounds that drifted up—sounds of a restless city. In the sky a few stars shone palely through the yellow glow of artificial illumination that hung over closely packed buildings. The moon was hidden from sight behind a cloud.
For a few seconds only, he stood thus: then, he turned once more to the dressing-table. He looked at his reflection in the mirror and pushed back a dishevelled lock.
The powder had quite dissolved now. The young man took the glass firmly in his right hand and raised it, trembling very slightly, to his lips.
Just as he was about to sip the liquid, the curtains at the window flapped suddenly and—Bang!—a door somewhere slammed violently.
He started—the glass fell with a crash to the floor.
For a minute or more he stood perfectly still, staring before him; until a gentle tapping on the door broke his reverie and startled him into action. Hastily he kicked the fragments of glass under the dressing-table, moved across to the table and, taking up a book, called, "Come in!" in a dry voice.page 22
A girl about his own age, small and neat, entered. Immediately they were in each other's arms.
"Darling," she panted, "I didn't mean what I said this afternoon. I thought I was doing the best for both of us, but I can't see you lonely and unhappy. I don't care if you are poor. We can't go on apart. I love you, Carey!"
The young man smiled and kissed her passionately. There were tears in his eyes and words would not come. Slowly, from behind the cloud, came the moon.
But out of that impenetrable darkness, came a callous, cynical, mocking laugh.. . .