(Victor L. Whitechurch, 1868-1933, was the author of a number of books, including the very rare, Queen's Quorum selection THRILLING STORIES OF THE RAILWAY . I have taken the text of this story from the June, 1899 issue of The Strand Magazine. hat same issue, by the way, included an episode of Grant Allan's HILDA WADE, a chapter from E. Nesbit's THE SEVEN DRAGONS, a chapter from W.W. Jacobs' A MASTER OF CRAFT, and a short story by Bernard Capes.
(Please note that I've copied the story verbatim; any errors in punctuation, spelling, tense, and grammar are not mine, and my readers may feel free to complain loudly about those to the editor of The Strand. Any churl who deigns to assert that some of the above-mentioned errors were mine due to the fact that I had copied the story late into the night and well past my bedtime, should seriously reconsider retracting such a base canard, or face a hearty flogging come next Talk Like A Pirate DAY. -- Jerry)
IN A TIGHT FIX by Victor L. Whitechurch
We were strolling through the Paris Salon. Tired of passing through endless galleries and gazing at the pictures, we had descended to the great central hall devoted to statuary, where it is permissable to smike, and had lit our cigarettes. My companion was only a passing acquaintance, a fellow-countryman I had met at the table d'hote, and who, like myself, was passing a few weeks inthe French metropolis. He was a slight, delicate-looking young man of about five-and-twenty, a well-read and charming companion. As we entered the hall, with its long rows of statues, I noticed that he turned a little pale, but put it down to the heat of the day. Presently, we stopped to admire a gracefully-modelled figure by one of the most eminent exhibitors...."A very fine piece of sculpture," said my friend.
"Scarcely that," I replied. "It's made of an appropriate material -- plaster of Paris."
"Plaster of Paris!" he replied, with a nervous start; "how terrible!"
"Why, what's the matter?" I asked, with a laugh.
"Ah," he replied, "I daresay my exclamation seemed strange to you. But plaster of Paris has an awful meaning to my ears, as you would agree if you heard of an adventure from which I am only just recovering."
"Have you any objection to telling me?"
"Not the slightest. Come and sit down over yonder, and I'll explain myself; then you'll see why I hate the name of plaster of Paris."
So we sat down and he began his story, whhich I repeat in his own words as far as possible.
Jasper Keen and myself were chums during the year we were together at Oxford, and our friendship continued after he had gone down through the two years I remained. He was my senior -- three or four years older than myself; and, as is generally the case in strong friendships, my opposite in many respects. I was a reading man; Keen was more noted for the strength of his arm on the river, and as a desperate "forward" on the football field. My temper was always one of the mildest; Keen would give vent to paroxysms of anger, and weeks of smothered, revengeful passion. He was a tall, magnificently-built fellow, and the men often called us "the long and short of it," so great was the contrast between us.
I do not say that there was nothing intellectual about Jasper Keen. On the contrary, he was a genius: only, like most of his species, he worked by fits and starts. When he did work, however, it was to some purpose, as the examiners knew. And with all his great strength and passion for sport he had a very artistic temperment, which showed itself in his love of sculpture and modelling. His rooms were a curiosity. Very few books -- he always sold them the instant he had finished reading them -- prize oars and "pots" in profusion, and a collection of clay busts, modelled by himself. There was a row of college Dons on his mantleshelf, clever caricatures, his intimate friends -- and his enemies. If he liked a man, he made an excellent little bust of him; on the contrary, one who incurred his hatred was modelled in some eccentric or repulsive manner, but still with a strict regard to a correct likeness so that it was impossible to mistake the man.
When Jasper Keen left the 'Varsity he set up a studio in London. He was a man of fairly large private means, and did not care about earning money. He devoted himself still to sport during the intervals when he was not exercising his hobby, and lived a generally easy and comfortable life.
In due time I also went to live in town, and plunged into the vortex of literary work, to which I had determined to devote my life. I constantly saw Keen, and our friendship was as great as ever, until --
Yes, "until" -- you guess what I mean. There was a woman in it, as there always is, and she stepped in between us. Jasper Keen loved her madly, jealously. Over and over again he was repulsed, for Ivey Stirling never cared for him. He frightened her with the intensity of his devotion. One day he said to her: --
'The truth is, you care for another man."
"And what if I do?" said Ivey, boldly.
"What if you do! Why, this. If I find the man, even if he were my greatest friend, I'd kill him rather than he should win you!"
He was Keen's greatest friend. The man who was accepted by Ivey Sterling was myself, and, in spite of all, I trust she will be my wife before the year is out.
I may well say, 'In spite of all." When Keen heard of it, he was furious. I told him myself. I thought it best that he should hear the news first from the lips of his friend, and I hoped from the bottom of my heart that our friendship would not be destroyed. So I went round to his studio and broke the news to him.
He stood for some moments with his whole frame quivering, his nostrils dilated, and his eyes starting forward, like some wild beast held in restraint by a chain. Then he turned to a pedestal on which stood a bust of myself, fashioned by him in the old Oxford days, and dashed it to the ground. The fragments of clay went rattling over the studio.
"Leonard Fendron," he yelled, 'as I have broken your bust, so I will break you. You false, traitorous hound, you think you have stolen from me the one I have to live for. But not yet -- do you hear? I could crush you as you stand -- I could break every bone in your body with this hand of mine. But that would be too poor a revenge. I will wait -- I will make you suffer such agony as you give to me. Go, I say, go, and may the worst of all curses light upon you -- the curse of a friend you have wronged."
It was useless to explain, so I went. Ivey was much disturbed when I told her about this interview; but to tell the truth, I thought little of it myself. I had seen Keen in a paroxsym of rage before, and I hoped that in time he would see things sensibly for the sake of our old friendship.
For a year I never saw the man. His studio was shut up, and report said that he had gone abroad. Then I suddenly met him face to face in Fleet Street. I was going to pass him by at first, but he stopped me and shook hands.
"How d'ye do, Fendron?" he said, "Last time I saw you I was in a bit of temper. But that's all over now, and I can afford to let the past be buried in the past -- if you can too."
"Certainly," I replied; "I'm only too delighted to hear our friendship exists."
"That's right," he said. "And now come and have some lunch with me. There's a restaurant handy where we can talk."
So I went with him. He was most friendly and chatty. He told me he had been abroad, but that the last five months he had been in England.
"I've been living like a hermit," he said. "The fact is, I've been engaged on a master-piece of work. It will beat anything I've ever done. Oh, it's a grand thing, I can tell you. I fitted up a studio in the country some months ago, and I've hardly stirred out of it since -- simply worked and seen no one. But I've had an end in view, as you shall see for yourself. Now, I want you to pay me a visit, and you shall be the first to see my masterpiece. Will you come?"
"Certainly," I said; "What day will suit you?"
"Let me see -- it's the 9th to-day. I want a clear fortnight on the work before I finish. Came you come on Friday, the 24th, and stay till Monday? I can easily put you up."
"With pleasure. That will suit me capitally. Only, you haven't told me where to come to yet."
"I hardly think you'd find it if I did," he answered thoughtfully; "it's not very far from townbut it's a bit awkward to get at for a stranger. So suppose you meet me at Euston at half-past eight on that Friday evening, and I'll take you down. It's rather late, you shall have a good supper as soon as you get there, I promise you."
To this arrangement I accordingly agreed, and on the 24th I met Keenat Euston. Telling me that he had purchased my ticket, he took me to a local train. We got out at Sudbury, the station near Wembley Park.
"There's some little distance to walk, " he said, "so we'd better step on it briskly."
It must have been a tramp of over two miles that finally brought us to a large house, standing quite alone a little way off the road, somewhere in the direction of Edgware. Although not that many miles from London, the country about here is very lonely, and there was not a house near. It was about ten o'clock and quite dark when Keen opened the door with a latch-key.
"Welcome!" he cried. "You must be tired and hungry. We'll have supper at once, it's all ready."
And without further ado he led the way into a good-sized room, lit by a lamp, and revealed a table spread with cold viands.
There was a change in his tone of voice that made me feel uneasy as he went on: --
"We're all to ourselves, Fendren. I've let the servants out for the evening. But everything's ready for us, so sit down and begin. We must be our own butlers."
It was an excellent meal. The whole of the time Keen talked and laughed and joked. He ran on about old times and our college days; he laughed long and boisterously -- once I expostulated him for his noise.
"What does it matter?" he shouted. "There's not a soul near. That's the beauty of the country. You might yell yourself hoarse in this shanty of mine, and no one would hear you."
He even touched on my engagement. Leaning across the table, he insisted on grasping my hand.
"I've never congratulated you yet, old chap, you know. Last ime we were on this subject I was in a huff. But it's all right now. May you be happy -- ha! ha! ha! -- as happy as you deserve!"
Supper over, he took up the lamp.
"Come," he said, "we'll adjourn to the studio and smoke there. I've got to show you my great work. It will surprise you. Come along."
He led the way to the very top of the house, and we entered a large room which he had turned into a studio. Lumps of clay, pieces of stone, tools, and half-finished works were lying about in artistic confusion. On a small table was a box of cigars, several decanters of wineand spirits, siphons and tumblers. In one corner of the room was a large bath, filled with a white powder, while a small shovel and a couple of pails of water stood by it. In the center of the room was a very large, hollow wooden pedestal, shaped like a cylinder, and quite as high as my shoulders, such as is used sometimes for standing heavy busts upon. The top, however, had been removed from this cylinder and there was nothing on it. The room was evidently only lighted by a skylight, and a thick curtain hung over the door, and stretchedacross what was apparently a recess at the farther end of the apartment was another curtain, hanging in black folds.
Keen gave me a cigar and sat me down in a chair.
"Well, what do you think of my workshop?" he asked.
"I've hardly had time to look round, yet," I replied. "What's that huge pedestal for?"
"You'll see later on," he said.
Again that ominous change in his voice.
"And what's in that bath?"
"Oh, plaster of Paris," he answered, with a laugh; "but now watch I'm going to draw the curtain!"
First lighting a couple more lamps, he drew the curtain aside with a sudden jerk. The result was electrical. There, standing on a small raised platform, life-size and most exquisitely modelled, was a statue of Ivey Stirling, my betrothed. I sprang to my feet and uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"Yes," shouted Keen, "there stands the image of the woman you love -- and the woman I once loved. she whose image was so graven upon my heart that I was able to mould this statue as you see it; to mould it for you, Leonard Fendron, who have won the prize. Did I not tell you it was a master-piece?"
"You did. And so it is," I replied, with an indescribable feeling of terror creeping over me. My companion rushed to the table and filled two glasses. One of them he thrust into my hand.
"A health!" he cried. "Drain it to the dregs. A health to the fair Ivey, your betrothed! Drink it, Fendron!"
"A health to the fair Ivey -- my future wife," I said, mechanically, drinking the liquor and staring at the statue.
"Your future wife!" echoed Keen, with a terrible voice. "Never!" I turned and gazed at him. He was foaming with madness and rage. At the same moment my head grew dizzy, and the room seemed twirling round. I made a wild rush for the door, but fell in a dead feint before I could reach it.
When I came to my senses again there was an awful feeling of cramp all over me. My whole body and my legs and arms seemed to be held in a vice that was pressing upon me at every point. I opened my eyes. The first thing that met my gaze was the statue of Ivey placed opposite me. I was in an upright position, but I could not move. I looked downwards, but not even then did I realize the horrible truth. I was up to my shoulders in the hollow pedestal.
"Halloa! you've come to, have you?" said a mocking voice, and Jasper Keen stood in front of me, the grin of a lunatic on his face.
"For God's sake, what have you done?" I asked.
"I'll very soon tell you," he replied, with a sneer; "I've made a statue of you. Listen. You are up to your shoulders in plaster of Paris. Whilst you were insensible from the effect of the drugged wine you drank, I placed you in the pedestal, mixed that bathful of plaster and water, and poured it in with you. It took me some time to do, and now it's four o'clock in the morning. By this time it's thoroughly set, and you cannot move hand or foot."
The terrible situation was dawning on my mind. My tormentor went on: --
'Did you think, Leonard Fentron, that I had forgotten? Did you expect to get forgiveness from Jasper Keen? You should have known me better, and not to have walked so foolishly into the snare that I set for you. I told you I would have revenge. I have waited and schemed a long time, but now the hour of my vengeance has come. Here, before the image of the woman you love, you shall die, Leonard Fendron -- die a slow and awful death. I shall leave you here, fixed, immovable -- a living statue. Don't think to escape, for I have planned it well. My servants were dismissed two days ago; I told them I was going to leave the house for some months. You can shriek and howl as much as you please, but no one will hear you. I've tested that carefully. In short, unless an angel from heaven comes to set you free, here you'll stay till you starve to death in cramp and agony."
"Have mercy ----" I began, but he stopped me.
"Mercy? As soon expect to find it at Satan's hands! Here, I'll put this table with the liquor on it close to you. It will be more tantalizing. And now I must be off. I've planned my escape well. Good-bye, Leonard
Fendron. I wish you joy with your bride of clay!"
And the madman, for so he was, I am assured, at the moment struck me a heavy blow in the face, turned on his heel, slammed the door, and I heard his footsteps disappear down the stairs. I was alone and helpless.
I cannot describe the torture as the long hours went by and the light of the lamps slowly faded as the day began to dawn. The cramp in my body and limbs was awful. My throat was parched, and my brain seemed on fire. I yelled and screamed at the top of my voice, listening in anquish for an answering call, but answers came there none. The villain had prepared his plot too well! In my madness, I tried to lurch forward and hurl myself to the floor. In vain! The pedestal was fixed! And there, a few feet in front of me, stood the statue of Ivey, so lifelike and beautiful that it seemed at times to my frenzied brain that she was smiling and speaking to me.
Then came a time when all was dark. I had fainted. Too soon I returned to the fearful reality, and redoubled my screams. It was fruitless. I was in a mental and bodily agony that was too awful for words. How the hours passed I know not. It seemed years that I had been fixed there. I seemed never to have lived at all, except in a world of terror
My God! I cannot describe the anquish....
Suddenly there came a sound...Yes...I was not mistaken....A heavy bang on the roof over-head. I listened with straining ears -- ah-- a footstep!
"For God's sake, help -- help!" I cried.
Then there came a tap at the skylight over-head, and a voice spoke: --
"Excuse me, but may I come in?"
"Come in!" I shrieked; "in Heavens name, yes, come in!"
"You seem in a mighty hurry," replied the voice. "Suppose you open the skylighr for me."
"I can't," I answered; "smash it -- do want you like -- only be quick."
Crash! the glass came splattering down on the floor, a foot came through the window, then another, and in a few seconds the man himself stood before me.
"Well, I'm blowed!" he exclaimed; "what on earth does this mean?"
"For God's sake, be quick and set me free," I begged. "It's killing me. Give me something to drink first."
I immediately drained the tumbler of soda water he held to my lips. Then he set to work. He was a businesslike man, and there were some stone-chisels and hammers about. In a very few minutes he had split the pedestal down, and was hammering and chipping away at the plaster, which, of course, by this time was quite hard, and came off in flakes and lumps. It seemed ages to me , but he afterward told me it took him a very short time to get me free, though large lumps of plaster still stuck to my clothes. I was horribly cramped, and coulod not stir when it was over. He undressed me and gave me a tremendous rubbing, until at length the circulation became partially restored and the agony began to subside, and I was able to talk,
"Well," he exclaimed, "this is the rummiest thing I have ever come across. Goodness only knows what would have happened if my parachute hadn't gone wrong."
"Yes. That's how I came here. I'm a professional aeronaut, and I've been making a balloon ascent and a parachute descent at Wembley Park every Saturday afternoon for a couple of months past."
"And you landed on the roof?" I exclaimed.
"Exactly. Something went wrong, and I found myself coming down more quickly that I intended. The wind's a bit high and blew me some distance, and I thought I was going to smash against this house, but, as luck had it, I just managed to tumble on the roof, which, luckily, is flat, and here I am. Lucky for you, isn't it?"
Keen's words had come very nearly true. He had said that only an angel from heaven could rescue me!
Well, little remains to be told. I was very ill for weeks; in fact, I am only just getting over it now. The only wonder is that I escaped as I did, but as Keen had put me in the pedestal with my clothes on, and had not pressed down the plaster, the pressure was slighter than it might have been, though that was bad enough.
As for Keen himself, he got clean away. You see, he had over twelve hours' start, for it was not until late on the Saturday afternoon that the aeronaut found me. I don't know and I don't much carewhat has become of him. I only mean to take good care that he doesn't have another chance of stopping our marriage.
And now, perhaps, you will understand why I feel a little queer at the mention of plaster of Paris.