THE MAN WHO WAS MILLIGAN

MILLIGAN looked round the dingy rooms with an appraising air, while the landlady stood behind him, wondering whether he would decide to take them. She stood with her arms crossed; her eye was observant. She, in her turn, was appraising Milligan, of course. He was a clerk in a tourist agency, and in his spare time he wrote stories for the cinema. What attracted him just now in the very ordinary lodgings was the big folding-doors. All he really needed was a bed-sitting-room, with breakfast, but he suddenly saw himself sitting in that front room writing his scenarios—successfully at last. It was rather tempting. He would be a literary man—with a study!
       “Your price seems a trifle high, Mrs.—er—?” he opened the bargain.
       “Bostock, sir, Mrs. Bostock,” she informed him, then recited her tale of woe about the high cost of living. It was unnecessary recitation, for Milligan was not listening, having already decided in his mind to take the rooms.
       While Mrs. Bostock droned monotonously on, his eye fell casually upon a picture that hung above the plush mantelpiece—a Chinese scene showing a man in a boat upon a little lake. He glanced at it, no more than that. It was better than glancing at Mrs. Bostock. The landlady, however, instantly caught that glance and noticed its direction.
       “Me ’usband”—she switched off her main theme—“brought it ’ome from China. From Hong-Kong, I should say.” And the way she aspirated the “H” in Hong made Milligan smile. He perceived that she was proud of the picture evidently.
       “It’s wonderful,” he said. “Probably it’s worth something, too. These Chinese drawings—some of ’em—are very rare, I believe.”
       The little picture was worth perhaps two shillings, and he knew it; but he had found his way to Mrs. Bostock’s heart, and, incidentally, had persuaded her to take a shilling off the rent. The picture, he felt sure, had been stolen by her late husband, a sea captain. To her it was a kind of nest-egg. If she ever found herself in difficulties, it would fetch money. Milligan, by chance, had stumbled upon what he called a “good line.”
       Being an honest creature, he had no wish to use his knowledge, but every week thereafter, almost every day, indeed, some remark concerning the Chinese drawing passed between them: with the natural result that, while it bored him a good deal, he cultivated the theme, and in so doing gazed much and often at the Chinaman. That Celestial, sitting in the boat with his back to the room, rowing, rowing eternally across the placid lake without advancing, he came to know in every detail.
       Every time Mrs. Bostock chatted with him, his eye wandered from her grimy visage to the drawing. He used it to end the chat with.
       “I like your picture so much,” he observed. “It’s nice to live with.” He put it straight, he flicked dust from the frame with his handkerchief. “It’s so much better than these modern things. It’s worth a bit—I dare say—”
       It chanced, at the time, that Lafcadio Hearn, the writer about Japan, was in his mind. He had once arranged a successful trip to Japan for a client of his firm, and the client had made him a present of one of Hearn’s strange and wonderful books. It was hardly in the line of Milligan’s reading, for it had no “film value,” and he had sold the book—a collection of Chinese stories—to a secondhand bookseller for a shilling. But he had glanced at it first, and a story in it had remained sharply in his mind: a story about a picture of a man in a boat. An observer, watching the picture, had seen the man move. The man actually began to row. Finally, the man rowed right out of the picture and into the place—a temple—where the observer stood.
       Milligan thought it foolish, yet his memory retained the details vividly. They stuck in his head. The graphic description was realistic. Milligan caught himself thinking of it every time he met a Chinaman in the street, every time he sold a ticket to China or Japan. It rose, it flitted by, it vanished. The memory persisted. And the moment his eye first saw Mrs. Bostock’s treasure over the plush mantelpiece, this vivid memory of Hearn’s story had again risen, flitted by, and vanished. It betrayed its vitality, at any rate. Wonderful chap, that Hearn, thought Milligan.
       All this was natural enough, without mystery, without a hint of anything queer or out of the ordinary. What was a little queer—it struck Milligan so, at any rate—was an idea that began to grow in him from the very first week of his tenancy.
       “That might be the very drawing the fellow wrote about,” occurred to him one night as he laboured at a lurid scenario which was to make his fortune. “Not impossible at all. It’s an old picture probably. Exactly what Hearn described, too. I wonder! Why not?”
       Why not, indeed? A fellow—especially a literary fellow—should use his imagination. Milligan used his. Sometimes he used it in prolonged labour till the early hours. The gas-light flickered across his pages, across that lake in China, across the boat, across the back and arms and pigtail of that diminutive Chink who rowed eternally over a placid Chinese lake without advancing an inch. The scenario of the moment brought in China, aptly enough. A glance at the picture, he found, was not unhelpful in the way of stimulating a flagging imagination.
       Milligan glanced often. The gas-light was always flickering. Shadows were for ever shifting to and fro across Mrs. Bostock’s worthless nest-egg. It was easy to imagine that the boat, the water, even the figure moved. Those dancing shadows! How they played about the arms, the back, the outline of the boat, the oars!
       And when it was two in the morning, and the London streets lay hushed, and a great stillness blanketed the whole city, Milligan felt even a little thrilled. It was, he thought, “imaginative,” to catch these slight, elusive movements in the drawing. He imagined the fellow rowing about, changing his position, landing. It helped his own mood, his incidents, his atmosphere. He had read Thomas Burke, of course. His scenarios always referred to Chinamen as “Chinks.”
       “That Chink’s alive!” he whispered to himself. “By Jove! He moves in the picture. His place changes. It’s an inspiration. I must use it somehow—!” And imagination, eerily stimulated in the deep silence of the sleeping city, was at work again.
       This was the beginning of the strange adventure which befell the literary Milligan, whose imagination worked in the stillness of the small hours, but whose scenarios were never used.
       “For why write scenarios,” he said to me, “when you can live them?”
       In Peking, ten or twelve years later, he said this to me, and I am probably the only person to whom this scenario he “lived” was ever confided.
       In Peking his name was not Milligan at all. He was not working in a tourist agency. He was a rich man, aged thirty-eight, a “figure” in the English community there, a man of influence and position. But all that does not matter. What matters is the story of how he came to be in China at all—and this he does not know. He does not know how he came to be in China at all. There is no recollection of the journey even. Nor can he state precisely how he began the speculations and enterprises that made him prosperous, beyond that he suddenly found himself concerned in big, fortunate undertakings in the Chinese city.
       There is this deep gap in the years.
       “Loss of memory, I suppose they call it,” he mentioned, after our chance acquaintanceship had grown into a friendship that gave me his confidence. What he could tell he told me frankly and without reserve, glad to talk of it, I think, to someone who did not mock, and making no condition of secrecy, moreover.
       There was some link, apparently, between myself and the man who had been Milligan. Chance, that some call destiny, revealed it. And, as I listened to his amazing tale, I swore that on my return to London I would visit Mrs. Bostock and buy the picture. I wanted that Chinese drawing badly, I wanted to examine it myself. Her nest-egg at last should be worth something, as Milligan, ten years before, had told her.
       What happened was, apparently, as follows: Milligan, first of all, discovered in himself, somewhat suddenly it seemed, a new interest in China and things Chinese. If the birth of this interest was abrupt, its growth was extremely rapid. China fairly leapt at him. He read books, talked with travellers, studied the map, the history, the civilisation of China. The psychology of the Celestial race absorbed him. The subject obsessed him. He longed to go to China. It became a yearning that left him no peace day or night. In practical terms of time, money and opportunity, the journey was, of course, impossible. He lived on in London, but actually he lived already in China, for where a man’s thought is there shall his consciousness be also.
       All this I could readily understand, for others, similarly, have felt the call and spell of countries like Egypt, Africa, the desert. There was nothing incomprehensible nor peculiar in the fascination China exercised upon the imaginative Milligan. It was his business, moreover, to sell exciting tickets to travellers, and China happened to have fired his particular temperament. Natural enough!
       Natural enough, too, that, through this, the picture in his lodgings should have acquired more meaning for him, and that he should have studied it more closely and more frequently. It was the only Chinese object he had within constant reach, and he told me at wearisome length how he knew every tiniest detail of the drawing, and how it became for him a kind of symbol, almost a kind of sacred symbol, upon which he focused his intense desires—frustrated desires. Wearisome, yes, until he reached a point in his story that suddenly galvanised my interest, so that I began to listen with uncommon, if a rather creepy, curiosity.
       The picture, he informed me, altered. There was movement among its details that he already knew by heart.
       “Movement!” he half-whispered to me, his eyes shining, a faint shudder running through his big body.
       The sincerity of deep conviction with which he described what happened left a lasting impression on my mind. His words, his manner, conveyed the truth of a genuine experience. Hitherto only the back of the Chink’s head had been visible. Then, one night, Milligan saw his profile. The face was turned. It now looked a little over the shoulder, and towards the room.
       From this moment, though he never detected actual movement when it occurred, the alteration in the drawing was marked and rapid. The face retained its new position; the angle of the profile did not widen, but the position of oars and boat, the attitude of arms and back, their size as well, these now changed from day to day.
       There was a dreadful rapidity about these changes. The figure of the Chink grew bigger; the boat grew bigger too. They were coming nearer. “I had the awful conviction,” whispered the man who had been Milligan, “that they were coming—to fetch me. I used to get all of a sweat each time I saw the size and nearness grow. It was appalling, but also it was delightful somehow—”
       I permitted myself a question: “Did your landlady notice it too?” I enquired, concealing my scepticism.
       “Mrs. Bostock was ill in bed the whole time. She never came into the room once.”
       “The servant?” I persisted. “Or any of your friends?”
       He hesitated. “The girl who did the room,” he said honestly, “observed nothing. She gave notice suddenly without a reason. So did the next girl. I never asked them anything. As for my friends”—he smiled faintly—“I was too scared—to bring them in.”
       “You were afraid they might not see what you saw?”
       He shrugged his shoulders. “It scared me,” he repeated, looking past me towards the shuttered windows of his study where we sat.
       The account he gave of it all made my flesh creep even in that bright Peking sunshine. He certainly described what he saw, or believed he saw, as, day after day, night after night, that Chink rowed his boat slowly, slowly, surely, surely, very gradually, but with remorseless purpose, nearer, nearer—and nearer. The lodger watched. He also waited.
       “The man,” he whispered, “was rowing into the room. It was his purpose to row into the room. He was coming to fetch me.” And he mopped his forehead at the thought of what had happened ten years ago.
       Suddenly he leant forward.
       “In the end,” his thin voice rattled almost against my face, “he—did fetch me. I’m in that picture with him now. I’m not in China, as you think I am. This”—he tapped his chest, the chest of a successful business man—“ is not me. I’m not Milligan. Milligan is in that picture with the Chink. He’s in that boat. Sitting beside that Chink. Motionless. Being stared at by a succession of lodgers. Sitting in that stiff little boat. Very tiny. Not dead, but captive. Sitting without breath. Without feeling. Painted, yet alive. Caught on the surface of that placid Chinese lake until time or death dissolve the drawing—”
       I thought he was going to faint, but, oddly enough, I did not think him merely mad. His mood, his crawling horror, his intense sincerity took me bodily into his own deep nightmare. He recovered quickly. He was a man who had himself always well in hand. He told me the end at once.
       He had been to a dance and he came home tired, sober, having well enjoyed himself, it seems, about four in the morning. The time was early spring, and dawn was just giving faint signs of breaking, but the hall and passage of the house were still dark.
       He entered his room and lit the gas, going at once to the mirror to have a look at himself. This was the first thing he did, he assured me, and in the mirror he saw, behind himself, the boat and the Chinaman, both of them—gigantic.
       Gigantic was the word he used, though he used it, of course, relatively. The Chinaman was standing in the room. He was in the lake in front of the plush mantelpiece. The wall was gone—there was a sort of hazy space. Close at the Chinaman’s heels lay the boat, both oars resting sideways on the water, their heads still in the rowlocks. Water was up to his feet, to Milligan’s feet, for he not only felt his shoes soaked through, but he also heard the lapping sound of diminutive wavelets on the “shore.”
       He gave a great sigh. No cry, either of terror or surprise, he said, escaped him. His only sound was this great sigh—of acceptance, of resignation, of a mind benumbed and yet secretly delighted. The big Chink beckoned, smiled, nodded his yellow face, retreating very slowly as he did so. And Milligan obeyed. He followed. He stepped into the boat. The Chink took up the oars, and rowed him slowly, very slowly, across the placid lake, into the picture and out of his familiar, known surroundings, rowed him slowly, very slowly, into the land of his heart’s deep desire.

*          *         *         *         *

       All the way home to England in the steamer this strangest of strange narratives haunted me. I still saw the man who was Milligan sitting in the study of his big, expensive house as he told it to me. His shrewd business brain had built that house; the fortune he had made provided the good lunch and cigars we had enjoyed together. From the moment of entering the boat his memory had remained a blank. Continuity of personality, though still, it seemed to me, rather uncertain somewhere, had revived only when he was already a rich man who had spent years in China. This big gap in the years remains.
       In my mind lay every detail of the story; in my pocket-book lay the address of Mrs. Bostock’s rooms. I prayed heaven she might still be living, even if aged and crumpled by ten more English winters.
       I had arranged to cable “Milligan” at once; we had selected the very words I was to use: “Two figures in boat,” or “One figure in boat.” He asked for the message in these words. Fortune favoured me; I found the rooms; Mrs. Bostock was alive; the rooms were unoccupied; I looked over them; I saw—the picture.
       Before visiting Mrs. Bostock, however, I had visited the newspaper files in the British Museum, and the “Disappearance of James Milligan” was there for all to read. Millions had evidently read it. It had been the news of the day. Columns of space were devoted to it; dozens of false clues were started; crime was suggested, of course. His disappearance was complete. Milligan was a case of “sunk without trace,” with a vengeance.
       It was in the dingy front room that I experienced what was perhaps the most vivid thrill of wonder life has ever given me. I stood, appraising the room as a would-be lodger. Behind me, her arms crossed, appraising me in turn just as she had appraised her former lodger of ten years ago, stood Mrs. Bostock. Probably I looked more prosperous than he had looked; her attitude, at any rate, was attentive to a fault. Why I should have trembled a little is hard to say, but self-control was certainly not as full as it might have been, for my voice shook a trifle as, at length, I drew her attention with calculated purpose to the picture above the plush mantelpiece. I praised it.
       “Me ’usband brought it back from Hong-Kong,” I heard her say.
       My breath caught a little, so that there was a slight pause before I said the next thing. My voice went slightly husky.
       “I have a collection of Chinese drawings,” I mentioned. “If you cared to sell, perhaps—”
       “Oh, many ’as wanted to buy it,” she lied easily, hoping to increase its value.
       I mentioned five pounds. I mentioned another figure too—the figure in the boat.
       “That single figure,” I explained in as calm a tone as I could muster, “is so good, you see. The Chinese artists never overcrowded their paintings. Now, if—instead of that single figure—there were two”—I moved closer to the picture, hoping she would follow—“the value,” I went on, “would, of course, be less.”
       Mrs. Bostock had followed me. I had tempted her greed; I had tested her truth as well. We stood side by side immediately beneath the drawing. We examined it together.
       At the mention of five pounds the woman had given a little gasp, jerking her body at the same time. Now, at such close quarters with the thing she hoped to sell me, her voice was dumb at first. At first. For a moment later a strange sound escaped her lips, a sound that was meant to be a cry, but only succeeded in being a wheezy struggle to get her breath. Her mouth opened wide, her eyes popped almost from her face. She staggered, recovered her balance by putting a hand on my arm for support, then stepped still nearer to the mantelpiece and thrust her head and shoulders close against the drawing. Her blind eyes peered. Her skin was already white.
       “Two of ’em!” she exclaimed in a terrified whisper. “Two of ’em, so ’elp me, Gawd! And the other’s him!”
       I was ready to support. I had expected her to collapse perhaps. I felt rather like collapsing myself. She swayed, turning her horror-stricken countenance to mine.
       “Mr. Milligan!” she screamed aloud, then, her voice returning in full volume: “It’s Mr. Milligan. All this time that’s where ’e’s been. And I never noticed it till now!”
       She swooned away.
       The second figure faced the room, for the boat was in the position of being pushed by the oars, not rowed. The features were unmistakable … Half an hour later I sent a cable to Peking: “Two figures in boat.”
       The real climax, I think, came three days later, when, with the picture safely in my rooms, I had arranged for “specialists” to call and examine it. A chemist, an experienced dealer, and a sort of expert psychic investigator were already upstairs when I reached my flat.
       The picture was in my bedroom. I had examined it myself—examined Milligan’s face and figure—hour after hour, my flesh crawling, my hair almost rising, as I did so. My guests were in the sitting-room, the servant informed me, handing me a telegram as I hurried up in the lift. My three friends were already known to each other, and, after apologising for the delay, I brought in the drawing and laid it before them on the small table. I intended to tell them the story after their examination; the psychic investigator I meant to keep when the other two had left. Setting the drawing in front of them, I looked over their shoulders at it.
       There was only one figure—the Chink. He sat alone in the little boat. He was rowing, not pushing; his back was to the room.
       The dealer said the drawing was worth a shilling; the chemist said nothing; I, too, said nothing; but the psychic investigator turned sharply and complained that I was hurting him. My hand, it seems, had clutched the shoulder nearest to me, and it happened to be his. I allowed him to leave when the other two left …
       I was alone. I remembered the telegram. More to steady my mind than for any interest I felt in it, my fingers tore it open. It was a cablegram from—Peking, signed by a friend of Milligan and myself:
       “Milligan died heart failure yesterday.”



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