"Good night, Uncle,” whispered the child, as she climbed on to his knee and gave him a resounding kiss. “It’s time for me to disappop into bed—at least, so mother says.”
“Disappop, then,” he replied, returning her kiss, “although I doubt…”
He hesitated. He remembered the word was her father’s invention, descriptive of the way rabbits pop into their holes and disappear, and the way good children should leave the room the instant bedtime was announced. The father—his twin brother—seemed to enter the room and stand beside them. “Then give me another kiss, and disappop!” he said quickly. The child obeyed the first part of his injunction, but had not obeyed the second when the strangest thing happened. She had not left his knee; he was still holding her at the full stretch of both arms; he was staring into her laughing eyes, when she suddenly went far away into an extraordinary distance. She retired. Minute, tiny, but still in perfect proportion and clear as before, she was withdrawn in space till she was small as a doll. He saw his own hands holding her, and they too were minute. Down this long corridor of space, as it were, he saw her diminutive figure.
“Uncle!” she cried, yet her voice was loud as before, “but what a funny face! You’re pretending you’ve seen a ghost”—and she was gone from his knee and from the room, the door closing quietly behind her. He saw her cross the floor, a tiny figure. Then, just as she reached the door, she returned to normal size, as if she had crossed a line.
He felt dizzy. The loud voice close to his ear issuing from a diminutive figure half a mile away had a distressing effect upon him. He knew a curious qualm as he sat there in the dark. He heard the wind walking round the house, trying the doors and windows. He was troubled by a memory he could not seize.
Yet the emotion instantly resolved itself into one of personal anxiety: something had gone wrong with his eyes. Sight, his most precious possession as an artist, was of course affected. He was conscious of a little trembling in him, as he at once began trying his sight at various objects—his hands, the high ceiling, the trees dim in the twilight on the lawn outside. He opened a book and read half a dozen lines, at changing distances; finally he stared carefully at the second hand of his watch. “A-OK!” he exclaimed aloud. He emitted a long sigh; he was immensely relieved. “Nothing wrong with my eyes.”
He thought about the actual occurrence a great deal—he felt as puzzled as any other normal person would have felt. While he held the child actually in his arms, gripping her with both hands, he had seen her suddenly half a mile away. “Half a mile!” he repeated under his breath, “why it was even more, easily a mile.” It had been exactly as though he suddenly looked at her down the wrong end of a powerful telescope. It had really happened—he could not explain it—there was no more to be said.
This was the first time it happened to him.
At the theatre, a week later, when the phenomenon was repeated, the stage he was watching fixedly at the moment went far away, as though he saw it from a long way off. The distance, so far as he could judge, was the same as before, about a mile. It was an Eastern scene, realistically costumed and produced, that without an instant’s warning withdrew. The entire stage went with it, although he did not actually see it go. He did not see movement, that is. It was suddenly remote, while the actors’ voices, the orchestra, the general hubbub retained their normal volume. He experienced again the distressing dizziness—he closed his eyes, covering them with his hand, then rubbing the eyelids slightly; and when he looked up the next minute, the world was as it should be, as it had been, at any rate. Unwilling to experience a repetition of the thing in a public place, however, and fortunately being alone, he left the theatre at the end of the act.
Twice this happened to him, once with an individual, his brother’s child, and once with a landscape, an Eastern stage scene. Both occurrences were within the week, during which time he had been considering a visit to the eye doctor, but he didn’t follow through. He was the kind of man that dreaded doctors and dentists, always postponing, always finding reasons for delay. He found reasons now, the chief among them being an unwelcome one—that it was perhaps a brain specialist, rather than an eye doctor, he ought to consult. This particular notion hung unpleasantly about his mind, when, the day after the theatre visit, the thing recurred, but with a startling difference.
While idly watching a blue bottle fly that climbed the window pane with remorseless industry, only to slip down again at the very instant when escape into the open air was within its reach, the fly grew abruptly into gigantic proportions, became blurred and indistinct as it did so, covered the entire pane with its furry, dark, ugly mass, and frightened him so that he stepped back with a cry and nearly lost his balance altogether. He collapsed into a chair. He listened with closed eyes. The metallic buzzing was audible, a small, exasperating sound, ordinarily unable to stir any emotion beyond a mild annoyance. Yet it was terrible; that so huge an insect should make so faint a sound seemed to him terrible.
At length he cautiously opened his eyes. The fly was of normal size once more. He hastily flicked it out of the window.
An hour later he was talking with the famous eye doctor in Harley Street about obtaining reading-glasses. He found it difficult to relate the rest. A curious shyness restrained him.
“Your optic nerves might belong to a man of twenty,” was the verdict. “Both are perfect. But at your age it is wise to save the sight as much as possible. There is a slight astigmatism…” And a prescription for the glasses was written out. It was only when paying the fee, and as a means of drawing attention from the awkward moment, that his story found expression. It seemed to come out in spite of himself. He made light of it even then, telling it without conviction. It seemed foolish suddenly as he told it. “How very odd,” observed the eye doctor vaguely, “dear me, yes, curious indeed. But that’s nothing. Hmm…” Either it was no concern of his, or he deemed it negligible… His only other confidant was a psychologist who was interested and eager to explain: “Oh, it’s just a spontaneous invention of your mind—a pictorial rendering of your thought. You are a painter, aren’t you? Well, this is merely a rendering in picture-form of”—he paused for effect, the other hung upon his words—“of the odd expression ‘disappop.’”
“Ah!” exclaimed the painter.
“You see everything pictorially, of course, don’t you?”
“Yes—as a rule.”
“There you have it. Your painter’s psychology saw the child ‘disappopping.’ That’s all.”
“And the fly?” but the fly was easily explained, since it was merely the process reversed. “Once a process has established itself in your mind, you see, it may act in either direction. And he said with finality, “That’s all there is to it.”
The explanations were not very satisfactory, the illustration even tactless, but then the problem had not been stated quite fully. Neither to the eye doctor nor to the psychologist had all the facts been given. The same shyness had been a restraining influence in both cases—a detail had been omitted, and this detail was that he connected the occurrences somehow with his brother who had died in the war.
The phenomenon made one more appearance—the last—before its character, or rather its field of action, changed. He was reading a book when the print became now large, now small; it blurred, grew remote and tiny, then so huge that a single word, a letter even, filled the whole page. He felt as if someone were playing optical tricks with the mechanism of his eyes, trying first one, then another focus.
More curious still, the meaning of the words themselves became uncertain; he did not understand them anymore; the sentences lost their meaning, as though he read a strange language, or a language little known. The flash came then—someone was using his eyes—someone else was looking through them!
No, it was not his brother. The idea was preposterous in any case. Yet he shivered again: An uncanny conviction came over him that it was someone who did not understand eyes but was manipulating their mechanism experimentally. With the conviction came also this—that, while not his brother, it was someone connected with his brother.
Here, moreover, was an explanation of sorts, for if the supernatural existed—he had never troubled his head about it—he could accept this odd business as a manifestation, and leave it at that. He did so, and his mind was eased. This was his attitude: “The supernatural may exist. Why not? We cannot know. But we can watch.” His eyes and brain, at any rate, were in good condition.
He watched. No change of focus, no magnifying or diminishing, came again. For a few weeks he noticed nothing unusual of any kind, except that his mind often filled now with Eastern pictures. Their sudden eruption caught his attention, but no more than that; they were sometimes blurred and sometimes vivid; he had never been in the East; he attributed them to his constant thinking of his brother, missing in Iraq these six months. Photographs in magazines and newspapers explained the rest. Yet the persistence of the pictures puzzled him: tents beneath hot cloudless skies, palms, a stretch of desert, dry watercourses, camels, a mosque, a minaret—typical images of this kind flashed into his mind with a sense of faint familiarity. He kept a note of the dates, all of them were after the day he read his brother’s fate in the official Roll of Honour: “Believed missing; now killed.” Only when the original phenomenon returned, but in its altered form, did he stop the practice of writing them down. The change then affected his life too much to trouble about mere dates and pictures.
For the phenomenon, shifting its field of action, abruptly became mental, and the singular change of focus took place now in his mind. Events magnified or contracted themselves out of all relation with their intrinsic values, sense of proportion went hopelessly astray. Love, hate and fear experienced sudden intensification, or abrupt dwindling into nothing; the familiar everyday emotions, commonplace daily acts, suffered exaggerated enlargement, or reduction into insignificance, that threatened the stability of his personality. Fortunately, as stated, they were of brief duration; to examine them in detail were to touch the painful absurdities of incipient mania; that a lost button could block his exasperated mind for hours, filling an entire day with emotion, while a deep affection of long standing could ebb towards complete collapse suddenly without apparent cause!
The unexpected suddenness of Iraq’s spectacular defeat brought an end to the painful symptoms for good. The ceasefire saw them go. It was a quick relief he was unable to explain. The telegram that his brother was alive and safe came after his recovery of mental balance. It was a total shock. But the phenomena had ceased before the shock.
It was in the light of his brother’s story that he reviewed the puzzling phenomena described. The story was not more curious than many another, perhaps, yet the details were strange enough. That a wounded Iraqi to whom he gave water should have remembered gratitude was likely enough, for travellers know that Iraqis are kindly people; but that this person should have been later a member of a prisoner’s escort and have provided the means of escape and concealment—weeks in a desert and months in a hut outside the town—seemed an incredible stroke of luck.
“He brought me food and water three times a week. I had no money to give him, so I gave him my binoculars. I taught him a bit of English too. But he liked the binoculars best. He was never tired of playing with ’erm—making things big and little, as he called it. He learned a little English…”
“My binoculars, weren’t they?” interrupted his brother. “My old pair.”
“Your present to me when I shipped out, yes. Your gift actually save my life. I told the old Iraqi—I was always thinking about you.”
“And the Iraqi?”
“No doubt.... Through my mind, that is. At any rate, he asked a lot of questions about you. I showed him your photo. He died, poor chap—at least they told me so. They probably shot him.”