This is a novelette I published at Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse Online in December of 2012. The online magazine has since disappeared, in the wake of its publisher (Nightshade Books) being sold, so I’ve posted it here for readers. It was selected for inclusion in Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction this year, as well as for AudioText’s Year’s Best SF audio anthology.
She said he was an “ex-peer-i-ment-al in-vest-i-gat-or, don’t you know?” And lucky for me, I don’t catch her looking at me much, so I rolled my eyes at myself in the glass I was cleaning, then set it up on its shelf with my eyes rolling in its surface for a long time after.
She always likens herself to our Lord in Heaven, and clutches her hand at her heart like some poor widow, though she just married for a second time not a year ago, and you’d think she’d be happier with Mr. Hall around to help. Especially when he came round and took rooms from them. I might be a bit of a dull-headed girl—that’s what my mother always told me, Lord keep her—but I ain’t so dull I can’t see something’s wrong with a person when he comes into the Coach and Horses with his head all wrapped up like some bloody mummy, and thick blue goggles for glasses. Really, I should wince and say to her, “Do you think that’s normal, miss?”
Oh, shut up, you silly girl. Move it along. You’re slower than a cow! Help indeed! Snap, snap! Clap, clap! She’s got many ways of dealing with me. But I ain’t no girl, and I ain’t no cow. I got sixteen years, and four of them I been working like anyone. What she sees ain’t me, but some other girl. Cause ain’t I the one who cleared the straw he spilled from those crates of his all over the floor of his room? And ain’t I the one who scrubbed at a stain on the floor he’d made with all his chemicals and such?
She wanted to take him his tea and his eggs and ham. She wanted to stand at his shut door and listen to his moaning and sobbing, hand clutched at her heart like some mother. She wanted to try speaking with him like she was on his level—whatever it was, it was surely above hers by the way he spoke—and all I could do was laugh behind my hand in the kitchen when he chased her out of that room with a chair, the chair floating in midair like a ghost, and she came shrieking down the staircase.
Mrs. Hall gave me a hot time of it, she did, taking out her troubles with him on the likes of me while he was staying here. But I didn’t let her muck me about too much. And there was always talk to be had when she wasn’t round the bar, but upstairs leaning her ear against that door of his. Teddy Henfrey was here one day after all that mess with the Invisible Man started, and I caught him looking up at the pub’s ceiling, shaking his head. “Here, Millie,” he said, “what’s Mrs. Hall on to up there? Still trying to get old goggle-eyes to talk?”
I kept wiping glasses and shook my head. “I don’t right know, Teddy,” I said. “I keep to my own or she’ll give me a hot time of it.”
And Teddy said, “Ain’t like you’re to blame for anything, Millie. And anyway, you’re mostly back in the kitchen where nobody can see you.”
“True enough,” I told Teddy. “But when she wants to, she can see me all right. When she wants to.”
Teddy Henfrey is the village clock-mender. He had a bad round of it with old goggle-eyes on the very day he showed up at the Coach and Horses. Mrs. Hall asked Teddy to come mend a clock in her new guest’s room, but that clock had been dead some three months and she’d never once made a glance in its direction. Then goggle-eyes come through the door of the inn on the last day of February, snow blowing all round him, and him wrapped up in a greatcoat, muffler, and a hat with a brim so wide it cast a shadow over his face. And wouldn’t you know, not two hours after she brought him his eggs and ham, Mrs. Hall was going on about that clock in his room needing mending.
It was just so she could get in there while Teddy went to work. Anyone could see that. Wanting a look at things, she was. We didn’t know goggle-eyes weren’t visible when he showed up, of course—we thought he’d been hurt in a fire or some other kind of accident—but if we’d known the truth of him then, I would’ve liked to say to her, “He’s invisible, miss. He ain’t blind, too, is he?”
But I must remind myself I’ve got a place, and that ain’t so bad, considering I got no people. Ma died four years ago, and that’s when I come to the Coach and Horses, where she’d done the work before me. Dad’s been gone since I was little. Drowned, Ma told me, in the river one black night when he was wandering round like a fish with two legs. So I suppose it could have been me coming through that door on the last day of February, shouting, “In the name of human charity! A room and a fire!”
It was the Invisible Man, though. And what happened after that, none of us would’ve guessed.
What happened was this. Mrs. Hall wouldn’t leave the man well enough alone. She kept trying to get his story out of him. Whenever she got a chance, she’d make a reason to barge in, even though he’d said to leave him be. She took him ham and eggs, like I’ve said, and then, after he waited for her to leave, she came back to the kitchen and saw she’d forgotten the mustard I’d made. “I declare!” she shouted. “Slow as treacle, you are, Millie! Help indeed!” She took the mustard upstairs then, and I pulled a face at her backside, but when she come down again a few minutes later, her face was all wrinkled with trouble.
“What is it, miss?” I asked, truly worried at that point. It’s not often Mrs. Hall looks like someone run her over with a carriage.
She stood there for a while, blank, and then finally she started speaking. Said that his injuries must have something to do with his mouth, cause when she pushed in with the mustard, he put his serviette up to his face and wouldn’t move it for nothing till she turned to leave.
“Something terrible must have happened to him,” I said, and she nodded, staring off into a distance.
You’d have thought that would have been enough to keep a person from going on and bothering with him any more, but not Mrs. Hall. In fact, it wasn’t a half hour passed before she took herself back up there, and this time it was to try and make a friend of him.
I suppose I made my own reasons for being round where she was, too. Cause it was something to watch her get to work on him, it was. She was smooth as a confidence man if ever I saw one. Stood there in his room and started telling him about her sister’s boy, Tom, who’d cut his arm on a scythe last summer, and how Tom was three months getting better. “My sister was tied up with her little ones, though,” she told him, “and there were all those bandages of Tom’s to do and undo every day. So I took to changing the bandages as a way of helping, and by the end of that summer I knew my way round wrapping and unwrapping people.” She paused after she finished her story, to make her point, and what she told the Invisible Man at the end of her ramble was, “If I may make so bold as to say it, sir—”
Before she could finish making so bold, though, old goggle-eyes interrupted to say, “Will you get me some matches? My pipe is out.”
I had to put my hand over my mouth when I heard that one out in the hall where I’d been putting away the bedding. He pulled her right up, he did. But she got him those matches he asked for, and she never did make so bold as to say anything else.
Later that day was when she brought in Teddy Henfrey, like I mentioned, to make a show of fixing that dead clock. But Teddy stayed over his welcome. Kept trying to fix things about that clock that didn’t need fixing, just so he could get a look at our strange houseguest. So it weren’t just Mrs. Hall who was curious. I suppose anyone with a mind that notices things wanted a look at him. But when it was clear Teddy was wasting his time on that clock, goggle-eyes told him that’s exactly what he was doing, and sent him right off. I hear Teddy went round town in a tizzy about how a man must do a clock at times, surely!
That was probably the first mistake, if you want to start counting the important ones, the ones that started other things happening. Mrs. Hall let Teddy in the man’s room for her own reasons, and when the Invisible Man threw Teddy out, Teddy went about town like a cloud spewing thunder and lightning. It was Teddy, you see, who ran across Mr. Hall coming back from his conveyance route to Sidderbridge Junction and told him, “You got a rum-looking customer at the Coach and Horses, Hall!”
And when Mr. Hall said he didn’t know what Teddy was on about, Teddy told him how Mrs. Hall let a room to a stranger, and how she didn’t even know the bloke’s name, and how he was all done up with bandages over his face, and how tufts of black hair curled out of the man’s wrappings like the horns of the devil.
He planted a seed in Mr. Hall right then, and when Mr. Hall come round the Coach and Horses a bit later, all totted up with whisky, he started giving Mrs. Hall a time of it. And when Mrs. Hall just kept on as if he weren’t even there, he started saying things like, “You women don’t know everything!” and that’s when Mrs. Hall turns round real slow, to give him a dark eye, and says, “You mind your own business, Hall, and I’ll mind mine!”
I dare say I had a laugh about that one. Caught it in my hand, though, and slipped it in my pocket. She was always giving me a hot time of it, she was, but she’d take her tongue out and do Mr. Hall a bad turn whenever the feeling came on her. Couldn’t help but feel a bit bad for him, but also a bit like I weren’t the only one she didn’t see till she wanted to.
It was the next day, though, that things really started to seem strange, if that’s possible. His luggage was brought over from the rail station, and it was all in large crates. Mr. Fearenside and Mr. Hall started to unload them from the cart outside the inn, and you could see how heavy the crates were by the strain in their faces, how red their cheeks turned, like roses in winter.
The Invisible Man came through the pub where I was collecting plates for a table, and brushed right past me like a cold wind. He was wearing his greatcoat and was muffled in that hat and gloves and scarf, just like the day before. I went to the window and rubbed away the fog of my breath to watch him go clattering down the steps, shouting that Mr. Fearenside and Mr. Hall were taking too long, and why weren’t his things already unloaded. It were a bad idea for him to go down so quick and angry like that, though, cause Mr. Fearenside’s dog was under the wagon, see, and out it come, barking and yapping, and took a nip at the Invisible Man’s hand. Old goggle-eyes pulled back his leg and gave the dog a good kick, but that just stirred the thing even more, and the next thing it did was lunge at his leg and take away a piece of his trousers.
Then—snap! snap!—Mr. Fearenside give his dog two licks of a whip, and the dog went yelping back under the wagon.
Goggle-eyes come through the pub door directly, cursing under his breath. I take a glance at the place where the dog tore his trousers, expecting to see a leg in there, and thinking I might get a chance of seeing what ails his skin as to require all those wrappings. But there ain’t any leg I can see as that bit of his trouser opens and shuts like the flap of a carnival tent, giving glimpses of darkness behind it.
Seemed nothing was in there at all. Just darkness. And I thought, How can that be? Man needs a leg to keep walking.
He slammed his door when he reached his bedroom, and after a few minutes, Mr. Hall come in to see if the guest got hurt in a bad way. But Mr. Hall made the mistake—the second big mistake—of going in without knocking.
There was a tussle of some sort up there. Anyone with ears in the house could hear it. First Mr. Hall made an awful sound, then the door slammed shut again. A minute later, Mr. Hall’s back in the pub, rubbing his head like someone’s given him a great clout upside it.
“Are you all right, sir?” I asked, and he looked up, noticing me as if it’s the first he’s ever seen me. He didn’t say anything, though. Just tugged at his mustache and winced, shook his head like a dog wringing itself out, then went back out to help with the unloading.
The crates were brought in then, one after another, once goggle-eyes came out of his room wearing a new pair of trousers. And what a spectacle, the things those crates carried! Towers of books. Glass tubes, glass bottles. And all kinds of powders and fluids of all sorts of colors. A burner and a balance. The Invisible Man put his things wherever he could find a bit of room. On the mantel. On the bookshelf. On the windowsill. On the floor, when he had no more room to speak of. Quite a sight it all was, too. Took the breath right from me when I peeked round the door to see inside. It appeared he was about to open a chemist’s shop right there in the Coach and Horses!
He got right to work, too, for the rest of the day, with the door locked so Mr. and Mrs. Hall couldn’t come in whenever they wanted. Sometimes I’d take a journey up the stairs to get a dustbin or a set of bedding for another room, and would take my time to listen near his door. Bottles clinked. Fluids dripped. I could hear a pencil scratch across paper, and thought of him then, bent over one of those big books, all taken up by some idea or experiment that possessed him. And while I was lost in thought of him like that was when she came round the corner and gasped like I were burgling.
“Millie!” she said, and I jumped back from his door, embarrassed at first, and then angry with her. Ain’t it her, after all, who’d been doing the same thing I’d been doing right then, and even more?
The door opened on us then, and goggle-eyes looked back and forth between us. I shivered, being that close to him, seeing him look down at me through those blue spectacles of his. And his nose—what a shiny thing it was to see this close. Like a toy nose he might have purchased at a shop somewhere, it was. Mrs. Hall took the chance to look past him into the room right then, and before goggle-eyes could give us a bad time, she gasps and says, “My word, but it looks like a barn in here! All that straw, sir!”
“Put it on my bill, if you must,” goggle-eyes muttered.
Mrs. Hall didn’t stop there, though. No, she was in motion. Pushed right past him into the room and found her way to a golden stain he’d made on the floor with some of his chemicals, just like a hound, and said, “Sir, my floor!”
And goggle-eyes just said, “The bill, put it on the bill, I told you!”
I took the chance to slip away while they haggled over the price of his damages. Later, though, Mrs. Hall said to go in and sweep things up, the straw and all, and try to get that golden stain out.
I did as told, but I never did tell anyone what happened later that day when I went up there. Not even that writer, Mr. Wells, when he came round months after, looking to collect the scraps of the story from us.
This is what happened that day, the day I’ve never told a soul about.
I show up at his door and knock gently, as Mrs. Hall said to, and when he doesn’t come to the door, I call through it, “Millie, sir. Here to sweep up, if you’ll let me.”
But still no answer comes. I look over my shoulder, back down the stairwell. I can hear Mrs. Hall down in the kitchen making tea. Then I look back at his door, turn the knob, and odd but it ain’t locked as usual. And when I push in, the room’s empty. Not the straw or mess, of course. Him. Old goggle-eyes ain’t there. But I’ve not seen him come down and I’ve been working in the parlour all morning. And I’ve not seen him go out the pub way either, and I been working in there all afternoon. And as Mrs. Hall made it a thing for me to knock, like she expects him to be in there working on his experiments, I can’t imagine she seen him leave the Coach and Horses either.
So I go in and think, Maybe this is better, not having to see him. Just doing my business of picking up after, and getting away without having to work around him. There are lots of things out of order in there, so I start first with the straw, since it’s most noticeable, and sweep it all up into a pile in the hall to pick up later. Then I start in on the stain, putting my elbow and shoulder into it. It ain’t coming out well, though I do manage to make it fade a little. I rub and rub and finally I sigh, sit up on my knees, and stretch my arms above me, letting my fingers flicker in the air, stretching them too.
And that’s when I feel it. Something creeping under my arms, like spiders crawling on my skin. I put my arms down quick and the feeling goes away. I look both right and left, but no one’s in there. Just me. I bend over again, thinking I’ve got to get a day free if Mrs. Hall will allow it. I’ll tell her the spiders-on-my-arms story, I’m thinking, and that might help my case. And while I’m rubbing at that golden stain on the floor, thinking about this, I feel the spiders go crawling down my spine.
I sit up again and say, “Who’s there?”
That’s when the spiders come walking over my right cheek, and I shiver. I open my mouth, ready to scream, and that’s when his hand goes over my mouth, catching my scream fore I can get it out of me.
“Shh, shh, girl,” he says. “Shh, shh.” Like I’m a baby crying. So I stop making a fuss and he says, “I will release you if you promise to be quiet.” I nod once, and then his hand comes off my mouth.
“Who?” I say. And then, “What are you?”
He says, “Who I am is not important, Millie. What I am is invisible.”
“Are you a ghost?” I say, looking round the room at nothing. I hear footsteps on the floor, creaking in a room where no one’s walking. I stand, ready to run.
“Ah,” he says, chuckling. “A village girl, through and through. No, my young one, I am no ghost. I am a scientist, you see.”
And I say, “I don’t see nothing.”
He laughs at that. The room laughs at that. I say, “What’s so funny about the truth?”
He says, “The truth? The truth is humorous more often than not, if you have the right perspective.”
I don’t say anything to that. I’m too busy looking round the room, trying to hear where the footsteps come from. He’s circling me like wolves circle lambs cut off from the herd.
Then the footsteps stop, and he says, “I have discovered something, Millie. A powerful thing. The secret of invisibility. A way for no one to ever see you.”
I say, “Not many people care to see me as it is. What’s so powerful about that?”
“Well, exactly,” he says, and his voice changes so it sounds like he’s latched on to something. “Exactly, Millie. You’re already an unseen, of sorts, aren’t you? And what good does it do you? If you were truly invisible, though, you could do what you can’t now. You could take a greater payment for the work you do. You could damage those who regularly abuse your services.”
I wince, thinking I’m not understanding what I’m hearing. “Sir,” I say. “Are you talking about thieving?”
“I’m talking about taking what you deserve,” he tells me. “Taking what you deserve and much, much more.” He says, “Millie, I can offer you a moment in history, if you should like to join me.”
“History?” I say, blinking. “What good is a moment in history, sir?”
“You will never die, Millie. Your name will live on forever if you join my ranks of the invisible. You will be remembered.”
His fingers—I know that’s what they are this time round—caress my cheek again, a soft stroke. I notice that old goggle-eyes has his greatcoat hanging up in the corner now, and his hat on the table, and his gloves beside it. His trousers hang over the back of a chair. His shoes sit beside the legs of his chemistry table. “It’s you,” I say, “ain’t it? You ain’t wearing any clothes, are you?”
He don’t answer me none, and I hear his steps move away from me. Then, from the table with all his tubes and bottles set up on it, a needle filled with blue fluid lifts into the air like a bottle fly, and starts drifting toward me.
“Would you like to test my new serum, Millie?” he says. “Would you like to be powerful like I am?”
I back up without saying anything. The needle follows. At the door, I take hold of the knob and say, “Sir, nothing’s happened here today. I want you to understand that. You can go about your business and I’ll go about mine. Not a word they’ll have from me, but I promise they’ll have it if you don’t leave me be.”
I close the door without a word back from him. I turn to find the mound of straw in the hall behind me. I lean over then, pick up as much as I can carry, and take it downstairs. Mrs. Hall don’t see me take it out the kitchen door. She’s busy doing sums of some sort on the account book. Totting up what goggle-eyes owes her, surely.
The rest of that day was taken up by thinking about what happened, and after a while my thoughts just kept spinning out like a spider web, and at some point in the spinning, I started thinking on my mother.
I hadn’t thought about her for a while. It’d been four years since she died. I was twelve then, and working at the Coach and Horses kept me busy enough over the following years that I didn’t think much about anything but my duties. I can’t say when for sure I’d stopped fingering my memories of Ma, but surely it was sometime between washing the dishes and making up beds.
My mother had been a good woman, even if she were sometimes hard on me. Like I said, she sometimes called me dull-headed, and would come home from the Coach and Horses and shoo me off cause she’d been caring after others all day, and there I was wanting a bit of her when she didn’t have a drop left. Usually, though, after she got her feet up and her wind back, she’d sit me on her lap and brush my hair. She’d tell me stories. In all her stories, I was the heroine. Millie who went to London on the back of a flying horse. Millie who found a cave where the fair folk live, and brought them home to help her poor mother cook and clean. Cause of Ma, I had many ideas of myself that I can’t say I’d thought of on my own. But they were none of them the me I was after she died, after I went to take her place at the Coach and Horses.
I wonder sometimes, what sort of idea of herself did Ma have? She never put herself in her stories as a heroine, just me. And whenever I tried to include her, she’d say, “Aww, Millie, my love, your old mother’s not an adventurer like you are.”
Quite an adventure it was, too, after she died. Going to live with the Halls, working there like my mother did. And then the funeral service, when some of her friends from the village came to pay their respects, that was shorter than I’d expected. I suppose I’d imagined something grander, rows of flowers, a violin playing somewhere, at least a piano, or a choir—even one melancholy singer, really—might have marked my mother’s passing. But, no, that was not to be. At least the vicar Mr. Bunting was nice about her, from what I remember. He mentioned the smile she had for anyone who entered the Coach and Horses. I remember thinking how odd that was, though, cause she weren’t ever smiling when she came home from there.
She has a stone marker in the churchyard now, but her name ain’t on it. Sometimes, when I have a free day, I sit with her there, and trace my fingertip over the dirt on the stone. I spell her name. Rose. I trace the letters over and over, until it burns the tip of my finger.
That’s what I kept coming back to after that incident in the Invisible Man’s room. How he said I could have a moment in history. My mother never had a moment in history. Her name ain’t even on that stone in the churchyard. All that’s left of her is that stone itself, and whatever I can recall of her.
What would Ma have thought of the Invisible Man, I wonder? Would she have had a smile for him, like the vicar Mr. Bunting said she had for anyone? I certainly didn’t give goggle-eyes any smiles for the rest of the time he stayed at the Coach and Horses. Which was a long time, indeed. He came in on the last day of February and stayed all through March and April. Everyone in the village had something to say about him, too, they did. Even the people who’d never chanced to see him. Children made up songs and rhymes. They called him the Bogey Man, and sometimes you’d see a whole pack of them running down a lane, and someone would pull them up and ask where they were all going in a hurry, and they’d say, “John seen the Bogey Man walking this way! We’re going to see him!” And then they’d be off again, singing their Bogey Man songs.
Teddy Henfrey stopped coming to the Coach and Horses after a while. Said it made him feel too uncomfortable, being there, hearing old goggle-eyes thrashing about in his room, doing his experiments. Mr. Hall complained he was driving business away. But I thought it was really Teddy Henfrey doing the driving, cause he was the one going round the village telling people how he won’t go back to the Coach and Horses for a pint until that Bogey Man is gone. Mrs. Hall told Mr. Hall, “Bills settled punctual is bills settled punctual, whatever you’d like to say about it.” She said maybe she’d made a mistake, marrying a man who didn’t know the ways of an inn like her father had, and that they’d wait till summer to do anything about it. Mr. Hall went off muttering something fierce, and for the rest of that day everyone stayed away from him.
I can’t say goggle-eyes went out much in the two months he come to stay here. Mostly he worked in the parlour he’d set up as a chemist’s shop, and spent his nights walking his bedroom floor. Even though Mrs. Hall spent time listening at his door, she couldn’t make heads or tails of anything she heard in there, but I never stopped to have a listen any longer. When it was time for sleep, I swept past his door fast as a mouse, and ran up the stairs to the attic, hoping he didn’t hear me.
But everyone knew he was up in that room of his in the Coach and Horses, even if they didn’t see him but now and then, when he took walks round the village for fresh air, usually at twilight or late in the evenings. And so talk began to spread, wondering about what sort of work he did, or if he were a criminal all bandaged up like that to hide himself from the authorities. And when this kind of talk began to make its way back to the Coach and Horses, Mrs. Hall come right out to the center of the pub one night when we had a decent crowd, and called everyone’s attention to her.
“I’ve heard all your nonsense talk,” she said in a firm voice, “and I’ll say this once and once only. He is an ex-peer-i-ment-al in-vest-i-ga-tor, is what he is! Now stop your tale telling.”
“A scientist,” Mr. Hall muttered from behind the bar. And when Mrs. Hall shot him a look, he went back to pouring.
“Yes, quite right,” said Mrs. Hall, turning back to her audience. “A scientist.” She seemed to think the folks at the pub would hear all that as an explanation, and go back to their business. Which I thought odd, since Mrs. Hall’s been living in Iping all her life, and surely she must know that everyone talking about anything different going on in the village is their exact business.
“Here, Millie!” Mr. Fearenside said that same night, after most everyone had left and I was cleaning up the tables. “What do you make of old goggle-eyes? You have to live right here with him, after all. What’s your story?”
I looked up from the table I’d been wiping down and met Mr. Fearenside’s eyes for a moment, then looked toward the staircase that led up to the Invisible Man’s room. He could be standing there, on that bottom step, for all I knew. He could be watching me, waiting to see me break my word with him. I’d felt his eyes on me many a time over March and April, and I was worse than a cat all that time, jumping at no cause a time or two every day it might seem to anyone looking. I could feel him watching me, waiting for me to tell his secret. So when I turned back to Mr. Fearenside, I said, “I ain’t got no story, Mr. Fearenside. I don’t see nothing and nothing don’t see me. Simple as that.”
“Clever girl, Millie!” said Mr. Fearenside.
And Mrs. Hall appeared in the pub right then to say, “Brought her up right, I can see now.”
I didn’t say anything to that. Just went back to wiping and taking up glasses. But for the rest of the night I kept thinking, How? How could she say that? She didn’t bring me up. It were my mother’s hands that molded me.
And right then, as I thought that, I started to cry a little. Tried getting the tears out of my eyes fore anyone saw them, but it was no use. Mrs. Hall saw straightaway and said, “Now what, Millie? I swear, always crying about something, you are!”
What happened next, everyone knows by now. It’s been months gone by since they found and killed him over in Port Burdock, and even now there’s always something about the other invisible folks he made that keep going round the countryside, terrifying innocent people and stealing. What happened was, Mr. Cuss, the village doctor, turned up at the Coach and Horses at the end of April. Had a professional interest in our guest, he said, since old goggle-eyes were all wrapped up in bandages. Said others were worried he was sick with something that might go round. But Mrs. Hall told Mr. Cuss he don’t have a reason to see her guest if her guest ain’t asked to be seen. Mr. Cuss went right on by her, though, into goggle-eyes’ room, where they must have had some kind of conversation, because he didn’t come out again for at least ten minutes.
Whatever they talked about ended in a short cry of surprise from Mr. Cuss, and then we heard a chair flung to the side, and that sharp bark of a laugh that belonged to goggle-eyes. Then the quick patter of feet to the door where Mrs. Hall and I both stood listening with our ears turned. It opened, and there stood Mr. Cuss. His face was pale as whitewash, and he held his hat against his chest like he were going to give us bad news. He looked back and forth at us, but in the end he said nothing, not a whisper, just went past us and down the stairs as if the devil himself were on his heels, and then the pub door closed behind him.
The Invisible Man laughed softly in the room beyond, and Mrs. Hall, without peering in, asked if she could get him anything. “No,” he said. His voice sounded black as the blacking I’d put on the stove that morning. “There is nothing anyone can get me now, Mrs. Hall. It is over.”
Mrs. Hall stood there for a minute, twisting her hands in her apron, waiting to see if he might say more. Maybe she hoped he’d ask for something and make her useful, I can’t right say. But when she turned and saw me, she jumped back an inch, as if she’d forgotten I’d been at the door with her all that time. “Millie,” she said. “Kitchen.” Then she went down the hall to her own room, shut the door, and didn’t come out until the next day, when we heard that the vicar Mr. Bunting and his wife had been burgled. And on Whit Monday, no less.
The story made it round town like the plague everyone feared old goggle-eyes might carry underneath those bandages of his. Before noon everyone knew the vicar and his wife had woken in the small hours of the morning by the sound of coins rattling downstairs. And when they went to check on the noise, found a candle lit. And the door unbolted. But no one there. They swore they watched the door of their house open and close on its own like it had a spirit in it. And then, when they checked their cash drawer, it was empty.
That same afternoon, while I was making a soup in the kitchen, a great racket happened up in old goggle-eyes’ room. I heard Mrs. Hall screaming like her head must have come right off and started flying round the rooms on its own, and then it come down the steps and found me like that, making soup in the kitchen. I looked up, dropped my knife, and went up directly.
I found Mr. Hall holding her up in the hallway. Old goggle-eyes’ door was closed up behind them. She slouched in Mr. Hall’s arms like she might faint at any time, so I got my arm under her other side and together Mr. Hall and I brought her down to the pub and I poured her a cup of rum to calm her. She and Mr. Hall took turns then, telling me what had happened.
Seems they went up because old goggle-eyes’ door was open, but he weren’t in there, and his clothes were all laid out, and his bed cold, which meant he’d been gone all morning, but without clothes, and all of his bandages left behind too. Mrs. Hall said he’d put spirits into her furniture, cause didn’t her mother’s own chair lift up and chase her right out of the room? I didn’t stop her to say it weren’t any spirits in that chair, but old goggle-eyes himself lifting it and chasing her out the door with it. How could I? If the Halls knew I’d known our guest had been invisible all this time and didn’t tell, I’m not sure what would happen. They might take me out the door directly, and leave me to find my own way. So I kept my mouth shut and kept nodding as Mrs. Hall brought the story round to when I’d come up the stairs after hearing her screaming.
“Out,” she told Mr. Hall now, after she’d finished the story. “Lock the doors on him! I don’t want him here any longer! All of those bottles and powders! I knew there wasn’t something right with him. No one should have that many bottles!”
I held her hand while she sipped her drink, and didn’t say what came to my mind right then. Ain’t it her who defended him some weeks ago? Ain’t it her who said he was an ex-peer-i-men-tal in-vest-i-ga-tor, like that were something above the rest of us? I figure she’d had a bad enough time already. When she finished her rum, I poured another to help her get along a little further.
She asked me to go across the way to get Mr. Wadgers, the blacksmith, to come and have a look at that furniture. She admired Mr. Wadgers, she said. She said she wanted his opinion on the strange occurrences at the Coach and Horses. So I ran over and brought Mr. Wadgers back, telling him very little, as I didn’t want to put an idea into his mind before he had a chance to think for himself.
“Thank you, Millie,” said Mrs. Hall when we returned. She sighed and began telling Mr. Wadgers about our morning, and I thought the madness had surely passed, that old goggle-eyes had had a good time of giving her a fright, and now he’d go back to his experiments. But soon as Mrs. Hall’s sigh escaped her lips, wouldn’t you know, the door upstairs creaks open, and down the stairs he comes, dressed in his bandages and hat and coat and muffler, just like when he first appeared in the late February entrance to the Coach and Horses. “I didn’t see him come in,” said Mrs. Hall as he walked past, as though none of us were there for the seeing, and went to his chemistry parlour, where he shut the door.
Mr. Hall got up and followed after Mr. Wadgers told him he should do so. He knocked at the door, opened it a sliver, and demanded an explanation for old goggle-eyes’ sudden appearance. But the only thing old goggle-eyes had to say was, “Go to the devil! And shut that door behind you!”
And for the rest of that morning all we could hear was him in there clinking his bottles and tubes together, tossing about all those chemicals.
It was later, after we’d all gone back to our regular ways, that Mrs. Hall brought the thing to an end. It was her, I’d say, that had the courage to do so. She gave me instructions not to feed old goggle-eyes a crumb, and to not heed his calls. Instead, we went about our business, and ignored him as he threw bottles into his fireplace and cursed the gods. I cringed whenever I heard him shouting in there, but Mrs. Hall said, “Be a rock, Millie,” and so I was still as the stone that marks my mother’s grave in the churchyard.
At midday, though, he opened his door and demanded Mrs. Hall attend to him. His shouts filled up the Coach and Horses. Mrs. Hall hitched up her skirts and went right to him, her fright from the morning having passed her by, and said, “Is it your bill you’re wanting, sir?”
“Why have I not received my breakfast?” he asked.
And Mrs. Hall said, “Why isn’t my bill paid? That’s what I’d like to know.”
I put my hand over my mouth, knowing that I could shut myself up and hold my voice inside me, even if Mrs. Hall had no way of doing so for her own sake.
He told her he had the money he owed, but Mrs. Hall wasn’t backing down. She said, “Yes, but I wonder where you found it. The vicar and his wife been burgled this very morning, and yesterday you had none.” Then she began demanding he tell her what he’d done to her chairs—had he put spirits in them? And she demanded to know what he was on to in there with all those bottles and fluids. She demanded to know how his room was empty that morning and how he got in and out with none of us seeing. She demanded to know his name. “Who are you?” she said.
An endless list of demands, it was, and when Mrs. Hall reached the end of it, old goggle-eyes stamped his foot like the hoof of the devil and said, “By Heaven! I will show you!”
Mind you, I was in the kitchen when all this was happening. I could hear Mrs. Hall’s voice going up and up, though, and stopped washing the dishes for a moment to listen harder. And just as I took my hands out of the water, Mrs. Hall screamed. And the scream was something louder and more frightening than anything she’d made when the chair flew at her earlier that morning.
I had my hands in my apron, drying them off, when I come out the kitchen into the pub, and there, right in front of me, his back to me, was old goggle-eyes. But he’d taken the bandages off his head, and his goggles and hat. He was a headless man standing there, and even though I’d already been in a room with him when he was invisible, I couldn’t help but catch Mrs. Hall’s screams and join her in sending one up to our Lord in Heaven.
It was a bad thing to do, though, it was. For it only called his attention. Old goggle-eyes turned round when he heard me, and though I couldn’t see his face, I knew he was going to kill me. He’d blame me, I knew, for his discovery. Even if it were Mrs. Hall who’d forced him to reveal himself. To reveal that there weren’t a self underneath all those bandages.
I turned and ran back into the kitchen then, and he came after, calling, “Millie, Millie!” But I kept on going. I took the stairs up to the next floor, and then the stairs up to my room in the attic. I locked the door, then opened my window, flung my head out and saw people running not only out of the pub beneath me, squealing and screaming, but also up and down the street people were abandoning the Whit Monday festivities to see what was happening down at the Coach and Horses.
Gypsies and sweets sellers, the swing man, wenches and dandies—they all came running down to the inn, and soon I could hear their voices burbling up from below like the soup I’d left on the stove. It was like how the vicar Mr. Bunting talked to us one Sunday about the tower of Babel, and all the many voices, and how no sense could be made of anything. I didn’t move from my seat on the ledge of my dormer window, only looked over my shoulder every now and then to see if my door were still closed. I had the key in the palm of my hand, sweaty and hot. And later, when Mrs. Hall come up to say through the door that all was fine again, that the Invisible Man were gone now, they’d chased him off after a struggle, and won’t you come out Millie, I opened that hand and saw how I’d held the key so tight it had cut into my skin and raised my blood.
What did he want from me, I wonder sometimes, when he ran after me into the kitchen, calling my name out? I was afraid then, and didn’t stop to ask. But when I look back now, I sometimes think I can see round that fear to hear his voice again. To understand that he weren’t angry at me, like I thought. He’d sounded frightened as I was. The same way I sometimes come into a room and see a mouse, and both of us jump at the sight of each other. What did he want from me? Someone told me that, after I ran away, the constable came and found him sitting at the kitchen table eating a crust of bread and some cheese. Was that all he’d wanted? Really? Had he just been hungry?
I can’t right know the answer to that question. After that day, he only came back to Iping once more, with a tramp he forced to help him steal his books out of the room where he stayed here at the Coach and Horses. When he had those books again, they say he went on to other places and grew madder and madder, and stole more and more, and even involved himself in murder before a mob in Port Burdock hunted him down and killed him. It took a few weeks before the various stories told by various people in the various nearby ports and villages he terrorized were brought out and put together, so that a bigger story could be seen. And that was mostly cause of the writer, Mr. Wells, who came round after everything seemed to be over, drawing us all out to speak with him. Everyone, that is, except me.
He was a curious man, Mr. Wells, with eyes that pierced through me in a way that made me feel too seen. So much so that, when it was my turn for an interview, I said, “I don’t have anything I can tell you, sir. I’m sorry.”
“And why is that, Millie?” he asked as I sat at a table in the pub with him, rubbing my fingertips over the palm of my hand where the key had cut into me. “I hear, after all, that you were here almost all the time, and that he chased you into the kitchen on the day he revealed himself.”
“I don’t see nothing, sir,” I told him. “And nothing sees me.”
Mr. Wells waited for me to look up from my fidgeting before he spoke again. And when I did, he said, “I don’t believe that for an instant, Millie.”
But he let me alone, he did, and I was grateful.
It was clear that the Invisible Man had given the same offer he’d made me to others. Mrs. Hall read the news to me every morning in the months that followed his reign of terror. One day she said, “Look here, Millie! Not two months after he’s been killed in Port Burdock and there are others like him taking on his filthy business. Thieving and firing houses! What a world we live in! If I had it my way, I’d see them all out of the country!”
“Would you now, miss?” I said. “And how would you see to it, them being invisible and all?”
She gave me a sour face and said, “Millie, you know what I mean.”
I met her eyes when she said that, instead of looking down at the floor like I used to when she scolded. I never say what I think aloud, of course, but there are words that eyes can say just as well as any mouth can. And what my eyes said that morning when they met hers was, “You was wrong about him all along, weren’t you?” An experimental investigator, indeed.
I think about the description of his death Mrs. Hall read from Mr. Wells’ report some months later, usually when I’m alone and can use my time to imagine what happened after he was finished with us here at the Coach and Horses. She said that the people of Port Burdock welcomed him with fists and knees and boots when they finally cornered him. She said that they welcomed him with the flash of their teeth and a spade to the head, swung heavily. She said that, when he no longer moved and they began to back away, he started to appear within the circle they’d made round him.
First, an old woman saw a hand. Just the nerves and veins and arteries and bones could be seen beneath the invisible flesh. But then there were his feet as well. And then, slowly, his skin began to appear, moving inward from his toes and fingers toward the center of his body, like waves returning to the sea. He was all bashed up and bloody. His skin was white, his eyes red like a rabbit’s. Nearly an albino, he’d been.
Mrs. Hall says he’d been a working boy who grew up and went to university somehow. Said his teachers ignored him. Said he stole from his own father to pay for his experiments, and that his father killed himself when he found the money gone, for he needed it to pay a debt.
I shake my head and say, “It’s a bad business, it is.”
And Mrs. Hall says, “I don’t know who these scientists think they are. Playing as if they were our Lord in Heaven.”
I don’t say, “I meant his teachers ignoring him, miss.”
Mrs. Hall says, “They’ll get these other ones, too. You wait and see.”
I say, “Indeed, miss.”
Sundays, when I go round to Ma’s grave after church, I think on the scene when they killed him, and wonder if the other people he injected with the serum he offered me were there when it happened, watching, invisible, protected if they did not speak and make themselves known. Did his anger at the world that didn’t see him get into them as well? Surely it must have, as they’ve continued his terrible ways after his passing. That is what he leaves behind. Now, no one will forget him.
And then I wonder about his offer. A moment in history. Sometimes, when I’m looking at my mother’s stone, tracing the letters of her name into the dirt that covers it, I wonder if I should have taken him up on it. For what good is life without the howls of anger in a world that thinks so highly of itself, even when there is great wrongness in it?
To be seen, to be known. It seems, when I look out at the faces of the people in the village, that’s what most want. But we live in a world where not everyone can possibly be seen. We put too much on seeing to know one another, and the eye is a friend who often lies. At least this is something I’ve noticed in my time pouring drinks and making beds at the Coach and Horses. It might be better, I sometimes think, if we were all blind.
Proof of my time here. That is my desire. But there’s little most can do to have this. The choices for our memorials are few, like Ma’s unmarked stone here. I trace her name again, and again. We must take what we are given, then, like the vicar Mr. Bunting is always reminding us, and be happy. We must be happy, I think, with our anger, with our outraged mobs, with our eagerness to tear at the world that binds us. We must be content with what we have.