PseudoPod 657: Waxworks


by W.L. George

Henry Badger rapidly paced the City churchyard; his air of anxiety seemed to overweigh his small, though not unpleasing, features. He was an insignificant little man, dressed in pepper-and-salt tweeds. His hair was cut very close, except where a love-lock, plastered down with jasmine-oil, trailed over his forehead from under his hard black hat. Whenever he completed the circuit of the churchyard he peered towards the gate through which must come disturbance and romance. Henry Badger was in love, and he could not escape the consequences of his share in our common delight and affliction.

Suddenly brightness overspread his sharp features. It was she! She, in a pink crêpe-de-Chine blouse, disconnected rather than connected with her white serge skirt by a patent-leather belt. Above the pink blouse was an equally pink neck, and a rather pretty face, all soft curves. She was bright blue of eye and tumbled in pleasant fairness about the hair, under a large straw hat from which drooped on one side a fragment of ivy that might with advantage have been placed elsewhere. But her name was Ivy, and she liked to live in harmony.

“I’m late,” she said, with pretty-briskness, as they shook hands. “So sorry, Henry. Only the boss got dictating, and he likes to hear himself talk, even if it is only to little me. Still, better late than never,” she added, with a smile indicating wit.

Henry Badger replied “Yes,” and wondered if it would be good policy to attack her for being late. Since he felt at fault, no doubt it would. Only—an argument with Ivy, one never knew what that would lead to.

“Well, you dummy,” she said, “is that all you’ve got to say? Got the tickets?”

“Er—,” said Henry Badger, “no.”

“What do you mean?” said Ivy, crossly.

“What I say,” replied Henry Badger, with feeble determination. “Fact is, Ivy, I’m sorry, but I forgot.”

The blue eyes stared at him, incredulous.

“Forgot! What you been and done that for?”

Henry Badger explained profusely. The night before he’d had an awful headache, and it had slipped his memory to go round to the Imperial Music Hall, and this morning the manager—

Ivy trampled upon these confused excuses. “All I can see,” she said, “is here we are landed on a Saturday afternoon with nowhere to go except the pictures. And it’s so hot in those places. Last time I was fair melted. I do think it’s too bad of you.”

It was then that Henry Badger expressed himself. “Fact is, Ivy, I been thinking.”

“Hope you didn’t break anything,” said Ivy, “but since you done it, what’s the ideer?”

“I been thinking that we don’t know the town we live in. I was reading a book the other day. Strange Sights of London, it was called. And, would you believe it, Ivy? there’s lots of things I got to learn.”

“Ah, I do believe it,” said Ivy.

“For instance,” said Henry, “did you know that the church of St. Ethelburga wasn’t burnt down in the Fire of London?”

“No,” said Ivy, “and now I do know it I don’t seem to be much better off.”

“Ah!”, said Henry, “that’s where you’re wrong, Ivy. It improves your mind to know that sort of thing. And that’s how I got my ideer. I been thinking we might go round to the docks.”

“What for?”

“Oh, I dunno. Just to mooch round. Ever been to the docks? No? Well, why not try ’em? You know, Ivy, people spend a lot of money going to the Riviera, and they never see the place round the corner. See your own country first,” he added, with originality.

“Well,” said Ivy, after a moment, “seeing you’ve mucked up this afternoon, and mother’s gone out and there won’t be any tea, I suppose we may as well.”

The two little people, for neither of them was quite five-foot-six, made their way along the East India Dock Road, where an omnibus had deposited them. For an hour they wandered the tragic land where none live for pleasure, and where slowly the soot falls to obliterate sooty footmarks. They were too tired to be pleased when, behind a long brick wall, they found the docks. They perceived the smell of the East, oil of macassar, piled logs of sandalwood, barrels of copra; at a point against the sky, where now the dark clouds were racing, they saw outlined tall spars, while a funnel striped in yellow and blue threw out a shower of sparks against the sky like a dun veil touched with tinsel. The heat seemed to grow.

They lost their direction, not liking to ask their way of the rough inhabitants, not knowing where they wanted to go. They were astray, unprotected lambs in a land of slender law. Ivy began to drag her feet as loudly as she could, to show that she was displeased. Both were secretly oppressed because that day they had not kissed.

At that moment came rain. Very slowly at first in separate warm drops that made upon the pavement spots as large as a coin. “My!” said Henry, “it’s going to come down like billy-oh!”

“I don’t care,” said Ivy.

“Come on,” said Henry, “let’s see if we can get under shelter somewhere.” But they were still progressing along another brick wall; opposite, the warehouses were closed. They ran, for now the rain was beginning to fall with greater determination.

“Here,” gasped Henry, as he ran, “we must get in somewhere; you’ll be sopped through. Let’s go into a shop.”

They stopped irresolutely at the corner of a side-street. As it was almost entirely occupied by warehouses no living creature could be seen. But just as they prepared to run on through the rain, Henry observed a tottering post, bearing a battered sign. The sign was in the shape of a hand pointing up the lane, and upon it were painted the words: “To the Waxworks.”

“Here,” he cried, dragging Ivy along, “that’ll do. I didn’t know they had waxworks in this part of the world, but it’ll save us getting wet.” They ran up the street, expecting a veranda and a commissionaire. At the end of the lane they had found nothing, and paused irresolute, when upon the door of a three-floored house Ivy saw the word “Waxworks”, with the addition: “Mrs. Groby, Proprietress.” Henry seized the door handle, which resisted for a moment. The door jammed, but with a great effort he forced it open. It made a great clatter as he flung it against the wall. Breathless, and wiping their wet faces, the two stood giggling in the hall. Then, feeling alone, suddenly they kissed. The excitement of the run and of the caress sheltered them against an impression which the place imposed upon them only by degrees. They were in the hall of a house, of a house like any other house. There was no noise, except for a slight sound. It felt deserted. The door handle on the right was covered with dust. Nobody had gone into that room for a long time. An unaccountable emotion developed in them. The house was still except that at last they identified the slight sound: far away a tap was leaking. They found themselves listening to the drip which came regularly from the basement.

“Well,” said Henry, with forced cheerfulness, “here we are.” And as if to reassure himself: “Anyhow, we sha’n’t get wet.”

They stood for a moment looking out at the rain, which now came faster. The effect of this falling water, soft and hot, the dusty silence of the place except for that regular drip far away, combined to cast upon them a sort of uneasiness, an almost physical oppression. Ivy began to look about her with unexplainable anxiety. The darkness of the stairs, the banisters broken in several places, the dusty door handle, stirred in her a vague fear; she looked about her like a cat in a strange place and preparing to flee. As the feeling communicated itself to Henry his manliness revolted. It would be too silly to have the jumps. So he said: “Ive, since we’re here, why not go upstairs and see the show?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Ivy dominated her disturbance and said: “All right.”

They went up the stairs, firmly, but with instinctive slowness, troubled by the sound of their feet upon the boards, followed by the fainter drip of the distant tap. The first floor was like the ground floor. Here, too, the door handles were dusty, and here, too, there came no sound from beyond the doors. They had to make an effort to go up further. The sense that here was emptiness made emptiness frightful. But Henry was leading and still went up. He didn’t know why, but knew he must go up. Perhaps because he was a man and couldn’t run away from anything, not even from nothing. The second floor comforted them, for here was a pay-box, empty it is true, but marked: “Pay here.” Henry released a great sigh. It really was a show. It had a human air.

“Come on, Ivy,” he said, in a loud voice which rang unpleasantly down the uncarpeted stairs. “Since there’s nobody down here we can pay when we get to the top.”

Ivy silently followed him up, and so they reached what seemed to be a large attic. Once again a reluctant door yielded to their hands, and Henry stepped into the doorway with a sort of jauntiness, but Ivy paused for a moment at his back. Waxworks, yes, but, she didn’t know why, at once she was terrified. One couldn’t see very well in the attic, for the dust of years lay upon the skylight, and the avaricious light of the sullen sky hardly penetrated. The walls had been whitewashed, but now were stained black with damp, soiled by the touch of hands, the smoke of lamps. About the door hung rags of dirty red damask. And in the immense silence of the place, hearing not even the drip of the distant tap, they found themselves alone with the wax figures.

Some stood upon little thrones of red-painted wood, here a man in day clothes, staring emptily from a yellow countenance, here a woman spreading crimson nostrils to an absent scent. The two were still in the doorway, not knowing why they did not go in. They were conscious of a secret vileness in these faces. The things stood so still, but sure of themselves, as if they had always stood in the dust and twilight. But at last Henry seized Ivy’s arm more firmly and they went in.

Altogether there were fourteen figures. Three of the men were labeled Charles Peace, Dr Crippen, and Gouffé. The woman with the intense gaze was Mrs. Maybrick, and there were two other women, one with bright red hair over which a spider had built its web. But Henry and Ivy, as they stood before them, did not at once read the legends telling how Crippen had killed his wife and burnt her body in the furnace, nor did they gaze at Gouffé, the bailiff, who had been carved into pieces and packed in a trunk. A little later Ivy read that ticket to the end and shudderingly stepped away from the invitation to draw apart the figure’s clothing and see indicated the lines along which the body had been cut up. At that moment she was cowering against Henry, who instinctively had laid an arm about her shoulders, for the single figures were less terrifying than two groups represented in action. One of the groups comprised a man and a woman in a pink flannelette dressing-gown. With an expression of pinched determination the murderer was forcing the female figure down into a bath, where a sheet of mica, tinted green, represented water. In the grasp of a bony hand, the female figure held the edge of the bath, wildly raising the other arm, while into her distorted mouth floated the green edge of the water that was to drown her. It was a work of art of indescribable horror. It was as if the snake-like fingers moved, as if in another moment the head would disappear under that still green surface.

With an exclamation Henry turned aside to the other group, that stood dim within the shadow, away from the faint rays that fell through the skylight. This represented a very old woman, lying on her face, her white hair scattered and stained with blood, while kneeling over her, a sandbag still half-raised, was a short man in the clothes of the day, his face set and coated with a horrible scarlet flush.

Now a new sound made them start. It was the growing rain, pattering upon the skylight, as if goblins raced across it. In a sudden desire for union again they kissed, quickly falling apart, as if espied.

They turned away for a moment, fascinated, they did not know how, in this gallery of crime; the still things about them seemed to have a motion, a vibration of their own. They found themselves looking sharply into corners as if something were there after all, as if these were not creatures of wax, but actually poisoners, men and women experienced in violence and still capable of evil. The great horror, which always drew them back to itself, was that bath, soiled, chipped, and streaked with black rivulets of dirt, into which the murderer was endlessly pressing down the figure that endlessly strove for life.

So great was the tension that Henry tried to rejoin the ordinary world. He whispered: “We ought to have paid someone,” but while he spoke he looked from side to side, as if begging some material custodian to appear with a familiar ticket and a sounding punch. Ivy did not reply; she was holding his arm in a nervous clutch; once or twice she moved away from him, and then came back, as if her fingers grasped him independently of the processes of her brain. She was opening and closing her mouth, striving to speak and finding her tongue dry. Only at last did she find a whisper: “I don’t like it. Let’s go.”

Henry Badger also wanted to go, but he was so unaccountably afraid that he dared not go. His virility spoke: it told him that if he went now he would be everlastingly ashamed. He was afraid to tell himself that he was afraid. So, in a voice the loudness of which half-startled him, he replied: “Oh, rot! Since we’ve come up we may as well see the lot of them.” So, Ivy still grasping his arm, they circled the attic, stopping in turn before each figure. Ivy did not want to see, but she could not look away. It was as if she must meet material, human eyes. It was always the eyes she looked at. There was a challenge in them. It was the defiance of the dead which she must meet. She must again view the bath, look down through the green surface of the water upon the agonized limbs which twisted in the dimness that was to be their grave. But now there was a change. Perhaps because habit made that first seem less awful, the second group gained in horror. It was not only the sight of the blood coagulated on the white hair, it was something else, something unnamable. The art of the sculptor had gone too far; here was mere and abominable reality. Real hair, and crouching above, with drooping eyelids, the figure of the murderer, ill-shaven and flushed with health. Something twisted in Ivy’s body as she thought that upon the still mask she could discern beads of sweat. They stayed staring, half-conscious that they had been here a long time, though little more than a minute had passed. The beating of their hearts deafened them, and combined with the hissing sound of the rain, as if thin ghosts shod in cloud were racing across the skylight. Her eyes still fixed upon the creature with the sandbag, Ivy whispered again: “Let’s go.”

Then, in the far distance, they heard the front door slam.

At that sound a confused terror seized them both. The contrast between incoming humanity and the unearthly silence here affected them like a blow. Heat and weakness rushed up their limbs, and in Ivy’s ears was a sound like the distant unwinding of an endless chain. Henry was the first to recover; a compound emotion formed in him: the proprietress—of course—he wanted to get out—they really ought to pay—he’d better see. This summarized itself in an inarticulate sound. Turning, he ran to the landing and looked down the stairs. He did not know what he expected to see, but something, and after a few seconds, as he heard nothing, such a weakness overcame him that he let himself go against the balustrade, his head hanging down over the well of the stairs, where all was silence and darkness.

But almost at once he recovered, for suddenly behind him there came a long cry, a cry with a strange, torn quality, like that of a beast in pain, that jerked him to his feet as it dragged from his pores a sheet of cold sweat. As he turned, Ivy came tumbling out of the attic, her arms outstretched before her as if she fumbled for her way. She could not see, for her eyes were so retroverted that only the whites showed under the falling lids. He caught her just as she was going to throw herself down the stairs. As he touched her she flung her arms about his neck with maniacal strength and he could not free himself from that grasp. As they stumbled together down the stairs, he thought that it was like being held by bones. They fell together at the foot of the second landing, and somehow struggled to their feet. There was a moment of incredible effort before they could pull open the outer door, which had been closed by the wind. They halted for an instant upon the steps, close-locked under the falling hot rain, and Henry did not understand what drove him then, what strange relief or exaltation, what insane excitement made him press his mouth to the lips drawn tightly into pallid lines. At the kiss Ivy’s nerves suddenly relaxed. She became a bundle in his arms, something he dragged along, staggering as he fled, he knew not from what. They shared but one idea: to get away. The pavement streamed before them as they ran with downcast eyes. Then, with a shock, they were stopped by two policemen in oilskins, with whom they nearly collided at the junction of the lane and the main road. The policemen stared at these two, instinctively holding them by the arm, not understanding that they were at the limit of terror, and already suspecting that they had committed some crime. Indeed, Henry and Ivy were struggling in their grasp, still dominated by their one desire: to get away. At last, when they grew quiet and stood breathing hard, their mouths relaxed by nervous exhaustion, the elder policeman, who was a sergeant, said: “Now then, what’s all this?”

“I don’t know,” said Henry.

“Come on,” said the sergeant, “you don’t put me off like that. What you been up to, you two?” Henry did not reply. “Mark you, it’ll be all the worse for you if you don’t talk. What’s happened?” He shook his prisoner, suggesting that he’d make him talk yet, but failing to draw a reply he turned to the girl: “You, why were you running?”

Ivy seemed to have recovered more quickly than her companion. Though her eyelids did not cease to twitch, she managed to say: “I saw something.”

“Saw something?” said the sergeant. “Saw what?”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” said Ivy.

“I expect they’re drunk,” said the constable.

“No,” said the sergeant, meditatively, “I can’t smell it on ’em.”

“Oh, no,” cried Ivy, “no, of course not, only it’s the waxworks—the waxworks.”

“Waxworks?” said the sergeant. “What waxworks?”

“I know, sergeant,” said the constable, nodding up the lane. “Mrs. Groby’s place.”

“Oh, yes,” said the sergeant, “I know now. Sort of chamber of ’orrors. Well, you been to the waxworks. What about it?”

“I saw something,” whispered Ivy.

“Saw what?” said the constable. “Saw Mrs. Groby, I suppose. Funny old dame, sergeant. She’s been living in that house all by herself for the last forty years, alone with them things. Used to make a lot of money out of them, and they say she’s got a lot saved up. Between you and me and the lamp-post I’m surprised no one’s knocked her on the head yet and walked off with her money.”

Ivy gave a low cry: “Yes—that’s it—there’s a man in there—he’s killed her—blood all over her head.”

“What’s all this?” asked the sergeant, professionally incredulous. “What’s all this story? And how do you know anything about it?”

“There was a noise,” said Ivy. “The door slammed—Henry ran out. I couldn’t move for a moment—she was on the floor, and the man—” Her voice became shrill: “as I turned to look after Henry I just—he raised his arm and rubbed it—just with the corner of my eye—I—” She gave a heavy sigh, and her head fell back upon the policeman’s chest.

But she had not fainted, and in a moment the policemen were striding up the lane, followed by Henry and Ivy, who clung to the companionship of these tall, loud-speaking men. As they went the sergeant theorized:

“I see the dodge. He did the old woman in; then he heard this pair come up the stairs, and rigged himself up as a wax figure. Got cramp, I suppose, and took the chance to rub his arm when he thought she wasn’t looking. Cheer up, missy,” he added to Ivy, who was crying out of weakness. “We’ll soon get him.” As they reached the door of the museum he winked at her and drew his truncheon. “Better stay downstairs, missy,” he added, as he led the way up. But after a moment Ivy and Henry could not bear their loneliness, and tiptoed up the stairs behind the blue shapes that walked with such assurance, making no attempt to muffle their tread. When they reached the attic, the policeman looked in a puzzled way into the twilight.

“Which one is it?” said the policeman, and instinctively his voice fell to a whisper. Ivy, who was just behind him, pointed at the kneeling shape carrying the sandbag.

“That one,” she said. The sergeant did not understand his own feeling, but he received some dim impression from the grey place. He walked only three feet into the room. Then, in an uneasy voice, he addressed the kneeling figure: “Now then, my man. The game’s up. You better go quietly.”

There was no reply, and the echoes died away, repeating a quivering uncertainty in the policeman’s voice.

After a moment’s pause the sergeant, irritated by the silence, strode into the room; raising his truncheon, he went up to the kneeling figure and touched it on the shoulder. He drew back his hand, touched the body again. Then, suddenly, he burst into a roar of laughter, as with a derisive gesture he passed his hand up and down over the waxen face.

“Wax!” he cried. “Bert! Have you ever seen such a pair of babies as these two? Been here and got the ’orrors, the two of them, and ran out like a pair of loonies to tell us this dummy is Jack the Ripper posing for the Russian bally. Oh, my!”

“Wax!” whispered Ivy, “oh, no. Oh, please don’t touch it. It’s not wax. No, it’s not.”

“Come on,” said the sergeant, kindly, “touch it yourself.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” said Ivy, quivering, but with a laugh the policeman seized her wrist, and, drawing her towards the figure, forced her to lay her hand upon the waxen coldness of the cheek.

“Wax,” said the policeman, “you silly kid. That’s only wax. And so’s this wax,” he added, as he bent down and negligently laid his hand upon the blood-stained white hair. But, in the same movement almost, the policeman jumped up and recoiled, his staring eyes glaring at his hand. For less than a second did he gaze at it; then, with a cry, as if seized by ungovernable hysteria, he brought down his truncheon upon the head of the kneeling man, which, under the blow, scattered into tiny fragments of tinted wax. Then the other policeman drew back as he saw his comrade’s hand stained with fresh blood.

“A waxwork,” he gasped. “What—how? It isn’t a waxwork. It’s Mrs. Groby.” He laid a single finger on the woman’s head, stared at his own blood-stained hand. “Dead—still warm.” His voice rose high: “Killed—by what?”

In the silence, far below, could be heard the thin drip of the leaky tap.

About the Author

W.L. George

Walter Lionel George (1882-1926) was an English writer, chiefly known for his popular fiction, which included feminist, pacifist, and pro-labour themes. According to Alec Waugh, he was commercially successful, helpful in practical terms to upcoming authors, but unpopular in the literary world for his subject matter, his hack journalism, and his left-wing views. In 1945 George Orwell included George in a list of “natural” novelists, not inhibited by “good taste”, and particularly praised Caliban (a fictionalised account of the life of Lord Northcliffe) for its “memorable and truthful” picture of London life.

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About the Narrator

Simon Meddings

Simon Meddings is a freelance writer and scriptwriter, he is also an actor and has recently appeared in the horror film Polterheist directed by David Gilbank. Simon hosts the Waffle On Podcast all about classic television shows and films from around the world. Available on itunes, Stitcher radio and direct at Podbean.

Find more by Simon Meddings