Before I begin my story I must give you some account of certain passages in my early life, which seem to have some connection with the extraordinary facts that I am about to put on record.
To speak more precisely, of the connection of one of them with those facts there can be no doubt at all, and of the connection of the other with them I at least have none.
When I was quite a boy, scarce yet fifteen years old, I happened to be living in a parish on the Welsh coast, which I will here call Penruddock. There were some bold hills inland and some very wild and rugged cliffs along the coast. But there was also a well-sheltered beach and a little pier where some small fishing vessels often lay. Penruddock was not yet reached by rail, but forty miles of a splendid road, through very fine scenery, took you to a railway station. And this journey was made by a well-appointed coach on five days of every week.
The people of Penruddock were very full of a queer kind of gossip, and were very superstitious. And I took the greatest interest in their stories. I cannot say that I really believed them, or that they affected me with any real fear. But I was not without that mingled thrill of doubt and wonder which helps one to enjoy such things. I had a double advantage in this way, for I could understand the Welsh language, although I spoke it but little and with difficulty, and I often found a startling family likeness between the stories which I heard in the cottages of the peasantry three or four miles out of town and those which circulated among the English-speaking people in whose village I lived.
There was one such story which was constantly reproduced under various forms. Sometimes it was said to have happened in the last generation; sometimes as far back as the civil wars, of which, strange to say, a lively traditional recollection still remained in the neighbourhood; and sometimes it seemed to have been handed down from prehistoric times, and was associated with tales of enchantment and fairyland. In such stories the central event was always the unaccountable disappearance of some person, and the character of the person disappearing always presented certain unvarying features. He was always bold and fascinating, and yet in some way or other very repulsive. And when you tried to find out why, some sort of inhumanity was always indicated, some unconscious lack of sympathy which was revolting in a high degree or even monstrous. The stories had one other feature in common, of which I will tell you presently.
I seldom had any companions of my own age, and I was in consequence more given to dreaming than was good for me. And I used to marshal the heroes of these queer stories in my day-dreams and trace their likeness one to another. They were often so very unlike in other points, and yet so strangely like in that one point. I remember very well the first day that I thought I detected in a living man a resemblance to those dreadful heroes of my Welsh friend's folk-lore. There was a young fellow whom I knew, about five or six years my senior, and so just growing into manhood. His name, let us say, was James Redpath. He was well built, of middle height, and, as I thought, at first at least, quite beautiful to look upon. And, indeed, why I did not continue to think so is more than I can exactly say. For he possessed very fine and striking features, and although not very tall his presence was imposing. But nobody liked him. The girls especially, although he was so good-looking, almost uniformly shrank from him. But I must confess that he did not seem to care much for their society.
I went about with him a good deal at one time on fishing and shooting excursions and made myself useful to him, and except that he was rather cruel to dogs and cats, and had a nasty habit of frightening children, I do not know that I noticed anything particular about him. Not, at least, until one day of which I am going to tell you. James Redpath and I were coming back together to Penruddock, and we called at a cottage about two miles from the village. Here we found a little boy of about four years old, who had been visiting at the cottage and whom they wanted to send home. They asked us to take charge of him and we did so. On the way home the little boy's shoe was found to have a nail or a peg in it that hurt his foot, and we were quite unable to get it out. It was nothing, however, to James Redpath to carry him, and so he took him in his arms. The little boy shrank and whimpered as he did so. James had under his arm some parts of a fishing-rod and one of these came in contact with the little boy's leg and scratched it rather severely so as to make him cry. I took it away and we went on. I was walking a little behind Redpath, and as I walked I saw him deliberately take another joint of the rod, put it in the same place and then watch the little boy's face as it came in contact with the wire, and as the child cried out I saw quite a malignant expression of pleasure pass over James's face. The thing was done in a moment and it was over in a moment; but I felt as if I should like to have killed him if I dared. I always dreaded and shunned him, more or less, afterwards, and I began from that date to associate him with the inhuman heroes of my Welsh stories.
I don't think that I should ever have got over the dislike of him which I then conceived, but I saw the last of him, at least Penruddock saw the last of him, about three months later. I had been sitting looking over the sea between the pier and the cliffs and trying to catch a glimpse of the Wicklow Mountains which were sometimes to be seen from that point. Just then James Redpath came up from the beach beyond the pier, and passing me with a brief "good morning," went away inland, leaving the cliffs behind him. I don't know how long I lay there, it might be two hours or more, and I think I slept a little. But I suddenly started up to find it high day and past noon, and I began to think of looking for some shelter. There was not a cloud visible, but nevertheless two shadows like, or something like, the shadows of clouds lay near me on the ground. What they were the shadows of I could not tell, and I was about to get up to see, for there was nothing to cast such a shadow within the range of my sight as I lay. Just then one of the shadows came down over me and seemed to stand for a moment between me and the sun. It had a well-defined shape, much too well defined for a cloud. I thought as I looked that it was just such a shadow as might be cast by a yawl-built boat lying on the body of a large wheelbarrow. Then the two shadows seemed to move together and to move very quickly. I had just noticed that they were exactly like one another when the next moment they passed out of my sight.
I started to my feet with a bound, my heart beating furiously. But there was nothing more to alarm the weakest. It was broad day. Houses and gardens were to be seen close at hand and in every direction but one, and in that direction there were three or four fishermen drawing their nets. But as I looked away to the part of the sky where the strange cloudlike shadows had just vanished, I remembered with a shudder that other feature in common of the strange stories of which I told you just now. It was a feature that forcibly reminded me of what I had just witnessed. Sometimes in the later stories you would be told of a cloud coming and going in an otherwise cloudless sky. And sometimes in the elder stories you would be told of an invisible car, invisible but not shadowless. I used always to identify the shadow of the invisible car in the elder stories with the cloud in the later stories, the cloud that unaccountably came and went.
As I thought it all over and tried to persuade myself that I had been dreaming I suddenly remembered that James Redpath had passed by a few hours before, and as suddenly I came to the conclusion that I should never see him again. And certainly he never was again seen, dead or alive, anywhere in Wales or England. His father, and his uncle, and their families, continued to live about Penruddock, but Penruddock never knew James Redpath any more. Whether I myself saw him again or not is more than I can say with absolute certainty. You shall know as much as I know about it if you hear my story to the end.