JOHN DOE A. B.
A strange tale of murder on the high seas and the Nemesis that stalks on the heels of violence
LOUIS ARTHUR CUNNINGHAM
A CROSS the world the Thing had followed big Jansen. He thought of it as the Thing, for ghost it was not, and human it could not be. Whiter
than the whirling dust in the Soochow Road, along the Shanghai Bund, was its ghastly face; more sinister than the hidden death in the low quarters of Singapore was the menace it held for Olaf Jansen. If it had only come and gone those two times in the thronging Bund
among gay-colored rickshas and chattering Chinks in huge dish-shaped hats; in the bazaars at Singapore, bright with gaudy sarongs worn by stolid Dyaks. If it had only come and gone . . but no, the horrible Thing had winked at him !
At Shanghai, big Jansen had stopped stock-still like a man suddenly smitten by the blazing sun of the Orient; in Singapore, like a man gone amok, he had pursued the Thing, but it had eluded him vanished, he knew, into the Neant whence it had come. And both times, Jansen had hurried back to his vessel, locked himself in his cabin and drunk himself into insensibility.
The rum helped him, made him defiant, and brought up plausible arguments against the devastating fear that threatened to destroy him.
“It could not be Barstow,” he said over and over. “It could not be a dead man a man I . . .” Then he would glance at the cabin ports, and fancying he saw that drawn, corpse-like, leering face with its slowly winking eye, he would push the chair back, sending it with a crash to the floor; he would dash over and fling the door open, his mighty fist clenched to strike and destroy.
But there was never anything at the porthole, never anything in the alley outside his door, except perhaps the mate or some startled seaman who would gaze on him as on a madman and beat an uncomfortable retreat »Vorn his vicinity. Then Jansen would go back to his bottle, back to fight the grisly, haunting Thing that in some unknowable way was Luke Barstow. But just
when time and powerful liquor seemed to have downed the Thing, it would appear again.
On land, back home, Jansen
felt sure he would not be* troubled by it. And yet doubt, as always, crept in to trouble and harass him. Why wouldn’t it come there to haunt him? He and Barstow had spent their youth together
along the Fundy shore, and from the old port of Saint John they had sailed, Jansen as master, Barstow as mate, on that grim voyage from which the Lars Porsena did not return. Why would not Luke Barstow come back there to haunt him? Had he not stolen love, as well as life, from Barstow?
“A dead man can’t do anything to you,” Big Jansen for the thousandth time assured himself. “I have been thinking too much of Barstow, too much of things I should have forgotten. They’re finished with and done now. Nothing can hurt me. No one in the world can know. I've been seeing things, that’s all. Someone who looked like Barstow. But why did it wink . . . why did it wink?”
There was no answer to that. He knew he had not imagined it . the sardonic, slow droop of that left eyelid, the enigmatic, mocking expression on that male Mona Lisa of a face. And the dark-brown hair that had been Barstow’s was snow-white on the Thing, and the sturdy body of the mate of the Lars Porsena was a shell, racked, emaciated. But in an instant Jansen had known it was Barstow.
“There, again!” he muttered. ‘T tell myself it was Barstow. I’m a fool ! How could a man I left dead on a strip of rock at the end of the world, where ships never go —how could he be alive? I will forget this nonsense. Anyway, it’s my last voyage now. I am going home and I have plenty to keep me, and I have my woman—-she would have been Barstow’s woman—if he had come back to claim her ...”
Jansen thought of Mary Lester. She had been young and very sweet, fresh as the salty summer wind of the Bay of Fundy, when he and Barstow had wooed her. And it would have been Barstow her choice . .
if Barstow had lived. And because Jansen knew he was second choice he punished her. He was a brute to her. The hatred he felt for the man he had murdered, he
visited on Mary Lester. And, thinking of that now, he made a warming resolve to be good to her, to make up for the neglect, the brutality, the infidelity of ten years.
TT WAS a shock, an omen, a strange thwarting, when
he received the news that Mary was dead. He was in Swansea then, master of a rusty, ancient tramp, the Ptarmigan, of which, too, he was part owner, his share in her bought with blood money, bought with three men’s lives. Why had not the other two, Simon Longan and the Spaniard, Rose, come back, as Luke Barstow had come back? Perhaps if he had used the knife on Barstow as he had on them, Barstow could not have come back. Yet he could feel even now in his hand the weight of that water-sodden stick of timber; he could hear the dismal sound it had made when he struck Barstow down, to die on the slaty rock beside the Spaniard, Rose. And he had listened for the strong beat of Barstow’s heart, and had heard none. And he kicked the dead man because Mary Lester would have given her love to him.
Now Mary was dead. Strange that he should hear that news after the Thing had twice appeared to him. Did its visitation prelude death? And would it come back? Mary would be in her grave when the Ptarmigan crept up the grey funnel of the Bay of Fundy, and slunk into harbor past the clanging bell-buoys, the nunbuoy and bobbing channel markers. Mary was young to die and he had helped to hasten her end with his stolid cruelty, his grossness. Another murder on his hands well, what did one more matter? He had not felt compunction or fear until the Thing that was Barstow came walking down the Shanghai Bund, passing almost near enough for him to touch.
The night before the Ptarmigan was due to sail Lorn Swansea, Jansen got the wire telling of his wife’s death. That was at the agents’ office, David Powys and Brother. And the old Welshman had looked at him queerly. The old man had white hair that curled and blue eyes guileless as a child’s.
“Is it some bad news, captain?” he asked. “You do not look like a well man whatever, but like one who has seen a ghost.”
“My wife is dead,” Jansen snarled at him. and flung out of the office into the dim streets leading to the quays. He hurried. He was afraid tonight. Several times in his passage he stopped and turned, fancying he
had heard the patter of feet behind him. But there was no one, and he cursed himself for a chicken-hearted fool, getting frightened at nothing. Mary was dead. He would have to look at her grave—merely that—and feign a little grief. He told himself he did feel bad, not knowing that the sorrow, if sorrow it could be called, was due to the fact that he could not make amends to her. Nor did he realize that the desire to make amends was inspired by a frantic wish to placate the Thing that haunted him. It gave him a thwarted feeling. If he could have plied her with kindnesses as through all the years he put pain and cruelty upon her, he would have felt better. It would have been for a strength, a defense, against that harrying, ominous Thing that winked.
/^LADNESS was in his heart when he climbed the Ptarmigan’s ladder from the rim of the quay and hurried up the narrow stairs from the well-deck to the officers’ quarters and his cabin. Rain had begun to beat down through the grey mist and murk, and the wind was bitingly chill. It was good to hear the door click shut. He made sure the ports were fastened tightly and cursed the dynamo for the dimness of the lights. He poured himself a drink of the soft Barbados rum and sat at his table under the centre light, the squat bottle before him as an icon before its worshipper. From it alone he got surcease. His huge hand fondled it, tracing the gold lettering on the yellow label. Gold on yellow, blue on yellow, that was the telegram that had told of Mary Lester’s death. Big Jansen thought of her now as the Mary Lester of his youth, so light-hearted and gay, so unaware of ugliness, a creature all softly white and curving; not as Mary Jansen who lay dead now, a blowsy, faded wraith of the girl that was. Faded—as Luke Barstow had faded. He alone had not aged, his hair was still thick and blond, his face smooth, his body like a Viking’s. He would live for long years yet, when so many of those whose lives had intertwined with his were dead and gone. Yes, he would live and drink and laugh . . .
When the rain ceased, when the sun shone, when he
inhabited no longer this old, shabby cabin, its red cushions sleazy and ragged, the pattern mostly gone from the oilcloth that covered its floor, its panels scratched and cracked; when the Ptarmigan had wheezed her w'ay across just once more, he would laugh and be at ease. He would find snug quarters, and with plenty of money one could have friends and beauty of a sort.
Viciousness and brutality had neither racked nor broken Big Jansen. On them even, he throve as sturdy growths batten on the ugliness of earth.
But the rain drove down w'ith a swishing against the portholes, with a patter merciless and staccato on sounding ventilator and taut canvas that covered the lifeboat outside his door. He hoped it would clear by dawm, that he wouldn’t have to feel his way down the channel in the drab, siren-pierced fog, like a blind thing groping among the blind, moving darkly. It w'ould be good to sail in strong sunlight over smooth water which the Ptarmigan’s screw's would churn whitely as she left a foam-mottled path in her wake.
But, come grey dawn or golden, he would sail. And he would he sailing away from the Thing that had walked the dusty Bund and loitered in the stinking alleys of Singapore. He would be leaving that behind and, w'ith Mary gone, there would be no reproach
awaiting him. The rain—it startled him as it came down with an access of pattering noise like a thousand footsteps following him. He put his hands over his ears, shutting out the sound for a moment. He became conscious then of the steady, sullen heave, the rise and fall of the old vessel as her bow and stern lines tautened and grew slack. He knew it would not clear at dawn and he railed against the storm.
He thought, fighting the thoughts with all his demoralized strength, with repeated glasses of undiluted rum, of the night the Lars Porsena had foundered. Once more, Luke Barstow stood beside him on the torn and battered bridge of his first command. They had discharged a cargo of deals, taken on at Saint John, in Bahia; from there they had sailed in ballast for Valparaiso. And the Lars Porsena, despite the weight of rubble and scrap in her hold, rode high and was the easy sport of wild winds and wilder seas encountered around the Horn.
Once again the rain and sleet drove into his face out of the welter of spume and spindrift. Mad seas raked her from bow to stern, rising high over her fo’c’s’le, hanging poised, seen almost only by the eyes of the mind; then plunged racing and rolling dowm into her forward well-deck, climbing the bridge structure, soaking them with the freezing flood; no lights; no answ'er to mad signalling on the engine-room telegraph, the muffled detonation of bursting boilers; panic, chaos, as the little steamer settled down swiftly, tugged at by the monstrous, mocking force over w'hich she had flippantly voyaged these many years.
Dawn, grey and haggard, was breaking then, and in the turmoil of waters men were swimming, Jansen and Simon Longan, an old seaman, grabbed for the single lifebelt that floated between them; fought for it, Jansen like a maddened beast, old Longan with the feverish, despairing strength of age. Then Jansen’s sheath-knife, wielded as upon the belly of a shark, ended the sailor’s struggles and Jansen floated amid foam and blood. Only Barstow, swimming near, had seen. And Barstow, a silent man at all times, spoke only with a look of hatred.
Presently, they made a partly sunken boat to which a lone survivor was clinging—Rose, a Spaniard, w'ho had taken passage at Bahia. He had money, Jansen knew',
and even in this grim plight, the captain was glad it was Rose—he and Barstow and Rose. And w' i t h one life
taken, he had courage to take others. With their cupped hands they bailed out the boat and hoisted a rag of sail. All day they moved westward and at dark made their landfall. Under a racing moon that spun among mosslike grey clouds dow'n a cold blue heaven, they dragged
their boat ashore and flung themselves on the wet rocks to let life creep slowly back into their tortured bodies.
All night they slept; at dawn awakened and went in quest of food. There w’ere mussels in plenty; there was rain water in pools; no trees, no vegetation of any sort save black and yellow seaweed, a rank and unpalatable growth. They were on a strip of rock, a mere dot, far away from the track of steamers, that all shunned this treacherous shore at the end of the world. And food, water— not enough for one, let alone three. Rose w'oro a money-belt: that hastened his end. He died, as he was sleeping, from a swift stroke of Jansen’s knife. Barstow, awakening —perhaps he had been watching —fought with the blood-crazed skipper. The knife flew from Jansen’s hand full at Barstow’s throat. He dodged. They fought then with their bodies. They fell to the rock face, scratching, gouging, mouthing like maniacs. Jansen’s groping hand found a sodden stick. He broke free, smashed it down on Barstow’s skull with the fury of a madman. Barstow' lay still; there w'as no life in him that Jansen could find, and a kick was Jansen’s farewell.
Rose’s belt he robbed of its satisfying treasure, some two thousand dollars in American banknotes. He flung the belt down by its owner and w'ith never a moment of hesitation, he walked from the rock that was red with his carnage, pushed off the boat and sailed eastward, trusting to blind chance, to such gods as men like him cart serve, to put him in the track of the steamers. He was picked up, sole survivor of the*Lars Porsena, and taken to Rio. Thence he went back to Saint John, and wdthout much difficulty, for he was a good seaman, obtained a berth as master of the Ptarmigan—that was ten years ago. How could Luke Barstow live how could he w'alk the Shanghai Bund, the bazaars of Singapore? How could he be looking in at the porthole of Jansen’s cabin now . . .?
Yet there he w'as . . . there at the port . . . his ghastly, graveyard face and whitened hair; and as Jansen leaped from his chair w'ith a scream of sheer, craven horror, the grisly Thing winked at him . . . w'inked deliberately, sardonically, and was gone.
GONE! When Jansen dashed to the door and tore it open, there wras no one in the dark alley no one. He cursed, he blasphemed, he wept. Stockwell, the mate, came a-running from his cabin. Had he seen Barstow had he seen Barstow? Jansen’s awful hands crushed the mate’s shoulders and Jansun s mad eyes blazed into his, until the mate grew pale.
“You’re crazy, sir! Stop it! Listen to me. Get back into your cabin or you’ll be without a crew. They won’t sail w'ith a madman, and I had trouble enough, as it was, getting 'em to sail in this forsaken ark.
Stockwell, by exerting all his strength and the best of his persuasive powers, forced Jansen back into his cabin and closed the door. He made a move to interfere, as Jansen, with hand that shook agueishly, that could scarcely hold the bottle, poured more rum for himself.
Stock well gave way before the look in the captain’s eyes and wished devoutly he had stayed ashore instead of joining up with an outfit like the P tar migan’ 8 — scum for’ard and a madman on the bridge. It was drink, Stockw'ell believed — drink that had seemed to bother Jansen 1 ittle but had gradually got him, till now he was seeing things. “What did you see, sir; Who’s Bars ...” Stockwell could not recall the name Jansen had spoken.
A crafty, vulpine gleam crept into Jansen’s glazed blue eyes. Trying to catch him, eh? Trying to prove he was insane and perhaps clap him in irons, take him ashore and put him in a madhouse. Mad? Not he! And he hadn’t just been seeing things. Noof course, he had been living again the wreck of the Lars Porsena, the triple murder he had done. And he had been thinking of Luke Barstow as he had seen him last, lying dead on the rock at the end of the world. But the face had been so real . . . surely Barstow’s face.
At noon, the following day, when the Ptarmigan on her slow way had left the waters of the Bristol Channel
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John Doe, A. B.
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and was pointing toward the Atlantic, Jansen awakened from drunken sleep, doused his head in icy water and walked groggily to the bridge, where Stockwell and Marsters, the second, to whom Stockwell had evidently been telling the preceding night’s occurrence, greeted him in manner constrained and suspicious. The captain, though every nerve in his body seemed raw and vibrant and a thousand fiends raged within him, strove his best to be pleasant, making no reference to his insane exhibition.
He talked with forced affability to Stockwell when Marsters went into the chart room. The weather had cleared a bit; it was no longer rainy, and a long, lazy swell was on the sea. The Ptarmigan jogged along at a comfortable twelve knots. Presently, when the dozen-andone mishaps which at the beginning of a voyage always befell the mass of junk that made her engines, were rectified, she would do much better. Jansen had shaken off last night’s fears, he had argued himself out of them and sworn off the rum for a while. He didn’t want to see the Thing again: he couldn’t stand to look on it again. If it came once more and winked at him he would go really insane. A man couldn’t bear much of that, j A seaman came from the fo’c’s’le as ! they talked, crossed the well-deck. Jansen ; looked down, blinked, craned forward and j his face turned ashen. For a moment he : fought with the tumult of fear and agony j that raged in him. He got some sort of j grip on himself. Stockwell, watching him, did not associate his sudden paroxysm with the man who had crossed the well. Probably due to the rum, Stockwell thought.
“Who—who was that man?” asked Jansen. “That fellow who just climbed the ladder?”
“John Doe, A. B. What do you think of that, captain? John Doe, A. B. That’s the name he gave. A queer cuss, if ever one was. Couldn’t get much out of him. I took him on, yesterday afternoon. He’d been knocking about Swansea, waiting for a chance to go across.”
Jansen breathed hard. John Doe . of course, John Doe . what else? He couldn’t say his name was Luke Barstow; he was, none the less, the Luke Barstow of the Shanghai Bund, of the Singapore bazaars, of last night at the porthole of his cabin. Not a ghost . no, he wasn’t a ghost; but could he be human? He was a dead man. He, Olaf Jansen, had killed him. How could he be one of the Ptarmigan’s crew calling himself John Doe?
In thinking that way, Jansen knew, lay madness, utter and complete. He must cope with this Thing, beat it, kill it. Surely not now, at the end of his career of hardship and crime, at the beginning of ease and rest, was he going to be cheated of what he had so dearly purchased. Barstow wasn’t a ghost. Barstow was a man, and it was clear from that mocking, eloquent wink, what Barstow meant to do.
Barstow meant to make him swing for the murders of Simon Longan and of the
Spaniard Rose. That was why Barstow had followed him across the world, saying nothing, as was his way; doing nothing— save that accursed winking of the eye. No, Barstow would wait until they reached home, come among people who knew him and would believe. The truth of the matter would be known then, and justice, swift and relentless, would descend upon Jansen. They would make no bones about a thing like that. Whoever had rescued Barstow, as rescued he must have been, would bear him witness.
Icy sweat beaded on Jansen’s brow as he pictured what would happen to him. Oh, he had seen men hang; had watched with relish the new hempen noose tigl *en about the necks of felons, had seen the tall gallows and the trap sprung right in the old city that was his home and Barstow’s. But it would never happen to him—never. Barstow would not live to go ashore and tell his story to the police. Either that, or Jansen himself would not live to suffer punishment.
Stockwell was watching the captain curiously. Jansen became slowly conscious of the mate’ steady scrutiny. He must brace up or Stockwell would be testifying that the sight of Barstow had filled him with fear. As if they would need Stockwell’s testimony or any other man’s! Barstow had it in his power to send him to the gallows twice over.
“I’m not quite myself, Mr. Stockwell,” said Jansen, and the tortured expression on his face filled the mate with vague alarm for his health as well as his sanity. “I think I will go to my cabin for a while.”
He left the bridge, walking unsteadily. He locked himself in his cabin and began to fortify himself with the rum which he had sworn to let alone. He could not let it alone. He needed Dutch courage now; his own had turned to sand. He was beaten, defeated, maudlinly afraid of Barstow. He knew what to expect— never a word from Barstow. He was that kind. He would be quick to see that his silence would be the greatest punishment he could inflict upon his enemy. Barstow was just biding his time, but with a wink he was saying volumes.
“He’s got me; that is what he says,” muttered Jansen. “Got me dead to rights. Oh, there are plenty in that town who would like to see big Jansen swing. They will make capital of it . . . Barstow
coming back from the dead and accusing me I’ll—I’ll—”
He rose from his seat, stood tensely, subsided with an exhalation of breath that seemed to leave him limp; his shoulders sagged, and he laid his head on his outstretched arms and sat thus until night came. The steward brought him food; he would not eat. He chased the man away, locked his door and said he would not be disturbed. But shut his eyes and cover them as he would, he could not blot out that winking eye and, like a ciné-camera, his mind unreeled picture upon picture, over and over—the wreck of the Lars Porsena, the struggle for the lifebelt, the shambles on the rock. Over and over, over and over, but with unvarying in-
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Continued, from page 32
cident and monotonous detail. Then his mind played with what would be, the accusal, the arrest, the trial, the crowded court-room, the sentence, the gallows . . . The ghosts of Rose and Simon Longan coming up from death, even as Luke Barstow had come, to accuse him, to point and leer and wink at him; and all was a horror, a living nightmare, and into his troubled slumber worse dreams, more grisly, more horrid, crept and crowded.
(^\NLY for a few hours each day did he come upon the bridge. There, the other officers, Stockwell and Marsters, sometimes the grizzled chief engineer, Canty, irked and annoyed him. They could not talk naturally to him, their remarks were forced, and always they watched him, pitied him, speculated upon what was ailing him. He wanted to shout at them, smash them. He felt a berserk lust to destroy the ship and all on board save himself. Why not? He had come alone from the wreck of the Lars Porsena . no, no, he had not . . . one other had survived, and again some of them would survive. Aye, if he put a knife into each and all of them, one would come back to wink at him.
He saw Barstow again, working with some other seamen to repair a broken hatch-coaming, and this time he saw the swastika tattooed on Barstow’s arm. He had needed no such proof. You couldn’t mistake Barstow. He couldn’t, anyway. Barstow did not look at him now. Barstow wore a blue cap, his white hair was ragged, a snowy fringe, under it. He did not talk, did not joke about his work as the other men did. But to Jansen, Barstow was a man waiting, watching, enjoying the anticipation of what would come. Jansen could not endure the sight of him; like a living corpse he looked, old and frail and grey. Perhaps, after all, he wasn’t real . . .
Ah, there was a test for that. And, after all, might not a man as well swing for one murder as for two. And have revenge to boot? Why, yes, that was it. Night after night, day after day, with limitless quantities of liquor, Jansen nurtured and strengthened the thought, and now his sheath-knife was strapped about his body, and often he took it out, looked at it, and stroked its fleckless, shining blade. The work it should have done years ago it would do now. It was too late now, but none the less the work should be done. Yet it was a different thing to kill where none were left to know and accuse, and to kill where all might see.
What matter? He could stand this accursed dread no longer. Perhaps he could do this thing and shift the blame to another. In the night he would creep into the fo’c’s’le where Barstow lay; in a moment it would be done, with no noise made. And seamen sleep so soundly. Men had, ere this, awakened to find themselves lying with the dead.
It was Jansen who bided his time now, once he had decided to finish Barstow. He would cheat Barstow of his triumph, beat him out at the very last minute. If Barstow knew about Mary, his hatred would be greater still. Perhaps Barstow thought Mary still waited for him. That was good. Jansen chuckled at that . . . Barstow thinking he was going back to Mary, and Mary dead. Yes, that was funny. But it did not matter. This time there would be no slip.
Courage, artificial as it was, oozed away from Jansen as the end of the voyage came nearer and nearer. They were at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy this night, tomorrow they would be in port, tomorrow Barstow would rise up as his denouncer and the town would ring with the account of the awful deeds he had done. He drank to strengthen himself. Why, it was nothing . . . to kill a man . . . the man who wanted to kill him . . . who would surely kill him.
TLTE WAS sober in his purpose now.
He crept from his cabin, noiseless in his stockinged feet. There were none to see. The well-deck was a pit of darkness, across which he seemed to swim, his hand upon the worn haft of his knife. They could not have seen him from the bridge. Even so, they would not be able to distinguish him. The fo’c’s’le door whined softly as he opened it and stepped inside. He stood poised, listening to the heavy breathing, the disjointed words of a man in a dream. By the dim light of dusty bulbs he saw each face. There, there was Barstow. Like a giant cat, Jansen stepped over and stood above the bunk. Barstow lay, fully clad, uncovered. Jansen saw the red belt that encircled him—a moneybelt—Rose’s belt. God, had Barstow treasured that, treasured it to hang him by!
Then as Jansen stared, the knife poised in air, Barstow’s eyes opened wide and looked full into his, and with a Satanic, impish slowness the left lid drooped over the staring eye in a wink of indescribable cunning. Jansen’s nerves went smash; he covered his eyes, lunged blindly. He missed; he knew he missed, and with a maniacal yell he fled from the dim fo’c’s’le out into the darkness of the deck. When they sought him, knowing at length whom they sought, they could find him nowhere and in the blackness of the night, of the wide waters, it were folly to seek him. He was insane, they said, trying to murder a harmless chap like John Doe— the knife thrust had barely missed him as he squirmed aside.
“What did he have against you, Doe?” asked Stockwell, standing among the half-naked, silent crowd in the fo’c’s’le—a crowd huddled together in fear and awe. “Had you ever any
dealings with him before this?”
John Doe shook his head. There was utter blankness in his eyes.
"None, sir . . . that is, none I know of.
I have no memory except for some ten years back—the time I was picked up off a island down by the Straits of Magellan. Doctors said I got a clout on the head an’ I’d never remember anything again.”
“I see,” said Stockwell, nodding. “You didn’t know Captain Jansen then?”
“Never set eyes on him, sir, till the night I came aboard an’ I happened to look in at his cabin-port an’ he let a horrible yell out of him.”
“Queer, very queer,” muttered the mate.
Slowly, John Doe, A. B., winked his right eye—a knowing, suggestive wink.
Stockwell stiffened; then he laughed, turned away. “Confound it, man,” he said. “That’s a funny trick you have of i winking like that—tic douleureux, they call it—don’t they?”
“I guess so, sir,” said John Doe. “Just comes at times. I guess I got that from the clout on the head, too.”