We’ve had several amusing, and one wistful, Christmas ghost stories in our series. Now it’s time for something genuinely terrifying, and you can always rely on Algernon Blackwood to bring the blood-curdling and subtle. This is his seasonal masterpiece The Kit-Bag.
A jolly young man with jolly young friends prepares to go on a jolly young holiday, with all the skiing, cocoa, sleighing, and friendly girls in furs that the youthful heart (or other organs) could desire. Have you ever gone away for a holiday? You’ll know, then, that the worst part is packing, as our hero discovers, to his chagrin.
I venture to say, however, none of us have had quite as much trouble with our luggage as this poor unfortunate, and thank god for that!
by Algernon Blackwood
From “Pall Mall Magazine”, December 1908
When the words ‘Not Guilty’ sounded through the crowded courtroom that
dark December afternoon, Arthur Wilbraham, the great criminal KC, and
leader for the triumphant defence, was represented by his junior; but
Johnson, his private secretary, carried the verdict across to his
chambers like lightning.
‘It’s what we expected, I think,’ said the barrister, without emotion;
‘and, personally, I am glad the case is over.’ There was no particular
sign of pleasure that his defence of John Turk, the murderer, on a plea
of insanity, had been successful, for no doubt he felt, as everybody who
had watched the case felt, that no man had ever better deserved the
‘I’m glad too,’ said Johnson. He had sat in the court for ten days
watching the face of the man who had carried out with callous detail one
of the most brutal and cold-blooded murders of recent years.
Thee counsel glanced up at his secretary. They were more than employer and
employed; for family and other reasons, they were friends. ‘Ah, I
remember; yes,’ he said with a kind smile, ‘and you want to get away for
Christmas? You’re going to skate and ski in the Alps, aren’t you? If I
was your age I’d come with you.’
Johnson laughed shortly. He was a young man of twenty-six, with a
delicate face like a girl’s. ‘I can catch the morning boat now,’ he said;
‘but that’s not the reason I’m glad the trial is over. I’m glad it’s over
because I’ve seen the last of that man’s dreadful face. It positively
haunted me. That white skin, with the black hair brushed low over the
forehead, is a thing I shall never forget, and the description of the way
the dismembered body was crammed and packed with lime into that–‘
‘Don’t dwell on it, my dear fellow,’ interrupted the other, looking at
him curiously out of his keen eyes, ‘don’t think about it. Such pictures
have a trick of coming back when one least wants them.’ He paused a
moment. ‘Now go,’ he added presently, ‘and enjoy your holiday. I shall
want all your energy for my Parliamentary work when you get back. And
don’t break your neck skiing.’
Johnson shook hands and took his leave. At the door he turned suddenly.
‘I knew there was something I wanted to ask you,’ he said. ‘Would you
mind lendang me one of your kit-bags? It’s too late to get one tonight,
and I leave in the morning before the shops are open.’
‘Of course; I’ll send Henry over with it to your rooms. You shall have it
the moment I get home.’
‘I promise to take great care of it,’ said Johnson gratefully, delighted
to think that within thirty hours he would be nearing the brilliant
sunshine of the high Alps in winter. The thought of that criminal court
was like an evil dream in his mind.
He dined at his club and went on to Bloomsbury, where he occupied the top
floor in one of those old, gaunt houses in which the rooms are large and
lofty. The floor below his own was vacant and unfurnished, and below that
were other lodgers whom he did not know. It was cheerless, and he looked
forward heartily to a change. The night was even more cheerless: it was
miserable, and few people were about. A cold, sleety rain was driving
down the streets before the keenest east wind he had ever felt. It howled
dismally among the big, gloomy houses of the great squares, and when he
reached his rooms he heard it whistling and shouting over the world of
black roofs beyond his windows.
In the hall he met his landlady, shading a candle from the draughts with
her thin hand. ‘This come by a man from Mr Wilbr’im’s, sir.’
She pointed to what was evidently the kit-bag, and Johnson thanked her
and took it upstairs with him. ‘I shall be going abroad in the morning
for ten days, Mrs Monks,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave an address for letters.’
‘And I hope you’ll ‘ave a merry Christmas, sir,’ she said, in a raucous,
wheezy voice that suggested spirits, ‘and better weather than this.’
‘I hope so too,’ replied her lodger, shuddering a little as the wind went
roaring down the street outside.
When he got upstairs he heard the sleet volleying against the window
panes. He put his kettle on to make a cup of hot coffee, and then set
about putting a few things in order for his absence. ‘And now I must
pack–such as my packing is,’ he laughed to himself, and set to work at
He liked the packing, for it brought the snow mountains so vividly
before him, and made him forget the unpleasant scenes of the past ten
days. Besides, it was not elaborate in nature. His fraend had lent him
the very thing–a stout canvas kit-bag, sack-shaped, with holes round the
neck for the brass bar and padlock. It was a bit shapeless, true, and not
much to look at, but its capacity was unlimited, and there was no need to
pack carefully. He shoved in his waterproof coat, his fur cap and gloves,
his skates and climbing boots, his sweaters, snow-boots, and ear-caps;
and then on the top of these he piled his woollen shirts and underwear,
his thick socks, puttees, and knickerbockers. The dress suit came next,
in case the hotel people dressed for dinner, and then, thinking of the
best way to pack his white shirts, he paused a moment to reflect. ‘That’s
the worst of these kit-bags,’ he mused vaguely, standing in the centre of
the sitting-room, where he had come to fetch some string.
It was after ten o’clock. A furious gust of wind rattled the windows as
though to hurry him up, and he thought with pity of the poor Londoners
whose Christmas would be spent in such a climate, whilst he was skimming
over snowy slopes in bright sunshine, and dancing in the evening with
rosy-checked girls–Ah! that reminded him; he must put in his
dancing-pumps and evening socks. He crossed over from his sitting-room to
the cupboard on the landing where he kept his linen.
And as he did so he heard someone coming softly up the stairs.
He stood still a moment on the landing to listen. It was Mrs Monks’s
step, he thought; she must he coming up with the last post. But then the
steps ceased suddenly, and he heard no more. They were at least two
flights down, and he came to the conclusion they were too heavy to be
those of his bibulous landlady. No doubt they belonged to a late lodger
who had mistaken his floor. He went into his bedroom and packed his pumps
and dress-shirts as best he could.
The kit-bag by this time was two-thirds full, and stood upright on its own
base like a sack of flour. For the first time he noticed that it was old
and dirty, the canvas faded and worn, and that it had obviously been
subjected to rather rough treatment. It was not a very nice bag to have
sent him–certainly not a new one, or one that his chief valued. He gave
the matter a passing thought, and went on with his packing. Once or
twice, however, he caught himself wondering who it could have been
wandering down below, for Mrs Monks had not come up with letters, and the
floor was empty and unfurnished. From time to time, moreover, he was
almost certain he heard a soft tread of someone padding about over the
bare boards–cautiously, stealthily, as silently as possible–and,
further, that the sounds had been lately coming distinctly nearer.
For the first time in his life he began to feel a little creepy. Then, as
though to emphasize this feeling, an odd thing happened: as he left the
bedroom, having, just packed his recalcitrant white shirts, he noticed
that the top of the kit-bag lopped over towards him with an extraordinary
resemblance to a human face. The canvas fell into a fold like a nose and
forehead, and the brass rings for the padlock just filled the position of
the eyes. A shadow–or was it a travel stain? for he could not tell
exactly–looked like hair. It gave him rather a turn, for it was so
absurdly, so outrageously, like the face of John Turk the murderer.
He laughed, and went into the front room, where the light was stronger.
‘That horrid case has got on my mind,’ he thought; ‘I shall be glad of a
change of scene and air.’ In the sitting-room, however, he was not
pleased to hear again that stealthy tread upon the stairs, and to realize
that it was much closer than before, as well as unmistakably real. And
this time he got up and went out to see who it could be creeping about on
the upper staircase at so late an hour.
But the sound ceased; there was no one visible on the stairs. He went to
the floor below, not without trepidation, and turned on the electric
light to make sure that no one was hiding in the empty rooms of the
unoccupied suite. There was not a stick of furniture large enough to hide
a dog. Then he called over the banisters to Mrs Monks, but there was no
answer, and his voice echoed down into the dark vault of the house, and
was lost in the roar of the gale that howled outside. Everyone was in bed
and asleep–everyone except himself and the owner of this soft and
‘My absurd imagination, I suppose,’ he thought. ‘It must have been the
wind after all, although–it seemed so _very_ real and close, I thought.’
He went back to his packing. It was by this time getting on towards
midnight. He drank his coffee up and lit another pipe–the last before
It is difficult to say exactly at what point fear begins, when the causes
of that fear are not plainly before the eyes. Impressions gather on the
surface of the mind, film by film, as ice gathers upon the surface of
still water, but often so lightly that they claim no definite recognation
from the consciousness. Then a point is reached where the accumulated
impressions become a definite emotion, and the mind realizes that
something has happened. With something of a start, Johnson suddenly
recognized that he felt nervous–oddly nervous; also, that for some time
past the causes of this feeling had been gathering slowly in has mind,
but that he had only just reached the point where he was forced to
It was a singular and curious malaise that had come over him, and he
hardly knew what to make of it. He felt as though he were doing something
that was strongly objected to by another person, another person,
moreover, who had some right to object. It was a most disturbing and
disagreeable feeling, not unlike the persistent promptings of conscience:
almost, in fact, as if he were doing something he knew to be wrong. Yet,
though he searched vigorously and honestly in his mind, he could nowhere
lay his finger upon the secret of this growing uneasiness, and it
perplexed him. More, it distressed and frightened him.
‘Pure nerves, I suppose,’ he said aloud with a forced laugh. ‘Mountain
air will cure all that! Ah,’ he added, still speaking to himself, ‘and
that reminds me–my snow-glasses.’
He was standing by the door of the bedroom during this brief soliloquy,
and as he passed quickly towards the sitting-room to fetch them from the
cupboard he saw out of the corner of his eye the indistinct outline of a
figure standing on the stairs, a few feet from the top. It was someone in
a stooping position, with one hand on the banisters, and the face peering
up towards the landing. And at the same moment he heard a shuffling
footstep. The person who had been creeping about below all this time had
at last come up to his own floor. Who in the world could it be? And what
in the name of Heaven did he want?
Johnson caught his breath sharply and stood stock still. Then, after a
few seconds’ hesitation, he found his courage, and turned to investigate.
Be stairs, he saw to his utter amazement, were empty; there was no one.
He felt a series of cold shivers run over him, and something about the
muscles of his legs gave a little and grew weak. For the space of several
minutes he peered steadily into the shadows that congregated about the
top of the staircase where he had seen the figure, and then he walked
fast–almost ran, in fact–into the light of the front room; but hardly
had he passed inside the doorway when he heard someone come up the stairs
behind him with a quick bound and go swiftly into his bedroom. It was a
heavy, but at the same time a stealthy footstep–the tread of somebody
who did not wish to be seen. And it was at this precise moment that the
nervousness he had hitherto experienced leaped the boundary line, and
entered the state of fear, almost of acute, unreasoning fear. Before it
turned into terror there was a further boundary to cross, and beyond that
again lay the region of pure horror. Johnson’s position was an unenviable
By Jove! That was someone on the stairs, then,’ he muttered, his flesh
crawling all over; ‘and whoever it was has now gone into my bedroom.’ His
delicate, pale face turned absolutely white, and for some minutes he
hardly knew what to think or do. Then he realized intuitively that delay
only set a premium upon fear; and he crossed the landing boldly and went
straight into the other room, where, a few seconds before, the steps had
‘Who’s there? Is that you, Mrs Monks?’ he called aloud, as he went, and
heard the first half of his words echo down the empty stairs, while the
second half fell dead against the curtains in a room that apparently held
no other human figure than his own.
‘Who’s there?’ he called again, in a voice unnecessarily loud and that
only just held firm. ‘What do you want here?’
The curtains swayed very slightly, and, as he saw it, his heart felt as
if it almost missed a beat; yet he dashed forward and drew them aside
with a rush. A window, streaming with rain, was all that met his gaze. He
continued his search, but in vain; the cupboards held nothing but rows of
clothes, hanging motionless; and under the bed there was no sign of
anyone hiding. He stepped backwards into the middle of the room, and, as
he did so, something all but tripped him up. Turning with a sudden spring
of alarm he saw–the kit-bag.
‘Odd!’ he thought. ‘That’s not where I left it!’ A few moments before it
had surely been on his right, between the bed and the bath; he did not
remember having moved it. It was very curious. What in the world was the
matter with everything? Were all his senses gone queer? A terrific gust
of wind tore at the windows, dashing the sleet against the glass with the
force of small gunshot, and then fled away howling dismally over the
waste of Bloomsbury roofs. A sudden vision of the Channel next day rose
in his mind and recalled him sharply to realities.
There’s no one here at any rate; that’s quite clear!’ he exclaimed aloud.
Yet at the time he uttered them he knew perfectly well that his words
were not true and that he did not believe them himself. He felt exactly
as though someone was hiding close about him, watching all his movements,
trying to hinder his packing in some way. ‘And two of my senses,’ he
added, keeping up the pretence, ‘have played me the most absurd tricks:
the steps I heard and the figure I saw were both entirely imaginary.’
He went hack to the front room, poked the fire into a blaze, and sat down
before it to think. What impressed him more than anythang else was the
fact that the kit-bag was no longer where he had left at. It had been
dragged nearer to the door.
What happened afterwards that night happened, of course, to a man already
excited by fear, and was perceived by a mand that had not the full and
proper control, therefore, of the senses. Outwardly, Johson remained calm
and master of himself to the end, pretending to the very last that
everything he witnessed had a natural explanation, or was merely
delusions of his tired nerves. But inwardly, in his very heart, he knew
all along that someone had been hiding downstairs in the empty suite when
he came in, that this person had watched his opportunity and then
stealthily made his way up to the bedroom, and that all he saw and heard
afterwards, from the moving of the kit-bag to–well, to the other things
this story has to tell–were caused directly by the presence of this
And it was here, just when he most desired to keep his mind and thoughts
controlled, that the vivid pictures received day after day upon the
mental plates exposed in the courtroom of the Old Bailey, came strongly
to light and developed themselves in the dark room of his inner vision.
Unpleasant, haunting memories have a way of coming to life again just
when the mind least desires them–in the silent watches of the night, on
sleepless pillows, during the lonely hours spent by sick and dying beds.
And so now, in the same way, Johnson saw nothing but the dreadful face of
John Turk, the murderer, lowering at him from every corner of his mental
field of vision; the white skin, the evil eyes, and the fringe of black
hair low over the forehead. All the pictures of those ten days in court
crowded back into his mind unbidden, and very vivid.
‘This is all rubbish and nerves,’ he exclaimed at length, springing with
sudden energy from his chair. ‘I shall finish my packing and go to bed.
I’m overwrought, overtired. No doubt, at this rate I shall hear steps and
things all night!’
But his face was deadly white all the same. He snatched up his
field-glasses and walked across to the bedroom, humming a music-hall song
as he went–a trifle too loud to be natural; and the instant he crossed
the threshold and stood within the room something turned cold about his
heart, and he felt that every hair on his head stood up.
The kit-bag lay close in front of him, several feet nearer to the door
than he had left it, and just over its crumpled top he saw a head and
face slowly sinking down out of sight as though someone were crouching
behind it to hide, and at the same moment a sound like a long-drawn
sigh was distinctly audible in the still air about him between the
gusts of the storm outside.
Johnson had more courage and will-power than the girlish indecision of
his face indicated; but at first such a wave of terror came over him that
for some seconds he could do nothing but stand and stare. A violent
trembling ran down his back and legs, and he was conscious of a foolish,
almost a hysterical, impulse to scream aloud. That sigh seemed in his
very ear, and the air still quivered with it. It was unmistakably a human
‘Who’s there?’ he said at length, findinghis voice; but thought he meant
to speak with loud decision, the tones came out instead in a faint
whisper, for he had partly lost the control of his tongue and lips.
He stepped forward, so that he could see all round and over the kit-bag.
Of course there was nothing there, nothing but the faded carpet and the
bulgang canvas sides. He put out his hands and threw open the mouth of
the sack where it had fallen over, being only three parts full, and then
he saw for the first time that round the inside, some six inches from the
top, there ran a broad smear of dull crimson. It was an old and faded
blood stain. He uttered a scream, and drew hack his hands as if they had
been burnt. At the same moment the kit-bag gave a faint, but
unmistakable, lurch forward towards the door.
Johnson collapsed backwards, searching with his hands for the support of
something solid, and the door, being further behind him than he realized,
received his weight just in time to prevent his falling, and shut to with
a resounding bang. At the same moment the swinging of his left arm
accidentally touched the electric switch, and the light in the room went
It was an awkward and disagreeable predicament, and if Johnson had not
been possessed of real pluck he might have done all manner of foolish
things. As it was, however, he pulled himself together, and groped
furiously for the little brass knob to turn the light on again. But the
rapid closing of the door had set the coats hanging on it a-swinging, and
his fingers became entangled in a confusion of sleeves and pockets, so
that it was some moments before he found the switch. And in those few
moments of bewilderment and terror two things happened that sent him
beyond recall over the boundary into the region of genuine horror–he
distinctly heard the kit-bag shuffling heavily across the floor in jerks,
and close in front of his face sounded once again the sigh of a human
In his anguished efforts to find the brass button on the wall he nearly
scraped the nails from his fingers, but even then, in those frenzied
moments of alarm–so swift and alert are the impressaons of a mand
keyed-up by a vivid emotion–he had time to realize that he dreaded the
return of the light, and that it might be better for him to stay hidden
in the merciful screen of darkness. It was but the impulse of a moment,
however, and before he had time to act upon it he had yielded
automatically to the original desire, and the room was flooded again with
But the second instinct had been right. It would have been better for him
to have stayed in the shelter of the kind darkness. For there, close
before him, bending over the half-packed kit-bag, clear as life in the
merciless glare of the electric light, stood the figure of John Turk, the
murderer. Not three feet from him the man stood, the fringe of black hair
marked plainly against the pallor of the forehead, the whole horrible
presentment of the scoundrel, as vivid as he had seen him day after day
in the Old Bailey, when he stood there in the dock, cynical and callous,
under the very shadow of the gallows.
In a flash Johnson realized what it all meant: the dirty and much-used
bag; the smear of crimson within the top; the dreadful stretched
condition of the bulging sides. He remembered how the victim’s body had
been stuffed into a canvas bag for burial, the ghastly, dismembered
fragments forced with lime into this very bag; and the bag itself
produced as evidence–it all came back to him as clear as day…
Very softly and stealthily his hand groped behind him for the handle of
the door, but before he could actually turn it the very thing that he
most of all dreaded came about, and John Turk lifted his devil’s face and
looked at him. At the same moment that heavy sigh passed through the air
of the room, formulated somehow into words: It’s my bag. And I want it.’
Johnson just remembered clawing the door open, and then falling in a heap
upon the floor of the landing, as he tried frantically to make his way
into the front room.
He remained unconscious for a long time, and it was still dark when he
opened his eyes and realized that he was lying, stiff and bruised, on the
cold boards. Then the memory of what he had seen rushed back into his
mind, and he promptly fainted again. When he woke the second time the
wintry dawn was just beginning to peep in at the windows, painting the
stairs a cheerless, dismal grey, and he managed to crawl into the front
room, and cover himself with an overcoat in the armchair, where at length
he fell asleep.
A great clamour woke him. He recognized Mrs Monks’s voice, loud and
‘What! You ain’t been to bed, sir! Are you ill, or has anything ‘appened?
And there’s an urgent gentleman to see you, though it ain’t seven o’clock
‘Who is it?’ he stammered. ‘I’m all right, thanks. Fell asleep in my
chair, I suppose.’
‘Someone from Mr Wilb’rim’s, and he says he ought to see you quick before
you go abroad, and I told him–‘
‘Show him up, please, at once,’ said Johnson, whose head was whirling,
and his mind was still full of dreadful visions.
Mr Wilbraham’s man came in with many apologies, and explained briefly and
quickly that an absurd mistake had been made, and that the wrong kit-bag
had been sent over the night before.
‘Henry somehow got hold of the one that came over from the courtoom, and
Mr Wilbraham only discovered it when he saw his own lying in his room,
and asked why it had not gone to you,’ the man said.
‘Oh!’ said Johnson stupidly.
‘And he must have brought you the one from the murder case instead, sir,
I’m afraid,’ the man continued, without the ghost of an expression on his
face. ‘The one John Turk packed the dead both in. Mr Wilbraham’s awful
upset about it, sir, and told me to come over first thing this morning
with the right one, as you were leaving by the boat.’
He pointed to a clean-looking kit-bag on the floor, which he had just
brought. ‘And I was to bring the other one back, sir,’ he added casually.
For some minutes Johnson could not find his voice. At last he pointed in
the direction of his bedroom. ‘Perhaps you would kindly unpack it for me.
Just empty the things out on the floor.’
The man disappeared into the other room, and was gone for five minutes.
Johnson heard the shifting to and fro of the bag, and the rattle of the
skates and boots being unpacked.
‘Thank you, sir,’ the man said, returning with the bag folded over his
arm. ‘And can I do anything more to help you, sir?’
‘What is it?’ asked Johnson, seeing that he still had something he wished
The man shuffled and looked mysterious. ‘Beg pardon, sir, but knowing
your interest in the Turk case, I thought you’d maybe like to know what’s
‘John Turk killed hisself last night with poison immediately on getting
his release, and he left a note for Mr Wilbraham saying as he’d be much
obliged if they’d have him put away, same as the woman he murdered, in
the old kit-hag.’
‘What time–did he do it?’ asked Johnson.
‘Ten o’clock last night, sir, the warder says.’