When Po arrived back at The Denizen he found that it was a little after his usual time, and Mary Dempster had gone away—a jealous and violent husband was not to be neglected. He was glad to see that the place was bright and tidy. The evening was colder than might have been expected in April, and a heavy wind was blowing with such rapidly-increasing strength that there was every promise of a storm during the night. For a few minutes after his entrance the noise of the rats and mice ceased, but so soon as they became accustomed to his presence they began again. He was glad to hear them, for he felt once more the feeling of companionship in their noise, and his mind ran back to the strange fact that they only ceased to manifest themselves when the great rat with the baleful eyes came upon the scene. After a vape he took off his clothes and put on Iris’s bra. Then he lay down on his bed and played with himself until he was spent. After this he sat steadily down to work, determined not to let anything disturb him, for he remembered his promise to the doctor, and made up his mind to make the best of the time at his disposal.
For an hour or so he worked all right, and then his thoughts began to wander from his study. The actual circumstances around him, the calls on his physical attention, and his nervous susceptibility were not to be denied. By this time the wind had become a gale, and the gale a storm. The Denizen, while recently built was poorly constructed, and seemed to shake to its foundations. Although there was no wind in the apartment for the windows were closed, the limber rope fell on the floor with a hard and hollow sound.
As Po listened to this noise he remembered the doctor’s words: ‘It is the rope which the hangman used for the victims of the sheriff’s judicial rancour.’ He went over to the rope and took it in his hand to look at it. There seemed a sort of deadly interest in it and as he stood there he lost himself for a moment in speculation as to who these victims were and the grim wish of the sheriff to keep it as a relic to be passed down to future generations. As he stood there the rope swayed now and again. Presently there came a new sensation, a sort of tremor in the rope, as though something was moving along it.
Looking up Po saw the great rat coming slowly down towards him, glaring at him. He dropped the rope and started back with a muttered curse, and the rat turning ran up the rope again and disappeared, and at the same instant Po became conscious that the noise of the rats and mice, which had ceased for a while, began again.
All this set him thinking, and it occurred to him that he had not investigated the lair of the rat or enquired into the meaning of the pictures in his parents’ apartment, as he had intended. Po decided to take a good look at pictures. When he took in the first, he started back suddenly and a deadly pallor overspread his face. His knees shook, and heavy drops of sweat came on his forehead, and he trembled like an aspen. But he was young and plucky, and pulled himself together, and after the pause of a few seconds stepped forward again and examined the picture.
It was of a judge but not any old magistrate. This man was an aldermanic sheriff of the City of London. He was dressed in robes of scarlet and ermine that marked him out as belonging to the highest of the Corporation’s three assemblies, the Court of Aldermen. His face was strong and merciless, evil, crafty, and vindictive, with a sensual mouth and small ruddy nose. The rest of the face was of a cadaverous colour. The eyes were of peculiar brilliance and with a terribly malignant expression. As he looked at them, Po grew cold, for he saw there the very counterpart of the eyes of the great rat. He nearly collapsed when he looked up and saw the rat with its baleful eyes peering out through the hole in the ceiling, and noted the sudden cessation of the noise of the other rats and mice. However, he pulled himself together, and went on with his examination of the picture.
The sheriff was seated in a leather chair, on the right-hand side of a radiator where, in the corner, a rope hung down from the ceiling, its end lying coiled on the floor. With a feeling of something like horror, Po recognised the scene of the room as it stood, and gazed around him in an awestruck manner as though he expected to find some strange presence behind him. Then he looked over to the hole in the ceiling—and with a loud cry he fell to the floor.
There, in the leather chair, with the rope hanging behind, sat the rat with the sheriff’s baleful eyes, now intensified and with a fiendish leer. Save for the howling of the storm without there was silence. Po stood up, wiped his brow and thought for a moment.
‘This will not do,’ he said to himself. ‘If I go on like this I shall become a crazy fool. This must stop! I promised the doctor I would not take tea. Faith, he was pretty right! My nerves must have been getting into a queer state. Funny I did not notice it. I never felt better in my life. However, it’s all right now, and I shall not be such a fool again.’
He mixed himself a good stiff glass of brandy and water and resolutely sat down to his work. It was nearly an hour later when he looked up from his laptop, disturbed by the sudden stillness. Without, the wind howled and roared louder than ever, and the rain drove in sheets against the windows, beating like hail on the glass; but within there was no sound whatsoever. Po listened attentively and presently heard a thin, squeaking noise, very faint. It came from the corner of the room where the rope hung down, and he thought it was the creaking of the rope on the floor as if it was being raised and lowered. Looking up he saw the great rat clinging to the rope and gnawing it. The rope was already nearly gnawed through—he could see the lighter colour where the strands were laid bare.
As he looked the job was completed, and the severed end of the rope fell clattering on the floor, whilst for an instant the great rat remained like a knob or tassel at the end of the rope, which now began to sway to and fro. Po felt for a moment another pang of terror, but an intense anger took its place, and seizing a stone from the flowerpot he hurled it at the rat. The blow was well aimed, but before the missile could reach him the rat dropped off and struck the floor with a soft thud. Po instantly rushed towards the rodent, but it darted away and disappeared beneath a sofa. Po felt that his work was over for the night and determined then and there to vary the monotony of the proceedings by a hunt for the rat. But at that moment his attention was distracted by the picture on the wall. He rubbed his eyes in surprise, and then a great fear began to come upon him.
In the centre of the picture was a great irregular patch of brown canvas, as fresh as when it was stretched on the frame. The background was as before, with chair and rope, but the figure of the aldermanic sheriff had disappeared.
Po, almost in a chill of horror, turned slowly round, and then he began to shake and tremble like a man in a palsy. His strength seemed to have left him, and he was incapable of action or movement, hardly even of thought. He could only see and hear.
There on the leather chair sat the aldermanic sheriff in his robes of scarlet and ermine, with his baleful eyes glaring vindictively, and a smile of triumph on the resolute, cruel mouth, as he lifted with his hands a black cap. Po felt as if the blood was running from his heart, as one does in moments of prolonged suspense. There was a singing in his ears. Without he could hear the roar and howl of the tempest and through it, swept on the storm, came the striking of midnight. He stood still as a statue for a space of time that seemed to him endless, and with wide-open, horror-struck eyes. As the witching hour struck, so the smile of triumph on the sheriff’s face intensified, and at the last stroke of midnight he placed the black cap on his head.
Slowly and deliberately the sheriff rose from his chair and picked up the piece of the rope which lay on the floor, drew it through his hands as if he enjoyed its touch, and then deliberately began to knot one end of it, fashioning it into a noose. This he tightened and tested with his foot, pulling hard at it till he was satisfied and then making a running noose of it, which he held in his hand. Then he began to move along the table on the opposite side to Po keeping his eyes on him until he had passed him, when with a quick movement he stood in front of the door. Po then began to feel that he was trapped, and tried to think of what he should do.
He saw the sheriff approach—still keeping between him and the door—and raise the noose and throw it towards him as if to entangle him. With a great effort he made a quick movement to one side, and saw the rope fall beside him. Again the sheriff raised the noose and tried to ensnare him, and each time by a mighty effort the student just managed to evade it. This was repeated many times, the sheriff seeming never discouraged, nor discomposed at failure, but playing as a cat does with a mouse. At last in despair, Po cast a quick glance round him. Looking up he saw that what remained of the end of the rope hanging from the ceiling was laden with rats. Every inch of it was covered with them and more and more were pouring through the small circular hole in the ceiling.
The next moment Dr. Thornhill and the concierge were banging on the door of Po’s Denizen apartment and shouting to him to open up. At the sound the sheriff, who had been keeping his eyes fixed on Po, looked up, and a scowl of diabolical anger overspread his face. His eyes fairly glowed like hot coals and he stamped his foot with a sound that seemed to make the building shake. A dreadful peal of thunder broke overhead as he raised the rope again. This time, instead of throwing it, he drew close to his victim, and held open the noose as he approached. As he came closer there seemed something paralysing in his very presence, and Po stood rigid as a corpse. He felt the sheriff’s icy fingers touch his throat as the rope was adjusted. The noose tightened—tightened. Then the sheriff, taking the rigid form of the student in his arms, carried him over and placed him standing on the leather chair, and stepping up beside him, put his hand up and caught what remained of the end of the frayed rope dangling down from the apartment above Po’s. As he raised his hand rats fled squeaking, and disappeared through the hole in the ceiling. Taking the end of the noose that was round Po’s neck, he tied it to the hanging-ceiling rope, and then descending pulled away the chair.
Fumbling with the spare keys the concierge eventually opened the door to Po’s apartment, and rushed in with the doctor close behind him. There at the end of the rope hung the body of the student, and on the face of the sheriff in the picture was a malignant smile.