'You said it was an empty sleeve?' he said. 'Certainly,' I said. At staring and saying nothing a barefaced man, unspectacled, starts scratch. Then very quietly he pulled his sleeve out of his pocket again, and raised his arm towards me as though he would show it to me again.

The bold sentence sounds confusing. Who is staring whom? What is it meant by "starts scratch"? Any idea would be appreciated. Thank you.

  • 3
    Hello, Eugene. As @user 159691 articulately expresses: '[S]orry, but in this site we deal with specific language issues (grammar, usage, meaning [of standard words and expressions] etc.) Interpretations of song lyrics, poetry or other forms of writing [especially the bizarre] are subject to personal interpretations and personal preferences. See here for more: english.stackexchange.com/help.' This would be appropriate on WritersSE. Commented May 8, 2018 at 10:26
  • @Edwin Ashworth Thank you. I will check WritersSE :)
    – Eugene
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 12:43
  • 2
    @EdwinAshworth Wells' situations may have been bizarre, but his diction was pretty straightforward and colloquial (even in most cases pedestrian). This seems to me a perfectly straightforward inquiry into the ordinary linguistic meaning of a historical expression. Commented May 8, 2018 at 14:25
  • @StoneyB The most obvious explanation to me seems that 'At staring' is a perpetuated mistake. And you don't think Qube finds this passage 'pretty straightforward '. In any case, there are at least two questions here. Commented May 8, 2018 at 16:19

2 Answers 2


At staring and saying nothing a barefaced man, unspectacled, starts scratch.

Start scratch is a sporting term derived from the 'scratch' or mark on the ground from which competitors in a race start. It is employed in races where competitors are assigned 'handicaps' based on their inherent abilities to assure that everyone has a roughly equal chance of winning. The competitor who starts scratch has no assigned handicap.

However: the significance of starting scratch varies, depending on the sort of handicap assigned. In golf, for instance, where the lowest score wins, your handicap is a number you subtract from your score, so a "scratch" golfer—handicap=0—is among the best in the match. In horseracing, however, where the handicap is an extra weight the horse must carry, a horse with no handicap is among the worst in the race.

What Cuss means here is that his opponent, whose face and head are covered with bandages and whose eyes are masked by dark goggles, has a significant advantage at staring and saying nothing, while Cuss, barefaced and unspectacled, has no such advantage. His opponent can read Cuss' emotional state from his eyes and face, but Cuss cannot read his opponent.


I recall this as Cuss's discussion with the vicar. Cuss is in a rather distressed or shocked state and recants the story in a clipped, note-like way, hence the curt manner of speech. In my reading, Wells is using it as a device to suggest the uncertainty and shock of what Cuss witnesses. Filling in the gaps, I'd suggest: Staring at me , the man, unspectacled and barefaced, started again (from the beginning)

  • To expand just a bit, this sentence is missing a few words for artistic reasons; the phrase the OP is having the most trouble with appears to be a truncated version of "started from scratch" i.e. "started from the beginning with no context."
    – arp
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 11:39
  • I agree with you.
    – Qube
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 12:26
  • This can't be right: the stranger is spectacled and his face is covered with bandages. Commented May 8, 2018 at 13:44
  • Forgive me. I read this book when I was 16 (over 35 years ago). My comments were through a distant lens.
    – Qube
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 15:21

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