Free fiction Friday here on the eighteenth day of our celebration!
And, of course, bear with me for yet another reminder about Halloween: Magic, Mystery, & the Macabre and its new seasonal stories. It’s not too late for you to share the word about it and get a chance to win a free copy…but it will be soon!
The Screaming Skull
by F. Marion Crawford
(First published in two parts in Collier’s, July 11 and July 18, 1908 issues)
I have often heard it scream. No, I am not nervous, I am not imaginative, and I never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one. Whatever it is, it hates me almost as much as it hated Luke Pratt, and it screams at me.
If I were you, I would never tell ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people, for you never can tell but that some one at the table may be tired of his or her nearest and dearest. I have always blamed myself for Mrs. Pratt’s death, and I suppose I was responsible for it in a way, though heaven knows I never wished her anything but long life and happiness. If I had not told that story she might be alive yet. That is why the thing screams at me, I fancy.
She was a good little woman, with a sweet temper, all things considered, and a nice gentle voice; but I remember hearing her shriek once when she thought her little boy was killed by a pistol that went off though everyone was sure that it was not loaded. It was the same scream; exactly the same, with a sort of rising quaver at the end; do you know what I mean? Unmistakable.
The truth is, I had not realized that the doctor and his wife were not on good terms. They used to bicker a bit now and then when I was here, and I often noticed that little Mrs. Pratt got very red and bit her lip hard to keep her temper, while Luke grew pale and said the most offensive things. He was that sort when he was in the nursery, I remember, and afterwards at school. He was my cousin, you know; that is how I came by this house; after he died, and his boy Charley was killed in South Africa, there were no relations left. Yes, it’s a pretty little property, just the sort of thing for an old sailor like me who has taken to gardening.
One always remembers one’s mistakes much more vividly than one’s cleverest things, doesn’t one? I’ve often noticed it. I was dining with the Pratts one night, when I told them the story that afterwards made so much difference. It was a wet night in November, and the sea was moaning. Hush!–if you don’t speak you will hear it now…
Do you hear the tide? Gloomy sound, isn’t it? Sometimes, about this time of year—hallo!—there it is! Don’t be frightened, man—it won’t eat you—it’s only a noise, after all! But I’m glad you’ve heard it, because there are always people who think it’s the wind, or my imagination, or something. You won’t hear it again tonight, I fancy, for it doesn’t often come more than once. Yes—that’s right. Put another stick on the fire, and a little more stuff into that weak mixture you’re so fond of. Do you remember old Blauklot the carpenter, on that German ship that picked us up when the Clontarf went to the bottom? We were hove to in a howling gale one night, as snug as you please, with no land within five hundred miles, and the ship coming up and falling off as regularly as clockwork—“Biddy te boor beebles ashore tis night, poys!” old Blauklot sang out, as he went off to his quarters with the sail-maker. I often think of that, now that I’m ashore for good and all.
Yes, it was on a night like this, when I was at home for a spell, waiting to take the Olympia out on her first trip—it was on the next voyage that she broke the record, you remember—but that dates it. Ninety-two was the year, early in November.
The weather was dirty, Pratt was out of temper, and the dinner was bad, very bad indeed, which didn’t improve matters, and cold, which made it worse. The poor little lady was very unhappy about it, and insisted on making a Welsh rarebit on the table to counteract the raw turnips and the half-boiled mutton. Pratt must have had a hard day. Perhaps he had lost a patient. At all events, he was in a nasty temper.
“My wife is trying to poison me, you see!” he said. “She’ll succeed some day.” I saw that she was hurt, and I made believe to laugh, and said that Mrs. Pratt was much too clever to get rid of her husband in such a simple way; and then I began to tell them about Japanese tricks with spun glass and chopped horsehair and the like.
Pratt was a doctor, and knew a lot more than I did about such things, but that only put me on my mettle, and I told a story about a woman in Ireland who did for three husbands before anyone suspected foul play.
Did you never hear that tale? The fourth husband managed to keep awake and caught her, and she was hanged. How did she do it? She drugged them, and poured melted lead into their ears through a little horn funnel when they were asleep… No—that’s the wind whistling. It’s backing up to the southward again. I can tell by the sound. Besides, the other thing doesn’t often come more than once in an evening even at this time of year—when it happened. Yes, it was in November. Poor Mrs. Pratt died suddenly in her bed not long after I dined here. I can fix the date, because I got the news in New York by the steamer that followed the Olympia when I took her out on her first trip. You had the Leofric the same year? Yes, I remember. What a pair of old buffers we are coming to be, you and I. Nearly fifty years since we were apprentices together on the Clontarf. Shall you ever forget old Blauklot? “Biddy te boor beebles ashore, poys!” Ha, ha! Take a little more, with all that water. It’s the old Hulstkamp I found in the cellar when this house came to me, the same I brought Luke from Amsterdam five-and-twenty years ago. He had never touched a drop of it. Perhaps he’s sorry now, poor fellow.
Where did I leave off? I told you that Mrs. Pratt died suddenly—yes. Luke must have been lonely here after she was dead, I should think; I came to see him now and then, and he looked worn and nervous, and told me that his practice was growing too heavy for him, though he wouldn’t take an assistant on any account. Years went on, and his son was killed in South Africa, and after that he began to be queer. There was something about him not like other people. I believe he kept his senses in his profession to the end; there was no complaint of his having made mad mistakes in cases, or anything of that sort, but he had a look about him—
Luke was a red-headed man with a pale face when he was young, and he was never stout; in middle age he turned a sandy grey, and after his son died he grew thinner and thinner, till his head looked like a skull with parchment stretched over it very tight, and his eyes had a sort of glare in them that was very disagreeable to look at.
He had an old dog that poor Mrs. Pratt had been fond of, and that used to follow her everywhere. He was a bulldog, and the sweetest tempered beast you ever saw, though he had a way of hitching his upper lip behind one of his fangs that frightened strangers a good deal. Sometimes, of an evening, Pratt and Bumble—that was the dog’s name—used to sit and look at each other a long time, thinking about old times, I suppose, when Luke’s wife used to sit in that chair you’ve got. That was always her place, and this was the doctor’s, where I’m sitting. Bumble used to climb up by the footstool—he was old and fat by that time, and could not jump much, and his teeth were getting shaky. He would look steadily at Luke, and Luke looked steadily at the dog, his face growing more and more like a skull with two little coals for eyes; and after about five minutes or so, though it may have been less, old Bumble would suddenly begin to shake all over, and all on a sudden he would set up an awful howl, as if he had been shot, and tumble out of the easy-chair and trot away, and hide himself under the sideboard, and lie there making odd noises.
Considering Pratt’s looks in those last months, the thing is not surprising, you know. I’m not nervous or imaginative, but I can quite believe he might have sent a sensitive woman into hysterics—his head looked so much like a skull in parchment.
At last I came down one day before Christmas, when my ship was in dock and I had three weeks off. Bumble was not about, and I said casually that I supposed the old dog was dead.
“Yes,” Pratt answered, and I thought there was something odd in his tone even before he went on after a little pause. “I killed him,” he said presently. “I could stand it no longer.”
I asked what it was that Luke could not stand, though I guessed well enough.
“He had a way of sitting in her chair and glaring at me, and then howling,” Luke shivered a little. “He didn’t suffer at all, poor old Bumble,” he went on in a hurry, as if he thought I might imagine he had been cruel. “I put dionine into his drink to make him sleep soundly, and then I chloroformed him gradually, so that he could not have felt suffocated even if he was dreaming. It’s been quieter since then.”
I wondered what he meant, for the words slipped out as if he could not help saying them. I’ve understood since. He meant that he did not hear that noise so often after the dog was out of the way. Perhaps he thought at first that it was old Bumble in the yard howling at the moon, though it’s not that kind of noise, is it? Besides, I know what it is, if Luke didn’t. It’s only a noise after all, and a noise never hurt anybody yet. But he was much more imaginative than I am. No doubt there really is something about this place that I don’t understand; but when I don’t understand a thing, I call it a phenomenon, and I don’t take it for granted that it’s going to kill me, as he did. I don’t understand everything, by long odds, nor do you, nor does any man who has been to sea. We used to talk of tidal waves, for instance, and we could not account for them; now we account for them by calling them submarine earthquakes, and we branch off into fifty theories, any one of which might make earthquakes quite comprehensible if we only knew what they were. I fell in with one of them once, and the inkstand flew straight up from the table against the ceiling of my cabin. The same thing happened to Captain Lecky—I dare say you’ve read about it in his “Wrinkles”. Very good. If that sort of thing took place ashore, in this room for instance, a nervous person would talk about spirits and levitation and fifty things that mean nothing, instead of just quietly setting it down as a “phenomenon” that has not been explained yet. My view of that voice, you see.
Besides, what is there to prove that Luke killed his wife? I would not even suggest such a thing to anyone but you. After all, there was nothing but the coincidence that poor little Mrs. Pratt died suddenly in her bed a few days after I told that story at dinner. She was not the only woman who ever died like that. Luke got the doctor over from the next parish, and they agreed that she had died of something the matter with her heart Why not? It’s common enough.
Of course, there was the ladle. I never told anybody about that, and, it made me start when I found it in the cupboard in the bedroom. It was new, too—a little tinned iron ladle that had not been in the fire more than once or twice, and there was some lead in it that had been melted, and stuck to the bottom of the bowl, all grey, with hardened dross on it. But that proves nothing. A country doctor is generally a handy man, who does everything for himself, and Luke may have had a dozen reasons for melting a little lead in a ladle. He was fond of sea-fishing, for instance, and he may have cast a sinker for a night-line; perhaps it was a weight for the hall clock, or something like that. All the same, when I found it I had a rather queer sensation, because it looked so much like the thing I had described when I told them the story. Do you understand? It affected me unpleasantly, and I threw it away; it’s at the bottom of the sea a mile from the Spit, and it will be jolly well rusted beyond recognizing if it’s ever washed up by the tide.
You see, Luke must have bought it in the village, years ago, for the man sells just such ladles still. I suppose they are used in cooking. In any case, there was no reason why an inquisitive housemaid should find such a thing lying about, with lead in it, and wonder what it was, and perhaps talk to the maid who heard me tell the story at dinner—for that girl married the plumber’s son in the village, and may remember the whole thing.
You understand me, don’t you? Now that Luke Pratt is dead and gone, and lies buried beside his wife, with an honest man’s tombstone at his head, I should not care to stir up anything that could hurt his memory. They are both dead, and their son, too. There was trouble enough about Luke’s death, as it was.
How? He was found dead on the beach one morning, and there was a coroner’s inquest. There were marks on his throat, but he had not been robbed. The verdict was that he had come to his end “By the hands or teeth of some person or animal unknown,” for half the jury thought it might have been a big dog that had thrown him down and gripped his windpipe, though the skin of his throat was not broken. No one knew at what time he had gone out, nor where he had been. He was found lying on his back above high-water mark, and an old cardboard bandbox that had belonged to his wife lay under his hand, open. The lid had fallen off. He seemed to have been carrying home a skull in the box—doctors are fond of collecting such things. It had rolled out and lay near his head, and it was a remarkably fine skull, rather small, beautifully shaped and very white, with perfect teeth. That is to say, the upper jaw was perfect, but there was no lower one at all, when I first saw it.
Yes, I found it here when I came. You see, it was very white and polished, like a thing meant to be kept under a glass case, and the people did not know where it came from, nor what to do with it; so they put it back into the bandbox and set it on the shelf of the cupboard in the best bedroom, and of course they showed it to me when I took possession. I was taken down to the beach, too, to be shown the place where Luke was found, and the old fisherman explained just how he was lying, and the skull beside him. The only point he could not explain was why the skull had rolled up the sloping sand towards Luke’s head instead of rolling downhill to his feet. It did not seem odd to me at the time, but I have often thought of it since, for the place is rather steep. I’ll take you there tomorrow if you like—I made a sort of cairn of stones there afterwards.
When he fell down, or was thrown down—whichever happened—the bandbox struck the sand, and the lid came off, and the thing came out and ought to have rolled down. But it didn’t. It was close to his head almost touching it, and turned with the face towards it. I say it didn’t strike me as odd when the man told me; but I could not help thinking about It afterwards, again and again, till I saw a picture of it all when I closed my eyes; and then I began to ask myself why the plaguey thing had rolled up instead of down, and why it had stopped near Luke’s head instead of anywhere else, a yard away, for instance.
You naturally want to know what conclusion I reached, don’t you? None that at all explained the rolling, at all events. But I got something else into my head, after a time, that made me feel downright uncomfortable.
Oh, I don’t mean as to anything supernatural! There may be ghosts, or there may not be. If there are, I’m not inclined to believe that they can hurt living people except by frightening them, and, for my part, I would rather face any shape of ghost than a fog in the Channel when it’s crowded. No. What bothered me was just a foolish idea, that’s all, and I cannot tell how it began, nor what made it grow till it turned into a certainty.
I was thinking about Luke and his poor wife one evening over my pipe and a dull book, when it occurred to me that the skull might possibly be hers, and I have never got rid of the thought since. You’ll tell me there’s no sense in it, no doubt, that Mrs. Pratt was buried like a Christian and is lying in the churchyard where they put her, and that it’s perfectly monstrous to suppose her husband kept her skull in her old bandbox in his bedroom. All the same, in the face of reason, and common sense, and probability, I’m convinced that he did. Doctors do all sorts of queer things that would make men like you and me feel creepy, and those are Just the things that don’t seem probable, nor logical, nor sensible to us.
Then, don’t you see?—if it really was her skull, poor woman, the only way of accounting for his having it is that he really killed her, and did it in that way, as the woman killed her husbands in the story, and that he was afraid there might be an examination some day which would betray him. You see, I told that too, and I believe it had really happened some fifty or sixty years ago. They dug up the three skulls, you know, and there was a small lump of lead rattling about in each one. That was what hanged the woman. Luke remembered that, I’m sure. I don’t want to know what he did when he thought of it; my taste never ran in the direction of horrors, and I don’t fancy you care for them either, do you? No. If you did, you might supply what is wanting to the story.
It must have been rather grim, eh? I wish I did not see the whole thing so distinctly, just as everything must have happened. He took it the night before she was buried, I’m sure, after the coffin had been shut, and when the servant girl was asleep. I would bet anything, that when he’d got it, he put something under the sheet in its place, to fill up and look like it. What do you suppose he put there, under the sheet?
I don’t wonder you take me up on what I’m saying! First I tell you that I don’t want to know what happened, and that I hate to think about horrors, and then I describe the whole thing to you as if I had seen it. I’m quite sure that it was her work-bag that he put there. I remember the bag very well, for she always used it of an evening; it was made of brown plush, and when it was stuffed full it was about the size of—you understand. Yes, there I am, at it again! You may laugh at me, but you don’t live here alone, where it was done, and you didn’t tell Luke the story about the melted lead. I’m not nervous, I tell you, but sometimes I begin to feel that I understand why some people are. I dwell on all this when I’m alone, and I dream of it, and when that thing screams—well, frankly, I don’t like the noise any more than you do, though I should be used to it by this time.
I ought not to be nervous. I’ve sailed in a haunted ship. There was a Man in the Top, and two-thirds of the crew died of the West Coast fever inside of ten days after we anchored; but I was all right, then and afterwards. I have seen some ugly sights, too, just as you have, and all the rest of us. But nothing ever stuck in my head in the way this does.
You see, I’ve tried to get rid of the thing, but it doesn’t like that. It wants to be there in its place, in Mrs. Pratt’s bandbox in the cupboard in the best bedroom. It’s not happy anywhere else. How do I know that? Because I’ve tried it. You don’t suppose that I’ve not tried, do you? As long as it’s there it only screams now and then, generally at this time of year, but if I put it out of the house it goes on all night, and no servant will stay here twenty-four hours. As it is, I’ve often been left alone and have been obliged to shift for myself for a fortnight at a time. No one from the village would ever pass a night under the roof now, and as for selling the place, or even letting it, that’s out of the question. The old women say that if I stay here I shall come to a bad end myself before long.
I’m not afraid of that. You smile at the mere idea that anyone could take such nonsense seriously. Quite right. It’s utterly blatant nonsense, I agree with you. Didn’t I tell you that it’s only a noise after all when you started and looked round as if you expected to see a ghost standing behind your chair?
I may be all wrong about the skull, and I like to think that I am when I can. It may be just a fine specimen which Luke got somewhere long ago, and what rattles about inside when you shake it may be nothing but a pebble, or a bit of hard clay, or anything. Skulls that have lain long in the ground generally have something inside them that rattles don’t they? No, I’ve never tried to get it out, whatever it is; I’m afraid it might be lead, don’t you see? And if it is, I don’t want to know the fact, for I’d much rather not be sure. If it really is lead, I killed her quite as much as if I had done the deed myself. Anybody must see that, I should think. As long as I don’t know for certain, I have the consolation of saying that it’s all utterly ridiculous nonsense, that Mrs. Pratt died a natural death and that the beautiful skull belonged to Luke when he was a student in London. But if I were quite sure, I believe I should have to leave the house; indeed I do, most certainly. As it is, I had to give up trying to sleep in the best bedroom where the cupboard is.
You ask me why I don’t throw it into the pond—yes, but please don’t call it a “confounded bugbear”—it doesn’t like being called names.
There! Lord, what a shriek! I told you so! You’re quite pale, man. Fill up your pipe and draw your chair nearer to the fire, and take some more drink. Old Hollands never hurt anybody yet. I’ve seen a Dutchman in Java drink half a jug of Hulstkamp in a morning without turning a hair. I don’t take much rum myself, because it doesn’t agree with my rheumatism, but you are not rheumatic and it won’t damage you Besides, it’s a very damp night outside. The wind is howling again, and it will soon be in the south-west; do you hear how the windows rattle? The tide must have turned too, by the moaning.
We should not have heard the thing again if you had not said that. I’m pretty sure we should not. Oh yes, if you choose to describe it as a coincidence, you are quite welcome, but I would rather that you should not call the thing names again, if you don’t mind. It may be that the poor little woman hears, and perhaps it hurts her, don’t you know? Ghosts? No! You don’t call anything a ghost that you can take in your hands and look at in broad daylight, and that rattles when you shake it Do you, now? But it’s something that hears and understands; there’s no doubt about that.
I tried sleeping in the best bedroom when I first came to the house just because it was the best and most comfortable, but I had to give it up It was their room, and there’s the big bed she died in, and the cupboard is in the thickness of the wall, near the head, on the left. That’s where it likes to be kept, in its bandbox. I only used the room for a fortnight after I came, and then I turned out and took the little room downstairs, next to the surgery, where Luke used to sleep when he expected to be called to a patient during the night.
I was always a good sleeper ashore; eight hours is my dose, eleven to seven when I’m alone, twelve to eight when I have a friend with me. But I could not sleep after three o’clock in the morning in that room—a quarter past, to be accurate—as a matter of fact, I timed it with my old pocket chronometer, which still keeps good time, and it was always at exactly seventeen minutes past three. I wonder whether that was the hour when she died?
It was not what you have heard. If it had been that, I could not have stood it two nights. It was just a start and a moan and hard breathing for a few seconds in the cupboard, and it could never have waked me under ordinary circumstances, I’m sure. I suppose you are like me in that, and we are just like other people who have been to sea. No natural sounds disturb us at all, not all the racket of a square-rigger hove to in a heavy gale, or rolling on her beam ends before the wind. But if a lead pencil gets adrift and rattles in the drawer of your cabin table you are awake in a moment. Just so—you always understand. Very well, the noise in the cupboard was no louder than that, but it waked me instantly.
I said it was like a “start”. I know what I mean, but it’s hard to explain without seeming to talk nonsense. Of course you cannot exactly “hear” a person “start”; at the most,you might hear the quick drawing of the breath between the parted lips and closed teeth, and the almost imperceptible sound of clothing that moved suddenly though very slightly. It was like that.
You know how one feels what a sailing vessel is going to do, two or three seconds before she does it, when one has the wheel. Riders say the same of a horse, but that’s less strange, because the horse is a live animal with feelings of its own, and only poets and landsmen talk about a ship being alive, and all that. But I have always felt somehow that besides being a steaming machine or a sailing machine for carrying weights, a vessel at sea is a sensitive instrument, and a means of communication between nature and man, and most particularly the man at the wheel, if she is steered by hand. She takes her impressions directly from wind and sea, tide and stream, and transmits them to the man’s hand, just as the wireless telegraphy picks up the interrupted currents aloft and turns them out below in the form of a message.
You see what I am driving at; I felt that something started in the cupboard, and I felt it so vividly that I heard it, though there may have’ been nothing to hear, and the sound inside my head waked me suddenly. But I really heard the other noise. It was as if it were muffled inside a box, as far away as if it came through a long-distance telephone; and yet I knew that it was inside the cupboard near the head of my bed. My hair did not bristle and my blood did not run cold that time. I simply resented being waked up by something that had no business to make a noise, any more than a pencil should rattle in the drawer of my cabin table on board ship. For I did not understand; I just supposed that the cupboard had some communication with the outside air, and that the wind had got in and was moaning through it with a sort of very faint screech. I struck a light and looked at my watch, and it was seventeen minutes past three. Then I turned over and went to sleep on my right ear. That’s my good one; I’m pretty deaf with the other, for I struck the water with it when I was a lad in diving from the fore-topsail yard. Silly thing to do, it was, but the result is very convenient when I want to go to sleep when there’s a noise.
That was the first night, and the same thing happened again and several times afterwards, but not regularly, though it was always at the same time, to a second; perhaps I was sometimes sleeping on my good ear, and sometimes not. I overhauled the cupboard and there was no way by which the wind could get in, or anything else, for the door makes a good fit, having been meant to keep out moths, I suppose; Mrs. Pratt must have kept her winter things in it, for it still smells of camphor and turpentine.
After about a fortnight I had had enough of the noises. So far I had said to myself that it would be silly to yield to it and take the skull out of the room. Things always look differently by daylight, don’t they? But the voice grew louder—I suppose one may call it a voice—and it got inside my deaf ear, too, one night. I realized that when I was wide awake, for my good ear was jammed down on the pillow, and I ought not to have heard a foghorn in that position. But I heard that, and it made me lose my temper, unless it scared me, for sometimes the two are not far apart. I struck a light and got up, and I opened the cupboard, grabbed the bandbox and threw it out of the window, as far as I could.
Then my hair stood on end. The thing screamed in the air, like a shell from a twelve-inch gun. It fell on the other side of the road. The night was very dark, and I could not see it fall, but I know it fell beyond the road The window is just over the front door, it’s fifteen yards to the fence, more or less, and the road is ten yards wide. There’s a thick-set hedge beyond, along the glebe that belongs to the vicarage.
I did not sleep much more than night. It was not more than half an hour after I had thrown the bandbox out when I heard a shriek outside—like what we’ve had tonight, but worse, more despairing, I should call it; and it may have been my imagination, but I could have sworn that the screams came nearer and nearer each time. I lit a pipe, and walked up and down for a bit, and then took a book and sat up reading, but I’ll be hanged if I can remember what I read nor even what the book was, for every now and then a shriek came up that would have made a dead man turn in his coffin.
A little before dawn someone knocked at the front door. There was no mistaking that for anything else, and I opened my window and looked down, for I guessed that someone wanted the doctor, supposing that the new man had taken Luke’s house. It was rather a relief to hear a human knock after that awful noise.
You cannot see the door from above, owing to the little porch. The knocking came again, and I called out, asking who was there, but nobody answered, though the knock was repeated. I sang out again, and said that the doctor did not live here any longer. There was no answer, but it occurred to me that it might be some old countryman who was stone deaf. So I took my candle and went down to open the door. Upon my word, I was not thinking of the thing yet, and I had almost forgotten the other noises. I went down convinced that I should find somebody outside, on the doorstep, with a message. I set the candle on the hall table, so that the wind should not blow it out when I opened. While I was drawing the old-fashioned bolt I heard the knocking again. It was not loud, and it had a queer, hollow sound, now that I was close to it, I remember, but I certainly thought it was made by some person who wanted to get in.
It wasn’t. There was nobody there, but as I opened the door inward, standing a little on one side, so as to see out at once, something rolled across the threshold and stopped against my foot.
I drew back as I felt it, for I knew what it was before I looked down. I cannot tell you how I knew, and it seemed unreasonable, for I am still quite sure that I had thrown it across the road. It’s a French window, that opens wide, and I got a good swing when I flung it out. Besides, when I went out early in the morning, I found the bandbox beyond the thick hedge.
You may think it opened when I threw it, and that the skull dropped out; but that’s impossible, for nobody could throw an empty cardboard box so far. It’s out of the question; you might as well try to fling a ball of paper twenty-five yards, or a blown bird’s egg.
To go back, I shut and bolted the hall door, picked the thing up carefully, and put it on the table beside the candle. I did that mechanically, as one instinctively does the right thing in danger without thinking at all—unless one does the opposite. It may seem odd, but I believe my first thought had been that somebody might come and find me there on the threshold while it was resting against my foot, lying a little on its side, and turning one hollow eye up at my face, as if it meant to accuse me. And the light and shadow from the candle played in the hollows of the eyes as it stood on the table, so that they seemed to open and shut at me. Then the candle went out quite unexpectedly, though the door was fastened and there was not the least draught; and I used up at least half a dozen matches before it would burn again.
I sat down rather suddenly, without quite knowing why. Probably I had been badly frightened, and perhaps you will admit there was no great shame in being scared. The thing had come home, and it wanted to go upstairs, back to its cupboard. I sat still and stared at it for a bit till I began to feel very cold; then I took it and carried it up and set it in its place, and I remember that I spoke to it, and promised that it should have its bandbox again in the morning.
You want to know whether I stayed in the room till daybreak? Yes but I kept a light burning, and sat up smoking and reading, most likely out of fright; plain, undeniable fear, and you need not call it cowardice either, for that’s not the same thing. I could not have stayed alone with that thing in the cupboard; I should have been scared to death, though I’m not more timid than other people. Confound it all, man, it had crossed the road alone, and had got up the doorstep and had knocked to be let in.
When the dawn came, I put on my boots and went out to find the bandbox. I had to go a good way round, by the gate near the high road, and I found the box open and hanging on the other side of the hedge. It had caught on the twigs by the string, and the lid had fallen off and was lying on the ground below it. That shows that it did not open till it was well over; and if it had not opened as soon as it left my hand, what was inside it must have gone beyond the road too.
That’s all. I took the box upstairs to the cupboard, and put the skull back and locked it up. When the girl brought me my breakfast she said she was sorry, but that she must go, and she did not care if she lost her month’s wages. I looked at her, and her face was a sort of greenish yellowish white. I pretended to be surprised, and asked what was the matter; but that was of no use, for she just turned on me and wanted to know whether I meant to stay in a haunted house, and how long I expected to live if I did, for though she noticed I was sometimes a little hard of hearing, she did not believe that even I could sleep through those screams again—and if I could, why had I been moving about the house and opening and shutting the front door, between three and four in the morning? There was no answering that, since she had heard me, so off she went, and I was left to myself. I went down to the village during the morning and found a woman who was willing to come and do the little work there is and cook my dinner, on condition that she might go home every night. As for me, I moved downstairs that day, and I have never tried to sleep in the best bedroom since. After a little while I got a brace of middle-aged Scotch servants from London, and things were quiet enough for a long time. I began by telling them that the house was in a very exposed position, and that the wind whistled round it a good deal in the autumn and winter, which had given it a bad name in the village, the Cornish people being inclined to superstition and telling ghost stories. The two hard-faced, sandy-haired sisters almost smiled, and they answered with great contempt that they had no great opinion of any Southern bogey whatever, having been in service in two English haunted houses, where they had never seen so much as the Boy in Grey, whom they reckoned no very particular rarity in Forfarshire.
They stayed with me several months, and while they were in the house we had peace and quiet. One of them is here again now, but she went away with her sister within the year. This one—she was the cook—married the sexton, who works in my garden. That’s the way of it. It’s a small village and he has not much to do, and he knows enough about flowers to help me nicely, besides doing most of the hard work; for though I’m fond of exercise, I’m getting a little stiff in the hinges. He’s a sober, silent sort of fellow, who minds his own business, and he was a widower when I came here—Trehearn is his name, James Trehearn. The Scottish sisters would not admit that there was anything wrong about the house, but when November came they gave me warning that they were going, on the ground that the chapel was such a long walk from here, being in the next parish, and that they could not possibly go to our church. But the younger one came back in the spring, and as soon as the banns could be published she was married to James Trehearn by the vicar, and she seems to have had no scruples about hearing him preach since then. I’m quite satisfied, if she is! The couple live in a small cottage that looks over the churchyard.
I suppose you are wondering what all this has to do with what I was talking about. I’m alone so much that when an old friend comes to see me, I sometimes go on talking just for the sake of hearing my own voice. But in this case there is really a connection of ideas. It was James Trehearn who buried poor Mrs. Pratt, and her husband after her in the same grave, and it’s not far from the back of his cottage. That’s the connection in my mind, you see. It’s plain enough. He knows something; I’m quite sure that he does, though he’s such a reticent beggar.
Yes, I’m alone in the house at night now, for Mrs. Trehearn does everything herself, and when I have a friend the sexton’s niece comes in to wait on the table. He takes his wife home every evening in winter, but in summer, when there’s light, she goes by herself. She’s not a nervous woman, but she’s less sure than she used to be that there are no bogies in England worth a Scotch-woman’s notice. Isn’t it amusing, the idea that Scotland has a monopoly of the supernatural? Odd sort of national pride, I call that, don’t you?
That’s a good fire, isn’t it? When driftwood gets started at last there’s nothing like it, I think. Yes, we get lots of it, for I’m sorry to say there are still a great many wrecks about here. It’s a lonely coast, and you may have all the wood you want for the trouble of bringing it in. Trehearn and I borrow a cart now and then, and load it between here and the Spit. I hate a coal fire when I can get wood of any sort A log is company, even if it’s only a piece of a deck beam or timber sawn off, and the salt in it makes pretty sparks. See how they fly, like Japanese hand-fireworks! Upon my word, with an old friend and a good fire and a pipe, one forgets all about that thing upstairs, especially now that the wind has moderated. It’s only a lull, though, and it will blow a gale before morning.
You think you would like to see the skull? I’ve no objection. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a look at it, and you never saw a more perfect one in your life, except that there are two front teeth missing in the lower jaw.
Oh yes—I had not told you about the jaw yet. Trehearn found it in the garden last spring when he was digging a pit for a new asparagus bed. You know we make asparagus beds six or eight feet deep here. Yes, yes—I had forgotten to tell you that. He was digging straight down, just as he digs a grave; if you want a good asparagus bed made, I advise you to get a sexton to make it for you. Those fellows have a wonderful knack at that sort of digging.
Trehearn had got down about three feet when he cut into a mass of white lime in the side of the trench. He had noticed that the earth was a little looser there, though he says it had not been disturbed for a number of years. I suppose he thought that even old lime might not be good for asparagus, so he broke it out and threw it up. It was pretty hard, he says, in biggish lumps, and out of sheer force of habit he cracked the lumps with his spade as they lay outside the pit beside him; the jaw bone of the skull dropped out of one of the pieces. He thinks he must have knocked out the two front teeth in breaking up the lime, but he did not see them anywhere. He’s a very experienced man in such things, as you may imagine, and he said at once that the jaw had probably belonged to a young woman, and that the teeth had been complete when she died. He brought it to me, and asked me if I wanted to keep it; if I did not, he said he would drop it into the next grave he made in the churchyard, as he supposed it was a Christian jaw, and ought to have decent burial, wherever the rest of the body might be. I told him that doctors often put bones into quicklime to whiten them nicely, and that I supposed Dr Pratt had once had a little lime pit in the garden for that purpose, and had forgotten the jaw. Trehearn looked at me quietly.
“Maybe it fitted that skull that used to be in the cupboard upstairs, sir,” he said. “Maybe Dr Pratt had put the skull into the lime to clean it, or something, and when he took it out he left the lower jaw behind. There’s some human hair sticking in the lime, sir.”
I saw there was, and that was what Trehearn said. If he did not suspect something, why in the world should he have suggested that the jaw might fit the skull? Besides, it did. That’s proof that he knows more than he cares to tell. Do you suppose he looked before she was buried? Or perhaps—when he buried Luke in the same grave—
Well, well, it’s of no use to go over that, is it? I said I would keep the jaw with the skull, and I took it upstairs and fitted it into its place. There’s not the slightest doubt about the two belonging together, and together they are.
Trehearn knows several things. We were talking about plastering the kitchen a while ago, and he happened to remember that it had not been done since the very week when Mrs. Pratt died. He did not say that the mason must have left some lime on the place, but he thought it, and that it was the very same lime he had found in the asparagus pit. He knows a lot. Trehearn is one of your silent beggars who can put two and two together. That grave is very near the back of his cottage, too, and he’s one of the quickest men with a spade I ever saw. If he wanted to know the truth, he could, and no one else would ever be the wiser unless he chose to tell. In a quiet village like ours, people don’t go and spend the night in the churchyard to see whether the sexton potters about by himself between ten o’clock and daylight.
What is awful to think of, is Luke’s deliberation, if he did it; his cool certainty that no one would find him out; above all, his nerve, for that must have been extraordinary. I sometimes think it’s bad enough to live in the place where it was done, if it really was done. I always put in the condition, you see, for the sake of his memory, and a little bit for my own sake, too.
I’ll go upstairs and fetch the box in a minute. Let me light my pipe; there’s no hurry! We had supper early, and it’s only half-past nine o’clock. I never let a friend go to bed before twelve, or with less than three glasses—you may have as many more as you like, but you shan’t have less, for the sake of old times.
It’s breezing up again, do you hear? That was only a lull just now, and we are going to have a bad night.
A thing happened that made me start a little when I found that the jaw fitted exactly. I’m not very easily startled in that way myself, but I have seen people make a quick movement, drawing their breath sharply, when they had thought they were alone and suddenly turned and saw someone very near them. Nobody can call that fear. You wouldn’t, would you? No. Well, just when I had set the jaw in its place under the skull, the teeth closed sharply on my finger. It felt exactly as if it were biting me hard, and I confess that I jumped before I realized that I had been pressing the jaw and the skull together with my other hand. I assure you I was not at all nervous. It was broad daylight, too, and a fine day, and the sun was streaming into the best bedroom. It would have been absurd to be nervous, and it was only a quick mistaken impression, but it really made me feel queer. Somehow it made me think of the funny verdict of the coroner’s jury on Luke’s death, “by the hand or teeth of some person or animal unknown”. Ever since that I’ve wished I had seen those marks on his throat, though the lower jaw was missing then.
I have often seen a man do insane things with his hands that he does not realize at all. I once saw a man hanging on by an old awning stop with one hand, leaning backward, outboard, with all his weight on it, and he was just cutting the stop with the knife in his other hand when I got my arms round him. We were in mid-ocean, going twenty knots. He had not the smallest idea what he was doing; neither had I when I managed to pinch my finger between the teeth of that thing. I can feel it now. It was exactly as if it were alive and were trying to bite me. It would if it could, for I know it hates me, poor thing! Do you suppose that what rattles about inside is really a bit of lead? Well, I’ll get the box down presently, and if whatever it is happens to drop out into your hands, that’s your affair. If it’s only a clod of earth or a pebble, the whole matter would be off my mind, and I don’t believe I should ever think of the skull again; but somehow I cannot bring myself to shake out the bit of hard stuff myself. The mere idea that it may be lead makes me confoundedly uncomfortable, yet I’ve got the conviction that I shall know before long. I shall certainly know. I’m sure Trehearn knows, but he’s such a silent beggar.
I’ll go upstairs now and get it. What? You had better go with me? Ha, ha! do you think I’m afraid of a bandbox and a noise? Nonsense!
Bother the candle, it won’t light! As if the ridiculous thing understood what it’s wanted for! Look at that—the third match. They light fast enough for my pipe. There, do you see? It’s a fresh box, just out of the tin safe where I keep the supply on account of the dampness. Oh, you think the wick of the candle may be damp, do you? All right, I’ll light the beastly thing in the fire. That won’t go out, at all events. Yes, it sputters a bit, but it will keep lighted now. It burns just like any other candle, doesn’t it? The fact is, candles are not very good about here. I don’t know where they come from, but they have a way of burning low occasionally, with a greenish flame that spits tiny sparks, and I’m often annoyed by their going out of themselves. It cannot be helped, for it will be long before we have electricity in our village. It really is rather a poor light, isn’t it?
You think I had better leave you the candle and take the lamp, do you? I don’t like to carry lamps about, that’s the truth. I never dropped one in my life, but I have always thought I might, and it’s so confoundedly dangerous if you do. Besides, I am pretty well used to these rotten candles by this time.
You may as well finish that glass while I’m getting it, for I don’t mean to let you off with less than three before you go to bed. You won’t have to go upstairs, either, for I’ve put you in the old study next to the surgery—that’s where I live myself. The fact is, I never ask a friend to sleep upstairs now. The last man who did was Crackenthorpe, and he said he was kept awake all night. You remember old Crack, don’t you? He stuck to the Service, and they’ve just made him an admiral. Yes, I’m off now—unless the candle goes out. I couldn’t help asking if you remembered Crackenthorpe. If anyone had told us that the skinny little idiot he used to be was to turn out the most successful of the lot of us, we should have laughed at the idea, shouldn’t we? You and I did not do badly, it’s true—but I’m really going now. I don’t mean to let you think that I’ve been putting it off by talking! As if there were anything to be afraid of! If I were scared, I should tell you so quite frankly, and get you to go upstairs with me.
Here’s the box. I brought it down very carefully, so as not to disturb it, poor thing. You see, if it were shaken, the jaw might get separated from it again, and I’m sure it wouldn’t like that. Yes, the candle went out as I was coming downstairs, but that was the draught from the leaky window on the landing. Did you hear anything? Yes, there was another scream. Am I pale, do you say? That’s nothing. My heart is a little queer sometimes, and I went upstairs too fast. In fact, that’s one reason why I really prefer to live altogether on the ground floor.
Wherever the shriek came from, it was not from the skull, for I had the box in my hand when I heard the noise, and here it is now; so we have proved definitely that the screams are produced by something else. I’ve no doubt I shall find out some day what makes them. Some crevice in the wall, of course, or a crack in a chimney, or a chink in the frame of a window. That’s the way all ghost stories end in real life. Do you know, I’m jolly glad I thought of going up and bringing it down for you to see, for that last shriek settles the question. To think that I should have been so weak as to fancy that the poor skull could really cry out like a living thing!
Now I’ll open the box, and we’ll take it out and look at it under the bright light. It’s rather awful to think that the poor lady used to sit there, in your chair, evening after evening, in just the same light, isn’t it? But then—I’ve made up my mind that it’s all rubbish from beginning to end, and that it’s just an old skull that Luke had when he was a student and perhaps he put it into the lime merely to whiten it, and could not find the jaw.
I made a seal on the string, you see, after I had put the jaw in its place, and I wrote on the cover. There’s the old white label on it still, from the milliner’s, addressed to Mrs. Pratt when the hat was sent to her, and as there was room I wrote on the edge: “A skull, once the property of the late Luke Pratt, MD.” I don’t quite know why I wrote that, unless it was with the idea of explaining how the thing happened to be in my possession. I cannot help wondering sometimes what sort of hat it was that came in the bandbox. What colour was it, do you think? Was it a gay spring hat with a bobbing feather and pretty ribands? Strange that the very same box should hold the head that wore the finery—perhaps. No—we made up our minds that it just came from the hospital in London where Luke did his time. It’s far better to look at it in that light, isn’t it? There’s no more connection between that skull and poor Mrs. Pratt than there was between my story about the lead and—
Good Lord! Take the lamp—don’t let it go out, if you can help it—I’ll have the window fastened again in a second—I say, what a gale! There, it’s out! I told you so! Never mind, there’s the firelight—I’ve got the window shut—the bolt was only half down. Was the box blown off the table? Where the deuce is it? There! That won’t open again, for I’ve put up the bar. Good dodge, an old-fashioned bar—there’s nothing like it. Now, you find the bandbox while I light the lamp. Confound those wretched matches! Yes, a pipe spill is better—it must light in the fire—hadn’t thought of it—thank you—there we are again. Now, where’s the box? Yes, put it back on the table, and we’ll open it.
That’s the first time I have ever known the wind to burst that window open; but it was partly carelessness on my part when I last shut it. Yes, of course I heard the scream. It seemed to go all round the house before it broke in at the window. That proves that it’s always been the wind and nothing else, doesn’t it? When it was not the wind, it was my imagination I’ve always been a very imaginative man: I must have been, though I did not know it. As we grow older we understand ourselves better, don’t you know?
I’ll have a drop of the Hulstkamp neat, by way of an exception, since you are filling up your glass. That damp gust chilled me, and with my rheumatic tendency I’m very much afraid of a chill, for the cold sometimes seems to stick in my joints all winter when it once gets in.
By George, that’s good stuff! I’ll just light a fresh pipe, now that everything is snug again, and then we’ll open the box. I’m so glad we heard that last scream together, with the skull here on the table between us, for a thing cannot possibly be in two places at the same time, and the noise most certainly came from outside, as any noise the wind makes must. You thought you heard it scream through the room after the window was burst open? Oh yes, so did I, but that was natural enough when everything was open. Of course we heard the wind. What could one expect?
Look here, please. I want you to see that the seal is intact before we open the box together. Will you take my glasses? No, you have your own. All right. The seal is sound, you see, and you can read the words of the motto easily. “Sweet and low”—that’s it—because the poem goes on “Wind of the Western Sea”, and says, “blow him again to me”, and all that. Here is the seal on my watch chain, where it’s hung for more than forty years. My poor little wife gave it to me when I was courting, and I never had any other. It was just like her to think of those words—she was always fond of Tennyson.
It’s no use to cut the string, for it’s fastened to the box, so I’ll just break the wax and untie the knot, and afterwards we’ll seal it up again. You see, I like to feel that the thing is safe in its place, and that nobody can take it out. Not that I should suspect Trehearn of meddling with it, but I always feel that he knows a lot more than he tells.
You see, I’ve managed it without breaking the string, though when I fastened it I never expected to open the bandbox again. The lid comes off easily enough. There! Now look!
What! Nothing in it! Empty! It’s gone, man, the skull is gone!
No, there’s nothing the matter with me. I’m only trying to collect my thoughts. It’s so strange. I’m positively certain that it was inside when I put on the seal last spring. I can’t have imagined that: it’s utterly impossible. If I ever took a stiff glass with a friend now and then, I would admit that I might have made some idiotic mistake when I had taken too much. But I don’t, and I never did. A pint of ale at supper and half a go of rum at bedtime was the most I ever took in my good days. I believe it’s always we sober fellows who get rheumatism and gout! Yet there was my seal, and there is the empty bandbox. That’s plain enough.
I say, I don’t half like this. It’s not right. There’s something wrong about it, in my opinion. You needn’t talk to me about supernatural manifestations, for I don’t believe in them, not a little bit! Somebody must have tampered with the seal and stolen the skull. Sometimes, when I go out to work in the garden in summer, I leave my watch and chain on the table. Trehearn must have taken the seal then, and used it, for he would be quite sure that I should not come in for at least an hour.
If it was not Trehearn—oh, don’t talk to me about the possibility that the thing has got out by itself! If it has, it must be somewhere about the house, in some out-of-the-way corner, waiting. We may come upon it anywhere, waiting for us, don’t you know?—just waiting in the dark. Then it will scream at me; it will shriek at me in the dark, for it hates me, I tell you!
The bandbox is quite empty. We are not dreaming, either of us. There, I turn it upside down.
What’s that? Something fell out as I turned it over. It’s on the floor, it s near your feet. I know it is, and we must find it. Help me to find it, man. Have you got it? For God’s sake, give it to me, quickly!
Lead! I knew it when I heard it fall. I knew it couldn’t be anything else by the little thud it made on the hearthrug. So it was lead after all and Luke did it.
I feel a little bit shaken up—not exactly nervous, you know, but badly shaken up, that’s the fact. Anybody would, I should think. After all, you cannot say that it’s fear of the thing, for I went up and brought it down—at least, I believed I was bringing it down, and that’s the same thing, and by George, rather than give in to such silly nonsense, I’ll take the box upstairs again and put it back in its place. It’s not that. It’s the certainty that the poor little woman came to her end in that way, by my fault, because I told the story. That’s what is so dreadful. Somehow, I had always hoped that I should never be quite sure of it, but there is no doubting it now. Look at that!
Look at it! That little lump of lead with no particular shape. Think of what it did, man! Doesn’t it make you shiver? He gave her something to make her sleep, of course, but there must have been one moment of awful agony. Think of having boiling lead poured into your brain. Think of it. She was dead before she could scream, but only think of—oh! there it is again—it’s just outside—I know it’s just outside—I can’t keep it out of my head!—oh!—oh!
You thought I had fainted? No, I wish I had, for it would have stopped sooner. It’s all very well to say that it’s only a noise, and that a noise never hurt anybody—you’re as white as a shroud yourself. There’s only one thing to be done, if we hope to close an eye tonight. We must find it and put it back into its bandbox and shut it up in the cupboard, where it likes to be I don’t know how it got out, but it wants to get in again. That’s why it screams so awfully tonight—it was never so bad as this—never since I first—
Bury it? Yes, if we can find it, we’ll bury it, if it takes us all night. We’ll bury it six feet deep and ram down the earth over it, so that it shall never get out again, and if it screams, we shall hardly hear it so deep down. Quick, we’ll get the lantern and look for it. It cannot be far away; I’m sure it’s just outside—it was coming in when I shut the window, I know it.
Yes, you’re quite right. I’m losing my senses, and I must get hold of myself. Don’t speak to me for a minute or two; I’ll sit quite still and keep my eyes shut and repeat something I know. That’s the best way.
“Add together the altitude, the latitude, and the polar distance, divide by two and subtract the altitude from the half-sum; then add the logarithm of the secant of the latitude, the cosecant of the polar distance, the cosine of the half-sum and the sine of the half-sum minus the altitude”—there! Don’t say that I’m out of my senses, for my memory is all right, isn’t it?
Of course, you may say that it’s mechanical, and that we never forget the things we learned when we were boys and have used almost every day for a lifetime. But that’s the very point. When a man is going crazy, it’s the mechanical part of his mind that gets out of order and won’t work right; he remembers things that never happened, or he sees things that aren’t real, or he hears noises when there is perfect silence. That’s not what is the matter with either of us, is it?
Come, we’ll get the lantern and go round the house. It’s not raining—only blowing like old boots, as we used to say. The lantern is in the cupboard under the stairs in the hall, and I always keep it trimmed in case of a wreck.
No use to look for the thing? I don’t see how you can say that. It was nonsense to talk of burying it, of course, for it doesn’t want to be buried; it wants to go back into its bandbox and be taken upstairs, poor thing! Trehearn took it out, I know, and made the seal over again. Perhaps he took it to the churchyard, and he may have meant well. I dare say he thought that it would not scream any more if it were quietly laid in consecrated ground, near where it belongs. But it has come home. Yes, that’s it. He’s not half a bad fellow, Trehearn, and rather religiously inclined, I think. Does not that sound natural, and reasonable, and well meant? He supposed it screamed because it was not decently buried—with the rest. But he was wrong. How should he know that it screams at me because it hates me, and because it’s my fault that there was that little lump of lead in it?
No use to look for it, anyhow? Nonsense! I tell you it wants to be found—Hark! what’s that knocking? Do you hear it? Knock—knock—knock—three times, then a pause, and then again. It has a hollow sound, hasn’t it?
It has come home. I’ve heard that knock before. It wants to come in and be taken upstairs in its box. It’s at the front door.
Will you come with me? We’ll take it in. Yes, I own that I don’t like to go alone and open the door. The thing will roll in and stop against my foot, just as it did before, and the light will go out. I’m a good deal shaken by finding that bit of lead, and, besides, my heart isn’t quite right—too much strong tobacco, perhaps. Besides, I’m quite willing to own that I’m a bit nervous tonight, if I never was before in my life.
That’s right, come along! I’ll take the box with me, so as not to come back. Do you hear the knocking? It’s not like any other knocking I ever heard. If you will hold this door open, I can find the lantern under the stairs by the light from this room without bringing the lamp into the hall—it would only go out.
The thing knows we are coming—hark! It’s impatient to get in. Don’t shut the door till the lantern is ready, whatever you do. There will be the usual trouble with the matches, I suppose—no, the first one, by Jove! I tell you it wants to get in, so there’s no trouble. All right with that door now; shut it, please. Now come and hold the lantern, for it’s blowing so hard outside that I shall have to use both hands. That’s it, hold the light low. Do you hear the knocking still? Here goes—I’ll open just enough with my foot against the bottom of the door—now!
Catch it! it’s only the wind that blows it across the floor, that’s all—there s half a hurricane outside, I tell you! Have you got it? The bandbox is on the table. One minute, and I’ll have the bar up. There!
Why did you throw it into the box so roughly? It doesn’t like that, you know.
What do you say? Bitten your hand? Nonsense, man! You did just what I did. You pressed the jaws together with your other hand and pinched yourself. Let me see. You don’t mean to say you have drawn blood? You must have squeezed hard by Jove, for the skin is certainly torn. I’ll give you some carbolic solution for it before we go to bed, for they say a scratch from a skull’s tooth may go bad and give trouble.
Come inside again and let me see it by the lamp. I’ll bring the bandbox—never mind the lantern, it may just as well burn in the hall for I shall need it presently when I go up the stairs. Yes, shut the door if you will; it makes it more cheerful and bright. Is your finger still bleeding? I’ll get you the carbolic in an instant; just let me see the thing.
Ugh! There’s a drop of blood on the upper jaw. It’s on the eyetooth. Ghastly, isn’t it? When I saw it running along the floor of the hall, the strength almost went out of my hands, and I felt my knees bending, then I understood that it was the gale, driving it over the smooth boards. You don t blame me? No, I should think not! We were boys together, and we’ve seen a thing or two, and we may just as well own to each other that we were both in a beastly funk when it slid across the floor at you. No wonder you pinched your finger picking it up, after that, if I did the same thing out of sheer nervousness, in broad daylight, with the sun streaming in on me.
Strange that the jaw should stick to it so closely, isn’t it? I suppose it’s the dampness, for it shuts like a vice—I have wiped off the drop of blood, for it was not nice to look at. I’m not going to try to open the jaws, don’t be afraid! I shall not play any tricks with the poor thing, but I’ll just seal the box again, and we’ll take it upstairs and put it away where it wants to be. The wax is on the writing-table by the window. Thank you. It will be long before I leave my seal lying about again, for Trehearn to use, I can tell you. Explain? I don’t explain natural phenomena, but if you choose to think that Trehearn had hidden it somewhere in the bushes, and that the gale blew it to the house against the door, and made it knock, as if it wanted to be let in, you’re not thinking the impossible, and I’m quite ready to agree with you.
Do you see that? You can swear that you’ve actually seen me seal it this time, in case anything of the kind should occur again. The wax fastens the strings to the lid, which cannot possibly be lifted, even enough to get in one finger. You’re quite satisfied, aren’t you? Yes. Besides, I shall lock the cupboard and keep the key in my pocket hereafter.
Now we can take the lantern and go upstairs. Do you know? I’m very much inclined to agree with your theory that the wind blew it against the house. I’ll go ahead, for I know the stairs; just hold the lantern near my feet as we go up. How the wind howls and whistles! Did you feel the sand on the floor under your shoes as we crossed the hall?
Yes—this is the door of the best bedroom. Hold up the lantern, please. This side, by the head of the bed. I left the cupboard open when I got the box. Isn’t it queer how the faint odour of women’s dresses will hang about an old closet for years? This is the shelf. You’ve seen me set the box there, and now you see me turn the key and put it into my pocket. So that’s done!
Goodnight. Are you sure you’re quite comfortable? It’s not much of a room, but I dare say you would as soon sleep here as upstairs tonight. If you want anything, sing out; there’s only a lath and plaster partition between us. There’s not so much wind on this side by half. There’s the Hollands on the table, if you’ll have one more nightcap. No? Well, do as you please. Goodnight again, and don’t dream about that thing, if you can.
The following paragraph appeared in the Penraddon News, 23rd November 1906:
MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF A RETIRED SEA CAPTAIN
The village of Tredcombe is much disturbed by the strange death of Captain Charles Braddock, and all sorts of impossible stories are circulating with regard to the circumstances, which certainly seem difficult of explanation. The retired captain, who had successfully commanded in his time the largest and fastest liners belonging to one of the principal transatlantic steamship companies, was found dead in his bed on Tuesday morning in his own cottage, a quarter of a mile from the village. An examination was made at once by the local practitioner, which revealed the horrible fact that the deceased had been bitten in the throat by a human assailant, with such amazing force as to crush the windpipe and cause death. The marks of the teeth of both jaws were so plainly visible on the skin that they could be counted, but the perpetrator of the deed had evidently lost the two lower middle incisors. It is hoped that this peculiarity may help to identify the murderer, who can only be a dangerous escaped maniac. The deceased, though over sixty-five years of age, is said to have been a hale man of considerable physical strength, and it is remarkable that no signs of any struggle were visible in the room, nor could it be ascertained how the murderer had entered the house. Warning has been sent to all the insane asylums in the United Kingdom, but as yet no information has been received regarding the escape of any dangerous patient.
The coroner’s Jury returned the somewhat singular verdict that Captain Braddock came to his death “by the hands or teeth of some person unknown”. The local surgeon is said to have expressed privately the opinion that the maniac is a woman, a view he deduces from the small size of the jaws, as shown by the marks of the teeth. The whole affair is shrouded in mystery. Captain Braddock was a widower, and lived alone. He leaves no children.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE.—Students of ghost lore and haunted houses will find the foundation of the foregoing story in the legends about a skull which is still preserved in the farmhouse called Bettiscombe Manor, situated, I believe, on the Dorsetshire coast.)