The Middle Toe of the Right Foot

Ambrose Bierce

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04 Apr, 2014 09:14 PM

1

IT is well known that the old Manton house is haunted. In all the rural
district near about, and even in the town of Marshall, a mile away, not
one person of unbiased mind entertains a doubt of it; incredulity is
confined to those opinionated persons who will be called 'cranks' as
soon as the useful word shall have penetrated the intellectual demesne
of the Marshall Advance. The evidence that the house is haunted is of
two kinds: the testimony of disinterested witnesses who have had ocular
proof, and that of the house itself. The former may be disregarded and
ruled out on any of the various grounds of objection which may be urged
against it by the ingenious; but facts within the observation of all are
material and controlling.
In the first place, the Manton house has been un- occupied by
mortals for more than ten years, and with its outbuildings is slowly
falling into decay-- a circumstance which in itself the judicious will
hardly venture to ignore. It stands a little way off the loneliest reach
of the Marshall and Harriston road, in an opening which was once a farm
and is still dis- figured with strips of rotting fence and half covered
with brambles overrunning a stony and sterile soil long unacquainted
with the plough. The house it- self is in tolerably good condition,
though badly weather-stained and in dire need of attention from the
glazier, the smaller male population of the region having attested in
the manner of its kind its disapproval of dwelling without dwellers. It
is two stories in height, nearly square, its front pierced by a single
doorway flanked on each side by a window boarded up to the very top.
Corresponding windows above, not protected, serve to admit light and
rain to the rooms of the upper floor. Grass and weeds grow pretty rankly
all about, and a few shade trees, somewhat the worse for wind, and
leaning all in one direction, seem to be making a concerted effort to
run away. In short, as the Marshall town humorist explained in the
columns of the Advance, 'the prop- osition that the Manton house is
badly haunted is the only logical conclusion from the premises.' The
fact that in this dwelling Mr. Manton thought it expedient one night
some ten years ago to rise and cut the throats of his wife and two small
children, removing at once to another part of the country, has no doubt
done its share in directing public attention to the fitness of the place
for supernatural phe- nomena.
To this house, one summer evening, came four men in a wagon. Three
of them promptly alighted, and the one who had been driving hitched the
team to the only remaining post of what had been a fence. The fourth
remained seated in the wagon. 'Come,' said one of his companions,
approaching him, while the others moved away in the direction of the
dwell- ing--'this is the place.'
The man addressed did not move. 'By God!' he said harshly, 'this is
a trick, and it looks to me as if you were in it.'
'Perhaps I am,' the other said, looking him straight in the face and
speaking in a tone which had something of contempt in it. 'You will
remember, however, that the choice of place was with your own assent
left to the other side. Of course if you are afraid of spooks--'
'I am afraid of nothing,' the man interrupted with another oath, and
sprang to the ground. The two then joined the others at the door, which
one of them had already opened with some difficulty, caused by rust of
lock and hinge. All entered. Inside it was dark, but the man who had
unlocked the door pro- duced a candle and matches and made a light. He
then unlocked a door on their right as they stood in the passage. This
gave them entrance to a large, square room that the candle but dimly
lighted. The floor had a thick carpeting of dust, which partly muf- fled
their footfalls. Cobwebs were in the angles of the walls and depended
from the ceiling like strips of rotting lace, making undulatory
movements in the disturbed air. The room had two windows in adjoin- ing
sides, but from neither could anything be seen except the rough inner
surfaces of boards a few inches from the glass. There was no fireplace,
no furniture; there was nothing: besides the cobwebs and the dust, the
four men were the only objects there which were not a part of the
structure.
Strange enough they looked in the yellow light of the candle. The
one who had so reluctantly alighted was especially spectacular--he might
have been called sensational. He was of middle age, heavily built,
deep-chested and broad-shouldered. Looking at his figure, one would have
said that he had a giant's strength; at his features, that he would use
it like a giant. He was clean-shaven, his hair rather closely cropped
and grey. His low fore- head was seamed with wrinkles above the eyes,
and over the nose these became vertical. The heavy black brows followed
the same law, saved from meeting only by an upward turn at what would
otherwise have been the point of contact. Deeply sunken be- neath these
glowed in the obscure light a pair of eyes of uncertain colour, but
obviously enough too small. There was something forbidding in their ex-
pression, which was not bettered by the cruel mouth and wide jaw. The
nose was well enough, as noses go; one does not expect much of noses.
All that was sinister in the man's face seemed accentuated by an
unnatural pallor--he appeared altogether bloodless.
The appearance of the other men was sufficiently commonplace: they
were such persons as one meets and forgets that he met. All were younger
than the man described, between whom and the eldest of the others, who
stood apart, there was apparently no kindly feeling. They avoided
looking at each other.
'Gentlemen,' said the man holding the candle and keys,' I believe
everything is right. Are you ready, Mr. Rosser?'
The man standing apart from the group bowed and smiled.
'And you, Mr. Grossmith?'
The heavy man bowed and scowled.
'You will be pleased to remove your outer clothing.'
Their hats, coats, waistcoats and neckwear were soon removed and
thrown outside the door, in the passage. The man with the candle now
nodded, and the fourth man--he who had urged Grossmith to leave the
wagon--produced from the pocket of his overcoat two long,
murderous-looking bowie- knives, which he drew now from their leather
scabbards.
'They are exactly alike,' he said, presenting one to each of the two
principals--for by this time the dullest observer would have understood
the nature of this meeting. It was to be a duel to the death.
Each combatant took a knife, examined it criti- cally near the
candle and tested the strength of blade and handle across his lifted
knee. Their per- sons were then searched in turn, each by the second of
the other.
'If it is agreeable to you, Mr. Grossmith,' said the man holding the
light,' you will place yourself in that corner.'
He indicated the angle of the room farthest from the door, whither
Grossmith retired, his second part- ing from him with a grasp of the
hand which had nothing of cordiality in it. In the angle nearest the
door Mr. Rosser stationed himself, and after a whispered consultation
his second left him, joining the other near the door. At that moment the
candle was suddenly extinguished, leaving all in profound darkness. This
may have been done by the draught from the opened door; whatever the
cause, the effect was startling.
'Gentlemen,' said a voice which sounded strangely unfamiliar in the
altered condition affecting the relations of the senses--'gentlemen, you
will not move until you hear the closing of the outer door.'
A sound of trampling ensued, then the closing of the inner door; and
finally the outer one closed with a concussion which shook the entire
building.
A few minutes afterward a belated farmer's boy met a light wagon
which was being driven furiously toward the town of Marshall. He
declared that be- hind the two figures on the front seat stood a third,
with its hands upon the bowed shoulders of the others, who appeared to
struggle vainly to free themselves from its grasp. This figure, unlike
the others, was clad in white, and had undoubtedly boarded the wagon as
it passed the haunted house. As the lad could boast a considerable
former expe- rience with the supernatural thereabouts his word had the
weight justly due to the testimony of an expert. The story (in
connection with the next day's events) eventually appeared in the
Advance, with some slight literary embellishments and a concluding
intimation that the gentlemen referred to would be allowed the use of
the paper's columns for their version of the night's adventure. But the
privilege remained without a claimant.
2
The events that led up to this 'duel in the dark' were simple
enough. One evening three young men of the town of Marshall were sitting
in a quiet corner of the porch of the village hotel, smoking and dis-
cussing such matters as three educated young men of a Southern village
would naturally find interesting. Their names were King, Sancher and
Rosser. At a little distance, within easy hearing, but taking no part in
the conversation, sat a fourth. He was a stranger to the others. They
merely knew that on his arrival by the stage-coach that afternoon he had
written in the hotel register the name Robert Grossmith. He had not been
observed to speak to anyone except the hotel clerk. He seemed, indeed,
singularly fond of his own company--or, as the personnel of the Advance
expressed it, 'grossly ad- dicted to evil associations.' But then it
should be said in justice to the stranger that the personnel was himself
of a too convivial disposition fairly to judge one differently gifted,
and had, moreover, experienced a slight rebuff in an effort at an
'interview.'
'I hate any kind of deformity in a woman,' said King, 'whether
natural or--acquired. I have a theory that any physical defect has its
correlative mental and moral defect.'
'I infer, then,' said Rosser gravely, 'that a lady lacking the moral
advantage of a nose would find the struggle to become Mrs. King an
arduous enterprise.'
'Of course you may put it that way,' was the re- ply; 'but,
seriously, I once threw over a most charming girl on learning quite
accidentally that she had suffered amputation of a toe. My conduct was
brutal if you like, but if I had married that girl I should have been
miserable for life and should have made her so.'
'Whereas,' said Sancher, with a light laugh, 'by marrying a
gentleman of more liberal views she escaped with a parted throat.'
'Ah, you know to whom I refer. Yes, she married Manton, but I don't
know about his liberality; I'm not sure but he cut her throat because he
discovered that she lacked that excellent thing in woman, the middle toe
of the right foot.'
'Look at that chap!' said Rosser in a low voice, his eyes fixed upon
the stranger.
'That chap' was obviously listening intently to the conversation.
'Damn his impudence!' muttered King--' what ought we to do?'
'That's an easy one,' Rosser replied, rising. 'Sir,' he continued,
addressing the stranger, 'I think it would be better if you would remove
your chair to the other end of the veranda. The presence of gentle- men
is evidently an unfamiliar situation to you.'
The man sprang to his feet and strode forward with clenched hands,
his face white with rage. All were now standing. Sancher stepped between
the belligerents.
'You are hasty and unjust,' he said to Rosser; 'this gentleman has
done nothing to deserve such language.'
But Rosser would not withdraw a word. By the custom of the country
and the time there could be but one outcome to the quarrel.
'I demand the satisfaction due to a gentleman,' said the stranger,
who had become more calm. 'I have not an acquaintance in this region.
Perhaps you, sir,' bowing to Sancher, 'will be kind enough to represent
me in this matter.'
Sancher accepted the trust--somewhat reluc- tantly it must be
confessed, for the man's appear- ance and manner were not at all to his
liking. King, who during the colloquy had hardly removed his eyes from
the stranger's face and had not spoken a word, consented with a nod to
act for Rosser, and the upshot of it was that, the principals having
retired, a meeting was arranged for the next evening. The nature of the
arrangements has been already disclosed. The duel with knives in a dark
room was once a commoner feature of south-western life than it is likely
to be again. How thin a veneering of 'chivalry' covered the essential
brutality of the code under which such encounters were possible we shall
see.
3
In the blaze of a midsummer noonday the old Manton house was hardly
true to its traditions. It was of the earth, earthy. The sunshine
caressed it warmly and affectionately, with evident disregard of its bad
reputation. The grass greening all the expanse in its front seemed to
grow, not rankly, but with a natural and joyous exuberance, and the
weeds blossomed quite like plants. Full of charming lights and shadows
and populous with pleasant-voiced birds, the neglected shade trees no
longer struggled to run away, but bent reverently beneath their bur- den
of sun and song. Even in the glassless upper windows was an expression
of peace and content- ment, due to the light within. Over the stony
fields the visible heat danced with a lively tremor incom- patible with
the gravity which is an attribute of the supernatural.
Such was the aspect under which the place pre- sented itself to
Sheriff Adams and two other men who had come out from Marshall to look
at it. One of these men was Mr. King, the sheriff's deputy; the other,
whose name was Brewer, was a brother of the late Mrs. Manton. Under a
beneficent law of the State relating to property which had been for a
certain period abandoned by an owner whose residence cannot be
ascertained, the sheriff was legal custodian of the Manton farm and
appurtenances thereunto belonging. His present visit was in mere
perfunctory compliance with some order of a court in which Mr. Brewer
had an action to get possession of the property as heir to his deceased
sister. By a mere coincidence, the visit was made on the day after the
night that Deputy King had unlocked the house for another and very
different purpose. His presence now was not of his own choosing: he had
been ordered to accompany his superior, and at the moment could think of
nothing more pru- dent than simulated alacrity in obedience to the
command.
Carelessly opening the front door, which to his surprise was not
locked, the sheriff was amazed to see, lying on the floor of the passage
into which it opened, a confused heap of men's apparel. Exam- ination
showed it to consist of two hats, and the same number of coats,
waistcoats and scarves, all in a remarkably good state of preservation,
albeit somewhat defiled by the dust in which they lay. Mr. Brewer was
equally astonished, but Mr. King's emotion is not on record. With a new
and lively interest in his own actions the sheriff now unlatched and
pushed open the door on the right, and the three entered. The room was
apparently vacant--no; as their eyes became accustomed to the dimmer
light something was visible in the farthest angle of the wall. It was a
human figure--that of a man crouching close in the corner. Something in
the atti- tude made the intruders halt when they had barely passed the
threshold. The figure more and more clearly defined itself. The man was
upon one knee, his back in the angle of the wall, his shoulders elevated
to the level of his ears, his hands before his face, palms outward, the
fingers spread and crooked like claws; the white face turned upward on
the retracted neck had an expression of unutterable fright, the mouth
half open, the eyes incredibly expanded. He was stone dead. Yet, with
the excep- tion of a bowie-knife, which had evidently fallen from his
own hand, not another object was in the room.
In thick dust that covered the floor were some confused footprints
near the door and along the wall through which it opened. Along one of
the ad- joining walls, too, past the boarded-up windows, was the trail
made by the man himself in reaching his corner. Instinctively in
approaching the body the three men followed that trail. The sheriff
grasped one of the out-thrown arms; it was as rigid as iron, and the
application of a gentle force rocked the en- tire body without altering
the relation of its parts. Brewer, pale with excitement, gazed intently
into the distorted face. 'God of mercy!' he suddenly cried, 'it is
Manton! '
'You are right,' said King, with an evident at- tempt at calmness:
'I knew Manton. He then wore a full beard and his hair long, but this is
he.'
He might have added: 'I recognized him when he challenged Rosser. I
told Rosser and Sancher who he was before we played him this horrible
trick. When Rosser left this dark room at our heels, for- getting his
outer clothing in the excitement, and driving away with us in his shirt
sleeves--all through the discreditable proceedings we knew whom we were
dealing with, murderer and coward that he was!'
But nothing of this did Mr. King say. With his better light he was
trying to penetrate the mystery of the man's death. That he had not once
moved from the corner where he had been stationed; that his posture was
that of neither attack nor defence; that he had dropped his weapon; that
he had obviously perished of sheer horror of something that he saw
--these were circumstances which Mr. King's dis- turbed intelligence
could not rightly comprehend.
Groping in intellectual darkness for a clue to his maze of doubt,
his gaze, directed mechanically down- ward in the way of one who ponders
momentous matters, fell upon something which, there, in the light of day
and in the presence of living companions, affected him with terror. In
the dust of years that lay thick upon the floor--leading from the door
by which they had entered, straight across the room to within a yard of
Manton's crouching corpse-- were three parallel lines of
footprints--light but definite impressions of bare feet, the outer ones
those of small children, the inner a woman's. From the point at which
they ended they did not return; they pointed all one way. Brewer, who
had observed them at the same moment, was leaning forward in an attitude
of rapt attention, horribly pale.
'Look at that!' he cried, pointing with both hands at the nearest
print of the woman's right foot, where she had apparently stopped and
stood. 'The middle toe is missing--it was Gertrude!'
Gertrude was the late Mrs. Manton, sister of Mr. Brewer.

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