The Screaming Skull
F. Marion Crawford
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?
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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.)