W. Somerset Maugham, first published in 1936; translated to modern English, otherwise exactly the same.
This is for a Classics in the Rain special; narration coming soon.
For the last thirty years, I have been studying my fellow-men. I do not know very much about them. I suppose that is because we tend to judge people when we meet them. We draw conclusions based on the shape of their jaw, the look in their eyes, and the shape of their mouth. I shrug my shoulders when people say their first impressions are always right. I find the longer I know someone, the more they puzzle me; my oldest friends are those I know nothing about.
These thoughts occur to me because this morning’s paper reported that Edward Hyde Burton died at Kobe. He was a merchant, and he had been in Japan for many years. I knew very little of him, but he surprised me once, so I found him interesting. If I had not heard the story from his own lips, I never would have believed he was capable of such a thing. It was even more startling because his appearance and his behavior gave a very different impression. He was a tiny, slender fellow with white hair, a wrinkled, red face, and blue eyes. He was about sixty when I knew him, and he was always dressed in accordance with his age and station.
Though his offices were in Kobe, Burton often came down to Yokohama. On one occasion, I spent a few days there while waiting for a ship, and I met him at the British Club. He played a good game of bridge, but he did not talk very much – not then or later when we had drinks – though what he did say was sensible.
He had a quiet, dry humor, and he was quite popular at the club; after he left, they described him as one of the best. We were both staying at the Grand Hotel, and he asked me to have dinner with him the next day. I met his fat, old, smiling wife along with his two daughters, and they were clearly a close, loving family.
The main thing that struck me about Burton was his kindness; there was something very pleasing in his mild, blue eyes and easy smile. His voice was gentle; you could not imagine him raising it in anger. This was a man you admired because you could feel the love he had for others. He was charming, but there was nothing sentimental about him; he liked cards and cocktails, he could tell a good, spicy story, he was somewhat of an athlete in his youth, and he was a self-made wealthy man. He was also small and frail – it made you want to protect him; he seemed like the type who would never hurt a fly.
One afternoon, I was sitting in the hotel lounge, admiring an excellent view of the harbor and its crowded traffic. There were great liners, merchant ships from every nation, and boats sailing all about. It was a busy scene, yet somehow calming to the soul. Burton saw me when he entered the lounge, and he sat in the chair next to mine.
“What do you say to a little drink?” He clapped and ordered two drinks. As a boy brought them, a man passing by on the street waved to me.
“Do you know Turner?” Burton said as I nodded a greeting.
“I’ve met him at the club. I’m told he’s a remittance man – you know – one of those immigrants whose family sent them away for being an embarrassment.”
“Yes, I believe he is; there are a good many here.”
“He plays bridge well.” I added.
“They usually do. A namesake of mine was here last year, and he was the best bridge player I ever met. You likely never came across him in London, but he called himself Lenny Burton.”
“No, I’m not familiar with the name.”
“He was a remarkable player; he had an uncanny instinct for cards. We used to play a lot when he was in Kobe.”
Burton sipped his gin. “It’s rather a funny story,” he said. “I liked him… He wasn’t a bad kid. He always dressed well, and he was handsome with his curly hair and light-pink cheeks. Women were very fond of him; he was a wild one but harmless… Of course, he drank too much… Fellows like him always do… He received a small quarterly income and made a bit more playing cards; at least, I know he won a good deal of mine.”
Burton chuckled kindly. “I suppose that’s why he came to me when he was broke… Well, that and the fact he was my namesake. One day, he came to my office and asked for a job; I was rather surprised. He said there was no more money coming from home, and he wanted to work; so, I asked how old he was, and he said 35.
“Then, I asked what he could do, but he’d never done anything! I couldn’t help but laugh. I tried sending him away – told him to come back and see me in another 35 years, and I’d see what I could do! He went pale and stood frozen, but – after a moment’s hesitation – he said he’d been having bad luck at cards for some time. He didn’t have a penny left, and he’d already pawned everything he owned. He couldn’t pay his hotel bill, and they wouldn’t give him any more credit. He was at rock bottom; if he couldn’t get a job, he’d have to commit suicide.
“I looked at him for a minute, and I could see he was falling to pieces. He’d been drinking more than usual, too; he looked 50-years-old. I asked again – wasn’t there something he could do besides play cards?! And do you know what he said? Swim! I could hardly believe my ears; it seemed like such a silly answer, but apparently he swam in college.
“Well, I was a pretty good swimmer myself as a young man, so – I said as much – and, suddenly, I had an idea!” Burton paused his story, turned to me, and asked, “have you been to Kobe?”
“I’ve passed through it, but I’ve only spent one night there.” I said.
“Then you wouldn’t know the Shioya Club. In my younger years, I would start there and swim around the beacon to the Tarumi creek. It’s over three miles, and it’s fairly difficult due to the currents near the beacon. I told my young namesake that if he did it, I’d give him a job. He seemed rather surprised, so I asked again – was really a swimmer – and he confessed to being in less than perfect condition.
“I shrugged without saying anything, and he studied me for a moment before finally agreeing. He asked when I wanted him to do it, and I checked my watch to see it was just past 10:00. Since the swim wouldn’t take more than an hour and fifteen minutes, I said that I would meet him at the creek at 12:30, and – afterwards – I would take him to get dressed so we could have lunch.
“He agreed, and we shook hands; then, I wished him good luck, and he left. I had a lot of work to do that morning, and I barely managed to get to the creek on time. I waited for him, but in vain…”
“Did he chicken out at the last minute?” I asked.
“No; he’d already started swimming, but he ruined his health with alcohol. The currents around the beacon were more than he could handle, but his body wasn’t found until about three days later.”
I didn’t say anything at first; I was a little shocked. Then, I asked Burton a question… “When you offered him the job, did you know that he’d drown?”
He gave a mild chuckle, looked at me with those kind, blue eyes, and rubbed his chin. “Well, I didn’t have a vacancy at the time.”
M.R. James, first published in 1925; translated to modern English, otherwise exactly the same.
The story you are about to hear take’s place in the east coast town of Seaburgh. It has not changed much since my childhood. There were marshlands to the south, and the flat fields in the north merged with acres of heath trees and fir woods further inland. Between the long sea-front and street was a spacious, flint church with a large western tower and six bells. I remember how they sounded on a hot Sunday in August as our group walked up the steep, dusty hill towards the church. They rang with a flat, clacking sound when it was hot, but when the air was cooler they were softer.
The railway ran to a small terminal farther along the same road. Identical bright, white windmills could be found all over town; one was right before the station, another was near the beach, and the rest were on higher ground to the north. There were red, brick cottages with slate roofs— but why do I bother you with these boring details? Honestly, I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to writing about Seaburgh; I like to ensure the right words make it onto the paper, and I have not quite finished painting the scene yet.
If you walked past the station – away from the town and the sea – and take a right turn, you would reach a sandy road parallel to the railway. It stretches uphill with heath trees to the west, and a thicket of wind-beaten fir trees at the top – facing the sea. There is also a line of these fir trees running towards the sea atop my little hill; they crown the well-shaped mound surrounded by flat, grassy fields. It’s a fine place to sit on a hot, spring day and look at the blue sea, the white windmills, the red cottages, the green grass, and the distant martello tower to the south.
I said I knew Seaburgh from my childhood, but it has been many years since then. I am still quite fond of the town, and I enjoy any news of it I might hear. One story came to me by accident in a place very far from Seaburgh; I helped the man who shared it with me, and I have recorded it below.
I used to golf in Seaburgh pretty regularly in the spring. I usually stayed at the Bear Hotel with my friend, Henry Long… You might have known him… We used to enjoy talking together in the lounge, but – since he died – I haven’t wanted to go back, and I don’t think I will after what happened last time.
We were there on April 19th, and there were not many guests in the hotel. The public areas were practically empty, and, after dinner, we were surprised when a young man – Paxton was his name – stuck his head into our room. He was pale and rabbit-faced with light hair and eyes, but he wasn’t ugly. “Is this a private room?” He asked.
“No; please, join us.” We invited him in, and he seemed relieved. It was obvious he wanted company, and since he wasn’t the sort to dump his whole family history on you – we urged him to make himself at home. “You would find the other rooms rather dull, anyway.” I added.
“Thank you; yes, I already did.” He confirmed, and – once the pleasantries were finished – he began reading a book while Long played cards, and I worked on my writing. Within a few minutes, it became obvious that our visitor was quite nervous, so I put away my work and began a conversation.
After the initial remarks, he became oddly secretive and said we would think him crazy if he shared his concerns. I recommended a drink for courage, and we all had one; though, when the waiter entered, Paxton seemed very jumpy.
He didn’t know anyone in the hotel, but we shared a common acquaintance in town, and he was hoping for some advice. Of course, we agreed, and Long put his cards away as we settled down to hear the young man’s story.
“It started over a week ago when I biked the 5-6 miles to Froston…” He began. “Just to see the church; I’m fascinated by architecture, and it’s got one of those pretty porches with beams and gables. I took a picture of it, and an old man who was cleaning the churchyard asked if I wanted to look inside… So, I said yes, and he pulled out a key to let me in. There wasn’t much in there, but the caretaker liked to keep it clean, and I pointed to the porch, saying it was my favorite part.”
“Ah, it is a nice porch, but do you know what that coat-of-arms means?” The caretaker asked, indicating the one with three crowns.
While Paxton was no expert, he thought it belonged to East Anglia. “That’s right, sir, and do you know the meaning of those three crowns?” The caretaker pressed, but the young man did not know.
“Well, then, I can tell the scholar something he doesn’t know! They’re the three holy crowns that were buried near the coast to keep the Germans from landing… I can see you don’t believe that, but if it hadn’t been those crowns – the German ships would of landed here over and over, and they would have killed men, women, and children! That’s the truth, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask the cleric— Here he comes, you go ahead and ask.”
A nice-looking, older man was coming up the path, and before Paxton could assure the excited caretaker that he did believe him – the cleric spoke first. “What’s going on, John? And good day, sir. Have you been looking at our little church?”‘
John calmed down during the conversation that followed, and the cleric tried asking him once more what was wrong. “Oh, nothing… I was only telling this gentleman he should ask you about the holy crowns.”
‘”Ah, yes, of course,” the cleric said. “That’s an intriguing matter, isn’t it? But I don’t know if the gentleman is interested in our old stories, eh?”
“Oh, he’ll be interested fast enough, and he’ll believe what you tell him, sir! You knew William Ager personally – the father and son!” John said.
“I would like to hear about it.” Paxton said, and the cleric led him down the village street to the rectory – occasionally stopping to speak with a parishioner.
Then, they went into his study where he was happy to share the legend. “The locals have always believed in the three holy crowns. The old people say they were buried in different places near the coast to keep the foreigners away; one was removed a long time ago, another has disappeared beneath the rising sea, and the last is still keeping invaders at bay. If you have read our history, you may remember that in 1687, the crown of Redwald – King of the East Angles – was dug up in Rendlesham and tragically melted down before it could be properly described or drawn; it had been buried farther inland. The second crown was buried to the south where a Saxon royal palace used to be, but it’s at the bottom of the sea now. Finally, the third crown lies beyond those two.”
“Do they know where it is?” Paxton asked, unable to believe such a story had not been made into a book.
“Yes, but they won’t tell.” The cleric answered, and his manner discouraged the young man from asking why.
Instead, he waited a moment before asking, “what did the old man mean when he said you knew William Ager like it had something to do with the crowns?”
“That’s another strange story.” The cleric began. “Ager is a very old name in these parts, but I can’t find proof they were ever high-class people, or that their ancestors were the last crown’s guardians. Nathaniel Ager was the first one I knew; I was born and raised nearby, and he was camping there for the duration of the Franco-Prussian War. His son, William, did the same during the South African War, and his recently deceased grandson, young William, lived in the cottage closest to the place it’s buried. He was deathly ill, and the last of his line; I have no doubt that knowledge quickened his death. He was devastated to know there would be no one else to keep watch, but he couldn’t do anything about it; his relatives were all far away, in the colonies. I wrote letters to them on his behalf – begging them to come for a visit and discuss important family matters – but there hasn’t been a reply. If the last of the holy crowns is really there – it has no guardian now.”
“I found the cleric’s story fascinating. When I left, the only thing I could think about was finding that crown, but I wish I’d left it alone.” Paxton began. “The whole thing seemed like fate; as I biked back past the churchyard wall, my eye caught a fairly new gravestone bearing the name William Ager. I had to stop for a closer look, and it said he died in Seaburgh at age 28. With that information, I thought I could at least ask about cottages in the area, but I wasn’t sure where to start. Then, fate struck again; it took me to a curio-shop, and I found some old books – one of which was a fancy prayer-book from 1740– Wait one moment while I get it from my room.”
He left us somewhat speechless, but we hardly had time to exchange any remarks before he was back. Panting, he handed us the book opened to someone’s scraggly hand-writing; it said:
“Nathaniel Ager is my name, and England is my nation; Seaburgh is my home, and Christ is my salvation. When I am in my grave, and all my bones are rotten – I hope the Lord will think of me when I am quite forgotten.”
The poem was dated 1754, and there were many more entries of Agers, Nathaniel, Frederick, and so on, until eventually ending with William.
“You see,” he said, “anybody would think it was luck. I did at first, but not anymore. I asked the shop clerk about William Ager, and he remembered the man died in a cottage on the North Field. This told me exactly which one it must be: there’s only one big enough to live in. The next thing was to make friends with the locals, and a dog helped me get started; he came at me so fiercely, people had to come out and run him off. When they apologized, I only had to mention Ager’s name and pretend I knew something about him. Then, a woman saddened by his untimely demise said it happened because he slept outside during the winter. I asked if he went out to sea at night, but she said he stayed on the hill with all the trees – so that’s where I went.
“I know how to dig into those mounds; I’ve opened plenty of them in the country, but that was with owner’s permission and during the day with men helping. I had to think very carefully before I began; I couldn’t dig across the mound, and I knew those old firs trees would have awkward roots in the way. The soil was light and sandy, and I turned a rabbit hole into the start of a tunnel. Coming and going to the hotel at odd hours was going to be the hard part. When I decided how to dig, I told everyone I was called away for the night and spent it out there. I made my tunnel, but I won’t bore you with how I supported it and filled it in afterwards; the important thing is that I got the crown.” Paxton finished.
Naturally, we were both shocked and full of interest. I had already known someone found the crown at Rendlesham and often grieved over its fate. No one had ever seen the Anglo-Saxon crown – at least, not until he dug it up…
The young man’s gaze was filled with sorrow. “The worst part is – I don’t know how to put it back.”
“Put it back?” We cried out. “But you’ve made one of the most exciting finds ever heard of in this country. It should go to the Jewel House at the Tower. What’s troubling you? If you’re worried about the land owner, we can certainly help you. Nobody’s going to make a fuss about technicalities in a case like this.”
We probably said more, but he only dropped his face into his hands, muttering, “I don’t know how to put it back.”
Finally, Long said, “I hope you’ll forgive me if I sound rude, but… Are you sure you’ve found it?”
I had wanted to ask the same question; the story did sound like a madman’s fantasy, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to hurt the poor man’s feelings. However, he took it rather calmly.
“Oh, yes, there’s no doubt; it’s in my room – locked in my bag. You can come look if you like, but I won’t offer to bring it here.” He said, sitting up.
We couldn’t miss such a chance; obviously, we went with him. His room was only a few doors over, and he was shaking more than ever as we hurried inside. He turned on the light, carefully shut the door, unlocked his bag, and produced something wrapped in a handkerchief. He opened it on the bed, and I can now say I have seen an actual Anglo-Saxon crown. It was silver – like the one from Rendlesham – and it was decorated with antique gems, but it was also plain and roughly made. It was like the crowns you see on coins and in manuscripts; I saw no reason to think it was later than the ninth century.
I was extremely interested, and I wanted to hold it in my hands, but Paxton wouldn’t let me. “Don’t touch it; I’ll do that.” He said with a dreadful sigh as he lifted and turned it to show us every side. “Seen enough?” He finally asked. We nodded as he returned it to his bag and stared dumbly at us.
“Come back to our room, and tell us what the problem is.” Long said.
“Thank you… But, could you check to see if— if the coast is clear?” His response was confusing since our actions hadn’t been particularly suspicious, and the hotel was practically empty… but we were beginning to feel… Well, we’re not sure what we felt, but nerves are infectious so we did check first.
We peeked out as we opened the door, and we both thought a silent shadow – or maybe more than a shadow – passed by as we entered the hall. “It’s clear,” we whispered and returned to our room. I was ecstatic to discuss what we had seen, but when I looked at Paxton – I saw my excitement would be terribly out of place, and I let him speak first.
“What can we do?” He said.
Long thought it best to be vague. “Why not find out who the owner of the land is, and tell him—”
“Oh, no! Absolutely not!” Paxton interrupted impatiently, “I’m sorry: you’ve been very kind, but you don’t understand; it must go back. I dare not go at night, and it’s impossible to go during the day… I haven’t been alone since touching it.”
I started to make some random comment but stopped when Long caught my eye and said, “I think I do see, but wouldn’t you feel better if you explained a little more?”
Then, he told us everything… Paxton looked over his shoulder and motioned for us to come closer. He spoke in a low voice, and we listened intently – knowing we would compare notes afterwards. I wrote down our recollections, so I am confident I have his story almost word for word.
“It began when I was first prospecting, and it happened again and again. A man was always standing by one of the fir trees, and this was in broad daylight. He was never in front of me; I only saw him from the corners of my eye, and he was always gone when I turned to get a better look. I would lie down for long periods of time and watch carefully to make sure no one was there… But when I returned to prospecting – there he was. Then, he started giving me hints; no matter where I left that prayer-book – when I came back – it would be on my table, opened to the list of names with one of my razors on top to hold it in place. In the end, I had to start locking it up. He must not be able to open my bag, or something more would have happened. He’s small and weak, but I dare not face him. It was even worse when I was making the tunnel, and if I hadn’t been so determined, I would have dropped everything and ran. It felt like someone was scratching at my back the whole time; at first, I thought it was only dirt falling on me, but as I got closer to the crown… It was unmistakable.
“When I actually pulled it out, there was some kind of horrible, desolate cry behind me; I can’t express how threatening it felt. It instantly ruined all of the excitement over my discovery, and if I weren’t such a wretched fool – I would have put it back right then… But I didn’t, and the rest of the adventure was just as awful; I had to wait hours before returning to the hotel. First, I filled the tunnel and covered my tracks, but the man was trying to thwart me the whole time. Sometimes, you see him – sometimes you don’t, and I think that’s what he intends. He’s always there, but he has power over what you see. It was almost sunrise when I left, and I still had to catch the train back to Seaburgh. There were hedges and fences along the road, and I was not easily seen. Then, when I began meeting people headed to work, they would stare behind me with strange expressions; it’s possible they were surprised to see someone so early, but I don’t think that’s the reason. They didn’t look at me directly, and neither did the train’s porter or guard. The guard even held open the door after I entered the carriage – like there was somebody else coming… You can be certain it’s not my imagination.” He gave a dull laugh before finishing. “Even if I do put it back, he won’t forgive me; I can tell… I was so happy two weeks ago.” He dropped into a chair and began to cry.
We didn’t know what to say, but we wanted to do something… So, we said if he was determined to put the crown back, we would help him, and he welcomed our offer. After hearing his story, it seemed like the right thing to do. If these horrible events happened to this poor man, couldn’t there be some truth to the legends? Could the crown have some curious power to guard the coast? At least, that was how I felt at the time, and I think Long felt that way, too.
It was almost 10:30; we looked out of the window to see a brilliant, full moon. We were regulars at the hotel, and the servants considered us to be good tippers; they arranged for a cab to take us to the beach and wait to watch over us, but we left before realizing how far away we would be going.
Paxton had the crown hidden in a large coat placed over his arm. “The shortest route is up the hill and through the churchyard,” he said as we stood in front of the hotel, looking each way; there was nobody around. Seaburgh is a quiet place in the off season. “We can’t follow the ditch by the cottage because of the dog.” He added when I pointed to the shorter way across two fields. It was a good enough reason.
We went up the road, and turned at the churchyard gate. I worried someone who knew of our intentions might be waiting there, but if they were – we saw no sign of them. Even so, we felt like we were being watched – especially when we entered a narrow path with high hedges. We hurried through and out into the open fields. Then, we traveled along the hedges, over a gate or two, turned left, climbed the ridge, and we were on the mound.
As we got closer, Long and I felt like there was some kind of dim presence waiting for us, and a much more real one already with us. I cannot adequately describe Paxton’s disposition; he was breathing like a hunted animal, and we could not bear to look at his face. We hadn’t bothered to think of how he would manage once we arrived; he seemed so sure it would be easy… which it was. I never saw anything like it; he flung himself at the side of the mound, and began digging furiously. In only a few minutes, most of his body was already out of sight. I admit, we were terrified as we stood by holding the bundle and looking all around us.
There was nothing to be seen. A line of dark fir trees stood behind us and trailed for half a mile to our right – ending by the church tower. To the left were cottages and a distant windmill, and in front was a calm sea beneath the full moon. Only a dog by a gleaming creek stood between us and it. Yet, in the silence, there was an intensely sharp awareness of something hostile very close by – like a hound on a leash that might be let go at any moment.
Paxton pulled himself out of the hole and reached a hand back. “Unwrap it, and give it to me,” he whispered. The moonlight illuminated the crown for a brief second before he snatched it away.
We didn’t touch it ourselves, and I think we are fortunate for that. Paxton was soon out of the hole again, and he immediately began shoveling the dirt back in with hands that were already bleeding. He wouldn’t let us help, and making the ground appear undisturbed was the longest part of the job. I don’t know how, but he managed it wonderfully. When he was finally satisfied, we turned back.
We were roughly two-hundred yards from the hill when Long suddenly looked back and said, “you’ve left your coat there. That won’t do.” He was right, but Paxton never slowed; he only shook his head and held up the coat on his arm.
When we re-joined him, he explained, “that wasn’t my coat.” We looked back again, and the dark thing was gone.
We made it onto the road, and hurried back. It was well before midnight when we got in, and we tried to play it off in front of the door-man by saying it was a lovely night for a walk. He gave another look around before locking the front door, and said, “you didn’t meet many people out there, did you, sir?”
“No, not a soul.” I said, and Paxton looked at me rather strangely.
“I thought I saw someone turn onto the station road after you gentlemen, but since you three were together, I don’t suppose he meant any mischief.” The door-man said. I didn’t know what to say; Long merely said goodnight, and we went upstairs – promising to turn out the lights before going to bed.
Back in our room, we tried to cheer up Paxton. “The crown is back safe, and though it’s likely you’d have done better by not touching it – no real harm was done, and we’ll never tell anyone else of its location.” We said.
“I don’t mind admitting that I also felt like we were being followed on the way there, but coming back wasn’t like that at all, was it?” I said, but it was no use.
“You have nothing to worry about, but I haven’t been forgiven. I still have to pay for that miserable sacrilege. I know what you are going to say, and yes, the Church might help, but it’s the body that must suffer. It’s true… he’s waiting outside for me just now, but—” Paxton stopped suddenly and began thanking us.
We delayed him as long as we could; we encouraged him to spend the night in our room and said we would be happy to take him golfing with us the next day, but he didn’t think it would matter. Then, we recommended he stay anyway and remain inside while we played. He was very submissive – he would have done just about anything we suggested – but he knew he couldn’t avoid what was coming. You probably wonder why we didn’t escort him home – or to the safety of some brother’s care… The fact was, he didn’t have any.
He used to have an apartment in town, but he decided to move to Sweden; his possessions had been shipped off weeks before. Anyway, we couldn’t think of anything better to do than sleep on it… Or – in my case – not sleep.
Long and I felt very different the next morning. It was a beautiful April day, and Paxton also looked very different when we saw him at breakfast. “That was the best night’s sleep I ever had.” He said, and he decided to stay in our room as we had suggested. Long and I met some others for golf and had an early lunch so we could return sooner… But death still claimed its prize. I don’t know if it could have been prevented… I think he would have died no matter what we did, but – either way – this is what happened.
We went straight to our room, where Paxton was reading quietly. “Will you be ready to come out with us in half an hour?” Long asked.
He agreed, and I said we would need to clean ourselves up first. I bathed and napped for ten minutes; then, Long and I met in the sitting-room, but only Paxton’s book remained; he wasn’t in his room or downstairs, so we shouted for him. A servant appeared and said, “The other gentleman and I thought you left already. He heard you calling from the path over there, and he hurried out. I looked out of the coffee-room window, but I didn’t see you. Anyway, he went down towards the beach.”
Without a word we ran that way, too – in the opposite direction of last night’s expedition. It was almost 4:00, and the weather was fair. There was really no reason to worry; with so many people around, surely a man couldn’t come to much harm… The looks on our faces must have frightened the servant; she came out onto the steps, pointed, and said, “yes, that’s the way he went!”
We ran to the top of the bank and stopped. We could either go past the houses on the sea-front, along the sand at the bottom of the beach, or we could stay in the middle and have a view of both. We chose the sand because it was the most secluded, and someone could get hurt without being seen.
The idea of Paxton running off was dreadful; we feared the thing he was following might suddenly stop and turn on him… I wondered what face it would show – half-seen in the thickening mist – and I continued to run, wondering how the poor wretch could have mistaken that thing for us. I remembered him saying it had some kind of power over your eyes, and I wondered what the end would be like for him; I had lost all hope of saving him, and— Well, there is no need to voice the horrible thoughts that raced through my mind as we ran into the mist.
The sun was still bright in the sky, yet we could see nothing. We only knew we were past the houses – somewhere in the gap between them and the old martello tower. Past the tower, there is nothing but rocky seashore for a long way – not a house or human – only a bit of land with the river on your right and the sea on your left.
Just before that, right by the martello tower, there were old blocks of concrete by the sea, leftover from some ruin – but, now, only a few are left… The rest were washed away. When we got there, we climbed to the top of this wall as quickly as we could, and we looked out over the shore hoping to somehow see through the mist, but we also needed a moment’s rest after running at least a mile. Nothing was visible, and we began turning back when we heard what I can only call a laugh… It was a breathless, lungless laugh; it came from below and was lost in the mist. We leaned back over the wall, and Paxton was suddenly at the bottom.
You don’t need to be told he was dead. His tracks ran alongside the wall and made a sharp turn around the corner; There is little doubt he must have run straight into the open arms of someone lying in wait. His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his jaw and teeth were broken to bits… I only glanced at his face once.
Then, as we were scrambling down to the body, we heard someone shout and saw a man running towards us from the martello tower. It was the caretaker, and his keen, old eyes managed to see something was wrong even through the mist. He saw Paxton fall and saw us appear a moment after. This was fortunate, because surely, people would have suspected us of being involved – given the circumstances. We asked if he saw anybody attack our friend, but he could not be sure.
He went for help, and we stayed with Paxton until he could be carried away. That is when we back-tracked the way he came along the narrow strip of sand under the wall. It was impossible to determine where the assailant went.
What were we to say at the hearing? We felt it was our duty to keep the crown a secret. I don’t know how much you would have revealed, but we decided to say we only met Paxton the day before, and he was anxious about a man called William Ager. We also mentioned there were other tracks besides Paxton’s when we followed him along the beach. Of course, by that time, everything was washed away.
Long said he saw Paxton far ahead – running and waving his stick, as if signaling to people ahead of him. I couldn’t be sure because of the mist, but someone was there; we also saw tracks from someone running in shoes and someone barefoot. Of course, I only have my word as proof. Long is dead, now, and we had no way to make sketches or take casts before the tide erased them. All we could do was notice them as we hurried on, but they were everywhere, and we knew what we saw was made by a bare foot – one that showed more bones than flesh.
No one had any knowledge of William Ager living in the area. The man at the martello tower freed us from all suspicion, and authorities reached a verdict of wilful murder by some unknown person or persons. Paxton was so totally without connections that all inquiries ended without much fanfare, and I have never been to Seaburgh or even near it, since.
Maurice Level, first published in 1920; translated to modern English, otherwise exactly the same.
This story has been added to our Classics in the Rain collection! Listen to Danie Dreadful’s magnificent narration here for the full experience!
He was not evil or cruel, but he craved the unknown. He was not a fan of the theater, yet he often went in hopes of seeing it burn down. He was not interested in the circus, either, though he went in case one of the animals mangled its trainer. Once, he even visited the bull-ring, but bloodshed in a controlled setting was too dull, and he was disgusted by pointless suffering; he wanted the thrill of a sudden catastrophe.
Then, after a ten year wait, a fire ravaged the Opera house. He escaped without injury, and it was not long before he also witnessed a famous lion-tamer being torn to pieces by his own cats. The Madman was only a few feet away from the cage when it happened, and – unable to match that thrill again – he fell into a deep depression until the morning he discovered gaudy posters littering the streets of Paris.
The background was blue, and a strange, slanted race-track ran down a ways, curled into a loop, and dropped straight down. The top of the poster showed a tiny cyclist about to dare the dangerous route, and the newspapers said a man actually intended to attempt such a course. “When I reach the loop, you’ll actually see me go upside-down!” He told reporters.
The press was invited to inspect the track and the bicycle. “I use no mechanical tricks – only precise scientific calculation— and my unshakable nerve.” The daredevil bragged.
When the Madman read the article, his good spirits returned. He purchased his ticket immediately, and – to ensure he was not distracted when the rider looped the loop – he purchased the entire box of seats across from the track and sat alone on the big night. The cyclist appeared high above the audience at the top of the track. After a tense moment of anticipation, he sped down the slope and circled the loop with his feet in the air; then, it was all over.
The Madman was thrilled by the performance, but he would only be able to enjoy the show a couple more times before becoming bored. Still… bicycles break… tracks wear out… and no man’s skills are perfect. Sooner or later, there must be an accident.
The cyclist was scheduled to perform in Paris for three months, and then, he was going to tour the provinces. The Madman decided to attend every single performance, even if he had to follow the show when it traveled. He bought the same box and sat in the same seat every night.
One evening, two months later, the Madman was leaving after a performance when he saw the cyclist standing alone in a corridor and approached him; before he could say a word, the daredevil greeted him kindly.
“I know you; you come to my show every night.”
“That’s true; your remarkable stunt is fascinating, but who told you about me?”
“No one,” the cyclist smiled. “I see you at each performance.”
“But how can you see me from so high up? Are you actually able to study the audience at such a moment?”
The cyclist laughed. “Hardly. It would be dangerous to look down at a crowd, but – just between us – there’s a little trick to what I do.”
“A trick?” The Madman was surprised and disappointed.
“No, no, I don’t mean a hoax, but there’s something the public doesn’t know.” The cyclist winked. “This will be our little secret, yes? You see, this stunt requires total concentration – which can be very intimidating since it’s nearly impossible for me to clear my mind of random thoughts. Plus, the greatest danger comes from losing my balance if I were to start looking around – but I have a wonderful strategy to avoid this. I choose one spot in the auditorium and focus all of my attention there. The first time I rode in this hall, I used you as my spot, and then, you were here again the following evening…”
At the next show, the Madman sat in his usual seat, and a hush fell over the excited fans when the cyclist made his entrance; he was only a black speck standing high above the audience. Two men held his bicycle as the daredevil gripped the handlebars, stared out over the heads of the crowd, and shouted the signal.
The men gave him a shove, and – at that instant – the Madman stood up and walked to the opposite side of his box. The audience screamed as the cyclist and his bike shot off the track and plunged into the crowd.
The Madman put on his coat, smoothed his hat against one sleeve, and left.
Edgar Allan Poe, first published in the November 1846 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book; translated to modern English, otherwise exactly the same.
I endured endless insults from Fortunato for as long as I could, and now, I have sworn revenge; you would not expect someone of my temperament to utter such a threat, but – in the end – I would be avenged. That was a fact, and I knew I must punish him without feeling guilty. A wrong can only be set right when the victim dominates their aggressor. I continued to smile, and he did not realize I was smiling at the thought of his murder.
You must understand that I did not say or do anything to warrant his ill-will. Fortunato was a man to be feared and respected, but he had a weakness; he prided himself on his knowledge of wine. Like other Italians, he did not care for paintings or jewels, but he was serious about old wines. That was something we had in common; I was also knowledgeable of Italian vintages, and I added to my collection whenever I could.
One evening, during the madness of carnival season, I encountered my friend. He greeted me warmly but only because he had been drinking too much. The man was dressed like a jester; he wore a tight, striped outfit and a cone-shaped hat with bells. I was so pleased to see him, I thought I would never finish shaking his hand.
“My dear Fortunato, you are looking remarkably well today, but I have tasted the Amontillado around here, and I doubt it’s authentic.” I said.
“How? Amontillado? Impossible! And in the middle of the carnival!”
“I have my doubts,” I repeated. “Plus, I was fool enough to pay full price without consulting you first, but I couldn’t find you, and I was afraid of losing a bargain.”
“I have my doubts…”
“And I must satisfy them…”
“Since you are busy, I will go ask Luchresi. If anyone can help me – it’s him.”
“Luchresi cannot tell the difference between Amontillado and Sherry!”
“Yet some fools say his taste is a match for your own.”
“Come on, then; let’s go!”
“To your vaults.”
“No, my friend; I won’t impose on you. I can see you have a previous engagement. Luchresi—”
“I have no engagement; now, come on!”
“No, that was not the only reason for my reluctance. I can also see you are suffering from a cold, and the vaults are terribly damp.”
“Let’s go, anyway! The cold is nothing, and this is Amontillado! I insist; Luchresi simply cannot help.”
Fortunato took my arm, and I managed to endure his touch as we hurried to my palace. I put on a black, silk mask and pulled my cloak tightly shut.
None of the staff were home; they were all out, enjoying the holiday. I told them I would not return until the morning and gave them strict orders not to leave the house. I knew it would ensure their departure the moment my back was turned.
Retrieving two torches, I gave one to Fortunato before leading him through several suites and into the vaults. I cautioned him to be careful as we descended a long, winding staircase, and – at the bottom – was the entrance to the Montresors’ catacombs.
My friend was walking unsteadily, and it made the bells on his hat jingle. “The wine?” He asked.
“It’s farther ahead, but look at the white web-work gleaming on the cavern walls.” I said.
He turned towards me and looked into my eyes with two, filmy orbs that highlighted his intoxication. “Potassium Nitrate?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “How long have you had that cough?”
My poor friend found it impossible to reply for several minutes as he endured a coughing fit.
“It’s nothing,” he finally said.
“Come, we must go back.” I said this assertively. “Your health is too important. You are rich, respected, admired, and loved; you are also happy – like I used to be. You would be missed, and I could not bear to be responsible. Besides, there is Luchresi—”
“Enough! The cough is nothing; it will not kill me.” He said.
“True…” I replied; “I had no intention of scaring you, but you should exercise the proper precautions. Here, this Medoc wine will keep us safe.” I opened one of the bottles and placed it before us. “Drink.”
He raised it to his lips, leering and paused only to give me a friendly nod – making his bells jingle. “I’ll drink to the dead resting around us.” He said.
“And I, to your long life.”
He took my arm once again, and we continued forward. “These vaults are extensive.” He said.
“The Montresors were a large, important family.” I replied.
“What is your coat-of-arms, again?”
“A human foot on a field sky blue; it crushes a raging serpent whose fangs are buried deep into the heel.”
“And the motto?”
“No one attacks me with impunity.”
“Good!” he said.
The wine sparkled in his eyes, and the bells continued to jingle. I, too, was growing warm from the drink; we passed through long halls with piles of skeletons and wine barrels – into the far depths of the catacombs. I paused again, and – this time – I was the one to boldly seize Fortunato’s arm.
“The Nitrate!” I said. “Look – it’s increasing! It’s hanging from the vaults like moss; we’re below the river, and drops of water trickle down to the bones. Come on, let’s get back before it’s too late. Your cough—”
“It’s nothing!” He insisted. “Let’s keep going… But first, let’s have another sip of the Medoc.”
I gave him a glass of De Grave, and he emptied it in one gulp. His eyes flashed with a fierce gleam, and he laughed before throwing the bottle with a gesture I did not recognize.
I looked at him in surprise, and he repeated the same, grotesque gesture.
“You don’t understand?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Then, you are not in the brotherhood.”
“You are not a Mason.”
“Sure I am.” I said.
“You? A Mason? Impossible!”
“A Mason indeed,” I replied.
“Then prove it with a sign,” he said.
“It’s this.” I answered by producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my cloak.
“You’re joking!” He exclaimed, slowly backing away. “But let’s get the Amontillado, now.”
“So be it.” I said, putting the tool away and once more offering him my arm. He leaned on it heavily, and we continued our search for the Amontillado. We passed through a row of low arches leading deeper into the earth and arrived at a crypt where the foul air reduced our torches to a dull glow.
At the far end, there was a smaller crypt; three sides were lined with human remains stacked to the ceiling just like in the Paris catacombs. On the fourth side – the bones were thrown carelessly into a pile, and we noticed a recess in the exposed wall. It did not appear to serve any specific purpose; it was merely an empty space between two support columns and backed with a solid granite wall.
Fortunato lifted his dull torch in an attempt to see inside the dark recess, but the feeble light was not strong enough. “Keep going,” I said. “The Amontillado is here somewhere. As for Luchresi—”
“He is an idiot,” my friend blurted as he took an unsteady step into the nook, and I followed close behind. He quickly reached the end and was confused to find the path blocked. It took only a moment to chain him to the iron rings fixed in the granite wall. They were roughly two feet apart; a short chain hung from one and a padlock from the other. I threw the links around his waist, and it only took a few seconds to secure it; he was too surprised to resist. When finished, I stepped out of the small space.
“Pass your hands over the walls, and you will feel the Nitrate; it’s very damp. Once more, I would like to implore you to return with me… No? Then, I have no choice; I must leave you… But first, I’ll do what I can for you.” I said.
“The Amontillado!” My friend exclaimed, still in shock.
“True – the Amontillado.” I said, returning to the pile of bones. Throwing them aside, I uncovered the stones and mortar hidden beneath. With these materials and my trowel, I worked to cover the nook’s entrance.
I had only laid the first row of stone when I noticed Fortunato had sobered a great deal. I could tell by the low moan coming from the back of the nook; it was not the cry of a drunk man, and soon, he fell into a long, heavy silence.
I laid the second, third, and fourth rows, but then, the chain began rattling furiously. The noise lasted for several minutes, so I took a short break and sat on the pile of bones in order to enjoy the moment properly. When the clanking finally stopped, I resumed my work and finished three more rows without interruption. The wall was almost level with my chest. I paused once more and held up the torch to see the figure inside.
His sudden outburst of loud, shrill screams seemed to knock me back a few steps, and – for a brief moment – I hesitated, trembling. Drawing my sword, I swung it through the air and felt reassured; I placed my hand on the solid, catacomb wall and felt satisfied. Returning to the nook, I replied to Fortunato’s yells with an even longer, louder scream of my own, and he grew silent.
It was now midnight, and my task was almost complete. I finished three more rows and a portion of the next; there was only one stone left to insert. Struggling with its weight, I had it halfway into position when a low laugh erupted from the nook, and my hair instantly stood on end. It was followed by a sad voice that sounded nothing like the noble Fortunato.
“Hahaha! Hehehe! This was indeed a very good joke— an excellent one! We will have many rich laughs about it at the palace— Hehehe! Over our wine— Hehehe!”
“The Amontillado!” I said.
“Hehehe! Hehehe! Yes, the Amontillado! But isn’t it getting late… Everyone is probably waiting for us— including my wife. We should go.”
“Yes, let’s go.” I said.
“For the love of God, Montresor!”
“Yes, for the love of God!” I said. I grew impatient waiting for a reply and yelled his name into the darkness, but there was no answer. I called again, but still – there was nothing. I dropped the torch through the last opening, but his only reply was the jingling of bells.
My heart was growing sick from the damp catacombs, and I hurried to finish my task. Forcing the last stone into position, I plastered it, and re-stacked the bones against the wall. For the last fifty years, no mortal has disturbed them; may they rest in peace.
Robert Bloch, first published in 1946; translated to modern English, otherwise exactly the same.
This story has been added to our Classics in the Rain collection! Listen to Danie Dreadful’s magnificent narration here for the full experience!
It always starts the same way. First, there’s the feeling… Have you ever felt the tread of little feet walking across your skull? Back and forth, back and forth? It starts like that. You can’t see who it is – after all, it’s on top of your head. If you’re smart, you wait for a chance and suddenly brush a hand through your hair, but you can’t catch the walker that way. He knows. Even if you clamp both hands flat to your head, he manages to wriggle through, somehow.
He’s terribly swift and can’t be ignored. If the footsteps don’t bother you, he wriggles down the back of your neck to whisper in your ear. You can feel his body – cold and tiny – pressed tightly against the base of your brain. It doesn’t hurt; there must be something in his claws to numb the pain… Although, later, you’ll find little scratches on your neck bleeding profusely, and that cold, tiny something will still be there – pressing and whispering. That’s when you try to fight him: you try not to hear what he says, because when you listen – you’re lost, and you must obey him.
Oh, he’s wicked and wise! If you dare to resist, he knows how to threaten you into submission, but I seldom try anymore; it’s better to listen and obey. As long as I’m willing to listen, things don’t seem so bad. He can also be soothing, persuasive, and tempting. He has promised me great things in that silken whisper, and he keeps his word!
Folks think I’m poor because I never have money and live in this old shack at the edge of the swamp, but he has given me riches. After I do what he wants, he takes me away – out of myself – for days. There are other places besides this world – places where I’m a king.
The people in town laugh at me and the girls call me ‘Scarecrow’. Yet sometimes – after I’ve done his bidding – he brings queens for my bed. Only dreams? I don’t think so; it’s the other life – the one in the shack – that’s a dream… That part doesn’t seem real anymore… Not even the killing…
Yes, I kill people; that’s what Enoch wants. That’s what he whispers about, but I don’t like it. I used to fight against it… I told you that, didn’t I? But I can’t anymore. I can’t see or catch him; I can only feel and hear him… and obey.
Sometimes he leaves me alone for days. Then, suddenly, I feel him there – scratching away at the roof of my brain. I hear his whisper, and he tells me about someone who is coming through the swamp.
I don’t know how he knows about them… He couldn’t have seen them, yet he describes them perfectly. “There’s a bum walking down Aylesworthy Road – a short, fat man with a bald head; his name is Mike. He’s wearing a brown sweater and blue overalls. He’s going to turn into the swamp in about ten minutes when the sun goes down. He’ll stop under the big tree next to the dump. You should hide behind the tree, and wait until he starts looking for firewood. Then, you know what to do. Get the hatchet. Hurry.”
Sometimes, I ask Enoch what he’ll give me, but, usually, I just trust him. I’m going to have to do it, anyway, so I’d rather get it over with. Enoch is never wrong, and he keeps me out of trouble. Well… except for last time.
One night, I was at home eating supper when he told me about this girl. “She’s coming to visit you,” he whispered. “A beautiful girl, all in black. She has wonderfully fine bones in her head.”
At first, I thought he was telling me about one of my rewards, but Enoch was talking about a real person. “She will come to the door and ask you to help fix her car. She had planned to take the side road into town, but now, the car is well into the swamp, and one of the tires is flat.”
It sounded funny to hear Enoch talk about things like tires, but he knows about them; he knows everything. “You will go with her when she asks. Don’t take anything. She has a wrench in the car. Use that.”
This time I tried to fight him. I kept whimpering, “I won’t do it, I won’t do it.” He only laughed and told me what he’d do if I refused. He told me over and over again.
“It’s better if I do it to her instead of you,” Enoch reminded me. “Or would you rather I—”
“No!” I said. “No… I’ll do it.”
“After all,” Enoch whispered, “I can’t help it. I must be fed every so often in order to stay alive – to stay strong – so I can give you things; that is why you must obey me. If not, I’ll simply stay right here and—”
“No!” I said. “I’ll do it.” And I did… She knocked on my door a few minutes later, and it was just as Enoch had said. She was a pretty girl with blond hair… I like blond hair. I was glad I didn’t have to damage it; I hit her behind the neck with the wrench.
Enoch told me what to do, step by step. After using the hatchet, I put the body into quicksand. Enoch was there, and he warned me about footprints, so I got rid of them. I was worried about the car, but he showed me how to use the end of a rotten log to pitch it in as well. I wasn’t sure it would sink, but it did – and much faster than I would have believed.
It was a relief to see the car go; I threw the wrench in after it, and Enoch told me to go home. Immediately, I felt the dreamy feeling come over me. Enoch promised something extra special for this one, and I sank into a deep sleep. I could barely feel the pressure in my head dissipate as Enoch left – scampering back into the swamp for his reward.
I don’t know how long I slept, but it must have been a long time. I only remember knowing Enoch was back and feeling that something was wrong… Then I heard the banging on my door. I waited for Enoch to tell me what to do, but he was asleep; he always sleeps afterwards. Nothing wakes him for days on end, and I usually enjoy the freedom, but not while I needed his help.
The pounding grew louder, and I couldn’t wait any longer. I opened the door, and Old Sheriff Shelby came inside. “Come on, Seth,” he said. “I’m taking you to jail.”
I didn’t say anything. His little, beady, black eyes were peering everywhere in my shack. When he looked at me, I felt so scared, I wanted to hide. He couldn’t see Enoch, of course. Nobody can… But Enoch was there; I felt him resting very lightly on top of my skull, burrowed down under a blanket of hair, clinging to my curls and sleeping like a baby.
“Emily Robbins’ parents said she was planning to cut through the swamp,” the Sheriff said. “We followed the tire tracks up to the old quicksand.” Enoch had forgotten about the tracks.
“Anything you say can be used against you,” Sheriff Shelby said. “Come on, Seth.”
I went with him; there was no other choice. We went into town, and a mob tried to rush the car. There were even women in the crowd! They kept yelling for the men to get me, but Sheriff Shelby held them off, and I was finally tucked away safe and sound in the jailhouse. He locked me up in the middle cell, and the two on each side of mine were vacant. I was all alone except for Enoch, and he slept through everything.
It was still pretty early, and Sheriff Shelby went out again with some other men. I guess he was going to try and get the body out of the quicksand. He didn’t ask any questions, and I wondered about that.
Charley Potter was different; he wanted to know everything. Sheriff Shelby left him in charge while he was away. After a while, he brought me breakfast and hung around to ask questions. I just kept still; I knew better than to talk to a fool like Charley Potter. He thought I was crazy – just like the mob outside. Most people in that town think I’m crazy because of my mother and the way I live alone out in the swamp.
What could I say to Charley Potter? If I told him about Enoch he’d never believe me, so I didn’t talk; I listened. Then, he told me about the search for Emily Robbins and how Sheriff Shelby started wondering about some other disappearances from a while back. He said there would be a big trial, and the District Attorney was coming down. He’d heard they were sending a doctor to see me right away.
Sure enough, just as I finished breakfast, the doctor came. Charley saw him drive up and let him in. He had to move fast to keep the mob from breaking in with him. They wanted to lynch me, but Dr. Silversmith got in all right; he’s a little man with one of those funny beards on his chin, and he made Potter go up front while he sat outside the cell and talked to me.
Up to this point- I hadn’t really felt anything. It had all happened so fast, I didn’t get a chance to think. It was like part of a dream – the Sheriff, the mob, the talk of a trial, and the body in the swamp… But somehow, the sight of Dr. Silversmith changed things.
He was real, all right. You could tell he wanted to send me to the Institution after they learned about my mother. That was one of the first things he asked— wanting to know what happened to my mother. He seemed to know quite a lot about me, and that made it easier to talk.
Pretty soon, I found myself telling him all sorts of things – like how we lived in the shack, and how my mother sold love potions… Then there was the big pot we gathered herbs in at night… And at night, I would hear strange noises from far away when she went off alone… I didn’t want to say much more, but he already knew they had called her a witch. He even knew how she died. One evening, Santo Dinorelli came to our door and stabbed her because his daughter ran away with a trapper after taking one of her potions.
He knew I lived in the swamp alone now, too, but he didn’t know Enoch was on top of my head – still sleeping – not knowing or caring what was happening to me…
Somehow, I was talking to Dr. Silversmith about Enoch. I wanted to explain that it wasn’t really me who killed this girl. I had to mention Enoch and the bargain my mother made in the woods. She hadn’t let me come with her – I was only twelve – but she took some of my blood in a little bottle. Then, when she came back, Enoch was with her; he was to be mine forever and always look after me.
I told him this very carefully and explained why I couldn’t help myself now – because ever since my mother died, Enoch had guided me. Yes, all these years Enoch had protected me – just as mother planned. She knew I couldn’t survive alone… I admitted this to Dr. Silversmith because I thought he was a wise man who would understand.
I knew almost immediately that I had been wrong. Dr. Silversmith leaned forward – stroking his little beard and saying, “Yes, yes,” over and over; I could feel his eyes watching me. The same kind as the people in the mob. Mean, prying, untrusting eyes… Then, he began asking all sorts of ridiculous questions. About Enoch, at first— although, I knew he was only pretending to believe in Enoch.
He asked me how I could hear Enoch if I couldn’t see him and if I ever heard any other voices. He asked me how I felt when I killed Emily Robbins and whether I— No, I won’t even think about that question; he talked to me as if I were some kind of— of a crazy person!
He had only been pretending not to know about Enoch… He proved that by asking me how many other people I had killed – and then he wanted to know where their heads were! He couldn’t fool me any longer.
I just laughed at him and shut up tighter than a clam. After a while, he gave up and went away, shaking his head. I laughed at him because he wanted to know all of my mother’s secrets – mine and Enoch’s as well – but he didn’t; then, I went to sleep.
I slept most of the afternoon. When I woke, there was a new man standing in front of my cell. He had a big, fat, smiling face and nice eyes. “Hello, Seth,” he seemed very friendly. “Having a little snooze?”
I reached up to the top of my head. I couldn’t feel Enoch, but I knew he was there – still asleep. He moves fast even when he’s sleeping.
“Don’t be alarmed; I won’t hurt you.” The man said.
“Did that Doctor send you?” I asked.
The man laughed. “Of course not. My name’s Cassidy – Edwin Cassidy. I’m the District Attorney, and I’m in charge here. Do you suppose I could come in and sit down?” He asked.
“I’m locked in,” I said.
“I’ve got the keys from the Sheriff.” Mr. Cassidy said. He took them out, opened the cell, walked right in, and sat next to me on the bench.
“Aren’t you afraid? Don’t you know I’m supposed to be a murderer?” I asked.
“Why, Seth,” Mr. Cassidy laughed, “I’m not afraid of you. I know you didn’t mean to kill anybody.” He put his hand on my shoulder, and I didn’t draw away. It was a nice, fat, soft hand with a big, diamond ring that twinkled in the sunshine. “How’s Enoch?” he said.
I jumped. “Oh, that’s all right. That fool Doctor told me when I met him down the street. He doesn’t understand about Enoch, does he, Seth? But you and I do.”
“That Doctor thinks I’m crazy,” I whispered.
“Well, just between us, Seth, it did sound a little hard to believe at first, but I’ve just come from the swamp. Sheriff Shelby and some of his men are still working down there. “They found Emily Robbins’ body a little while ago, and there’s other bodies, too. A fat man, a small boy, and an Indian. The quicksand preserves them, you know.”
His eyes were still smiling, so I knew I could trust this man.
“If they keep going, they’ll find other bodies, too – won’t they, Seth?”
“But I didn’t wait any longer; I saw enough to understand you were telling the truth. Enoch must have made you do these things, didn’t he?”
I nodded again.
“Fine.” Mr. Cassidy said, pressing my shoulder. “See? We do understand each other; I won’t blame you for anything you tell me.”
“What do you want to know?” I asked.
“Oh, lots of things. I’m interested in Enoch, you see. How many people did he ask you to kill? All together, that is?”
“Nine,” I said.
“And they’re all buried in the quicksand?”
“Do you know their names?”
“Only a few.” I told him the names I knew. “Sometimes Enoch just describes them for me, and I go out to meet them,” I explained.
Mr. Cassidy sort of chuckled and took out a cigar; I frowned. “Don’t want me to smoke, eh?”
“Please— I don’t like it. My mother didn’t believe in smoking; she never let me.”
Mr. Cassidy laughed, but he put away the cigar and leaned forward. “You can be a big help to me, Seth,” he whispered. “I suppose you know what a District Attorney is.”
“Isn’t it a sort of lawyer… for trials and things?”
“That’s right. I’ll be at your trial, Seth. You don’t want to get up in front of all those people and tell them what happened, do you?”
“No, I don’t, Mr. Cassidy – not those mean town-people; they hate me.”
“Then here’s what you do; tell me all about it, and I’ll talk for you. That’s friendly enough, isn’t it?”
I wished Enoch was there to help me, but he was asleep. I looked at Mr. Cassidy and made up my own mind; I told him everything I knew. After a while he stopped chuckling, but only because he was getting so interested.
“One more thing,” he said. “We were able to identify several of the bodies from the swamp, but it would be easier if you could tell me where the heads are.”
I stood up and turned away. “I can’t tell you because I don’t know.” I said.
“I give them to Enoch,” I explained. “Don’t you understand? That’s why I have to kill people. Because he wants their heads.”
Mr. Cassidy looked puzzled.
“He always makes me cut off the heads and leave them behind,” I went on. “I put the bodies in the quicksand and go home. Then, He puts me to sleep and rewards me. After that, he goes away – back to the heads. They’re what he wants.”
“Why does he want them, Seth?”
“It wouldn’t do you any good to find them; you probably wouldn’t recognize anything.” I said.
Mr. Cassidy sat up and sighed. “But why do you let Enoch do these things?”
“If I don’t, he’ll do it to me; that’s what he always threatens. He needs them, so I obey.”
Mr. Cassidy watched me while I paced, but he didn’t say a word. He seemed to be very nervous all of a sudden, and when I came close, he leaned away. “You’ll explain all of that at the trial, won’t you? About Enoch and everything.”
He shook his head. “I’m not going to tell anyone about Enoch, and neither are you,” Mr. Cassidy said. “Nobody is even going to know Enoch exists.”
“I’m trying to help you, Seth. Don’t you know what people will say if you mention Enoch to them? They’ll say you’re crazy, and you don’t want that to happen.”
“No… But what can you do? How can you help me?”
Mr. Cassidy smiled. “You’re afraid of Enoch, aren’t you? Well, I was just thinking… Suppose you gave him to me?”
“Yea! Suppose you gave him to me? Let me take care of him during the trial. Then, he wouldn’t be yours, and you wouldn’t have to say anything about him. He probably doesn’t want people to know what he does, anyway.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Enoch would be very angry. He’s a secret, you know… But I hate to give him to you without asking, and he’s asleep.”
“Yes. On top of my skull. Only you can’t see him, of course.”
“Of course…” Mr. Cassidy gazed at my head and chuckled again. “Oh, I can explain everything when he wakes up. Once he knows it was for the best, I’m sure he’ll be happy.”
“Well… I guess it’s all right, but you must promise to take good care of him.” I sighed.
“Sure,” Mr. Cassidy said.
“And you’ll give him what he needs?”
“And you won’t tell a soul?”
“Not a soul.”
“You know what will happen if you refuse to give him what he wants, right? He’ll take it by force.” I warned Mr. Cassidy.
“Don’t you worry, Seth.”
I stood still for a minute because I could suddenly feel something move towards my ear. “Enoch,” I whispered. “Can you hear me?”
He heard; I explained how I was giving him to Mr. Cassidy, but Enoch didn’t say a word.
Mr. Cassidy didn’t say a word, either. He just sat there – grinning. I suppose it must have looked a little strange to see me talking to nothing…
“Go to Mr. Cassidy, now” I whispered, and Enoch went; I felt the weight lift from my head. That was all, but I knew he was gone. “Can you feel him, Mr. Cassidy?”
“What? Oh— sure!” He said, rising from his chair.
“Take good care of Enoch,” I said.
“Don’t put your hat on,” I warned. “He doesn’t like hats.”
“Oh, sorry… I forgot. Well, Seth, I’ll say goodbye, now. You’ve been a mighty great help, and – from now on – we can just forget about Enoch when it comes to telling anybody else. I’ll come back again and talk about the trial. Doctor Silversmith is going to tell folks you’re crazy; it would be best if you denied everything you told him… Now that I have Enoch, that is.”
That sounded like a fine idea; I knew Mr. Cassidy was a smart man. “Whatever you say. Just be good to Enoch, and he’ll be good to you.”
Mr. Cassidy shook my hand; then, he and Enoch left. I felt tired again; maybe it was the strain, or maybe I felt strange knowing Enoch was gone. Either way, I went back to sleep for a long time.
It was night when I woke to Charley Potter banging on the cell door – bringing me supper. He jumped and backed away when I said hello.
“Murderer!” he yelled. “They got nine bodies out in the swamp, you crazy fiend!”
“Why, Charley, I always thought we were friends.”
“Loony! I’m gonna get out of here and leave you locked up for the night. The Sheriff will make sure nobody breaks in to lynch you, but I think he’s wasting his time.” Charley turned the lights out and left. I heard him put on the padlock, and then, I was all alone for the first time… It was strange… me… alone… without Enoch… I ran my fingers across the top of my head; it felt bare and strange.
The moon was shining through the window, and I stood there looking out at the empty street. Enoch always loved the moon; it made him lively, restless, and greedy. I wondered how he felt now, with Mr. Cassidy. I must have stood there for a long time; my legs were numb when I heard the fumbling at the door.
The lock clicked open, and Mr. Cassidy rushed inside. “Take him off me!” He yelled. “Take him away!”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Enoch— that thing of yours! I thought you were crazy— maybe I’m crazy— but take him off!”
“Why, Mr. Cassidy? I told you what Enoch was like…”
“He’s crawling around up there now. I can feel him, and I can hear him! The things he whispers!”
“But I explained all that, Mr. Cassidy… Enoch wants something, doesn’t he? You know what it is, and you have to give it to him. You promised.”
“I can’t! I won’t kill for him! He can’t make me—”
“He can, and he will.”
Mr. Cassidy gripped the bars on the cell door. “Seth, you must help me. Call Enoch. Take him back. Make him come back to you. Hurry!”
“All right, Mr. Cassidy.” I called Enoch. He didn’t answer. I called again, but he still didn’t answer.
Mr. Cassidy started to cry. I was shocked at first, but then, I felt kind of sorry for him. He hadn’t understood, after all. I know what it’s like when Enoch whispers that way… He starts by coaxing you, then he pleads, and then he threatens…
“You’d better obey,” I told Mr. Cassidy. “Has he told you who to kill?” Mr. Cassidy didn’t pay me any attention. He kept crying, and then, he suddenly opened the cell next to mine, went inside, and locked the door.
“I won’t,” he sobbed. “I won’t, I won’t!”
“You won’t, what?” I asked.
“I won’t kill Doctor Silversmith at the hotel and give Enoch his head. I’ll stay here, in the cell, where I’m safe! Oh you fiend, you devil—” He slumped down sideways, and I could see him through the bars dividing our cells – hunched over and tearing at his hair.
“You’d better,” I called out. “Or Enoch will do something. Please, Mr. Cassidy! Hurry!”
Then, Mr. Cassidy moaned, and I guess he fainted; he didn’t say anything else, and he stopped clawing. I called him once more, but he wouldn’t answer. So what could I do? I sat in the dark corner of my cell and watched the moonlight. Moonlight always makes Enoch wild.
Then, Mr. Cassidy started to scream. Not loud, but deep down in his throat. He didn’t move – just screamed. I knew it was Enoch, taking what he wanted… What was the point of looking? I couldn’t have stopped him, and I had tried to warn Mr. Cassidy… No, I just sat there and held my hands to my ears until it was over.
When I turned back around, Mr. Cassidy was still slumped against the bars, and only one sound could be heard. A purring. The soft, far away purring of Enoch after he has eaten. Then, I heard a scratching – the scratching of Enoch’s claws when he’s frisky after being fed. The sounds came from inside Mr. Cassidy’s head; it was Enoch, all right, and he was happy now.
I was happy, too. I reached my hand through the bars, pulled the jail keys from Mr. Cassidy’s pocket, opened my cell door, and I was finally free. There was no need to stay with Mr. Cassidy gone, and Enoch wouldn’t be staying, either. I called to him. “Here, Enoch!”
That was the closest I’ve ever come to seeing Enoch – a white streak that came flashing out of the big, red hole he ate in the back of Mr. Cassidy’s skull – then, I felt the soft, cold, flabby weight landing on my own head, and I knew he was home.
I walked through the corridor, opened the outer jail door, and tiny feet began to patter on top of my brain. Together, we walked into the night. The moon was shining, everything was still, and I could hear Enoch’s happy chuckling in my ear.
Franz Kafka, first published in 1919; translated to modern English, otherwise left exactly the same.
“It’s a peculiar machine.” The Officer said to the Traveler, admiring the device he was thoroughly familiar with. The Traveler only answered the Commandant’s invitation to be polite; the execution was for a soldier who insulted his superior, but interest was low even in the penal colony itself. It took place in a deep, sandy valley closed in by barren slopes. Apart from the Officer and Traveler, the only people present were the dispirited Condemned Man and the Soldier holding the chain to his shackles. The prisoner’s feet, wrists, and neck were bound, and he looked completely defeated.
The Traveler had little interest in the device; he paced indifferently behind the Condemned Man while the Officer completed the final preparations. Sometimes, he crawled into the pit to look under the machine, and sometimes he climbed a ladder to inspect the higher parts. These were things a mechanic could do, but the Officer performed them enthusiastically; maybe because he was particularly fond of this machine, or maybe he simply could not trust anyone else to do it.
“It’s ready, now!” He cried, climbing down the ladder. He was breathing through his mouth, tired, and there were two lady’s handkerchiefs pushed under his collar.
“Those uniforms are too heavy for the tropics,” the Traveler said.
“That’s true, but they represent our homes, and we don’t want to forget our homeland.” the Officer replied, washing his oily hands in a nearby bucket. “Here, have a look at this device. I used to do some of this work, but now, the machine does it all.”
The Traveler nodded and followed the Officer as he continued, “of course, malfunctions happen. I hope none occur today, but we’ll be prepared for it. The device is supposed to run for twelve hours without stopping, but if any breakdowns do occur, they’ll be minor, and we’ll fix them right away. Do you want to sit down?” The Traveler gratefully accepted his offer while he sat on the edge of the pit and cast a fleeting glance inside; it was not very deep. On one side, the dirt was piled into a wall, and the machine was on the other.
“I don’t know if the Commandant has already explained the device to you…” The Officer began, and the Traveler indicated he had not. “This device,” he grabbed a connecting rod and leaned against it, “is our previous Commandant’s invention. I assisted him with it from the first test to its completion, but the credit belongs to him alone. Have you heard of our Old Commandant? No? Well, it’s not a stretch to say he’s responsible for starting the penal colony. When he died, his friends knew it would take several years for a successor to change anything even if they wanted to. So far, this prediction has held true, and the New Commandant recognizes that. It’s a shame you didn’t know the old one!
“Anyway, I’m babbling, and his device stands here before us. It consists of three parts. The bottom piece is called the Bed, the top part is the Inscriber, and the moving part in the middle is the Harrow.”
“The Harrow?” The Traveler asked; he had not been fully paying attention. The sun was extremely strong in the shadowless valley, and he could hardly collect his thoughts. It made the Officer’s eager explanation even more admirable while adjusting screws in his parade-ready, tight tunic covered with shoulder pieces and braids.
The Soldier’s wrists were wrapped around the prisoner’s chain, his head was hung back, and he was using his weapon to support himself. He appeared to be in the same mood as the Traveler which was not surprising. The Officer spoke French, but it was clear the Soldier and Condemned Man did not. That the prisoner still tried to follow the Officer’s explanation was surprising. His eyes followed each direction the Officer pointed, and he looked at the Traveler when he interrupted.
“Yes, the Harrow; the name fits. The needles are arranged the same way as a harrow, and the whole thing runs like one; although, it stays in one place and is much more artistic.” The Officer continued. “You’ll understand in a moment. First, I’ll describe it, and then I’ll show you; that way, you’ll be able to follow it better. Also, one of the sprockets is excessively worn and squeaky. When it’s in motion, you can hardly hear yourself speak. Unfortunately, replacement parts are difficult to come by. The Bed is completely covered with a layer of cotton-wool, and the condemned is laid on top – face down and naked. These straps secure the hands, feet, and throat. At the head of the Bed, this small protruding lump of felt can easily be adjusted to press into the man’s mouth; it’s there to stop him from screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. If he doesn’t let it into his mouth – the straps around his throat would break his neck.”
“That’s cotton-wool?” the Traveler asked, bending down.
“Yes; feel for yourself.” The Officer smiled.
He guided the Traveler’s hand. “It’s specially prepared; that’s why it looks so different.”
The device was already winning over the Traveler. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he looked at the top of the machine. It was massive; the Bed and the Inscriber were the same size and looked like two dark chests. The Inscriber was two meters above the Bed, and they were connected at the corners by four brass rods while the Harrow hung on a band of steel between the chests.
The Officer hardly noticed the Traveler’s earlier indifference, but now, he noticed the man was genuinely interested; he paused the explanation to give the Traveler time to study the device properly. The Condemned Man studied it as well, but he did not have a free hand to shield his eyes.
“So, now, the man is lying down…” The Traveler leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.
“Yes,” the Officer said, pushing back his cap and running his hand over his hot face. “Both the Bed and the Inscriber have their own batteries. The Bed needs them for itself, and the Inscriber holds them for the Harrow. When the man is strapped in, the Bed is set into motion. It simultaneously moves up, down, and sideways at a rapid speed. There are similar devices in mental hospitals – except our Bed’s movements are precisely calibrated to be synchronized with the Harrow – which is what actually carries out the sentence.”
“What’s the sentence?” the Traveler asked.
“You don’t even know that?” the Officer asked in astonishment, biting his lip. “Forgive me if my explanations are confusing; I am sorry. The Commandant used to provide this information, but the new one has delegated the responsibility. The fact he did not even inform such an important visitor of our method is something which…” He stopped himself from cursing and continued, “I was not aware of; it’s not my fault. Anyway, I am certainly the best person to explain our way of sentencing,” he patted his breast pocket; “I have the Old Commandant’s hand-drawn diagrams.”
“Made by the Commandant himself?” The Traveler asked. “It sounds like he was a combination of everything – soldier, judge, engineer, chemist, and artist.”
“He was indeed,” the Officer said, nodding his head with a thoughtful expression. His hands were not clean enough to handle the diagrams, so he washed them again. Then, he pulled out a small leather folder and said, “Our sentence does not sound severe. Whichever law a condemned man has broken is carved into his body with the Harrow. For example, this Condemned Man will have ‘honor your superiors’ carved into him.”
The Traveler stole a quick glance at the prisoner. When the Officer pointed at him, the man put his head down; he appeared to still be listening, but his thick, pouting lips showed he did not understand. The Traveler had various questions, but after looking at the Condemned Man, he only asked, “does he know?”
“No.” The Officer said.
He wished to continue his explanation, but the Traveler interrupted him. “He doesn’t know his own sentence?”
“No.” The Officer repeated. “It would be useless to give him that information. He experiences it firsthand.”
The Traveler wanted to keep quiet, but he felt the prisoner’s gaze asking whether he approved of the process, so instead, he asked, “does he have some general idea that he’s been sentenced to die?”
“Not that either,” the Officer said, smiling as if expecting an explanation for the odd question.
“No?” the Traveler said, wiping his forehead. “He doesn’t know he was found guilty?”
“He had no opportunity to defend himself.” The Officer looked away, as if not wanting to embarrass the Traveler with such an obvious answer.
“But there must have been a trial!” The Traveler rose from his chair.
Realizing his explanation was being postponed, the Officer took the Traveler’s arm and pointed to the Condemned Man. “Here in the penal colony, I have been appointed judge despite my youth. I worked with our Old Commandant in overseeing punishments, and I also know the most about the device. My basic principle for making decisions is, ‘guilt must be beyond a doubt.’ Other courts have many judges and even higher courts, but that’s not the case here… At least, it wasn’t with the Old Commandant, but the New Commandant has shown a desire to get involved… Though, so far, I’ve managed to fend him off.
“If you want to know about this case, it’s simple; this morning, a captain charged this man with sleeping on duty. His job is to stand and salute in front of captain’s door at the top of every hour. That’s certainly not difficult, and it’s necessary. He is supposed to remain fresh for guard duty, but last night, the captain found him asleep at 2:00! He was hit across the face with a horse whip, and instead of begging for forgiveness – he grabbed his master’s legs and threatened him! The captain came to me an hour ago; I recorded his statement and the sentence, then I had the prisoner chained. If I had summoned the man and interrogated him first – it would have caused confusion; he would have lied, and if I had proven he lied – he would have told new lies, but now, I have him. Does that make sense? Time is wasting; we should be starting the execution, and I haven’t finished explaining the device yet.”
He urged the Traveler to sit down, walked back to the machine, and continued. “The shape of the Harrow corresponds to the shape of a man. This piece is for the upper body, and here are the ones for the legs. This small cut-out is for the head. Do you understand?” He leaned forward in a friendly way – ready to elaborate if necessary.
The Traveler looked at the Harrow with a wrinkled frown. The information about the procedure had not satisfied him, but in a penal colony, special rules were necessary; military regulations must be followed down to the finest detail. However, he did have hope in the New Commandant; the man was obviously trying to introduce a new procedure which this Officer of limited intelligence could not handle. With this thought, the Traveler asked, “will the Commandant be at the execution?”
“That’s uncertain,” the Officer said with a grimace, seeming embarrassed by the question. “That’s why we need to hurry. I regret I’ll have to make my explanation even shorter. I’ll tell you the most important things now, and tomorrow – after the device is cleaned – I can explain the rest. When the man is lying on the Bed and it starts shaking, the Harrow automatically adjusts the needles to touch the body lightly, and when it’s in position – this steel cable tightens into a rod. Then, the show begins! As the Harrow shakes, the needles penetrate the body – which is also vibrating – and since it’s made of glass, the process can be supervised. That caused technical difficulties with fastening the needles, but after several attempts we were successful. Don’t you want to see the needles for yourself?”
The Traveler stood slowly and approached the Harrow. “There are two sorts of needles in this arrangement.” The Officer said. “Each long needle has a short one next to it. The long one penetrates, and the short one squirts water to wash away the blood. The dirty water is channeled into small grooves which flow into these main gutters, and the outlet pipes take it to the pit.” The Officer pointed to the path.
As he approached the outlet pipe to demonstrate, the Traveler was horrified to see the Condemned Man had also accepted the invitation to inspect the Harrow. He pulled the sleeping Soldier with him and bent over the glass, confused. He tried to discern what the two men had just observed, but lacked enough information. His eyes ran over the glass, and the Traveler wanted to push him back, worried he would receive another punishment.
The Officer held the Traveler firmly with one hand, and with the other, he threw a lump of dirt at the Soldier. The man opened his eyes, startled to see what the Condemned Man had done, and he pulled the prisoner back hard enough to make him collapse.
“Stand him up!” The Officer cried, noticing the Condemned Man was distracting the Traveler. “Handle him carefully!” He yelled, helping the Soldier with the prisoner.
“Now, I know all about it,” the Traveler said.
“Except the most important thing,” the Officer returned his attention to the Traveler, grabbing his arm and pointing upwards. “A mechanism in the Inscriber controls the Harrow’s movement, and the diagram shows how to arrange it based on the sentence.” He pulled some pages out of the leather folder. “Unfortunately, you can’t hold them; they are my most cherished possessions. Sit down, and I’ll show them to you.” He held up the first sheet.
The Traveler would have been happy to say something complimentary, but all he saw was a maze of lines crossing in every direction. They covered the paper to the point hardly any white space remained. “Read it,” the Officer said.
“I can’t,” the Traveler replied.
“But it’s clear,” the Officer said.
“It’s very elaborate, but I can’t decipher it.” The Traveler said evasively.
“Yes,” the Officer smiled and put the folder away. “It takes a long time to understand, but you will eventually; obviously, we can’t use simple text that just anyone could read. It’s not supposed to kill right away but over a period of twelve hours, and the turning point is set for the sixth. There must also be several embellishments surrounding the words. The part engraving the text only moves around the body in a narrow belt; the rest is reserved for decoration. Do you appreciate the device? Just look at it!” He jumped up the ladder, turned a wheel, and called down, “Watch out! Get back!”
Everything started moving. If not for the squeaky wheel, it would have been marvelous. The Officer shook his fist at the disturbance and spread his arms in apology before hurrying down to observe the operation from below.
Something was still not working properly. He climbed back up, reached inside the Inscriber, then slid back down one of the poles, straining his voice to be heard. “Do you understand? The Harrow is starting to write, and when it’s finished with the man’s back – the layer of wool slowly turns his body onto its side. Meanwhile, the cuts are covered by the specially treated cotton which immediately stops the bleeding in preparation for round two. As he continues to rotate, prongs on the Harrow’s edge remove the wool from his wounds and throw it into the pit; this way, the inscription continues to deepen.
“After two hours, the felt is removed; by then, the man has no more energy for screaming, so warm rice pudding is placed at the head of the Bed. If he wants it, the prisoner is welcome to what he can reach; I don’t know of any who refused it – and I’ve had lots of experience – but they usually lose their appetite around the sixth hour. I often watched; the men rarely swallow the last bite. They turn it around in their mouths and spit it into the pit; I have to lean aside to avoid getting hit in the face… But then, they become so quiet! Even the dumbest begin to understand. It starts showing in their eyes, and their looks could tempt one to lie down under the Harrow, but nothing happens. They simply begin to decipher the inscription. It’s not easy to figure out with your eyes, but these men decipher it with their wounds. True, it requires six more hours to complete, but then, the Harrow spits them into the pit, and the judgment is over.”
The Traveler leaned towards the Officer and watched the machine work. The Condemned Man was also watching, but he did not understand. He bent forward, following the needles as the Soldier cut off his clothes. He wanted to grab the garments as they fell, but the Soldier shook the last rags from his body.
The Officer stopped the machine, and the Condemned Man was laid under the Harrow in silence. The chains were removed and the straps fastened in place. At first, he seemed almost relieved until the Harrow sunk lower; then he shuddered as the needles touched him. While the Soldier was busy securing his right hand, the prisoner reached out with his left, and it was pointing at the Traveler.
The wrist-strap was ripped off – probably from the Soldier pulling too hard. He showed the torn piece to his superior, hoping for help, but the Officer only turned to the Traveler and said, “The machine is very complicated; sometimes, pieces tear or break, but don’t let that influence your overall opinion. I’ll use a chain even though it will affect the right arm’s movement.”
He continued to speak while attaching the chain, “Our maintenance resources are very limited at the moment. Under the Old Commandant, I had a cash box set aside. There was a store room where replacement parts were kept. I admit, I was a little extravagant as the New Commandant claims. With him, everything is fight against the old ways. He keeps the cash box under his own control, and if I ask him for a new strap – he demands the torn one as evidence. The new one doesn’t arrive for ten days, and it’s a worthless, inferior brand. How is the machine supposed to work in the meantime? But no one’s concerned about that.”
The Traveler thought it was a gamble to speak up in unfamiliar situations. He was not a citizen of the penal colony or the state. If he condemned the execution, people might tell a foreigner to keep quiet. He would have no response for that; the purpose of this visit was only to observe – not to alter – but it was becoming very tempting. The injustice and inhumanity of the entire process was beyond doubt. No one could think he was acting out of self-interest; the Condemned Man was a stranger – not a countryman. The Traveler had letters of reference from high officials and was warmly welcomed here. The fact he was invited to this execution seemed to indicate people were asking for his opinion. This was even more likely since the Commandant was clearly no supporter of it, either, and he maintained an almost hostile relationship with the Officer.
Then, the Officer suddenly cried out in rage. He had finally managed to shove the felt into the Condemned Man’s mouth when the prisoner shut his eyes and threw up.
The Officer quickly yanked him off the stump and tried to turn his head toward the pit, but it was too late. The vomit was already spewing onto the machine. “This is all the Commandant’s fault!” He cried, mindlessly rattling the brass rods. “My machine is filthy!” With trembling hands he showed the Traveler. “I’ve spent hours trying to make the Commandant understand there should be no food served the day before the execution, but the new administration has a different opinion. Before the man is led away, the women cram sugary things down his throat. His whole life he’s eaten stinking fish, and now he has to eat sweets! That would be fine if they would get a new felt like I’ve been asking for the last three months. How can anyone take this into his mouth without feeling disgusted? Hundreds of men sucked on it while they were dying!”
The Condemned Man laid his head down and seemed peaceful while the Soldier cleaned the machine with his torn shirt. The Officer approached the Traveler, who tried to take a step backwards but was pulled aside. “I want to speak a few words in private, is that alright?” He asked.
“Of course.” The Traveler said, eyes lowered.
“This process doesn’t have any more open supporters in our colony. I am the only one still defending it… just as I am the lone advocate for the Old Commandant. I can no longer think about improving the process; it takes all of my energy simply to maintain what’s left. When the Old Commandant was alive, the colony was full of supporters. I have a bit of his persuasiveness but none of his power, so the supporters have gone into hiding.
“There are lots of them, but no one admits to it. If you go into the tea house today and listen carefully, you may hear nothing but ambiguous remarks. They’re all supporters, but under the present Commandant, they’re totally useless to me. I ask you, should a man’s entire life’s work be undone because of this New Commandant and the women influencing him? Should people let that happen? Even if one is a foreigner and only here for a couple of days?
“There’s no time to lose. People are already preparing something against these proceedings. I am never invited to their meetings in the Commandant’s headquarters; even your visit seems to have something to do with it. People are cowards, so they send you out here. You should have seen the executions in the old days! The entire valley would be overflowing with people a whole day before the event – just so they could watch. The Commandant would arrive early with his women, and the music would wake the entire campsite. When everything was ready, we all gathered around the machine.
“This pile of cane chairs is a sorry fossil from that time. The machine glowed from its cleaning, and I had new replacement parts after almost every use. Hundreds of spectators stood on tip-toe as far back as the hills, and the Commandant laid the prisoner beneath the Harrow himself. The part now done by a common soldier used to be my job as the senior judge, and it was an honor; then, the execution began, and there were no squeaky wheels. At this point, most people were laying in the sand with their eyes closed. They knew justice was being carried out, and the prisoner’s muffled groan was the only sound to break the silence. Back then, the needles dripped a caustic liquid which we aren’t allowed to use any more. Then came the sixth hour; it was impossible to allow everyone to watch from up close, so the Commandant arranged for the children to see it first. Naturally, I was always allowed to stand close by because of my position. I often crouched there with two small children in my arms, and we would all take in the martyred man’s expression! Ah, what times we had!”
The Officer had obviously forgotten who was standing in front of him; he put his arm around the Traveler and laid his head on his shoulder. The Traveler – extremely embarrassed – looked away impatiently. The Soldier was finished cleaning and poured rice pudding into a bowl. The Condemned Man – who now seemed fully recovered – immediately began licking at the treat, but the Soldier kept pushing him away. It was probably meant to be eaten later, but it was rude of the Soldier to take the food with his dirty hands and eat it in front of the starving prisoner.
The Officer quickly collected himself. “I didn’t want to upset you; I know it’s impossible to make someone understand those days now. Anyway, the machine can operate when it’s left alone. At the end, the body still falls into the pit even if no one is there to see it. We had to erect a strong rail around the pit, but it was removed.”
The Traveler turned away, but the Officer thought he was looking at the valley’s wasteland and turned him back around. “Do you see the shame of it?” He asked, but the Traveler said nothing.
The Officer left him alone and stood looking at the ground with his legs apart and hands on his hips – smiling cheerfully. “Yesterday, I was nearby when the Commandant invited you, and I immediately understood his intention. Although he has enough power to come after me, he doesn’t yet dare to do so. I believe he is exposing me to your judgment; he is very calculating. This is only your second day on the island; you didn’t know the Old Commandant and have a European perspective. Perhaps you are opposed to the death penalty in general and to this machine in particular.
“You see the execution as a sad procedure performed with a damaged machine without any public participation. When considered in that light, it’s obvious you would think poorly of my procedure and speak against it. You’ve seen many peculiar things among many cultures and learned to respect them. You probably won’t speak out with your full power in a foreign land, but the Commandant doesn’t need that. A casual word or careless remark is enough. It doesn’t need to match your beliefs as long as it’s in line with his wishes. I’m certain he will use all of his shrewdness to interrogate you, and his women will listen.
“You will say the accused are questioned before the verdict in your trials, or that torture hasn’t been used since the Middle Ages. For you, these observations seem obvious, and they do not challenge my procedure, but what will the Commandant think? I see the way he pushes his stool aside and hurries out to the balcony; I see how his women stream after him, and I hear his thunderous voice. He’ll say a great Western explorer tasked with inspecting every country’s legal procedures found ours to be inhumane, and that will make it impossible for me to continue this work.
“It’s true, you didn’t call my procedure inhumane. In fact, you consider it to be most humane – and you admire this machinery – but it’s too late; my and the Old Commandant’s work are lost.”
The Traveler suppressed a smile; the work he had considered so difficult was easy. “You’re exaggerating my influence. The Commandant has read my letters of recommendation. He knows I’m not an expert in legal matters; if I were to express an opinion – it would only be as a civilian and far less significant than the Commandant’s. I understand he has extensive power in this penal colony; if he is as against this method as you say he is, then I’m afraid it’s time for this procedure to end regardless of my humble opinion.” He said evasively.
The Officer still did not understand. He shook his head vigorously, briefly looking back at the Condemned Man and Soldier who both flinched and stopped eating. He got closer to the Traveler – gazing at parts of his jacket – and spoke gently. “You don’t know the Commandant; believe me – your influence cannot be overestimated. I was actually happy when I heard you were coming to the execution alone. Without being distracted by false remarks and ugly looks, you have listened to my explanation, seen the machine, and are now about to view the procedure. You’re decision is already made, but if any small doubts remain – witnessing the execution will remove them. Now – I’m asking you – help me with the Commandant!”
The Traveler did not let him continue. “How can I?” He cried. “It’s impossible; I can’t help you!”
“You could do it,” the Officer said, clenching his fists. “I have a plan that must succeed. I know your influence will be enough, but even if you’re right – isn’t saving this procedure worth the effort? Listen to my plan; for today, you must stay quiet. Unless someone asks you a direct question, you should not say anything. People should feel that it’s difficult for you to speak— that if you were to speak, you’d be cursing furiously.
“I’m not asking you to lie – not at all – but when you do speak, your answers should be brief, simple statements like, ‘yes, I’ve seen the execution’ or ‘yes, I’ve heard the explanation.’— nothing more. That will be enough for people to notice your bitterness even if the Commandant doesn’t. He will misunderstand, and my plan is based on that. Tomorrow, he will hold a meeting at headquarters with all of the higher administrative officials, and he understands how to turn such an event into a spectacle; the new gallery is always full of people.
“I’m compelled to take part in the discussions even though they fill me with disgust. Regardless, you will certainly be invited to the meeting. If you follow my plan today – the invitation will become an emphatic request, but if you are somehow not invited – you must request an invitation. You’ll be sitting with the women in the Commandant’s box where he can assure himself you are there with frequent glances. After a trivial agenda designed to entertain the spectators, the legal system will come up for discussion. If the topic isn’t raised soon enough, I’ll give a brief report on today’s execution. Such an announcement isn’t really customary, but I’ll do it anyway. The Commandant will thank me with a friendly smile and say something like, ‘the great explorer attended this execution; his visit is an extraordinary honor for our colony. Should we ask his opinion of our old customs?’ And everyone will applaud – myself loudest of all.
“Then, the Commandant will bow and formally ask the question. You should step up to the railing, and place your hands where everyone can see them or else the ladies will play with your fingers. I don’t know how I’ll bear the tension until then, but you must not hold back; lean over the rail and shout it out— yes, roar your unshakable opinion at the Commandant! But you may not want to do that… It doesn’t suit your character…
“Perhaps your people behave differently in these situations. That’s perfectly fine. Don’t stand up at all; just say a couple of words. It’s enough to whisper them for the officials to hear. You don’t need to mention the low attendance, squeaky wheel, torn strap, or disgusting felt – I’ll take care of those details. If my speech doesn’t chase him out of the room, it will knock him to his knees! That’s my plan; do you want to help me? Of course you do— you must!”
The Officer gripped the Traveler by both arms and looked at him, breathing heavily into his face. He had yelled the last sentences so loudly that even the Soldier and Condemned Man were paying attention. Although they couldn’t understand, they stopped eating to watch.
The Traveler was already sure of his answer, but with the Soldier and the Condemned Man watching – he hesitated before saying, “no.” The Officer blinked several times, but never broke eye contact.
“Would you like an explanation?” The Traveler asked, and he Officer nodded dumbly. “I was against this device even before you told me your plan, but I will never tell anyone what we spoke of. Your conviction is genuinely moving – but my decision was already made. I had been debating whether I have any right to speak against this procedure and if there was any chance of success. If there was, I knew I would need to see the Commandant first.
The Officer remained quiet, turned toward the machine, grabbed one of the brass rods, and looked up at the Inscriber as if inspecting it. The Soldier and Condemned Man seemed to have become friends. The prisoner was whispering something into the Soldier’s ear as he nodded.
The Traveler moved closer the Officer before continuing. “Yes, I will tell the Commandant my opinion; not publicly, but in private. Additionally, I won’t be here long enough to get called into any meetings; my ship leaves tomorrow morning.”
The Officer did not appear to be listening. “So, you were not convinced…” He said, smiling to himself – the way an old man smiles over a sleeping child. “Well then, it’s time.” He finally said, looking at the Traveler with bright, demanding eyes in a silent plea for help.
“Time for what?” The Traveler asked uneasily, but did not receive an answer.
“You are free,” the Officer told the Condemned Man in his own language. At first, the man did not believe him, so the Officer repeated himself, and the prisoner’s face came to life – asking many questions in a single expression. Was it true? Had the Traveler brought him a pardon? What was it? Whatever the case might be, he did not need to wonder for long. In a rush to be free, he began to struggle against the Harrow.
“You’re tearing my straps! Be still! We’ll undo them.” The Officer cried, signaling for the Soldier’s help. The Condemned Man remained silent, slightly smiling to himself; he turned to the Officer, then to the Soldier and back again.
“Pull him out,” the Officer ordered. This required a certain amount of care because of the Harrow. The prisoner already had a few small wounds on his back due to his own impatience.
From this point on, however, the Officer hardly noticed him anymore. Instead, he returned to the Traveler, pulled out the small leather folder once more, and flipped through it until finding a specific sheet. “Read that,” he said.
“I can’t; I’ve told you, I can’t read these pages.” The Traveler replied.
“Take a closer look.” The Officer said. When that didn’t help, he raised his little finger high over the paper in hopes of making it easier.
The Traveler made an effort, but it was impossible. Then, the Officer began spelling the inscription and read out the letters. “It says, ‘be just!’ Now, you can read it, too.”
The Traveler bent over the paper, and the Officer moved it away – frightened it might be touched. The Traveler said nothing more, but it was clear he could not read it. “Be just!” The Officer repeated.
“Yes, I do believe that’s written there.” The Traveler said without looking away. His neck grew stiff, and the sunlight was blinding.
The Soldier pulled the Condemned Man’s shirt and trousers out of the hole with the tip of his bayonet. The prisoner washed his filthy shirt in the bucket of water and laughed as he circled around the Soldier in his ripped-up clothes. The Soldier crouched over laughing and slapping his knees, but they restrained themselves out of consideration for the two gentlemen.
When the Officer was finally finished with the machine, he looked over all its parts once more with a smile and closed the Inscriber’s cover. He climbed down, looked into the hole, and was satisfied to see the Condemned Man had retrieved his clothes. Then, he washed his hands in the bucket and became upset with the realization it was already disgusting. Instead, he cleaned them in the sand; this option was not satisfying, but he did what he could.
Finally, as he stood to unbutton his coat, the two lady’s handkerchiefs fell into his hands. “Here, take your gifts.” He said, throwing them to the Condemned Man. “Presents from the ladies,” he explained to the Traveler.
“Good,” the Officer said, at least partially satisfied. Still holding the paper, he climbed the ladder, and, with great care, set it into the Inscriber. Turning the gear was tiring work; the wheels are extremely small. Sometimes, he inspected them so closely, his entire head disappeared into the machine.
Despite the speed he undressed, he handled each article of clothing carefully – running his fingers over the tunic’s silver braids or shifting a tassel into place, but – when finished – he flung them into the pit. The last item was his short sword; he removed it from the scabbard, broke it into pieces, and threw them into the pit where they could be heard rattling the whole way down. Now, he stood there naked. The Traveler bit his lip and said nothing; he knew what was happening, but he had no right to interfere. The Officer truly believed in this process, and the Traveler would have done the same in his place.
The Soldier and the Condemned Man did not understand at first; they did not even see what was happening. The prisoner was extremely happy to get the handkerchiefs back, but he did not enjoy them for very long. The Soldier unexpectedly snatched them away and tucked them into his belt. The Condemned Man tried to take them back, but the Soldier was too wary. Their fighting was only for play, but when they saw the naked Officer – they started paying attention.
The Condemned Man seemed especially struck by this transformation; what happened to him was now happening to the Officer, and this time, the procedure would not be stopped. He believed the Traveler probably gave the order. Though he had not suffered to the end of it himself, he would be completely avenged; a wide, silent laugh appeared on his face and remained there.
The Officer turned towards the machine, and handled it in a way that showed his mastery of the mechanics. He only had to bring his hand near the Harrow for it to rise and sink several times while making room for him. He only had to grasp the edges of the Bed, and it began to quiver. The stump of felt moved up to his mouth; it was obvious he did not want to accept it, but he only hesitated a moment before submitting.
Everything was ready, except for the straps; they hung down on the sides, but they were clearly unnecessary. When the Condemned Man saw this, he thought the execution would be incomplete without them and waved to the Soldier for help. The Officer had been preparing to kick the crank designed to start the process, but when he saw the two men coming – he let himself be strapped in. Neither the Soldier nor the Condemned Man could find the crank, and the Traveler was determined not to touch it, but they were not needed. The straps were hardly attached when the machine started. The Bed quivered, the needles danced on the Officer’s skin, and the Harrow swung. The Traveler had been staring for some time before he remembered one of the Inscriber’s wheels was supposed to squeak, yet all was quiet.
Because of its silence, the machine did not attract much attention. The Traveler looked at the Soldier and the Condemned Man – who seemed interested by everything. Occasionally, he bent down or stretched up – pointing at something to show the Soldier, but the Traveler was embarrassed. He was determined to stay until the end, but he could no longer endure the two men’s presence.
“Go home,” he said. The Soldier might have been ready to obey, but the Condemned Man took the order as a punishment. He folded his hands, begging to stay, and even went to his knees when the Traveler still refused.
The Traveler wanted to chase them away. Then, he heard a noise from the Inscriber and looked up, wondering if a wheel was out of alignment, but no, it was something else. The Inscriber’s lid was lifting up slowly, then it fell completely open. A cog-wheel’s teeth were exposed, and soon, the entire wheel appeared. It was as if some huge force were squishing the Inscriber. The wheel rolled all the way to the edge and fell into the sand with several more close behind.
Just when you thought the machine must be empty – a new cluster of parts would fall into the sand. With all this going on, the Condemned Man forgot the Traveler’s order; the gears utterly delighted him. He wanted to grab one and was urging the Soldier to help, but he kept pulling his hand back when a new gear startled him.
The Traveler, however, was very upset. Obviously, the machine was breaking. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt responsible for the Officer now that he could not look after himself, but while the falling gears held his attention, he failed to notice the rest of the device. Once the last gear fell, he bent over the machine and received an even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing – only stabbing – and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering into the needles. The Traveler wanted to stop the whole thing. This was not the torture the Officer wanted; it was murder – pure and simple. He stretched out his hands, but the Harrow was already moving up and to the side with the skewered body, which it should only do in the twelfth hour.
Blood flowed out in hundreds of streams, but not mixed with water; the water tubes had also failed to work. Then, one last thing went wrong; the body would not come loose from the needles. Blood streamed out, but the corpse hung over the pit without falling. The Harrow wanted to move back to its original position, but, unable to free itself of its load, it remained over the hole.
“Help,” the Traveler yelled. He wanted to push against the feet and have the others grab the head so the body could be taken off slowly, but the two men were hesitant. The Condemned Man turned away, and the Traveler had to drag him over by force. Almost against his will, he looked at the corpse’s face. It was still the same; there was no sign of the promised transformation. What all those before had found in the machine, the Officer had not. His lips were pressed together firmly, his eyes were open, and his gaze was calm. The tip of a large, iron needle had gone through his forehead.
As the Traveler, Soldier, and Condemned Man came to the first houses in the colony, the Soldier pointed to one and said, “That’s the tea house.”
On the ground floor was a deep, cave-like room with smoke-covered walls. The side facing the street was open along its full width, but there was little difference between the tea house and the rest of the houses. Except for the Commandant’s palace, they were all very old and worn. The Traveler was surprised by its historical appearance. He went closer – still followed by his companions – walking between the empty tables in front of the tea house, and he took a breath of the cool, stuffy air coming from inside.
“The old man is buried here; the chaplain denied him a place in the cemetery. For a long time, people couldn’t decide where to bury him. Of course, the Officer explained none of that to you; he was the most ashamed of it. A few times, he even tried to dig the old man up, but he was always chased off.” The Soldier said.
“Where is the grave?” The Traveler asked, disbelieving.
Instantly, the Soldier and the Condemned Man ran in front of him and pointed to the grave. They led him to the back wall where guests were sitting at a few tables. They were probably dock workers – strong men with short, shiny, black beards; none of them wore coats, and their shirts were torn. They were poor, oppressed people. A few got up to lean against the wall, watching the Traveler as he came closer, and a whisper went around the room. “It’s a foreigner. He wants to look at the grave.”
They pushed one of the tables aside, and beneath it was a real grave marker. It was a simple stone placed low enough for it to remain hidden under a table. It bore an inscription with very small letters; the Traveler had to kneel to see it clearly. It read, “Here rests the Old Commandant. His followers, who are now not permitted to have a name, buried him in this grave and erected this stone. There is a prophecy that says the Commandant will one day rise and lead his followers to reclaim the colony. Have faith and wait!”
When the Traveler read it and stood, he saw the men around him were smiling as if they had read along, found it ridiculous, and wanted him to share their opinion. The Traveler acted as if he did not notice, gave them a few coins, and waited for the table to be pushed back into place before leaving for the harbor.
In the tea house, the Soldier and the Condemned Man became preoccupied with friends but hurried away. The Traveler found himself in the middle of the long staircase leading to the boats when he saw them coming, and he knew they wanted to go with him. While he haggled with a sailor at the bottom of the stairs, the two men were racing down the steps in silence – not daring to cry out. The boat was already casting off when they reached the bottom. They could have jumped in, but the Traveler picked up a heavy, knotted rope and threatened them with it.
W. Somerset Maugham, first published May 1924; translated to modern English, otherwise left exactly the same.
This story has been added to our Classics in the Rain collection! Listen to Danie Dreadful’s magnificent narration here for the full experience!
In August of 1917, I was required to travel from New York to Petrograd for work, and I was told to go through Vladivostok for safer traveling. I arrived in the morning and passed a dull day as best I could; the Trans-Siberian train was scheduled to depart at 9:00 that evening. I ate alone at the station restaurant, but it was crowded so I shared a small table with a funny-looking man. He was a tall, stout Russian, and his pudgy stomach forced him to sit a ways back from the table. His small hands were buried in rolls of fat, and his long, dark, thinning hair was brushed across his bald forehead while his sickly, clean-shaven face and double chin made him look naked. His nose was a funny little button on a mass of flesh, and his black, shining eyes were too small, but his big mouth was red and sensual. His black suit was shabby; it looked as if it had never been cleaned or pressed.
Our service was bad; it was almost impossible to get the waiter’s attention, so the Russian and I started talking. He spoke with an accent, but it wasn’t heavy, and his English was fluent. He asked several questions about me and – since my job required a certain level of caution – my answers were true but vague. I said I was a journalist, and he asked if I wrote fiction. When I answered, “only in my free time,” he began talking about Russian novelists. He was clearly an intelligent and educated man.
By now, we had finally gotten our cabbage soup, and my companion offered to share the small bottle of vodka he removed from his pocket. I do not know whether it was the liquor or the talkative nature of his race that made him share these things, but – without prompting – he told me a good deal about himself. He was noble-born, a lawyer, and a radical. Some trouble with the police had made it necessary for him to spend much of his time abroad, but now he was on his way home. Business had detained him at Vladivostok, but he expected to leave for Moscow in a week, and he would be charmed to see me if I were ever in the area.
“Are you married?” He asked.
I did not think it was any of his business, but I said yes, and he sighed a little. “I am a widower. My wife was Swiss – from Geneva – and a very cultivated woman. She spoke perfect English, German, and Italian; of course, her native language was French. Her Russian was above average, and she only had a slight accent.” He said.
He called to a passing waiter and asked how much longer until the next course. The waiter replied in a reassuring tone, hurried on, and my friend sighed again. “Since the revolution, the wait time in restaurants has been terrible.”
He lit his twentieth cigarette, and I looked at my watch – wondering if I should have a real meal before smoking.
“My wife was a very remarkable woman,” he continued. “She taught languages to the daughters of noblemen at one of the best schools in Petrograd. For a good many years, we lived together on perfectly friendly terms, but she had a jealous temperament; unfortunately, her love became a distraction.”
It was difficult for me to keep a straight face. He was one of the ugliest men I had ever seen. Sometimes, there is a certain charm in fat, red-faced, jolly men, but this gloomy obesity was repulsive.
“I do not pretend that I was faithful to her; she was not young when we married, and we were together for ten years. She was small, thin, and had a bad complexion with a bitter tongue. She was a passionately jealous woman and could not bear for me to be attracted to anyone else. She was not only jealous of other women but also of my friends, my cat and my books. Once, when I was out, she gave away my favorite coat – but I can be just as petty. I will not deny that she was boring, but I accepted her bitter personality as an act of God; I gave no more thought to rebelling against it than I would against bad weather or a head-cold. I denied her accusations as long as possible, and when it became impossible – I shrugged my shoulders and smoked a cigarette.
“The scenes she constantly made did not affect me very much; I led my own life. Sometimes, I wondered if it was passionate love or passionate hate she felt for me. There seems to be a very fine line between love and hate.
“We might still be together now if a very curious thing had not happened. One night, I awoke startled by my wife’s piercing scream and asked her what was the matter.
“She had a frightening nightmare in which I tried to kill her. We lived at the top of a large house, and the spiral stairs left a wide, open space in the center. In her dream – just as we arrived on our floor – I grabbed her and tried to throw her over the railing. It was a six-story fall to the stone floor below and meant certain death.
“She was very shaken. I did my best to soothe her, but for the next few days, she continued bringing it up, and despite my laughter, I could tell she was bothered by it. I could not help thinking of it, either; this dream showed me something I had never suspected. She thought I hated her – that I would be glad to get rid of her; she knew she was insufferable, and eventually, it occurred to her that I was capable of murder. Men’s thoughts are unpredictable; we think of ideas we would be ashamed to confess. Sometimes, I wished she would run away with a lover, and other times – for a sudden, painless death, but never – not ever had I thought to intentionally rid myself of an intolerable burden.
“The dream made an extraordinary impression on us both. It frightened my wife – making her more tolerant and a little less bitter – but when I walked upstairs, it was impossible not to see the railings and think of how easy it would be to make her dream come true. The rails were dangerously low; one quick push, and it would be done. It was hard to put the thought out of my mind. Then, months later, my wife woke me one night. I was very tired and exasperated.
“She was white and trembling from having the dream again. She burst into tears and asked me if I hated her. I swore by all the saints of the Russian calendar that I loved her, and she finally went back to sleep. It was more than I could do – I was left lying awake. I kept seeing her fall over the stair-rails and hearing her shriek before slamming against the stone floor; it made me shiver.”
The Russian stopped, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. He told the story well, and I listened closely. He poured the last of his vodka, and swallowed it in a single gulp.
“And how did your wife eventually die?” I asked after a pause.
He took out a dirty handkerchief and wiped his forehead. “By an extraordinary coincidence. Late one night, she was found at the bottom of the stairs with her neck broken.”
“Who found her?”
“She was found by one of the other tenants who came in shortly after the accident.”
“And where were you?” I cannot describe the cunning, malicious look he gave me; his little, black eyes sparkled.
“I was spending the evening with a friend. I did not come home until an hour later.”
At that moment, the waiter brought us the meat we ordered, and the Russian began shoveling enormous bites into his mouth. I was surprised; had he genuinely just admitted to murdering his wife? That obese and sluggish man did not look like a murderer; I could not believe he would have the courage. Perhaps he was making a joke at my expense…
In a few minutes, it was time to catch my train. I left and have not seen the man since, but I have never been able to make up my mind whether he was serious or not.
Robert Louis Stephenson, first published 1884; translated to modern English, otherwise left exactly the same.
Every night, the undertaker, the landlord, Fettes, and myself went to the George Tavern in Debenham. Sometimes, more came, but – rain or snow – the four of us would be in our usual arm-chairs. Fettes was an old Scotsman; he was educated and owned a fair amount of property since he did not spend money on many things. He came to Debenham years ago when he was still young and was eventually accepted as a local. He developed a reputation for being an alcoholic and was well-known for spending his time at the George instead of church. Every evening, he would drink five glasses of rum and loudly rant vague, radical opinions while slapping the table for emphasis. The greatest portion of his visits were spent drunk and depressed with a glass in his right hand. We called him the Doctor because he was supposed to have some medical knowledge and had been known to set a fracture or reduce a dislocation in a pinch, but beyond these minor details, we did not know anything about his character or background.
On this dark, winter night it was past 9:00 when the landlord arrived. There was a sick man in the tavern – a respected business owner suddenly collapsed from a stroke on his way to Parliament, and the man’s even more respected London doctor came as soon as he received the telegraph. It was the first time such a thing happened in Debenham; the new railway had only just opened, and we were all moved by the event.
“He’s here.” the landlord said after filling and lighting his pipe.
“He who?” I asked. “It’s not the doctor, is it?”
“It is.” Our host replied.
“What’s his name?”
“Doctor Macfarlane.” The landlord said.
Fettes was far past his third drink and fairly intoxicated. He was staring around dumbly and nodding off until hearing Macfarlane’s name. He repeated it to himself softly, and then said it aloud with much more emotion.
“Yes, that’s his name – Doctor Wolfe Macfarlane.” The landlord said.
Fettes instantly sobered and became very serious. His eyes widened, and his words were loud and clear. We were all stunned by the sudden change; it was like seeing a man rise from the grave.
“My apologies,” he said. “I’m afraid I have not been paying attention to your conversation. Who is Wolfe Macfarlane?”
Then, after the landlord answered him, he said, “it cannot be – it can’t… but I would like to see him face-to-face.”
The undertaker gasped. “Do you know him?”
“I hope not!” Fettes replied. “But he has a strange name; it’s too fancy. Tell me, landlord, is he old?”
“Well, he’s not a young man, that’s for sure; his hair is white, but he looks younger than you.” Our host answered.
“He is actually three years older, but,” Fettes slapped the table, “rum and sin are what aged my face. Perhaps Macfarlane has an easy-going conscience and good digestion. Conscience! Listen to me – talking like I’m a good, decent Christian! But no, I’m not; I never spoke poorly of him, though Voltaire might have if he’d been in my shoes.”
“I assume you do not share the landlord’s good opinion of the doctor.” I remarked after a somewhat awful pause.
Fettes paid no attention to me.
“Yes,” he said, suddenly, “I must see him face-to-face.”
After another pause, a door on the first floor was slammed and footsteps could be heard coming up the stairs. “That’s the doctor; you can catch him if you hurry!” The landlord exclaimed.
The door to the old George Inn was only two steps away from the tavern. The wide, oak staircase almost ended in the street; there was room for a Turkish rug between the threshold and last step but nothing more. This small space was lit up brilliantly by the light on the stairway, the porch-lamp, and the warm radiance of the bar-room window; the George advertised itself brightly to passers-by in the cold street. We trailed slightly behind and watched Fettes meet Macfarlane face-to-face. The doctor was alert and vigorous; his white hair set off his pale features, and he was richly dressed in fine fabrics. He wore a gold, jewel-covered pocket-watch and a broad, lilac-speckled tie but carried his fur coat over his arm. His appearance left no doubt of his social status, and it was surprising to see our bald, dirty, pimpled bar-fly confront him at the bottom of the stairs.
“Macfarlane!” He said somewhat loudly.
The great doctor stopped short of the fourth step; he seemed surprised – if not slightly insulted – to be addressed in such a way.
“Toddy Macfarlane!” Fettes repeated.
The London doctor almost staggered. He stared at the dirty man for a brief second – shot a frightened glance behind him – and then whispered, “Fettes! It’s You!”
“Aye, it’s me! Did you think I was dead, too? It’s not so easy to forget our history.” Fettes said.
“Hush, hush!” The doctor exclaimed. “This is so unexpected; you look terrible – I hardly recognized you at first! I am overjoyed to see you, but we must say goodbye for now; my carriage is waiting, and I cannot be late for the train. Give me your address, and I will get in touch soon; we must do something for you, Fettes. I fear you are in a bad way, but we’ll figure it out like the good old days.
“Money!” Fettes cried. “Money from you?! The money I got from you is lying in the rain where I left it!”
Dr. Macfarlane had felt superior and confident, but this adamant refusal confused him all over again. A horrible, ugly look flashed across his face. “My dear man,” he said, “do as you please; it was not my intention to offend you. I will leave you my address, however—”
“I don’t want it – I don’t want to know where you live.” Fettes interrupted. “I heard your name and feared it might be you; I wanted to know if there was a God after all, and now, I’m sure there isn’t. Begone!” He remained standing between the stairs and doorway – forcing the doctor to walk around him.
Macfarlane hesitated at the thought of being humiliated, but there was a dangerous glimmer in his eyes. He noticed the carriage driver was watching the unusual scene from the street, and then he caught a glimpse of our little group huddled by the bar. The presence of so many witnesses convinced him to flee; he tried to squeeze by Fettes – brushing against the wall as he darted towards the door like a snake – but the Scotsman grabbed his arm. “Have you seen it again?” Even though he whispered, his words were painfully clear.
The rich, London doctor cried out sharply as he pulled away and ran out with his hands covering his head. Before any of us thought to make a move – the carriage was already rattling toward the station. The episode was over like a dream, but it had left proof of its existence. Later, a servant found Wolfe’s fine, gold glasses broken on the doorstep, and that very night – we all stood by the window with a sober Fettes looking pale and determined.
“God save us, Mr. Fettes! What in the world is going on? You have been saying strange things.” The landlord was the first to regain his senses.
Fettes turned to look us each in the face. “See if you can hold your tongues. Macfarlane is not a safe man to cross; those who did have already come to regret it.” Then he said goodnight and left into the black night without even finishing his third drink.
The three of us returned to our usual places by the big, red fire and four, clear candles. As we discussed what happened, our initial shock soon changed into curiosity. We stayed in the old George later than ever, and before leaving, each man had his own theory he was determined to prove. Suddenly, our worlds revolved around digging through our condemned friend’s past in order to discover his secret. It is nothing to brag about, but my theory was better than the others; I am probably the only man alive who could tell you this unnatural chain of events.
In his younger days, Fettes studied medicine in Edinburgh and was a quick learner. He was always polite and courteous in the presence of his teachers, and they quickly recognized him as an intelligent student who listened closely. As strange as it sounded when first hearing it – he was quite popular and pleased with his appearance in those days. At that time, there was an anatomy professor whom I will refer to by the letter K since his name is well known. He skulked through Edinburgh’s streets in disguise while the mob from that serial killer’s execution screamed for his partner’s blood; he was partly known for his own professional career, and partly because of a rival college professor. The students used his name as a swear, and many believed Fettes was on the road to success when he became one of the man’s favorites. Mr. K enjoyed a social lifestyle as an accomplished teacher; he liked a sly illusion as much as careful preparation, and Fettes deserved recognition in both regards – by his second year, he was a semi-regular teacher’s assistant.
Being in charge of the theater and lecture-hall were his main duties; he was responsible for making sure they were clean, keeping the other students in line, and handling the corpses they received. This last part was a very delicate ordeal. Mr. K housed him in the same building as the dissecting-rooms; after a night of turbulent pleasures – while his hands still shook and his sight was still blurry – he would crawl out of bed in the black hours before dawn to deal with the dirty, desperate thugs who supplied the bodies. He would open the door for the men who are now infamous throughout the land and help them with their tragic burdens; he paid their sordid prices, and stayed with the dead after they were gone. Then, he would sleep for another couple of hours to refresh himself for the next day.
The young man was completely unaware of those outside his small world. He was incapable of caring about another’s fate or misfortune, and he constantly fell victim to his own low ambitions. Though he was often cold and selfish – he had just enough self-control to stop himself from becoming a drunk or getting into legal trouble. Most of that motivation stemmed from how highly he valued the opinion of his professor and classmates; he had no desire to fail and enjoyed success with his studies. Everyday, he performed magnificently for Mr. K and rewarded himself with nights of loud parties.
The shortage of bodies was as troubling to him as it was to his teacher. The large class kept running out, and it was necessary to replace them no matter how unpleasant or dangerous the consequences were. Mr. K’s policy was to never ask questions; he told his assistants it was for the sake of their consciences. He used to say, “they bring the bodies, and we pay the price.” The professor did not allow himself to understand they were murder victims; he would have been horrified if those actual words were ever spoken aloud, but the casual way he discussed such a dark matter was offensive in itself.
Fettes often noticed the bodies were unusually fresh, and the thugs delivering them always wore ugly, threatening looks. He began putting things together in his mind but did not want to believe it. He only had three duties – taking what was brought, paying the price, and averting his eyes from any crime evidence.
One November morning, his silence was put to the test. He had been up all night with a throbbing toothache – pacing his room like a caged animal or throwing fits on his bed. Not long after he finally fell into an uneasy slumber, he was forced to receive a new delivery. The moon was bright, the wind was bitter cold, and the town still slept, but the day would soon begin. The thugs arrived later than usual, and they seemed more eager to leave than ever. Fettes led them upstairs, and their grumbling, Irish voices sounded like a dream; he leaned against the wall, dozing, as they removed the body from its sack. He had to shake himself awake to find the men’s money, and that was when he saw the dead face. With a slight gasp, he took two steps closer and raised his candle.
“God Almighty! That’s Jane Galbraith!” He cried.
The men said nothing, but they moved closer to the door.
I’m telling you, I know her,” he continued. “She was alive and healthy yesterday. It’s impossible for her to be dead; you should have gotten this body fairly.”
“Sir, you’re completely mistaken.” One of the men said – but the other glared at Fettes menacingly, and demanded the money immediately.
It was impossible to misunderstand the threat or exaggerate the danger. The young man’s heart failed him; he stuttered some excuses, counted out their pay, and watched his hateful visitors leave. As soon as they were gone, he hurried back to confirm his doubts, and there were a dozen unmistakable features he could use to identify the girl; they had been joking together only the day before, and now she had wounds that were clear signs of violence. He panicked and ran to his room where he seriously considered the weight of Mr. K’s instructions and the danger to himself; in the end, he was still sorely confused and decided to wait for advice from the older class assistant.
This was a young doctor, Wolfe Macfarlane; he was clever and dishonest – all of the reckless students favored him. He had traveled to study abroad, and his manners were agreeable but a little forward. He was a master on the stage and equally skilled with ice-skates or golf-clubs; his fine clothes were bold, and he rode a strong trotting-horse to complete his glorious appearance. The positions he and Fettes held required them to work closely together, and they became friends as a result. When bodies were scarce, they would drive Macfarlane’s wagon to a country cemetery where they could desecrate some lonely graves and deliver their prize to the dissecting-room before dawn.
On that particular morning, Macfarlane arrived earlier than usual; Fettes met him on the stairs, told him the story, and showed him the previous night’s delivery.
Macfarlane examined the marks on her body. “Yes,” he said with a nod; “it looks fishy.”
“Well, what should I do?” Fettes asked.
“Do? Do you want to do anything? I would think the less that’s said, the better.”
“Someone else might recognize her,” Fettes objected. “Everyone knows who she is.”
“Let’s hope not,” Macfarlane said. “If anybody does – you’ll simply say you didn’t, and that will be the end of it. This has been going on too long. If you say something now, you’ll get K into horrible trouble, and the two of us will be in the same boat. How would any of us look? What would we say for ourselves? We know one thing for certain – that all of these bodies have been murdered.”
“Macfarlane!” Fettes cried.
“Come on! You’ve surely suspected it yourself!” Macfarlane sneered.
“Suspecting is one thing—”
“—And proof is another. Yes, I know; and I’m as sorry as you are about this,” Macfarlane said, tapping the body with his cane. “The best thing for me is not to recognize it, and I don’t.” He added coolly. “You can, if you want; I won’t tell you not to. I think most well-traveled men would make the same decision, and I believe that is what K would expect from us. Why do you think he chose us for his assistants? It’s because he didn’t want old wives.”
His tone was effective, and Fettes agreed to do as Macfarlane said. The unfortunate girl’s body was promptly dissected, and no one seemed to recognize her.
One afternoon after work, Fettes went to a popular tavern and saw Macfarlane sitting with a stranger. He was small, dark, and very pale with coal-black eyes. Though he looked like a refined, intelligent man – he proved to be vulgar and stupid. While his control over Macfarlane was remarkable; he barked orders like a Colonel, became enraged over minor inconveniences, and insulted the people serving him. This very offensive person was named Gray, and he took an immediate liking to Fettes; he bought him drinks and praised him with unusual compliments. If a tenth of what he claimed was true – he was a loathsome scoundrel, but the young Scotsman’s pride was tickled by the experienced man’s attention.
“I’m a pretty bad fellow myself, but Macfarlane is, too; I call him Toddy.” Gray remarked, “Toddy, order your friend another glass and shut the door. Toddy hates me. Oh yes, Toddy, you do!”
“Don’t call me that ridiculous name.” Macfarlane growled.
“Listen to him! Did you ever see boys play the knife game? He would like to do that over my entire body.” Gray said.
“We doctors have a better way than that,” Fettes said. “When we dislike a dead friend, we dissect him.”
Macfarlane looked up sharply, unimpressed with the joke.
The afternoon passed, and Gray invited Fettes to join them for dinner. He ordered a feast so delicious that the whole tavern took notice, and afterwards, he forced Wolfe to pay the bill. It was late when they left; Gray was very drunk, Macfarlane was sobered by his anger, and Fettes went home with his worries temporarily replaced by the various liquors singing in his head.
The next day Macfarlane did not come to class, and Fettes smiled – imagining that he was still suffering in Gray’s company. As soon as class ended, Fettes went searching for his companions but returned to his room and went to bed early when he could not find them.
At 4:00AM he woke to the well-known signal indicating a body delivery. At the door, he was shocked to find Macfarlane with one of those long, ghastly packages he knew so well. “What? Have you been out alone? How did you manage?” He cried.
Macfarlane roughly silenced him – insisting they get to work. When they got the body onto the table upstairs, Macfarlane started to leave but hesitated. “You better look at the face,” he said in a strained tone. “You just better…” He repeated as Fettes only stared at him in wonder.
“But where did you get it… and how?” Fettes cried.
“Look at the face,” was his only answer.
Fettes was filled with many strange doubts. He looked from the young doctor to the body, and back again until – at last – he did as he was told. He had almost expected to see this, yet the shock was cruel. To see the lively man he left at a warm tavern the night before now lying naked and rigid on that table bothered even his conscience. A Latin phrasemeaning ‘it’s my turn to die today – yours is tomorrow’, echoed in his mind; two people he knew had ended up on those icy tables, but they were only secondary concerns. Wolfe was his priority; he was completely unprepared for such a thing and could not face his friend. He was absolutely speechless and dared not look into his eyes.
Macfarlane was the one to speak first. He quietly approached from behind and laid his hand gently but firmly on Fettes’ shoulder. “Richardson can have the head.” He said.
Richardson was a student who had been anxious for a head to dissect. When there was no answer, the murderer continued. “Speaking of business, you must pay me; the books must be balanced.”
Fettes found the ghost of his own voice. “Pay you!” He cried. “Pay you for that?!”
“Yes, of course – you must. You dare not take it for nothing; it would put us both at risk. This is another situation like Jane Galbraith’s. The more things that are wrong – the more lies we must tell to hide them. Where does old K keep his money?” Macfarlane replied.
“There.” Fettes answered hoarsely, pointing to a cupboard in the corner.
“Then give me the key.” Macfarlane said calmly, holding out his hand.
There was a moment’s hesitation, and then it was done. Macfarlane could not suppress a nervous twitch of immense relief as he felt the key between his fingers. He opened the cupboard and retrieved the pen, ink, and paper-book to pay himself.
“Look here,” he said, “there is the payment – proof of your good faith, and the first step to your security. Now, you only have to keep it. Enter the payment in your book, and then your part is done.”
The next few seconds were agony for Fettes, but in weighing his fears it was the easiest to endure. Anything seemed preferable to an argument with Macfarlane at that moment. After setting down his candle, he entered the date, description, and transaction amount with a steady hand.
“And now, it’s only fair that you should keep the money. I’ve had my share already. By the way, I’m ashamed to speak of it, but there’s a rule of conduct in this case. When a man has a few extra coins in his pocket – there should be no splurging, no buying expensive text-books, and no paying off old debts; borrow – don’t lend.” Wolfe said.
“Macfarlane,” Fettes began hoarsely, “I have put my neck in a noose to help you.”
“To help me?” Wolfe cried. “Oh, come on! As far as I can see, you did what you had to in self-defense. Suppose I got into trouble – where would you be? This matter of Mr. Gray is clearly related to the case of Miss Galbraith. You can’t start something like that and then stop; you must keep going, and that’s the truth. No rest for the wicked.”
The unhappy student’s soul sank into a horrible pit of despair at fate’s treachery. “My God! What have I done? When did I start? I only wanted to be made a class assistant – where’s the harm in that? There were others who wanted the position; would they be where I am now?” He cried.
“My dear man,” Macfarlane said, “you are such a child! What harm has come to you? What harm can come as long as you stay quiet? Do you know what this life is? There are two kinds of people – the lions and the lambs. If you’re a lamb, you’ll eventually be lying on one of these tables like Gray or Jane Galbraith; if you’re a lion, you’ll live and drive a horse like K and myself – and like every man with any wit or courage. It’s hard at first, but look at K! You’re clever, you have spunk; K and I like you. You were born to lead the hunt, and three days from now you’ll be laughing at all this anxiety.”
With that, Wolfe left to get home before daylight, and Fettes was left alone with his regrets. He understood the miserable danger of his situation, and he was dismayed to find there was no limit to his weakness; each concession had pushed him closer to becoming Macfarlane’s helpless accomplice. He would have given the world to be a little braver, but he did not realize there was still time to be brave; Jane Galbraith’s name in the record-book kept him quiet.
Hours passed; the class began to arrive, and pieces of Gray were handed out to students without remark. Richardson was happy with the head, and before class ended, Fettes trembled with relief to see how close they were to safety.
For two days he watched the evidence disappear with increasing joy. On the third day, Macfarlane appeared. He said he had been sick, but he was filled with energy when he instructed the students. He gave particularly detailed advice to Richardson who was very encouraged by the praise.
Before the week’s end, Macfarlane’s prophecy had been fulfilled – Fettes got over his fears. He arranged a story in his mind that built his courage and allowed him to look back on the events with an unhealthy pride. He saw little of his accomplice; they met in class and received their orders from Mr. K together. Sometimes, they spoke a few words in private, and Wolfe was always very kind and jolly – but it was obvious he avoided any reference of their shared secret. Even when Fettes whispered that he had become a lion and left the lambs, Macfarlane only smiled and signaled for him to hold his tongue.
Eventually, Mr. K ran low on bodies yet again, and the pair were forced to work together. They were getting anxious; this teacher expected to always be well supplied. That is when they heard of a burial in the Glencorse graveyard. The place has not changed much over the years; it is located on a crossroad – far from the residential areas and buried deep in the foliage of cedar trees. The only sounds that disturbed the silence around the rural church were the neighboring sheep, two small streams on either side, wind blowing through huge, flowering chestnuts, and a bell that rang every Sunday.
Grave Robbers could not be deterred by the sanctities of church; it was their job to desecrate the old tombs. They preferred country neighborhoods – where love is more tenacious, and entire parishes are related – for their ease and safety. It takes time to dig up a grave with only a haunting lamp-light to see by. The coffin must be forced open, the outer wrappings torn off, the clothing removed, and then comes the hours of rattling around in a wagon on moonless backroads.
Fettes and Macfarlane were planning to go after the grave in that quiet, green resting-place like two vultures swooping down on a dying lamb. At midnight, a farmer’s sixty-year-old wife – who had only been known for good butter and great conversation – would be carried to the city; her place in the family plot would be empty forever, and the most intimate parts of her body would be exposed to every curious student.
Late one afternoon, the pair set out on their mission; they wrapped themselves up in cloaks and took along a large bottle of liquor. The cold, dense, lashing rain was non-stop, and sometimes, the wind would blow, but the sheets of falling water blocked most of it. Even with the bottle it was a sad and silent drive to Penicuik where they planned to spend the evening. They stopped to hide their tools in a bush near the churchyard, and again at the Fisher’s Tryst to sit by the fire and balance their nips of whisky with a glass of ale. When they were finished, the wagon was put away, the horse was fed, and the two young doctors sat in a private room having the best dinner and wine the house offered. The bright lights, the warm fire, and the rain beating on the window made the meal even more enjoyable. With every drink, the men grew friendlier to one another, and soon, Macfarlane handed a little pile of gold to his partner.
“A thank you; having a friend along will make our time here pass quickly.” He said.
Fettes pocketed the money and applauded the sentiment. “You are a philosopher,” he cried. “I was an ass until I met you. Between you and K – by the Lord Harry – you’ll make a man of me yet!”
“Of course we will,” Macfarlane happily agreed. “I tell you, it took a man to back me up the other morning. There are some big, brawling, forty-year-old cowards who would have turned sick, but you kept your head – I watched you.”
“Well, why not? It didn’t concern me. There was nothing to gain on the one side but, on the other I could count on your gratitude, you see?” Fettes boasted, slapping his pocket so the gold pieces rang.
Macfarlane felt a touch of alarm at these unpleasant words. He may have regretted teaching his young friend so well, but he had no time to interrupt as Fettes continued his rant.
“The great thing is not being afraid. Between you and me – I don’t want to hang – that’s only practical. Hell, God, Devil, right, wrong, sin, crime – these are all curiosities that may frighten boys, but men – like you and me – despise them. Here’s to the memory of Gray!”
By now, it was growing late. As requested, the wagon was brought around with both lamps shining brightly, and the young men paid their bill before setting off. They announced they were heading for Peebles and drove in that direction until they were past the last houses; then, they extinguished the lamps before turning down a backroad toward Glencorse. The only sound was that of their own passage and the relentless, pouring rain. It was pitch-black; occasionally, a white gate or stone would guide them for a short distance, but mostly they advanced one, slow step at a time as they stumbled to their isolated destination. In the sunken woods that traverse the graveyard – the last glimmer of light failed them, and it became necessary to re-light one of the wagon’s lanterns. Under the dripping trees and surrounded by huge, moving shadows – they arrived at the scene of their unholy labors.
They were both experienced at their job and proficient with the shovel; they were hardly at it for twenty minutes when they were rewarded by a dull rattle on the coffin lid. At the same moment, Macfarlane hurt his hand on a stone, and carelessly threw it over his head. The grave they stood in was close to the edge of a steep bank above a stream, and the lamp had been propped against a nearby tree to help brighten the area. Purely by chance, the stone’s aim proved true; there was a crash of broken glass, and everything went dark as the lantern bounced loudly down the bank – occasionally colliding with trees. A few stones were hit along the way and rattled behind it until they were all stopped by the stream. Then, all was silent once again. They listened for any hint of sound, but there was only rain to be heard; it was now fully at the wind’s mercy and falling steadily over miles of open country.
They were so close to the end of their miserable task, they decided it was best to finish in the dark. The coffin was broken open, and the body was placed in the sack and carried to the wagon; one man also got in with it to hold it in place, and the other led the horse by groping along walls and bushes until they reached the wider road by Fisher’s Tryst. They rejoiced over the faint glow there like it was daylight, and after getting the horse to a good pace – they merrily continued towards town.
They were both soaked to the skin, and as the wagon jumped among the deep ruts, the body that sat propped between them fell onto the men. Each time the horrid thing made contact with one – he instinctively pushed it away, and the process began to anger both parties. Macfarlane made a rude joke about the farmer’s wife, but it came out hollow and was dropped in silence. Still their unnatural passenger bumped from side-to-side, and the head would lay on their shoulders while the drenched sack flapped coldly on their faces. A creeping chill began to possess Fettes’ soul. He stared at the bundle, and it somehow seemed larger. All over the country-side, the farm dogs greeted them with tragic howls, and his mind was filled with a paranoia that some kind of unnatural miracle had occurred – that the dead body had undergone some kind of change.
“For God’s sake,” he said, making a great effort to speak. “For God’s sake, we need a light!”
Macfarlane seemed equally affected; though he did not reply, he stopped the horse, got down, and proceeded to light the remaining lamp. They had gone no farther than the crossroad to Auchenclinny. The rain still poured, and it was difficult to make a light in dark, wet conditions. When the flickering blue flame was finally transferred to the wick, a wide circle of misty brightness surrounded the wagon, and the two young men could see the thing they brought along with them. The rain conformed the rough sack to the body’s outline underneath; the head and shoulders were distinct, yet something almost spectral caught their eyes.
For some time, Macfarlane stood motionless, holding up the lamp. The body looked like it was wrapped in a wet sheet, and Fettes’ face went white with an impossible fear flooding his brain. Another minute passed, but his partner spoke first.
“That is not a woman.” Macfarlane said in a hushed voice.
“It was a woman when we put her in.” Fettes whispered.
“Hold that lamp, I must see her face.” Macfarlane said.
As Fettes took the lamp, Wolfe untied the sack and pulled it down. The light fell onto the dark features and smooth-shaven cheeks of a very familiar face – one often seen in both of these young men’s dreams. A wild yell rang into the night as each leapt into the road. The lamp fell to the ground with a crash, and the horse bounded off toward Edinburgh at a gallop – terrified by the commotion. The wagon’s sole occupant was the long dead and dissected Mr. Gray.
Ambrose Bierce, first published in 1891; translated to modern English, otherwise left exactly the same.
Hi there readers! This one is really dark. A young boy is lost in the forest during the aftermath of a Civil War battle. I simply want to give fair warning to any who may wish to avoid gore and child endangerment. If either of these topics bother you, please Google a quick description this story before proceeding. Otherwise, thanks for being here, and I hope you know how amazing you are!
One sunny, autumn afternoon, a child strayed away from its home and entered the forest unnoticed. The boy came from a long line of adventurers and conquerors; he was happy for the chance to explore. From their earliest generations, his ancestors made their way over two continents, across the great sea, and into a third; war was their heritage.
The child was six-years-old and the son of a poor farmer. His father had been a soldier when he was a younger man; he fought against naked savages and followed his country’s flag south into civilized cities. He loved military books and still possessed a warrior’s spirit. The boy understood enough to make himself a wooden sword that he carried proudly – even if it was hardly identifiable to others. He often practiced with it in a sunny clearing while defeating invisible enemies, and this day, he found himself on the edge of a wide, shallow stream. The rapid waters blocked his advance against a foe that somehow flew across with ease, but the inspiring warrior would not be defeated. Instead, he found a place where the boulders were grouped close enough to jump across; then, he was finally able to defeat the enemy. With the battle won, protocol demanded returning to base, but like many great conquerors, he could not deny his lust for war.
Continuing from the creek, he suddenly found himself facing an even stronger enemy. A rabbit appeared on the path; it sat upright with its ears at attention, causing the child to scream and flee in an unknown direction. He yelled for his mother – crying and stumbling as his tender skin was torn by the cruel foliage. His little heart raced in terror; he was breathless, blind with tears, and lost in the forest! For more than an hour, he wandered through the tangled undergrowth until he was too tired to continue. A few yards from the stream, he laid down in a narrow space between two rocks and sobbed himself to sleep while still grasping his toy sword; it was no longer a weapon, but a companion. The birds sang merrily above his head, the squirrels ran from tree to tree, and somewhere far away was the sound of strange, muffled thunder. Back at the little plantation, men were hastily searching the fields, and a mother’s heart was breaking for her missing child.
Hours later, the boy woke at dusk and rose to his feet. He felt the evening chill in his bones, and he was frightened but no longer cried. After struggling through the undergrowth, he came to a more open area; on his right was the creek, and on his left was a gentle slope decorated with sporadic trees. A thin, ghostly mist spread along the water, and it scared him away. Instead of crossing back over the stream, he ran toward the dark, gloomy forest.
Suddenly, he saw a strange object moving ahead of him and mistook it for a large animal; he was not sure what kind, but thought it might be a bear. He had only seen pictures of them, and – being unaware of how dangerous they are – he vaguely wished to meet one. Then, something in the object’s shape or the way it moved told him it was not a bear after all, and his curiosity turned into fear. The boy remained still as it slowly came closer, and he grew braver when he saw the thing did not have long, menacing, rabbit ears. It is possible his mind was half-conscious of something familiar in the way it struggled along awkwardly, but before it was close enough to positively identify – he saw that others were following it.
There were many more approaching from both sides; the whole area was covered with them – all heading toward the stream. They were men, and they were crawling; some only used their hands as they dragged their legs along, and some only used their knees as their arms hung limply at their sides. Some tried to stand but fell back down; they did nothing the normal way, and the only thing they did have in common was the direction they traveled.
Some were alone while others were in pairs or small groups; they came through the gloom – occasionally pausing while others crept past. They came by the hundreds from as far as he could see, and the infinite forest was black behind them; the very ground seemed to be moving toward the creek. Occasionally, some men that paused would die, and some made strange hand gestures, grabbed their heads, or raised their palms to the sky like men do in church.
The child did not notice all of this, but it is what an adult would have observed; the boy only saw men crawling like babies. He was not frightened of them, but they were dressed in strange clothes. He walked among them freely, going from one to another and looking into their faces with childish curiosity. Each one was remarkably white, and many were streaked with red. Their color – and perhaps their disturbing behavior – reminded him of a clown he saw at the circus last summer, and he laughed as he watched them. These maimed and bleeding men crept along as ignorant of him as he was to their ghastly situation. To the boy, it was a merry spectacle. He had seen his father’s slaves do similar things while pretending to be horses for his amusement. Next, he approached one of the crawling men from behind, and jumped on his back.
The man fell flat to the ground, struggled to rise, and violently threw the small child to the ground. Then, he turned to show the boy his missing lower jaw; there was a great, red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splintered bone between his upper teeth and throat. His unnaturally shaped nose, absent chin, and fierce eyes made this man resemble a vulture covered in the blood of its food. He rose to his knees and shook his fist at the boy; terrified at last, the child ran to a nearby tree, climbed up, and looked at the situation more seriously. As he watched, the mass continued forward like a swarm of black beetles – dragging themselves slowly and painfully down the slope in absolute silence.
The haunted landscape began to brighten. Beyond the stream, a strange red light was shining, but the trees blocked out the view of its source. The eerie glow gave the creeping men monstrous shadows that imitated their movements on the grass, made the metal in their clothing sparkle, and tinted their faces with a red hue that highlighted their horrible injuries. The child instinctively turned toward the growing spectacle and moved down the slope with his mangled companions. He easily passed them in just a few moments, and – wooden sword still in hand – positioned himself in the lead where he solemnly directed the march; slowing to match their pace, he occasionally turned to ensure his soldiers did not fall behind. Surely, such a leader has never before had such followers.
As they marched closer to the water, they began to see various items scattered on the ground, but the boy did not think they were important. There were tightly rolled blankets bound with string, heavy knapsacks, broken rifles, and other things retreating troops often leave behind. The lowlands near the creek were trampled into mud by men and horses, and an older, more observant person would have noticed these footprints pointed in both directions; the ground had been passed over twice.
A few hours before – thousands of these desperate, wounded men and their more fortunate comrades had charged into the forest. They divided into battalions and swarmed past the sleeping child on every side; some had almost ran him over, but their loud noises did not wake him. They fought a battle very close to where he lay, yet he never heard the roar of their muskets or the captain shouting commands. He slept through it all, holding his little, wooden sword tight, but he was completely ignorant of the great struggle happening around him as countless sacrificed themselves for victory.
The fire beyond the tree-line on the other side of the creek was spreading, and the ground beneath its canopy of smoke glowed eerily. It turned the thin line of mist over the stream into golden vapors while the boulders gleamed with streaks of blood; those with less serious injuries had stained them when previously crossing, and the child crossed them eagerly as he continued toward the fire.
Standing on the opposite bank, he turned around to look at his marching companions. The stronger ones were already swimming across – pushing themselves to the limit with their faces plunged into the water. Three or four lay motionless and appeared to be headless; the boy’s eyes widened in wonder – even his naive ignorance could not accept such a situation. In reality, they had drowned; after drinking their fill – the men did not have enough strength to lift their heads out of the stream. Behind those, the open areas of the forest showed the child as many figures in his grim army as he started with, but not nearly as many were moving. He waved his cap for encouragement, and smiling, he pointed his weapon at a pillar of fire’s guiding light.
Confident of his forces, the boy entered the tree-line, easily passed through the red light, climbed a fence, and ran across a field – occasionally turning back to check his soldiers’ progress as he approached the burning ruins of a house. Everything was destroyed! Not one living thing could be seen, but he did not care about that. He enjoyed the spectacle and happily danced along with the wavering flames. He ran around collecting fuel, but every object was too heavy for him to throw, and the heat prevented him from getting closer. Frustrated, he flung his sword into the fire as an act of surrender to nature’s superior forces; his military career was finished.
When he turned away, he saw some buildings that looked oddly familiar – as if he had seen them in a dream. He was staring at them in wonder when the entire plantation and surrounding forest seemed to pivot. His little world spun, and he recognized the burning building as his own home!
For a moment, he stood frozen in shock at the realization, then he ran stumbling halfway around the ruin. There, easily seen by the light of the fire, was a dead woman; her white face was turned upward, her hands were clutching fistfuls of grass, her clothes were torn, and her long, dark hair was tangled with clotted blood. Most of her forehead was torn away, and her gray brain was protruding from a jagged hole in her temple that overflowed with frothy, crimson bubbles; it was the work of a shell.
The child moved his little hands in wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of gibberish and indescribable cries that sounded like a cross between a chattering ape and a gobbling turkey; it was a startling, unholy sound. The boy, who was a deaf mute, stood motionless – his lips quivering as he looked down at the wreckage.
H.P. Lovecraft, first published in the November 1919 edition of The Vagrant; translated into modern English, otherwise exactly the same.
This story has been added to our Classics in the Rain collection! Listen to Danie Dreadful’s magnificent narration here for the full experience!
Considering I will die tonight – I am writing this under significant distress. I am broke and at the end of my drug supply; it is the only thing that makes life bearable. I cannot stand this torture any longer; I will jump out of this attic window and into the dirty street below. Do not think I am weak or a degenerate just because of my addiction to morphine. When you have read these hastily scrawled words, you might begin to see why my only options are to forget or to die, but you will never be able to fully understand.
Our cargo ship was attacked by a German sea-raider on one of the most secluded parts of the Pacific. It was at the beginning of the Great War, and the Hun’s naval forces were still at full strength. Our ship was a noteworthy prize, and the crew were treated with fairness and consideration as war prisoners. Our captors soon grew too comfortable, and five days later, I managed to escape in a small boat with enough food and water to last a good a while.
When I was finally free, I had no idea where I was; I have never been a good navigator. Based on the sun and stars, I guessed that I was somewhat south of the equator, but I did not know the longitude, and there was no island or coast in sight. The weather was fair, and I drifted aimlessly under the scorching sun for countless days while waiting to see land or a ship, but neither appeared. I became depressed as I floated alone across the endless, blue sea.
The change happened while I slept, but I will never know how; though my sleep was filled with troubled dreams, it was uninterrupted. When I finally woke, it was to find myself half-sucked into a slimy swampland of hellish, black sludge that extended as far as I could see, and my boat was grounded in the distance.
Though one might expect my first reaction to be shock at the extremely surprising change of scenery, I was actually more terrified than anything; there was a sinister quality in the air and putrid soil that chilled me to the very core. The ground was littered with rotting fish and indescribable things that stuck out from the nasty mud. Mere words cannot express the unspeakable horrors found in the absolute silence of vast, empty spaces. There was nothing to see or hear except for an endless sea of black slime, yet the landscape’s monotony and total stillness filled me with a nauseating fear.
The sun was blazing, and the cruel, cloudless sky was almost black – as if it were reflecting the inky ground. As I crawled into my stranded boat, I realized there was only one theory that could explain my situation. Through some kind of volcanic eruption, a portion of the ocean floor must have been thrown to the surface – exposing areas that had remained hidden for millions of years. The new land was so large that I could not hear the surging ocean no matter how hard I listened. There were no birds eating the dead things, either.
I sat in the boat thinking and sulking for several hours; now that it was laid on its side, the boat offered some shade from the sun. As the day progressed, the ground became less sticky and seemed like it would dry enough to travel for a short time. I slept little that night, and the next day, I packed my food and water in preparation for a journey; I planned to set out on foot in search of the missing sea and possible rescue.
On the third morning, the soil was dry enough to walk easily. The stench of the fish was maddening, but I had much bigger concerns and boldly continued my adventure. All day, I marched west using the highest mound on the rolling landscape as my guide. That night, I made camp, and the following day, I continued walking toward the mound; it hardly seemed any closer than on day one. By the fourth evening, I made it to the bottom and realized the mound was much taller than it appeared from a distance. Too exhausted to climb up – I slept in the hill’s shadow.
I do not know why my dreams were so wild that night, but I woke in a cold sweat when the half-full moon was high above the eastern plain. I decided to stay awake; the things I saw were too horrible to relive, and in the moon’s glow, I realized how unwise it had been to travel by day. Without the parching sun’s glare, my journey would have cost less energy; now, I felt quite able to make the climb that discouraged me at sunset. Retrieving my pack, I started up the mound.
I have said the unbroken monotony of the rolling plain was horrifying, but I was even more frightened when I reached the summit. Down the other side, I saw an immeasurable pit, but the moon was not yet high enough to light up its black crevices. It felt like I was on the edge of the world – looking over the rim and into an infinite chaos of eternal night. Mixed in with my terror were odd memories of Paradise Lost and Satan’s hideous climb through the realms of darkness.
As the moon rose higher, I began to see the valley’s slopes were not quite as perpendicular as I imagined. Ledges and rock protrusions provided fairly easy foot-holds for climbing down, and after a few hundred feet, the drop lessened gradually. Urged on by an impulse I cannot explain, I scrambled down the rocks and stood on the gentler slope beneath – gazing into the black depths where the light had yet to reach.
Suddenly, I noticed a huge object on the steep slope opposite of my position, and it gleamed white in the moon’s rays. I assured myself it was only a gigantic piece of stone, but I was aware that its shape and location were not Nature’s doing. A closer inspection filled me with sensations I cannot express. Despite its enormous size and the fact it sat at the bottom of the sea since the world was young – I knew without a doubt it was a statue; living and thinking creatures had worked on – and perhaps even worshiped – the massive object.
Though dazed and frightened, I still felt a certain thrill of scientific delight as I examined my surroundings more closely. The moon – now near its highest point – shined weirdly and vividly above the towering peaks surrounding the valley; it revealed a body of water flowing at the bottom – winding out of sight in both directions and almost lapping my feet on the slope. Across the chasm, the waves washed the base of the ancient statue, and I could see traces of inscriptions and crude sculptures. The hieroglyphics were unknown to me, and unlike anything I had ever seen in books; they mostly consisted of conventional aquatic symbols such as fish, eels, octopi, crustaceans, mollusks, and whales. Several characters obviously represented marine-life unknown to the modern world, but I witnessed many of their decomposing bodies along my journey.
Thanks to their enormous size, a group of statues were plainly visible on the other side of the valley. I think these things were meant to resemble men; the creatures appeared to be worshiping some kind of monolithic shrine that was also beneath the waves. I dare not speak of their features in detail; the mere thought of it makes me feel faint. They were more grotesque than even Poe could imagine; their general shapes were unquestionably human despite having webbed hands and feet, wide, flabby lips, bulging eyes, and other unpleasant features. They were also carved out of proportion with their background; one of the creatures was in the process of killing a whale that was only a little larger than himself.
After a moment’s thought, I decided they must be the imaginary gods of some primitive tribe – one whose last descendant died ages before the first Neanderthal was born. This unexpected glimpse into the past was far beyond what any anthropologist could dare to imagine. I stood there contemplating this while the moon cast strange reflections on the silent waters before me.
Then, I suddenly saw something giant and repulsive emerge from the dark waters. Only a slight ripple indicated its rise to the surface. The nightmarish monster darted to the monolith and flung its enormous, scaly arms around it while bowing its hideous head and crying; I think I went mad.
I do not remember much of my frantic climb up the slope or delirious journey back to the boat. I believe I sang a lot and laughed when I was unable to sing. I have partial memories of a big storm happening at some point after reaching the boat; I know I heard thunder and the other sounds seemed to also be from bad weather.
The next time I woke, I was in a San Francisco hospital; I had been brought there by the captain of an American ship that found my boat in the middle of the ocean. I said many things in my delirious state, but no one paid any attention to my words. The people who rescued me knew nothing about the landmass in the Pacific, and I decided not to bother them with it. Eventually, I asked a respected professor who specialized in ancient societies a few questions about the Philistine legend of Dagon, the Fish-God – but I gave up soon after his conservative beliefs became obvious.
At night, especially when the moon is half-full, I still see that thing. I tried morphine, but it only provides temporary relief, and it has turned me into a hopeless slave. Now that I have written a full account to inform or amuse my fellow man, I will end it all. I often ask myself if it could have been pure fantasy – a heat-stroke induced hallucination as I laid raving in the boat after my escape – but I always see the same hideously vivid vision in reply. I cannot think of the deep sea without shivering at the nameless things that may be crawling on its slimy bottom – worshiping their ancient stone idols and carving their own disgusting images on giant slabs of submerged granite. I dream of a day when they might rise above the waters to drag the puny remnants of mankind down in their horrible talons— of a day when the land will sink, and the dark ocean floor will rise among universal chaos.
The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as if some giant, slippery body is moving against it. It will not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!