I have often heard it scream. No, I am not nervous, I am not imaginative, and I never believed in ghosts, unless that thing
is one. Whatever it is, it hates me almost as much as it hated Luke Pratt, and it screams at me.
If I were you, I would never tell ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people, for you never can tell but that
some one at the table may be tired of his or her nearest and dearest. I have always blamed myself for Mrs. Pratt's death,
and I suppose I was responsible for it in a way, though heaven knows I never wished her anything but long life and happiness.
If I had not told that story she might be alive yet. That is why the thing screams at me, I fancy.
She was a good little woman, with a sweet temper, all things considered, and a nice gentle voice; but I remember hearing
her shriek once when she thought her little boy was killed by a pistol that went off though everyone was sure that it was
not loaded. It was the same scream; exactly the same, with a sort of rising quaver at the end; do you know what I mean? Unmistakable.
The truth is, I had not realized that the doctor and his wife were not on good terms. They used to bicker a bit now and
then when I was here, and I often noticed that little Mrs. Pratt got very red and bit her lip hard to keep her temper, while
Luke grew pale and said the most offensive things. He was that sort when he was in the nursery, I remember, and afterwards
at school. He was my cousin, you know; that is how I came by this house; after he died, and his boy Charley was killed in
South Africa, there were no relations left. Yes, it's a pretty little property, just the sort of thing for an old sailor like
me who has taken to gardening.
One always remembers one's mistakes much more vividly than one's cleverest things, doesn't one? I've often noticed it.
I was dining with the Pratts one night, when I told them the story that afterwards made so much difference. It was a wet night
in November, and the sea was moaning. Hush!..if you don't speak you will hear it now..
Do you hear the tide? Gloomy sound, isn't it? Sometimes, about this time of year..hallo!....there it is! Don't be frightened
man.....it won't eat you......it's only a noise after all! But I'm glad you've heard it, because there are always people who
think it's the wind, or my imagination, or something. You won't hear it again tonight, I fancy, for it doesn't often come
more than once. Yes..that's right. Put another stick on the fire, and a little more stuff into that weak mixture you're so
fond of. Do you remember old Blauklot the carpenter, on that German ship that picked us up when the Clontarf went to the bottom?
We were hove to in a howling gale one night, as snug as you please, with no land within five hundred miles, and the ship coming
up and falling off as regularly as clockwork. "Biddy te boor beebles ashore tis night, poys!" old Blauklot sang out, as he
went off to his quarters with the sail-maker. I often think of that, now that I'm ashore for good and all.
Yes, it was
on a night like this, when I was at home for a spell, waiting to take the Olympia out on her first trip--it was on the next
voyage that she broke the record, you remember, but that dates it. Ninety-two was the year, early in November.
The weather was dirty, Pratt was out of temper, and the dinner was bad, very bad indeed, which didn't improve matters,
and cold, which made it worse. The poor little lady was very unhappy about it, and insisted on making a Welsh rarebit on the
table to counteract the raw turnips and the half-boiled mutton. Pratt must have had a hard day. Perhaps he had lost a patient.
At all events, he was in a nasty temper.
"My wife is trying to poison me, you see!" he said. "She'll succeed some day." I saw that she was hurt, and I made believe
to laugh, and said that Mrs. Pratt was much too clever to get rid of her husband in such a simple way; and then I began to
tell them about Japanese tricks with spun glass and chopped horsehair and the like.
Pratt was a doctor, and knew a lot more than I did about such things, but that only put me on my mettle, and I told a story
about a woman in Ireland who did for three husbands before anyone suspected foul play.
Did you never hear that tale? The fourth husband managed to keep awake and caught her, and she was hanged. How did she
do it? She drugged them, and poured melted lead into their ears through a little horn funnel when they were asleep... No that's
the wind whistling. It's backing up to the southward again. I can tell by the sound. Besides, the other thing doesn't often
come more than once in an evening even at this time of year when it happened. Yes, it was in November. Poor Mrs. Pratt died
suddenly in her bed not long after I dined here. I can fix the date, because I got the news in New York by the steamer that
followed the Olympia when I took her out on her first trip. You had the Leofric the same year? Yes, I remember. What a pair
of old buffers we are coming to be, you and I. Nearly fifty years since we were apprentices together on the Clontarf. Shall
you ever forget old Blauklot? "Biddy te boor beebles ashore, poys!" Ha, ha! Take a little more, with all that water. It's
the old Hulstkamp I found in the cellar when this house came to me, the same I brought Luke from Amsterdam five-and-twenty
years ago. He had never touched a drop of it. Perhaps he's sorry now, poor fellow.
Where did I leave off? I told you that Mrs. Pratt died suddenly..yes. Luke must have been lonely here after she was dead,
I should think; I came to see him now and then, and he looked worn and nervous, and told me that his practice was growing
too heavy for him, though he wouldn't take an assistant on any account. Years went on, and his son was killed in South Africa,
and after that he began to be queer. There was something about him not like other people. I believe he kept his senses in
his profession to the end; there was no complaint of his having made mad mistakes in cases, or anything of that sort, but
he had a look about him.
Luke was a red-headed man with a pale face when he was young, and he was never stout; in middle age he turned a sandy grey,
and after his son died he grew thinner and thinner, till his head looked like a skull with parchment stretched over it very
tight, and his eyes had a sort of glare in them that was very disagreeable to look at.
He had an old dog that poor Mrs. Pratt had been fond of, and that used to follow her everywhere. He was a bulldog, and
the sweetest tempered beast you ever saw, though he had a way of hitching his upper lip behind one of his fangs that frightened
strangers a good deal. Sometimes, of an evening, Pratt and Bumble, that was the dog's name, used to sit and look at each other
a long time, thinking about old times, I suppose, when Luke's wife used to sit in that chair you've got. That was always her
place, and this was the doctor's, where I'm sitting. Bumble used to climb up by the footstool, he was old and fat by that
time, and could not jump much, and his teeth were getting shaky. He would look steadily at Luke, and Luke looked steadily
at the dog, his face growing more and more like a skull with two little coals for eyes; and after about five minutes or so,
though it may have been less, old Bumble would suddenly begin to shake all over, and all on a sudden he would set up an awful
howl, as if he had been shot, and tumble out of the easy-chair and trot away, and hide himself under the sideboard, and lie
there making odd noises.
Considering Pratt's looks in those last months, the thing is not surprising, you know. I'm not nervous or imaginative,
but I can quite believe he might have sent a sensitive woman into hysterics, his head looked so much like a skull in parchment.
At last I came down one day before Christmas, when my ship was in dock and I had three weeks off. Bumble was not about,
and I said casually that I supposed the old dog was dead.
"Yes," Pratt answered, and I thought there was something odd in his tone even before he went on after a little pause. "I
killed him," he said presently. "I could stand it no longer." I asked what it was that Luke could not stand, though I guessed
well enough. "He had a way of sitting in her chair and glaring at me, and then howling," Luke shivered a little. "He didn't
suffer at all, poor old Bumble," he went on in a hurry, as if he thought I might imagine he had been cruel. "I put dionine
into his drink to make him sleep soundly, and then I chloroformed him gradually, so that he could not have felt suffocated
even if he was dreaming. It's been quieter since then."
I wondered what he meant, for the words slipped out as if he could not help saying them. I've understood since. He meant
that he did not hear that noise so often after the dog was out of the way. Perhaps he thought at first that it was old Bumble
in the yard howling at the moon, though it's not that kind of noise, is it? Besides, I know what it is, if Luke didn't. It's
only a noise after all, and a noise never hurt anybody yet. But he was much more imaginative than I am. No doubt there really
is something about this place that I don't understand; but when I don't understand a thing, I call it a phenomenon, and I
don't take it for granted that it's going to kill me, as he did. I don't understand everything, by long odds, nor do you,
nor does any man who has been to sea. We used to talk of tidal waves, for instance, and we could not account for them; now
we account for them by calling them submarine earthquakes, and we branch off into fifty theories, any one of which might make
earthquakes quite comprehensible if we only knew what they were.
I fell in with one of them once, and the inkstand flew
straight up from the table against the ceiling of my cabin. The same thing happened to Captain Lecky, I dare say you've read
about it in his "Wrinkles". Very good. If that sort of thing took place ashore, in this room for instance, a nervous person
would talk about spirits and levitation and fifty things that mean nothing, instead of just quietly setting it down as a "phenomenon"
that has not been explained yet. My view of that voice, you see.
Besides, what is there to prove that Luke killed his wife? I would not even suggest such a thing to anyone but you. After
all, there was nothing but the coincidence that poor little Mrs. Pratt died suddenly in her bed a few days after I told that
story at dinner. She was not the only woman who ever died like that. Luke got the doctor over from the next parish, and they
agreed that she had died of something the matter with her heart Why not? It's common enough.
Of course, there was the ladle. I never told anybody about that, and, it made me start when I found it in the cupboard
in the bedroom. It was new, too..a little tinned iron ladle that had not been in the fire more than once or twice, and there
was some lead in it that had been melted, and stuck to the bottom of the bowl, all grey, with hardened dross on it. But that
proves nothing. A country doctor is generally a handy man, who does everything for himself, and Luke may have had a dozen
reasons for melting a little lead in a ladle. He was fond of sea-fishing, for instance, and he may have cast a sinker for
a night-line; perhaps it was a weight for the hall clock, or something like that. All the same, when I found it I had a rather
queer sensation, because it looked so much like the thing I had described when I told them the story. Do you understand? It
affected me unpleasantly, and I threw it away; it's at the bottom of the sea a mile from the Spit, and it will be jolly well
rusted beyond recognizing if it's ever washed up by the tide.
You see, Luke must have bought it in the village, years ago, for the man sells just such ladles still. I suppose they are
used in cooking. In any case, there was no reason why an inquisitive housemaid should find such a thing lying about, with
lead in it, and wonder what it was, and perhaps talk to the maid who heard me tell the story at dinner...for that girl married
the plumber's son in the village, and may remember the whole thing.
You understand me, don't you? Now that Luke Pratt is dead and gone, and lies buried beside his wife, with an honest man's
tombstone at his head, I should not care to stir up anything that could hurt his memory. They are both dead, and their son,
too. There was trouble enough about Luke's death, as it was.
How? He was found dead on the beach one morning, and there was a coroner's inquest. There were marks on his throat, but
he had not been robbed. The verdict was that he had come to his end "By the hands or teeth of some person or animal unknown,"
for half the jury thought it might have been a big dog that had thrown him down and gripped his windpipe, though the skin
of his throat was not broken. No one knew at what time he had gone out, nor where he had been. He was found lying on his back
above high-water mark, and an old cardboard bandbox that had belonged to his wife lay under his hand, open. The lid had fallen
off. He seemed to have been carrying home a skull in the box, doctors are fond of collecting such things. It had rolled out
and lay near his head, and it was a remarkably fine skull, rather small, beautifully shaped and very white, with perfect teeth.
That is to say, the upper jaw was perfect, but there was no lower one at all, when I first saw it.
Yes, I found it here when I came. You see, it was very white and polished, like a thing meant to be kept under a glass
case, and the people did not know where it came from, nor what to do with it; so they put it back into the bandbox and set
it on the shelf of the cupboard in the best bedroom, and of course they showed it to me when I took possession. I was taken
down to the beach, too, to be shown the place where Luke was found, and the old fisherman explained just how he was lying,
and the skull beside him. The only point he could not explain was why the skull had rolled up the sloping sand towards Luke's
head instead of rolling downhill to his feet. It did not seem odd to me at the time, but I have often thought of it since,
for the place is rather steep. I'll take you there tomorrow if you like, I made a sort of cairn of stones there afterwards.
When he fell down, or was thrown down, whichever happened, the bandbox struck the sand, and the lid came off, and the thing
came out and ought to have rolled down. But it didn't. It was close to his head almost touching it, and turned with the face
towards it. I say it didn't strike me as odd when the man told me; but I could not help thinking about It afterwards, again
and again, till I saw a picture of it all when I closed my eyes; and then I began to ask myself why the plaguey thing had
rolled up instead of down, and why it had stopped near Luke's head instead of anywhere else, a yard away, for instance.
You naturally want to know what conclusion I reached, don't you? None that at all explained the rolling, at all events.
But I got something else into my head, after a time, that made me feel downright uncomfortable.
Oh, I don't mean as to anything supernatural! There may be ghosts, or there may not be. If there are, I'm not inclined
to believe that they can hurt living people except by frightening them, and, for my part, I would rather face any shape of
ghost than a fog in the Channel when it's crowded. No. What bothered me was just a foolish idea, that's all, and I cannot
tell how it began, nor what made it grow till it turned into a certainty.
I was thinking about Luke and his poor wife one evening over my pipe and a dull book, when it occurred to me that the skull
might possibly be hers, and I have never got rid of the thought since. You'll tell me there's no sense in it, no doubt, that
Mrs. Pratt was buried like a Christian and is lying in the churchyard where they put her, and that it's perfectly monstrous
to suppose her husband kept her skull in her old bandbox in his bedroom. All the same, in the face of reason, and common sense,
and probability, I'm convinced that he did. Doctors do all sorts of queer things that would make men like you and me feel
creepy, and those are Just the things that don't seem probable, nor logical, nor sensible to us. Then, don't you see? if it
really was her skull, poor woman, the only way of accounting for his having it is that he really killed her, and did it in
that way, as the woman killed her husbands in the story, and that he was afraid there might be an examination some day which
would betray him. You see, I told that too, and I believe it had really happened some fifty or sixty years ago.
They dug up the three skulls, you know, and there was a small lump of lead rattling about in each one. That was what hanged
the woman. Luke remembered that, I'm sure. I don't want to know what he did when he thought of it; my taste never ran in the
direction of horrors, and I don't fancy you care for them either, do you? No. If you did, you might supply what is wanting
to the story.
It must have been rather grim, eh? I wish I did not see the whole thing so distinctly, just as everything must have happened.
He took it the night before she was buried, I'm sure, after the coffin had been shut, and when the servant girl was asleep.
I would bet anything, that when he'd got it, he put something under the sheet in its place, to fill up and look like it. What
do you suppose he put there, under the sheet?
I don't wonder you take me up on what I'm saying! First I tell you that I don't want to know what happened, and that I
hate to think about horrors, and then I describe the whole thing to you as if I had seen it. I'm quite sure that it was her
work-bag that he put there. I remember the bag very well, for she always used it of an evening; it was made of brown plush,
and when it was stuffed full it was about the size of, you understand. Yes, there I am, at it again! You may laugh at me,
but you don't live here alone, where it was done, and you didn't tell Luke the story about the melted lead. I'm not nervous,
I tell you, but sometimes I begin to feel that I understand why some people are. I dwell on all this when I'm alone, and I
dream of it, and when that thing screams--well, frankly, I don't like the noise any more than you do, though I should be used
to it by this time.
I ought not to be nervous. I've sailed in a haunted ship. There was a Man in the Top, and two-thirds of the crew died of
the West Coast fever inside of ten days after we anchored; but I was all right, then and afterwards. I have seen some ugly
sights, too, just as you have, and all the rest of us. But nothing ever stuck in my head in the way this does.
You see, I've tried to get rid of the thing, but it doesn't like that. It wants to be there in its place, in Mrs. Pratt's
bandbox in the cupboard in the best bedroom. It's not happy anywhere else. How do I know that? Because I've tried it. You
don't suppose that I've not tried, do you? As long as it's there it only screams now and then, generally at this time of year,
but if I put it out of the house it goes on all night, and no servant will stay here twenty-four hours. As it is, I've often
been left alone and have been obliged to shift for myself for a fortnight at a time. No one from the village would ever pass
a night under the roof now, and as for selling the place, or even letting it, that's out of the question. The old women say
that if I stay here I shall come to a bad end myself before long.
I'm not afraid of that. You smile at the mere idea that anyone could take such nonsense seriously. Quite right. It's utterly
blatant nonsense, I agree with you. Didn't I tell you that it's only a noise after all when you started and looked round as
if you expected to see a ghost standing behind your chair?
I may be all wrong about the skull, and I like to think that I am when I can. It may be just a fine specimen which Luke
got somewhere long ago, and what rattles about inside when you shake it may be nothing but a pebble, or a bit of hard clay,
or anything. Skulls that have lain long in the ground generally have something inside them that rattles don't they? No, I've
never tried to get it out, whatever it is; I'm afraid it might be lead, don't you see? And if it is, I don't want to know
the fact, for I'd much rather not be sure. If it really is lead, I killed her quite as much as if I had done the deed myself.
Anybody must see that, I should think. As long as I don't know for certain, I have the consolation of saying that it's all
utterly ridiculous nonsense, that Mrs. Pratt died a natural death and that the beautiful skull belonged to Luke when he was
a student in London. But if I were quite sure, I believe I should have to leave the house; indeed I do, most certainly. As
it is, I had to give up trying to sleep in the best bedroom where the cupboard is.
You ask me why I don't throw it into the pond..yes, but please don't call it a "confounded bugbear"--it doesn't like being
There! Lord, what a shriek! I told you so! You're quite pale, man. Fill up your pipe and draw your chair nearer to the
fire, and take some more drink. Old Hollands never hurt anybody yet. I've seen a Dutchman in Java drink half a jug of Hulstkamp
in a morning without turning a hair. I don't take much rum myself, because it doesn't agree with my rheumatism, but you are
not rheumatic and it won't damage you Besides, it's a very damp night outside. The wind is howling again, and it will soon
be in the south-west; do you hear how the windows rattle? The tide must have turned too, by the moaning.