The Screaming Skull :4
You think you would like to see the skull? I’ve no objection. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a look at it, and you never saw a more perfect one in your life, except that there are two front teeth missing in the lower jaw.
Oh yes–I had not told you about the jaw yet. Trehearn found it in the garden last spring when he was digging a pit for a new asparagus bed. You know we make asparagus beds six or eight feet deep here. Yes, yes–I had forgotten to tell you that. He was digging straight down, just as he digs a grave; if you want a good asparagus bed made, I advise you to get a sexton to make it for you. Those fellows have a wonderful knack at that sort of digging.
Trehearn had got down about three feet when he cut into a mass of white lime in the side of the trench. He had noticed that the earth was a little looser there, though he says it had not been disturbed for a number of years. I suppose he thought that even old lime might not be good for asparagus, so he broke it out and threw it up. It was pretty hard, he says, in biggish lumps, and out of sheer force of habit he cracked the lumps with his spade as they lay outside the pit beside him; the jaw bone of the skull dropped out of one of the pieces. He thinks he must have knocked out the two front teeth in breaking up the lime, but he did not see them anywhere. He’s a very experienced man in such things, as you may imagine, and he said at once that the jaw had probably belonged to a young woman, and that the teeth had been complete when she died. He brought it to me, and asked me if I wanted to keep it; if I did not, he said he would drop it into the next grave he made in the churchyard, as he supposed it was a Christian jaw, and ought to have decent burial, wherever the rest of the body might be. I told him that doctors often put bones into quicklime to whiten them nicely, and that I supposed Dr Pratt had once had a little lime pit in the garden for that purpose, and had forgotten the jaw. Trehearn looked at me quietly.
“Maybe it fitted that skull that used to be in the cupboard upstairs, sir,” he said. “Maybe Dr Pratt had put the skull into the lime to clean it, or something, and when he took it out he left the lower jaw behind. There’s some human hair sticking in the lime, sir.”
I saw there was, and that was what Trehearn said. If he did not suspect something, why in the world should he have suggested that the jaw might fit the skull? Besides, it did. That’s proof that he knows more than he cares to tell. Do you suppose he looked before she was buried? Or perhaps–when he buried Luke in the same grave—-
Well, well, it’s of no use to go over that, is it? I said I would keep the jaw with the skull, and I took it upstairs and fitted it into its place. There’s not the slightest doubt about the two belonging together, and together they are.
Trehearn knows several things. We were talking about plastering the kitchen a while ago, and he happened to remember that it had not been done since the very week when Mrs. Pratt died. He did not say that the mason must have left some lime on the place, but he thought it, and that it was the very same lime he had found in the asparagus pit. He knows a lot. Trehearn is one of your silent beggars who can put two and two together. That grave is very near the back of his cottage, too, and he’s one of the quickest men with a spade I ever saw. If he wanted to know the truth, he could, and no one else would ever be the wiser unless he chose to tell. In a quiet village like ours, people don’t go and spend the night in the churchyard to see whether the sexton potters about by himself between ten o’clock and daylight.
What is awful to think of, is Luke’s deliberation, if he did it; his cool certainty that no one would find him out; above all, his nerve, for that must have been extraordinary. I sometimes think it’s bad enough to live in the place where it was done, if it really was done. I always put in the condition, you see, for the sake of his memory, and a little bit for my own sake, too.
I’ll go upstairs and fetch the box in a minute. Let me light my pipe; there’s no hurry! We had supper early, and it’s only half-past nine o’clock. I never let a friend go to bed before twelve, or with less than three glasses–you may have as many more as you like, but you shan’t have less, for the sake of old times.
It’s breezing up again, do you hear? That was only a lull just now, and we are going to have a bad night.
A thing happened that made me start a little when I found that the jaw fitted exactly. I’m not very easily startled in that way myself, but I have seen people make a quick movement, drawing their breath sharply, when they had thought they were alone and suddenly turned and saw someone very near them. Nobody can call that fear. You wouldn’t, would you? No. Well, just when I had set the jaw in its place under the skull, the teeth closed sharply on my finger. It felt exactly as if it were biting me hard, and I confess that I jumped before I realized that I had been pressing the jaw and the skull together with my other hand. I assure you I was not at all nervous. It was broad daylight, too, and a fine day, and the sun was streaming into the best bedroom. It would have been absurd to be nervous, and it was only a quick mistaken impression, but it really made me feel queer. Somehow it made me think of the funny verdict of the coroner’s jury on Luke’s death, “by the hand or teeth of some person or animal unknown”. Ever since that I’ve wished I had seen those marks on his throat, though the lower jaw was missing then.
I have often seen a man do insane things with his hands that he does not realize at all. I once saw a man hanging on by an old awning stop with one hand, leaning backward, outboard, with all his weight on it, and he was just cutting the stop with the knife in his other hand when I got my arms round him. We were in mid-ocean, going twenty knots. He had not the smallest idea what he was doing; neither had I when I managed to pinch my finger between the teeth of that thing. I can feel it now. It was exactly as if it were alive and were trying to bite me. It would if it could, for I know it hates me, poor thing! Do you suppose that what rattles about inside is really a bit of lead? Well, I’ll get the box down presently, and if whatever it is happens to drop out into your hands, that’s your affair. If it’s only a clod of earth or a pebble, the whole matter would be off my mind, and I don’t believe I should ever think of the skull again; but somehow I cannot bring myself to shake out the bit of hard stuff myself. The mere idea that it may be lead makes me confoundedly uncomfortable, yet I’ve got the conviction that I shall know before long. I shall certainly know. I’m sure Trehearn knows, but he’s such a silent beggar
I’ll go upstairs now and get it. What? You had better go with me? Ha, ha! do you think I’m afraid of a bandbox and a noise? Nonsense!
Bother the candle, it won’t light! As if the ridiculous thing understood what it’s wanted for! Look at that–the third match. They light fast enough for my pipe. There, do you see? It’s a fresh box, just out of the tin safe where I keep the supply on account of the dampness. Oh, you think the wick of the candle may be damp, do you? All right, I’ll light the beastly thing in the fire. That won’t go out, at all events. Yes, it sputters a bit, but it will keep lighted now. It burns just like any other candle, doesn’t it? The fact is, candles are not very good about here. I don’t know where they come from, but they have a way of burning low occasionally, with a greenish flame that spits tiny sparks, and I’m often annoyed by their going out of themselves. It cannot be helped, for it will be long before we have electricity in our village. It really is rather a poor light, isn’t it?
You think I had better leave you the candle and take the lamp, do you? I don’t like to carry lamps about, that’s the truth. I never dropped one in my life, but I have always thought I might, and it’s so confoundedly dangerous if you do. Besides, I am pretty well used to these rotten candles by this time.
You may as well finish that glass while I’m getting it, for I don’t mean to let you off with less than three before you go to bed. You won’t have to go upstairs, either, for I’ve put you in the old study next to the surgery–that’s where I live myself. The fact is, I never ask a friend to sleep upstairs now. The last man who did was Crackenthorpe, and he said he was kept awake all night. You remember old Crack, don’t you? He stuck to the Service, and they’ve just made him an admiral. Yes, I’m off now–unless the candle goes out. I couldn’t help asking if you remembered Crackenthorpe. If anyone had told us that the skinny little idiot he used to be was to turn out the most successful of the lot of us, we should have laughed at the idea, shouldn’t we? You and I did not do badly, it’s true–but I’m really going now. I don’t mean to let you think that I’ve been putting it off by talking! As if there were anything to be afraid of! If I were scared, I should tell you so quite frankly, and get you to go upstairs with me.
Here’s the box. I brought it down very carefully, so as not to disturb it, poor thing. You see, if it were shaken, the jaw might get separated from it again, and I’m sure it wouldn’t like that. Yes, the candle went out as I was coming downstairs, but that was the draught from the leaky window on the landing. Did you hear anything? Yes, there was another scream. Am I pale, do you say? That’s nothing. My heart is a little queer sometimes, and I went upstairs too fast. In fact, that’s one reason why I really prefer to live altogether on the ground floor.
Wherever the shriek came from, it was not from the skull, for I had the box in my hand when I heard the noise, and here it is now; so we have proved definitely that the screams are produced by something else. I’ve no doubt I shall find out some day what makes them. Some crevice in the wall, of course, or a crack in a chimney, or a chink in the frame of a window. That’s the way all ghost stories end in real life. Do you know, I’m jolly glad I thought of going up and bringing it down for you to see, for that last shriek settles the question. To think that I should have been so weak as to fancy that the poor skull could really cry out like a living thing!
Now I’ll open the box, and we’ll take it out and look at it under the bright light. It’s rather awful to think that the poor lady used to sit there, in your chair, evening after evening, in just the same light, isn’t it? But then–I’ve made up my mind that it’s all rubbish from beginning to end, and that it’s just an old skull that Luke had when he was a student and perhaps he put it into the lime merely to whiten it, and could not find the jaw.
I made a seal on the string, you see, after I had put the jaw in its place, and I wrote on the cover. There’s the old white label on it still, from the milliner’s, addressed to Mrs. Pratt when the hat was sent to her, and as there was room I wrote on the edge: “A skull, once the property of the late Luke Pratt, MD.” I don’t quite know why I wrote that, unless it was with the idea of explaining how the thing happened to be in my possession. I cannot help wondering sometimes what sort of hat it was that came in the bandbox. What colour was it, do you think? Was it a gay spring hat with a bobbing feather and pretty ribands? Strange that the very same box should hold the head that wore the finery–perhaps. No–we made up our minds that it just came from the hospital in London where Luke did his time. It’s far better to look at it in that light, isn’t it? There’s no more connection between that skull and poor Mrs. Pratt than there was between my story about the lead and—-
Good Lord! Take the lamp–don’t let it go out, if you can help it–I’ll have the window fastened again in a second–I say, what a gale! There, it’s out! I told you so! Never mind, there’s the firelight–I’ve got the window shut–the bolt was only half down. Was the box blown off the table? Where the deuce is it? There! That won’t open again, for I’ve put up the bar. Good dodge, an old-fashioned bar–there’s nothing like it. Now, you find the bandbox while I light the lamp. Confound those wretched matches! Yes, a pipe spill is better–it must light in the fire–hadn’t thought of it–thank you–there we are again. Now, where’s the box? Yes, put it back on the table, and we’ll open it.
That’s the first time I have ever known the wind to burst that window open; but it was partly carelessness on my part when I last shut it. Yes, of course I heard the scream. It seemed to go all round the house before it broke in at the window. That proves that it’s always been the wind and nothing else, doesn’t it? When it was not the wind, it was my imagination I’ve always been a very imaginative man: I must have been, though I did not know it. As we grow older we understand ourselves better, don’t you know?
I’ll have a drop of the Hulstkamp neat, by way of an exception, since you are filling up your glass. That damp gust chilled me, and with my rheumatic tendency I’m very much afraid of a chill, for the cold sometimes seems to stick in my joints all winter when it once gets in.
By George, that’s good stuff! I’ll just light a fresh pipe, now that everything is snug again, and then we’ll open the box. I’m so glad we heard that last scream together, with the skull here on the table between us, for a thing cannot possibly be in two places at the same time, and the noise most certainly came from outside, as any noise the wind makes must. You thought you heard it scream through the room after the window was burst open? Oh yes, so did I, but that was natural enough when everything was open. Of course we heard the wind. What could one expect?
Look here, please. I want you to see that the seal is intact before we open the box together. Will you take my glasses? No, you have your own. All right. The seal is sound, you see, and you can read the words of the motto easily. “Sweet and low”–that’s it–because the poem goes on “Wind of the Western Sea”, and says, “blow him again to me”, and all that. Here is the seal on my watch chain, where it’s hung for more than forty years. My poor little wife gave it to me when I was courting, and I never had any other. It was just like her to think of those words–she was always fond of Tennyson.
It’s no use to cut the string, for it’s fastened to the box, so I’ll just break the wax and untie the knot, and afterwards we’ll seal it up again. You see, I like to feel that the thing is safe in its place, and that nobody can take it out. Not that I should suspect Trehearn of meddling with it, but I always feel that he knows a lot more than he tells.
You see, I’ve managed it without breaking the string, though when I fastened it I never expected to open the bandbox again. The lid comes off easily enough. There! Now look!
What! Nothing in it! Empty! It’s gone, man, the skull is gone!
No, there’s nothing the matter with me. I’m only trying to collect my thoughts. It’s so strange. I’m positively certain that it was inside when I put on the seal last spring. I can’t have imagined that: it’s utterly impossible. If I ever took a stiff glass with a friend now and then, I would admit that I might have made some idiotic mistake when I had taken too much. But I don’t, and I never did. A pint of ale at supper and half a go of rum at bedtime was the most I ever took in my good days. I believe it’s always we sober fellows who get rheumatism and gout! Yet there was my seal, and there is the empty bandbox. That’s plain enough.
I say, I don’t half like this. It’s not right. There’s something wrong about it, in my opinion. You needn’t talk to me about supernatural manifestations, for I don’t believe in them, not a little bit! Somebody must have tampered with the seal and stolen the skull. Sometimes, when I go out to work in the garden in summer, I leave my watch and chain on the table. Trehearn must have taken the seal then, and used it, for he would be quite sure that I should not come in for at least an hour.
If it was not Trehearn–oh, don’t talk to me about the possibility that the thing has got out by itself! If it has, it must be somewhere about the house, in some out-of-the-way corner, waiting. We may come upon it anywhere, waiting for us, don’t you know?–just waiting in the dark. Then it will scream at me; it will shriek at me in the dark, for it hates me, I tell you!
The bandbox is quite empty. We are not dreaming, either of us. There, I turn it upside down.
What’s that? Something fell out as I turned it over. It’s on the floor, it s near your feet. I know it is, and we must find it. Help me to find it, man. Have you got it? For God’s sake, give it to me, quickly!
Lead! I knew it when I heard it fall. I knew it couldn’t be anything else by the little thud it made on the hearthrug. So it was lead after all and Luke did it.
I feel a little bit shaken up–not exactly nervous, you know, but badly shaken up, that’s the fact. Anybody would, I should think. After all, you cannot say that it’s fear of the thing, for I went up and brought it down–at least, I believed I was bringing it down, and that’s the same thing, and by George, rather than give in to such silly nonsense, I’ll take the box upstairs again and put it back in its place. It’s not that. It’s the certainty that the poor little woman came to her end in that way, by my fault, because I told the story. That’s what is so dreadful. Somehow, I had always hoped that I should never be quite sure of it, but there is no doubting it now. Look at that!
Look at it! That little lump of lead with no particular shape. Think of what it did, man! Doesn’t it make you shiver? He gave her something to make her sleep, of course, but there must have been one moment of awful agony. Think of having boiling lead poured into your brain. Think of it. She was dead before she could scream, but only think of–oh! there it is again–it’s just outside–I know it’s just outside–I can’t keep it out of my head!–oh!–oh!
You thought I had fainted? No, I wish I had, for it would have stopped sooner. It’s all very well to say that it’s only a noise, and that a noise never hurt anybody–you’re as white as a shroud yourself. There’s only one thing to be done, if we hope to close an eye tonight. We must find it and put it back into its bandbox and shut it up in the cupboard, where it likes to be I don’t know how it got out, but it wants to get in again. That’s why it screams so awfully tonight–it was never so bad as this–never since I first—-
Bury it? Yes, if we can find it, we’ll bury it, if it takes us all night. We’ll bury it six feet deep and ram down the earth over it, so that it shall never get out again, and if it screams, we shall hardly hear it so deep down. Quick, we’ll get the lantern and look for it. It cannot be far away; I’m sure it’s just outside–it was coming in when I shut the window, I know it.
Yes, you’re quite right. I’m losing my senses, and I must get hold of myself. Don’t speak to me for a minute or two; I’ll sit quite still and keep my eyes shut and repeat something I know. That’s the best way.