The Dead Smile by F. Marion Crawford
SIR HUGH OCKRAM smiled as he sat by the open window of his study,
in the late August afternoon. A curiously yellow cloud obscured the
low sun, and the clear summer light turned lurid, as if it had been
suddenly poisoned and polluted by the foul vapours of a plague. Sir
Hugh's face seemed, at best, to be made of fine parchment drawn
skin-tight over a wooden mask, in which two sunken eyes peered from
far within. The eyes peered from under wrinkled lids, alive and
watchful like toads in their holes, side by side and exactly alike.
But as the light changed, a little yellow glare flashed in each. He
smiled, stretching pale lips across discoloured teeth in an
expression of profound self-satisfaction, blended with the most
unforgiving hatred and contempt for the human doll.
Nurse Macdonald, who was a hundred years old, said that when Sir
Hugh smiled he saw the faces of two women in hell--two dead women he
had betrayed. The smile widened.
The hideous disease of which Sir Hugh was dying had touched his
brain. His son stood beside him, tall, white and delicate as an angel
in a primitive picture. And though there was deep distress in his
violet eyes as he looked at his father's face, he felt the shadow of
that sickening smile stealing across his own lips, parting and
drawing them against his will. It was like a bad dream, for he tried
not to smile and smiled the more.
Beside him--strangely like him in her wan, angelic beauty, with
the same shadowy golden hair, the same sad violet eyes, the same
luminously pale face--Evelyn Warburton rested one hand upon his arm.
As she looked into her uncle's eyes, she could not turn her own away
and she too knew that the deathly smile was hovering on her own red
lips, drawing them tightly across her little teeth, while two bright
tears ran down her cheeks to her mouth, and dropped from the upper to
the lower lip. The smile was like the shadow of death and the seal of
damnation upon her pure, young face.
"Of course," said Sir Hugh very slowly, still looking out at the
trees, "if you have made your mind up to be married, I cannot hinder
you, and I don't suppose you attach the smallest importance to my
"Father!" exclaimed Gabriel reproachfully.
"No. I do not deceive myself," continued the old man, smiling
terribly. "You will marry when I am dead, though there is a very good
reason why you had better not--why you had better not," he repeated
very emphatically, and he slowly turned his toad eyes upon the
"What reason?" asked Evelyn in a frightened voice.
"Never mind the reason, my dear. You will marry just as if it did
not exist." There was a long pause. "Two gone," he said, his voice
lowering strangely, "and two more will be four all together forever
and ever, burning, burning, burning bright."
At the last words his head sank slowly back, and the little glare
of his toad eyes disappeared under the swollen lids. Sir Hugh had
fallen asleep, as he often did in his illness, even while
Gabriel Ockram drew Evelyn away, and from the study they went out
into the dim hall. Softly closing the door behind them, each audibly
drew a breath, as though some sudden danger had been passed. As they
laid their hands each in the other's, their strangely-like eyes met
in a long look in which love and perfect understanding were darkened
by the secret terror of an unknown thing. Their pale faces reflected
each other's fear.
"It is his secret," said Evelyn at last. "He will never tell us
what it is."
"If he dies with it," answered Gabriel, "let it be on his own
"On his head!" echoed the dim hall. It was a strange echo. Some
were frightened by it, for they said that if it were a real echo it
should repeat everything and not give back a phrase here and
there--now speaking, now silent. Nurse Macdonald said that the great
hall would never echo a prayer when an Ockram was to die, though it
would give back curses ten for one.
"On his head!" it repeated quite softly, and Evelyn started and
"It is only the echo," said Gabriel, leading her away.
They went out into the late afternoon light, and sat upon a stone
seat behind the chapel, which had been built across the end of the
east wing. It was very still. Not a breath stirred, and there was no
sound near them. Only far off in the park a song-bird was whistling
the high prelude to the evening chorus.
"It is very lonely here," said Evelyn, taking Gabriel's hand
nervously and speaking as if she dreaded to disturb the silence. "If
it were dark, I should be afraid."
"Of what? Of me?" Gabriel's sad eyes turned to her.
"Oh no! Never of you! But of the old Ockrams. They say they are
just under our feet here in the north vault outside the chapel, all
in their shrouds, with no coffins, as they used to bury them."
"As they always will. As they will bury my father, and me. They
say an Ockram will not lie in a coffin."
"But it cannot be true. These are fairy tales, ghost stories!"
Evelyn nestled nearer to her companion, grasping his hand more
tightly as the sun began to go down.
"Of course. But there is the story of old Sir Vernon, who was
beheaded for treason under James II. The family brought his body back
from the scaffold in an iron coffin with heavy locks and put it in
the north vault. But ever afterwards, whenever the vault was opened
to bury another of the family, they found the coffin wide open, the
body standing upright against the wall, and the head rolled away in a
corner smiling at it."
"As Uncle Hugh smiles?" Evelyn shivered.
"Yes, I suppose so," answered Gabriel, thoughtfully. "Of course I
never saw it, and the vault has not been opened for thirty years.
None of us have died since then."
"And if...if Uncle Hugh dies, shall you...?" Evelyn stopped. Her
beautiful thin face was quite white.
"Yes. I shall see him laid there too, with his secret, whatever it
is." Gabriel sighed and pressed the girl's little hand.
"I do not like to think of it," she said unsteadily. "O Gabriel,
what can the secret be? He said we had better not marry. Not that he
forbade it, but he said it so strangely, and he smiled. Ugh!" Her
small white teeth chattered with fear, and she looked over her
shoulder while drawing still closer to Gabriel. "And, somehow, I felt
it in my own face."
"So did I," answered Gabriel in a low, nervous voice. "Nurse
Macdonald..." He stopped abruptly.
"What? What did she
"Oh, nothing. She has told me things...They would frighten you,
dear. Come, it is growing chilly." He rose, but Evelyn held his hand
in both of hers, still sitting and looking up into his face.
"But we shall be married just the same--Gabriel! Say that we
"Of course, darling, of course. But while my father is so very
ill, it is impossible--"
"O Gabriel, Gabriel, dear! I wish we were married now!" Evelyn
cried in sudden distress. "I know that something will prevent it and
keep us apart."
"Nothing human," said Gabriel Ockram, as she drew him down to
And their faces, that were so strangely alike, met and touched.
Gabriel knew that the kiss had a marvelous savor of evil. Evelyn's
lips were like the cool breath of a sweet and mortal fear that
neither of them understood, for they were innocent and young. Yet she
drew him to her by her lightest touch, as a sensitive plant shivers,
waves its thin leaves, and bends and closes softly upon what it
wants. He let himself be drawn to her willingly--as he would even if
her touch had been deadly and poisonous--for he strangely loved that
half voluptuous breath of fear, and he passionately desired the
nameless evil something that lurked in her maiden lips.
"It is as if we loved in a strange dream," she said.
"I fear the waking," he murmured.
"We shall not wake, dear. When the dream is over it will have
already turned into death, so softly that we shall not know it. But
She paused, her eyes seeking his, as their faces slowly came
nearer. It was as if each had thoughts in their lips that foresaw and
foreknew the other.
"Until then," she said again, very low, her mouth near to his.
"Dream--till then," he murmured.
NURSE MACDONALD slept sitting all bent together in a great old
leather arm chair with wings--many warm blankets wrapped about her,
even in summer. She would rest her feet in a bag footstool lined with
sheepskin while beside her, on a wooden table, there was a little
lamp that burned at night, and an old silver cup, in which there was
always something to drink.
Her face was very wrinkled, but the wrinkles were so small and
fine and close together that they made shadows instead of lines. Two
thin locks of hair, that were turning from white to a smoky yellow,
fell over her temples from under her starched white cap. Every now
and then she would wake from her slumber, her eyelids drawn up in
tiny folds like little pink silk curtains, and her queer blue eyes
would look straight ahead through doors and walls and worlds to a far
place beyond. Then she'd sleep again with her hands one upon the
other on the edge of the blanket, her thumbs grown longer than the
fingers with age.
It was nearly one o'clock in the night, and the summer breeze was
blowing the ivy branch against the panes of the window with a hushing
caress. In the small room beyond, with the door ajar, the young maid
who took care of Nurse Macdonald was fast asleep. All was very quiet.
The old woman breathed regularly, and her drawn lips trembled each
time the breath went out.
But outside the closed window there was a face. Violet eyes were
looking steadily at the ancient sleeper. Strange, as there were
eighty feet from the sill of the window to the foot of the tower. It
was like the face of Evelyn Warburton, yet the cheeks were thinner
than Evelyn's and as white as a gleam. The eyes stared and the lips
were red with life. They were dead lips painted with new blood.
Slowly Nurse Macdonald's wrinkled eyelids folded back, and she
looked straight at the face at the window.
"Is it time?" she asked in her little old, faraway voice.
While she looked the face at the window changed, the eyes opened
wider and wider till the white glared all round the bright violet and
the bloody lips opened over gleaming teeth. The shadowy golden hair
surrounding the face rose and streamed against the window in the
night breeze and in answer to Nurse Macdonald's question came a sound
that froze the living flesh.
It was a low-moaning voice, one that rose suddenly, like the
scream of storm. Then it went from a moan to a wail, from a wail to a
howl, and from a howl to the shriek of the tortured dead. He who has
heard it before knows, and he can bear witness that the cry of the
banshee is an evil cry to hear alone in the deep night.
When it was over and the face was gone, Nurse Macdonald shook a
little in her great chair. She looked at the black square of the
window, but there was nothing more there, nothing but the night and
the whispering ivy branch. She turned her head to the door that was
ajar, and there stood the young maid in her white gown, her teeth
chattering with fright.
"It is time, child," said Nurse Macdonald. "I must go to him, for
it is the end."
She rose slowly, leaning her withered hands upon the arms of the
chair as the girl brought her a woollen gown, a great mantle and her
crutch-stick. But very often the girl looked at the window and was
unjointed with fear, and often Nurse Macdonald shook her head and
said words which the maid could not understand.
"It was like the face of Miss Evelyn," said the girl,
But the ancient woman looked up sharply and angrily. Her queer
blue eyes glared. She held herself up by the arm of the great chair
with her left hand, and lifted up her crutch--stick to strike the
maid with all her might. But she did not.
"You are a good girl," she said, "but you are a fool. Pray for
wit, child. Pray for wit--or else find service in a house other than
Ockram Hall. Now bring the lamp and help me up."
Each step Nurse Macdonald took was a labour in itself, and as she
moved, the maid's slippers clappered alongside. By the clacking noise
the other servants knew that she was coming, very long before they
No one was sleeping now, and there were lights, and whisperings,
and pale faces in the corridors near Sir Hugh's bedroom. Often
someone would go in, and someone would come out, but every one made
way for Nurse Macdonald, who had nursed Sir Hugh's father more than
eighty years ago.
The light was soft and clear in the room. Gabriel Ockram stood by
his father's bedside, and there knelt Evelyn Warburton--her hair
lying like a golden shadow down her shoulder, and her hands clasped
nervously together. Opposite Gabriel, a nurse was trying to make Sir
Hugh drink, but he would not. His lips parted, but his teeth were
set. He was very, very thin now, and as his eyes caught the light
sideways, they were as yellow coals.
"Do not torment him," said Nurse Macdonald to the woman who held
the cup. "Let me speak to him, for his hour is come."
"Let her speak to him," said Gabriel in a dull voice.
The ancient nurse leaned to the pillow and laid the feather-weight
of her withered hand--that was like a grown moth--upon Sir Hugh's
yellow fingers. Then she spoke to him earnestly, while only Gabriel
and Evelyn were left in the room to hear.
"Hugh Ockram," she said, "this is the end of your life; and as I
saw you born, and saw your father born before you, I come to see you
die. Hugh Ockram, will you tell me the truth?"
The dying man recognized the little faraway voice he had known all
his life and he very slowly turned his yellow face to Nurse
Macdonald, but he said nothing. Then she spoke again.
"Hugh Ockram, you will never see the daylight again. Will you tell
His toad like eyes were not yet dull. They fastened themselves on
"What do you want of me?" he asked, each word sounding more hollow
than the last. "I have no secrets. I have lived a good life."
Nurse Macdonald laughed--a tiny, cracked laugh that made her old
head bob and tremble a little, as if her neck were on a steel spring.
But Sir Hugh's eyes grew red, and his pale lips began to twist.
"Let me die in peace," he said slowly.
But Nurse Macdonald shook her head, and her brown, mothlike hand
left his and fluttered to his forehead.
"By the mother that bore you and died of grief for the sins you
did, tell me the truth!"
Sir Hugh's lips tightened on his discoloured teeth.
"Not on earth," he answered slowly.
"By the wife who bore your son and died heartbroken, tell me the
"Neither to you in life, nor to her in eternal death."
His lips writhed, as if the words were coals between them, and a
great drop of sweat rolled across the parchment of his forehead.
Gabriel Ockram bit his hand as he watched his father die. But Nurse
Macdonald spoke a third time.
"By the woman whom you betrayed, and who waits for you this night,
Hugh Ockram, tell me the truth!"
"It is too late. Let me die in peace."
His writhing lips began to smile across his yellow teeth, and his
toadlike eyes glowed like evil jewels in his head.
"There is time," said the ancient woman. "Tell me the name of
Evelyn Warburton's father. Then I will let you die in peace."
Evelyn started. She stared at Nurse Macdonald, and then at her
"The name of Evelyn's father?" he repeated slowly, while the awful
smile spread upon his dying face.
The light was growing strangely dim in the great room. As Evelyn
looked on, Nurse Macdonald's crooked shadow on the wall grew
gigantic. Sir Hugh's breath was becoming thick, rattling in his
throat, as death crept in like a snake and choked it back. Evelyn
prayed aloud, high and clear.
Then something rapped at the window, and she felt her hair rise
upon her head. She looked around in spite of herself. And when she
saw her own white face looking in at the window, her own eyes staring
at her through the glass--wide and fearful--her own hair streaming
against the pane, and her own lips dashed with blood, she rose slowly
from the floor and stood rigid for one moment before she screamed
once and fell straight back into Gabriel's arms. But the shriek that
answered hers was the fear-shriek of a tormented corpse out of which
the soul cannot pass for shame of deadly sins.
Sir Hugh Ockram sat upright in his deathbed, and saw and cried
"Evelyn!" His harsh voice broke and rattled in his chest as he
sank down. But still Nurse Macdonald tortured him, for there was a
little life left in him still.
"You have seen the mother as she waits for you, Hugh Ockram. Who
was this girl Evelyn's father? What was his name?"
For the last time the dreadful smile came upon the twisted lips,
very slowly, very surely now. The toad eyes glared red and the
parchment face glowed a little in the flickering light; for the last
time words came.
"They know it in hell."
Then the glowing eyes went out quickly. The yellow face turned
waxen pale, and a great shiver ran through the thin body as Hugh
But in death he still smiled, for he knew his secret and kept it
still. He would take it with him to the other side, to lie with him
forever in the north vault of the chapel where the Ockrams lie
uncoffined in their shrouds--all but one. Though he was dead, he
smiled, for he had kept his treasure of evil truth to the end. There
was none left to tell the name he had spoken, but there was all the
evil he had not undone left to bear fruit.
As they watched--Nurse Macdonald and Gabriel, who held the still
unconscious Evelyn in his arms while he looked at the father--they
felt the dead smile crawling along their own lips. Then they shivered
a little as they both looked at Evelyn as she lay with her head on
Gabriel's shoulder, for though she was very beautiful, the same
sickening smile was twisting her young mouth too, and it was like the
foreshadowing of a great evil that they could not understand.
By and by they carried Evelyn out, and when she opened her eyes
the smile was gone. From far away in the great house the sound of
weeping and crooning came up the stairs and echoed along the dismal
corridors as the women had begun to mourn the dead master in the
Irish fashion. The hall had echoes of its own all that night, like
the far-off wail of the banshee among forest trees.
When the time was come they took Sir Hugh in his winding-sheet on
a trestle bier and bore him to the chapel, through the iron door and
down the long descent to the north vault lit with tapers, to lay him
by his father. The two men went in first to prepare the place, and
came back staggering like drunken men, their faces white.
But Gabriel Ockram was not afraid, for he knew. When he went in,
alone, he saw the body of Sir Vernon Ockram leaning upright against
the stone wall. Its head lay on the ground nearby with the face
turned up. The dried leather lips smiled horribly at the dried-up
corpse, while the iron coffin, lined with black velvet, stood open on
Gabriel took the body in his hands--for it was very light, being
quite dried by the air of the vault--and those who peeped in the door
saw him lay it in the coffin again. They heard it rustle a little, as
it touched the sides and the bottom, like a bundle of reeds. He also
placed the head upon the shoulders and shut down the lid, which fell
to with the snap of its rusty spring.
After that they laid Sir Hugh beside his father, on the trestle
bier on which they had brought him, and they went back to the chapel.
But when they looked into one another's faces, master and men, they
were all smiling with the dead smile of the corpse they had left in
the vault. They could not bear to look at one another again until it
had faded away.
GABRIEL OCKRAM became Sir Gabriel, inheriting the baronetcy with
the half-ruined fortune left by his father, and Evelyn Warburton
continued to lived at Ockram Hall, in the south room that had been
hers ever. since she could remember. She could not go away, for there
were no relatives to whom she could have gone, and besides, there
seemed to be no reason why she should not stay. The world would never
trouble itself to care what the Ockrams did on their Irish estates.
It was long since the Ockrams had asked anything of the world.
So Sir Gabriel took his father's place at the dark old table in
the dining room, and Evelyn sat opposite to him--until such time as
their mourning should be over--and they might be married at last.
Meanwhile, their lives went on as before--since Sir Hugh had been a
hopeless invalid during the last year of his life, and they had seen
him but once a day for a little while--spending most of their time
together in a strangely perfect companionship.
Though the late summer saddened into autumn, and autumn darkened
into winter, and storm followed storm, and rain poured on rain
through the short days and the long nights, Ockram Hall seemed less
gloomy since Sir Hugh had been laid in the north vault beside his
At Christmastide Evelyn decked the great hall with holly and green
boughs. Huge fires blazed on every hearth. The tenants were all bid
to come to a New Year's dinner at which they ate and drank well,
while Sir Gabriel sat at the head of the table. Evelyn came in when
the port wine was brought and the most respected of the tenants made
a speech to her health.
When the speechmaker said it had been a long time since there had
been a Lady Ockram, Sir Gabriel shaded his eyes with his hand and
looked down at the table; a faint color came into Evelyn's
transparent cheeks. And, said the gray-haired farmer, it was longer
still since there had been a Lady Ockram so fair as the next was to
be, and he drank to the health of Evelyn Warburton.
Then the tenants all stood up and shouted for her. Sir Gabriel
stood up likewise, beside Evelyn. But when the men gave the last and
loudest cheer of all, there was a voice not theirs, above them all,
higher, fiercer, louder--an unearthly scream-shrieking for the bride
of Ockram Hall. It was so loud that the holly and the green boughs
over the great chimney shook and waved as if a cool breeze were
blowing over them.
The men turned very pale. Many of them set down their glasses, but
others let them fall upon the floor. Looking into one another's
faces, they saw that they were all smiling strangely--a dead
smile--like dead Sir Hugh's.
The fear of death was suddenly upon them all, so that they fled in
a panic, falling over one another like wild beasts in the burning
forest when the thick smoke runs along before the flame. Tables were
overturned, drinking glasses and bottles were broken in heaps, and
dark red wine crawled like blood upon the polished floor.
Sir Gabriel and Evelyn were left standing alone at the head of the
table before the wreck of their feast, not daring to turn to look at
one another, for each knew that the other smiled. But Gabriel's right
arm held her and his left hand clasped her tight as they stared
before them. But for the shadows of her hair, one might not have told
their two faces apart.
They listened long, but the cry came not again, and eventually the
dead smile faded from their lips as each remembered that Sir Hugh
Ockram lay in the north vault smiling in his winding sheet, in the
dark, because he had died with his secret.
So ended the tenants' New Year's dinner. But from that time on,
Sir Gabriel grew more and more silent and his face grew even paler
and thinner than before. Often, without warning and without words, he
would rise from his seat as if something moved him against his will.
He would go out into the rain or the sunshine to the north side of
the chapel, sit on the stone bench and stare at the ground as if he
could see through it, through the vault below, and through the white
winding sheet in the dark, to the dead smile that would not die.
Always when he went out in that way Evelyn would come out
presently and sit beside him. Once, as in the past, their beautiful
faces came suddenly near; their lids drooped, and their red lips were
almost joined together. But as their eyes met, they grew wide and
wild, so that the white showed in a ring all round the deep violet.
Their teeth chattered and their hands were like the hands of corpses,
for fear of what was under their feet, and of what they knew but
could not see.
Once, Evelyn found Sir Gabriel in the chapel alone, standing
before the iron door that led down to the place of death with the key
to the door in his hand, but he had not put it into the lock. Evelyn
drew him away, shivering, for she had also been driven--in waking
dreams--to see that terrible thing again, and to find out whether it
had changed since it had been laid there.
"I'm going mad," said Sir Gabriel, covering his eyes with his hand
as he went with her. "I see it in my sleep. I see it when I am awake.
It draws me to it, day and night and unless I see it I shall
"I know," answered Evelyn, "I know. It is as if threads were spun
from it like a spider's, drawing us down to it." She was silent for a
moment and then she started violently and grasped his arm with a
man's strength, and almost screamed the words she spoke. "But we must
not go there!" she cried. "We must not go!"
Sir Gabriel's eyes were half shut, and he was not moved by the
agony of her face.
"I shall die, unless I see it again," he said, in a quiet voice
not like his own. And all that day and that evening he scarcely
spoke, thinking of it, always thinking, while Evelyn Warburton
quivered from head to foot with a terror she had never known.
One grey winter morning, she went alone to Nurse Macdonald's room
in the tower, and sat down beside the great leather easy chair,
laying her thin white hand upon the withered fingers.
"Nurse," she said, "what was it that Uncle Hugh should have told
you, that night before he died? It must have been an awful
secret--and yet, though you asked him, I feel somehow that you know
it, and that you know why he used to smile so dreadfully."
The old woman's head moved slowly from side to side.
"I only guess...I shall never know," she answered slowly in her
cracked little voice.
"But what do you guess? Who am I? Why did you ask who my father
was? You know I am Colonel Warburton's daughter, and my mother was
Lady Ockram's sister, so that Gabriel and I are cousins. My father
was killed in Afghanistan. What secret can there be?"
"I do not know. I can only guess."
"Guess what?" asked Evelyn imploringly, pressing the soft withered
hands, as she leaned forward. But Nurse Macdonald's wrinkled lids
dropped suddenly over her queer blue eyes, and her lips shook a
little with her breath, as if she were asleep.
Evelyn waited. By the fire the Irish maid was knitting fast. Her
needles clicked like three or four clocks ticking against each other.
But the real clock on the wall solemnly ticked alone, checking off
the seconds of the woman who was a hundred years old, and had not
many days left. Outside the ivy branch beat the window in the wintry
blast, as it had beaten against the glass a hundred years ago.
Then as Evelyn sat there she felt again the waking of a horrible
desire--the sickening wish to go down, down to the thing in the north
vault, and to open the winding-sheet, and see whether it had changed;
and she held Nurse Macdonald's hands as if to keep herself in her
place and fight against the appalling attraction of the evil
But the old cat that kept Nurse Macdonald's feet warm, lying
always on the footstool, got up and stretched itself, and looked up
into Evelyn's eyes, while its back arched, and its tail thickened and
bristled, and its ugly pink lips drew back in a devilish grin,
showing its sharp teeth. Evelyn stared at it, half fascinated by its
ugliness. Then the creature suddenly put out one paw with all its
claws spread, and spat at the girl. All at once the grinning cat was
like the smiling corpse far down below. Evelyn shivered down to her
small feet, and covered her face with her free hand, lest Nurse
Macdonald should wake and see the dead smile there, for she could
The old woman had already opened her eyes again, and she touched
her cat with the end of her crutch-stick, whereupon its back went
down and its tail shrunk, and it sidled back to its place on the
footstool. But its yellow eyes looked up sideways at Evelyn, between
the slits of its lids.
"What is it that you guess, nurse?" asked the young girl
"A bad thing, a wicked thing. But I dare not tell you, lest it
might not be true, and the very thought should blast your life. For
if I guess right, he meant that you should not know, and that you two
should marry and pay for his old sin with your souls."
"He used to tell us that we ought not to marry."
"Yes--he told you that, perhaps. But it was as if a man put
poisoned meat before a starving beast, and said 'do not eat,' but
never raised his hand to take the meat away. And if he told you that
you should not marry, it was because he hoped you would; for of all
men living or dead, Hugh Ockram was the falsest man that ever told a
cowardly lie, and the crudest that ever hurt a weak woman, and the
worst that ever loved a sin."
"But Gabriel and I love each other," said Evelyn very sadly.
Nurse Macdonald's old eyes looked far away, at sights seen long
ago, and that rose in the grey winter air amid the mists of an
"If you love, you can die together," she said, very slowly. "Why
should you live, if it is true? I am a hundred years old. What has
life given me? The beginning is fire; the end is a heap of ashes; and
between the end and the beginning lies all the pain of the world. Let
me sleep, since I cannot die."
Then the old woman's eyes closed again, and her head sank a little
lower upon her breast.
So Evelyn went away and left her asleep, with the cat asleep on
the footstool. The young girl tried to forget Nurse Macdonald's
words, but she could not, for she heard them over and over again in
the wind, and behind her on the stairs. And as she grew sick with
fear of the frightful unknown evil to which her soul was bound, she
felt a bodily something pressing her, pushing her, forcing her on
from the other side. She felt threads that drew her mysteriously, and
when she shut her eyes, she saw in the chapel behind the altar, the
low iron door through which she must pass to go to the thing.
As she lay awake at night, she drew the sheet over her face, lest
she should see shadows on the wall beckoning to her. The sound of her
own warm breath made whisperings in her ears, while she held the
mattress with her hands, to keep from getting up and going to the
chapel. It would have been easier if there had not been a way thither
through the library, by a door which was never locked. It would be
fearfully easy to take her candle and go softly through the sleeping
house. The key of the vault lay under the altar behind a stone that
turned. She knew that little secret. She could go alone and see.
But when she thought of it, she felt her hair rise on her head.
She shivered so that the bed shook, then the horror went through her
in a cold thrill that was agony again, like a myriad of icy needles
boring into her nerves.
THE OLD CLOCK in Nurse Macdonald's tower struck midnight. From her
room she could hear the creaking chains, and weights in their box in
the corner of the staircase, and the jarring of the rusty lever that
lifted the hammer. She had heard it all her life. It struck eleven
strokes clearly, and then came the twelfth with a dull half stroke,
as though the hammer were too weary to go on and had fallen asleep
against the bell.
The old cat got up from the footstool and stretched itself. Nurse
Macdonald opened her ancient eyes and looked slowly round the room by
the dim light of the night lamp. She touched the cat with her
crutch-stick, and it lay down upon her feet. She drank a few drops
from her cup and went to sleep again.
But downstairs Sir Gabriel sat straight up as the clock struck,
for he had dreamed a fearful dream of horror, and his heart stood
still. He awoke at its stopping and it beat again furiously with his
breath, like a wild thing set free. No Ockram had ever known fear
waking, but sometimes it came to Sir Gabriel in his sleep.
He pressed his hands to his temples as he sat up in bed. His hands
were icy cold, but his head was hot. The dream faded far and in its
place there came the master thought that racked his life. With the
thought also came the sick twisting of his lips in the dark that
would have been a smile. Far off, Evelyn Warburton dreamed that the
dead smile was on her mouth, and awoke--starting with a little
moan--her face in her hands, shivering.
But Sir Gabriel struck a light and got up and began to walk up and
down his great room. It was midnight and he had barely slept an hour,
and in the north of Ireland the winter nights are long.
"I shall go mad," he said to himself, holding his forehead. He
knew that it was true. For weeks and months the possession of the
thing had grown upon him like a disease, till he could think of
nothing without thinking first of that. And now all at once it
outgrew his strength, and he knew that he must be its instrument or
lose his mind. He knew that he must do the deed he hated and feared,
if he could fear anything, or that something would snap in his brain
and divide him from life while he was yet alive. He took the
candlestick in his hand, the old-fashioned heavy candlestick that had
always been used by the head of the house. He did not think of
dressing, but went as he was--in his silk night clothes and his
slippers--and opened the door.
Everything was very still in the great old house. He shut the door
behind him and walked noiselessly on the carpet through the long
corridor. A cool breeze blew over his shoulder and blew the flame of
his candle straight out. Instinctively he stopped and looked round,
but all was still, and the upright flame burned steadily. He walked
on, and instantly a strong draught was behind him, almost
extinguishing the light. It seemed to blow him on his way, ceasing
whenever he turned, coming again when he went on--invisible, icy.
Down the great staircase to the echoing hall he went, seeing
nothing but the flaring flame of the candle standing away from him
over the guttering wax. The cold wind blew over his shoulder and
through his hair. On he passed through the open door into the library
dark with old books and carved bookcases. On he went through the door
with shelves and the imitated backs of books painted on it, which
shut itself after him with a soft click.
He entered the low-arched passage, and though the door was shut
behind him and fitted tightly in its frame, still the cold breeze
blew the flame forward as he walked. He was not afraid; but his face
was very pale and his eyes were wide and bright, seeing already in
the dark air the picture of the thing beyond. But in the chapel he
stood still, his hand on the little turning stone tablet in the back
of the stone altar. On the tablet were engraved the words:
XxxPRE Clavis sepulchri Clarissimorum Dominorum De Ockram
("the key to the vault of the most illustrious lords of
Sir Gabriel paused and listened. He fancied that he heard a sound
far off in the great house where all had been so still, but it did
not come again. Yet he waited at the last, and looked at the low iron
door. Beyond it, down the long descent, lay his father uncoffined,
six months dead, corrupt, terrible in his clinging shroud. The
strangely preserving air of the vault could not yet have done its
work completely. But on the thing's ghastly features, with their
half-dried, open eyes, there would still be the frightful smile with
which the man had died--the smile that haunted.
As the thought crossed Sir Gabriel's mind, he felt his lips
writhing, and he struck his own mouth in wrath with the back of his
hand so fiercely that a drop of blood ran down his chin, and another,
and more, falling back in the gloom upon the chapel pavement. But
still his bruised lips twisted themselves. He turned the tablet by
the simple secret. It needed no safer fastening, for had each Ockram
been coffined in pure gold, and had the door been open wide, there
was not a man in Tyrone brave enough to go down to that place, save
Gabriel Ockram himself, with his angel's face, his thin, white hands,
and his sad unflinching eyes. He took the great old key and set it
into the lock of the iron door. The heavy, rattling noise echoed down
the descent beyond like footsteps, as if a watcher had stood behind
the iron and were running away within, with heavy dead feet. And
though he was standing still, the cool wind was from behind him, and
blew the flame of the candle against the iron panel. He turned the
Sir Gabriel saw that his candle was short. There were new ones on
the altar, with long candlesticks, so he lit one and left his own
burning on the floor. As he set it down on the pavement his lip began
to bleed again, and another drop fell upon the stones.
He drew the iron door open and pushed it back against the chapel
wall, so that it should not shut of itself, while he was within; and
the horrible draught of the sepulchre came up out of the depths in
his face, foul and dark. He went in, but though the fetid air met
him, yet the flame of the tall candle was blown straight from him
against the wind while he walked down the easy incline with steady
steps, his loose slippers slapping the pavement as he trod.
He shaded the candle with his hand, and his fingers seemed to be
made of wax and blood as the light shone through them. And in spite
of him the unearthly draught forced the flame forward, till it was
blue over the black wick, and it seemed as if it must go out. But he
went straight on, with shining eyes.
The downward passage was wide, and he could not always see the
walls by the struggling light, but he knew when he was in the place
of death by the larger, drearier echo of his steps in the greater
space, and by the sensation of a distant blank wall. He stood still,
almost enclosing the flame of the candle in the hollow of his hand.
He could see a little, for his eyes were growing used to the gloom.
Shadowy forms were outlined in the dimness, where the biers of the
Ockrams stood crowded together, side by side, each with its straight,
shrouded corpse, strangely preserved by the dry air, like the empty
shell that the locust sheds in summer. And a few steps before him he
saw clearly the dark shape of headless Sir Vernon's iron coffin, and
he knew that nearest to it lay the thing he sought.
He was as brave as any of those dead men had been. They were his
fathers, and he knew that sooner or later he should lie there
himself, beside Sir Hugh, slowly drying to a parchment shell. But as
yet, he was still alive. He closed his eyes a moment as three great
drops stood on his forehead.
Then he looked again, and by the whiteness of the winding sheet he
knew his father's corpse, for all the others were brown with age;
and, moreover, the flame of the candle was blown toward it. He made
four steps till he reached it, and suddenly the light burned straight
and high, shedding a dazzling yellow glare upon the fine linen that
was all white, save over the face, and where the joined hands were
laid on the breast. And at those places ugly stains had spread,
darkened with outlines of the features and of the tight clasped
fingers. There was a frightful stench of drying death.
As Sir Gabriel looked down, something stirred behind him, softly
at first, then more noisily, and something fell to the stone floor
with a dull thud and rolled up to his feet. He started back and saw a
withered head lying almost face upward on the pavement, grinning at
him. He felt the cold sweat standing on his face, and his heart beat
For the first time in all his life that evil thing which men call
fear was getting hold of him, checking his heart-strings as a cruel
driver checks a quivering horse, clawing at his backbone with icy
hands, lifting his hair with freezing breath, climbing up and
gathering in his midriff with leaden weight.
Yet he bit his lip and bent down, holding the candle in one hand,
to lift the shroud back from the head of the corpse with the other.
Slowly he lifted it. It clove to the half-dried skin of the face, and
his hand shook as if someone had struck him on the elbow, but half in
fear and half in anger at himself, he pulled it, so that it came away
with a little ripping sound. He caught his breath as he held it, not
yet throwing it back, and not yet looking. The horror was working in
him and he felt that old Vernon Ockram was standing up in his iron
coffin, headless, yet watching him with the stump of his severed
While he held his breath he felt the dead smile twisting his lips.
In sudden wrath at his own misery, he tossed the death-stained linen
backward, and looked at last. He ground his teeth lest he should
shriek aloud. There it was, the thing that haunted him, that haunted
Evelyn Warburton, that was like a blight on all that came near
The dead face was blotched with dark stains, and the thin, grey
hair was matted about the discoloured forehead. The sunken lids were
half open, and the candlelight gleamed on something foul where the
toad eyes had lived.
But yet the dead thing smiled, as it had smiled in life. The
ghastly lips were parted and drawn wide and tight upon the wolfish
teeth, cursing still, and still defying hell to do its
worst--defying, cursing, and always and forever smiling alone in the
Sir Gabriel opened the sheet where the hands were. The blackened,
withered fingers were closed upon something stained and mottled.
Shivering from head to foot, but fighting like a man in agony for his
life, he tried to take the package from the dead man's hold. But as
he pulled at it the clawlike fingers seemed to close more tightly.
When he pulled harder the shrunken hands and arms rose from the
corpse with a horrible look of life following his motion--then as he
wrenched the sealed packet loose at last, the hands fell back into
their place still folded.
He set down the candle on the edge of the bier to break the seals
from the stout paper. Kneeling on one knee, to get a better light, he
read what was within, written long ago in Sir Hugh's queer hand. He
was no longer afraid.
He read how Sir Hugh had written it all down that it might
perchance be a witness of evil and of his hatred. He had written how
he had loved Evelyn Warburton, his wife's sister; and how his wife
had died of a broken heart with his curse upon her. He wrote how
Warburton and he had fought side by side in Afghanistan, and
Warburton had fallen; but Ockram had brought his comrade's wife back
a full year later, and little Evelyn, her child, had been born in
Ockram Hall. And he wrote how he had wearied of the mother, and she
had died like her sister with his curse on her; and how Evelyn had
been brought up as his niece, and how he had trusted that his son
Gabriel and his daughter, innocent and unknowing, might love and
marry, and the souls of the women he had betrayed might suffer yet
another anguish before eternity was out. And, last of all, he hoped
that some day, when nothing could be undone, the two might find his
writing and live on, as man and wife, not daring to tell the truth
for their children's sake and the world's word.
This he read, kneeling beside the corpse in the north vault, by
the light of the altar candle. He had read it all and then he thanked
God aloud that he had found the secret in time. When he finally rose
to his feet and looked down at the dead face it had changed. The
smile was gone from it. The jaw had fallen a little and the tired,
dead lips were relaxed. And then there was a breath behind him and
close to him, not cold like that which had blown the flame of the
candle as he came, but warm and human. He turned suddenly.
There she stood, all in white, with her shadowy golden hair. She
had risen from her bed and had followed him noiselessly. When she
found him reading, she read over his shoulder.
He started violently when he saw her, for his nerves were
unstrung. Then he cried out her name in that still place of
"My brother!" she answered softly and tenderly, putting out both hands to