The Late Mr. Taylor by George Barr McCutcheon
Hawkins was not a drinking man. To be sure, he took a glass of
something occasionally, but he thoroughly understood himself at the
time. He took it to be companionable, that was all. Therefore, in view
of what happened to him on one unforgetable night, it is well to know
that Hawkins bore an impeccable reputation for sobriety. Likewise, his
veracity never had been seriously questioned.
The night was bitterly cold—so cold, in fact, that Hawkins
relished the prospect of remaining in-doors. There was a blizzard
blowing fifty knots an hour. Hawkins rarely used the word "mile," it
may be said; he was of a decidedly nautical turn ever since the
memorable trip to Europe and back. He was middle-aged and a bachelor.
This explains the fact that he was a man of habits if not of parts.
For years he had lived in cosy apartments on the fifth floor,
surrounded by unmistakable signs of connubial joy, but utterly
oblivious to these pertinent manifestations. Away back—I should say
abaft—in the dim past he had given some little thought to matrimony
but she was now almost beyond memory.
Each day after Hawkins had balanced the books at the bank—and they
always balanced, so methodical was Hawkins—he went for his stroll in
the park. Then came dinner, then a half hour or so of conversation
with the other boarders, and then the club or the theatre. Usually he
went home early in the night as he always went to town early in the
morning. The occasions were not infrequent when he could smile grimly
and pityingly upon one or more of his companions of the night before
as they passed him on their belated way home long after dawn. It was
then that Hawkins drew himself a trifle more erect, added a bit of
elasticity to his notably springy stride, and congratulated himself
warmly on being what he was.
Soon after eight o'clock on the night of the great blizzard,
Hawkins forsook the companionship of the disgruntled coterie
downstairs and retired to his library on the fifth floor. His suite
consisted of three rooms—and a bath, as they say when they talk of
letting them to you. There was a library, a bed chamber and a parlour
with broad couches against two of the walls. Sometimes Hawkins had
friends to stay all night with him. They slept on the couches because
it did not make any difference to them and because Hawkins was of a
philanthropic turn of mind when occasion demanded.
He got into his dressing gown and slippers, pulled the big leather
chair up to the blazing grate, and prepared for a long and enjoyable
visit with one Charles Dickens. A young woman of charm and persistence
had induced him, only the week before to purchase a full set of
Dickens with original Cruikshank engravings—although Hawkins secretly
confessed that he was sceptical—and it was not like him to spend
money without getting its full value in return. It was with some show
of gratitude then that he looked upon the blizzard which kept him
indoors for the night. Years ago he had read "Oliver Twist" and "David
Copperfield," but that was the extent of his acquaintance with
Dickens. Now that he had the full set on his shelves, it behooved him
to read the great Englishman from beginning to end.
"This is a terrible night," he mused, as he ran his eye along the
row of green and gilt books, and "Bleak House" seems especially fit
for the hour. "We'll begin with that."
Outside the wind howled like mad, shrieking around the corners as
if bent on destroying every bit of harmony in the world. It whistled
and screamed and gnashed its way through the helpless night, the
biting sleet so small that it could penetrate the very marrow of man.
Hawkins serenely tucked his heels into the cushions of the footstool
and laughed at the storm.
"I sha'n't be disturbed tonight, that's sure," he thought,
complacently. "No one but a drivelling idiot would venture out in such
a blizzard as this unless absolutely driven to it. 'Gad, that wind is
something awful! I haven't heard anything like it since last February
and that was when we had the coldest night in forty years, if one can
believe the weather bureau." Here Hawkins allowed "Bleak House" to
drop listlessly into his lap while he indulged in a moment or two of
retrospection. "Let's see; that was said to have been the deadliest
cold snap Chicago has ever known. Scores of people were frozen to
death on the streets and many of them in their homes. I hope there is
no one so luckless as to be homeless tonight. The hardiest man would
be helpless. Think of the poor cab-drivers and—oh, well, it doesn't
help matters to speculate on what may be happening outside. I shudder
to think, though, of what the papers will tell in the morning."
The midnight hour was close at hand before Hawkins reluctantly and
tenderly laid "Bleak House" on the library table, stretched himself
and prepared for bed. The blizzard had not lost any of its fury.
Indeed, it seemed to have grown more vicious, more merciless. Hawkins,
in his pajamas, lifted the curtain and sought a glimpse of the night
and its terrors. The window panes were white with frost. He scraped
away the thick layer and peered forth into the swirling storm.
"Worse than ever," he thought, a troubled look in his eyes. "Poor
devils, who ever you are, I feel for you if you're out in all this."
He turned off the lights, banked the fire on the grate and was soon
shivering between the icy sheets of his bed. It seemed to him they
never would get warm and cosy, as he had so confidently expected.
Hawkins, being a bank clerk, was a patient and enduring man. Years of
training had made him tolerant even to placidity. As he cuddled in the
bed, his head almost buried in the covers, he resignedly convinced
himself that warmth would come sooner or later and even as the chills
ran up and down his back he was philosophic. So much for system and a
Gradually the chill wore away and Hawkins slumbered, warm and
serene despite the wrath of the winds which battered against the walls
of his habitation. At just what minute sleep came he did not know. He
heard the clock striking the hour of twelve. Of that he was sure,
because he counted the strokes up to nine before they ran into a
confused jangle. He remembered wondering dimly if any one had been
able to distinguish the precise instant when sleep succeeds
wakefulness. At any rate, he slept.
The same little clock struck twice a few minutes after a sudden
chill aroused him to consciousness. For a moment or two he lay there
wondering how he came to be out-of-doors. He was so cold and damp that
some minutes of wakefulness were required to establish the fact that
he was still in his own room and bed. It struck Hawkins as strange
that the bedclothes, tucked about his head, seemed wet and heavy and
mouldy. He pulled them tightly about his shivering body, curled his
legs up until the knees almost touched the chin and—yes, Hawkins said
damn twice or thrice. It was not long until he was sufficiently awake
to realise that he was very much out of patience.
Presently he found himself sniffing the air, his nostrils dilating
with amazement. There was a distinct odour of earth, such as one
scents only in caverns or in mossy places where the sun is forever a
stranger. It was sickening, overpowering. Hawkins began to feel that
the chill did not come from the wintry winds outside but from some
cool, aguish influence in the room itself. Half asleep, he impatiently
strove to banish the cold, damp smell by pulling the coverlet over his
head. His feet felt moist and his knees were icy cold. The thick
blanket seemed plastered to his black, wet and rank with the smell of
"What in thunder is the matter with me?" growled he, to himself. "I
never felt this way before. It's like sleeping in a fog or worse. A
big slug of whiskey is what I need, but it's too infernal cold to get
out of bed after it. How the dickens is it that typhoid fever starts
in on a fellow? Chilly back and all that, I believe,—but I can't
recall anything clammy about it."
The more he thought of it the more worried he became; more earnest
became his efforts to shut out the chilly dampness. It occurred to him
that it would be wise to crawl out and poke up the fire in the next
room. Then he remembered that there was a gas grate in his bedroom,
behind the bureau. Of course, it would be quite a task to move the
bureau and even then he might find that the gas pipe was not connected
with the burner. The most sensible proceeding, he finally resolved,
would be to get up and rebuild the fire and afterward add an overcoat
and the cherished steamer rug to the bed coverings. Damper and damper
grew the atmosphere in the room. Everything seemed to reek with the
odour of rotting wood and mouldy earth; his nostrils drank the smell
of decaying vegetation and there seemed to be no diminution. Instead,
the horrible condition appeared to grow with each succeeding breath of
The palms of his hands were wet, his face was saturated. Hawkins
was conscious of a dreadful fear that he was covered with mildew.
Once, when he was a small boy, he had gone into a vault in the
cemetery with some relatives. Somehow, the same sensations he felt on
that far-off day were now creeping over him. The room seemed stifled
with the smell of dead air, cold and gruesome. He tried to convince
himself that he was dreaming, but it was too easy to believe the other
way. Suddenly his heart stopped beating and his blood turned to ice,
for there shot into his being the fear that some dreadful thing was
about to clutch him from behind, with cold, slimy hands. In his terror
he could almost feel the touch of ghastly fingers against his flesh.
With rigid, pulseless hands he threw the soggy covers from his face
and looked forth with wide startled eyes. His face was to the wall,
his back—(his cringing back)—to the open room. Hawkins was positive
that he had heard the clock strike two and he knew that no hour of the
winter's night was darker. And yet his eyes told him that his ears had
lied to him.
It was not inky darkness that met his gaze. The room was draped in
the grey of dawn, cold, harsh, lifeless. Every object on the wall was
plainly visible in this drear light. The light green stripes in the
wall paper were leaden in colour, the darker border above was almost
blue in its greyness. For many minutes Hawkins remained motionless in
his bed, seeking a solution of the mystery. Gradually the conviction
grew upon him that he was not alone in the room. There was no sound,
no visible proof that any one was present, but something supernatural
told him that an object—human or otherwise—was not far from his
side. The most horrible feeling came over him. He was ready to shriek
with terror, so positive was his belief that the room was occupied by
some dreadful thing.
Even as he prepared to turn his face toward the open room, there
came to his ears the most terrifying sound. Distinctly, plainly he
heard a chuckle, almost at the bedside. A chuckle, hollow, sepulchral,
mirthless. The hair on Hawkins's head stood straight on end. The
impulse to hide beneath the covers was conquered by the irresistible
desire to know the worst.
He whirled in the bed, rising to his elbow, his eyes as big as
dollars. Something indescribable had told him that the visitor was no
robber midnight marauder. He did not fear physical injury, strange as
it may seem.
There, in the awful grey light, sitting bolt upright in the Morris
chair, was the most appalling visitor that man ever had. For what
seemed hours to Hawkins, he gazed into the face of this ghastly being
—the grey, livid, puffy face of a man who had been dead for weeks.
Fascination is a better word than fright in describing the emotion
of the man who glared at this uncanny object. Unbelief was supreme in
his mind for a short time only. After the first tremendous shock, his
rigid figure relaxed and he trembled like a leaf. Horror seemed to be
turning his blood to ice, his hair to the whiteness of snow. Slowly
the natural curiosity of the human mind asserted itself. His eyes left
the face of the dread figure in the chair and took brief excursions
about the room in search of the person who had laughed an age before.
Horror increased when he became thoroughly convinced that he was alone
with the cadaver.
Whence came that chuckle?
Surely not from the lips of this pallid thing near the window. His
brain reeled. His stiff lips parted as if to cry out but no sound
In a jumbled, distorted way his reason began to question the
reality of the vision, and then to speculate on how the object came to
be in his room. To his certain knowledge, the doors and windows were
locked. No one could have brought the ghastly thing to his room for
the purpose of playing a joke on him. No, he almost shrieked in
revulsion, no one could have handled the terrible thing, even had it
been possible to place it there while he slept. And yet it had been
brought to his bedroom; it could not have come by means of its own.
He tried to arise, but his muscles seemed bound in fetters of
steel. In all his after life he was not to forget the picture of that
hideous figure, sitting there in the tomb-like grey. The face was
bloated and soft and flabby, beardless and putty-like; the lips thick
and colourless; the eyes wide, sightless and glassy. The black hair
was matted and plastered close to the skull, as if it had just come
from the water. The clothes that covered the corpse were wet, slimy
and reeking with the odour of stagnant water. Huge, stiff, puffy hands
extended over the ends of the chair's arms, the fingers twice the
natural size and absolutely shapeless. Truly, it was a most repulsive
object. There was no relief in the thought that the man might have
entered the room alive, in some mysterious manner, for every sign
revealed the fact that he had been dead for a long time.
Hawkins, in his horror, found himself thinking that if he were to
poke his finger suddenly into the cheek of the object, it would leave
an impression that hours might not obliterate.
It was dead, horribly dead, and—the chuckle? His ears must have
deceived him. No sound could have come from those pallid lips—
But the thing was speaking!
"It is so nice and warm here," came plainly and distinctly from the
Morris chair, the voice harsh and grating. Something rattled in each
tone. Hawkins felt his blood freeze within him and he knew his eyes
were bulging with terror. They were glued upon the frightful thing
across the room, but they saw no movement of the thick lips.
"Wha—What?" gasped Hawkins, involuntarily. His own voice sounded
high and squeaky.
"I've been so cursed cold," responded the corpse, and there were
indications of comfort in the weird tones. "Say, I've had a devil of a
time. It's good to find a warm spot again. The Lord knows I've been
looking for it long enough."
"Good Lord! Am I crazy? Is it actually talking?" murmured Hawkins,
clutching the bedclothes frantically.
"Of course, I'm talking. Say, I'm sorry to have disturbed you at
this time of night, but you wouldn't mind if you knew how much I've
suffered from this terrible cold. Don't throw me out, for God's sake.
Let me stay here till I thaw out, please do. You won't put me out,
will you?" The appeal in those racking tones was too grotesque for
"I wouldn't—wouldn't touch you for a million dollars," gasped
Hawkins. "Good Heavens, you're dead!"
"Certainly. Any fool could tell that," answered the dead man,
"Then—then how do you come to be here?" cried the owner of the
room. "How can you be dead and still able to talk? Who placed you in
"You'll have to excuse me, but my brain is a trifle dull just now.
It hasn't had time to thaw out, I fancy. In the first place, I think I
came up the fire escape and into that window. Don't get up, please; I
closed it after me. "What was the next question? Oh, yes—I remember.
It isn't an easy matter to talk, I'll confess. One's throat gets so
cold and stiff, you know. I kept mine in pretty good condition by
calling out for help all the time I was in the water."
"Yes. That's how I happen to be so wet and disagreeable. You see,
I've been out there in the lake for almost a year!"
Hawkins fell back in the bed, speechless. He started with fresh
terror when he passed his hand over his wet forehead. The hand was
"There's a lot of them out there, you may be sure. I stumbled over
them two or three times a day. No matter where you walk or float,
you're always seeing dead people out there. They're awful sights,
too,—give one the shivers. The trouble with most people who go to the
bottom is that they give up and are content to lie there forever,
washed around in the mud and sand in a most disgusting way. I couldn't
bear the thought of staying down there for ages, so I kept on trying
to get out. Shows what perseverance will do, doesn't it?"
"You don't mean to say that—that—Good Lord, I must have brain
fever!" cried poor Hawkins hoarsely.
"Do I annoy you? I'll be going presently, although I hate to leave
this warm corner. But you can rest assured of one thing: I'll never go
near that lake again. All the weight in the world couldn't drag me to
the bottom after what I've gone through. It's not right, I know, to
trespass like this. It's a rank shame. But don't be hard on me, Mr.—
"I don't know it," groaned Hawkins, who could not have told his
name if his life was at stake. He had forgotten everything except the
terrible thing in the Morris chair.
"My name is—or was—Taylor, Alfred B. Taylor. I used to live in
Lincoln Avenue, quite a distance out. Perhaps you have heard of me.
Didn't the newspapers have an account of my disappearance last
February? They always print such stuff, so I'm sure they had something
about me. I broke through the ice off Lincoln Park one day while
walking out toward the crib."
"I—I remember," Hawkins managed to whisper. "You were the Board of
Trade man who—who—"
"Who took one chance too many," completed the dead man, grimly. "A
Board of Trade man often gets on very thin ice, you know," the
sepulchral laugh that oozed from those grey lips rang in the
listener's ears till his dying day. "These clothes of mine were pretty
good the day I went down, but the water and the fishes have played
havoc with them, I'm afraid. It strikes me they won't hold together
"You—you don't look as though you'd hold together very long
yourself," ventured Hawkins, picking up a little courage.
"Do I look that bad?" asked Mr. Taylor, quite ruefully. "Well, I
daresay it's to be expected. I've been plodding around on the bottom
of the lake for a year and the wear and tear is enormous. For months I
was frozen stiff as a rail. Then summer came along and I was warmed up
a bit. The terrible cold snap we're having just now almost caught me
before I got out of the water. The trouble was, I lost my bearings and
wandered miles and miles out into the lake. Then it was like hunting a
needle in a haystack to find dry land. I'm sure I travelled a circle
for hundreds of miles before I accidentally wandered upon the beach
down there by the Fresh Air place. I really believe this is a colder
night than the first one I spent in the lake, and that day was
supposed to be a record breaker, I remember. Twenty-six below zero, if
I'm not mistaken. By George, I'm warming up nicely in here. I feel
like stretching a bit!"
"For God's sake, don't!" almost shrieked Hawkins, burying his head
beneath the covers.
"Very well, since you object," came to his muffled ears. "You must
be very warm in that bed. I'd give all I have in the world if I could
get into a nice warm bed like that once more."
Hawkins peeped from beneath the cover in dire apprehension, but was
intensely relieved to see that the terrible Mr. Taylor had not changed
his attitude. The eyes of the watcher suddenly fixed themselves on the
visitor's right hand. The member was slowly sliding off the arm of the
chair. Fascinated, Hawkins continued to watch its progress. At last,
it dropped heavily from its resting place. The position of the corpse
changed instantly, the sudden jerk of the dead weight pulling the body
forward and to one side. The head lolled to the right and the lower
jaw dropped, leaving the mouth half open. One eyelid closed slowly, as
if the cadaver was bestowing a friendly wink upon his host.
"Very awkward of me," apologised Mr. Taylor, his voice not so
distinct, his words considerably jumbled on account of the unfortunate
mishap to his mouth.
"Get out of here!" shrieked Hawkins, unable to endure the horror
any longer. "Get out!"
"Oh, you don't mean that, do you?" pleaded the thing in the chair.
"I'm just beginning to feel comfortable and—"
"Get out!" again cried Hawkins, frenzied.
"It's rotten mean of you, old man," said Mr. Taylor. "I wouldn't
turn you out if our positions were reversed. Hang it, man, I'd be
humane. I'd ask you to get into bed and warm up thoroughly. And I'd
set out the whiskey, too."
But Hawkins was speechless.
"Confound your penurious soul," growled Mr. Taylor, after a long
silence, "I've a notion to climb into that bed anyhow. If you want to
throw me out, go ahead. I'm used to being knocked about and a little
more of it won't hurt me, I guess. Move over there, old man. I'm going
to get in."
With a scream of terror, Hawkins leaped up in the bed. The dead man
was slowly rising from the chair, one eye fixed on the ceiling, the
other directed toward the floor. Just as the awful body lurched
forward, Hawkins sprang from the bed and struck out frantically with
his clenched hand. The knuckles lodged against the bulging brow of the
dead man and they seemed to go clear to the skull, burying themselves
in the cushion-like flesh. As the horrid object crashed to the floor,
Hawkins flew through the library and into the hall, crying like a
Other occupants of the building, awakened by the frightful shrieks,
found him crouching in a corner on one of the stair landings, his wide
eyes staring up the steps down which he had just tumbled. It was an
interminably long time before he could tell them what had happened and
then they all assured him he had been dreaming. But Hawkins knew he
had not been dreaming.
Three of the men who went to his bedroom came hurriedly down the
stairs, white-faced and trembling. They had not seen the corpse but
they had found plenty of evidence to prove that something terrible had
been in Hawkins' bedroom.
The window was open and the chair which stood in front of it was
overturned, as if some one had upset it in crawling out upon the fire
escape platform. One of the men looked out into the night. He saw a
man crossing the street in the very face of the gale, running as if
pursued. It was too dark to see the man's face, but the observer was
sure that he turned twice to look up at the open window. The figure
turned into an alley, going toward the lake.
The Morris chair was wet and foul-smelling, and the floor was
saturated in places. A piece of cloth, soaked with mud, was found
beneath the window sill. Evidently it had been caught and torn away by
the curtain hook on the window sash. Hawkins would not go near the
room and it was weeks before he was able to resume work at the bank.
And, stranger than all else, the dead body of a man was found in
the snow near the Fresh Air Sanitarium the next morning, but no one
could identify the corpse. The man had been dead for months.