At Old Man Eckert’s by Ambrose Bierce
Philip Eckert lived for many years in an old, weather-stained wooden
house about three miles from the little town of Marion, in Vermont.
There must be quite a number of persons living who remember him, not
unkindly, I trust, and know something of the story that I am about to
“Old Man Eckert,” as he was always called, was not of a
sociable disposition and lived alone. As he was never known to
speak of his own affairs nobody thereabout knew anything of his past,
nor of his relatives if he had any. Without being particularly
ungracious or repellent in manner or speech, he managed somehow to be
immune to impertinent curiosity, yet exempt from the evil repute with
which it commonly revenges itself when baffled; so far as I know, Mr.
Eckert’s renown as a reformed assassin or a retired pirate of
the Spanish Main had not reached any ear in Marion. He got his
living cultivating a small and not very fertile farm.
One day he disappeared and a prolonged search by his neighbors failed
to turn him up or throw any light upon his whereabouts or whyabouts.
Nothing indicated preparation to leave: all was as he might have left
it to go to the spring for a bucket of water. For a few weeks
little else was talked of in that region; then “old man Eckert”
became a village tale for the ear of the stranger. I do not know
what was done regarding his property - the correct legal thing, doubtless.
The house was standing, still vacant and conspicuously unfit, when I
last heard of it, some twenty years afterward.
Of course it came to be considered “haunted,” and the customary
tales were told of moving lights, dolorous sounds and startling apparitions.
At one time, about five years after the disappearance, these stories
of the supernatural became so rife, or through some attesting circumstances
seemed so important, that some of Marion’s most serious citizens
deemed it well to investigate, and to that end arranged for a night
session on the premises. The parties to this undertaking were
John Holcomb, an apothecary; Wilson Merle, a lawyer, and Andrus C. Palmer,
the teacher of the public school, all men of consequence and repute.
They were to meet at Holcomb’s house at eight o’clock in
the evening of the appointed day and go together to the scene of their
vigil, where certain arrangements for their comfort, a provision of
fuel and the like, for the season was winter, had been already made.
Palmer did not keep the engagement, and after waiting a half-hour for
him the others went to the Eckert house without him. They established
themselves in the principal room, before a glowing fire, and without
other light than it gave, awaited events. It had been agreed to
speak as little as possible: they did not even renew the exchange of
views regarding the defection of Palmer, which had occupied their minds
on the way.
Probably an hour had passed without incident when they heard (not without
emotion, doubtless) the sound of an opening door in the rear of the
house, followed by footfalls in the room adjoining that in which they
sat. The watchers rose to their feet, but stood firm, prepared
for whatever might ensue. A long silence followed - how long neither
would afterward undertake to say. Then the door between the two
rooms opened and a man entered.
It was Palmer. He was pale, as if from excitement - as pale as
the others felt themselves to be. His manner, too, was singularly
distrait: he neither responded to their salutations nor so much as looked
at them, but walked slowly across the room in the light of the failing
fire and opening the front door passed out into the darkness.
It seems to have been the first thought of both men that Palmer was
suffering from fright - that something seen, heard or imagined in the
back room had deprived him of his senses. Acting on the same friendly
impulse both ran after him through the open door. But neither
they nor anyone ever again saw or heard of Andrus Palmer!
This much was ascertained the next morning. During the session
of Messrs. Holcomb and Merle at the “haunted house” a new
snow had fallen to a depth of several inches upon the old. In
this snow Palmer’s trail from his lodging in the village to the
back door of the Eckert house was conspicuous. But there it ended:
from the front door nothing led away but the tracks of the two men who
swore that he preceded them. Palmer’s disappearance was
as complete as that of “old man Eckert” himself - whom,
indeed, the editor of the local paper somewhat graphically accused of
having “reached out and pulled him in.”