The Isle of Pines by Ambrose Bierce
For many years there lived near the town of Gallipolis, Ohio, an old
man named Herman Deluse. Very little was known of his history,
for he would neither speak of it himself nor suffer others. It
was a common belief among his neighbors that he had been a pirate -
if upon any better evidence than his collection of boarding pikes, cutlasses,
and ancient flintlock pistols, no one knew. He lived entirely
alone in a small house of four rooms, falling rapidly into decay and
never repaired further than was required by the weather. It stood
on a slight elevation in the midst of a large, stony field overgrown
with brambles, and cultivated in patches and only in the most primitive
way. It was his only visible property, but could hardly have yielded
him a living, simple and few as were his wants. He seemed always
to have ready money, and paid cash for all his purchases at the village
stores roundabout, seldom buying more than two or three times at the
same place until after the lapse of a considerable time. He got
no commendation, however, for this equitable distribution of his patronage;
people were disposed to regard it as an ineffectual attempt to conceal
his possession of so much money. That he had great hoards of ill-gotten
gold buried somewhere about his tumble-down dwelling was not reasonably
to be doubted by any honest soul conversant with the facts of local
tradition and gifted with a sense of the fitness of things.
On the 9th of November, 1867, the old man died; at least his dead body
was discovered on the 10th, and physicians testified that death had
occurred about twenty-four hours previously - precisely how, they were
unable to say; for the post-mortem examination showed every organ
to be absolutely healthy, with no indication of disorder or violence.
According to them, death must have taken place about noonday, yet the
body was found in bed. The verdict of the coroner’s jury
was that he “came to his death by a visitation of God.”
The body was buried and the public administrator took charge of the
A rigorous search disclosed nothing more than was already known about
the dead man, and much patient excavation here and there about the premises
by thoughtful and thrifty neighbors went unrewarded. The administrator
locked up the house against the time when the property, real and personal,
should be sold by law with a view to defraying, partly, the expenses
of the sale.
The night of November 20 was boisterous. A furious gale stormed
across the country, scourging it with desolating drifts of sleet.
Great trees were torn from the earth and hurled across the roads.
So wild a night had never been known in all that region, but toward
morning the storm had blown itself out of breath and day dawned bright
and clear. At about eight o’clock that morning the Rev.
Henry Galbraith, a well-known and highly esteemed Lutheran minister,
arrived on foot at his house, a mile and a half from the Deluse place.
Mr. Galbraith had been for a month in Cincinnati. He had come
up the river in a steamboat, and landing at Gallipolis the previous
evening had immediately obtained a horse and buggy and set out for home.
The violence of the storm had delayed him over night, and in the morning
the fallen trees had compelled him to abandon his conveyance and continue
his journey afoot.
“But where did you pass the night?” inquired his wife, after
he had briefly related his adventure.
“With old Deluse at the ‘Isle of Pines,’”
was the laughing reply; “and a glum enough time I had of it.
He made no objection to my remaining, but not a word could I get out
Fortunately for the interests of truth there was present at this conversation
Mr. Robert Mosely Maren, a lawyer and littérateur of Columbus,
the same who wrote the delightful “Mellowcraft Papers.”
Noting, but apparently not sharing, the astonishment caused by Mr. Galbraith’s
answer this ready-witted person checked by a gesture the exclamations
that would naturally have followed, and tranquilly inquired: “How
came you to go in there?”
This is Mr. Maren’s version of Mr. Galbraith’s reply:
“I saw a light moving about the house, and being nearly blinded
by the sleet, and half frozen besides, drove in at the gate and put
up my horse in the old rail stable, where it is now. I then rapped
at the door, and getting no invitation went in without one. The
room was dark, but having matches I found a candle and lit it.
I tried to enter the adjoining room, but the door was fast, and although
I heard the old man’s heavy footsteps in there he made no response
to my calls. There was no fire on the hearth, so I made one and
laying [sic] down before it with my overcoat under my head, prepared
myself for sleep. Pretty soon the door that I had tried silently
opened and the old man came in, carrying a candle. I spoke to
him pleasantly, apologizing for my intrusion, but he took no notice
of me. He seemed to be searching for something, though his eyes
were unmoved in their sockets. I wonder if he ever walks in his
sleep. He took a circuit a part of the way round the room, and
went out the same way he had come in. Twice more before I slept
he came back into the room, acting precisely the same way, and departing
as at first. In the intervals I heard him tramping all over the
house, his footsteps distinctly audible in the pauses of the storm.
When I woke in the morning he had already gone out.”
Mr. Maren attempted some further questioning, but was unable longer
to restrain the family’s tongues; the story of Deluse’s
death and burial came out, greatly to the good minister’s astonishment.
“The explanation of your adventure is very simple,” said
Mr. Maren. “I don’t believe old Deluse walks in his
sleep - not in his present one; but you evidently dream in yours.”
And to this view of the matter Mr. Galbraith was compelled reluctantly
Nevertheless, a late hour of the next night found these two gentlemen,
accompanied by a son of the minister, in the road in front of the old
Deluse house. There was a light inside; it appeared now at one
window and now at another. The three men advanced to the door.
Just as they reached it there came from the interior a confusion of
the most appalling sounds - the clash of weapons, steel against steel,
sharp explosions as of firearms, shrieks of women, groans and the curses
of men in combat! The investigators stood a moment, irresolute,
frightened. Then Mr. Galbraith tried the door. It was fast.
But the minister was a man of courage, a man, moreover, of Herculean
strength. He retired a pace or two and rushed against the door,
striking it with his right shoulder and bursting it from the frame with
a loud crash. In a moment the three were inside. Darkness
and silence! The only sound was the beating of their hearts.
Mr. Maren had provided himself with matches and a candle. With
some difficulty, begotten of his excitement, he made a light, and they
proceeded to explore the place, passing from room to room. Everything
was in orderly arrangement, as it had been left by the sheriff; nothing
had been disturbed. A light coating of dust was everywhere.
A back door was partly open, as if by neglect, and their first thought
was that the authors of the awful revelry might have escaped.
The door was opened, and the light of the candle shone through upon
the ground. The expiring effort of the previous night’s
storm had been a light fall of snow; there were no footprints; the white
surface was unbroken. They closed the door and entered the last
room of the four that the house contained - that farthest from the road,
in an angle of the building. Here the candle in Mr. Maren’s
hand was suddenly extinguished as by a draught of air. Almost
immediately followed the sound of a heavy fall. When the candle
had been hastily relighted young Mr. Galbraith was seen prostrate on
the floor at a little distance from the others. He was dead.
In one hand the body grasped a heavy sack of coins, which later examination
showed to be all of old Spanish mintage. Directly over the body
as it lay, a board had been torn from its fastenings in the wall, and
from the cavity so disclosed it was evident that the bag had been taken.
Another inquest was held: another post-mortem examination failed
to reveal a probable cause of death. Another verdict of “the
visitation of God” left all at liberty to form their own conclusions.
Mr. Maren contended that the young man died of excitement.