A Halloween Treat: The Scariest Story of All Time

Last Christmas I ran the top ten scary stories of all time. I still think those stories are the best, but that's not always the same as being the scariest. For actually making me feel unadulterated fear, I present this dark gem. And it's not only scary--it's also good. 




THE SPOOK HOUSE
Ambrose Bierce


On the road leading north from Manchester, in eastern Kentucky, to Booneville, twenty miles away, stood, in 1862, a wooden plantation house of a somewhat better quality than most of the dwellings in that region.  The house was destroyed by fire in the year following- -probably by some stragglers from the retreating column of General George W. Morgan, when he was driven from Cumberland Gap to the Ohio river by General Kirby Smith.  At the time of its destruction, it had for four or five years been vacant.  The fields about it were overgrown with brambles, the fences gone, even the few negro quarters, and out-houses generally, fallen partly into ruin by neglect and pillage; for the negroes and poor whites of the vicinity found in the building and fences an abundant supply of fuel, of which they availed themselves without hesitation, openly and by daylight.  By daylight alone; after nightfall no human being except passing strangers ever went near the place.

It was known as the "Spook House."  That it was tenanted by evil spirits, visible, audible and active, no one in all that region doubted any more than he doubted what he was told of Sundays by the traveling preacher.  Its owner's opinion of the matter was unknown; he and his family had disappeared one night and no trace of them had ever been found.  They left everything--household goods, clothing, provisions, the horses in the stable, the cows in the field, the negroes in the quarters--all as it stood; nothing was missing-- except a man, a woman, three girls, a boy and a babe!  It was not altogether surprising that a plantation where seven human beings could be simultaneously effaced and nobody the wiser should be under some suspicion.

One night in June, 1859, two citizens of Frankfort, Col. J. C. McArdle, a lawyer, and Judge Myron Veigh, of the State Militia, were driving from Booneville to Manchester.  Their business was so important that they decided to push on, despite the darkness and the mutterings of an approaching storm, which eventually broke upon them just as they arrived opposite the "Spook House."  The lightning was so incessant that they easily found their way through the gateway and into a shed, where they hitched and unharnessed their team. They then went to the house, through the rain, and knocked at all the doors without getting any response.  Attributing this to the continuous uproar of the thunder they pushed at one of the doors, which yielded.  They entered without further ceremony and closed the door.  That instant they were in darkness and silence.  Not a gleam of the lightning's unceasing blaze penetrated the windows or crevices; not a whisper of the awful tumult without reached them there.  It was as if they had suddenly been stricken blind and deaf, and McArdle afterward said that for a moment he believed himself to have been killed by a stroke of lightning as he crossed the threshold.  The rest of this adventure can as well be related in his own words, from the Frankfort Advocate of August 6, 1876:

"When I had somewhat recovered from the dazing effect of the transition from uproar to silence, my first impulse was to reopen the door which I had closed, and from the knob of which I was not conscious of having removed my hand; I felt it distinctly, still in the clasp of my fingers.  My notion was to ascertain by stepping again into the storm whether I had been deprived of sight and hearing.  I turned the doorknob and pulled open the door.  It led into another room!

"This apartment was suffused with a faint greenish light, the source of which I could not determine, making everything distinctly visible, though nothing was sharply defined.  Everything, I say, but in truth the only objects within the blank stone walls of that room were human corpses.  In number they were perhaps eight or ten--it may well be understood that I did not truly count them.  They were of different ages, or rather sizes, from infancy up, and of both sexes.  All were prostrate on the floor, excepting one, apparently a young woman, who sat up, her back supported by an angle of the wall. A babe was clasped in the arms of another and older woman.  A half- grown lad lay face downward across the legs of a full-bearded man. One or two were nearly naked, and the hand of a young girl held the fragment of a gown which she had torn open at the breast.  The bodies were in various stages of decay, all greatly shrunken in face and figure.  Some were but little more than skeletons.

"While I stood stupefied with horror by this ghastly spectacle and still holding open the door, by some unaccountable perversity my attention was diverted from the shocking scene and concerned itself with trifles and details.  Perhaps my mind, with an instinct of self-preservation, sought relief in matters which would relax its dangerous tension.  Among other things, I observed that the door that I was holding open was of heavy iron plates, riveted. Equidistant from one another and from the top and bottom, three strong bolts protruded from the beveled edge.  I turned the knob and they were retracted flush with the edge; released it, and they shot out.  It was a spring lock.  On the inside there was no knob, nor any kind of projection--a smooth surface of iron.

"While noting these things with an interest and attention which it now astonishes me to recall I felt myself thrust aside, and Judge Veigh, whom in the intensity and vicissitudes of my feelings I had altogether forgotten, pushed by me into the room.  'For God's sake,' I cried, 'do not go in there!  Let us get out of this dreadful place!'

"He gave no heed to my entreaties, but (as fearless a gentleman as lived in all the South) walked quickly to the center of the room, knelt beside one of the bodies for a closer examination and tenderly raised its blackened and shriveled head in his hands.  A strong disagreeable odor came through the doorway, completely overpowering me.  My senses reeled; I felt myself falling, and in clutching at the edge of the door for support pushed it shut with a sharp click!

"I remember no more:  six weeks later I recovered my reason in a hotel at Manchester, whither I had been taken by strangers the next day.  For all these weeks I had suffered from a nervous fever, attended with constant delirium.  I had been found lying in the road several miles away from the house; but how I had escaped from it to get there I never knew.  On recovery, or as soon as my physicians permitted me to talk, I inquired the fate of Judge Veigh, whom (to quiet me, as I now know) they represented as well and at home.

"No one believed a word of my story, and who can wonder?  And who can imagine my grief when, arriving at my home in Frankfort two months later, I learned that Judge Veigh had never been heard of since that night?  I then regretted bitterly the pride which since the first few days after the recovery of my reason had forbidden me to repeat my discredited story and insist upon its truth.

"With all that afterward occurred--the examination of the house; the failure to find any room corresponding to that which I have described; the attempt to have me adjudged insane, and my triumph over my accusers--the readers of the Advocate are familiar.  After all these years I am still confident that excavations which I have neither the legal right to undertake nor the wealth to make would disclose the secret of the disappearance of my unhappy friend, and possibly of the former occupants and owners of the deserted and now destroyed house.  I do not despair of yet bringing about such a search, and it is a source of deep grief to me that it has been delayed by the undeserved hostility and unwise incredulity of the family and friends of the late Judge Veigh."

Colonel McArdle died in Frankfort on the thirteenth day of December, in the year 1879.



My Next Book


Cabinet of Curiosities: 
A Kid's Guide to Collecting and Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World

My next book is is still a few months in the future, but it’s already advertised on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound. From devil’s claws to carrion beetles, this one is packed with fascinating weirdness. There’s some history of the Cabinet of Curiosity—and some instructions on how to preserve specimens in your own personal collection. I’ve been waiting 15 years to include my skull collection in a book. Stay tuned in the coming months for more details. 

Bobcat Up a Tree

Bruce Coe: Knockout Photography

Reader Bob Haynie tells me of a recent encounter:


A couple weeks ago, we caught up with this fellow a couple miles down the mountain at our friends’, the Coes. Their housecat Toad chased him up a tree, and he stayed up there a while, watching us, us watching him, Toad sitting on an old piece of ranch equipment staring up, and so on. Bruce (a fine photographer) got out the super-spy huge lens and took some pictures. Maybe Toad just got the bulge on this guy and he spooked; but Kim says she has seen Toad playing with a bobcat, so maybe this is his pal and Toad won whatever game they were playing. Either way, it is a treat to see one of these pretty animals. Peggy and I have seen only one other in our 15 years up here. We watched him for a while, then when Peggy and I got in the car to come back up the hill we saw him limb-hopping down. A last jump, a rustle in the bushes and that was that. A treat.

Bruce Coe: Knockout Photography

Story of a Cryptid Monster


With reports of the Iceland Worm Monster in the news, this seems like a good time to share Kipling's off-beat tale of impressive wormy cryptids from the deep. 


A Matter of Fact
 by Rudyard Kipling

And if ye doubt the tale I tell,
Steer through the South Pacific swell;
Go where the branching coral hives
Unending strife of endless lives.
Where, leagued about the ‘wildered boat,
The rainbow jellies fill and float;
And, lilting where the laver lingers,
The starfish trips on all her fingers;
Where, ‘neath his myriad spines ashock,
The sea-egg ripples down the rock;
An orange wonder dimly guessed,
From darkness where the cuttles rest,
Moored o’er the darker deeps that hide
The blind white Sea-snake and his bride;
Who, drowsing, nose the long-lost ships
Let down through darkness to their lips.
— The Palms.


ONCE a priest, always a priest; once a mason, always a mason; but once a journalist, always and for ever a journalist.

There were three of us, all newspaper men, the only passengers on a little tramp steamer that ran where her owners told her to go. She had once been in the Bilbao iron ore business, had been lent to the Spanish Government for service at Manilla; and was ending her days in the Cape Town coolie-trade, with occasional trips to Madagascar and even as far as England. We found her going to Southampton in ballast, and shipped in her because the fares were nominal. There was Keller, of an American paper, on his way back to the States from palace executions in Madagascar; there was a burly half-Dutchman, called Zuyland, who owned and edited a paper up country near Johannesburg; and there was myself, who had solemnly put away all journalism, vowing to forget that I had ever known the difference between an imprint and a stereo advertisement.

Ten minutes after Keller spoke to me, as the Rathmines cleared Cape Town, I had forgotten the aloofness I desired to feign, and was in heated discussion on the immorality of expanding telegrams beyond a certain fixed point. Then Zuyland came out of his cabin, and we were all at home instantly, because we were men of the same profession needing no introduction. We annexed the boat formally, broke open the passengers’ bath-room door — on the Manilla lines the Dons do not wash — cleaned out the orange-peel and cigar-ends at the bottom of the bath, hired a Lascar to shave us throughout the voyage, and then asked each other’s names.

Three ordinary men would have quarrelled through sheer boredom before they reached Southampton. We, by virtue of our craft, were anything but ordinary men. A large percentage of the tales of the world, the thirty-nine that cannot be told to ladies and the one that can, are common property coming of a common stock. We told them all, as a matter of form, with all their local and specific variants which are surprising. Then came, in the intervals of steady card-play, more personal histories of adventure and things seen and suffered: panics among white folk, when the blind terror ran from man to man on the Brooklyn Bridge, and the people crushed each other to death they knew not why; fires, and faces that opened and shut their mouths horribly at red-hot window frames; wrecks in frost and snow, reported from the sleet-sheathed rescue-tug at the risk of frostbite; long rides after diamond thieves; skirmishes on the veldt and in municipal committees with the Boers; glimpses of lazy tangled Cape politics and the mule-rule in the Transvaal; card-tales, horse-tales, woman-tales, by the score and the half hundred; till the first mate, who had seen more than us all put together, but lacked words to clothe his tales with, sat open-mouthed far into the dawn.

When the tales were done we picked up cards till a curious hand or a chance remark made one or other of us say, ‘That reminds me of a man who — or a business which —’ and the anecdotes would continue while the Rathmines kicked her way northward through the warm water.

In the morning of one specially warm night we three were sitting immediately in front of the wheel-house, where an old Swedish boatswain whom we called ‘Frithiof the Dane’ was at the wheel, pretending that he could not hear our stories. Once or twice Frithiof spun the spokes curiously, and Keller lifted his head from a long chair to ask, ‘What is it? Can’t you get any steerage-way on her?’

‘There is a feel in the water,’ said Frithiof, ‘that I cannot understand. I think that we run downhills or somethings. She steers bad this morning.’

Nobody seems to know the laws that govern the pulse of the big waters. Sometimes even a lands-man can tell that the solid ocean is atilt, and that the ship is working herself up a long unseen slope; and sometimes the captain says, when neither full steam nor fair wind justifies the length of a day’s run, that the ship is sagging downhill; but how these ups and downs come about has not yet been settled authoritatively.

‘No, it is a following sea,’ said Frithiof; ‘and with a following sea you shall not get good steerage-way.’

The sea was as smooth as a duck-pond, except for a regular oily swell. As I looked over the side to see where it might be following us from, the sun rose in a perfectly clear sky and struck the water with its light so sharply that it seemed as though the sea should clang like a burnished gong. The wake of the screw and the little white streak cut by the log-line hanging over the stern were the only marks on the water as far as eye could reach.

Keller rolled out of his chair and went aft to get a pine-apple from the ripening stock that was hung inside the after awning.

‘Frithiof, the log-line has got tired of swimming. It’s coming home,’ he drawled.

‘What?’ said Frithiof, his voice jumping several octaves.

‘Coming home,’ Keller repeated, leaning over the stern. I ran to his side and saw the log-line, which till then had been drawn tense over the stern railing, slacken, loop, and come up off the port quarter. Frithiof called up the speaking-tube to the bridge, and the bridge answered, ‘Yes, nine knots.’ Then Frithiof spoke again, and the answer was, ‘What do you want of the skipper?’ and Frithiof bellowed, ‘Call him up.’

By this time Zuyland, Keller, and myself had caught something of Frithiof’s excitement, for any emotion on shipboard is most contagious. The captain ran out of his cabin, spoke to Frithiof, looked at the log-line, jumped on the bridge, and in a minute we felt the steamer swing round as Frithiof turned her.

‘‘Going back to Cape Town?’ said Keller.

Frithiof did not answer, but tore away at the wheel. Then he beckoned us three to help, and we held the wheel down till the Rathmines answered it, and we found ourselves looking into the white of our own wake, with the still oily sea tearing past our bows, though we were not going more than half steam ahead.

The captain stretched out his arm from the bridge and shouted. A minute later I would have given a great deal to have shouted too, for one-half of the sea seemed to shoulder itself above the other half, and came on in the shape of a hill. There was neither crest, comb, nor curl-over to it; nothing but black water with little waves chasing each other about the flanks. I saw it stream past and on a level with the Rathmines’; bow-plates before the steamer hove up her bulk to rise, and I argued that this would be the last of all earthly voyages for me. Then we lifted for ever and ever and ever, till I heard Keller saying in my ear, ‘The bowels of the deep, good Lord!’ and the Rathmines stood poised, her screw racing and drumming on the slope of a hollow that stretched downwards for a good half-mile.

We went down that hollow, nose under for the most part, and the air smelt wet and muddy, like that of an emptied aquarium. There was a second hill to climb; I saw that much: but the water came aboard and carried me aft till it jammed me against the wheel-house door, and before I could catch breath or clear my eyes again we were rolling to and fro in torn water, with the scuppers pouring like eaves in a thunderstorm.

‘There were three waves,’ said Keller; ‘and the stokehold’s flooded.’

The firemen were on deck waiting, apparently, to be drowned. The engineer came and dragged them below, and the crew, gasping, began to work the clumsy Board of Trade pump. That showed nothing serious, and when I understood that the Rathmines was really on the water, and not beneath it, I asked what had happened.

‘The captain says it was a blow-up under the sea — a volcano,’ said Keller.

‘It hasn’t warmed anything,’ I said. I was feeling bitterly cold, and cold was almost unknown in those waters. I went below to change my clothes, and when I came up everything was wiped out in clinging white fog.

‘Are there going to be any more surprises?’ said Keller to the captain.

‘I don’t know. Be thankful you’re alive, gentlemen. That’s a tidal wave thrown up by a volcano. Probably the bottom of the sea has been lifted a few feet somewhere or other. I can’t quite understand this cold spell. Our sea-thermometer says the surface water is 44º, and it should be 68º at least.’

‘It’s abominable,’ said Keller, shivering. ‘But hadn’t you better attend to the fog-horn? It seems to me that I heard something.’

‘Heard! Good heavens!’ said the captain from the bridge, ‘ I should think you did.’ He pulled the string of our fog-horn, which was a weak one. It sputtered and choked, because the stokehold was full of water and the fires were halfdrowned, and at last gave out a moan. It was answered from the fog by one of the most appalling steam-sirens I have ever heard. Keller turned as white as I did, for the fog, the cold fog, was upon us, and any man may be forgiven for fearing a death he cannot see.

‘Give her steam there!’ said the captain to the engine-room. ‘Steam for the whistle, if we have to go dead slow.’

We bellowed again, and the damp dripped off the awnings on to the deck as we listened for the reply. It seemed to be astern this time, but much nearer than before.

‘The Pembroke Castle on us!’ said Keller; and then, viciously, ‘Well, thank God, we shall sink her too.’

‘It’s a side-wheel steamer,’ I whispered. ‘Can’t you hear the paddles?’

This time we whistled and roared till the steam gave out, and the answer nearly deafened us. There was a sound of frantic threshing in the water, apparently about fifty yards away, and something shot past in the whiteness that looked as though it were gray and red.

‘The Pembroke Castle bottom up,’ said Keller, who, being a journalist, always sought for explanations. ‘That’s the colours of a Castle liner. We’re in for a big thing.’

‘The sea is bewitched,’ said Frithiof from the wheel-house. ‘There are two steamers!’

Another siren sounded on our bow, and the little steamer rolled in the wash of something that had passed unseen.

‘We’re evidently in the middle of a fleet,’ said Keller quietly. ‘If one doesn’t run us down, the other will. Phew! What in creation is that?’

I sniffed, for there was a poisonous rank smell in the cold air — a smell that I had smelt before.

‘If I was on land I should say that it was an alligator. It smells like musk,’ I answered.

‘Not ten thousand alligators could make that smell,’ said Zuyland; ‘I have smelt them.’

‘Bewitched! Bewitched!’ said Frithiof. ‘The sea she is turned upside down, and we are walking along the bottom.’

Again the Rathmines rolled in the wash of some unseen ship, and a silver-gray wave broke over the bow, leaving on the deck a sheet of sediment-the gray broth that has its place in the fathomless deeps of the sea. A sprinkling of the wave fell on my face, and it was so cold that it stung as boiling water stings. The dead and most untouched deep water of the sea had been heaved to the top by the submarine volcano — the chill still water that kills all life and smells of desolation and emptiness. We did not need either the blinding fog or that indescribable smell of musk to make us unhappy — we were shivering with cold and wretchedness where we stood.

‘The hot air on the cold water makes this fog,’ said the captain; ‘it ought to clear in a little time.’

‘Whistle, oh! whistle, and let’s get out of it,’ said Keller.

The captain whistled again, and far and far astern the invisible twin steam-sirens answered us. Their blasting shriek grew louder, till at last it seemed to tear out of the fog just above our quarter, and I cowered while the Rathmines plunged bows under on a double swell that crossed.

‘No more,’ said Frithiof, ‘it is not good any more. Let us get away, in the name of God.’

‘Now if a torpedo-boat with a City of Paris siren went mad and broke her moorings and hired a friend to help her, it’s just conceivable that we might be carried as we are now. Otherwise this thing is —’

The last words died on Keller’s lips, his eyes began to start from his head, and his jaw fell. Some six or seven feet above the port bulwarks, framed in fog, and as utterly unsupported as the full moon, hung a Face. It was not human, and it certainly was not animal, for it did not belong to this earth as known to man. The mouth was open, revealing a ridiculously tiny tongue — as absurd as the tongue of an elephant; there were tense wrinkles of white skin at the angles of the drawn lips, white feelers like those of a barbel sprung from the lower jaw, and there was no sign of teeth within the mouth. But the horror of the face lay in the eyes, for those were sightless — white, in sockets as white as scraped bone, and blind. Yet for all this the face, wrinkled as the mask of a lion is drawn in Assyrian sculpture, was alive with rage and terror. One long white feeler touched our bulwarks. Then the face disappeared with the swiftness of a blindworm popping into its burrow, and the next thing that I remember is my own voice in my own ears, saying gravely to the mainmast, ‘But the air-bladder ought to have been forced out of its mouth, you know.’

Keller came up to me, ashy white. He put his hand into his pocket, took a cigar, bit it, dropped it, thrust his shaking thumb into his mouth and mumbled, ‘The giant gooseberry and the raining frogs! Gimme a light-gimme a light! Say, gimme a light.’ A little bead of blood dropped from his thumb joint.

I respected the motive, though the manifestation was absurd. ‘Stop, you’ll bite your thumb off,’ I said, and Keller laughed brokenly as he picked up his cigar. Only Zuyland, leaning over the port bulwarks, seemed self-possessed. He declared later that he was very sick.

‘We’ve seen it,’ he said, turning round. ‘That is it.’

‘What?’ said Keller, chewing the unlighted cigar.

As he spoke the fog was blown into shreds, and we saw the sea, gray with mud, rolling on every side of us and empty of all life. Then in one spot it bubbled and became like the pot of ointment that the Bible speaks of. From that wideringed trouble a Thing came up — a gray and red Thing with a neck — a Thing that bellowed and writhed in pain. Frithiof drew in his breath and held it till the red letters of the ship’s name, woven across his jersey, straggled and opened out as though they had been type badly set. Then he said with a little cluck in his throat, ‘Ah me! It is blind. Hur illa! That thing is blind,’ and a murmur of pity went through us all, for we could see that the thing on the water was blind and in pain. Something had gashed and cut the great sides cruelly and the blood was spurting out. The gray ooze of the undermost sea lay in the monstrous wrinkles of the back, and poured away in sluices. The blind white head flung back and battered the wounds, and the body in its torment rose clear of the red and gray waves till we saw a pair of quivering shoulders streaked with weed and rough with shells, but as white in the clear spaces as the hairless, maneless, blind, toothless head. Afterwards, came a dot on the horizon and the sound of a shrill scream, and it was as though a shuttle shot all across the sea in one breath, and a second head and neck tore through the levels, driving a whispering wall of water to right and left. The two Things met — the one untouched and the other in its death-throe — male and female, we said, the female coming to the male. She circled round him bellowing, and laid her neck across the curve of his great turtle-back, and he disappeared under water for an instant, but flung up again, grunting in agony while the blood ran. Once the entire head and neck shot clear of the water and stiffened, and I heard Keller saying, as though he was watching a street accident, ‘Give him air. For God’s sake, give him air.’ Then the death-struggle began, with crampings and twistings and jerkings of the white bulk to and fro, till our little steamer rolled again, and each gray wave coated her plates with the gray slime. The sun was clear, there was no wind, and we watched, the whole crew, stokers and all, in wonder and pity, but chiefly pity. The Thing was so helpless, and, save for his mate, so alone. No human eye should have beheld him; it was monstrous and indecent to exhibit him there in trade waters between atlas degrees of latitude. He had been spewed up, mangled and dying, from his rest on the sea-floor, where he might have lived till the Judgment Day, and we saw the tides of his life go from him as an angry tide goes out across rocks in the teeth of a landward gale. His mate lay rocking on the water a little distance off, bellowing continually, and the smell of musk came down upon the ship making us cough.

At last the battle for life ended in a batter of coloured seas. We saw the writhing neck fall like a flail, the carcase turn sideways, showing the glint of a white belly and the inset of a gigantic hind leg or flipper. Then all sank, and sea boiled over it, while the mate swam round and round, darting her head in every direction. Though we might have feared that she would attack the steamer, no power on earth could have drawn any one of us from our places that hour. We watched, holding our breaths. The mate paused in her search; we could hear the wash beating along her sides; reared her neck as high as she could reach, blind and lonely in all that loneliness of the sea, and sent one desperate bellow booming across the swells as an oyster-shell skips across a pond. Then she made off to the westward, the sun shining on the white head and the wake behind it, till nothing was left to see but a little pin point of silver on the horizon. We stood on our course again; and the Rathmines, coated with the sea-sediment from bow to stern, looked like a ship made gray with terror.

. . . . .

‘We must pool our notes,’ was the first coherent remark from Keller. ‘w’e’re three trained journalists — we hold absolutely the biggest scoop on record. Start fair.’

I objected to this. Nothing is gained by collaboration in journalism when all deal with the same facts, so we went to work each according to his own lights. Keller triple-headed his account, talked about our ‘gallant captain,’ and wound up with an allusion to American enterprise in that it was a citizen of Dayton, Ohio, that had seen the sea-serpent. This sort of thing would have discredited the Creation, much more a mere sea tale, but as a specimen of the picture-writing of a half civilised people it was very interesting. Zuyland took a heavy column and a half, giving approximate lengths and breadths, and the whole list of the crew whom he had sworn on oath to testify to his facts. There was nothing fantastic or flamboyant in Zuyland. I wrote three-quarters of a leaded bourgeois column, roughly speaking, and refrained from putting any journalese into it for reasons that had begun to appear to me.

Keller was insolent with joy. He was going to cable from Southampton to the New York World, mail his account to America on the same day, paralyse London with his three columns of loosely knitted headlines, and generally efface the earth. ‘You’ll see how I work a big scoop when I get it,’ he said.

‘Is this your first visit to England?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ said he. ‘You don’t seem to appreciate the beauty of our scoop. It’s pyramidal — the death of the sea-serpent! Good heavens alive, man, it’s the biggest thing ever vouchsafed to a paper!’

‘Curious to think that it will never appear in any paper, isn’t it?’ I said.

Zuyland was near me, and he nodded quickly.

‘What do you mean?’ said Keller. ‘If you’re enough of a Britisher to throw this thing away, I shan’t. I thought you were a newspaperman.’

‘I am. That’s why I know. Don’t be an ass, Keller. Remember, I’m seven hundred years your senior, and what your grandchildren may learn five hundred years hence, I learned from my grandfathers about five hundred years ago. You won’t do it, because you can’t.’

This conversation was held in open sea, where everything seems possible, some hundred miles from Southampton. We passed the Needles Light at dawn, and the lifting day showed the stucco villas on the green and the awful orderliness of England — line upon line, wall upon wall, solid stone dock and monolithic pier. We waited an hour in the Customs shed, and there was ample time for the effect to soak in.

‘Now, Keller, you face the music. The Havel goes out today. Mail by her, and I’ll take you to the telegraph-office,’ I said.

I heard Keller gasp as the influence of the land closed about him, cowing him as they say Newmarket Heath cows a young horse unused to open courses.

‘I want to retouch my stuff. Suppose we wait till we get to London?’ he said.

Zuyland, by the way, had torn up his account and thrown it overboard that morning early. His reasons were my reasons.

In the train Keller began to revise his copy, and every time that he looked at the trim little fields, the red villas, and the embankments of the line, the blue pencil plunged remorselessly through the slips. He appeared to have dredged the dictionary for adjectives. I could think of none that he had not used. Yet he was a perfectly sound poker-player and never showed more cards than were sufficient to take the pool.

‘Aren’t you going to leave him a single bellow?’ I asked sympathetically. ‘Remember, everything goes in the States, from a trouser-button to a double-eagle.’

‘That’s just the curse of it,’ said Keller below his breath. ‘We’ve played ’em for suckers so often that when it comes to the golden truth — I’d like to try this on a London paper. You have first call there, though.’

‘Not in the least. I’m not touching the thing in our papers. I shall be happy to leave ’em all to you; but surely you’ll cable it home?’

‘No. Not if I can make the scoop here and see the Britishers sit up.’

‘You won’t do it with three columns of slushy headline, believe me. They don’t sit up as quickly as some people.’

‘I’m beginning to think that too. Does nothing make any difference in this country?’ he said, looking out of the window. ‘How old is that farmhouse?’

‘New. It can’t be more than two hundred years at the most.’

‘Um. Fields, too?’

‘That hedge there must have been clipped for about eighty years.’

‘Labour cheap — eh?’

‘Pretty much. Well, I suppose you’d like to try the Times, wouldn’t you?’

‘No,’ said Keller, looking at Winchester Cathedral. ‘‘Might as well try to electrify a haystack. And to think that the World would take three columns and ask for more — with illustrations too! It’s sickening.’

‘But the Times might,’ I began.

Keller flung his paper across the carriage, and it opened in its austere majesty of solid type — opened with the crackle of an encyclopædia.

‘Might! You might work your way through the bow-plates of a cruiser. Look at that first page!’

‘It strikes you that way, does it?’ I said. ‘Then I’d recommend you to try a light and frivolous journal.’

‘With a thing like this of mine — of ours? It’s sacred history!’

I showed him a paper which I conceived would be after his own heart, in that it was modelled on American lines.

‘That’s homey,’ he said, ‘but it’s not the real thing. Now, I should like one of these fat old Times columns. Probably there’d be a bishop in the office, though.’

When we reached London Keller disappeared in the direction of the Strand. What his experiences may have been I cannot tell, but it seems that he invaded the office of an evening paper at 11.45 a.m. (I told him English editors were most idle at that hour), and mentioned my name as that of a witness to the truth of his story.

‘I was nearly fired out,’ he said furiously at lunch. ‘As soon as I mentioned you, the old man said that I was to tell you that they didn’t want any more of your practical jokes, and that you knew the hours to call if you had anything to sell, and that they’d see you condemned before they helped to puff one of your infernal yarns in advance. Say, what record do you hold for truth in this country, anyway?’

‘A beauty. You ran up against it, that’s all. Why don’t you leave the English papers alone and cable to New York? Everything goes over there.’

‘Can’t you see that’s just why?’ he repeated.

‘I saw it a long time ago. You don’t intend to cable, then?’

‘Yes, I do,’ he answered, in the over-emphatic voice of one who does not know his own mind.

That afternoon I walked him abroad and about, over the streets that run between the pavements like channels of grooved and tongued lava, over the bridges that are made of enduring stone, through subways floored and sided with yard-thick concrete, between houses that are never rebuilt, and by river-steps hewn, to the eye, from the living rock. A black fog chased us into Westminster Abbey, and, standing there in the darkness, I could hear the wings of the dead centuries circling round the head of Litchfield A. Keller, journalist, of Dayton, Ohio, U.S.A., whose mission it was to make the Britishers sit up.

He stumbled gasping into the thick gloom, and the roar of the traffic came to his bewildered ears.

‘Let’s go to the telegraph-office and cable,’ I said. ‘Can’t you hear the New York World crying for news of the great sea-serpent, blind, white, and smelling of musk, stricken to death by a submarine volcano, and assisted by his loving wife to die in mid-ocean, as visualised by an American citizen, the breezy, newsy, brainy news paper man of Dayton, Ohio? ‘Rah for the Buckeye State. Step lively! Both gates! Szz! Boom! Aah!’ Keller was a Princeton man, and he seemed to need encouragement.

‘You’ve got me on your own ground,’ said he, tugging at his overcoat pocket. He pulled out his copy, with the cable forms — for he had written out his telegram — and put them all into my hand, groaning, ‘I pass. If I hadn’t come to your cursed country — If I’d sent it off at Southampton — If I ever get you west of the Alleghannies, if —’

‘Never mind, Keller. It isn’t your fault. It’s the fault of your country. If you had been seven hundred years older you’d have done what I am going to do.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘Tell it as a lie.’

‘Fiction?’ This with the full-blooded disgust of a journalist for the illegitimate branch of the profession.

‘You can call it that if you like. I shall call it a lie.’

And a lie it has become; for Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behoves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall and vow that he did not see.


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