Also by Hazel Heald
When the state highway to Rutland is closed, travellers are forced to take the Stillwater road past Swamp Hollow. The scenery is superb in places, yet somehow the route has been unpopular for years. There is something depressing about it, especially near Stillwater itself. Motorists feel subtly uncomfortable about the tightly shuttered farmhouse on the knoll just north of the village, and about the white-bearded half-wit who haunts the old burying-ground on the south, apparently talking to the occupants of some of the graves.
Not much is left of Stillwater, now. The soil is played out, and most of the people have drifted to the towns across the distant river or to the city beyond the distant hills. The steeple of the old white church has fallen down, and half of the twenty-odd straggling houses are empty and in various stages of decay. Normal life is found only around Peck’s general store and filling-station, and it is here that the curious stop now and then to ask about the shuttered house and the idiot who mutters to the dead.
Most of the questioners come away with a touch of distaste and disquiet. They find the shabby loungers oddly unpleasant and full of unnamed hints in speaking of the long-past events brought up. There is a menacing, portentous quality in the tones which they use to describe very ordinary events—a seemingly unjustified tendency to assume a furtive, suggestive, confidential air, and to fall into awesome whispers at certain points—which insidiously disturbs the listener. Old Yankees often talk like that; but in this case the melancholy aspect of the half-mouldering village, and the dismal nature of the story unfolded, give these gloomy, secretive mannerisms an added significance. One feels profoundly the quintessential horror that lurks behind the isolated Puritan and his strange repressions—feels it, and longs to escape precipitately into clearer air.
The loungers whisper impressively that the shuttered house is that of old Miss Sprague—Sophie Sprague, whose brother Tom was buried on the seventeenth of June, back in ’86. Sophie was never the same after that funeral—that and the other thing which happened the same day—and in the end she took to staying in all the time. Won’t even be seen now, but leaves notes under the back-door mat and has her things brought from the store by Ned Peck’s boy. Afraid of something—the old Swamp Hollow burying-ground most of all. Never could be dragged near there since her brother—and the other one—were laid away. Not much wonder, though, seeing the way crazy Johnny Dow rants. He hangs around the burying-ground all day and sometimes at night, and claims he talks with Tom—and the other. Then he marches by Sophie’s house and shouts things at her—that’s why she began to keep the shutters closed. He says things are coming from somewhere to get her sometime. Ought to be stopped, but one can’t be too hard on poor Johnny. Besides, Steve Barbour always had his opinions.
Johnny does his talking to two of the graves. One of them is Tom Sprague’s. The other, at the opposite end of the graveyard, is that of Henry Thorndike, who was buried on the same day. Henry was the village undertaker—the only one in miles—and never liked around Stillwater. A city fellow from Rutland—been to college and full of book learning. Read queer things nobody else ever heard of, and mixed chemicals for no good purpose. Always trying to invent something new—some new-fangled embalming-fluid or some foolish kind of medicine. Some folks said he had tried to be a doctor but failed in his studies and took to the next best profession. Of course, there wasn’t much undertaking to do in a place like Stillwater, but Henry farmed on the side.
Mean, morbid disposition—and a secret drinker if you could judge by the empty bottles in his rubbish heap. No wonder Tom Sprague hated him and blackballed him from the Masonic lodge, and warned him off when he tried to make up to Sophie. The way he experimented on animals was against Nature and Scripture. Who could forget the state that collie dog was found in, or what happened to old Mrs. Akeley’s cat? Then there was the matter of Deacon Leavitt’s calf, when Tom had led a band of the village boys to demand an accounting. The curious thing was that the calf came alive after all in the end, though Tom had found it as stiff as a poker. Some said the joke was on Tom, but Thorndike probably thought otherwise, since he had gone down under his enemy’s fist before the mistake was discovered.
Tom, of course, was half drunk at the time. He was a vicious brute at best, and kept his poor sister half cowed with threats. That’s probably why she is such a fear-racked creature still. There were only the two of them, and Tom would never let her leave because that meant splitting the property. Most of the fellows were too afraid of him to shine up to Sophie—he stood six feet one in his stockings—but Henry Thorndike was a sly cuss who had ways of doing things behind folks’ backs. He wasn’t much to look at, but Sophie never discouraged him any. Mean and ugly as he was, she’d have been glad if anybody could have freed her from her brother. She may not have stopped to wonder how she could get clear of him after he got her clear of Tom.
Well, that was the way things stood in June of ’86. Up to this point, the whispers of the loungers at Peck’s store are not so unbearably portentous; but as they continue, the element of secretiveness and malign tension grows. Tom Sprague, it appears, used to go to Rutland on periodic sprees, his absences being Henry Thorndike’s great opportunities. He was always in bad shape when he got back, and old Dr. Pratt, deaf and half blind though he was, used to warn him about his heart, and about the danger of delirium tremens. Folks could always tell by the shouting and cursing when he was home again.
It was on the ninth of June—on a Wednesday, the day after young Joshua Goodenough finished building his new-fangled silo—that Tom started out on his last and longest spree. He came back the next Tuesday morning and folks at the store saw him lashing his bay stallion the way he did when whiskey had a hold of him. Then there came shouts and shrieks and oaths from the Sprague house, and the first thing anybody knew Sophie was running over to old Dr. Pratt’s at top speed.
The doctor found Thorndike at Sprague’s when he got there, and Tom was on the bed in his room, with eyes staring and foam around his mouth. Old Pratt fumbled around and gave the usual tests, then shook his head solemnly and told Sophie she had suffered a great bereavement—that her nearest and dearest had passed through the pearly gates to a better land, just as everybody knew he would if he didn’t let up on his drinking.
Sophie kind of sniffled, the loungers whisper, but didn’t seem to take on much. Thorndike didn’t do anything but smile—perhaps at the ironic fact that he, always an enemy, was now the only person who could be of any use to Thomas Sprague. He shouted something in old Dr. Pratt’s half-good ear about the need of having the funeral early on account of Tom’s condition. Drunks like that were always doubtful subjects, and any extra delay—with merely rural facilities—would entail consequences, visual and otherwise, hardly acceptable to the deceased’s loving mourners. The doctor had muttered that Tom’s alcoholic career ought to have embalmed him pretty well in advance, but Thorndike assured him to the contrary, at the same time boasting of his own skill, and of the superior methods he had devised through his experiments.
It is here that the whispers of the loungers grow acutely disturbing. Up to this point the story is usually told by Ezra Davenport, or Luther Fry, if Ezra is laid up with chilblains, as he is apt to be in winter; but from there on old Calvin Wheeler takes up the thread, and his voice has a damnably insidious way of suggesting hidden horror. If Johnny Dow happens to be passing by there is always a pause, for Stillwater does not like to have Johnny talk too much with strangers.
Calvin edges close to the traveller and sometimes seizes a coat-lapel with his gnarled, mottled hand while he half shuts his watery blue eyes.
“Well, sir,” he whispers, “Henry he went home an’ got his undertaker’s fixin’s—crazy Johnny Dow lugged most of ’em, for he was always doin’ chores for Henry—an’ says as Doc Pratt an’ crazy Johnny should help lay out the body. Doc always did say as how he thought Henry talked too much—a-boastin’ what a fine workman he was, an’ how lucky it was that Stillwater had a reg’lar undertaker instead of buryin’ folks jest as they was, like they do over to Whitby.
“‘Suppose,’ says he, ‘some fellow was to be took with some of them paralysin’ cramps like you read about. How’d a body like it when they lowered him down and begun shovelin’ the dirt back? How’d he like it when he was chokin’ down there under the new headstone, scratchin’ an’ tearin’ if he chanced to get back the power, but all the time knowin’ it wasn’t no use? No, sir, I tell you it’s a blessin’ Stillwater’s got a smart doctor as knows when a man’s dead and when he ain’t, and a trained undertaker who can fix a corpse so he’ll stay put without no trouble.’
“That was the way Henry went on talkin’, most like he was talkin’ to poor Tom’s remains; and old Doc Pratt he didn’t like what he was able to catch of it, even though Henry did call him a smart doctor. Crazy Johnny kept watchin’ of the corpse, and it didn’t make it none too pleasant the way he’d slobber about things like, ‘He ain’t cold, Doc,’ or ‘I see his eyelids move,’ or ‘There’s a hole in his arm jest like the ones I git when Henry gives me a syringe full of what makes me feel good.’ Thorndike shut him up on that, though we all knowed he’d been givin’ poor Johnny drugs. It’s a wonder the poor fellow ever got clear of the habit.
“But the worst thing, accordin’ to the doctor, was the way the body jerked up when Henry begun to shoot it full of embalmin’-fluid. He’d been boastin’ about what a fine new formula he’d got practicin’ on cats and dogs, when all of a sudden Tom’s corpse began to double up like it was alive and fixin’ to wrassle. Land of Goshen, but Doc says he was scared stiff, though he knowed the way corpses act when the muscles begin to stiffen. Well, sir, the long and short of it is, that the corpse sat up an’ grabbed a holt of Thorndike’s syringe so that it got stuck in Henry hisself, an’ give him as neat a dose of his own embalmin’-fluid as you’d wish to see. That got Henry pretty scared, though he yanked the point out and managed to get the body down again and shot full of the fluid. He kept measurin’ more of the stuff out as though he wanted to be sure there was enough, and kept reassurin’ himself as not much had got into him, but crazy Johnny begun singin’ out, ‘That’s what you give Lige Hopkins’s dog when it got all dead an’ stiff an’ then waked up agin. Now you’re a-going to get dead an’ stiff like Tom Sprague be! Remember it don’t set to work till after a long spell if you don’t get much.’
“Sophie, she was downstairs with some of the neighbours—my wife Matildy, she that’s dead an’ gone this thirty year, was one of them. They were all tryin’ to find out whether Thorndike was over when Tom came home, and whether findin’ him there was what set poor Tom off. I may as well say as some folks thought it mighty funny that Sophie didn’t carry on more, nor mind the way Thorndike had smiled. Not as anybody was hintin’ that Henry helped Tom off with some of his queer cooked-up fluids and syringes, or that Sophie would keep still if she thought so—but you know how folks will guess behind a body’s back. We all knowed the nigh crazy way Thorndike had hated Tom—not without reason, at that—and Emily Barbour says to my Matildy as how Henry was lucky to have ol’ Doc Pratt right on the spot with a death certificate as didn’t leave no doubt for nobody.”
When old Calvin gets to this point he usually begins to mumble indistinguishably in his straggling, dirty white beard. Most listeners try to edge away from him, and he seldom appears to heed the gesture. It is generally Fred Peck, who was a very small boy at the time of the events, who continues the tale.
Thomas Sprague’s funeral was held on Thursday, June 17th, only two days after his death. Such haste was thought almost indecent in remote and inaccessible Stillwater, where long distances had to be covered by those who came, but Thorndike had insisted that the peculiar condition of the deceased demanded it. The undertaker had seemed rather nervous since preparing the body, and could be seen frequently feeling his pulse. Old Dr. Pratt thought he must be worrying about the accidental dose of embalming-fluid. Naturally, the story of the “laying out” had spread, so that a double zest animated the mourners who assembled to glut their curiosity and morbid interest.
Thorndike, though he was obviously upset, seemed intent on doing his professional duty in magnificent style. Sophie and others who saw the body were most startled by its utter lifelikeness, and the mortuary virtuoso made doubly sure of his job by repeating certain injections at stated intervals. He almost wrung a sort of reluctant admiration from the townsfolk and visitors, though he tended to spoil that impression by his boastful and tasteless talk. Whenever he administered to his silent charge he would repeat that eternal rambling about the good luck of having a first-class undertaker. What—he would say as if directly addressing the body—if Tom had had one of those careless fellows who bury their subjects alive? The way he harped on the horrors of premature burial was truly barbarous and sickening.
Services were held in the stuffy best room—opened for the first time since Mrs. Sprague died. The tuneless little parlour organ groaned disconsolately, and the coffin, supported on trestles near the hall door, was covered with sickly-smelling flowers. It was obvious that a record-breaking crowd was assembling from far and near, and Sophie endeavoured to look properly grief-stricken for their benefit. At unguarded moments she seemed both puzzled and uneasy, dividing her scrutiny between the feverish-looking undertaker and the life-like body of her brother. A slow disgust at Thorndike seemed to be brewing within her, and neighbours whispered freely that she would soon send him about his business now that Tom was out of the way—that is, if she could, for such a slick customer was sometimes hard to deal with. But with her money and remaining looks she might be able to get another fellow, and he’d probably take care of Henry well enough.
As the organ wheezed into Beautiful Isle of Somewhere the Methodist church choir added their lugubrious voices to the gruesome cacophony, and everyone looked piously at Deacon Leavitt—everyone, that is, except crazy Johnny Dow, who kept his eyes glued to the still form beneath the glass of the coffin. He was muttering softly to himself.
Stephen Barbour—from the next farm—was the only one who noticed Johnny. He shivered as he saw that the idiot was talking directly to the corpse, and even making foolish signs with his fingers as if to taunt the sleeper beneath the plate glass. Tom, he reflected, had kicked poor Johnny around on more than one occasion, though probably not without provocation. Something about this whole event was getting on Stephen’s nerves. There was a