"THE MAN WHO WAS NOT AFRAID"
by Harle Oren Cummins
Four young men sat around a table one winter’s night in an old New England country house. Their host, Richard Churchill, was a civil engineer, who had inherited some property, including this old estate, from an aunt; and he was giving a little winter stag party to three of his old college friends. On the table was a steaming punch bowl, and scattered about were pipes, tobacco and cigars. The conversation touched lightly on various subjects; the struggle in the Islands, the coming great presidential contest, and other current events. Captain Van Patten, a West Point graduate, who had done some things worthy of mention, and won the bars on his shoulder straps at San Juan Hill, had just made a statement regarding the courage of a recent great naval commander.
“You may talk about the courage that prompts men to do bold deeds in the bright sunshine, with hundreds of men cheering and fighting beside them, but the man who has the real courage, is the one who, on a dark night like this, dares to walk by himself into a lonely graveyard, and sit on a newly made grave.” It was the host who had spoken, but as he had the reputation at college of being afraid of the dark, there was a general laugh at his expense.
“That,” said one of the other young men, who was a doctor, and so accustomed to gruesome sights, “doesn’t require much courage, and besides,” he added, looking at the deep snowbanks outside, “one couldn’t very well sit on a newly made grave to-night, for the ground is frozen solid, and there are snow-drifts two feet deep. However, there are several bodies in the vault over in the cemetery yonder, and I am willing to wager that no one dares walk over and knock three times on the iron door.”
“It seems to me,” answered Captain Van Patten, carelessly, “that you civilians have a very primitive idea of courage. If you will make a wager that would tempt a man to leave this most delicious punch, and such delightful company, I will venture to go over and bring back a souvenir from your terrible tomb. Churchill, our host here, as nearest resident to the village graveyard, is no doubt supplied with a key to the tomb.” He looked inquiringly at the young civil engineer, who nodded. “Well, as I remarked before, for a sufficient wager I will agree to bring back to you one of the bats which probably haunt the place.”
The doctor, somewhat nettled at the bantering tone of the captain, rose as if to make what he was about to say more impressive, and said slowly, “In that tomb, there was placed this afternoon the body of Andrew Phelps, who died in church last Sunday from heart failure. The clothes of the corpse included a black frock coat and a black silk tie. I know these things, because the village undertaker was away, and I was called in to assist in preparing the body for burial. I will wager this gentleman, who seems not to be afraid,” he added sarcastically, “one hundred dollars that he does not dare, at twelve o’clock to-night, leave this courageous company, unlock the tomb, force open the coffin, and bring back to this room within the hour that same black neckcloth.”
“Taken,” answered the captain promptly; and drawing a check-book from his pocket, he wrote a check for the amount. “And now,” he continued, “as I see the clock indicates 11:30, I shall have to request as quickly as possible the loan of a hammer and screw-driver.”
They brought him the necessary tools, he wrapped himself in his great coat, and left the house whistling nonchalantly.
“I didn’t tell him which was the squire’s coffin,” said the doctor after Van Patten had left. “It might give even his iron nerves a shock if he opened the coffin in which they buried the remains of the tramp who was run over on the Central last week, and was picked up in pieces in a basket,--all except the head, which was never found.”
Van Patten trudged along through the snow toward the tomb. He wasn’t a timid young man in any sense of the word, and the present excursion was nothing but a little adventure, which he could work up with frequent tellings into a good after-dinner story. “Rather a nasty night,” he muttered to himself, as he turned in at the cemetery gate. There was not a star in sight, and the sky was full of great threatening black clouds, which probably meant snow before morning.
He unlocked the tomb, and stepped inside, but it was some time before he could make out in the inky darkness where what he was seeking lay. There were three wooden boxes resting on iron bars set into the cement wall. All were of about the same length, and there was nothing by which to distinguish one from the other, as he felt them over.
“It’s a wonder he wouldn’t have told me there was a party of them here. How’s a man to know who’s who?” said the captain to himself, and he gave a slight shiver. “Well, here goes for luck, anyway,” and he began to unscrew the lid from the nearest coffin box.
After some ten minutes’ work he had the wooden cover off, and tried to pry the coffin open. The thing gave way at first, and he thrust his hand in and groped about the neck of the body, feeling for the tie. His hand met only a mass of lace and ribbons, and to his dismay he discovered that the corpse was that of a woman.
He hurriedly replaced the cover, screwed on the lid again, and wiped the sweat from his brow. There was not a sound in the vault save a thud now and then, when a piece of the ceiling, loosened by frost, fell to the floor, or struck on one of the wooden boxes. The humor of the situation was all gone now, and he was trembling as he began work on the second box. Every few minutes his shaking hands slipped, and the screw-driver would jam against the box with a dull, echoing thud. In his feverish haste he tried to turn the heavy screws with his bare hands; but the rough edges cut him cruelly, and the box was soon splashed with blood. He did not feel the pain, however, and only worked the faster.
He loosened, but did not wholly remove the lid of the box, and then reached down to pry off the coffin cover; but he found that it was not fastened. He thrust his hand in, and felt again for the throat; but, to his horror, there was no throat there. He passed his hand up higher, and felt for the face, and there was only a little bunch of frozen flowers. “You’re losing your head, Pat,” he said to himself; but his voice was hollow, and echoed strangely in that gruesome shut-in place. He reached farther down and felt along the arm. He gave a little pull on the hand, and it came off at the wrist. Thoroughly unmanned, he threw the thing on the floor, and ran shrieking from the tomb. Once outside again, the cold air brought him back to himself a little, but he could feel the touch of those icy fingers on his trembling hand. He was partly dazed, and could not reason rightly. The long strain had been too much for him, but one thought remained uppermost in his mind; he must get that black silk neck cloth from the man whose coffin still remained unopened.
He forced himself back into the tomb, but his heart fluttered strangely, as he knelt beside the last box. He did not stop to remove the screws, but drove the hammer under the cover, and twisted and wrenched the boards off furiously. The coffin lid withstood his efforts for some time, for the fastenings were strong; but at last they, too, gave way. He reached down for the throat again, dreading lest he should find some new horror. His hand touched a moist face, and the man in the coffin stirred and groaned.
“Lie still, damn you!” he shrieked, and seized the man brutally by the throat. A hand cold and clammy clutched his feebly. “Let go!” he screamed with another curse, and struck the face angrily with his hand. He tore the neckcloth, collar and all, from the man’s throat, and started to turn away, when a low voice came from the coffin. With a laugh that was not nice to hear, Van Patten staggered across the vault. As he neared the door his head struck against one of the iron coffin supports and he fell heavily to the ground.
Van Patten’s three friends sat around the table in the country house, anxiously waiting for the return of the captain. The wager was lost to Van Patten, for it was nearly two hours since he left the house, and the men were about to start out in search of him, when the front door opened and someone staggered into the lighted room from the hall. But the white-faced man who lurched toward them, with clothes torn and covered with blood, was not the captain, but Andrew Phelps. He talked wildly and incoherently; but they gathered from his ravings that he had been rescued from a living grave by someone who had immediately set upon him like a madman.
Leaving the doctor with him, the other two men started out in search of the missing captain. They did not find him on the road leading to the cemetery; but when they neared the vault they found the door half opened, while the sound of maniacal singing came out through the night. They pushed the door wide open, and there by the dim light of the lanterns a strange sight shocked their gaze.
Two of the coffins were broken open. One was empty; but partially in the other and partly scattered about the tomb, as if thrown as a child tosses its playthings, were some ghastly things, the sight of which made young Churchill sick and faint. On the edge of the coffin in which the body of the tramp had been placed sat Van Patten; but he did not look up as they entered. They brought the light close to his face, but he only leered vacantly at them and continued singing.
In one hand he held something on which he was trying to fit his fur glove, and at his feet lay a torn black neckcloth.
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All text contents of these pages copyright © 2008 by R.J. Warren, all rights reserved.
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