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A short story by Josephine Daskam Bacon

The Unburied

Title:     The Unburied
Author: Josephine Daskam Bacon [More Titles by Bacon]

The talk shifted at length--as it inevitably must--to women, and the unalterable and uncharted mystery of their mental currents: the jagged and cruelly unsuspected reefs that rear suddenly under rippling shoal-water, the maelstrom that boils just beyond the soft curve of the fairest cape.

"There's no good asking 'why,'" said the great doctor slowly, "you might as well ask, 'why not.' They're incomprehensible. For thirty years I've studied them. Thirty years...."

He leaned forward over the table weightily. The others unconsciously bent toward him.

"Once I thought it was spasmodic--unrelated," he went on thoughtfully, counting his words, it seemed, "but not now. No. I believe there is a law--a big law--they follow, an orbit so extended that any examples one may collect count for too little to help. They seem to vary..." he stared at the siphons and rings of wet on the table.

Outside the club windows the rain fell, glistening and grey; it was making for dusk and the black stream of hansoms and umbrellas were homeward bound. They motioned away the servant who had come to turn on the lights in their corner.

"There are influences," Stanchon began again, abruptly, "currents ... I don't know--they feel them more than we do. And they exert them more, too. We admit one and doubt the other."

He squeezed a half lemon into his glass with a beautiful, firm-wristed wrench, extracted the pips with one deft circuit of the spoon, and poured rock candy into the acid. Over this he dropped in silence a measured amount from a squat foreign bottle at his elbow and filled the glass from a carafe of distilled water.

"It's a queer thing altogether--I don't know what makes me think of it," he began, "and I wouldn't have dared tell it when it happened. Now I can tell anything--I suppose--being sixty and an eminent alienist. Lord! Times goes and goes, and just as you get to where you could use it to advantage--well, the young ones need the room.

"Nervous! What are nerves, anyhow?

"Sometimes I think I know ... a little ... but the time is so short, so short!"

He drank half his glass.

"There comes a time," he said abruptly, "when you first discover what a gnat in a whirlpool you are. I mean that after you've done everything, played perfectly fair and followed all the rules, arranged your combinations and observed the reasonable results for so long that you begin to think you've got hold of the System--something happens, and it's all upset again--flat anarchy. We get it different ways, I suppose. As if a runner bumped into a brick wall on the home-stretch ... strange!

"I was in one of those little cities--Detroit, Cleveland--it doesn't matter. I've lived in both. It's a good size for a doctor--I got all kinds--and I learned fast, there. Nice people, too. I always had an eye for real estate, and what I made, I put into that. I had a good horse, and as I drove about I kept my eye on the property and the way the town was growing. One day I noticed that an oldish looking, comfortable sort of house, a little off from the centre of things, was for sale, and it struck me suddenly that there was a pretty good sort of house to own. It had trees around it and nice paths and a neat little new stable, and there was something in the long, low lines of it--no gingerbread or 'Jim Fisk' business or bands of coloured paint--that appealed to me. It attracted me--you see? Good God!

"I saw the agent and he put a price that surprised me. But the owner wanted to leave town immediately and had made it very low, to get the cash. He'd had hard luck; his wife in a mess with another man, ran up big bills against him--he wanted to get away and never see the town again. So I bought the place and asked the agent to rent it for me, for I was pretty busy just then. A little later he told me he had seen an especially good tenant--a well-to-do jeweller and his family, who seemed disposed to take a long lease and improve the property.

"'You certainly have the luck, doctor!' he said.

"I remember I leaned out of my buggy and lectured him.

"'Luck!' says I. 'Nonsense, man! I get good tenants because I keep good repairs in good houses. You put down two and two and you get back four. Mathematics is under this world!'

"Pompous, wasn't I? But I was only forty. Only forty..."

His eyes gleamed at them from under his shaggy, grey brows; he seemed saturated with life, full of experiences.

"Well, I got my rent every month, and I gave 'em permission to put an evergreen hedge around the place, and I paid half the costs of piping water into the stable; the jeweller kept a horse and runabout for his wife. Then, just before the year was up, the agent called.

"'I'm afraid we won't get any renewal on this, doctor,' he said.

"'Why not? Not good enough for him any longer?' said I.

"'I'm afraid it's too good,' says he. 'You'll see it in the papers to-morrow, but I had it straight from him. His wife has skipped with his head clerk and they've taken most of the stock and all the money. He's nearly crazy.'

"'For heaven's sake!' said I. 'I thought they were a decent lot enough.'

"'So they were, I'll swear to it,' said he, 'but lately--I've seen her off and on'--and he looked rather conscious, I thought--' she's struck me differently. She's a queer woman.'

"Well, the upshot of it was, I let him off as easily as I could--he had three children on his hands and big debts to pay--and I bought a lot of his stuff and paid for the evergreen hedge. The woman never came back and he moved East. So much for them.

"I advertised the house, and that week the rectory of the principal Episcopal Church burned to the ground, and while they were building it again--in stone, of course--they decided to rent that house of mine, and of course I was pleased, because a lot of good, solid people see the property, in a case like that. I've always thought I'd like to develop a whole new section somewhere ... I had ideas ... but I never got the time. O Lord, the time! Slipping, slipping, under your palms, between your fingers, crumbling and running away!"

He shook himself like a big, loose-skinned bear, and long breaths were drawn all around the table.

"One night my wife asked me if I thought the rector liked his new rectory.

"'Why, I suppose so,' I said. 'I've had no complaints--why?'

"'He doesn't stay in it very much,' she said, rather slowly, for her, and when a woman measures her words, I always listen very carefully.

"'What do you mean?' I asked.

"'He practically lives in the study at the church,' said she, 'working there on parish business all day, and a good many evenings, too. That leaves her all alone, and that's not good for any woman.'

"' What on earth do you mean?' I said. 'Are those long-nosed old tabbies gossiping already? Shame on 'em!'

"'Oh, John,' she broke down and cried. 'They're talking horribly! It doesn't seem possible! But why isn't she more careful?'

"Well, there's no good going into that much further. It was a very unpleasant business. He was a pig-headed parson who wouldn't look after his own, and she, I thought, till my wife finally persuaded her to call me in, was simply one of those women who have mistaken their natural vocation. They hadn't been in the town long and they didn't stay long, for as soon as I really understood her I put her into a sanitarium--the sanitarium boom had just begun, then--and he went into the Salvation Army. He'd got his eyes opened, I fancy, and he made a great success in Chicago; he told me he never wanted to see another fashionable congregation in his life--said they were sinks of iniquity. But I don't think there was ever anything actually iniquitous in that business--it hadn't got that far. Only for a clergyman's family, of course ...

"You see, I got her out in time. Ugh! It makes me sick to think of it! She was a nervous wreck.

"That was the first time that Miss Jessop ever went back on me. She was a trained nurse not long out of the training school, and nurses were scarcer, then. A handsome, plucky creature--we worked together for years, and I got to depend a good deal on her. But after a week of the parson's wife she flounced in on me with that regular bronze-mule look of hers and informed me she was leaving the next day--she had to go back East, home, she said.

"I reasoned a bit with her--she had a great influence on women, Jessop, but it was no use.

"'There are two good nurses for to-morrow, doctor,' she said, 'I happen to know. I'd rather not argue about it. I'm tired. I need a change. I've had no vacation this year. And that woman would be better off in a hospital, anyway.'

"I was cross, and I kept my patient in her own house. I thought she wasn't fit to move.

"'I believe I'm going mad!' she used to tell me, with that glitter in the eye--gives the effect of a rearing horse--perfectly symptomatic. 'I tell you I'm not responsible, doctor, for what I do! You must keep me away from--people. But don't leave me alone--oh, don't leave me alone! Why don't the women come to see me? Oh, I can't stay alone!'

"And so on, and so on. It poured out in the regular way--how the poor things spend themselves!--and I listened to it all. They're perfectly typical under those circumstances, but one phrase struck me:

"'I have fought-- Oh, I have fought! It's killing me, but I have fought!'

"She had, poor little woman. But what was she? When I realised ... when I knew..."

They sat now in a circle of dark. The room was nearly empty; the rain had grown to a torrent and lashed the windows furiously.

"Well, I couldn't help taking stock of the thing, and it looked odd, anyway you looked at it. I remembered that the reason I got the house in the first place was very much the same reason that had emptied it twice. Of course the agent remembered it, too.

"'Where's those mathematics of yours, doctor?' he asked me with a good-natured grin.

"'Stuff and nonsense!' I said to him. 'I'll get a tenant for that house, myself.'

"You see, whether or not there was any sense in it, I couldn't let that house get a bad name. There were neighbours and they will talk--they don't always know so much about mathematics as scientific men, you know!

"What a great thing it is, if one could get hold of it and use it--the collective spirit of a community! It's utilizable--or ought to be--like water power....

"There was a woman in town then, a 'mental healer,' she called herself. I'd run across her more than once and she interested me very much. She was a clever woman--sensible, too, which doesn't always follow, you know. So far as I could tell, she never handled a case she wasn't able to attend to, which may seem an odd thing for me to say, but happens to be so. I know of a dozen nervous, hysterical women--emotional spend-thrifts--that she bullied into shape and got so they could stand up without her behind them, too. They were cured, and they stayed cured. More than that, I sent more than one to her, myself!

"'Mrs. Mears,' I said, 'there's nothing the matter with these women that I can see but pure, piggish, bone-idle selfishness. I haven't got the courage to tell 'em so; if you have, and the long words you use disguise the fact sufficiently, go ahead and cure 'em, and God bless you!'

"'Thank you, doctor,' she said, and she cured 'em. They had no use for me after that. No, indeed--they told my wife they'd found a higher law and that calomel was sinful. But the poor old calomel wasn't so bad for 'em, after all, maybe.

"Well, I met her on my rounds one day and I stopped and asked her if she was satisfied with her house--I knew the neighbourhood was rather running down, there--the darkies were creeping up. She admitted she wasn't particularly, and, to make a long story short, I offered her this house of mine for two-thirds the regular rental.

"'I want a good steady tenant, Mrs. Mears,' I said, 'and people may as well get used to bringing their headaches over there--I may move out there sometime.'

"So she moved in and I never gave the matter another thought--I knew she wouldn't run off with anybody! No, she'd had her lesson, I take it. No blue-eyed woman gets as sensible as that woman was without a good, solid reason. And the reason is pretty certain to wear trousers.

"Well, sir, in a month she came to see me. I can see her now: a firm, stocky woman, long body and short legs and big head--the efficient type. She had the smooth pink cheeks and smooth forehead and straight eyes those healer-women have when they're first class of their kind--oh, there's a lot in it--a lot! We fight 'em and get the law on 'em and absorb 'em, finally, as we've fought every advance in medicine. It seems to be the only way in this world...

"She always looked so clean and taut, that woman, never a loose end anywhere.

"'Doctor,' says she, 'you must get a new tenant. I'm leaving to-morrow. How much will it cost me, giving no notice?'

"'Why, what's the matter?' I began. 'Anything I can attend to?'

"'Not a thing,' she answered promptly, 'and we won't discuss it, if you please. The van is there, by this time.'

"'Why, see here, Mrs. Mears,' I said seriously. 'This--this is hardly professional, it seems to me. If there's anything wrong with my property, I want to know it. Of course I know your theories--God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, and if you discuss it, the devil may creep in--I've read Emerson's Essays, myself. I know what you think about medicine and surgery and hygiene--you think Emerson! And that's all right, as far as it goes. But just for ten minutes, between you and me, what's the matter? You can keep on being serene, after that, all you want. Come now--as man to man!'

"She flattened her lips a little and tried not to scowl.

"'Put it that I don't like old houses, doctor,' she said finally.

"'Ah! House haunted?' I suggested, to tease her a little.

"She turned on me.

"'You said it, not I,' she answered, 'but it is true. The house is haunted, doctor, and if I lived there a day longer, I couldn't do my work. I didn't wish to discuss it--you know we don't believe in that--but you meant to do me a service. It's a crime to rent that house. It's slimy. It crawls.'

"'Slimy!' I cried. 'Why the agent told me that the cellar was new cemented, all whitewashed, every room new papered, fresh matting, hard wood on the lower floor, and I attended to the plumbing myself! It was gone over thoroughly three years ago--there must have been a thousand dollars put into it. It hadn't been lived in for years before that. Slimy!'

"'You don't understand me,' she said quietly.

"'For heaven's sake, what haunts it, then? Who's the ghost?' I cried testily.

"'Evil,' she said slowly, 'evil thought, evil lives ... you breathe it in ... it tangles you ... another night there ... I should have no more power, absolutely--I could help nobody. I must ask you not to refer to it again, please. I should not have mentioned it. How much do I owe you?'

"'You owe me nothing, of course,' I said shortly. 'I'll return you the amount of your cheque this afternoon. I'll move into that house, myself.'

"'You will be making a mistake,' she said very placidly, and left the office.

"It took me about forty-eight hours to make my arrangements. It was hot summer weather, fortunately, and I sent my wife off to the mountains, started in to have my own house renovated and decorated, as an excuse, left the housekeeper in charge there and moved my office paraphernalia into that old house with the evergreen hedge. My wife was a Southern woman and we always had darky servants. I took the waitress with me, a quiet little mulatto we'd had for more than a year, and sent for her mother, a very capable woman that I'd often used as nurse in cases where they couldn't pay a professional. She could do anything, the way those Southern darkies can, and she would cook and look after things generally.

"Well, in three days it seemed as if I'd always been there. You know how quickly a man manages a change like that; it's hard to see where the women generate all the friction they make out of a move of that sort. Althea was frying chicken contentedly and Mynie was sweeping and dusting as quietly as she always did.

"She was a slender, oval-faced little yellow girl with almost straight hair, parted and drawn down like a madonna's, very low voiced and capable, with only one fault; she was almost too shy and always timid that she'd make some blunder--which she seldom if ever did. She was devoted to her mother, who had brought her up particularly well, and delighted to be living with her. The patients all liked her and she was especially tactful with children.

"One day, after I'd been there a week, I strolled out in the kitchen.

"'This strikes me as being a pretty good house, eh, Althea?' I said. 'New and clean. Everything all right?'

"'Yes, Dr. Stanchon, thank you, seh, it seems like a very good house, seh,' she answered respectfully.

"'It's right surprisin' Mrs. Mears didn't like it!' says Mynie with a little giggle.

"It struck me then that I had never known Mynie to speak, in her life, without being spoken to, and even so, when I had occasion to speak to her, she started and looked a little scared. I supposed living with her mother had given her more confidence and felt rather glad of it.

"It might have been a week later one morning, as I leaned out of one of the office windows to knock my pipe clean, I heard a low laughing and murmuring on the side porch, and glancing carelessly in that direction, what should I see but Mynie twisting the lapel of a young man's coat; his arm was around her waist. It occurred to me that he was pretty well dressed for any beau she'd be likely to have, and as he turned his face partly, I realised with a disgusted surprise that it was George, my colored office-man. It would be hard to make you feel the way I did then, and you'll probably smile when I tell you that I couldn't have been more shocked and startled if it had been any one of you--but it's the truth.

"You see, George was a most exceptional fellow. Everybody in--in the city I'm telling about--knew him and respected him. Everybody among my patients knew that except for his colour he'd have been my regular office assistant long ago. As it was, he knew more medicine than many a lad with his gilt shingle up, and his English was perfect--he'd been in school till he was eighteen and was a great reader. He'd come to me as a coachman, but I soon saw his value and promoted him to the office, where he took all the telephoning, received the patients, got out the bills and kept all my accounts, personal and professional. He'd helped me more than once in operations, and had a perfect genius for administering anaesthetics. Nobody but our two selves knew what his salary was, but I never grudged a penny of it. Why, the fellow read French and German almost as well as I did, and tact--Lord, I wished every day of my life I had George's tact and resource! My wife was tremendously fond of him, and lent him all her books, and they used to have great discussions on political economy and theosophy and prison reform--oh, everything!

"He had lots of white blood, of course, and his wife you'd never guess to be anything but pure American, she was so white. One of the children, though, was black as my hat. The other had almost golden hair and deep blue eyes--a beautiful little girl, brought up like a duchess, too. They lived in a nice little house on the extreme edge of the negro district, and we all understood that when the little girl was fifteen or sixteen, she and her mother were going to move to Paris and train her voice; then if everything went well, George and the boy would join them and never come back--he was specialising in dentistry, mind you, in his spare time. It's different, of course, abroad.

"I'm telling you all this, so you can see how I felt; I'd had George nine years, and we'd always had darky servants, and--oh, well, to find him with that yellow streak in him after all, nearly floored me. I could have sworn he wasn't that sort of pup, and when he came in for his orders I talked to him like a Dutch uncle.

"'You've got to stop this, George,' I said directly, 'I can't have any such performances here. To tell you the truth, I never thought it of you! The idea--a quiet little thing like Mynie! She's as timid as a kitten and as innocent. Now I want your word of honour before you leave this office and I want it quick!'

"He opened his mouth once or twice in a confused sort of way, looked at me curiously, and then gave his word quietly. So far as I knew, he had never broken it.

"But I wasn't satisfied with that and I spoke to her mother.

"'You'd better keep an eye on Mynie, Althea,' I said carelessly. 'She's a pretty girl, you know, and men aren't always too careful what they say to a girl as pretty as Mynie.'

"'Yes, seh, I'll look out,' she said, 'I'll look out, doctor--ef I kin. Seems like I may have trouble, though. Is Mis' Stanchon comin' back soon, seh?'

"'Probably not,' I said. 'It's too hot for her here. Why, what's the matter? Anything wrong?'

"'I guess not, seh,' she answered, hesitating. 'I try to do my best, doctor. But I will sholy be glad when she comes back. And would you mind to speak to Mynie yo'self, seh?' and she slipped away.

"Well, I did speak to her. I spoke when I ran across her, strolling with George in a deserted walk of an old park. I called her right into the office the next morning.

"'Mynie,' I said sharply, 'what were you doing yesterday afternoon? Out with it!'

"She opened her eyes and looked full at me for a second--something she had never done.

"'I reckon 'twas my afternoon out, doctor!' she said softly, and that was all. But it was enough. It wouldn't have made any difference what she said, anyhow--the look was enough. It wasn't the look of our shy little Mynie; her eyes had never gone any farther than my breakfast table and the office door. But these eyes were slanting, curious, audacious--conscious. That's what it was, they were conscious of something--something I didn't know. And for a quick moment I remembered, with no connection, apparently, that queer look in the eyes of the parson's wife--the one that had the house before. I didn't know why, and I dismissed it as irrelevant, for that poor creature had been frightened to death, and Mynie was more self-confident than I had ever seen her and not at all pleasant with it. I've never been of a temper to stand any nonsense from servants, and the class of Northern darky that was growing up in that city wasn't always easy to deal with. But I remembered what a sterling creature the mother was, and I tried to be gentle with the girl.

"'You understand, Mynie,' I said temperately, 'I only speak for your good. I know the world better than you can and I don't want to see you get into bad ways. Do you want to lose George his place? You've got a good home, and you're with your mother, and there's no excuse for you if you slip up, you see. Understand me?'

"'Yes, doctor, I understand you,' she said, and walked out of the room with her head high and her hips swinging. Something in her carriage--so different from the way she used to slip in and out--struck me all of a sudden, and there flashed into my mind an old story about Althea's being the direct descendant of one of the oldest African kings and a princess in her own right. Absurd, of course, but it makes a lot of difference whether you regard those people as creeping up to our democracy or sliding down from their royalty, you see. And with Mynie the scale had shifted suddenly, and it was the last of an old line that swung by me, not the first of a new one. Straight across the commonplace air of my office a wind out of the jungle had blown, a whiff of something old and unmanageable, and beyond rules, or beneath 'em, perhaps; something there wasn't any prescription for; something not to be weighed and measured by any of the new methods, because it antedated method.

"Yes, it was all that. I don't know if I make myself clear at all.... You may think I was working up a fanciful theory just because a pert servant maid was getting a little wayward, but it wasn't only that--Lord, no! It was a great deal more than that, and it was just beginning; just beginning."

There was no doubt that he had the strained attention of all of them: their hands held the glasses, but they did not drink, looking mostly at the wet rings on the polished table, or the little heaps of white ashes. A servant passing through scratched a match with a rasping splutter, and they twitched angrily at the interruption, fearing it would throw him off the track--he was so easily quieted, and when once one of his great gulfs of silence received him, it was hopeless.

But this time he went on.

"After that the house got very still, by degrees. Althea sang less and less and by and by not at all. There seemed to be no clatter, no bustle, no homely, chattering machinery of life. Sometimes I would step out through the dining-room and listen, purposely, to see where they were. And it was always the same thing: Althea sitting in her clean kitchen, by her clean table, with a bowl or a pan or what not in her lap, her yellowish hands lax, her knees as still as marble, her eyes set ahead of her, thinking, thinking, thinking. Her brows would be knit and her face all drawn. She had the look of a fighter, a struggler with something--but there was nothing there. And out on the side porch Mynie would be sitting, her head thrown back against the wooden column of the porch, her hands clasped about her knees, smiling, smiling, always smiling. Sometimes she would hum a sort of low tuneless chant--it sounded like a pagan ritual of some sort, all repetitions, rising and falling in a monotonous, haunting drone. And once, as I stood watching her curiously, the word for that noise flashed suddenly into my mind--incantation. That was it, incantation.

"Well! All this sounds very feeble, doesn't it? The truth is, I haven't got the right vocabulary--as a matter of fact, I don't think anybody has. When you can describe a thing, a sensation, perfectly, I doubt if it's very important anyhow. It's always so. The big things simply elude description. And yet we all know them. Falling in love, for instance: God knows it's as definite as measles, but who ever described it? The most these writing fellows can manage is to tell you what a lot of people did who happened to be in that way, and sometimes they catch a lot of the tricks, but that's all. Then there's dying. There's a specific atmosphere about that--everybody knows it. The people know it mostly, themselves. I mean, if any one ever had occasion to die twice, he'd recognise the symptoms immediately. But nobody can describe it, though plenty of us know what it is.

"So with that house and the atmosphere in it. Something was happening there. Something so strong and so actual that it defied all appearances, all the ordinary influences that might be supposed to act on the imagination of, say, a sensitive, hysterical, under-occupied woman. For as a matter of fact there was nothing morbid in the look of the house--nothing at all. It was sunny and fresh and painted. It was clean and dry. But it ought not to have been. No ... I've sat there, late afternoons, when it seemed to me if I touched the walls they'd be damp and the woodwork rotted and mouldy. The boards should have creaked there and the stair-rails ought to have given under the hand--but they didn't. I had them all repaired, you see! But there were a few things I hadn't had the chance to repair and they ... oh, well, they were there, that was all.

"There? You'd have said so, any of you, if you'd seen Althea as I saw her one morning. I stepped into the kitchen suddenly, to give an order for some beef-tea I wanted to take away with me, and there she sat, cross-legged on the clean floor, a red silk scarf twined around her shoulders and--of all things--a red and blue kerchief twisted into a turban on her head. She was rocking back and forth and singing, and I give you my word, I was as shocked as if I'd seen my own mother in that rig, swaying there!

"She turned her head as I came in and I saw that she had big blue glass earrings in her ears.

"And all of a sudden it came to me--what was happening there: I felt very queer for a moment, I tell you! Everything seemed to be rolling backward, like one of those cinematograph things, reversed. Not I--I swear nothing touched me. I was the same. So was the jeweller. So was the parson. So was the man before that...

"'Althea,' I said roughly, 'what are you doing there? Take those rags off you! Get up immediately! I am ashamed of you.'

"Her eyes met mine for a moment, glittering like a savage's--it was nip and tuck between us there: she might have thrown a plate at me. But she didn't; I won. You see, she was not a young woman, and unusually controlled for one of her race, and she owed me a good deal, besides.

"'I'm thoroughly ashamed of you,' I repeated.

"She staggered up and burst into hoarse, frightened sobbing.

"''Fore God, I am, too, doctor!' she cried and stumbled into her pantry, shaking and muttering. I waited till she came back, and she was quiet and trim again--herself. She stuffed a bundle into the stove before my eyes, and I don't think she ever met my look again. She was a good woman, Althea was.

"But the other--Mynie--well, the game was up with her. Heavens, the change in that girl's eyes! It wasn't that they were bold, it wasn't that they were beautiful, nor even that they were conscious of it. No, it was more than that--more and worse and deeper and older-- Oh, as old as Hell! That look unsettled ... disorganized ... how shall I put it? The flimsiness of civilisation, the essential bedrock of animalism--the big, ceaseless undertow of things ... anyway, it was all in that girl's eyes and it touched that spring in poor George that Nature has coiled in every one of us. The Old Lady wound us up with that spring and she daren't let it run down, you see."

The room was absolutely empty but for the four of them; they stared at him steadily, his rumbling, husky voice held them like a vise; they could not miss a word.

"She got fat on it. She bloomed in that infernal house like some tropical bog-flower; she expanded, she shot up.

"Once, at twilight, I peeped out and saw her sitting on the side porch, her chin in her hand, staring and staring, and laughing, now and then, and shutting her eyes. It made me shiver.

"That warm, damp dusk was like a Florida swamp; the air seemed to thicken, thicken, as I looked. A quick instinct warned me to look for George in the shadow: it seemed to me that he stood there, in ... glue ... like a caught fly. To let go--to drift in a warm, relaxing current ... I had to shake my shoulders, actually, as if there had been a net ... I felt for him so.

"I went to her mother.

"'Call that girl in!' I said roughly. 'What's the matter with her?'

"She wouldn't look at me.

"'Come, what's all this? Out with it!' I said. But she stood there, obstinate as a mule, and perfectly silent. You can't do anything with them, then.

"Well, it was like fighting filthy cobwebs: walking through them, breathing them, pulling them off from your mouth, your wrists, your ankles! Not that I felt anything directly, mind you--I could have lived there for years--alone. But it was all up with Mynie and George, they were done for, like the others ... like the others.

"What worked there, rotting like some infernal yeast? What terrible energy, what malignant, vindictive lust infected that place? What distorted, unhappy soul first sickened there? How long ago? How long ago? Are there centres of negation? Oh, I tell you, the table-tippers are harmless beside the sickening truths, the simply incredible possibilities of this little crevice we walk along!

"Was it like a grain of that nasty musk that gets into a woman's drawer and taints endlessly?

"I tell you, I saw that girl disintegrate, decay, turn fungoid under my eyes--ugh!

"There had to be an end, of course. I asked where she was going one afternoon, and then she smiled and looked up at me sidewise.

"'You needn't come back,' I said abruptly. 'I'll settle with your mother. Do you understand?'

"She arched her shoulder and flashed a glance straight above me, out of the open window.

"'I'm sorry you don't want me, doctor,' she said softly. I could see poor George tremble--the porch vines shook.

"Then I took her by the shoulders and shook her.

"'Get out of my house, you black slut!' I said--but I didn't say 'slut.' And she went. It was the only time I was ever brutal to a woman."

He gulped the rest of his tumbler.

"The next day I moved my office stuff back, and that damned house was empty.

"'I'm sorry about Mynie, Althea,' I said to the mother, the day afterward. 'If you ever need any money----'

"'Thank you, Dr. Stanchon, thank you, seh. You couldn't help it. But I guess she'll never need money, seh,' she said quietly. And she was right enough, of course.

"She knew. They're not far from the apes, and they know a lot we've forgotten, I believe. Perhaps forgetting it is what civilised us.

"I never saw Mynie again. She went off East, and George with her. They're both dead, now. His wife stayed on in the cottage.

"I gave her all the help I could ... it was my fault, I suppose. And yet, God knows, I meant nothing. I thought I was undertaking that damned house, you see--how could I tell how the thing worked?"

They watched him eagerly: his face showed that he had more to tell. Not a man moved, unless it were to knock the ash from his cigar or to light a fresh one.

"There was a Catholic priest there, then," he said slowly. "He's been moved higher up, since, and you'd all know his name, if I gave it. We'll call him Father Kelly--though that wasn't it, of course. He and I were great friends--he was a little older than I was--and we used to have many a good talk together, meeting on our rounds, you see. Often I'd take him miles on his way, and drop my driver out on the road, just for the pleasure of his company. Of course we disagreed entirely on what he considered the most important points, but leaving them out, we were thoroughly congenial, and we were often glad of each other's opinion, I can tell you, for we often had the same patients.

"Well, a day or two after I'd moved my stuff out of that cursed house, he came to the office with a drug case he was trying to reform: he'd persuaded the fellow as far as the pledge went, and I was to talk to him about diet and exercise and all the rest. After the man left, Father Kelly looked at me once or twice, talked a bit about the weather, and finally pulled out his old blackened pipe and looked around the office.

"'Have ye a bit of tobacco about ye, doctor?' says he. 'If so, and you're not too busy, I could do with a little rest--I was up all night.'

"I was glad enough, for I felt blue and out of sorts, and we pulled our chairs in front of the fireplace, from habit, and after a few minutes I found myself telling him the whole business.

"'Now what do you make of it, Father?' I asked.

"'I make the devil out of it, doctor,' said he, very placidly.

"'Oh, well,' I began impatiently, 'of course I can't be expected----'

"'Now, wait a bit, doctor,' he put in. 'If you don't go with my diagnosis, what's your own? What do you make out of it?'

"Well, there he had me.

"'Of course,' I said, 'it's a mere coincidence.'

"'Ah,' says he, 'then would you be willing to go and live there with your wife?'

"'Good God, no!' I burst out, before I thought. And then I wouldn't back out of it. You see, there had been five women. Five good, ordinary, honest women--six, if you count Miss Jessop.

"'I thought not,' said he quietly.

"He sat and puffed awhile.

"Finally, 'I'll have to be taking a look at your house, doctor,' he said.

"'All right,' said I. 'When?'

"'This evening,' he said, 'after my confessions. Say about nine. And I'll go home and have a nap. I'm thinking I'll need one.'

"And he knocked out his pipe and left.

"I was busy all the afternoon, so busy that I almost forgot the whole thing, and as a matter of fact, I had had no time for dinner, when he called for me. He was so fresh and bright and jolly that you'd never have suspected he'd just got a murderer to agree to give himself up, gone with him to see him safely jailed, and sent his confession up to the governor--oh, he was a remarkable man, that man! And it's a remarkable institution, the Confessional. We're learning to do more with it now than we did twenty years ago. But they've always known ... they've always known..."

He ruminated long, and crushed the ashes in the brass tray before him. The men nodded, but kept silence, dreading lest he lose the thread.

"I had the horse ready and drove myself. When I unlocked the door of the house I lighted the lamp in the hall, and so on in every room we went through, kitchen and all. In every room there was a fresh shining lamp, filled and ready, for Althea had left everything like a new pin, and in every room that lamp was lighted, when we left it. You know what a nice, warm glow an old-fashioned kerosene lamp gives a place--electricity's nothing to it, in my opinion.

"'This seems a good sort of house, doctor,' said Father Kelly to me, as we came back and sat down in the pretty little sitting-room, with a palm in it, and cushions my wife had made, and books on the table. 'I can't see any harm here.'

"'All right,' said I, 'then let's go home. I missed my dinner. Since you see there's no devil here----'

"'I don't see that,' said he, calmly, 'I only see that I haven't found him yet. If a woman has a cancer, doctor, you don't know it the moment you shake hands with her, do ye? So with me and my patients. Now let's think a bit, and if you don't object, I'll call a little consultation.'

"So he takes a little black book out of his pocket, and actually sits there reading! I humoured him, and smoked. After a while he looks up, crosses himself, puts away the book and nods at me contentedly.

"'Now, which room would all of these women use the most, doctor?' says he.

"'The kitchen,' I said directly, thinking of Mynie and Althea. Then, 'No, no, for Mrs. Mears used this for her consulting-room. But the parson's wife spent most of her time in her bedroom. Still, the jeweller's wife didn't--they used the dining-room to sit in. There's no one room, you see.'

"'Unless they all had the same bedroom,' he suggested quietly.

"'By George, they did, then!' I cried, 'for I gave it to Mynie and Althea because it was the coolest. I always sleep on the ground floor.'

"'Then we'll try the bedroom, doctor,' says he, and we went up-stairs. He was a stocky, short little fellow, strong as a bull, with iron-grey hair, very solid on his feet, yet quick and active, like a thin man. He sat down in the rocking-chair in the neat, empty bedroom and I brought in another lamp from across the hall.

"'You don't think you'll need the dark for your materializations, Father?' I said, half laughing, as I set my lamp on the bureau.

"'No, no, doctor,' he answered, smiling. 'The Church doesn't work in the dark, you know. We're all for candles, and plenty of 'em.'

"I had to grin at that. He was as quick a man with his tongue as I ever met.

"Well, we sat there, and sat there, and he shut his eyes and tipped back and forth in that chair like a woman, and I might as well have not been there. I mean I was out of his consciousness entirely. Finally I got nervous and bored.

"'There's nothing here, Father,' I said, rather testily. 'Haven't I been here hours on end with the parson's wife? Wouldn't I have known it?'

"He never opened his eyes.

"'Probably not, doctor,' he said pleasantly. 'It's not your job, you see. You were thinking about her liver.'

"'And you?' said I.

"'Her life everlasting,' said he.

"And his eyes shut, all the time!

"So I shut my mouth and watched him. And suddenly his lips began to work, and he was mumbling to himself, and I saw that his hands were grasping the arms of the wooden chair tight, so tight that as he prayed, he actually worked himself over the floor, as a child will, you know. After he'd moved several feet that way, between me and the fireplace--I was counting the inches, to keep myself quiet--he stopped suddenly, opened his eyes and loosened his hands.

"'I've got it now, thanks be!' he said, looking straight at me. 'It's this room, sure enough, doctor!'

"'What do you mean, for heaven's sake?' I said, getting up and coming to him, interested enough, now, you can believe.

"'For hell's sake, would be nearer the mark,' he answered me, gently enough, but his jaw was set and there was a light in his eye I'd seen there once or twice. 'This is a bad business. This'll take more than sitting down, this will.'

"And flat on his knees he plumped, ahead of his chair, and crossed himself and started praying in Latin. He made no special noise nor movement, but after a while I saw the sweat stand out on his forehead and his face was drawn and pale--and grew paler. Every now and then he'd give a sort of deep sigh and hitch along, almost imperceptibly, on his knees, from fatigue and nervous tension, and after about ten minutes he was almost in the fireplace. With anybody else I could never have stood it, but it was impossible not to respect Father Kelly, and I can tell you that whatever prayers he prayed, they were no perfunctory mumblings: they took it out of him! He was like a man fighting, blindfolded--he breathed like a prize fighter, I tell you! And just at the edge of the hearth, when I thought I must stop him (that sort of auto-hypnosis will take a person straight out of an open six-story window, you know) he stopped himself, opened his eyes with a jerk, and pointed ahead of him.

"'Mother of God,' he said in a husky whisper, 'but it's there!'

"'There!' said I. 'What's there, Father? There can't be anything in that fireplace--I've seen a dozen fires in it.'

"He got up from his knees as unconcerned as he'd gotten down on them and cleared his throat.

"'Not in it, perhaps, doctor,' he said, 'but then, under it. Or over it, perhaps. But there, somewhere, it is.'

"'You mean the bricks?' I cried, and he nodded his head like a man too weak to talk.

"'Maybe,' he whispered. 'Look and see."

"There was a full set of fire-irons there, and I took the poker and tapped all about the hearth, as excited as a boy on a treasure hunt, though of course I didn't believe in it, any more than the boy does, really.

"'No, Father,' I said, 'there's nothing to show--' and then, just between the andirons, I hit a blow that rang as hollow as a drum!

"'But there's no brick loose!' I cried, and he whispered, 'Then break it!'

"It took more than a few blows and I broke the poker, but finally I loosened the mortar and there under the two centre bricks was an iron box, about seven inches square, made like a little trunk. I fished it out and opened it--it opened from the side--and pulled out two thick handfuls of yellow letters, without envelopes. I opened the top one eagerly, but it had no date nor address. For signature there was only the name 'Olive.'"

He stopped abruptly and stared at the thick-bellied decanter before him. His voice sank lower.

"I have never heard or read that name since," he said slowly, "without a thrill at my nerves like a picked violin string. They were the wickedest letters ever written, I think. Even for a woman, they were incredible."

The men stared at him, mystified, confused, eager.

"One, the third, I think, said something like this: 'They may bury me, now that you want me no longer. They shall never bury these letters--I swear it. Here in the room where I wrote them, they shall live after I am gone.'

"And they lived--God, they lived! As I pored over them, cross-legged by that little hearth, I believe that I was as lost to the world about me as Father Kelly had been a few moments before. They were not written for me, they offered me nothing, the writer was beyond doubt dead and gone; but for the moment those yellow papers held me, soul and body, in such a grip as I have never known before or since. I can't tell you ... I didn't know such things could be written...." He shook his head slowly.

"I'd always been fairly decent, you see--there were circumstances ... I couldn't take advantage...

"Did you ever turn over a good old sunny rock, flat, a little mossy, but clean and wholesome? And underneath it crawls--it crawls! Black, slimy slug things ... muck of the Pit!

"That was me. And every time my eyes fell on one of those amazing phrases on that yellow page, I had to hold the rock down!

"Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I jumped like a woman. Father Kelly stood over me, and he looked, from where I sat below him, unhumanly tall. He held out his hand.

"'Give them to me,' he said.

"'But, Father, you don't want to see them!' I burst out. 'I'm going to destroy them. You--you mustn't see them! Let me burn them----'

"'Give them to me, my son," he repeated, and I gave them up like a child. It was remarkable.

"'At any rate, I warn you,' I began. But he only smiled.

"'When you are warned of fever in a house, do you pass it by, my son?' he asked me softly. 'But this is a different matter.'

"I admit that I couldn't meet his eyes.

"Well, he read them all through placidly, and then he sighed and shook his head.

"'Poor things, poor things!' he said, 'and now we'll burn them. There is nothing I can do.'

"So we burned them there and put back the bricks and he muttered some short prayer or other and made the sign of the cross over the fireplace and then turned to me.

"'Didn't I see some bread and ham and a cheese in that wire safe in the cellar, doctor?' says he. 'I had no supper to-night.'

"We went down and got them and a bottle of Scotch, too, and I remember perfectly that we polished off half a small ham, a whole Edam cheese, a loaf of bread and nearly a bottle of the Scotch--the bottle wasn't quite full, to begin with, you see.

"After we'd finished we had a smoke, and then I stared at him straight.

"'What's the meaning of it all, Father?' I asked.

"'I can't tell you, my son,' said he (he never called me so before or since that night) 'but you may be sure of one thing--God reigns. And now, what are you thinking to do?'

"'Burn down this house,' said I, 'and send for my wife to come back.'

"'By all means send for your wife,' says he quickly, 'but if you're bound to destroy this house--which strikes me as a very good sort of house--why not give it me?'

"'To you?' I cried. 'You don't mean that you'd use it?'

"'I could put a parochial school for girls there next week,' he said cheerfully. 'We need one at this end badly, but I hadn't the money."

"'And you'd put innocent girls in this place?'

"'Give me a chance, and then come hear Sister Mary Eustacia sing with 'em, next Sunday,' he said.

"So I deeded it to him, land and all, and they had a great kick-up there with little boys in lace night-gowns, and incense and what not. And, by George, the girls did sing for me, too, with Sister Somebody-or-other bowing and blushing behind 'em--all in white they were, with blue sashes, and voices like larks ... I never had a daughter...."

He half rose, heavily, leaning on his elbows. "Mind you, there's something there!" he said slowly.

"There's a Pit below--you have to count on it. Perhaps we're shovelling it in, all the time, shovelling it in...

"And the more you whistle, the better you'll work, of course. Very well, then, whistle! But don't mistake--it's there ... it's there."

They drew long breaths and pushed away from the table; the rain had stopped.

And still in silence they walked out together into the fresh, damp evening.

[The end]
Josephine Daskam Bacon's short story: Unburied