By the light of a tallow candle which had
been placed on one end of a rough table a man was reading something written
in a book. It was an old account book, greatly worn; and the writing was
not, apparently, very legible, for the man sometimes held the page close
to the flame of the candle to get a stronger light on it. The shadow of
the book would then throw into obscurity a half of the room, darkening
a number of faces and figures; for besides the reader, eight other men
were present. Seven of them sat against the rough log walls, silent, motionless,
and the room being small, not very far from the table. By extending an
arm anyone of them could have touched the eighth man, who lay on the table,
face upward, partly covered by a sheet, his arms at his sides. He was dead.
The man with the book was not reading aloud, and no
one spoke; all seemed to be waiting for something to occur; the dead man
only was without expectation. From the blank darkness outside came in,
through the aperture that served for a window, all the ever unfamiliar
noises of night in the wilderness - the long nameless note of a distant
coyote; the stilly pulsing thrill of tireless insects in trees; strange
cries of night birds, so different from those of the birds of day; the
drone of great blundering beetles, and all that mysterious chorus of small
sounds that seem always to have been but half heard when they have suddenly
ceased, as if conscious of an indiscretion. But nothing of all this was
noted in that company; its members were not overmuch addicted to idle interest
in matters of no practical importance; that was obvious in every line of
their rugged faces - obvious even in the dim light of the single candle.
They were evidently men of the vicinity - farmers and woodsmen.
The person reading was a trifle different; one would
have said of him that he was of the world, worldly, albeit there was that
in his attire which attested a certain fellowship with the organisms of
his environment. His coat would hardly have passed muster in San Francisco;
his foot-gear was not of urban origin, and the hat that lay by him on the
floor (he was the only one uncovered) was such that if one had considered
it as an article of mere personal adornment he would have missed its meaning.
In countenance the man was rather prepossessing, with just a hint of sternness;
though that he may have assumed or cultivated, as appropriate to one in
authority. For he was a coroner. It was by virtue of his office that he
had possession of the book in which he was reading; it had been found among
the dead man's effects - in his cabin, where the inquest was now taking
When the coroner had finished reading he put the book
into his breast pocket. At that moment the door was pushed open and a young
man entered. He, clearly, was not of mountain birth and breeding: he was
clad as those who dwell in cities. His clothing was dusty, however, as
from travel. He had, in fact, been riding hard to attend the inquest.
The coroner nodded; no one else greeted him.
"We have waited for you," said the coroner." It is
necessary to have done with this business to-night."
The young man smiled. "I am sorry to have kept you,"
he said. "I went away, not to evade your summons, but to post to my newspaper
an account of what I suppose I am called back to relate."
The coroner smiled.
"The account that you posted to your newspaper," he
said, "differs, probably, from that which you will give here under oath."
"That," replied the other, rather hotly and with a
visible flush, "is as you please. I used manifold paper and have a copy
of what I sent. It was not written as news, for it is incredible, but as
fiction. It may go as a part of my testimony under oath."
"But you say it is incredible."
"That is nothing to you, sir, if I also swear that
it is true."
The coroner was silent for a time, his eyes upon the
floor. The men about the sides of the cabin talked in whispers, but seldom
withdrew their gaze from the face of the corpse. Presently the coroner
lifted his eyes and said: "We will resume the inquest."
The men removed their hats. The witness was sworn.
"What is your name? " the coroner asked.
"You knew the deceased, Hugh Morgan?"
"You were with him when he died?"
"How did that happen - your presence, I mean?"
"I was visiting him at this place to shoot and fish.
A part of my purpose, however, was to study him and his odd, solitary way
of life. He seemed a good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes
"I sometimes read them."
"Stories in general - not yours."
Some of the jurors laughed. Against a sombre background
humour shows high lights. Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily,
and a jest in the death chamber conquers by surprise.
"Relate the circumstances of this man's death," said
the coroner. "You may use any notes or memoranda that you please."
The witness understood. Pulling a manuscript from his
breast pocket he held it near the candle and turning the leaves until he
found the passage that he wanted began to read.
2: What May Happen in a Field of Wild Oats
"...The sun had hardly risen when we left the house. We
were looking for quail, each with a shotgun, but we had only one dog. Morgan
said that our best ground was beyond a certain ridge that he pointed out,
and we crossed it by a trail through the chaparral. On the other side was
comparatively level ground, thickly covered with wild oats. As we emerged
from the chaparral Morgan was but a few yards in advance. Suddenly we heard,
at a little distance to our right and partly in front, a noise as of some
animal thrashing about in the bushes, which we could see were violently
"'We've started a deer,' I said. 'I wish we had brought
"Morgan, who had stopped and was intently watching
the agitated chaparral, said nothing, but had cocked both barrels of his
gun and was holding it in readiness to aim. I thought him a trifle excited,
which surprised me, for be had a reputation for exceptional coolness, even
in moments of sudden and imminent peril.
"'Oh, come,' I said. 'You are not going to fill up
a deer with quail-shot, are you?'
"Still he did not reply; but catching a sight of his
face as he turned it slightly toward me I was struck by the intensity of
his look. Then I understood that we had serious business in hand, and my
first conjecture was that we had 'jumped' a grizzly. I advanced to Morgan's
side, cocking my piece as I moved.
"The bushes were now quiet and the sounds had ceased,
but Morgan was as attentive to the place as before.
"'What is it? What the devil is it?' I asked.
"'That Damned Thing!' he replied, without turning his
head. His voice was husky and unnatural. He trembled visibly.
"I was about to speak further, when I observed the
wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable
way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind,
which not only bent it, but pressed it down - crushed it so that it did
not rise; and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward
"Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely
as this unfamiliar and unaccountable phenomenon, yet I am unable to recall
any sense of fear. I remember - and tell it here because, singularly enough,
I recollected it then - that once in looking carelessly out of an open
window I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group
of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the
others, but being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail
seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law
of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely
upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension
of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity.
So now the apparently causeless movement of the herbage and the slow, undeviating
approach of the line of disturbance were distinctly disquieting. My companion
appeared actually frightened, and I could hardly credit my senses when
I saw him suddenly throw his gun to his shoulder and fire both barrels
at the agitated grain! Before the smoke of the discharge had cleared away
I heard a loud savage cry - a scream like that of a wild animal - and flinging
his gun upon the ground Morgan sprang away and ran swiftly from the spot.
At the same instant I was thrown violently to the ground by the impact
of something unseen in the smoke - some soft, heavy substance that seemed
thrown against me with great force.
"Before I could get upon my feet and recover my gun,
which seemed to have been struck from my hands, I heard Morgan crying out
as if in mortal agony, and mingling with his cries were such hoarse, savage
sounds as one hears from fighting dogs. Inexpressibly terrified, I struggled
to my feet and looked in the direction of Morgan's retreat; and may Heaven
in mercy spare me from another sight like that! At a distance of less than
thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at
a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body
in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right
arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand - at least, I could see none.
The other arm was invisible. At times, as my memory now reports this extraordinary
scene, I could discern but a part of his body; it was as if he had been
partly blotted out - I cannot otherwise express it - then a shifting of
his position would bring it all into view again.
"All this must have occurred within a few seconds,
yet in that time Morgan assumed all the postures of a determined wrestler
vanquished by superior weight and strength. I saw nothing but him, and
him not always distinctly. During the entire incident his shouts and curses
were heard, as if through an enveloping uproar of such sounds of rage and
fury as I had never heard from the throat of man or brute!
"For a moment only I stood irresolute, then throwing
down my gun I ran forward to my friend's assistance. I had a vague belief
that he was suffering from a fit, or some form of convulsion. Before I
could reach his side he was down and quiet. All sounds had ceased, but
with a feeling of such terror as even these awful events had not inspired
I now saw again the mysterious movement of the wild oats, prolonging itself
from the trampled area about the prostrate man toward the edge of a wood.
It was only when it had reached the wood that I was able to withdraw my
eyes and look at my companion. He was dead."
3: A Man though Naked may be in Rags
The coroner rose from his seat and stood beside the dead
man. Lifting an edge of the sheet he pulled it away, exposing the entire
body, altogether naked and showing in the candle-light a clay-like yellow.
It had, however, broad maculations of bluish black, obviously caused by
extravasated blood from contusions. The chest and sides looked as if they
had been beaten with a bludgeon. There were dreadful lacerations; the skin
was torn in strips and shreds.
The coroner moved round to the end of the table and
undid a silk handkerchief which had been passed under the chin and knotted
on the top of the head. When the handkerchief was drawn away it exposed
what had been the throat. Some of the jurors who had risen to get a better
view repented their curiosity and turned away their faces. Witness Harker
went to the open window and leaned out across the sill, faint and sick.
Dropping the handkerchief upon the dead man's neck the coroner stepped
to an angle of the room and from a pile of clothing produced one garment
after another, each of which he held up a moment for inspection. All were
torn, and stiff with blood. The jurors did not make a closer inspection.
They seemed rather uninterested. They had, in truth, seen all this before;
the only thing that was new to them being Harker's testimony.
"Gentlemen," the coroner said, "we have no more evidence,
I think. Your duty has been already explained to you; if there is nothing
you wish to ask you may go outside and consider your verdict."
The foreman rose - a tall, bearded man of sixty, coarsely
"I should like to ask one question, Mr. Coroner," he
said. "What asylum did this yer last witness escape from?"
"Mr. Harker," said the coroner gravely and tranquilly,
"from what asylum did you last escape? " Harker flushed crimson again,
but said nothing, and the seven jurors rose and solemnly filed out of the
"If you have done insulting me, sir," said Harker,
as soon as he and the officer were left alone with the dead man, "I suppose
I am at liberty to go?"
Harker started to leave, but paused, with his hand
on the door latch. The habit of his profession was strong in him - stronger
than his sense of personal dignity. He turned about and said:
"The book that you have there - I recognize it as Morgan's
diary. You seemed greatly interested in it; you read in it while I was
testifying. May I see it? The public would like - "
"The book will cut no figure in this matter," replied
the official, slipping it into his coat pocket; "all the entries in it
were made before the writer's death."
As Harker passed out of the house the jury reentered
and stood about the table, on which the now covered corpse showed under
the sheet with sharp definition. The foreman seated himself near the candle,
produced from his breast pocket a pencil and scrap of paper and wrote rather
laboriously the following verdict, which with various degrees of effort
"We, the jury, do find that the remains come to their
death at the hands of a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same,
they had fits."
4: An Explanation from the Tomb
In the diary of the late Hugh Morgan are certain interesting
entries having, possibly, a scientific value as suggestions. At the inquest
upon his body the book was not put in evidence; possibly the coroner thought
it not worth while to confuse the jury. The date of the first of the entries
mentioned cannot be ascertained; the upper part of the leaf is torn away;
the part of the entry remaining follows:
"...would run in a half-circle, keeping his head turned
always toward the centre, and again he would stand still, barking furiously.
At last he ran away into the brush as fast as he could go. I thought at
first that he had gone mad, but on returning to the house found no other
alteration in his manner than what was obviously due to fear of punishment.
"Can a dog see with his nose? Do odours impress some
cerebral centre with images of the thing that emitted them? . . .
"Sept. 2. - Looking at the stars last night as they
rose above the crest of the ridge east of the house, I observed them successively
disappear - from left to right. Each was eclipsed but an instant, and only
a few at the same time, but along the entire length of the ridge all that
were within a degree or two of the crest were blotted out. It was as if
something had passed along between me and them; but I could not see it,
and the stars were not thick enough to define its outline. Ugh! don't like
Several weeks entries are missing, three leaves being
torn from the book.
"Sept. 27. - It has been about here again - I find
evidences of its presence every day. I watched again all last night in
the same cover, gun in hand, double-charged with buckshot. In the morning
the fresh footprints were there, as before. Yet I would have sworn that
I did not sleep - indeed, I hardly sleep at all. It is terrible, insupportable!
If these amazing experiences are real I shall go mad; if they are fanciful
I am mad already.
"Oct. 3. - I shall not go - it shall not drive me away.
No, this is my house, my land. God hates a coward....
"Oct. 5. - I can stand it no longer; I have invited
Harker to pass a few weeks with me - he has a level head. I can judge from
his manner if he thinks me mad.
"Oct. 7. - I have the solution of the mystery; it came
to me last night - suddenly, as by revelation. How simple - how terribly
"There are sounds that we cannot hear. At either end
of the scale are notes that stir no chord of that imperfect instrument,
the human ear. They are too high or too grave. I have observed a flock
of blackbirds occupying an entire tree-top - the tops of several trees
- and all in full song. Suddenly - in a moment - at absolutely the same
instant - all spring into the air and fly away. How? They could not all
see one another - whole tree-tops intervened. At no point could a leader
have been visible to all. There must have been a signal of warning or command,
high and shrill above the din, but by me unheard. I have observed, too,
the same simultaneous flight when all were silent, among not only blackbirds,
but other birds - quail, for example, widely separated by bushes - even
on opposite sides of a hill.
"It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking
or sporting on the surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity
of the earth between, will sometimes dive at the same instant - all gone
out of sight in a moment. The signal has been sounded - too grave for the
ear of the sailor at the masthead and his comrades on the deck - who nevertheless
feel its vibrations in the ship as the stones of a cathedral are stirred
by the bass of the organ.
"As with sounds, so with colours. At each end of the
solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as
"actinic" rays. They represent colours - integral colours in the composition
of light - which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect
instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real "chromatic scale."
I am not mad; there are colours that we cannot see.
"And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a colour!"