When I first saw the table, dingy and dusty, in the furthest corner of the old hopper-shaped garret, and set out with broken, be-crusted old purple vials and flasks, and a ghostly, dismantled old quarto, it seemed just such a necromantic little old table as might have belonged to Friar Bacon. Two plain features it had, significant of conjurations and charms—the circle and tripod—the slab being round, supported by a twisted little pillar, which, about a foot from the bottom, sprawled out into three crooked legs, terminating in three cloven feet. A very satanic-looking little old table, indeed.
In order to convey a better idea of it, some account may as well be given of the place it came from. A very old garret of a very old house in an old-fashioned quarter of one of the oldest towns in America. This garret had been closed for years. It was thought to be haunted—a rumour, I confess, which, however absurd (in my opinion), I did not, at the time of purchasing, very vehemently contradict; since, not improbably, it tended to place the property the more conveniently within my means.
It was, therefore, from no dread of the reputed goblins aloft that, for five years after first taking up my residence in the house, I never entered the garret. There was no special inducement. The roof was well slated, and thoroughly tight. The company that insured the house waived all visitation of the garret; why, then, should the owner be over-anxious about it?—particularly as he had no use for it, the house having ample room below. Then the key of the stair-door leading to it was lost. The lock was a huge, old-fashioned one. To open it, a smith would have to be called; an unnecessary trouble, I thought. Besides, though I had taken some care to keep my two daughters in ignorance of the rumour above-mentioned, still they had, by some means, got an inkling of it, and were well enough pleased to see the entrance to the haunted ground closed. It might have remained so for a still longer time, had it not been for my accidentally discovering, in a corner of our old, glen-like, terraced garden, a large and curious key, very old and rusty, which I at once concluded must belong to the garret-door—a supposition which, upon trial, proved correct. Now, the possession of a key to anything at once provokes a desire to unlock and explore; and this, too, from a mere instinct of gratification, irrespective of any particular benefit to accrue.
Behold me, then, turning the rusty old key, and going up, alone, into the haunted garret.
It embraced the entire area of the mansion. Its ceiling was formed by the roof, showing the rafters and boards on which the slates were laid. The roof shedding the water four ways from a high point in the centre, the space beneath was much like that of a general’s marquee—only midway broken by a labyrinth of timbers, for braces, from which waved innumerable cobwebs that, of a summer’s noon, shone like Baghdad tissues and gauzes. On every hand, some strange insect was seen, flying or running or creeping on rafter and floor.
Under the apex of the roof was a rude, narrow, decrepit step-ladder, something like a Gothic pulpit-stairway, leading to a pulpit-like platform, from which a still narrower ladder—a sort of Jacob’s ladder—led some ways higher to the lofty scuttle. The slide of this scuttle was about two feet square, all in one piece, furnishing a massive frame for a single small pane of glass, inserted into it like a bull’s-eye. The light of the garret came from this sole source, filtrated through a dense curtain of cobwebs. Indeed, the whole stairs, and platform, and ladder, were festooned, and carpeted, and canopied with cobwebs; which, in funereal accumulations hung, too, from the groined, murky ceiling, like the Carolina moss in the cypress forest. In these cobwebs swung, as in aerial catacombs, myriads of all tribes of mummied insects.
Climbing the stairs to the platform, and pausing there to recover my breath, a curious scene was presented. The sun was about halfway up. Piercing the little skylight, it slopingly bored a rainbowed tunnel clear across the darkness of the garret. Here, millions of butterfly moles were swarming. Against the skylight itself, with a cymbal-like buzzing, thousands of insects clustered in a golden mob.
Wishing to shed a clearer light through the place, I sought to withdraw the scuttle-slide. But no sign of latch or hasp was visible. Only after long peering, did I discover a little padlock, embedded, like an oyster at the bottom of the sea, amid matted masses of weedy webs, chrysalides and insectivorous eggs. Brushing these away, I found it locked. With a crooked nail, I tried to pick the lock, when scores of small ants and flies, half-torpid, crawled forth from the key-hole and, feeling the warmth of the sun in the pane, began frisking around me. Others appeared. Presently, I was overrun by them. As if incensed at this invasion of their retreat, countless bands darted up from below, beating about my head like hornets. At last, with a sudden jerk, I burst open the scuttle. And ah! what a change. As from the gloom of the grave and the companionship of worms, man shall at last rapturously rise into the living greenness and glory immortal, so, from my cobwebbed old garret, I thrust forth my head into the balmy air, and found myself hailed by the verdant tops of great trees, growing in the little garden below—trees whose leaves soared high above my topmost slate.
Refreshed by this outlook, I turned inward to behold the garret, now unwontedly lit up. Such humped masses of obsolete furniture. An old escritoire, from whose pigeonholes sprang mice, and from whose secret drawers came subterranean squeakings, as from chipmunks’ holes in the woods; and broken-down old chairs, with strange carvings which seemed fit to seat a conclave of conjurors. And a rusty, iron-bound chest, lidless, and packed full of mildewed old documents; one of which, with a faded red inkblot at the end, looked as if it might have been the original bond that Doctor Faust gave to Mephistopheles. And, finally, in the least lighted corner of all, where was a profuse litter of indescribable old rubbish—among which was a broken telescope, and a celestial globe staved in—stood the little old table, one hoofed foot, like that of the Evil One, dimly revealed through the cobwebs. What a thick dust, half paste, had settled upon the old vials and flasks; how their once liquid contents had caked, and how strangely looked the mouldy old book in the middle—Cotton Mather’s Magnalia.
Table and book I removed below, and had the dislocations of the one and the tatters of the other repaired. I resolved to surround this sad little hermit of a table, so long banished from genial neighbourhood, with all the kindly influences of warm urns, warm fires and warm hearts; little dreaming what all this warm nursing would hatch.
I was pleased by the discovery that the table was not of the ordinary mahogany, but of apple-tree wood, which age had darkened nearly to walnut. It struck me as being quite an appropriate piece of furniture for our cedar-parlour—so called, from its being, after the old fashion, wainscoted with that wood. The table’s round slab, or orb, was so contrived as to be readily changed from a horizontal to a perpendicular position, so that, when not in use, it could be placed snugly in a corner. For myself, wife and two daughters, I thought it would make a nice little breakfast and tea-table. It was just the thing for a whist table, too. And I also pleased myself with the idea that it would make a famous reading-table.
In these fancies, my wife, for one, took little interest. She disrelished the idea of so unfashionable and indigent-looking a stranger as the table intruding into the polished society of more prosperous furniture. But when, after seeking its fortune at the cabinet-maker’s, the table came home, varnished over, bright as a guinea, no one exceeded my wife in a gracious reception of it. It was advanced to an honourable position in the cedar-parlour.
But, as for my daughter Julia, she never got over her strange emotions upon first accidentally encountering the table. Unfortunately, it was just as I was in the act of bringing it down from the garret. Holding it by the slab, I was carrying it before me, one cob-webbed hoof thrust out, which weird object, at a turn of the stairs, suddenly touched my girl as she was ascending; whereupon, turning, and seeing no living creature—for I was quite hidden behind my shield—seeing nothing, indeed, but the apparition of the Evil One’s foot, as it seemed, she cried out, and there is no knowing what might have followed, had I not immediately spoken.
From the impression thus produced, my poor girl, of a very nervous temperament, was long recovering. Superstitiously grieved at my violating the forbidden solitude above, she associated in her mind the cloven-footed table with the reputed goblins there. She besought me to give up the idea of domesticating the table. Nor did her sister fail to add her entreaties. Between my girls there was a constitutional sympathy. But my matter-of-fact wife had now declared in the table’s favour. She was not wanting in firmness and energy. To her, the prejudices of Julia and Anna were simply ridiculous. It was her maternal duty, she thought, to drive such weakness away. By degrees, the girls, at breakfast and tea, were induced to sit down with us at the table. Continual proximity was not without effect. By and by, they would sit pretty tranquilly, though Julia, as much as possible, avoided glancing at the hoofed feet, and, when at this I smiled, she would look at me seriously—as much as to say, Ah, papa, you, too, may yet do the same. She prophesied that, in connection with the table, something strange would yet happen. But I would only smile the more, while my wife indignantly chided.
Meantime, I took particular satisfaction in my table as a night reading-table. At a ladies’ fair, I bought me a beautifully worked reading-cushion, and, with elbow leaning thereon, and hand shading my eyes from the light, spent many a long hour—nobody by, but the queer old book I had brought down from the garret.
All went well, till the incident now about to be given—an incident, be it remembered, which, like every other in this narration, happened long before the time of the ‘Fox Girls’.
It was late on a Saturday night in December. In the little old cedar-parlour, before the little old apple-tree table, I was sitting up, as usual, alone. I had made more than one effort to get up and go to bed; but I could not. I was, in fact, under a sort of fascination. Somehow, too, certain reasonable opinions of mine seemed not so reasonable as before. I felt nervous. The truth was that, though, in my previous night-readings, Cotton Mather had but amused me, upon this particular night he terrified me. A thousand times I had laughed at such stories. Old wives’ fables, I thought, however entertaining. But now, how different. They began to put on the aspect of reality. Now, for the first time it struck me that this was no romantic Mrs Radcliffe who had written the Magnalia, but a practical, hardworking, earnest, upright man, a learned doctor, too, as well as a good Christian and orthodox clergyman. What possible motive could such a man have to deceive? His style had all the plainness and unpoetic boldness of truth. In the most straightforward way, he laid before me detailed accounts of New England witchcraft, each important item corroborated by respectable townsfolk, and of which not a few of the most surprising he himself had been eyewitness. Cotton Mather testified whereof he had seen. But, is it possible, I asked myself. Then I remembered that Dr Johnson, the matter-of-fact compiler of a dictionary, had been a believer in ghosts, besides many other sound, worthy men. Yielding to the fascination, I read deeper and deeper into the night. At last, I found myself starting at the least chance sound, and yet wishing that it were not so very still.
A tumbler of warm punch stood by my side, with which beverage, in a moderate way, I was accustomed to treat myself every Saturday night; a habit, however, against which my good wife had long remonstrated; predicting that, unless I gave it up, I would yet die a miserable sot. Indeed, I may here mention that, on the Sunday mornings following my Saturday nights, I had to be exceedingly cautious how I gave way to the slightest impatience at any accidental annoyance, because such impatience was sure to be quoted against me as evidence of the melancholy consequence of overnight indulgence. As for my wife, she, never sipping punch, could yield to any little passing peevishness as much as she pleased.
But, upon the night in question, I found myself wishing that, instead of my usual mild mixture, I had concocted some potent draught. I felt the need of stimulus. I wanted something to hearten me against Cotton Mather—doleful, ghostly, ghastly Cotton Mather. I grew more and more nervous. Nothing but fascination kept me from fleeing the room. The candles burnt low, with long snuffs and huge winding-sheets. But I durst not raise the snuffers to them. It would make too much noise. And yet, previously, I had been wishing for noise. I read on and on. My hair began to have a sensation. My eyes felt strained; they pained me. I was conscious of it. I knew I was injuring them. I knew I should rue this abuse of them next day; but I read on and on. I could not help it. The skinny hand was on me.
All at once—Hark!
My hair felt like growing grass.
A faint sort of inward rapping or rasping—a strange, inexplicable sound, mixed with a slight kind of woodpecking or ticking.
Yes, it was a faint sort of ticking.
I looked up at my great Strasbourg clock in one corner. It was not that. The clock had stopped.
Was it my watch?
According to her usual practice at night, my wife had, upon retiring, carried my watch off to our chamber to hang it up on its nail.
I listened with all my ears.
Was it a death-tick in the wainscot?
With a tremulous step I went all round the room, holding my ear to the wainscot.
No; it came not from the wainscot.
I shook myself. I was ashamed of my fright.
It grew in precision and audibleness. I retreated from the wainscot. It seemed advancing to meet me.
I looked round and round, but saw nothing, only one cloven foot of the little apple-tree table.
Bless me, said I to myself, with a sudden revulsion, it must be very late; ain’t that my wife calling me? Yes, yes; I must to bed. I suppose all is locked up. No need to go the rounds.
The fascination had departed, though the fear had increased. With trembling hands, putting Cotton Mather out of sight, I soon found myself, candlestick in hand, in my chamber, with a peculiar rearward feeling, such as some truant dog may feel. In my eagerness to get well into the chamber, I stumbled against a chair.
‘Do try and make less noise, my dear,’ said my wife from the bed. ‘You have been taking too much of that punch, I fear. That sad habit grows on you. Ah, that I should ever see you thus staggering at night into your chamber.’
‘Wife, wife,’ hoarsely whispered I, ‘there is—is something tick—ticking in the cedar-parlour.’
‘Poor old man—quite out of his mind—I knew it would be so. Come to bed; come and sleep it off.’
‘Do, do come to bed. I forgive you. I won’t remind you of it tomorrow. But you must give up the punch-drinking, my dear. It quite gets the better of you.’
‘Don’t exasperate me,’ I cried, now truly beside myself; ‘I will quit the house!’
‘No, no! not in that state. Come to bed, my dear. I won’t say another word.’
The next morning, upon waking, my wife said nothing about the past night’s affair, and, feeling no little embarrassment myself, especially at having been thrown into such a panic, I also was silent. Consequently, my wife must still have ascribed my singular conduct to a mind disordered, not by ghosts, but by punch. For my own part as I lay in bed watching the sun in the panes, I began to think that much midnight reading of Cotton Mather was not good for man; that it had a morbid influence upon the nerves, and gave rise to hallucinations. I resolved to put Cotton Mather permanently aside. That done, I had no fear of any return of the ticking. Indeed, I began to think that what seemed the ticking in the room, was nothing but a sort of buzzing in my ear.
As is her wont, my wife having preceded me in rising, I made a deliberate and agreeable toilet. Aware that most disorders of the mind have their origin in the state of the body, I made vigorous use of the flesh-brush, and bathed my head with New England rum, a specific once recommended to me as good for buzzing in the ear. Wrapped in my dressing-gown, with cravat nicely adjusted and fingernails neatly trimmed, I complacently descended to the little cedar-parlour to breakfast.
What was my amazement to find my wife on her knees, rummaging about the carpet nigh the little apple-tree table, on which the morning meal was laid, while my daughters, Julia and Anna, were running about the apartment distracted.
‘Oh, papa, papa!’ cried Julia, hurrying up to me, ‘I knew it would be so. The table, the table!’
‘Spirits! spirits!’ cried Anna, standing far away from it, with pointed finger.
‘Silence!’ cried my wife. ‘How can I hear it, if you make such a noise? Be still. Come here, husband, was this the ticking you spoke of? Why don’t you move? Was this it? Here, kneel down and listen to it. Tick, tick, tick!—don’t you hear it now?’
‘I do, I do,’ cried I, while my daughters besought us both to come away from the spot.
Tick, tick, tick!
Right from under the snowy cloth, and the cheerful urn, and the smoking milk-toast, the unaccountable ticking was heard.
‘Ain’t there a fire in the next room, Julia?’ said I. ‘Let us breakfast there, my dear,’ turning to my wife—‘let us go—leave the table—tell Biddy to remove the things.’
And so saying, I was moving towards the door in high self-possession, when my wife interrupted me.
‘Before I quit this room, I will see into this ticking,’ she said with energy. ‘It is something that can be found out, depend upon it. I don’t believe in spirits, especially at breakfast-time. Biddy! Biddy! Here, carry these things back to the kitchen,’ handing the urn. Then, sweeping off the cloth, the little table lay bare to the eye.
‘It’s the table, the table!’ cried Julia.
‘Nonsense,’ said my wife. ‘Who ever heard of a ticking table? It’s on the floor. Biddy! Julia! Anna! move everything out of the room—table and all. Where are the tack-hammers?’
‘Heavens, mamma—you are not going to take up the carpet?’ screamed Julia.
‘Here’s the hammers, marm,’ said Biddy, advancing tremblingly.
‘Hand them to me, then,’ cried my wife; for poor Biddy was, at long gun-distance, holding them out as if her mistress had the plague.
‘Now, husband, do you take up that side of the carpet, and I will this.’ Down on her knees she then dropped, while I followed suit.
The carpet being removed, and the ear applied to the naked floor, not the slightest ticking could be heard.
‘The table—after all, it is the table,’ cried my wife. ‘Biddy, bring it back.’
‘Oh no, marm, not I, please, marm,’ sobbed Biddy.
‘Foolish creature!—Husband, do you bring it.’
‘My dear,’ said I, ‘we have plenty of other tables; why be so particular?’
‘Where is that table?’ cried my wife, contemptuously, regardless of my gentle remonstrance.
‘In the wood-house, marm. I put it away as far as ever I could, marm,’ sobbed Biddy.
‘Shall I go to the wood-house for it, or will you?’ said my wife, addressing me in a frightful, businesslike manner.
Immediately I darted out of the door, and found the little apple-tree table, upside down, in one of my chip-bins. I hurriedly returned with it, and once more my wife examined it attentively. Tick, tick, tick! Yes, it was the table.
‘Please, marm,’ said Biddy, now entering the room, with hat and shawl—‘please, marm, will you pay me my wages?’
‘Take your hat and shawl off directly,’ said my wife; ‘set this table again.’
‘Set it,’ roared I, in a passion, ‘set it, or I’ll go for the police.’
‘Heavens! heavens!’ cried my daughters, in one breath. ‘What will become of us!—Spirits! Spirits!’
‘Will you set the table?’ cried I, advancing upon Biddy.
‘I will, I will—yes, marm—yes, master—I will, I will. Spirits!—Holy Vargin!’
‘Now, husband,’ said my wife, ‘I am convinced that, whatever it is that causes this ticking, neither the ticking nor the table can hurt us; for we are all good Christians, I hope. I am determined to find out the cause of it, too, which time and patience will bring to light. I shall breakfast on no other table but this, so long as we live in this house. So, sit down, now that all things are ready again, and let us quietly breakfast. My dears,’ turning to Julia and Anna, ‘go to your room, and return composed. Let me have no more of this childishness.’
Upon occasion my wife was mistress in her house.
During the meal, in vain was conversation started again and again; in vain my wife said something brisk to infuse into others an animation akin to her own. Julia and Anna, with heads bowed over their tea-cups, were still listening for the tick. I confess, too, that their example was catching. But, for the time, nothing was heard. Either the ticking had died quite away, or else, slight as it was, the increasing uproar of the street, with the general hum of day, so contrasted with the repose of night and early morning, smothered the sound. At the lurking inquietude of her companions, my wife was indignant; the more so, as she seemed to glory in her own exemption from panic. When breakfast was cleared away she took my watch and, placing it on the table, addressed the supposed spirits in it, with a jocosely defiant air: ‘There, tick away, let us see who can tick loudest!’
All that day, while abroad, I thought of the mysterious table. Could Cotton Mather speak true? Were there spirits? And would spirits haunt a tea-table? Would the Evil One dare show his cloven hoof in the bosom of an innocent family? I shuddered when I thought that I myself, against the solemn warnings of my daughters, had wilfully introduced the cloven hoof there. Yea, three cloven feet. But, towards noon, this sort of feeling began to wear off. The continual rubbing against so many practical people in the street brushed such chimeras away from me. I remembered that I had not acquitted myself very intrepidly either on the previous night or in the morning. I resolved to regain the good opinion of my wife.
To evince my hardihood the more signally, when tea was dismissed, and the three rubbers of whist had been played, and no ticking had been heard—which the more encouraged me—I took my pipe and, saying that bedtime had arrived for the rest, drew my chair towards the fire, and, removing my slippers, placed my feet on the fender, looking as calm and composed as old Democritus in the tombs of Abdera, when one midnight the mischievous little boys of the town tried to frighten that sturdy philosopher with spurious ghosts.
And I thought to myself, that the worthy old gentleman had set a good example to all times in his conduct on that occasion. For, when at the dead hour, intent on his studies, he heard the strange sounds, he did not so much his eyes from his page, only simply said: ‘Boys, little boys, go home. This is no place for you. You will catch cold here.’ The philosophy of which words lies here: that they imply the foregone conclusion, that any possible investigation of any possible spiritual phenomena was absurd; that upon the first face of such things, the mind of a sane man instinctively affirmed them a humbug, unworthy the least attention; more especially if such phenomena appear in tombs, since tombs are peculiarly the place of silence, lifelessness and solitude; for which cause, by the way, the old man, as upon the occasion in question, made the tombs of Abdera his place of study.
Presently I was alone, and all was hushed. I laid down my pipe, not feeling exactly tranquil enough now thoroughly to enjoy it. Taking up one of the newspapers, I began, in a nervous, hurried sort of way, to read by the light of a candle placed on a small stand drawn close to the fire. As for the apple-tree table, having lately concluded that it was rather too low for a reading-table, I thought best not to use it as such that night. But it stood not very distant in the middle of the room.
Try as I would, I could not succeed much at reading. Somehow I seemed all ear and no eye; a condition of intense auricular suspense. But ere long it was broken.
Tick, tick, tick!
Though it was not the first time I had heard that sound, nay, though I had made it my particular business on this occasion to wait for that sound, nevertheless, when it came, it seemed unexpected, as if a cannon had boomed through the window.
Tick! tick! tick!
I sat stock-still for a time, thoroughly to master, if possible, my first discomposure. Then rising, I looked pretty steadily at the table; went up to it pretty steadily; took hold of it pretty steadily; but let it go pretty quickly; then paced up and down, stopping every moment or two, with ear pricked to listen. Meantime, within me, the contest between panic and philosophy remained not wholly decided.
Tick! tick! tick!
With appalling distinctness the ticking now rose on the night.
My pulse fluttered—my heart beat. I hardly know what might not have followed, had not Democritus just then come to the rescue. For shame, said I to myself, what is the use of so fine an example of philosophy, if it cannot be followed? Straightway I resolved to imitate it, even to the old sage’s occupation and attitude.
Resuming my chair and paper, with back presented to the table, I remained thus for a time, as if buried in study; when, the ticking still continuing, I drawled out, in as indifferent and dryly jocose a way as I could: ‘Come, come, Tick, my boy, fun enough for tonight.’
Tick! tick! tick!
There seemed a sort of jeering defiance in the ticking now. It seemed to exult over the poor affected part I was playing. But much as the taunt stung me, it only stung me into persistence. I resolved not to abate one whit in my mode of address.
‘Come, come, you make more and more noise, Tick, my boy; too much of a joke—time to have done.’
No sooner said than the ticking ceased. Never was responsive obedience more exact. For the life of me, I could not help turning round upon the table, as one would upon some reasonable being, when—could I believe my senses? I saw something moving, or wriggling, or squirming upon the slab of the table. It shone like a glowworm. Unconsciously, I grasped the poker that stood at hand. But bethinking me how absurd to attack a glowworm with a poker, I put it down. How long I sat spellbound and staring there, with my body presented one way and my face another, I cannot say; but at length I rose, and, buttoning my coat up and down, made a sudden intrepid forced march full upon the table. And there, near the centre of the slab, as I live, I saw an irregular little hole, or, rather, a short nibbled sort of crack, from which (like a butterfly escaping its chrysalis) the sparkling object, whatever it might be, was struggling. Its motion was the motion of life. I stood becharmed. Are there, indeed, spirits, thought I; and is this one? No; I must be dreaming. I turned my glance off to the red fire on the hearth, then back to the pale lustre on the table. What I saw was no optical illusion, but a real marvel. The tremor was increasing, when, once again, Democritus befriended me. Supernatural coruscation as it appeared, I strove to look at the strange object in a purely scientific way. Thus viewed, it appeared some new sort of small shining beetle or bug, and, I thought, not without something of a hum to it, too.
I still watched it, and with still increasing self-possession. Sparkling and wriggling, it still continued its throes. In another moment it was just on the point of escaping its prison. A thought struck me. Running for a tumbler, I clapped it over the insect just in time to secure it.
After watching it a while longer under the tumbler, I left all as it was, and, tolerably composed, retired.
Now, for the soul of me, I could not, at that time, comprehend the phenomenon. A live bug come out of a dead table? A firefly bug come out of a piece of ancient lumber, for one knows not how many years stored away in an old garret? Was ever such a thing heard of, or even dreamed of? How got the bug there? Never mind. I bethought me of Democritus, and resolved to keep cool. At all events, the mystery of the ticking was explained. It was simply the sound of the gnawing and filing and tapping of the bug, in eating its way out. It was satisfactory to think that there was an end forever to the ticking. I resolved not to let the occasion pass without reaping some credit from it.
‘Wife,’ said I, next morning, ‘you will not be troubled with any more ticking in our table. I have put a stop to all that.’
‘Indeed, husband,’ said she, with some incredulity.
‘Yes, wife,’ returned I, perhaps a little vaingloriously. ‘I have put a quietus upon that ticking. Depend upon it, the ticking will trouble you no more.’
In vain she besought me to explain myself. I would not gratify her; being willing to balance any previous trepidation I might have betrayed, by leaving room now for the imputation of some heroic feat whereby I had silenced the ticking. It was a sort of innocent deceit by implication, quite harmless, and, I thought, of utility.
But when I went to breakfast, I saw my wife kneeling at the table again, and my girls looking ten times more frightened than ever.
‘Why did you tell me that boastful tale?’ said my wife indignantly. ‘You might have known how easily it would be found out. See this crack, too; and here is the ticking again, plainer than ever.’
‘Impossible,’ I exclaimed; but upon applying my ear sure enough, tick! tick! tick! The ticking was there.
Recovering myself the best way I might, I demanded the bug.
‘Bug?’ screamed Julia. ‘Good heavens, papa!’
‘I hope, sir, you have been bringing no bugs into this house,’ said my wife, severely.
‘The bug, the bug!’ I cried; ‘the bug under the tumbler.’
‘Bugs in tumblers!’ cried the girls; ‘not our tumblers, papa? You have not been putting bugs into our tumblers? Oh, what does—what does it all mean?’
‘Do you see this hole, this crack here?’ said I, putting my finger on the spot.
‘That I do,’ said my wife, with high displeasure. ‘And how did it come there? What have you been doing to the table?’
‘Do you see this crack?’ repeated I, intensely.
‘Yes, yes,’ said Julia; ‘that was what frightened me so; it looks so like witch-work.’
‘Spirits! spirits!’ cried Anna.
‘Silence!’ said my wife. ‘Go on, sir, and tell us what you know of the crack.’
‘Wife and daughters,’ said I, solemnly, ‘out of that crack, or hole, while I was sitting all alone here last night, a wonderful—’
Here, involuntarily, I paused, fascinated by the expectant attitudes and bursting eyes of Julia and Anna.
‘What, what?’ cried Julia.
‘A bug, Julia.’
‘A bug?’ cried my wife. ‘A bug come out of this table? And what did you do with it?’
‘Clapped it under a tumbler.’
‘Biddy! Biddy!’ cried my wife, going to the door. ‘Did you see a tumbler here on this table when you swept the room?’
‘Sure I did, marm, and a ’bomnable bug under it.’
‘And what did you do with it?’ demanded I.
‘Put the bug in the fire, sir, and rinsed out the tumbler ever so many times, marm.’
‘Where is that tumbler?’ cried Anna. ‘I hope you scratched it—marked it some way. I’ll never drink out of that tumbler; never put it before me, Biddy. A bug—a bug! Oh, Julia! Oh, mamma! I feel it crawling all over me, even now. Haunted table!’
‘Spirits! spirits!’ cried Julia.
‘My daughters,’ said their mother, with authority in her eyes, ‘go to your chamber till you can behave more like reasonable creatures. Is it a bug—a bug that can frighten you out of what little wits you ever had? Leave the room. I am astonished. I am pained by such childish conduct.’
‘Now tell me,’ said she, addressing me, as soon as they had withdrawn, ‘now tell me truly, did a bug really come out of this crack in the table?’
‘Wife, it is even so.’
‘Did you see it come out?’
She looked earnestly at the crack, leaning over it.
‘Are you sure?’ said she, looking up, but still bent over.
She was silent. I began to think that the mystery of the thing began to tell even upon her. Yes, thought I, I shall presently see my wife shaking and shuddering, and, who knows, calling in some old dominie to exorcise the table, and drive out the spirits.
‘I’ll tell you what we’ll do,’ said she suddenly, and not without excitement.
‘What, wife?’ said I, all eagerness, expecting some mystical proposition; ‘what, wife?’
‘We will rub this table all over with that celebrated roach powder I’ve heard of.’
‘Good gracious! Then you don’t think it’s spirits?’
The emphasis of scornful incredulity was worthy of Democritus himself.
‘But this ticking—this ticking?’ said I.
‘I’ll whip that out of it.’
‘Come, come, wife,’ said I, ‘you are going too far the other way, now. Neither roach powder nor whipping will cure this table. It’s a queer table, wife; there’s no blinking it.’
‘I’ll have it rubbed, though,’ she replied, ‘well rubbed;’ and calling Biddy, she bade her get wax and brush, and give the table a vigorous manipulation. That done, the cloth was again laid, and we sat down to our morning meal; but my daughters did not make their appearance. Julia and Anna took no breakfast that day.
When the cloth was removed, in a businesslike way my wife went to work with a dark-coloured cement and hermetically closed the little hole in the table.
My daughters looking pale, I insisted upon taking them out for a walk that morning, when the following conversation ensued.
‘My worst presentiments about that table are being verified, papa,’ said Julia; ‘not for nothing was that intimation of the cloven foot on my shoulder.’
‘Nonsense,’ said I. ‘Let us go into Mrs Brown’s, and have an ice-cream.’
The spirit of Democritus was stronger on me now. By a curious coincidence, it strengthened with the strength of the sunlight.
‘But is it not miraculous,’ said Anna, ‘how a bug should come out of a table?’
‘Not at all, my daughter. It is a very common thing for bugs to come out of wood. You yourself must have seen them coming out of the ends of the billets on the hearth.’
‘Ah, but that wood is almost fresh from the woodland. But the table is at least a hundred years old.’
‘What of that?’ said I, gaily. ‘Have not live toads been found in the hearts of dead rocks, as old as creation?’
‘Say what you will, papa, I feel it is spirits,’ said Julia. ‘Do, do now, my dear papa, have that haunted table removed from the house.’
‘Nonsense,’ said I.
By another curious coincidence, the more they felt frightened, the more I felt brave.
‘This ticking,’ said my wife; ‘do you think that another bug will come of this continued ticking?’
Curiously enough, that had not occurred to me before. I had not thought of there being twins of bugs. But now, who knew—there might be even triplets.
I resolved to take precautions and, if there was to be a second bug, infallibly secure it. During the evening, the ticking was again heard. About ten o’clock I clapped a tumbler over the spot, as near as I could judge of it by my ear. Then we all retired, and locking the door of the cedar-parlour, I put the key in my pocket.
In the morning, nothing was to be seen, but the ticking was heard. The trepidation of my daughters returned. They wanted to call in the neighbours. But to this my wife was vigorously opposed. We should be the laughing-stock of the whole town. So it was agreed that nothing should be disclosed. Biddy received strict charges; and, to make sure, was not allowed that week to go to confession, lest she should tell the priest.
I stayed home all that day, every hour or two bending over the table, both eye and ear. Towards night, I thought the ticking grew more distinct, and seemed divided from my ear by a thinner and thinner partition of the wood. I thought, too, that I perceived a faint heaving up, or bulging of the wood, in the place where I had placed the tumbler. To put an end to the suspense, my wife proposed taking a knife and cutting into the wood there; but I had a less impatient plan; namely, that she and I should sit up with the table that night, as, from present symptoms the bug would probably make its appearance before morning. For myself, I was curious to see the first advent of the thing—the first dazzle of the chick as it chipped the shell.
The idea struck my wife not unfavourably. She insisted that both Julia and Anna should be of the party, in order that the evidence of their senses should disabuse their minds of all nursery nonsense. For that spirits should tick, and that spirits should take unto themselves the form of bugs, was, to my wife, the most foolish of all foolish imaginations. True, she could not account for the thing; but she had all confidence that it could be, and would yet be, somehow explained, and that to her entire satisfaction. Without knowing it herself, my wife was a female Democritus. For my own part, my present feelings were of a mixed sort. In a strange and not unpleasing way, I gently oscillated between Democritus and Cotton Mather. But to my wife and daughters I assumed to be pure Democritus—a jeerer at all tea-table spirits whatever.
So, laying in a good supply of candles and crackers, all four of us sat up with the table, and at the same time sat round it. For a while my wife and I carried on an animated conversation. But my daughters were silent. Then my wife and I would have had a rubber of whist, but my daughters could not be prevailed upon to join. So we played whist with two dummies, literally; my wife won the rubber, and, fatigued with victory, put away the cards.
Half-past eleven o’clock. No sign of the bug. The candles began to burn dim. My wife was just in the act of snuffing them when a sudden, violent, hollow, resounding, rumbling thumping was heard.
Julia and Anna sprang to their feet.
‘All well!’ cried a voice from the street. It was the watchman, first ringing down his club on the pavement, and then following it up with this highly satisfactory verbal announcement.
‘All well! Do you hear that, my girls?’ said I, gaily.
Indeed it was astonishing how brave as Bruce I felt in company with three women, and two of them half frightened out of their wits.
I rose for my pipe, and took a philosophic smoke.
Democritus forever, thought I.
In profound silence, I sat smoking, when lo!—pop! pop! pop!—right under the table, a terrible popping.
This time we all four sprang up, and my pipe was broken.
‘Good heavens! what’s that?’
‘Spirits! spirits!’ cried Julia.
‘Oh, oh, oh!’ cried Anna.
‘Shame,’ said my wife, ‘it’s that new bottled cider, in the cellar, going off. I told Biddy to wire the bottles today.’
I shall here transcribe from memoranda kept during part of the night:
One o’clock. No sign of the bug. Ticking continues. Wife getting sleepy.
Two o’clock. No sign of the bug. Ticking intermittent. Wife fast asleep.
Three o’clock. No sign of the bug. Ticking pretty steady. Julia and Anna getting sleepy.
Four o’clock. No sign of the bug. Ticking regular, but not spirited. Wife, Julia and Anna, all fast asleep in their chairs.
Five o’clock. No sign of the bug. Ticking faint. Myself feeling drowsy. The rest still asleep.
So far the journal.
—Rap! rap! rap!
A terrific, portentous rapping against a door.
Startled from our dreams, we started to our feet.
Rap! rap! rap!
Julia and Anna shrieked.
I cowered in the corner.
‘You fools!’ cried my wife, ‘it’s the baker with the bread.’
She went to throw back the shutters, but ere it was done, a cry came from Julia. There, half in and half out its crack, there wriggled the bug, flashing in the room’s general dimness like a fiery opal.
Had this bug had a tiny sword by its side—a Damascus sword—and a tiny necklace round its neck—a diamond necklace—and a tiny gun in its claw—a brass gun—and a tiny manuscript in its mouth—a Chaldee manuscript—Julia and Anna could not have stood more charmed.
In truth, it was a beautiful bug—a Jew jeweller’s bug—a bug like a sparkle of a glorious sunset.
Julia and Anna had never dreamed of such a bug. To them, bug had been a word synonymous with hideousness. But this was a seraphical bug; or, rather, all it had of the bug was the B, for it was beautiful as a butterfly.
Julia and Anna gazed and gazed. They were no more alarmed. They were delighted.
‘But how got this strange, pretty creature into the table?’ cried Julia.’
‘Spirits can get anywhere,’ replied Anna.
‘Pshaw!’ said my wife.
‘Do you hear any more ticking?’ said I.
They all applied their ears, but heard nothing.
‘Well, then, wife and daughters, now that it is all over, this very morning I will go and make enquiries about it.’
‘Oh, do, papa,’ cried Julia, ‘do go and consult Madame Pazzi, the conjuress.’
‘Better go and consult Professor Johnson, the naturalist,’ said my wife.
‘Bravo, Mrs Democritus!’ said I. ‘Professor Johnson is the man.’
By good fortune I found the professor in. Informed briefly of the incident, he manifested a cool, collected sort of interest, and gravely accompanied me home. The table was produced, the two openings pointed out, the bug displayed, and the details of the affair set forth; my wife and daughters being present.
‘And now, professor,’ said I, ‘what do you think of it?’
Putting on his spectacles, the learned professor looked hard at the table, and gently scraped with his penknife into the holes, but said nothing.
‘Is it not an unusual thing, this?’ anxiously asked Anna.
‘Very unusual, miss.’
At which Julia and Anna exchanged significant glances.
‘But is it not wonderful, very wonderful?’ demanded Julia.
‘Very wonderful, miss.’
My daughters exchanged still more significant glances, and Julia, emboldened, again spoke.
‘And must you not admit, sir, that it is the work of—of—sp—?’
‘Spirits? No,’ was the crusty rejoinder.
‘My daughters,’ said I, mildly, ‘you should remember that this is not Madame Pazzi, the conjuress, you put your questions to, but the eminent naturalist, Professor Johnson. And now, professor,’ I added, ‘be pleased to explain. Enlighten our ignorance.’
Without repeating all that the learned gentleman said for, indeed, though lucid, he was a little prosy—let the following summary of his explication suffice.
The incident was not wholly without example. The wood of the table was apple-tree, a sort of tree much fancied by various insects. The bugs had come from eggs laid inside the bark of the living tree in the orchard. By careful examination of the position of the hole from which the last bug had emerged, in relation to the cortical layers of the slab, and then allowing for the inch and a half along the grain, ere the bug had eaten its way entirely out, and then computing the whole number of cortical layers in the slab, with a reasonable conjecture for the number cut off from the outside, it appeared that the egg must have been laid in the tree some ninety years, more or less, before the tree could have been felled. But between the felling of the tree and the present time, how long might that be? It was a very old-fashioned table. Allow eighty years for the age of the table, which would make one hundred and seventy years that the bug had lain in the egg. Such, at least, was Professor Johnson’s computation.
‘Now, Julia,’ said I, ‘after that scientific statement of the case (though, I confess, I don’t exactly understand it), where are your spirits? It is very wonderful as it is, but where are your spirits?’
‘Where, indeed?’ said my wife.
‘Why, now, she did not really associate this purely natural phenomenon with any crude spiritual hypothesis did she?’ observed the learned professor, with a slight sneer.
‘Say what you will,’ said Julia, holding up, in the covered tumbler, the glorious, lustrous, flashing live opal, ‘say what you will, if this beauteous creature be not a spirit, it yet teaches a spiritual lesson. For if, after one hundred and seventy years’ entombment, a mere insect comes forth at last into light, itself an effulgence, shall there be no glorified resurrection for the spirit of man? Spirits! spirits!’ she exclaimed, with rapture, ‘I still believe in spirits, only now I believe in them with delight, when before I but thought of them with terror.’
The mysterious insect did not long enjoy its radiant life; it expired the next day. But my girls have preserved it. Embalmed in a silver vinaigrette, it lies on the little apple-tree table in the pier of the cedar-parlour.
And whatever lady doubts this story, my daughters will be happy to show her both the bug and the table, and point out to her, in the repaired slab of the latter, the two sealing-wax drops designating the exact place of the two holes made by the two bugs, something in the same way in which are marked the spots where the cannon balls struck Brattle Street Church.
Return to the Herman Melville library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Bell-Tower