The Late Mr. Taylor by George Barr McCutcheon

Hawkins was not a drinking man. To be sure, he took a glass of something occasionally, but he thoroughly understood himself at the time. He took it to be companionable, that was all. Therefore, in view of what happened to him on one unforgetable night, it is well to know that Hawkins bore an impeccable reputation for sobriety. Likewise, his veracity never had been seriously questioned.

The night was bitterly cold—so cold, in fact, that Hawkins relished the prospect of remaining in-doors. There was a blizzard blowing fifty knots an hour. Hawkins rarely used the word "mile," it may be said; he was of a decidedly nautical turn ever since the memorable trip to Europe and back. He was middle-aged and a bachelor. This explains the fact that he was a man of habits if not of parts. For years he had lived in cosy apartments on the fifth floor, surrounded by unmistakable signs of connubial joy, but utterly oblivious to these pertinent manifestations. Away back—I should say abaft—in the dim past he had given some little thought to matrimony but she was now almost beyond memory.

Each day after Hawkins had balanced the books at the bank—and they always balanced, so methodical was Hawkins—he went for his stroll in the park. Then came dinner, then a half hour or so of conversation with the other boarders, and then the club or the theatre. Usually he went home early in the night as he always went to town early in the morning. The occasions were not infrequent when he could smile grimly and pityingly upon one or more of his companions of the night before as they passed him on their belated way home long after dawn. It was then that Hawkins drew himself a trifle more erect, added a bit of elasticity to his notably springy stride, and congratulated himself warmly on being what he was.

Soon after eight o'clock on the night of the great blizzard, Hawkins forsook the companionship of the disgruntled coterie downstairs and retired to his library on the fifth floor. His suite consisted of three rooms—and a bath, as they say when they talk of letting them to you. There was a library, a bed chamber and a parlour with broad couches against two of the walls. Sometimes Hawkins had friends to stay all night with him. They slept on the couches because it did not make any difference to them and because Hawkins was of a philanthropic turn of mind when occasion demanded.

He got into his dressing gown and slippers, pulled the big leather chair up to the blazing grate, and prepared for a long and enjoyable visit with one Charles Dickens. A young woman of charm and persistence had induced him, only the week before to purchase a full set of Dickens with original Cruikshank engravings—although Hawkins secretly confessed that he was sceptical—and it was not like him to spend money without getting its full value in return. It was with some show of gratitude then that he looked upon the blizzard which kept him indoors for the night. Years ago he had read "Oliver Twist" and "David Copperfield," but that was the extent of his acquaintance with Dickens. Now that he had the full set on his shelves, it behooved him to read the great Englishman from beginning to end.

"This is a terrible night," he mused, as he ran his eye along the row of green and gilt books, and "Bleak House" seems especially fit for the hour. "We'll begin with that."

Outside the wind howled like mad, shrieking around the corners as if bent on destroying every bit of harmony in the world. It whistled and screamed and gnashed its way through the helpless night, the biting sleet so small that it could penetrate the very marrow of man. Hawkins serenely tucked his heels into the cushions of the footstool and laughed at the storm.

"I sha'n't be disturbed tonight, that's sure," he thought, complacently. "No one but a drivelling idiot would venture out in such a blizzard as this unless absolutely driven to it. 'Gad, that wind is something awful! I haven't heard anything like it since last February and that was when we had the coldest night in forty years, if one can believe the weather bureau." Here Hawkins allowed "Bleak House" to drop listlessly into his lap while he indulged in a moment or two of retrospection. "Let's see; that was said to have been the deadliest cold snap Chicago has ever known. Scores of people were frozen to death on the streets and many of them in their homes. I hope there is no one so luckless as to be homeless tonight. The hardiest man would be helpless. Think of the poor cab-drivers and—oh, well, it doesn't help matters to speculate on what may be happening outside. I shudder to think, though, of what the papers will tell in the morning."

The midnight hour was close at hand before Hawkins reluctantly and tenderly laid "Bleak House" on the library table, stretched himself and prepared for bed. The blizzard had not lost any of its fury. Indeed, it seemed to have grown more vicious, more merciless. Hawkins, in his pajamas, lifted the curtain and sought a glimpse of the night and its terrors. The window panes were white with frost. He scraped away the thick layer and peered forth into the swirling storm.

"Worse than ever," he thought, a troubled look in his eyes. "Poor devils, who ever you are, I feel for you if you're out in all this."

He turned off the lights, banked the fire on the grate and was soon shivering between the icy sheets of his bed. It seemed to him they never would get warm and cosy, as he had so confidently expected. Hawkins, being a bank clerk, was a patient and enduring man. Years of training had made him tolerant even to placidity. As he cuddled in the bed, his head almost buried in the covers, he resignedly convinced himself that warmth would come sooner or later and even as the chills ran up and down his back he was philosophic. So much for system and a clear conscience.

Gradually the chill wore away and Hawkins slumbered, warm and serene despite the wrath of the winds which battered against the walls of his habitation. At just what minute sleep came he did not know. He heard the clock striking the hour of twelve. Of that he was sure, because he counted the strokes up to nine before they ran into a confused jangle. He remembered wondering dimly if any one had been able to distinguish the precise instant when sleep succeeds wakefulness. At any rate, he slept.

The same little clock struck twice a few minutes after a sudden chill aroused him to consciousness. For a moment or two he lay there wondering how he came to be out-of-doors. He was so cold and damp that some minutes of wakefulness were required to establish the fact that he was still in his own room and bed. It struck Hawkins as strange that the bedclothes, tucked about his head, seemed wet and heavy and mouldy. He pulled them tightly about his shivering body, curled his legs up until the knees almost touched the chin and—yes, Hawkins said damn twice or thrice. It was not long until he was sufficiently awake to realise that he was very much out of patience.

Presently he found himself sniffing the air, his nostrils dilating with amazement. There was a distinct odour of earth, such as one scents only in caverns or in mossy places where the sun is forever a stranger. It was sickening, overpowering. Hawkins began to feel that the chill did not come from the wintry winds outside but from some cool, aguish influence in the room itself. Half asleep, he impatiently strove to banish the cold, damp smell by pulling the coverlet over his head. His feet felt moist and his knees were icy cold. The thick blanket seemed plastered to his black, wet and rank with the smell of stagnant water.

"What in thunder is the matter with me?" growled he, to himself. "I never felt this way before. It's like sleeping in a fog or worse. A big slug of whiskey is what I need, but it's too infernal cold to get out of bed after it. How the dickens is it that typhoid fever starts in on a fellow? Chilly back and all that, I believe,—but I can't recall anything clammy about it."

The more he thought of it the more worried he became; more earnest became his efforts to shut out the chilly dampness. It occurred to him that it would be wise to crawl out and poke up the fire in the next room. Then he remembered that there was a gas grate in his bedroom, behind the bureau. Of course, it would be quite a task to move the bureau and even then he might find that the gas pipe was not connected with the burner. The most sensible proceeding, he finally resolved, would be to get up and rebuild the fire and afterward add an overcoat and the cherished steamer rug to the bed coverings. Damper and damper grew the atmosphere in the room. Everything seemed to reek with the odour of rotting wood and mouldy earth; his nostrils drank the smell of decaying vegetation and there seemed to be no diminution. Instead, the horrible condition appeared to grow with each succeeding breath of wakefulness.

The palms of his hands were wet, his face was saturated. Hawkins was conscious of a dreadful fear that he was covered with mildew. Once, when he was a small boy, he had gone into a vault in the cemetery with some relatives. Somehow, the same sensations he felt on that far-off day were now creeping over him. The room seemed stifled with the smell of dead air, cold and gruesome. He tried to convince himself that he was dreaming, but it was too easy to believe the other way. Suddenly his heart stopped beating and his blood turned to ice, for there shot into his being the fear that some dreadful thing was about to clutch him from behind, with cold, slimy hands. In his terror he could almost feel the touch of ghastly fingers against his flesh.

With rigid, pulseless hands he threw the soggy covers from his face and looked forth with wide startled eyes. His face was to the wall, his back—(his cringing back)—to the open room. Hawkins was positive that he had heard the clock strike two and he knew that no hour of the winter's night was darker. And yet his eyes told him that his ears had lied to him.

It was not inky darkness that met his gaze. The room was draped in the grey of dawn, cold, harsh, lifeless. Every object on the wall was plainly visible in this drear light. The light green stripes in the wall paper were leaden in colour, the darker border above was almost blue in its greyness. For many minutes Hawkins remained motionless in his bed, seeking a solution of the mystery. Gradually the conviction grew upon him that he was not alone in the room. There was no sound, no visible proof that any one was present, but something supernatural told him that an object—human or otherwise—was not far from his side. The most horrible feeling came over him. He was ready to shriek with terror, so positive was his belief that the room was occupied by some dreadful thing.

Even as he prepared to turn his face toward the open room, there came to his ears the most terrifying sound. Distinctly, plainly he heard a chuckle, almost at the bedside. A chuckle, hollow, sepulchral, mirthless. The hair on Hawkins's head stood straight on end. The impulse to hide beneath the covers was conquered by the irresistible desire to know the worst.

He whirled in the bed, rising to his elbow, his eyes as big as dollars. Something indescribable had told him that the visitor was no robber midnight marauder. He did not fear physical injury, strange as it may seem.

There, in the awful grey light, sitting bolt upright in the Morris chair, was the most appalling visitor that man ever had. For what seemed hours to Hawkins, he gazed into the face of this ghastly being—the grey, livid, puffy face of a man who had been dead for weeks.

Fascination is a better word than fright in describing the emotion of the man who glared at this uncanny object. Unbelief was supreme in his mind for a short time only. After the first tremendous shock, his rigid figure relaxed and he trembled like a leaf. Horror seemed to be turning his blood to ice, his hair to the whiteness of snow. Slowly the natural curiosity of the human mind asserted itself. His eyes left the face of the dread figure in the chair and took brief excursions about the room in search of the person who had laughed an age before. Horror increased when he became thoroughly convinced that he was alone with the cadaver.

Whence came that chuckle?

Surely not from the lips of this pallid thing near the window. His brain reeled. His stiff lips parted as if to cry out but no sound issued forth.

In a jumbled, distorted way his reason began to question the reality of the vision, and then to speculate on how the object came to be in his room. To his certain knowledge, the doors and windows were locked. No one could have brought the ghastly thing to his room for the purpose of playing a joke on him. No, he almost shrieked in revulsion, no one could have handled the terrible thing, even had it been possible to place it there while he slept. And yet it had been brought to his bedroom; it could not have come by means of its own.

He tried to arise, but his muscles seemed bound in fetters of steel. In all his after life he was not to forget the picture of that hideous figure, sitting there in the tomb-like grey. The face was bloated and soft and flabby, beardless and putty-like; the lips thick and colourless; the eyes wide, sightless and glassy. The black hair was matted and plastered close to the skull, as if it had just come from the water. The clothes that covered the corpse were wet, slimy and reeking with the odour of stagnant water. Huge, stiff, puffy hands extended over the ends of the chair's arms, the fingers twice the natural size and absolutely shapeless. Truly, it was a most repulsive object. There was no relief in the thought that the man might have entered the room alive, in some mysterious manner, for every sign revealed the fact that he had been dead for a long time.

Hawkins, in his horror, found himself thinking that if he were to poke his finger suddenly into the cheek of the object, it would leave an impression that hours might not obliterate.

It was dead, horribly dead, and—the chuckle? His ears must have deceived him. No sound could have come from those pallid lips—

But the thing was speaking!

"It is so nice and warm here," came plainly and distinctly from the Morris chair, the voice harsh and grating. Something rattled in each tone. Hawkins felt his blood freeze within him and he knew his eyes were bulging with terror. They were glued upon the frightful thing across the room, but they saw no movement of the thick lips.

"Wha—What?" gasped Hawkins, involuntarily. His own voice sounded high and squeaky.

"I've been so cursed cold," responded the corpse, and there were indications of comfort in the weird tones. "Say, I've had a devil of a time. It's good to find a warm spot again. The Lord knows I've been looking for it long enough."

"Good Lord! Am I crazy? Is it actually talking?" murmured Hawkins, clutching the bedclothes frantically.

"Of course, I'm talking. Say, I'm sorry to have disturbed you at this time of night, but you wouldn't mind if you knew how much I've suffered from this terrible cold. Don't throw me out, for God's sake. Let me stay here till I thaw out, please do. You won't put me out, will you?" The appeal in those racking tones was too grotesque for description.

"I wouldn't—wouldn't touch you for a million dollars," gasped Hawkins.
"Good Heavens, you're dead!"

"Certainly. Any fool could tell that," answered the dead man, scornfully.

"Then—then how do you come to be here?" cried the owner of the room. "How can you be dead and still able to talk? Who placed you in that chair?"

"You'll have to excuse me, but my brain is a trifle dull just now. It hasn't had time to thaw out, I fancy. In the first place, I think I came up the fire escape and into that window. Don't get up, please; I closed it after me. What was the next question? Oh, yes—I remember. It isn't an easy matter to talk, I'll confess. One's throat gets so cold and stiff, you know. I kept mine in pretty good condition by calling out for help all the time I was in the water."

"In the—water?"

"Yes. That's how I happen to be so wet and disagreeable. You see, I've been out there in the lake for almost a year!"

Hawkins fell back in the bed, speechless. He started with fresh terror when he passed his hand over his wet forehead. The hand was like ice.

"There's a lot of them out there, you may be sure. I stumbled over them two or three times a day. No matter where you walk or float, you're always seeing dead people out there. They're awful sights, too,—give one the shivers. The trouble with most people who go to the bottom is that they give up and are content to lie there forever, washed around in the mud and sand in a most disgusting way. I couldn't bear the thought of staying down there for ages, so I kept on trying to get out. Shows what perseverance will do, doesn't it?"

"You don't mean to say that—that—Good Lord, I must have brain fever!" cried poor Hawkins hoarsely.

"Do I annoy you? I'll be going presently, although I hate to leave this warm corner. But you can rest assured of one thing: I'll never go near that lake again. All the weight in the world couldn't drag me to the bottom after what I've gone through. It's not right, I know, to trespass like this. It's a rank shame. But don't be hard on me, Mr.—Mr.—?"

"I don't know it," groaned Hawkins, who could not have told his name if his life was at stake. He had forgotten everything except the terrible thing in the Morris chair.

"My name is—or was—Taylor, Alfred B. Taylor. I used to live in Lincoln Avenue, quite a distance out. Perhaps you have heard of me. Didn't the newspapers have an account of my disappearance last February? They always print such stuff, so I'm sure they had something about me. I broke through the ice off Lincoln Park one day while walking out toward the crib."

"I—I remember," Hawkins managed to whisper. "You were the Board of
Trade man who—who—"

"Who took one chance too many," completed the dead man, grimly. "A Board of Trade man often gets on very thin ice, you know," the sepulchral laugh that oozed from those grey lips rang in the listener's ears till his dying day. "These clothes of mine were pretty good the day I went down, but the water and the fishes have played havoc with them, I'm afraid. It strikes me they won't hold together much longer."

"You—you don't look as though you'd hold together very long yourself," ventured Hawkins, picking up a little courage.

"Do I look that bad?" asked Mr. Taylor, quite ruefully. "Well, I daresay it's to be expected. I've been plodding around on the bottom of the lake for a year and the wear and tear is enormous. For months I was frozen stiff as a rail. Then summer came along and I was warmed up a bit. The terrible cold snap we're having just now almost caught me before I got out of the water. The trouble was, I lost my bearings and wandered miles and miles out into the lake. Then it was like hunting a needle in a haystack to find dry land. I'm sure I travelled a circle for hundreds of miles before I accidentally wandered upon the beach down there by the Fresh Air place. I really believe this is a colder night than the first one I spent in the lake, and that day was supposed to be a record breaker, I remember. Twenty-six below zero, if I'm not mistaken. By George, I'm warming up nicely in here. I feel like stretching a bit!"

"For God's sake, don't!" almost shrieked Hawkins, burying his head beneath the covers.

"Very well, since you object," came to his muffled ears. "You must be very warm in that bed. I'd give all I have in the world if I could get into a nice warm bed like that once more."

Hawkins peeped from beneath the cover in dire apprehension, but was intensely relieved to see that the terrible Mr. Taylor had not changed his attitude. The eyes of the watcher suddenly fixed themselves on the visitor's right hand. The member was slowly sliding off the arm of the chair. Fascinated, Hawkins continued to watch its progress. At last, it dropped heavily from its resting place. The position of the corpse changed instantly, the sudden jerk of the dead weight pulling the body forward and to one side. The head lolled to the right and the lower jaw dropped, leaving the mouth half open. One eyelid closed slowly, as if the cadaver was bestowing a friendly wink upon his host.

"Very awkward of me," apologised Mr. Taylor, his voice not so distinct, his words considerably jumbled on account of the unfortunate mishap to his mouth.

"Get out of here!" shrieked Hawkins, unable to endure the horror any longer. "Get out!"

"Oh, you don't mean that, do you?" pleaded the thing in the chair. "I'm just beginning to feel comfortable and—"

"Get out!" again cried Hawkins, frenzied.

"It's rotten mean of you, old man," said Mr. Taylor. "I wouldn't turn you out if our positions were reversed. Hang it, man, I'd be humane. I'd ask you to get into bed and warm up thoroughly. And I'd set out the whiskey, too."

But Hawkins was speechless.

"Confound your penurious soul," growled Mr. Taylor, after a long silence, "I've a notion to climb into that bed anyhow. If you want to throw me out, go ahead. I'm used to being knocked about and a little more of it won't hurt me, I guess. Move over there, old man. I'm going to get in."

With a scream of terror, Hawkins leaped up in the bed. The dead man was slowly rising from the chair, one eye fixed on the ceiling, the other directed toward the floor. Just as the awful body lurched forward, Hawkins sprang from the bed and struck out frantically with his clenched hand. The knuckles lodged against the bulging brow of the dead man and they seemed to go clear to the skull, burying themselves in the cushion-like flesh. As the horrid object crashed to the floor, Hawkins flew through the library and into the hall, crying like a madman.

Other occupants of the building, awakened by the frightful shrieks, found him crouching in a corner on one of the stair landings, his wide eyes staring up the steps down which he had just tumbled. It was an interminably long time before he could tell them what had happened and then they all assured him he had been dreaming. But Hawkins knew he had not been dreaming.

Three of the men who went to his bedroom came hurriedly down the stairs, white-faced and trembling. They had not seen the corpse but they had found plenty of evidence to prove that something terrible had been in Hawkins' bedroom.

The window was open and the chair which stood in front of it was overturned, as if some one had upset it in crawling out upon the fire escape platform. One of the men looked out into the night. He saw a man crossing the street in the very face of the gale, running as if pursued. It was too dark to see the man's face, but the observer was sure that he turned twice to look up at the open window. The figure turned into an alley, going toward the lake.

The Morris chair was wet and foul-smelling, and the floor was saturated in places. A piece of cloth, soaked with mud, was found beneath the window sill. Evidently it had been caught and torn away by the curtain hook on the window sash. Hawkins would not go near the room and it was weeks before he was able to resume work at the bank.

And, stranger than all else, the dead body of a man was found in the snow near the Fresh Air Sanitarium the next morning, but no one could identify the corpse. The man had been dead for months.