The Oblong Box
Some years ago, I engaged passage from Charleston, S. C, to the
city of New York, in the fine packet-ship "Independence," Captain
Hardy. We were to sail on the fifteenth of the month (June),
weather permitting; and on the fourteenth, I went on board to
arrange some matters in my stateroom.
I found that we were to have a great many passengers, including a
more than usual number of ladies. On the list were several of my
acquaintances, and among other names, I was rejoiced to see that of
Mr. Cornelius Wyatt, a young artist, for whom I entertained
feelings of warm friendship. He had been with me a fellow-student
at C---- University, where we were very much together. He had the
ordinary temperament of genius, and was a compound of misanthropy,
sensibility, and enthusiasm. To these qualities he united the
warmest and truest heart which ever beat in a human bosom.
I observed that his name was carded upon THREE state-rooms; and,
upon again referring to the list of passengers, I found that he had
engaged passage for himself, wife, and two sisters--his own. The
state-rooms were sufficiently roomy, and each had two berths, one
above the other. These berths, to be sure, were so exceedingly
narrow as to be insufficient for more than one person; still, I
could not comprehend why there were THREE staterooms for these four
persons. I was, just at that epoch, in one of those moody frames
of mind which make a man abnormally inquisitive about trifles: and
I confess, with shame, that I busied myself in a variety of ill-
bred and preposterous conjectures about this matter of the
supernumerary stateroom. It was no business of mine, to be sure,
but with none the less pertinacity did I occupy myself in attempts
to resolve the enigma. At last I reached a conclusion which
wrought in me great wonder why I had not arrived at it before. "It
is a servant of course," I said; "what a fool I am, not sooner to
have thought of so obvious a solution!" And then I again repaired
to the list--but here I saw distinctly that NO servant was to come
with the party, although, in fact, it had been the original design
to bring one--for the words "and servant" had been first written
and then over-scored. "Oh, extra baggage, to be sure," I now said
to myself--"something he wishes not to be put in the hold--
something to be kept under his own eye--ah, I have it--a painting
or so--and this is what he has been bargaining about with Nicolino,
the Italian Jew." This idea satisfied me, and I dismissed my
curiosity for the nonce.
Wyatt's two sisters I knew very well, and most amiable and clever
girls they were. His wife he had newly married, and I had never
yet seen her. He had often talked about her in my presence,
however, and in his usual style of enthusiasm. He described her as
of surpassing beauty, wit, and accomplishment. I was, therefore,
quite anxious to make her acquaintance.
On the day in which I visited the ship (the fourteenth), Wyatt and
party were also to visit it--so the captain informed me--and I
waited on board an hour longer than I had designed, in hope of
being presented to the bride, but then an apology came. "Mrs. W.
was a little indisposed, and would decline coming on board until
to-morrow, at the hour of sailing."
The morrow having arrived, I was going from my hotel to the wharf,
when Captain Hardy met me and said that, "owing to circumstances"
(a stupid but convenient phrase), "he rather thought the
'Independence' would not sail for a day or two, and that when all
was ready, he would send up and let me know." This I thought
strange, for there was a stiff southerly breeze; but as "the
circumstances" were not forthcoming, although I pumped for them
with much perseverance, I had nothing to do but to return home and
digest my impatience at leisure.
I did not receive the expected message from the captain for nearly
a week. It came at length, however, and I immediately went on
board. The ship was crowded with passengers, and every thing was
in the bustle attendant upon making sail. Wyatt's party arrived in
about ten minutes after myself. There were the two sisters, the
bride, and the artist--the latter in one of his customary fits of
moody misanthropy. I was too well used to these, however, to pay
them any special attention. He did not even introduce me to his
wife;--this courtesy devolving, per force, upon his sister Marian--
a very sweet and intelligent girl, who, in a few hurried words,
made us acquainted.
Mrs. Wyatt had been closely veiled; and when she raised her veil,
in acknowledging my bow, I confess that I was very profoundly
astonished. I should have been much more so, however, had not long
experience advised me not to trust, with too implicit a reliance,
the enthusiastic descriptions of my friend, the artist, when
indulging in comments upon the loveliness of woman. When beauty
was the theme, I well knew with what facility he soared into the
regions of the purely ideal.
The truth is, I could not help regarding Mrs. Wyatt as a decidedly
plain-looking woman. If not positively ugly, she was not, I think,
very far from it. She was dressed, however, in exquisite taste--
and then I had no doubt that she had captivated my friend's heart
by the more enduring graces of the intellect and soul. She said
very few words, and passed at once into her state-room with Mr. W.
My old inquisitiveness now returned. There was NO servant--THAT
was a settled point. I looked, therefore, for the extra baggage.
After some delay, a cart arrived at the wharf, with an oblong pine
box, which was every thing that seemed to be expected. Immediately
upon its arrival we made sail, and in a short time were safely over
the bar and standing out to sea.
The box in question was, as I say, oblong. It was about six feet
in length by two and a half in breadth; I observed it attentively,
and like to be precise. Now this shape was PECULIAR; and no sooner
had I seen it, than I took credit to myself for the accuracy of my
guessing. I had reached the conclusion, it will be remembered,
that the extra baggage of my friend, the artist, would prove to be
pictures, or at least a picture; for I knew he had been for several
weeks in conference with Nicolino:--and now here was a box, which,
from its shape, COULD possibly contain nothing in the world but a
copy of Leonardo's "Last Supper;" and a copy of this very "Last
Supper," done by Rubini the younger, at Florence, I had known, for
some time, to be in the possession of Nicolino. This point,
therefore, I considered as sufficiently settled. I chuckled
excessively when I thought of my acumen. It was the first time I
had ever known Wyatt to keep from me any of his artistical secrets;
but here he evidently intended to steal a march upon me, and
smuggle a fine picture to New York, under my very nose; expecting
me to know nothing of the matter. I resolved to quiz him WELL, now
One thing, however, annoyed me not a little. The box did NOT go
into the extra stateroom. It was deposited in Wyatt's own; and
there, too, it remained, occupying very nearly the whole of the
floor--no doubt to the exceeding discomfort of the artist and his
wife;--this the more especially as the tar or paint with which it
was lettered in sprawling capitals, emitted a strong, disagreeable,
and, to my fancy, a peculiarly disgusting odor. On the lid were
painted the words--"Mrs. Adelaide Curtis, Albany, New York. Charge
of Cornelius Wyatt, Esq. This side up. To be handled with care."
Now, I was aware that Mrs. Adelaide Curtis, of Albany, was the
artist's wife's mother,--but then I looked upon the whole address
as a mystification, intended especially for myself. I made up my
mind, of course, that the box and contents would never get farther
north than the studio of my misanthropic friend, in Chambers
Street, New York.
For the first three or four days we had fine weather, although the
wind was dead ahead; having chopped round to the northward,
immediately upon our losing sight of the coast. The passengers
were, consequently, in high spirits and disposed to be social. I
MUST except, however, Wyatt and his sisters, who behaved stiffly,
and, I could not help thinking, uncourteously to the rest of the
party. Wyatt's conduct I did not so much regard. He was gloomy,
even beyond his usual habit--in fact he was MOROSE--but in him I
was prepared for eccentricity. For the sisters, however, I could
make no excuse. They secluded themselves in their staterooms
during the greater part of the passage, and absolutely refused,
although I repeatedly urged them, to hold communication with any
person on board.
Mrs. Wyatt herself was far more agreeable. That is to say, she was
CHATTY; and to be chatty is no slight recommendation at sea. She
became EXCESSIVELY intimate with most of the ladies; and, to my
profound astonishment, evinced no equivocal disposition to coquet
with the men. She amused us all very much. I say "amused"--and
scarcely know how to explain myself. The truth is, I soon found
that Mrs. W. was far oftener laughed AT than WITH. The gentlemen
said little about her; but the ladies, in a little while,
pronounced her "a good-hearted thing, rather indifferent looking,
totally uneducated, and decidedly vulgar." The great wonder was,
how Wyatt had been entrapped into such a match. Wealth was the
general solution--but this I knew to be no solution at all; for
Wyatt had told me that she neither brought him a dollar nor had any
expectations from any source whatever. "He had married," he said,
"for love, and for love only; and his bride was far more than
worthy of his love." When I thought of these expressions, on the
part of my friend, I confess that I felt indescribably puzzled.
Could it be possible that he was taking leave of his senses? What
else could I think? HE, so refined, so intellectual, so
fastidious, with so exquisite a perception of the faulty, and so
keen an appreciation of the beautiful! To be sure, the lady seemed
especially fond of HIM--particularly so in his absence--when she
made herself ridiculous by frequent quotations of what had been
said by her "beloved husband, Mr. Wyatt." The word "husband"
seemed forever--to use one of her own delicate expressions--forever
"on the tip of her tongue." In the meantime, it was observed by
all on board, that he avoided HER in the most pointed manner, and,
for the most part, shut himself up alone in his state-room, where,
in fact, he might have been said to live altogether, leaving his
wife at full liberty to amuse herself as she thought best, in the
public society of the main cabin.
My conclusion, from what I saw and heard, was, that, the artist, by
some unaccountable freak of fate, or perhaps in some fit of
enthusiastic and fanciful passion, had been induced to unite
himself with a person altogether beneath him, and that the natural
result, entire and speedy disgust, had ensued. I pitied him from
the bottom of my heart--but could not, for that reason, quite
forgive his incommunicativeness in the matter of the "Last Supper."
For this I resolved to have my revenge.
One day he came upon deck, and, taking his arm as had been my wont,
I sauntered with him backward and forward. His gloom, however
(which I considered quite natural under the circumstances), seemed
entirely unabated. He said little, and that moodily, and with
evident effort. I ventured a jest or two, and he made a sickening
attempt at a smile. Poor fellow!--as I thought of HIS WIFE, I
wondered that he could have heart to put on even the semblance of
mirth. At last I ventured a home thrust. I determined to commence
a series of covert insinuations, or innuendoes, about the oblong
box--just to let him perceive, gradually, that I was NOT altogether
the butt, or victim, of his little bit of pleasant mystification.
My first observation was by way of opening a masked battery. I
said something about the "peculiar shape of THAT box--,"and, as I
spoke the words, I smiled knowingly, winked, and touched him gently
with my forefinger in the ribs.
The manner in which Wyatt received this harmless pleasantry
convinced me, at once, that he was mad. At first he stared at me
as if he found it impossible to comprehend the witticism of my
remark; but as its point seemed slowly to make its way into his
brain, his eyes, in the same proportion, seemed protruding from
their sockets. Then he grew very red--then hideously pale--then,
as if highly amused with what I had insinuated, he began a loud and
boisterous laugh, which, to my astonishment, he kept up, with
gradually increasing vigor, for ten minutes or more. In
conclusion, he fell flat and heavily upon the deck. When I ran to
uplift him, to all appearance he was DEAD.
I called assistance, and, with much difficulty, we brought him to
himself. Upon reviving he spoke incoherently for some time. At
length we bled him and put him to bed. The next morning he was
quite recovered, so far as regarded his mere bodily health. Of his
mind I say nothing, of course. I avoided him during the rest of
the passage, by advice of the captain, who seemed to coincide with
me altogether in my views of his insanity, but cautioned me to say
nothing on this head to any person on board.
Several circumstances occurred immediately after this fit of Wyatt
which contributed to heighten the curiosity with which I was
already possessed. Among other things, this: I had been nervous--
drank too much strong green tea, and slept ill at night--in fact,
for two nights I could not be properly said to sleep at all. Now,
my state-room opened into the main cabin, or dining-room, as did
those of all the single men on board. Wyatt's three rooms were in
the after-cabin, which was separated from the main one by a slight
sliding door, never locked even at night. As we were almost
constantly on a wind, and the breeze was not a little stiff, the
ship heeled to leeward very considerably; and whenever her
starboard side was to leeward, the sliding door between the cabins
slid open, and so remained, nobody taking the trouble to get up and
shut it. But my berth was in such a position, that when my own
state-room door was open, as well as the sliding door in question
(and my own door was ALWAYS open on account of the heat,) I could
see into the after-cabin quite distinctly, and just at that portion
of it, too, where were situated the state-rooms of Mr. Wyatt.
Well, during two nights (NOT consecutive) while I lay awake, I
clearly saw Mrs. W., about eleven o'clock upon each night, steal
cautiously from the state-room of Mr. W., and enter the extra room,
where she remained until daybreak, when she was called by her
husband and went back. That they were virtually separated was
clear. They had separate apartments--no doubt in contemplation of
a more permanent divorce; and here, after all I thought was the
mystery of the extra stateroom.
There was another circumstance, too, which interested me much.
During the two wakeful nights in question, and immediately after
the disappearance of Mrs. Wyatt into the extra stateroom, I was
attracted by certain singular cautious, subdued noises in that of
her husband. After listening to them for some time, with
thoughtful attention, I at length succeeded perfectly in
translating their import. They were sounds occasioned by the
artist in prying open the oblong box, by means of a chisel and
mallet--the latter being apparently muffled, or deadened, by some
soft woollen or cotton substance in which its head was enveloped.
In this manner I fancied I could distinguish the precise moment
when he fairly disengaged the lid--also, that I could determine
when he removed it altogether, and when he deposited it upon the
lower berth in his room; this latter point I knew, for example, by
certain slight taps which the lid made in striking against the
wooden edges of the berth, as he endeavored to lay it down VERY
gently--there being no room for it on the floor. After this there
was a dead stillness, and I heard nothing more, upon either
occasion, until nearly daybreak; unless, perhaps, I may mention a
low sobbing, or murmuring sound, so very much suppressed as to be
nearly inaudible--if, indeed, the whole of this latter noise were
not rather produced by my own imagination. I say it seemed to
RESEMBLE sobbing or sighing--but, of course, it could not have been
either. I rather think it was a ringing in my own ears. Mr.
Wyatt, no doubt, according to custom, was merely giving the rein to
one of his hobbies--indulging in one of his fits of artistic
enthusiasm. He had opened his oblong box, in order to feast his
eyes on the pictorial treasure within. There was nothing in this,
however, to make him SOB. I repeat, therefore, that it must have
been simply a freak of my own fancy, distempered by good Captain
Hardy's green tea. just before dawn, on each of the two nights of
which I speak, I distinctly heard Mr. Wyatt replace the lid upon
the oblong box, and force the nails into their old places by means
of the muffled mallet. Having done this, he issued from his state-
room, fully dressed, and proceeded to call Mrs. W. from hers.
We had been at sea seven days, and were now off Cape Hatteras, when
there came a tremendously heavy blow from the southwest. We were,
in a measure, prepared for it, however, as the weather had been
holding out threats for some time. Every thing was made snug, alow
and aloft; and as the wind steadily freshened, we lay to, at
length, under spanker and foretopsail, both double-reefed.
In this trim we rode safely enough for forty-eight hours--the ship
proving herself an excellent sea-boat in many respects, and
shipping no water of any consequence. At the end of this period,
however, the gale had freshened into a hurricane, and our after--
sail split into ribbons, bringing us so much in the trough of the
water that we shipped several prodigious seas, one immediately
after the other. By this accident we lost three men overboard with
the caboose, and nearly the whole of the larboard bulwarks.
Scarcely had we recovered our senses, before the foretopsail went
into shreds, when we got up a storm staysail and with this did
pretty well for some hours, the ship heading the sea much more
steadily than before.
The gale still held on, however, and we saw no signs of its
abating. The rigging was found to be ill-fitted, and greatly
strained; and on the third day of the blow, about five in the
afternoon, our mizzen-mast, in a heavy lurch to windward, went by
the board. For an hour or more, we tried in vain to get rid of it,
on account of the prodigious rolling of the ship; and, before we
had succeeded, the carpenter came aft and announced four feet of
water in the hold. To add to our dilemma, we found the pumps
choked and nearly useless.
All was now confusion and despair--but an effort was made to
lighten the ship by throwing overboard as much of her cargo as
could be reached, and by cutting away the two masts that remained.
This we at last accomplished--but we were still unable to do any
thing at the pumps; and, in the meantime, the leak gained on us
At sundown, the gale had sensibly diminished in violence, and as
the sea went down with it, we still entertained faint hopes of
saving ourselves in the boats. At eight P. M., the clouds broke
away to windward, and we had the advantage of a full moon--a piece
of good fortune which served wonderfully to cheer our drooping
After incredible labor we succeeded, at length, in getting the
longboat over the side without material accident, and into this we
crowded the whole of the crew and most of the passengers. This
party made off immediately, and, after undergoing much suffering,
finally arrived, in safety, at Ocracoke Inlet, on the third day
after the wreck.
Fourteen passengers, with the captain, remained on board, resolving
to trust their fortunes to the jolly-boat at the stern. We lowered
it without difficulty, although it was only by a miracle that we
prevented it from swamping as it touched the water. It contained,
when afloat, the captain and his wife, Mr. Wyatt and party, a
Mexican officer, wife, four children, and myself, with a negro
We had no room, of course, for any thing except a few positively
necessary instruments, some provisions, and the clothes upon our
backs. No one had thought of even attempting to save any thing
more. What must have been the astonishment of all, then, when
having proceeded a few fathoms from the ship, Mr. Wyatt stood up in
the stern-sheets, and coolly demanded of Captain Hardy that the
boat should be put back for the purpose of taking in his oblong
"Sit down, Mr. Wyatt," replied the captain, somewhat sternly, "you
will capsize us if you do not sit quite still. Our gunwhale is
almost in the water now."
"The box!" vociferated Mr. Wyatt, still standing--"the box, I say!
Captain Hardy, you cannot, you will not refuse me. Its weight will
be but a trifle--it is nothing--mere nothing. By the mother who
bore you--for the love of Heaven--by your hope of salvation, I
implore you to put back for the box!"
The captain, for a moment, seemed touched by the earnest appeal of
the artist, but he regained his stern composure, and merely said:
"Mr. Wyatt, you are mad. I cannot listen to you. Sit down, I say,
or you will swamp the boat. Stay--hold him--seize him!--he is
about to spring overboard! There--I knew it--he is over!"
As the captain said this, Mr. Wyatt, in fact, sprang from the boat,
and, as we were yet in the lee of the wreck, succeeded, by almost
superhuman exertion, in getting hold of a rope which hung from the
fore-chains. In another moment he was on board, and rushing
frantically down into the cabin.
In the meantime, we had been swept astern of the ship, and being
quite out of her lee, were at the mercy of the tremendous sea which
was still running. We made a determined effort to put back, but
our little boat was like a feather in the breath of the tempest.
We saw at a glance that the doom of the unfortunate artist was
As our distance from the wreck rapidly increased, the madman (for
as such only could we regard him) was seen to emerge from the
companion--way, up which by dint of strength that appeared
gigantic, he dragged, bodily, the oblong box. While we gazed in
the extremity of astonishment, he passed, rapidly, several turns of
a three-inch rope, first around the box and then around his body.
In another instant both body and box were in the sea--disappearing
suddenly, at once and forever.
We lingered awhile sadly upon our oars, with our eyes riveted upon
the spot. At length we pulled away. The silence remained unbroken
for an hour. Finally, I hazarded a remark.
"Did you observe, captain, how suddenly they sank? Was not that an
exceedingly singular thing? I confess that I entertained some
feeble hope of his final deliverance, when I saw him lash himself
to the box, and commit himself to the sea."
"They sank as a matter of course," replied the captain, "and that
like a shot. They will soon rise again, however--BUT NOT TILL THE
"The salt!" I ejaculated.
"Hush!" said the captain, pointing to the wife and sisters of the
deceased. "We must talk of these things at some more appropriate
We suffered much, and made a narrow escape, but fortune befriended
us, as well as our mates in the long-boat. We landed, in fine,
more dead than alive, after four days of intense distress, upon the
beach opposite Roanoke Island. We remained here a week, were not
ill-treated by the wreckers, and at length obtained a passage to
About a month after the loss of the "Independence," I happened to
meet Captain Hardy in Broadway. Our conversation turned,
naturally, upon the disaster, and especially upon the sad fate of
poor Wyatt. I thus learned the following particulars.
The artist had engaged passage for himself, wife, two sisters and a
servant. His wife was, indeed, as she had been represented, a most
lovely, and most accomplished woman. On the morning of the
fourteenth of June (the day in which I first visited the ship), the
lady suddenly sickened and died. The young husband was frantic
with grief--but circumstances imperatively forbade the deferring
his voyage to New York. It was necessary to take to her mother the
corpse of his adored wife, and, on the other hand, the universal
prejudice which would prevent his doing so openly was well known.
Nine-tenths of the passengers would have abandoned the ship rather
than take passage with a dead body.
In this dilemma, Captain Hardy arranged that the corpse, being
first partially embalmed, and packed, with a large quantity of
salt, in a box of suitable dimensions, should be conveyed on board
as merchandise. Nothing was to be said of the lady's decease; and,
as it was well understood that Mr. Wyatt had engaged passage for
his wife, it became necessary that some person should personate her
during the voyage. This the deceased lady's-maid was easily
prevailed on to do. The extra state-room, originally engaged for
this girl during her mistress' life, was now merely retained. In
this state-room the pseudo-wife, slept, of course, every night. In
the daytime she performed, to the best of her ability, the part of
her mistress--whose person, it had been carefully ascertained, was
unknown to any of the passengers on board.
My own mistake arose, naturally enough, through too careless, too
inquisitive, and too impulsive a temperament. But of late, it is a
rare thing that I sleep soundly at night. There is a countenance
which haunts me, turn as I will. There is an hysterical laugh
which will forever ring within my ears.
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