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

and hereafter.

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

very fast.

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

New York.

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.

The Notch On The Ax - A Story A La Mode The Oblong Box facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail