The Undertaker’s Story: A Gothic Narrative: 1886

undertaker2

Artwork by Jessica Wiesel

Mrs Daffodil was interested to read that 22 May was denominated “World Goth Day,” celebrating “Goth Music and Culture. It was pleasing to think that these plucky opponents of the Roman Empire were at last going to get their own gala day. Alas! On further investigation, Mrs Daffodil’s hopes were dashed to find not Visigoths, but vampires celebrating a festival of kohl, black tulle,  and misery. Not quite the sacking of Rome for which one had longed… But never mind. It furnishes Mrs Daffodil an excuse to share this gripping Gothic tale of terror.

THE UNDERTAKER’S STORY.

Perhaps I am more sensitive to the horrible than most of my fellow-men—am, in fact, more easily wrought upon. At all events, I have fancied that at times, when I have been telling this experience of mine, I could detect certain indications that some of my hearers were of that opinion; but I have not yet so far failed in charity as to wish any of these scoffers put to a similar test.

I had run over to Paris, had spent a couple of weeks in that bright city, and was on my way home again. I took a night train from Dover to London, and in the compartment which I occupied there was but one other passenger—a sharp, intelligent-looking man, with a very grave face. We got into conversation after traveling more than half the distance in that silence which is invariably adopted by Englishmen when they meet. After discussing general subjects, a remark of my companion’s led me to say that he seemed to have had a very wide experience and among nearly all classes of society.

“Yes,” he answered, slowly, and with a marked hesitation. “Yes, I am an undertaker. I have had a good deal of experience, and I have had my share, I think, of remarkable adventures. I never take this ride from Dover to London without a very painful recollection of one such.”

We had still nearly a half-hour’s ride before us, and his manner, as much as his words, roused my interest. “Do you care to tell it?” I asked. A quick, involuntary shudder gave to his voice a slight tremor, as he answered:

“I wish I could keep from thinking of it, but I might as well tell it as sit here quaking in silence over the awful memory of it.” He paused a moment, drew a long, shuddering breath, and then he commenced:

“A little over a year ago what I am about to relate happened to me. I had established a very good business, chiefly among the upper class of tradespeople—though, of course, I did not decline any call upon me that promised a reasonable profit. I received one day a telegraphic dispatch from Paris, asking me to take charge of a dead body that was to be sent from Paris to London for burial. I was to meet it at Dover on the arrival of the night-boat from Calais, and make all the arrangements for its further transportation by rail, and I was referred to a well-known banker as security for my expenses.

“This looked like good business, so I lost no time in getting the necessary permits, and went to Dover in the evening. I had some details to attend to there, in order that everything might be in readiness and no time lost after the boat arrived. Then I had nothing to do but wait. I sat up reading to keep myself awake.

“It was a beautiful, still night in the late fall, with an almost full moon, I remember; and the boat got in to time. I received the box containing the body, and saw it placed in one of the luggage-vans of the train, and in due course arrived with it at Victoria Station. One of my wagons was there, waiting to take the body to my place, where I was instructed to keep it until the next morning, when the proper parties would call to make arrangements about the burial.

“So far, of course, there was nothing specially remarkable about the affair. It is a little unusual in such cases not to find some one connected with the deceased accompanying the body; but I hardly gave that matter a second thought. I had no doubt but that the right persons would appear later in the day.

“When I got to my shop it still lacked about two hours of daylight, and, as I felt no slight responsibility, I didn’t think of going home, but made myself as comfortable as possible in my office for the rest of the night. You must bear in mind that all the sleep I had secured was a broken, uneasy slumber on the journey from Dover to London, and when I went to sleep in my chair, after stirring the fire into a blaze, I slept very soundly—very soundly, that is, for awhile, for it was still dark when I woke up in a sudden and startling way.

“Have you ever wondered,” the undertaker asked, turning his eyes full upon mine for the first time since he had begun his story, “what mysterious influence that is which makes you feel another presence in the same room as yourself, though you hear no one and see no one? It’s a queer feeling at any time, but I don’t know of any occasion when it can seem more queer and awful than when it comes to a man locked up in the dead of night, with nothing but black plumes and grave-clothes and palls and coffins about him.”

He turned his eyes to the floor again, and a cold tremor crept through my own flesh in the brief and ominous pause he made before he went on, in a lower voice:

“That was the feeling I had when I suddenly woke from sound sleep to full consciousness with a chilling shudder of horror. I was sitting before the fireplace, with my back to the door that led from the office to the shop. I had purposely left the door ajar. The fire had died down to a dull glow, and it seemed to me that a breath from the Arctic Zone had penetrated the room. I cannot describe the kind of cold it was. My very bones seemed to be ice. And then I felt that presence!”

The undertaker seemed terribly affected even now by his recollections of that night. It was impossible to resist the infection, and my own flesh was creeping in a very uncomfortable way. He made a strong effort to recover himself and to steady his voice, but, in spite of all, it trembled with an ever-deepening terror as he went on, curdling my very blood in sympathy.

“I had turned the gas out when I sat down in my chair to sleep, so that the only light in the room came from the dying fire. I became aware of that presence the very instant I awoke. Mind, sir, this is not a dream. I was as fully awake as I am at this moment. The thing was there! It was at the back of me. It was between me and the door. I had got to turn my head to see it. But I knew it was there! Who it was, or what it was, I didn’t know; but I was sure that some living thing was standing behind me motionless in the dim, ghostly light, and was looking at me. My God, sir! it was awful to sit still and feel this thing, and try to make up my mind to turn my head toward it! I am pretty well accustomed to corpses, but I can tell you that I did not feel just then that the corpse out in the other room was any company for me.

“Well, there I sat—feeling that horrible gaze fixed upon me in the utter silence, and the deathlike cold creeping through my veins—striving, struggling to nerve myself to look around and to face the thing, whatever it was.

“Were you ever locked up in a tomb at night?” the undertaker suddenly asked me. I could only shake my head in response; I could not speak.

“I have been,” he said, ” but it was nothing— nothing to those few minutes, while I sat palsied with terror, with that thing behind me! At last, in a kind of nervous spasm, I sprang to my feet, and turned toward the door. The sight froze me! There is no other word for it—I was rigid. I could no more stir than I could arrest the motion of this train now and instantly. My very heart stopped its beating. I wonder I didn’t drop dead myself, for there—not six feet from me—with the livid pallor of death on its face, and its glassy eyes glued to mine, stood the corpse!

“Then it began to approach me. It did not seem to walk—it glided, and not till it reached me did it make a single apparent movement.

“Then—just stand up, will you? I can illustrate better what occurred.”

I did so, and he arose at the same time, and we stood facing each other in the compartment. I was dimly conscious at the moment that we were crossing Battersea Bridge. The undertaker, as he went on, repeated upon me the actions he described.

“Then this dead thing,” he said to me. “slowly lifted its arms and laid its icy lingers on my cheeks and moved them gently downward to my shoulders, pressing hard against me all the time on either side, as I do now on you, and wherever the hands lay they seemed to draw the very life out of the flesh beneath them. Slowly—oh! how slowly—they glided on downward from my shoulders to my breast, beneath my coat, like this. Try to conceive it —try, if you can. Wherever they touched they drew something away from me—some virtue seemed to go out of me. And then the frightful thought came to me that I was dying by piecemeal!—that I was parting with something dear to me as life—bit by bit I could feel it ebbing— ebbing, and at last the horror grew to a conviction. This ghoul was drawing my life’s blood into his own veins! was sucking my substance! What I lost he gained! He enriched himself by making me poor, and it would end—”

“Victoria!” shouted a guard, opening the carriage-door.

“Bless my soul!” exclaimed the undertaker, “are we in? I must hurry to catch my train out.” He seized his satchel, and was on the step before I could get my breath to say, “But the story! I want to hear the end of it.”

He was on the platform now. “Oh! there isn’t much more,” he called back. “The ghoul succeeded—that’s all!”—and he was gone before I could say another word.

As I followed a porter to a cab, and all the way home, I tried to conceive what the undertaker could mean. How could the dead man have succeeded? Here the undertaker was alive and well, and telling me the story. It was very annoying and disappointing to be so baulked, after being so wrought upon. The undertaker had left me no address, so that I was, apparently, doomed never to know the solution.

Only “apparently,” however. When I got out of the cab at my own door I could find no loose change to pay the driver—yet I had some when I took that train at Dover; my well-furnished pocket-book—though that, too, I had at Dover—was gone as well; and my watch and chain had followed suit.

It is painful to lose confidence in human nature in this way.

Arthur’s Home Magazine, 1886

For “The Countess Elga,” an authenticated vampire story, see this link over at the Haunted Ohio books blog.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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