“WHO WAS THE THIRTEENTH GUEST?”
By Jerome A. Hart.
“It is extremely annoying,” said Vernon, looking at his watch. “It is always disagreeable to a host to have a dinner delayed by one of the guests’ tardiness, but in this instance it is particularly so.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” he replied, ” the number of guests is exactly fourteen, and if Sedley does not come we shall be obliged to sit at table with that most ill-omened of numbers — thirteen.”
“But you surely do not believe in that old woman’s superstition, do you?” cried Sinclair.
His remark jarred upon me. I am myself not of a superstitious way of thinking, but it does not follow from this that I have the right to jeer at the superstitions of others. I would not knowingly wound the feelings of an African by making light of his fetich. But Sinclair is not of that turn of mind. A wit, a scoffer, a brilliant talker — I have noticed that these qualities may be frequently found associated with an utter disregard for the feelings of others.
Vernon frowned. “Whether I believe in it or not,” said he, “is not of so much importance as whether any of my guests do. I would not be willing that any man should sit at my table as one of thirteen if he thought it an ill omen. It would spoil his dinner, if it would do nothing worse. But I have no hesitation in saying that I am affected by what you are pleased to call an old woman’s superstition —I am, in fact, so powerfully affected by it that I would not sit at table with thirteen for any consideration.”
“Would nothing induce you to do so?” asked Sinclair, with what I considered ill-timed banter.
“Nothing,” said Vernon, firmly ; and growing somewhat heated at the tone and smile of Sinclair, he added: “I feel so strongly on this matter that I would rather the devil himself should fill a seat at the table than to sit down to it with thirteen.”
“Aha!” cried Sinclair, “the devil is invited, but will his plutonic majesty come?”
While the tones of his voice were still vibrating, the bell rung. A moment after the servant announced: “Mr. Sedley.”
“Ah,” said Vernon, much relieved, “here he is at last. How are you, Sedley? You are doubly welcome, for just before you came we were speculating as to whether your absence would not make it necessary for us to sit down with thirteen at table.”
“I was detained,” said Sedley, briefly, “I ask your pardon.”
There was something odd about his tone. I noticed it, and I saw that Vernon did so too. But he replied:
“Don’t mention it, old fellow. It’s an accident which may happen to all of us.”
But as I grasped Sedley’s hand I met Vernon’s eye. I don’t know whether it was that or Sedley’s hand which startled me. But if Vernon’s look was peculiar, Sedley’s hand-grasp was even more so. It was clammy, snake-like — ugh! I can remember it still.
We repaired to the table, and it was my lot to sit opposite to Sedley. Beside me sat Sinclair. But although he seemed in unusual spirits, and was more brilliant even than was his wont, the conversation flagged. There seemed to be some spell upon us, for all the guests were good fellows, and, as a rule, at dinner-parties where there are no ladies the merriment is apt to be unchecked.
Yet so it was. As for myself, whenever I attempted any sally, I would catch the eye of Sedley, and it invariably exercised an unpleasant effect upon me. I could not divine the cause. Ordinarily, Sedley was as jolly a fellow as you would find in a day’s ride, but to-night — well, I couldn’t understand it. I gave it up, and devoted myself to my dinner.
As if to complete the ill-fortune of the evening, the conversation persistently rolled on thirteen. The various superstitions connected with that number were discussed, and they were many. It seemed, from the amount of curious lore brought forth by this discussion, that the evil properties of the number are by no means confined to the table.
“It is said of the Turks,” remarked Sinclair, as he sipped a glass of sherry, “it is said of the Turks that they consider the number thirteen so unlucky that they have almost expunged it from their vocabulary. They substitute for it the word siyadeh, which is a sort of an invocation, like that used by the Italians against the evil eye.”
“So it seems, then,” remarked Vernon, “that the prejudice against thirteen is not confined to the number of guests?”
“By no means. Yet that superstition is a wide-spread one. As every one knows, its origin is generally attributed to the Last Supper, at which there were thirteen — Christ and the twelve apostles — and from which Judas, with the Saviour’s accusing words still ringing in his ears, went forth to deliver up his master to the death. But the superstition is in reality much older. In the ancient Norse mythology, when the gods sat down to feast with Loki in the Walhalla, Baldur was the thirteenth at the board, and Baldur had to die. The same fallacy holds, I believe, in the vulgar superstition of to-day; those who believe that it is unlucky to sit with thirteen at table, also believe that the last man to seat himself will die before the year is out.”
Sedley lifted his head and fixed his eye on Sinclair.
Really, I had never noticed what extremely unpleasant eyes Sedley had. They were cavernous, piercing, green eyes, and there was a sinister gleam about them that night which actually made me uncomfortable. But apparently not so Sinclair.
“The vulgar superstition, you say?” began Sedley. It was the first time he had spoken, and involuntarily a hush came over the table. “The vulgar superstition, you say? Do you not believe in it, then?”
“Believe in it? No!” sneered Sinclair. “It is an old wives’ tale. It is fit only for the consideration of fools, children, and old women.”
“Ah,” replied Sedley, dryly. He lifted a glass of wine as he spoke — I remember that it was a green glass, and held Chateau Yquem — and as he did so, the light fell through the green glass and the amber wine, and stained his face a hideous yellowish green. He smiled sardonically as he spoke, and what with his gruesome eyes and the strange tinge of his face, he looked positively demoniac. I can see him now— I can conjure him up out of the mists of my memory as if it were but yesterday.
“I consider the whole belief puerile beyond description,” went on Sinclair, who was becoming somewhat heated with wine. “True, there may be something in the belief that one out of every thirteen assembled at table will die before the year is out, for it is extremely probable that out of every group of thirteen one will die before a period of such length passes. But that is merely the result of fixed laws. It has nothing to do with thirteen. It has nothing to do with the table. I might say with as much reason that I would not sit down at table with twelve people, for the reason that the laws of statistics tell me that one of us will surely die before eleven months expire.”
“You think, then, that it is pure chance?” asked Sedley, fixing his sunken eyes on Sinclair’s face.
“Entirely so. It is true that the number thirteen has come to have various evil associations connected with it, as I have already said. But then this is merely owing to vulgar traditions. The Romans, for example, looked on thirteen as an unlucky number. This may have had its effect on the common people of our day, even after the lapse of ages. The Italians of to-day, who may be looked upon as descendants in right line of the Romans, have the same belief. They push it to such an extent that they will never use this number in making up their bollete for the lotteries which impoverish them. The thirteenth card, too, used by them in playing the game called tarocchi, bears a figure which their fervid imaginations have succeeded in likening to that of Death.”
“To Death? Indeed?” interrupted Sedley. There was nothing in his words to irritate Sinclair, yet he seemed to grow angry.
“Yes, I said Death, sir,” he retorted, warmly. “I mean the figure conventionally accepted as that of Death.”
“Ah, yes — you interest me — pray go on,” replied Sedley, this time with a semi-sneer.
Sinclair felt himself being forced into the position of one who was exhibiting his knowledge through pedantry, but he was so nettled that he continued:
“As I was saying, the belief is a wide-spread one. The Russians possess it as well as the Italians. I remember reading somewhere that at a dinner once at Count Orloff’s, an English nobleman who was present noticed that Orloff would not sit at the table, but paced the room constantly. He asked the host the reason, and Orloff said: ‘Do you not see that there are twelve at table? Were I to sit down Nerishkin would instantly leave the room. And to tell the truth,’ he added, with a frank laugh, ‘I am not anxious to defy the fates myself.'”
“Orloff was a man of the world,” remarked I, sententiously.
“I grant you,” said Sinclair, turning suddenly upon me, “but a superstitious one. There are many such. Tom Moore relates how, when he was once dining with Catalini, some guest failed to make his appearance, and a poverty-stricken French countess, companion to some great lady, was immediately sent up-stairs. When the tardy guest appeared, however, she was at once sent for again to make up fourteen.
Now, all this seems to me the height of folly, and unworthy the belief of sensible men. It is fitted only for the common people — particularly that part of the superstition which declares that the thirteenth man shall die.”
“By the way,” said Vernon, looking around the table with an attempt at pleasantry, “who was the thirteenth man to sit to-night?”
“Ay,” added Sedley, in a tone which deprived the remark of all pleasantry, “who was the thirteenth man?”
We all looked around the table, and, as if by one accord, fixed our eyes on Sinclair.
“You were the thirteenth man, I believe, Sinclair,” said I.
“Yes, yes, it was Sinclair,” came from every hand.
Really, we were looking at him with a solemnity which was as absurd as it was amusing. Sinclair felt it, and endeavored to remove the uneasy feeling which lay upon us by some witticism, but the jest fell flat. Its effect was not added to, either, by Sedley, who looked at him fixedly for some moments, and then said, pointedly:
“So you were the thirteenth man to sit?”
“Yes; and what of it?” retorted Sinclair, rudely. He was losing command of himself. “What does it matter to you?”
“To me—not at all. To you—perhaps much,” was the strange reply of Sedley.
After this remark there was nothing to be said. The gayety — if there were any — was hopelessly gone, and after a gloomy cup of coffee and a funereal cigar, the party rose.
But instead of repairing to the smoking-room with the rest of us, Sedley declared that he must go.
“Why are you in such a hurry? ” asked Vernon, hospitably.
“I have something to attend to which can not wait,” he replied. ” I beg you to excuse me. You know I would not leave the gathering were it not compulsory. But I must leave you. I am waited for.” And as he pressed Vernon’s hand, I saw, by the peculiar expression of the host’s face, that he had noticed the same odd feeling in Sedley’s hand that had struck me.
Sedley turned to Sinclair.
“Good-night, sir,” he said. ” I hope you may come to have more toleration for the superstitions of others. Good-night. We shall meet again.” And as he took Sinclair’s hand in his, I saw that the same strange feeling which had struck Vernon and myself was pervading him.
“Confound the fellow!” cried Sinclair, when the door was closed behind the gloomy guest. “He’s a nice one to have at a convivial gathering. He reminds me of those cheerful Trappists, one of whose customs is to have a friar at every
meal, whose duty it is to say at intervals: ‘Brothers, we must all die.’ Good-bye and good riddance. May the devil go with him!”
The words clung to me —”May the devil go with him!”
The devil? A strange farewell, truly, to a departing guest.
Six months had passed since the evening of the disagreeable dinner I have described. Family affairs had called me from the city the very day after it took place, and they had been of such a nature as to keep me away a much longer time than I had anticipated. I had heard nothing, or next to nothing, from home since my departure. One of the very first things that teaches a man how little his friends
care for him, is their utter indifference to him the moment his back is turned. And he will find, as a rule, that those who are the most kindly and considerate in the matter of corresponding are generally the busiest men. Your true idler never finds time to write.
Well, as I said, I had been away for a long time, and knew nothing of what had been taking place since my departure. One of the first men I happened to meet on my return was Vernon, and I besought him to tell me the news.
“News?” said he, “news? I know of nothing. It seems to me that you are the one to tell the news — you who come from the outside world. We here have been leading our every-day humdrum existence, with nothing to chronicle and nothing to tell.”
“Nothing to tell!” I exclaimed. “That is always the cry of him who stays at home. He does not realize that everything is of interest to the wanderer — everything — scandal, births, marriages, and deaths.”
“Deaths — ay,” said he, thoughtfully. “You speak of deaths. Of course, you know that Sinclair is dead?”
“Sinclair dead?” cried I. “You amaze me. Why, he was a young and vigorous man, and the last time I saw him he was in the most robust of health. Of what did he die?”
“The doctors -called it pneumonia,” replied Vernon, with a short cough.
“Pneumonia — well, well. They say it is the bane of American civilization ; that our heated rooms, carelessness in exposure, and ways of living encourage it. Yet true it is that our grandfathers scarcely knew of it. So Sinclair is dead. Poor fellow! Why, it seems but yesterday I saw him in the heyday of manhood. Let me see — when was it that I saw Sinclair last? Why, it was at that dinner you gave, the day before I went away.”
“Yes,” assented Vernon, “it was an unfortunate dinner. I shall never forget it. Of course you know that Sedley is dead?”
“Sedley, too?” I cried, more shocked than I cared to show. “No, I knew nothing of it. What was the matter with him? When did he die?”
“Why he died the day after you left the city — the day after the dinner, you know. Or the night before,” added Vernon gloomily. “I’m sure I don’t know. There was some talk concerning it. It was very extraordinary.”
“But tell me about it,” I said, “I am entirely in the dark. I know of nothing that has taken place since my departure.”
“Well,” said Vernon, uneasily, “I’m sure I don’t like to talk of it, for it’s a very strange affair. If a man discusses it seriously he feels cursed silly, and if he doesn’t discuss it seriously he feels cursed queer. You remember the dinner, of course?”
“I remember it very well.”
“Well, you remember the strange manner of Sedley, his late arrival, his altered demeanor, and his clammy hands. Damme, if I can’t feel the corpse-like clutch of his hand on mine yet.” And Vernon inspected his hand uneasily, as if he expected to see marks upon it.
“Yes — go on.”
” You know, too, that he and Jack Sinclair had some wordy sparring, in which Jack didn’t come off first best as he generally did. I don’t know as Sedley said it in so many words, but he certainly left the impression on most of our minds that Jack was going to die before the year was out.
“The party broke up in short order after his departure, and all went home feeling rather blue. You can perhaps imagine our feelings when we heard next day that Sedley was dead.”
“Sedley dead ? But how — why”
“Well, I suppose it was apoplexy — that’s what the doctors called it. He was a bachelor, you know, and lived alone, with the exception of his servant. The man never stayed up for him when his master went out, but got things in readiness for his going to bed, and then went to bed himself. The morning after the dinner Sedley was found lying on the floor, dressed as if for dinner, and stone dead. He had been dead for hours — the corpse was cold.”
I looked at Vernon curiously. “You say dressed as if for dinner. You mean dressed as he had been at dinner.”
Vernon rubbed his nose hesitantly. “Well, I don’t know,” he said, reflectively, “I suppose so. At all events he was in his dinner-dress. And he was dead.”
I looked at him keenly. “You haven’t told me all, Vernon,” I said.
“That’s all there is to tell,” said he. “Unless it be for an absurd notion that poor Jack Sinclair got in his head.”
“And what was that?”
“Well, of course Jack was sick, and sick men are not responsible for the hallucinations which afflict them. But the notion Jack got was this. You see he remembered some foolish speech that I had made before the dinner in regard to being willing to have the devil himself make up the fourteen rather than sit at table with thirteen.”
“Yes, I remember it.”
“Most of those who were there remember it,” said Vernon, meditatively. ” I wish their memories were not so good. Well, Jack took it into his head — but it’s too absurd an idea to even think of seriously.”
“Let me hear it, none the less.”
“Before Jack died he said to me: ‘Vernon, old boy, I’m afraid your wish came true.’”
“’What wish?’ said I.
“’You wished that the devil might come to your table rather than thirteen should sit there. Vernon, the devil came?’
“’Nonsense, Jack,’ said I, ‘you’re out of your head; it was Sedley who came.’
“’No,’ said he, ‘it may have been Sedley’s body, but it wasn’t Sedley’s soul. Vernon, I tell you that Sedley died that night before and not after dinner, and the fourteenth guest who sat there was the devil. I was the thirteenth, Vernon. And that’s what’s killing me.’ ‘Pooh!’ said I, thinking to humor him, ‘you’re not going to die. Besides that nonsense about the thirteenth man don’t apply to you anyway, for there were fourteen of us.’ ‘Fourteen guests — yes,’ said he, with a sickly smile, “but only thirteen men. Vernon, it was the devil I was disputing with, and he’s got me.’ I saw it was useless to attempt to cure him of his delusion, and so I left him. And that was the last time I saw Jack Sinclair alive.”
“But do you believe, Vernon,” I asked him, “do you believe it was the devil?”
“Was it the devil?” he replied, testily. ” How the devil should I know?”
Aye, truly — how the devil should he?
The Argonaut 6 January 1883
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: There was some thought that the Thirteen-at-Table Curse could be prevented by dividing guests among two tables, but the superstition persisted–and persists–even unto modern times.
In Paris, at least, one could hire an extra guest.
In the Rue de la Chaussee d’Antin, in Paris, there is a man who furnishes professional diners-out at a fixed tariff rate. It is to him that superstitious hosts apply at the last moment when they require a fourteenth guest. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine 1893 : pp. 355-62
In London, of course, there was an entire class of young gentlemen of the type found at The Drones Club, ready to appear at the shortest notice in faultless evening costume to avert the numerical peril. Amateurs, of course, but talented amateurs.
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 anecdote
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.