“Very unpleasant,” said Martha Pym, undisturbed.
This ghost seemed too elusive for her to track down; she would have to be content if she could recover the Crown Derby plate; for that at least she was determined to make a try and also to satisfy that faint tingling of curiosity roused in her by this talk about “Hartleys” and the remembrance of that day, so long ago, when she had gone to the auction sale at the lonely old house.
So the first free afternoon, while Mabel and Clara were comfortably taking their afternoon repose, Martha Pym, who was of a more lively habit, got out her little governess cart and dashed away across the Essex flats.
She had taken minute directions with her, but she had soon lost her way.
Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon, the olive-brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost; the air was cold but not keen, everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes; the flooded fields were haunted by black birds and white birds, gulls and crows, whining above the long ditch grass and wintry wastes.
Miss Pym stopped the little horse and surveyed this spectral scene, which had a certain relish about it to one sure to return to a homely village, a cheerful house and good company.
A withered and bleached old man, in color like the dun landscape, came along the road between the sparse alders.
Miss Pym, buttoning up her coat, asked the way to “Hartley” as he passed her; he told her, straight on, and she proceeded, straight indeed across the road that went with undeviating length across the marshes.
“Of course,” thought Miss Pym, “if you live in a place like this, you are bound to invent ghosts.”
“The Crown Derby Plate” was first published in 1931 in Grace Latouche and the Warringtons.
Read the entire story online, here:
“Come, Sam, tell us a story,” said I, as Harry and I crept to his knees, in the glow of the bright evening firelight; while Aunt Lois was busily rattling the tea-things, and grandmamma, at the other end of the fireplace, was quietly setting the heel of a blue-mixed yarn stocking.
In those days we had no magazines and daily papers, each reeling off a serial story. Once a week, “The Columbian Sentinel” came from Boston with its slender stock of news and editorial; but all the multiform devices—pictorial, narrative, and poetical—which keep the mind of the present generation ablaze with excitement, had not then even an existence. There was no theatre, no opera; there were in Oldtown no parties or balls, except, perhaps, the annual election, or Thanksgiving festival; and when winter came, and the sun went down at half-past four o’clock, and left the long, dark hours of evening to be provided for, the necessity of amusement became urgent. Hence, in those days, chimney-corner story-telling became an art and an accomplishment. Society then was full of traditions and narratives which had all the uncertain glow and shifting mystery of the firelit hearth upon them. They were told to sympathetic audiences, by the rising and falling light of the solemn embers, with the hearth-crickets filling up every pause. Then the aged told their stories to the young,—tales of early life; tales of war and adventure, of forest-days, of Indian captivities and escapes, of bears and wild-cats and panthers, of rattlesnakes, of witches and wizards, and strange and wonderful dreams and appearances and providences.
In those days of early Massachusetts, faith and credence were in the very air. Two-thirds of New England was then dark, unbroken forests, through whose tangled paths the mysterious winter wind groaned and shrieked and howled with weird noises and unaccountable clamors. Along the iron-bound shore, the stormful Atlantic raved and thundered, and dashed its moaning waters, as if to deaden and deafen any voice that might tell of the settled life of the old civilized world, and shut us forever into the wilderness. A good story-teller, in those days, was always sure of a warm seat at the hearthstone, and the delighted homage of children; and in all Oldtown there was no better story-teller than Sam Lawson.
“Do, do, tell us a story,” said Harry, pressing upon him, and opening very wide blue eyes, in which undoubting faith shone as in a mirror; “and let it be something strange, and different from common.”
“Wal, I know lots o’ strange things,” said Sam, looking mysteriously into the fire.
“Why, I know things, that ef I should tell,—why, people might say they wa’n’t so; but then they is so for all that.”
“Oh, do, do, tell us!”
“Why, I should scare ye to death, mebbe,” said Sam doubtingly.
“Oh, pooh! no, you wouldn’t,” we both burst out at once.
But Sam was possessed by a reticent spirit, and loved dearly to be wooed and importuned; and do he only took up the great kitchen-tongs, and smote on the hickory forestick, when it flew apart in the middle, and scattered a shower of clear bright coals all over the hearth.
“Mercy on us, Sam Lawson!” said Aunt Lois in an indignant voice, spinning round from her dishwashing.
“Don’t you worry a grain, Miss Lois,” said Sam composedly. “I see that are stick was e’en a’most in two, and I thought I’d jest settle it. I’ll sweep up the coals now,” he added, vigorously applying a turkey-wing to the purpose, as he knelt on the hearth, his spare, lean figure glowing in the blaze of the firelight, and getting quite flushed with exertion.
“There, now!” he said, when he had brushed over and under and between the fire-irons, and pursued the retreating ashes so far into the red, fiery citadel, that his finger-ends were burning and tingling, “that are’s done now as well as Hepsy herself could ‘a’ done it. I allers sweeps up the haarth: I think it’s part o’ the man’s bisness when he makes the fire. But Hepsy’s so used to seein’ me a-doin’ on’t, that she don’t see no kind o’ merit in’t. It’s just as Parson Lothrop said in his sermon,—folks allers overlook their common marcies”—
“But come, Sam, that story,” said Harry and I coaxingly, pressing upon him, and pulling him down into his seat in the corner.
“I need you to bring back a body.”
Bone decided to drive off the end of the pier, but his foot had already slipped from the accelerator to the brake, a betrayal so automatic that the opportunity was missed before he could seize it.
Wind leaned against the hearse, rocking it on its springs as he sat and considered his orders. He considered corpses and the function of the vehicle he drove. He considered the drifting nature of his movements since the accident and slid out of the hearse before the spiral became inescapable, a long man wearing a black raincoat and fresh facial scars.
Dawn was a red rim of anger on the horizon as the storm gathered its strength and the wind tried to rip the door from his grip. Waves detonated against the rocks with loud explosions of white foam, the ocean matching the swirling fury of the storm clouds overhead.
“I need you to bring back a body.” Marching orders. He looked away from the hearse, remembering the last time he had seen such a car, freshly waxed and gleaming in the October sun. This one was dirt-streaked and hunched against November. He thought it more appropriate to its function. The Atlantic beckoned to him, and he touched the change in his pocket, thinking about coins for the ferryman.
“Some sonofabitch is standing out on North Pier,” old Vic said from the window inside the cramped Dock Office. His big-knuckled, arthritic hands were holding a bulky pair of binoculars he had owned since his time in Vietnam, and he adjusted the focus to see better.
“Yep,” the dock boss said from his perch at the rickety metal desk. The white paint was mostly gone and salt air had rusted the legs, but it held his ledger, dock schedule and overstuffed ticket book—he was a demon for writing tickets—and worked “well enough” as he liked to say about anything that didn’t need change. “Bastid asked to charter a boat out to the Isle.”
Vic turned away from the window with its view of fishing boats bobbing at anchor in the small bay. “Ain’t no one fool enough to run ‘im out there,” he said.
The dock boss leaned over and spit a mass of phlegm and tobacco juice into the Folger’s can he kept on the floor for just that purpose.
“Could be I mentioned that, and could be that’s why he’s standin’ over there on North Pier waitin’ on the Isle boat herself.”
Vic returned to looking out the window at the slim, black figure waiting alone. “Well I’ll be. Is that his hearse parked out there?”
The front door banged open just then and two fishermen bundled inside. “Gonna get big weather today,” a bearded fisherman in a thick sweater said as he headed over to the coffee pot and poured dubious-looking sludge into a Styrofoam cup.
“What you looking at?” the other newcomer asked, nicknamed Babyface for the obvious reason.
“Fella wants to charter a boat out to the Isle.”
Babyface and his partner exchanged looks.
“Isle folk are awfully jealous about their waters,” the bearded man said.
“Ain’t no one fool enough to run him out there,” Babyface said.
“If another body repeats that phrase, I believe I will shoot him,” the dock boss said, spitting a wad that rocked the Folger’s can. The bearded fisherman glanced in the can and gave the dock boss a nod of respect before taking a sip of coffee.
“Jesus Christ, this is awful,” he said, frowning at his cup.
“Second pot,” Vic said, and the other man nodded. The dock boss was in the habit of using coffee grounds at least twice to save money.
“Say,” Vic said as Babyface held out a hand for the binoculars. “What’d he want out there?”
The dock boss shrugged. “Didn’t rightly say, but he showed me a badge. A Federal badge no less.”
“FBI, DEA?” the bearded man asked as he put on a new pot of coffee. The dock boss ignored him.
“So you get a man with a Federal badge, which means he’s carryin’ a Federal gun, and he shows up drivin’ a hearse. Ain’t too hard to jump to a certain conclusion,” the dock boss said, not entirely sure what that conclusion was but enjoying the expressions on the faces of the two younger men.
“If Old Jenny gets her teeth into him, this Federal man might be finding himself in the back of that hearse on the return trip, badge or no badge,” Vic said.
“Yep,” the dock boss said.
“Yep,” the bearded man said.
Babyface surrendered the binoculars and echoed the common wisdom. Hell, everybody knew to avoid that stretch of the Atlantic. Boats that didn’t had a habit of not returning to port.
Mismatched outfits drenched in earl grey design,
the ladies stretch their legs,
their platform heels dusted with tea cakes
against a heralded cry for the haberdashery
as rogue buttons line the floor.
Move down! Move down!
They each float to new spots,
their honey-soaked spoons dripping nectar
on their plates,
such beehive gossip
against poison clouds and milk.
The clock strikes thirteen
inside strawberry hookah rings,
laughter and lullabies paint blueberry scones
on flying saucers,
their girlish whispers slathered in apricot jam,
sprinkled with pecans and preserves.
No room! No room!
They pin their hair back with shards of bone,
as soft curls frame their heart-shaped faces,
their fingernails tapping on both table and tea pot.
Uniformed in madness, they hold hands in sisterhood,
the women all a flutter on cushions stuffed
with soaked butterfly wings,
bodies rising, minds expanding,
their dresses swishing, dancing in the air.
Move down! No ROOM!
They crack their necks
remove their matcha-stained ribbons,
the scent of burning around them,
a boiling high-pitched hiss
amongst a table stained with tarot and tears.
They open their weeping eyes to blood,
sip the sacred tea as their heart beats slow,
each girl rising, never to stop,
forever a sleeping witch in the sky.
—Image: Vintage divination teacup , ca.late 1800s (Pinterest).
Originally appeared in Behold! Oddities, Curiosities, and Undefinable Wonders, Edited by Doug Murano (Crystal Lake, 2017)
Dear Readers (introduction to the preview of Mine) • essay by Robert R. McCammon
Mine (excerpt) • short fiction by Robert R. McCammon
ix • Introduction (Blue World and Other Stories) • (1989) • essay by Robert R. McCammon
1 • Yellowjacket Summer • (1986) • short story by Robert R. McCammon
25 • Makeup • (1981) • short story by Robert R. McCammon
49 • Doom City • (1987) • short story by Robert R. McCammon
65 • Nightcrawlers • (1984) • novelette by Robert R. McCammon
101 • Yellachile’s Cage • (1987) • short story by Robert R. McCammon
121 • I Scream Man! • (1984) • short story by Robert R. McCammon
131 • He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door • (1986) • short story by Robert R. McCammon
151 • Chico • (1989) • short story by Robert R. McCammon
163 • Night Calls the Green Falcon • (1988) • novelette by Robert R. McCammon
191 • Pin • (1989) • short story by Robert R. McCammon
215 • The Red House • (1985) • novelette by Robert R. McCammon
239 • Something Passed By • (1989) • short story by Robert R. McCammon
259 • Blue World • (1989) • novella by Robert R. McCammon
Fast Cars, the sign said.
It was in front of a used-car lot in the neighborhood where I grew up. Fast Cars. My friends and I passed it every day on our way to school. Our bikes were the fast cars of our imagination, our Mustangs and Corvettes and Thunderbirds. We longed for four wheels, but we were confined to two and on them we hurtled into the future.
I’ve built my own fast cars. They’re in this book, and they’re eager for passengers.