The Screaming Skull
F. Marion Crawford, 1908
Below: “The Screaming Skull originally appeared in Volume 41 of Collier’s National Weekly Magazine—in two parts—in the July 11 and July 18, 1908 issues. (Click thumbnails to enlarge.)
Top-left: The 1911 book cover for F. Marion Crawford’s story collection Wandering Ghosts, which included “The Screaming Skull”; and top-right: Original story illustration for the 1911 edition (caption reads: “What? . . . It’s gone, man, the Skull is gone!!”); artist unknown. (Images: Wiki; Pinterest; Haithi Trust; Public Domain.)
I have often heard it scream. No, I am not nervous, I am not imaginative, and I have never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one. Whatever it is, it hates me almost as much as it hated Luke Pratt, and it screams at me.
If I were you, I would never tell ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people, for you never can tell but that someone at the table may be tired of his or her nearest and dearest. I have always blamed myself for Mrs Pratt’s death, and I suppose I was responsible for it in a way, though heaven knows I never wished her anything but long life and happiness. If I had not told that story she might be alive yet. That is why the thing screams at me, I fancy.
She was a good little woman, with a sweet temper, all things considered, and a nice gentle voice; but I remember hearing her shriek once when she thought her little boy was killed by a pistol that went off, though everyone was sure that it was not loaded.
It was the same scream; exactly the same, with a sort of rising quaver at the end; do you know what I mean? Unmistakable.
The truth is, I had not realized that the doctor and his wife were not on good terms. They used to bicker a bit now and then when I was here, and I often noticed that little Mrs Pratt got very red and bit her lip hard to keep her temper, while Luke grew pale and said the most offensive things. He was that sort when he was in the nursery, I remember and afterward at school. He was my cousin, you know; that is how I came by this house; after he died, and his boy Charley was killed in South Africa, there were no relations left. Yes, it’s a pretty little property, just the sort of thing for an old sailor like me who has taken to gardening.
One always remembers one’s mistakes much more vividly than one’s cleverest things, doesn’t one? I’ve often noticed it. I was dining with the Pratts one night, when I told them the story that afterwards made so much difference. It was a wet night in November, and the sea was moaning. Hush! – if you don’t speak you will hear it now…
Do you hear the tide? Gloomy sound, isn’t it? Sometimes, about this time of year – hallo! – there it is! Don’t be frightened, man – it won’t eat you – it’s only a noise, after all! But I’m glad you’ve heard it, because there are always people who think it’s the wind, or my imagination, or something. You won’t hear it again tonight, I fancy, for it doesn’t often come more than once. Yes – that’s right. Put another stick on the fire, and a little more stuff into that weak mixture you’re so fond of. Do you remember old Blauklot the carpenter, on that German ship that picked us up when the Clontarf went to the bottom? We were hove to in a howling gale one night, as snug as you please, with no land within five hundred miles, and the ship coming up and falling off as regularly as clockwork – ‘Biddy te boor beebles ashore tis night, poys!’ old Blauklot sang out, as he went off to his quarters with the sail-maker. I often think of that, now that I’m ashore for good and all.
Yes, it was on a night like this, when I was at home for a spell, waiting to take the Olympia out on her first trip – it was on the next voyage that she broke the record, you remember – but that dates it. Ninety-two was the year, early in November.
The weather was dirty, Pratt was out of temper, and the dinner was bad, very bad indeed, which didn’t improve matters, and cold, which made it worse. The poor little lady was very unhappy about it, and insisted on making a Welsh rarebit on the table to counteract the raw turnips and the half-boiled mutton. Pratt must have had a hard day. Perhaps he had lost a patient. At all events, he was in a nasty temper.