Most of us have felt, at one point or another, that our work is taking up all of our time, and that to continue in it would be to go willingly to ruin. It’s then that we—again, most of us—have recourse to time off, and vacations, and other imagined restorations of what we believe has been stolen from us; all simply means of leaving work behind and spending the new time otherwise.
But one of the unique difficulties of the work of an antiques-dealer is that, his work being time itself, he is never quite able to leave it behind. The past is always present to him, and the old things, on which it’s always settling at haphazard, like a fine falling dust, hold him at every pass. For him there can be no vacation; since, vacate to where he will, so long as people are there, there too will be their relics and artifacts, to his mind so many preoccupying business-ventures.
But this is old news to anyone in the trade—in evidence of which, and in beginning our story, we note the mere sigh of resignation with which Winston Crane, our New England antiquary and dealer in fine arts, leaves off his first beach comb, not three hours into a weekend on the South Carolina coast, to look into the little seaside antiques shop he’s happened to spot on his way into town. Anyone but a seasoned antiquary might have put up a more spirited protest to his recreation being again sacrificed to the idols of business; but then, even another antiquary might have remarked on the oddity of a seaside antiques shop, which in approaching it our particular antiquary did not.
In his defense, it seemed no more promising than any other building in the little town, for articles of age and intrigue. Peeping out above a rise of dune-grass; scaled in the weathered cedar shakes so peculiar to beach-houses; and trimmed, like much of the area, with a lively mixture of red and green, attesting to its island sympathies, it had even that sort of beach-house innocuousness to it that attaches to resorts and other inconsequent places. If it weren’t for the old signboard out front, obviously transplanted and nearly worn free of its original lettering, Warren’s Antiques and Reminiscences might have been any sandy stopover, where one would expect to find the sacraments of history brushed aside, or at best set on the windowsill, as carelessly as any seashell. But it is in such unlikely places that one finds, now and then, if not the most original of treasures, at least the odd heirloom, to be taken from its hapless guardian with little friction and a rush of superiority besides—and this Winston Crane remarked very well indeed.
“And regardless,” he reminded himself that late afternoon, as he picked his way up the path from the sand’s edge to the storefront, “I am supposed to be on vacation; so even finding nothing should be a positive prospect. As far as I know there’s not so much as another souvenir shop in this little town, and if I were to come away from here empty-handed—well, God forbid, I might just be able to pass a relaxing weekend here. But what is that—?”
He had noticed, as it would have been difficult not to notice, an old and yellowing wreath of once-white feathers affixed to the front door, with a bird’s withered claw suspended at its center.
“Can’t say I care much for that particular ornament,” he said to himself, with a surge of repugnance at the connection, sadly familiar, between collectors of antiques and the bygone superstitions passed down with them.
Having pushed past his distaste, however, and past the talisman that had inspired it, Crane met with a pleasant surprise; for the little shop within was beautifully, even perfectly, arranged. In fact its collection was so well selected, and so familiarly ordered, as to seem rather an especially tasteful living-room than an antiques shop; and for a moment Crane was perilously close to remorse, in imagining anything being taken away from it. Yet at a glance he had noticed a Renaissance–revival mirror and two matchless Empire récamiers—pieces, he would have said if they were his to sell, “of real importance”—and before he was quite aware of it, the nagging of his conscience had been duly squelched.
As he paced among the rows (careful, as always in such situations, not to betray the slightest sign either of interest or pleasure), Crane heard the muffled creak of a door, and in a moment a middle-aged black man emerged from a back room. He was tall and slender, or slender as far as his face attested, the rest of him being attired in a shapeless suit of coarse gray cloth that obscured his figure utterly. His features were kind, and surmounted by a close crop of hair that thinned toward the center of his head; and with his crown thus tonsured, and poking darkly out of his unusual costume, he looked to Crane not a little like a friendly sunburnt friar. Well enough, it seemed; for in a few words he soon elicited an easy nature to match. An easy nature!—but Mr. Crane knew well what to do with that in conversation. That is, questions and more questions, and the less said the better; for given a chance, such a nature will soon disclose even the most useful of its weaknesses. Such, after all, is the path trade follows between businessmen and rubes. But as it soon turned out, Bailey Warren was no rube, but a collector “in the old manner” who had all of Crane’s knowledge, if not more, at his affable command, and who (he let Crane know with gentlemanly grace) could certainly tell another antiquary when he met one.
He was of a branch of old Jamaican stock only lately taken root among its relations in the Carolinas; and Crane might well have asked how his light voice had come to bear no trace of an accent. But the point was eclipsed by the matter of the collection itself—a thing of which, though the quality was evidently no accident to the capable man, the acquisition might as well have been. For as he was proud to say, it had all belonged to forebears in colonial Jamaica and the antebellum South, and had come to him, piece by piece, through inheritance alone. In fact inheritance seemed to have done very well by him, as on its easy current had also come the patrimony on which he now lived, and which enabled him to carry on the family business out of interest rather than necessity.
“But do you mean,” here interjected Crane, “that you make no effort at buying or selling at all? Quite a shame, given so fine a collection. I’m sure I’d itch to move them in a week—or at least a few of them.”
Warren smiled archly. “You must make a better antiques-dealer than I do, Mr. Crane. I think I’d have enough trouble just deciding which of them to ‘move’.”
“Well, surely there are some you like less than others,” said Crane, resting an eye on the Renaissance-revival mirror. “It can’t be that you’re equally attached to them all.”
“And why not?” laughed the shopkeeper. “They’re all family, and all of a kin with me. Or is that perhaps a bit delusional?” He raised a finger sententiously. “As my grandmother would’ve said, Ebery John Crow tink him pickney white.”
“Every what?” asked Crane, not certain what to do with the sudden accent.
“John Crow; it’s what they call the carrion crow in Jamaica. A nasty, evil-looking bird—hence the turn of the proverb—and bad luck too, as many should say. But you’re a man of business, Mr. Crane; you must be anxious to get to it.”
Crane agreed; and the antiquary’s discussion that followed, concerning things like restoratives and transitions, and the low scroll of an acroterium, is perhaps better left to the reader’s imagination.
It bears saying, however, that the whole exchange, technical as it was, produced in Crane an uncanny feeling. It was a feeling the likes of which he’d never felt in a showroom before, a sort of exposedness, as if he were being watched. In all candor, it made him want to turn his back on the collection without another thought. But then, what a collection that was! And for his part, Warren gave no sign of ill will or even shrewdness in selling it—on the contrary he seemed all but indifferent as to which pieces Crane decided to take, or even at what price. For all his eerie feeling Crane could not deny that it was an opportunity only a fool would pass up, so in the end he resolved on the two récamiers he’d seen on his way in, at a price only slightly less than what they merited, and with a promise that he’d be by the next day to consider a further purchase.
While they were drawing up the necessary documents of exchange, Warren suddenly looked very intently on him. “I have something you must see, Mr. Crane,” he said. “It’s an object not even many antiquaries can fully appreciate; but I imagine one of your experience will find it very interesting.”
Naturally, this was too intriguing an offer for Crane to refuse.
“Go on,” he said.
The shopkeeper withdrew to the back rooms whence he’d first appeared, and in a moment returned, carrying with him a long, rectangular object with a velvet cloth over it. His face wore that particular expression that sometimes comes over people when they are about to expatiate on something, and in this he did not disappoint.
“As you’re probably aware,” he began, setting the object on the table between them, “Jamaica’s first colonizers, the Spanish, were ousted by its second, the British, in the early seventeenth century. In 1655 the last of the Spanish defenders, one Don Arnoldo de Yassi, deserted his fortress at Tower Hill and fled to Cuba with his life. They still call that part of St. Ann ‘Runaway Bay,’ after him, in fact.
“Now among the possessions of this Don Arnoldo, left behind in his escape, was one which, had it been found by the Englishmen, would have been considered a great treasure, since it was of their homeland—probably taken from a British officer in spoil. In such a case it would, no doubt, be in a museum or on the auction-block today. But the English didn’t find it, because it was discovered first by one of their slaves and hidden away very carefully. That slave was an ancestor of mine, you see, and that object was this.”
Here the shopkeeper drew off the velvet cover, and revealed the most beautifully made clock Winston Crane had ever seen. Its oak casing was almost black but for the luminescent deep hues and gold embellishments with which it was shot through like a glowing coal; and had been ornately carved into the shape of a classical temple, complete with Ionic columns and figures in fine relief. Suspended beneath the architrave of this little temple, like the god residing within it, was the face of the dial itself, a bright disc of finely-engraved silver spanned by two golden hands, behind which the hints of a most intricate mechanism peeped through.
Turning the clock a little aside, so that its face better caught the light, Warren indicated a minute initial inscribed among the traceries there.
“This,” he said profoundly, “is the early mark of the great Ahasuerus Fromanteel, clockmaker to Charles I and original of the London Fromanteels, who so revolutionized the art of timekeeping. When he made this piece, around 1630, he could hardly have been out of his apprenticeship, perhaps not even yet in London; but as you can see, his mastery was already complete. There is simply no piece like it in the world.”
“My God,” breathed Crane, upon whom the whole universe of his profession had suddenly seemed to crowd in.
“Now, you asked me before,” continued the shopkeeper, “whether there were not certain objects in my collection which I might like more than others to be rid of. If there were, this would without a doubt be it, for rare as it is, it’s been a burden to me since I first came into possession of it.”
“That’s difficult to explain. My ancestor—whose true name was forgotten long ago—was in life a very wicked man. It’s said that he killed another slave, probably his own father, to keep the clock a secret; and that once he’d gotten hold of it, its machinery stopped, never to work again. But it seems he stopped aging along with it, for he outlived his masters and all of their heirs by some time. He was a very powerful Obeah man, you know—a sorcerer—though he was never supposed to have worked for good.”
“But surely all this doesn’t have to do with you—or with that,” said Crane, gesturing toward the priceless thing on the table with some impatience.
“Very surely it has,” said Warren sternly. “It’s believed, you see, that a man has two souls—his good spirit and his earthbound one—and that, when he dies, and the one ventures up to be with God, the other stays to be buried with his body. Yet if the necessary precautions aren’t taken, that bodily soul wanders the earth, near its old haunts, and possessions, and relations—and does no good where it goes. One such precaution is that no part of the body be left unburied, but in my ancestor’s case, no less than a hand went completely unaccounted-for. Certain—difficulties—have resulted.”
“I see,” replied Crane, rejoicing inwardly at the very useful weakness that had suddenly presented itself. “But if it’s so great a burden on you, why haven’t you gotten rid of it?” To which he quickly added, “or destroyed it, for that matter?”
“Suffice it to say that for a time it seemed worth having. Murder is not often committed for objects of no worth, much less patricide; and accursed as it is, I would be hard put to destroy something so—vital. Historically speaking, of course. But as for getting rid of it,” said the shopkeeper, leaning in close, “if you would like, Mr. Crane, you may have it for nothing.”
This was the breaking point for Crane’s well-kept reserve, and he gasped in spite of himself. The clock was really priceless: the sort of find that collectors and museum buyers went to war over.
“You can’t mean it,” he said tentatively.
“Of course I do.”
“But—surely you’ll take something in return, at least? What if your—difficulties—continue?”
“I am confident they won’t; and surely I will not. For I must say, though you may ascribe it simply to my superstitiousness, as much as I want to be rid of the thing, in all honesty I don’t recommend your taking it.” Warren looked him over knowingly. “Yet I don’t suppose the terms seem so disagreeable to you, do they, Mr. Crane?”
Fortunately, from his years in the business Crane knew how not to ruin a deal in talking. “No, I—I accept,” he managed.
The shopkeeper got to his feet. “Take it with you today, then,” he said, securing the cover and producing a traveling-case, within which he began carefully to pack the artifact. “There’s certainly no use in my holding onto it any longer.”
Crane nodded, more than a little stunned. “I can’t possibly thank you sufficiently,” he began; but he was silenced with a curt gesture as Warren thrust the case unceremoniously into his hands.
The shopkeeper followed him to the door. “One more thing, Mr. Crane,” he said. In one deft movement he detached the feather-wreath from the door and handed it to Crane with a meaningful nod. “Wherever you keep the clock,” he said, “you must hang this on the outer door; and if you sell it or give it away, this must go with it. Do you understand?”
Crane had to struggle to hide his scorn, but forced a nod. And why not? The poor fellow was only handing off an original Fromanteel, for God’s sake; the least one could do was indulge him a little.
“You’ll stop in tomorrow, of course,” said Warren as Crane started back down the path.
“Of course,” echoed Crane, and the door, along with our story for the time being, swung shut on the strange shopkeeper Bailey Warren.
On the way up the beach, the enormity of what had just taken place washed over Winston Crane. Had it really happened so simply? What unbelievable luck! In fact he could not entirely believe it, and actually went to pinch himself. Ah!—but in his euphoria he still clung to the bothersome talisman Warren had given him. Better pitch that in the surf, he thought—there, that’s done it.
A cold dread, as sudden and strong as his elation, came over him then; followed by the impulse, not to retrieve the pitiful thing—but to hurl the heavy traveling-case into the sea after it. But that, at least, was lunacy. Surely he was only over-excited in any case, and—understandably so! Best to get back in a hurry.
By now it was much later in the day than he’d supposed, and though he did hurry along, by the time he’d returned to his inn it was quite dark. Fortunately, finding his way back was a simple matter, which we can show by way of description, as the place was situated at the very end of the beach-row, with only a narrow road between it and the sand.
As if to further mark it out, the pavement in front of the inn was presided over by a low, solitary streetlamp, the last visible on this part of the beach. As Crane approached it he could just make out a figure standing at the edge of its bright circle. In the shadows the man’s face was indistinct; but Crane could see that his head was tilted back, and his gaze directed upward toward the inn’s high roof.
Crane had just turned his steps toward the front door, glancing up for some sign of what might be so interesting, when the stranger walked suddenly out of the shadows toward him, and without speaking took hold of his arms, as if to keep him from entering. Crane managed to struggle free of the man’s grasp with many an imprecation; but upon standing back he recognized the innkeeper’s uncle, a senile old fellow who’d helped with his bags earlier that afternoon.
He relaxed, a little shaken but none the worse for wear, and tried to understand what the old man was on about. Whatever it was seemed to have him out of his wits with apprehension, for he stood wringing his hands dumbly at Crane and pointing up to the rafters. Looking in that direction Crane could see only a big, filthy-looking crow perched on the roof, its feathers bristling; but as he looked, it gave forth a hoarse caw, and the old man shuddered and clutched at his arm again.
“Ah—a bad-luck bird, as I remember; John Crow, is it?” Crane suggested; at which the old man nodded and, still holding his arm tight, tried mouthing a few words.
“Keep—out,” he managed; and having pronounced this warning, he turned and ambled off into the darkness, leaving Crane dumbfounded. Strange, to have had the same superstition arise twice today. Of course, the town was something of a Caribbean enclave; maybe the innkeeper could make sense of it for him.
But it was not until after dinner that he found some pretense or other on which to approach this latter, and recall to him (as if in passing) his odd run-in with the uncle.
“Oh, don’t mind him,” said the innkeeper with a hopeless sigh. “His mind don’t hold to much anymore, and what it does hold to, most all of it’s just mumbo-jumbo, anyway. That, and island-folk religion. Perfectly nice man, and helpful too, no mistake; but not quite with the time, you know? I try being reasonable with him. But he won’t let go a them old Jamaican beliefs—bad luck an’ duppy spirits—no help for it, I guess, at his age and all.”
Crane was quick to ask after this last funny-sounding term, the meaning of which the innkeeper was happy to provide.
“Well, a ‘duppy’ is a ghost, you know, a spirit come out the grave and hanging around wherever they body’s at. My uncle scared us with ‘em when we was kids, like a boogeyman, you know, ‘the duppy-man come fi yuh’ and all that. It worked, no doubt about it; he told us how the duppies come in the full moon to catch kids at night, out on the beach, and how they got they feet on backward; man, we’d scream to see our own tracks in the sand. Hell, had us running scared a crows ourselves, even, tellin’ us how they go where the duppy-man go—”
Here the telephone rang, and the innkeeper had to excuse himself from this interesting conversation. Crane, whose own unease said conversation had done little to help, wandered back to the dining room for a strong drink.
Later, three or four of these past—along with an attempt to chat with the inn’s other guests (a sour-faced young couple evidently not much disposed to talk)—Crane finally resolved to go up for the night. His room was small but comfortable, with one large window to seaside through which he could hear the crash of the ocean. This had always seemed to him as soothing a sound as it generally seems to most people, and so he stood tipsily at the window a while, watching fireflies congregating by the streetlamp below and listening to the rhythmic roar from beyond it. In this occupation he felt his tensions dissolve, and was soon deliciously tired.
Before climbing into bed he unpacked the clock and set it on the bedside table to look at again. He found himself unable to take his eyes off of it, a feeling he now ascribed as much to disbelief as to appreciation.
“Eleven-thirty,” he thought abstractedly as he clicked off the light at last. “In 1655, that clock stopped at eleven-thirty. Funny, but I’d bet it’s nearly that time now exactly.” And in that thought, he’d soon drifted off.
Strange! that fortunes, if great and sudden enough, can trouble us like the harshest calamities!
For that night Winston Crane slept fitfully, his rest broken by the curious workings of a recurring dream. Three or four times he returned to it to act it out again, each time up to a new stage in its progression; yet each time the substance of it remained virtually the same.
He would first reawaken on his side, facing the clock and the window, upon which he would sit up, and observe that the clock’s hands had moved to midnight and that its machinery could be heard ticking along within it. Upon hearing this ticking in the stillness, he would suddenly feel enveloped in a great solitude; as if having realized all at once that he was the only soul for miles around, or that what he heard was no more than the ticking of a metronome in a long-deserted house, keeping time for a music that would never arrive. Yet then, in the throes of this melancholy reflection, he would hear a new sound—a faint, creaking rolling as of a cart approaching from some distance—and he’d rise to the window to look out for its source.
It was only in the last of these recurrences that he saw anything but the streetlamp below and the road stretching out past it. Until then he would but hear the sound of its approach, and stand waiting at the window with a mounting impatience that eventually woke him. But each time the sound came louder and more clearly, until at last he saw an object draw gradually into the light below him: a boxy shape on wheels, a crate of some sort. And it was then that Crane’s impatience had turned to a strange horror, as he saw that the wheeled object was a coffin, and that what it should have held confined now rode atop it as its passenger: a thin, wide-eyed thing in a gray shroud.
The sun had already risen when his own cry woke him from this nightmare, or he might have sat up in the dark all night with his eyes shut rather than risk a look out the window. And yet, physically he was oddly refreshed, as if he had rested more deeply than usual in his strange dreaming. In the light of this wakefulness he felt his terror fade quickly. After all it was only a dream, however vivid; and there was the good old clock for proof, as still as he’d left it.
But in glancing over at it, he met with a shock. Three minutes to six, did it say? He rubbed his eyes and looked again: five-fifty-seven it was! He could have sworn it had read eleven-thirty when last he’d seen it; or could he simply have mistaken the hour and minute hands for one another? He supposed he must have; they were in more or less the same position, only reversed.
A sudden curiosity seized him. Putting his head out the door, he looked down the hall to its far end, where a large clock hung. It too read only a little short of six o’clock.
“Aha!” he said out loud. He returned to the antique clock and examined it, listening carefully for any sign of its having started up in the night. Of course, there was none; the clock was quite stopped.
“Well, here’s a funny thing,” he said to himself at last. “Yet I can only conclude that it’s all a coincidence, or the result of some cause in myself. After all, I imagined the clock read eleven-thirty last night, at about that time; couldn’t I have decided to wake up at the time it really read, having registered it beforehand in some way—?”
He reasoned with himself in this pedantic manner for some time, now and again checking the antique clock to make sure it hadn’t changed, and the hall-clock to make sure it had. This had the effect, common to pedantry in general, of making his headache worse with no further clarity; and so, abandoning this means of resolution, he dressed and made his way downstairs to give black coffee a try. Not that he felt sluggish or hung over in the least; for it seemed as if his short night’s sleep had taken years from his age.
In the kitchen he was surprised to find the coffee already brewed and being sipped, without much visible enjoyment, by the young couple with whom he’d tried to strike up conversation the night before.
“You’re up early,” Crane ventured as he came in.
“As are you,” returned the wife, her eyes darting over him suspiciously. Now Crane saw that they were both eyeing him over in this searching way, and that, by the look of their bloodshot eyes, neither had slept a wink all night.
Crane said something about the sun in his window; at which the pair passed a knowing look between them.
“Well, we don’t think we’re going to stay another night, at least not in that room,” said the husband.
“Absolutely not another night, in that or any room here,” corrected the wife; and then, to Crane’s quizzical look, she snapped, “Didn’t you hear someone creeping around outside all night?”
Crane started. “Who, exactly?” he asked.
“We have no idea, of course,” said the husband, after a moment. “We thought it might have been you, but it seemed like an older person. Older and, um, darker-complected, that is.”
“Oh—the innkeeper’s uncle, you mean,” Crane began.
“No, no, sorry, but it wouldn’t have been him, either,” interrupted the husband. “He at least dresses normally.”
“Well, whoever it was made all sorts of noise, capering around out there,” said the wife. “What could he have wanted, muttering and gasping in that weird way?” She looked at her husband, as if defying him to guess, then concluded, “All I know is I couldn’t stand another night of it.”
“But,” Crane offered, “surely you saw this person, if he was close enough to hear all night?”
“Not much of him, I’m afraid,” replied the husband. “He was sort of skipping around in the sand just past the streetlight, pointing and waving his arms around. I did see that he was in a kind of dress or hooded coat or something; and once, when he stepped into the light, I could see his feet from our window on the ground floor here. He was as thin and ragged-looking as any old invalid I’ve ever seen, but he moved so energetically! He seemed to be walking backwards the whole time too. Strange, no? We called out to him a few times at first, but he didn’t seem to hear, and I must say, I’m not sure it wasn’t for the better.”
There was a long silence.
“Not another night of it,” repeated the wife, turning to offer Crane a cup of coffee with a shaking hand.
Back in his room, Crane sat and pondered what he’d heard. From the description he had little doubt that it had been Bailey Warren outside all night; but superstition or no, that such a man should have been leaping and cavorting around backwards in the dark could not but seem preposterous to him. In any case Warren had some explaining to do, and Crane decided it would be best to visit him as soon as possible. Very likely the shopkeeper merely regretted giving him the clock, in which case Crane supposed he would be happy to—well, at least to cut him in on the proceeds from its sale. After all, if he really were somehow deranged, it would hardly do to have him following Crane around.
But having made up his mind that Warren was at the heart of it, Crane found himself reassured, and determined to enjoy his uncommon freshness a while. To that end he took his time at breakfast, read a bit, saw off the young couple with a sympathetic farewell, and so on; with the upshot that it was only later, with the afternoon already passing, that he finally set off at a leisurely pace down the beach again toward Warren’s Antiques and Reminiscences.
“And anyway, what if some tourists couldn’t sleep all night?” he said to himself. “They made a strange, anti-social sort of pair to begin with. No doubt Warren’ll have a laugh at having spooked them—after explaining himself to me, of course.”
But his repose turned out to be in no way shared by the shopkeeper, who met him at the door in a mixed state of agitation and joy. He was evidently glad to see Crane in one piece, and though he made efforts at his normal demeanor, his tired face, now looking much aged, gave testimony to a sleepless night. It occurred to Crane that he might have been out all night casting some sort of spell on Crane’s behalf; and despite his many oaths against all such nonsense, Crane couldn’t but pity him.
“Late night last?” he asked gently, as Warren pulled him a chair.
The shopkeeper smiled. “I admit I was hard put to relax,” he said; “but I see my concern was unfounded. I suppose you followed my directions as to the feather-wreath, and were undisturbed?”
“Yes, well, not exactly,” said Crane; “but never mind that—I slept soundly enough. The thing is, as to the lodgers on the first floor—you should know that you kept them up all night. In fact they were so put off, they left this morning; and certainly it’s none of my concern, but—what were you up to, if I may ask?”
Warren’s face had gone blank. “‘Up to’—?”
“Yes, ‘up to’. Dancing around outside, muttering, walking backwards. Or do you mean to say it wasn’t you?”
Warren looked hard at him. “Mr. Crane,” he said slowly, “tell me: did you or did you not hang the wreath as I directed?”
“Well, of course I didn’t,” Crane snapped defensively. “I don’t go in for any of that; but my question is a fairly simple one—what is it you were doing last night?”
“Nothing near your hotel, I can assure you,” answered Warren with concern. “What exactly did these first-floor lodgers say they saw?”
Crane told him what they had described, whereupon Warren’s face went deathly pale. “Did you have any unquiet in the night, any trouble sleeping?” he asked. “Did you notice nothing strange?”
Of course Crane had; and what he related need not be repeated. Yet during all of this the shopkeeper nodded gravely, as if hearing ill news of which he’d had a long foreknowledge; and when Crane had finished he slapped the table hard and said, “You’re only lucky nothing further happened! We have to hang the amulet, as you were supposed to; now, where is it?”
“I threw it away,” Crane stammered. “But what’s the matter?”
Warren had clutched his head in his hands, and was sinking to the tabletop in despair. Something about this gesture rather unmanned Crane, and before he knew it he’d blurted out, “if this is about the clock, you can have it back.”
Warren nodded gravely. “I’m afraid we must have it back as soon as possible,” he said.
So he wants it after all, Crane thought, immediately regretting the offer; but he couldn’t see his way to backing out now. An incorrigible man, this Warren! Yet in spite of his annoyance Crane found himself walking very quickly back up the beach, as clouds gathered ominously overhead. Only once did he pause in his progress to regard a small, particularly dark cloud as it formed abruptly up ahead of him. The way it hovered seemed not quite right; and upon coming within sight of the inn, he saw why. It was not a cloud at all, in fact, but a circling multitude of crows.
Now, given what’s been implied so far of Winston Crane’s character, it will be easy enough to anticipate the next turn his mind took. Put simply: time, as it is so often said, weakens even the strongest resolves; and Crane’s resolve to restore the priceless clock to its former owner being well short of the strongest to begin with, it required hardly the time of his return to weaken and even reverse it. For that was simply the time it took him to reflect more deeply on that word, “priceless”, and to imagine another—his own name—on the envious lips of every rival, or better yet, permanently emblazoned in a corner of the museum placard affixed to his generous bequest. Ah, it was too much to part with—and for superstition’s sake, at that! No, he would just have to leave tomorrow, a day early, clock in tow, and that was that. Surely Warren would soon get over his regret. Chances were he’d be better off anyway, without the clock around for him to obsess over. In any case he knew how to contact Crane, if he so desired; though Crane knew he could be remarkably hard to get hold of sometimes.
As the afternoon wore into evening, Crane felt a growing ease with this new resolution. He took his supper in a little bistro a ways inland from the beach (not to avoid the hotel, of course, but simply for variety’s sake), and in no time he’d all but forgotten what had so concerned him only an hour or two earlier. “This is what a vacation feels like,” he thought; “and I can’t see why I shouldn’t feel it more often. That clock is worth a lifetime of vacations, devil take me—and Winston Crane is a retired man!” To celebrate which, he bought a round for the house; a multitude which, including himself, comprised exactly five persons.
The moon was on the wane when he returned once more to his hotel, just as it had been the night before; and in fact everything about the evening seemed so much unchanged from twenty-four hours previous that Crane was overcome by a profound sense of déjà vu, in which he was not much surprised to find, on approaching the streetlamp, the innkeeper’s uncle again standing vigil at its shadowy edge. “Funny,” he merely thought, “that this should be a nightly custom for the old man.”
He made a gesture of recognition; but before he could put words to his greeting, the uncle ran to him, gripping his arms and trembling just as he had the night before.
“Well now, this again?” said Crane a little sternly, shaking himself free. But the old man gave no sign that he’d heard, and merely pointed energetically to the roof and wrung his hands. This time there could be no question of what had the fellow so upset; for up in the rafters were calmly perched at least ten or fifteen big crows. Best to humor him, Crane supposed; and he’d begun to say something polite and meaningless when the old man nodded wildly at him, gripped his arm tight, and gathered himself up to speak.
“Keep—out,” he said; and with that, to Crane’s amazement, he turned and ambled off in exactly the direction he’d gone the night before. “An interesting nightly custom indeed!” Crane thought; “but God help me if I ever reach such a state.”
Coming in, he happened on the innkeeper, engaged at his desk on something or other; and thinking tonight’s new and identical encounter with the old man would be worth a laugh or two out of his nephew, he related it to him lightheartedly. But imagine the unpleasantness of his surprise, when instead of sharing in his levity, the innkeeper responded in the following familiar words:
“Oh, don’t mind him,” (he said with a sigh) “his mind don’t hold to much anymore, and what it does hold to, most all of it’s just mumbo-jumbo, anyway. That, and island-folk religion. Perfectly nice man, and helpful too, no mistake; but not quite with the time, you know?—”
Crane backed slowly away from the desk, his sense of déjà vu having become almost sickeningly insistent. But this was something more; for the innkeeper kept talking as if nothing were amiss, even after Crane had gone out of sight around the corner. What was going on? Crane listened, and sure enough, without his even having been present to ask, the innkeeper abruptly said what a “duppy” was, and went on enthusiastically talking about it until the telephone rang and he excused himself—to nobody.
A shiver went through Winston Crane then. Was he dreaming? He staggered up the hall toward the stairs, thinking absurdly that he might stop in the dining-room for coffee on the way up; but at the doorway he froze. There in the dining-room, exactly where they’d been the night before, were the sour-faced couple whom he’d seen out not twelve hours earlier! They turned to regard him, and at their empty look, devoid of all recognition, Crane found himself running wildly up the stairs.
He paused at the top to catch his breath; and in so doing, got a look down the long hall at the clock that hung at its far end. Before he knew it he was through his door and scrambling to uncover his prize; for this time there could be no mistake. Yet again, sure enough, though still as ever, the sculpted hands of the antique clock now pointed, as he had known they would, to eleven-thirty—just the time the hall-clock read, and just the time it truly was.
It was then that the voice spoke softly out from the room behind him.
“You must believe me now, Mr. Crane,” it said; and Crane spun around to find himself face-to-face with—who else?—Bailey Warren. Yet how changed the man was, even since this afternoon!—for now his face was deeply lined, and almost all of his hair shot through with silvery white.
“Now you’re seeing what it took me so long, in my sedentary life, to see,” he said from the corner where he stood motionless. “Your time is its time, now; and there is no yesterday, and no tomorrow either, but only you, and it. Or there would be, had you heeded me; but now there is him also, and only one thing to be done for it.”
Crane had instinctively picked up the clock, as if to preserve it from the fate he sensed had come for it, but seeing this, Warren frowned, came a step closer, and continued.
“You needn’t worry, Mr. Crane; I can tell you now that I am conjured not to harm it. But it’s what he comes for, make no mistake; and what holds him to the world of the living, as it held him while he lived. Only flesh and blood could bind him to the thing, and keep him so long from death; and so he was buried unwhole. But it worked too well, and he’s wandered in damnation all these years. He might be wandering still, if you’d only listened to me! Even till now I might have kept him from you, and gone unharmed myself in the bargain. But it’s past time for this sort of regretl I should be resigned to it anyway, my years so quickly catching up to me of late.” And having said this, he crossed to the window and threw it open.
“Destroy it,” he said, gesturing to the open window.
“Now then, just a minute—” Crane began, holding the clock to him and backing away from the mad shopkeeper. The clock was rightfully his, he thought; Warren was insane after all, and the whole thing a great coincidence, a joke, perhaps even a conspiracy against him. And all this and more he certainly would have said the next instant in a rush of chaotic emotion, had not the stillness been broken instead by the metronomic sound, the unmistakable tick, tick, tick, of the antique’s frozen machinery springing suddenly into motion.
“There! Do you see?” the shopkeeper whispered, a horrible smile spreading over his aged features. “The damned thing strikes midnight—its midnight—and listen!—at this hour its owner comes for you!”
Crane turned the clock’s silver face to him just in time to see, with a shudder, its hands move steadily to twelve o’clock; at the same time hearing, as if through a daze, the familiar far-off sound of wagon wheels drawing closer up the road.
Like a man in a nightmare he moved past Warren to the open window and peered out. The night was black, as black indeed as it was in his dream; but even so it did not obscure the boxy shape lurching, by slow fits and starts, up the road toward him. Yet he knew well enough now what it bore with it on its approach; and when he saw the first moonlit outlines of the wrapped shape atop it, and the two cadaverous feet that hung, strangely turned, from its disordered folds, with Warren muttering in the corner behind him he threw the heavy clock with force to the pavement below.
On contact the little temple and all its exquisite machinery flew into a thousand pieces with a terrific crash; but even this cacophony was soon redoubled as a score of crows—startled, as it seemed, by the sudden violence of the sound—took off screaming from their perches on the rooftop and scattered in all directions. Most of these were gone in a matter of moments; but a handful, wheeling around and lighting clumsily among the fragments of the clock, set to struggling over something dry and withered in the debris. Had Crane noticed it, some part of the confusion to come should have been averted; but for the time being, he merely stared up the road, absorbed in the new wonder of seeing nothing there, and by the time he returned his gaze to the priceless ruin below, whatever had lain hidden within it had been snatched up by one or two of the larger birds, and carried off.
Now, the terror past, Crane turned from the window, relief vying with astonishment for possession of him. In expectation of a like response from his companion, he rushed to rouse the gray figure crumpled in the corner. But once more, his expectations were to be disappointed; for bound as his life was to the fate of the ancestral clock, the antiquary Bailey Warren was no more.