The Oblong Box 1850
SOME YEARS ago, I engaged passage from Charleston, S. C, to the city
of New York, in the fine packet-ship "Independence," Captain Hardy. We
were to sail on the fifteenth of the month (June), weather permitting;
and on the fourteenth, I went on board to arrange some matters in my
I found that we were to have a great many passengers, including a
more than usual number of ladies. On the list were several of my
acquaintances, and among other names, I was rejoiced to see that of
Mr. Cornelius Wyatt, a young artist, for whom I entertained feelings
of warm friendship. He had been with me a fellow-student at C-
University, where we were very much together. He had the ordinary
temperament of genius, and was a compound of misanthropy, sensibility,
and enthusiasm. To these qualities he united the warmest and truest
heart which ever beat in a human bosom.
I observed that his name was carded upon three state-rooms; and,
upon again referring to the list of passengers, I found that he had
engaged passage for himself, wife, and two sisters- his own. The
state-rooms were sufficiently roomy, and each had two berths, one
above the other. These berths, to be sure, were so exceedingly
narrow as to be insufficient for more than one person; still, I
could not comprehend why there were three state-rooms for these four
persons. I was, just at that epoch, in one of those moody frames of
mind which make a man abnormally inquisitive about trifles: and I
confess, with shame, that I busied myself in a variety of ill-bred and
preposterous conjectures about this matter of the supernumerary
state-room. It was no business of mine, to be sure, but with none
the less pertinacity did I occupy myself in attempts to resolve the
enigma. At last I reached a conclusion which wrought in me great
wonder why I had not arrived at it before. "It is a servant of
course," I said; "what a fool I am, not sooner to have thought of so
obvious a solution!" And then I again repaired to the list- but here I
saw distinctly that no servant was to come with the party, although,
in fact, it had been the original design to bring one- for the words
"and servant" had been first written and then overscored. "Oh, extra
baggage, to be sure," I now said to myself- "something he wishes not
to be put in the hold- something to be kept under his own eye- ah, I
have it- a painting or so- and this is what he has been bargaining
about with Nicolino, the Italian Jew." This idea satisfied me, and I
dismissed my curiosity for the nonce.
Wyatt's two sisters I knew very well, and most amiable and clever
girls they were. His wife he had newly married, and I had never yet
seen her. He had often talked about her in my presence, however, and
in his usual style of enthusiasm. He described her as of surpassing
beauty, wit, and accomplishment. I was, therefore, quite anxious to
make her acquaintance.
On the day in which I visited the ship (the fourteenth), Wyatt and
party were also to visit it- so the captain informed me- and I
waited on board an hour longer than I had designed, in hope of being
presented to the bride, but then an apology came. "Mrs. W. was a
little indisposed, and would decline coming on board until
to-morrow, at the hour of sailing."
The morrow having arrived, I was going from my hotel to the wharf,
when Captain Hardy met me and said that, "owing to circumstances" (a
stupid but convenient phrase), "he rather thought the 'Independence'
would not sail for a day or two, and that when all was ready, he would
send up and let me know." This I thought strange, for there was a
stiff southerly breeze; but as "the circumstances" were not
forthcoming, although I pumped for them with much perseverance, I
had nothing to do but to return home and digest my impatience at
I did not receive the expected message from the captain for nearly a
week. It came at length, however, and I immediately went on board. The
ship was crowded with passengers, and every thing was in the bustle
attendant upon making sail. Wyatt's party arrived in about ten minutes
after myself. There were the two sisters, the bride, and the artist-
the latter in one of his customary fits of moody misanthropy. I was
too well used to these, however, to pay them any special attention. He
did not even introduce me to his wife- this courtesy devolving, per
force, upon his sister Marian- a very sweet and intelligent girl, who,
in a few hurried words, made us acquainted.
Mrs. Wyatt had been closely veiled; and when she raised her veil, in
acknowledging my bow, I confess that I was very profoundly astonished.
I should have been much more so, however, had not long experience
advised me not to trust, with too implicit a reliance, the
enthusiastic descriptions of my friend, the artist, when indulging
in comments upon the loveliness of woman. When beauty was the theme, I
well knew with what facility he soared into the regions of the
The truth is, I could not help regarding Mrs. Wyatt as a decidedly
plain-looking woman. If not positively ugly, she was not, I think,
very far from it. She was dressed, however, in exquisite taste- and
then I had no doubt that she had captivated my friend's heart by the
more enduring graces of the intellect and soul. She said very few
words, and passed at once into her state-room with Mr. W.
My old inquisitiveness now returned. There was no servant- that
was a settled point. I looked, therefore, for the extra baggage. After
some delay, a cart arrived at the wharf, with an oblong pine box,
which was every thing that seemed to be expected. Immediately upon its
arrival we made sail, and in a short time were safely over the bar and
standing out to sea.
The box in question was, as I say, oblong. It was about six feet
in length by two and a half in breadth; I observed it attentively, and
like to be precise. Now this shape was peculiar; and no sooner had I
seen it, than I took credit to myself for the accuracy of my guessing.
I had reached the conclusion, it will be remembered, that the extra
baggage of my friend, the artist, would prove to be pictures, or at
least a picture; for I knew he had been for several weeks in
conference with Nicolino:- and now here was a box, which, from its
shape, could possibly contain nothing in the world but a copy of
Leonardo's "Last Supper;" and a copy of this very "Last Supper,"
done by Rubini the younger, at Florence, I had known, for some time,
to be in the possession of Nicolino. This point, therefore, I
considered as sufficiently settled. I chuckled excessively when I
thought of my acumen. It was the first time I had ever known Wyatt
to keep from me any of his artistical secrets; but here he evidently
intended to steal a march upon me, and smuggle a fine picture to New
York, under my very nose; expecting me to know nothing of the
matter. I resolved to quiz him well, now and hereafter.
One thing, however, annoyed me not a little. The box did not go into
the extra state-room. It was deposited in Wyatt's own; and there, too,
it remained, occupying very nearly the whole of the floor- no doubt to
the exceeding discomfort of the artist and his wife;- this the more
especially as the tar or paint with which it was lettered in sprawling
capitals, emitted a strong, disagreeable, and, to my fancy, a
peculiarly disgusting odor. On the lid were painted the words- "Mrs.
Adelaide Curtis, Albany, New York. Charge of Cornelius Wyatt, Esq.
This side up. To be handled with care."
Now, I was aware that Mrs. Adelaide Curtis, of Albany, was the
artist's wife's mother,- but then I looked upon the whole address as a
mystification, intended especially for myself. I made up my mind, of
course, that the box and contents would never get farther north than
the studio of my misanthropic friend, in Chambers Street, New York.
For the first three or four days we had fine weather, although the
wind was dead ahead; having chopped round to the northward,
immediately upon our losing sight of the coast. The passengers were,
consequently, in high spirits and disposed to be social. I must
except, however, Wyatt and his sisters, who behaved stiffly, and, I
could not help thinking, uncourteously to the rest of the party.
Wyatt's conduct I did not so much regard. He was gloomy, even beyond
his usual habit- in fact he was morose- but in him I was prepared
for eccentricity. For the sisters, however, I could make no excuse.
They secluded themselves in their staterooms during the greater part
of the passage, and absolutely refused, although I repeatedly urged
them, to hold communication with any person on board.
Mrs. Wyatt herself was far more agreeable. That is to say, she was
chatty; and to be chatty is no slight recommendation at sea. She
became excessively intimate with most of the ladies; and, to my
profound astonishment, evinced no equivocal disposition to coquet with
the men. She amused us all very much. I say "amused"- and scarcely
know how to explain myself. The truth is, I soon found that Mrs. W.
was far oftener laughed at than with. The gentlemen said little
about her; but the ladies, in a little while, pronounced her "a
good-hearted thing, rather indifferent looking, totally uneducated,
and decidedly vulgar." The great wonder was, how Wyatt had been
entrapped into such a match. Wealth was the general solution- but this
I knew to be no solution at all; for Wyatt had told me that she
neither brought him a dollar nor had any expectations from any
source whatever. "He had married," he said, "for love, and for love
only; and his bride was far more than worthy of his love." When I
thought of these expressions, on the part of my friend, I confess that
I felt indescribably puzzled. Could it be possible that he was
taking leave of his senses? What else could I think? He, so refined,
so intellectual, so fastidious, with so exquisite a perception of
the faulty, and so keen an appreciation of the beautiful! To be
sure, the lady seemed especially fond of him- particularly so in his
absence- when she made herself ridiculous by frequent quotations of
what had been said by her "beloved husband, Mr. Wyatt." The word
"husband" seemed forever- to use one of her own delicate
expressions- forever "on the tip of her tongue." In the meantime, it
was observed by all on board, that he avoided her in the most
pointed manner, and, for the most part, shut himself up alone in his
state-room, where, in fact, he might have been said to live
altogether, leaving his wife at full liberty to amuse herself as she
thought best, in the public society of the main cabin.
My conclusion, from what I saw and heard, was, that, the artist,
by some unaccountable freak of fate, or perhaps in some fit of
enthusiastic and fanciful passion, had been induced to unite himself
with a person altogether beneath him, and that the natural result,
entire and speedy disgust, had ensued. I pitied him from the bottom of
my heart- but could not, for that reason, quite forgive his
incommunicativeness in the matter of the "Last Supper." For this I
resolved to have my revenge.
One day he came upon deck, and, taking his arm as had been my
wont, I sauntered with him backward and forward. His gloom, however
(which I considered quite natural under the circumstances), seemed
entirely unabated. He said little, and that moodily, and with
evident effort. I ventured a jest or two, and he made a sickening
attempt at a smile. Poor fellow!- as I thought of his wife, I wondered
that he could have heart to put on even the semblance of mirth. I
determined to commence a series of covert insinuations, or innuendoes,
about the oblong box- just to let him perceive, gradually, that I
was not altogether the butt, or victim, of his little bit of
pleasant mystification. My first observation was by way of opening a
masked battery. I said something about the "peculiar shape of that
box-," and, as I spoke the words, I smiled knowingly, winked, and
touched him gently with my forefinger in the ribs.
The manner in which Wyatt received this harmless pleasantry
convinced me, at once, that he was mad. At first he stared at me as if
he found it impossible to comprehend the witticism of my remark; but
as its point seemed slowly to make its way into his brain, his eyes,
in the same proportion, seemed protruding from their sockets. Then
he grew very red- then hideously pale- then, as if highly amused
with what I had insinuated, he began a loud and boisterous laugh,
which, to my astonishment, he kept up, with gradually increasing
vigor, for ten minutes or more. In conclusion, he fell flat and
heavily upon the deck. When I ran to uplift him, to all appearance
he was dead.
I called assistance, and, with much difficulty, we brought him to
himself. Upon reviving he spoke incoherently for some time. At
length we bled him and put him to bed. The next morning he was quite
recovered, so far as regarded his mere bodily health. Of his mind I
say nothing, of course. I avoided him during the rest of the
passage, by advice of the captain, who seemed to coincide with me
altogether in my views of his insanity, but cautioned me to say
nothing on this head to any person on board.
Several circumstances occurred immediately after this fit of Wyatt
which contributed to heighten the curiosity with which I was already
possessed. Among other things, this: I had been nervous- drank too
much strong green tea, and slept ill at night- in fact, for two nights
I could not be properly said to sleep at all. Now, my state-room
opened into the main cabin, or dining-room, as did those of all the
single men on board. Wyatt's three rooms were in the after-cabin,
which was separated from the main one by a slight sliding door,
never locked even at night. As we were almost constantly on a wind,
and the breeze was not a little stiff, the ship heeled to leeward very
considerably; and whenever her starboard side was to leeward, the
sliding door between the cabins slid open, and so remained, nobody
taking the trouble to get up and shut it. But my berth was in such a
position, that when my own state-room door was open, as well as the
sliding door in question (and my own door was always open on account
of the heat,) I could see into the after-cabin quite distinctly, and
just at that portion of it, too, where were situated the state-rooms
of Mr. Wyatt. Well, during two nights (not consecutive) while I lay
awake, I clearly saw Mrs. W., about eleven o'clock upon each night,
steal cautiously from the state-room of Mr. W., and enter the extra
room, where she remained until daybreak, when she was called by her
husband and went back. That they were virtually separated was clear.
They had separate apartments- no doubt in contemplation of a more
permanent divorce; and here, after all I thought was the mystery of
the extra state-room.
There was another circumstance, too, which interested me much.
During the two wakeful nights in question, and immediately after the
disappearance of Mrs. Wyatt into the extra state-room, I was attracted
by certain singular cautious, subdued noises in that of her husband.
After listening to them for some time, with thoughtful attention, I at
length succeeded perfectly in translating their import. They were
sounds occasioned by the artist in prying open the oblong box, by
means of a chisel and mallet- the latter being apparently muffled,
or deadened, by some soft woollen or cotton substance in which its
head was enveloped.
In this manner I fancied I could distinguish the precise moment when
he fairly disengaged the lid- also, that I could determine when he
removed it altogether, and when he deposited it upon the lower berth
in his room; this latter point I knew, for example, by certain
slight taps which the lid made in striking against the wooden edges of
the berth, as he endeavored to lay it down very gently- there being no
room for it on the floor. After this there was a dead stillness, and I
heard nothing more, upon either occasion, until nearly daybreak;
unless, perhaps, I may mention a low sobbing, or murmuring sound, so
very much suppressed as to be nearly inaudible- if, indeed, the
whole of this latter noise were not rather produced by my own
imagination. I say it seemed to resemble sobbing or sighing- but, of
course, it could not have been either. I rather think it was a ringing
in my own ears. Mr. Wyatt, no doubt, according to custom, was merely
giving the rein to one of his hobbies- indulging in one of his fits of
artistic enthusiasm. He had opened his oblong box, in order to feast
his eyes on the pictorial treasure within. There was nothing in
this, however, to make him sob. I repeat, therefore, that it must have
been simply a freak of my own fancy, distempered by good Captain
Hardy's green tea. just before dawn, on each of the two nights of
which I speak, I distinctly heard Mr. Wyatt replace the lid upon the
oblong box, and force the nails into their old places by means of
the muffled mallet. Having done this, he issued from his state-room,
fully dressed, and proceeded to call Mrs. W. from hers.
We had been at sea seven days, and were now off Cape Hatteras,
when there came a tremendously heavy blow from the southwest. We were,
in a measure, prepared for it, however, as the weather had been
holding out threats for some time. Every thing was made snug, alow and
aloft; and as the wind steadily freshened, we lay to, at length, under
spanker and foretopsail, both double-reefed.
In this trim we rode safely enough for forty-eight hours- the ship
proving herself an excellent sea-boat in many respects, and shipping
no water of any consequence. At the end of this period, however, the
gale had freshened into a hurricane, and our after- sail split into
ribbons, bringing us so much in the trough of the water that we
shipped several prodigious seas, one immediately after the other. By
this accident we lost three men overboard with the caboose, and nearly
the whole of the larboard bulwarks. Scarcely had we recovered our
senses, before the foretopsail went into shreds, when we got up a
storm stay- sail and with this did pretty well for some hours, the
ship heading the sea much more steadily than before.
The gale still held on, however, and we saw no signs of its abating.
The rigging was found to be ill-fitted, and greatly strained; and on
the third day of the blow, about five in the afternoon, our
mizzen-mast, in a heavy lurch to windward, went by the board. For an
hour or more, we tried in vain to get rid of it, on account of the
prodigious rolling of the ship; and, before we had succeeded, the
carpenter came aft and announced four feet of water in the hold. To
add to our dilemma, we found the pumps choked and nearly useless.
All was now confusion and despair- but an effort was made to lighten
the ship by throwing overboard as much of her cargo as could be
reached, and by cutting away the two masts that remained. This we at
last accomplished- but we were still unable to do any thing at the
pumps; and, in the meantime, the leak gained on us very fast.
At sundown, the gale had sensibly diminished in violence, and as the
sea went down with it, we still entertained faint hopes of saving
ourselves in the boats. At eight P. M., the clouds broke away to
windward, and we had the advantage of a full moon- a piece of good
fortune which served wonderfully to cheer our drooping spirits.
After incredible labor we succeeded, at length, in getting the
longboat over the side without material accident, and into this we
crowded the whole of the crew and most of the passengers. This party
made off immediately, and, after undergoing much suffering, finally
arrived, in safety, at Ocracoke Inlet, on the third day after the
Fourteen passengers, with the captain, remained on board,
resolving to trust their fortunes to the jolly-boat at the stern. We
lowered it without difficulty, although it was only by a miracle
that we prevented it from swamping as it touched the water. It
contained, when afloat, the captain and his wife, Mr. Wyatt and party,
a Mexican officer, wife, four children, and myself, with a negro
We had no room, of course, for any thing except a few positively
necessary instruments, some provisions, and the clothes upon our
backs. No one had thought of even attempting to save any thing more.
What must have been the astonishment of all, then, when having
proceeded a few fathoms from the ship, Mr. Wyatt stood up in the
stern-sheets, and coolly demanded of Captain Hardy that the boat
should be put back for the purpose of taking in his oblong box!
"Sit down, Mr. Wyatt," replied the captain, somewhat sternly, "you
will capsize us if you do not sit quite still. Our gunwhale is
almost in the water now."
"The box!" vociferated Mr. Wyatt, still standing- "the box, I say!
Captain Hardy, you cannot, you will not refuse me. Its weight will
be but a trifle- it is nothing- mere nothing. By the mother who bore
you- for the love of Heaven- by your hope of salvation, I implore
you to put back for the box!"
The captain, for a moment, seemed touched by the earnest appeal of
the artist, but he regained his stern composure, and merely said:
"Mr. Wyatt, you are mad. I cannot listen to you. Sit down, I say, or
you will swamp the boat. Stay- hold him- seize him!- he is about to
spring overboard! There- I knew it- he is over!"
As the captain said this, Mr. Wyatt, in fact, sprang from the
boat, and, as we were yet in the lee of the wreck, succeeded, by
almost superhuman exertion, in getting hold of a rope which hung
from the fore-chains. In another moment he was on board, and rushing
frantically down into the cabin.
In the meantime, we had been swept astern of the ship, and being
quite out of her lee, were at the mercy of the tremendous sea which
was still running. We made a determined effort to put back, but our
little boat was like a feather in the breath of the tempest. We saw at
a glance that the doom of the unfortunate artist was sealed.
As our distance from the wreck rapidly increased, the madman (for as
such only could we regard him) was seen to emerge from the
companion- way, up which by dint of strength that appeared gigantic,
he dragged, bodily, the oblong box. While we gazed in the extremity of
astonishment, he passed, rapidly, several turns of a three-inch
rope, first around the box and then around his body. In another
instant both body and box were in the sea- disappearing suddenly, at
once and forever.
We lingered awhile sadly upon our oars, with our eyes riveted upon
the spot. At length we pulled away. The silence remained unbroken
for an hour. Finally, I hazarded a remark.
"Did you observe, captain, how suddenly they sank? Was not that an
exceedingly singular thing? I confess that I entertained some feeble
hope of his final deliverance, when I saw him lash himself to the box,
and commit himself to the sea."
"They sank as a matter of course," replied the captain, "and that
like a shot. They will soon rise again, however- but not till the salt
"The salt!" I ejaculated.
"Hush!" said the captain, pointing to the wife and sisters of the
deceased. "We must talk of these things at some more appropriate
We suffered much, and made a narrow escape, but fortune befriended
us, as well as our mates in the long-boat. We landed, in fine, more
dead than alive, after four days of intense distress, upon the beach
opposite Roanoke Island. We remained here a week, were not ill-treated
by the wreckers, and at length obtained a passage to New York.
About a month after the loss of the "Independence," I happened to
meet Captain Hardy in Broadway. Our conversation turned, naturally,
upon the disaster, and especially upon the sad fate of poor Wyatt. I
thus learned the following particulars.
The artist had engaged passage for himself, wife, two sisters and
a servant. His wife was, indeed, as she had been represented, a most
lovely, and most accomplished woman. On the morning of the
fourteenth of June (the day in which I first visited the ship), the
lady suddenly sickened and died. The young husband was frantic with
grief- but circumstances imperatively forbade the deferring his voyage
to New York. It was necessary to take to her mother the corpse of
his adored wife, and, on the other hand, the universal prejudice which
would prevent his doing so openly was well known. Nine-tenths of the
passengers would have abandoned the ship rather than take passage with
a dead body.
In this dilemma, Captain Hardy arranged that the corpse, being first
partially embalmed, and packed, with a large quantity of salt, in a
box of suitable dimensions, should be conveyed on board as
merchandise. Nothing was to be said of the lady's decease; and, as
it was well understood that Mr. Wyatt had engaged passage for his
wife, it became necessary that some person should personate her during
the voyage. This the deceased lady's-maid was easily prevailed on to
do. The extra state-room, originally engaged for this girl during
her mistress' life, was now merely retained. In this state-room the
pseudo-wife, slept, of course, every night. In the daytime she
performed, to the best of her ability, the part of her mistress- whose
person, it had been carefully ascertained, was unknown to any of the
passengers on board.
My own mistake arose, naturally enough, through too careless, too
inquisitive, and too impulsive a temperament. But of late, it is a
rare thing that I sleep soundly at night. There is a countenance which
haunts me, turn as I will. There is an hysterical laugh which will
forever ring within my ears.