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One Does Not Always Eat What Is On The Table






By the light of a tallow candle which had been placed on one end of a
rough table a man was reading something written in a book. It was an old
account book, greatly worn; and the writing was not, apparently, very
legible, for the man sometimes held the page close to the flame of the
candle to get a stronger light on it. The shadow of the book would then
throw into obscurity a half of the room, darkening a number of faces and
figures; for besides the reader, eight other men were present. Seven of
them sat against the rough log walls, silent, motionless, and the room
being small, not very far from the table. By extending an arm any one of
them could have touched the eighth man, who lay on the table, face
upward, partly covered by a sheet, his arms at his sides. He was dead.

The man with the book was not reading aloud, and no one spoke; all
seemed to be waiting for something to occur; the dead man only was
without expectation. From the blank darkness outside came in, through
the aperture that served for a window, all the ever unfamiliar noises of
night in the wilderness--the long nameless note of a distant coyote; the
stilly pulsing thrill of tireless insects in trees; strange cries of
night birds, so different from those of the birds of day; the drone of
great blundering beetles, and all that mysterious chorus of small sounds
that seem always to have been but half heard when they have suddenly
ceased, as if conscious of an indiscretion. But nothing of all this was
noted in that company; its members were not overmuch addicted to idle
interest in matters of no practical importance; that was obvious in
every line of their rugged faces--obvious even in the dim light of the
single candle. They were evidently men of the vicinity--farmers and
woodsmen.

The person reading was a trifle different; one would have said of him
that he was of the world, worldly, albeit there was that in his attire
which attested a certain fellowship with the organisms of his
environment. His coat would hardly have passed muster in San Francisco;
his foot-gear was not of urban origin, and the hat that lay by him on
the floor (he was the only one uncovered) was such that if one had
considered it as an article of mere personal adornment he would have
missed its meaning. In countenance the man was rather prepossessing,
with just a hint of sternness; though that he may have assumed or
cultivated, as appropriate to one in authority. For he was a coroner. It
was by virtue of his office that he had possession of the book in which
he was reading; it had been found among the dead man's effects--in his
cabin, where the inquest was now taking place.

When the coroner had finished reading he put the book into his breast
pocket. At that moment the door was pushed open and a young man entered.
He, clearly, was not of mountain birth and breeding: he was clad as
those who dwell in cities. His clothing was dusty, however, as from
travel. He had, in fact, been riding hard to attend the inquest.

The coroner nodded; no one else greeted him.

"We have waited for you," said the coroner. "It is necessary to have
done with this business to-night."

The young man smiled. "I am sorry to have kept you," he said. "I went
away, not to evade your summons, but to post to my newspaper an account
of what I suppose I am called back to relate."

The coroner smiled.

"The account that you posted to your newspaper," he said, "differs,
probably, from that which you will give here under oath."

"That," replied the other, rather hotly and with a visible flush, "is as
you please. I used manifold paper and have a copy of what I sent. It
was not written as news, for it is incredible, but as fiction. It may go
as a part of my testimony under oath."

"But you say it is incredible."

"That is nothing to you, sir, if I also swear that it is true."

The coroner was silent for a time, his eyes upon the floor. The men
about the sides of the cabin talked in whispers, but seldom withdrew
their gaze from the face of the corpse. Presently the coroner lifted his
eyes and said: "We will resume the inquest."

The men removed their hats. The witness was sworn.

"What is your name?" the coroner asked.

"William Harker."

"Age?"

"Twenty-seven."

"You knew the deceased, Hugh Morgan?"

"Yes."

"You were with him when he died?"

"Near him."

"How did that happen--your presence, I mean?"

"I was visiting him at this place to shoot and fish. A part of my
purpose, however, was to study him and his odd, solitary way of life. He
seemed a good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes write
stories."

"I sometimes read them."

"Thank you."

"Stories in general--not yours."

Some of the jurors laughed. Against a somber background humor shows high
lights. Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in
the death chamber conquers by surprise.

"Relate the circumstances of this man's death," said the coroner. "You
may use any notes or memoranda that you please."

The witness understood. Pulling a manuscript from his breast pocket he
held it near the candle and turning the leaves until he found the
passage that he wanted began to read.





Next: What May Happen In A Field Of Wild Oats

Previous: The Rival Ghosts



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