There can be few more diabolical fathers in literature than Sir Hugh Ockram in F. Marion Crawford's 1899 story "The Dead Smile."
Sir Hugh has laid a trap for the next generation of Ockrams, one they cannot deduce. It is also a trap to torment the souls of two women already dead.
It's an unsettling story, disturbing in a very modern way in how it handles the family romance. It is also a beautifully executed tale of suspense.
19 July 2017
...."Of course," said Sir Hugh very slowly, and still looking out at the trees, "if you have made up your mind to be married, I cannot hinder you, and I don't suppose you attach the smallest importance to my consent——"
"Father!" exclaimed Gabriel reproachfully.
"No; I do not deceive myself," continued the old man, smiling terribly. "You will marry when I am dead, though there is a very good reason why you had better not—why you had better not," he repeated very emphatically, and he slowly turned his toad eyes upon the lovers.
"What reason?" asked Evelyn in a frightened voice.
"Never mind the reason, my dear. You will marry just as if it did not exist." There was a long pause. "Two gone," he said, his voice lowering strangely, "and two more will be four—all together—for ever and ever, burning, burning, burning bright."
At the last words his head sank slowly back, and the little glare of the toad eyes disappeared under the swollen lids; and the lurid cloud passed from the westering sun, so that the earth was green again and the light pure. Sir Hugh had fallen asleep, as he often did in his last illness, even while speaking.
Gabriel Ockram drew Evelyn away, and from the study they went out into the dim hall, softly closing the door behind them, and each audibly drew breath, as though some sudden danger had[Pg 6] been passed. They laid their hands each in the other's, and their strangely-like eyes met in a long look, in which love and perfect understanding were darkened by the secret terror of an unknown thing. Their pale faces reflected each other's fear.
"It is his secret," said Evelyn at last. "He will never tell us what it is."
"If he dies with it," answered Gabriel, "let it be on his own head!"
"On his head!" echoed the dim hall. It was a strange echo, and some were frightened by it, for they said that if it were a real echo it should repeat everything and not give back a phrase here and there, now speaking, now silent. But Nurse Macdonald said that the great hall would never echo a prayer when an Ockram was to die, though it would give back curses ten for one.
"On his head!" it repeated quite softly, and Evelyn started and looked round.
"It is only the echo," said Gabriel, leading her away.
They went out into the late afternoon light, and sat upon a stone seat behind the chapel, which was built across the end of the east wing. It was very still, not a breath stirred, and there was no sound near them. Only far off in the park a song-bird was whistling the high prelude to the evening chorus.
"It is very lonely here," said Evelyn, taking Gabriel's hand nervously, and speaking as if she dreaded to disturb the silence. "If it were dark, I should be afraid."
"Of what? Of me?" Gabriel's sad eyes turned to her.
"Oh no! How could I be afraid of you? But of the old Ockrams—they say they are just under our feet here in the north vault outside the chapel, all in their shrouds, with no coffins, as they used to bury them."
"As they always will—as they will bury my father, and me. They say an Ockram will not lie in a coffin."
"But it cannot be true—these are fairy tales—ghost stories!" Evelyn nestled nearer to her companion, grasping his hand more tightly, and the sun began to go down.
"Of course. But there is the story of old Sir Vernon, who was beheaded for treason under James II. The family brought his body back from the scaffold in an iron coffin with heavy locks, and they put it in the north vault. But ever afterwards, whenever the vault was opened to bury another of the family, they found the coffin wide open, and the body standing upright against the wall, and the head rolled away in a corner, smiling at it."
"As Uncle Hugh smiles?" Evelyn shivered.
"Yes, I suppose so," answered Gabriel, thoughtfully. "Of course I never saw it, and the vault has not been opened for thirty years—none of us have died since then."
Read full story here:
The Project Gutenberg eBook of Wandering Ghosts, by F. Marion Crawford.