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    The Story of a Skull

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    Chapter 26
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    A quarter of a century ago there were still to be seen in the outer
    suburbs of London many good old roomy houses, standing in their own
    ample and occasionally park-like grounds, which have now ceased to
    exist. They were old manor-houses, mostly of the Georgian period, some
    earlier, and some, too, were fine large farmhouses which a century or
    more ago had been turned into private residences of city merchants and
    other persons of means. Any middle-aged Londoner can recall a house or
    perhaps several houses of this description, and in one of those that
    were best known to me I met with the skull, the story of which I wish
    to tell.

    It was a very old-looking, long, low red-brick building, with a
    verandah in front, and being well within the grounds, sheltered by old
    oak, elm, ash and beech trees, could hardly be seen from the road. The
    lawns and gardens were large, and behind them were two good-sized grass
    fields. Within the domain one had the feeling that he was far away in
    the country in one of its haunts of ancient peace, and yet all round
    it, outside of its old hedges and rows of elms, the ground had been
    built over, mostly with good-sized brick houses standing in their own
    gardens. It was a favourite suburb with well-to-do persons in the city,
    rents were high and the builders had long been coveting and trying to
    get possession of all this land which was "doing no good," in a
    district where haunts of ancients peace were distinctly out of place
    and not wanted. But the owner (aged ninety-eight) refused to sell.

    Not only the builders, but his own sons and sons' sons had represented
    to him that the rent he was getting for this property was nothing but
    an old song compared to what it would bring in, if he would let it on a
    long building lease. There was room there for thirty or forty good
    houses with big gardens. And his answer invariably was: "It shan't be
    touched! I was born in that house, and though I'm too old ever to go
    and see it again, it must not be pulled down--not a brick of it, not a
    tree cut, while I'm alive. When I'm gone you can do what you like,
    because then I shan't know what you are doing."

    My friends and relations, who were in occupation of the house, and
    loved it, hoped that he would go on living many, many years: but alas!
    the visit of the feared dark angel was to them and not to the old
    owner, who was perhaps "too old to die"; the dear lady of the house and
    its head was taken away and the family broken up, and from that day to
    this I have never ventured to revisit that sweet spot, nor sought to
    know what has been done to it.

    At that time it used to be my week-end home, and on one of my early
    visits I noticed the skull of an animal nailed to the wall about a yard
    above the stable door. It was too high to be properly seen without
    getting a ladder, and when the gardener told me that it was a bulldog's
    skull, I thought no more about it.

    One day, several months later, I took a long look at it and got the
    idea that it was not a bulldog's skull--that it was more like the skull
    of a human being of a very low type. I then asked my hostess to let me
    have it, and she said, "Yes, certainly, take it if you want it." Then
    she added, "But what in the world do you want that horrid old skull
    for?" I said I wanted to find out what it was, and then she told me
    that it was a bulldog's skull--the gardener had told her. I replied
    that I did not think so, that it looked to me more like the skull of a
    cave-man who had inhabited those parts half a million years ago,
    perhaps. This speech troubled her very much, for she was a religious
    woman, and it pained her to hear unorthodox statements about the age of
    man on the earth. She said that I could not have the skull, that it was
    dreadful to her to hear me say it might be a human skull; that she
    would order the gardener to take it down and bury it somewhere in the
    grounds at a distance from the house. Until that was done she would not
    go near the stables--it would be like a nightmare to see that dreadful
    head on the wall. I said I would remove it immediately; it was mine, as
    she had given it to me, and it was not a man's skull at all--I was only
    joking, so that she need not have any qualms about it.

    That pacified her, and I took down the old skull, which looked more
    dreadful than ever when I climbed up to it, for though the dome of it
    was bleached white, the huge eye cavities and mouth were black and
    filled with old black mould and dead moss. Doubtless it had been very
    many years in that place, as the long nails used in fastening it there
    were eaten up with rust.

    When I got back to London the box with the skull in it was put away in
    my book-room, and rested there forgotten for two or three years. Then
    one day I was talking on natural history subjects to my publisher, and
    he told me that his son, just returned from Oxford, had developed a
    keen interest in osteology and was making a collection of mammalian
    skulls from the whale and elephant and hippopotamus to the harvest-
    mouse and lesser shrew. This reminded me of the long-forgotten skull,
    and I told him I had something to send him for his boy's collection,
    but before sending it I would find out what it was. Accordingly I sent
    the skull to Mr. Frank E. Beddard, the prosector of the Zoological
    Society, asking him to tell me what it was. His reply was that it was
    the skull of an adult gorilla--a fine large specimen.

    It was then sent on to the young collector of skulls--who will, alas!
    collect no more, having now given his life to his country. It saddened
    me a little to part with it, certainly not because it was a pretty
    object to possess, but only because that bleached dome beneath which
    brains were once housed, and those huge black cavities which were once
    the windows of a strange soul, and that mouth that once had a fleshy
    tongue that youled and clicked in an unknown language could not tell me
    its own life-and-death history from the time of its birth in the
    African forest to its final translation to a wall over a stable door in
    an old house near London.

    There are now several writers on animals who are not exactly
    naturalists, nor yet mere fictionists, but who, to a considerable
    knowledge of animal psychology and extraordinary sympathy with all
    wildness, unite an imaginative insight which reveals to them much of
    the inner, the mind life of brutes. No doubt the greatest of these is
    Charles Roberts, the Canadian, and I only wish it had been he who had
    discovered the old gorilla skull above the stable door, and that the
    incident had fired the creative brain which gave us _Red Fox_ and
    many another wonderful biography.

    Now here is an odd coincidence. After writing the skull story it came
    into my head to relate it to a lady I was dining with, and I also told
    her of my intention of putting it in this book of Little Things. She
    said it was funny that she too had a story of a skull which she had
    thought of telling in her volume of Little Things; but no, she would
    not venture to do so, although it was a better story than mine.

    She was good enough to let me hear it, and as it is not to appear
    elsewhere I can't resist the temptation of bringing it in here.

    On her return to Europe after travelling and residing for some years in
    the Far East, she established herself in Paris and proceeded to
    decorate her apartment with some of the wonderful rich and rare objects
    she had collected in outlandish parts. Gorgeous fabrics, embroideries,
    pottery, metal and woodwork, and along with these products of an
    ancient civilisation, others of rude or primitive tribes, quaint
    headgear and plumes, strings and ropes of beads, worn as garments
    by people who run wild in woods, with arrows, spears and other
    weapons. These last were arranged in the form of a wheel over the
    entrance, with the bleached and polished skull of an orang-utan in the
    centre. It was a very perfect skull, with all the formidable teeth
    intact and highly effective.

    She lived happily for some months in her apartment and was very popular
    in Parisian society and visited by many distinguished people, who all
    greatly admired her Eastern decorations, especially the skull, before
    which they would stand expressing their delight with fervent
    exclamations.

    One day when on a visit at a friend's house, her host brought up a
    gentleman who wished to be introduced to her. He made himself extremely
    agreeable, but was a little too effusive with his complimentary
    speeches, telling her how delighted he was to meet her, and how much he
    had been wishing for that honour.

    After hearing this two or three times she turned on him and asked him
    in the directest way why he had wished to see her so very much; then,
    anticipating that the answer would be that it was because of what he
    had heard of her charm, her linguistic, musical and various other
    accomplishments, and so on, she made ready to administer a nice little
    snub, when he made this very unexpected reply:

    "O madame, how can you ask? You must know we all admire you because you
    are the only person in all Paris who has the courage and originality to
    decorate her _salon_ with a human skull."
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    Chapter 26
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