The Oblong Box
by Edgar Allan Poe
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 state-room.
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
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 purely ideal.
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
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,
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
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
"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
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.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~