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The Ebony Box.

THERE was nothing, to the glance of a casual observer, of
the extraordinary in Colonel Hicks’ drawing-room. Fur-
nished with that absence of discriminating and elective
taste which is the recognized indication of a sober position in the
County, it was a room in which anything of the centre, anything
of essential art or manifest beauty would have struck as false a
note as anything of exuberant vulgarity. People who are given
to self-expression at all speak as plainly by those accidents of per-
sonal temperament, furniture, pictures, books, as by the conven-
tional symbols of thought; and the drawing-room of the Hick’s
was as insignificant and common-place as their language. Just,
however, as a man whose ordinary speech is the fumbled acci-
dence of childhood, will at times, with something of the inevita-
bility of chance, break out with a passionately coloured expletive,
so the drab monotony of the drawing-room at Fairholt was inter-
rupted, with a suddenness that stung, by the ebony box. The box
itself, while beautiful in a fantastic way, was not so remarkable as
its apparent effect on the room and the occupants; it seemed, in
all circumstances, to be at once both the point of rest and the
centre of conflict. In any large gathering of people, which is not
merely the disunited clutter of ordinary gossips, the unity of the
crowd gains expression in some one central person; a man of
great reputation, or of great ability, serves as a lightning-conduc-
tor for whatever of capacity there is in the company; he attracts
and emanates, elicits and bestows with the incurious potency of
the sun. At Fairholt the position thus usually taken by a person,
was the inalienable privilege of the ebony box. This was experi-
enced by the most unimaginative of callers, whose feelings in the
matter were summed up by Miss Jenkins, whose life was a
breathless game of character-making and character-taking, when
she circulated Tommy Forbes’s mot that “If the devil was not in
Colonel Hicks’ ebony box he ought to be.”

    The presumed immanence of the devil may have accounted
for Mrs Hicks’ sentiments towards the box, sentiments that had
that mixture of fascination and repulsion which arrests the reader
of mediæval witch-trials, as the most distinct mark of feminine
diabolists. Mrs Hicks was one of those women who marry firstly
for curiosity, secondly for comfort. Domestic by temperament,
she had but an undeveloped sense of the art of housekeeping, that

elaborate capacity for selection without which domesticity dribbles
away in a passion for fidgety alteration. Mrs Hicks would change
the position of a chair not because she thought it would be better
elsewhere, nor even because she was dissatisfied with its first
place, but simply because with her a distrust of permanence was
the only sign of the capable housewife. In appearance she was
pretty without being attractive, and she dressed herself inevitably
in that shade of blue that has an unwholesome affinity for pink.
It would not be true to say that she had captured Hicks as a hus-
band; but certainly when he fell into the waters of possible matri-
mony she held his head under, a fact that Hicks took care she
should remember and regret. Hicks himself was one of those
rare men whose marriage only caused a surprise to his acquain-
tances. He was not a sufferer from misogyny, that perverse
variety of nympholepsy, but a man who could be cordial to
women without committing himself, and might treat a girl very
much as he would a favourite retriever. His marriage with a
woman of May Buchanan’s type was bound to end in some kind
of grotesque tragedy.

    That foe Hicks’ treatment of May was deliberate it would
not be just to affirm. It sprang naturally, as the flame of a candle
from a lighted match, from the contact between the two tempera-
ments; the conflict between the curiosity which a woman calls
loving interest and the conceited reserve which is the basis of the
masculine idea of honour. Their honeymoon was uneventful
enough. A honeymoon is not, as the cheap satirists would have
us believe, a time of disillusion; it is not a period in which the
lover and the beloved are stripped of singular qualities, the gift of
earlier and less intimate affection. It is rather the time in which
new delusions, equal in force though different in character, are
superadded to the old. Their honeymoon was a time in which
two comparative strangers, with no kinship of blood or of associa-
tion, constructed masks with a facial resemblance to the reality,
which they agreed, validly enough, were to be the conventional
symbols of Ralph and May. At the end of his two months’ trip on
the Continent, Ralph Hicks knew his wife by rote, not by heart;
and embittered by knowledge he led her down the way of agony
and doubt.

     One afternoon, when they had not been a month settled at

                                      The Ebony Box

Fairholt, the family estate in Somerset, to which Hicks had come
back after his return from India, Ralph interrupted some of his
wife’s purring questions with ‘One moment, dear, I want to show
you something.” He went to his library and returned with an
ebony box about the size of an ordinary writing-desk. It was
elaborately and beautifully carved; in the centre of the top was an
enamel inset with the figure of an Indian god, and around it was
scroll and leaf-work. here was no key-hole to the box, nor any
obvious method of opening it; but where the key-hole should have
been was the word Taman in English letters, and this same word
was repeated on the bottom of the box, which was otherwise per-
fectly plain.

     “What a sweet box!” said May. “We must keep it here
in the drawing-room. Where did you get it, Ralph?”

    Her husband hesitated for a moment, and then began in
that style which is the invariable prelude, made by the human
man, to something exceptionally mean.

    “May, I have always been perfectly frank with you; I have,
and desire to have, no secrets from you, except the secret of that
ebony box. I can tell you nothing as to where I got it, what it
contains or what its possession implies. It is my one secret, and
I must ask you to respect it as you trust me.” Without waiting
for curious and pathetic expostulation, Ralph then left the room,
putting the box on a table.

    The passion for knowledge is difficult to analyze; but the
normal person, one may pretty safely suppose, finds his chief
pleasure in the chase not in the capture; most of us value our ex-
perience in proportion to the difficulty of acquisition. With May
it was otherwise; she collected facts just as some people collect
stamps, and would feel it a serious grievance to be deprived of a
piece of information, however unimportant, whose existence was
matter of knowledge to her. Her husband’s abrupt disclosure of
so startling a fact as this mysterious secret left her for the moment
in a condition of huddled and impotent amazement; her next
instincts, as is always the case with the weak, were towards imme-
diate and practical action; it is only those who are afraid to be
alone with an idea who seek aid in force, physical or moral. May
flew after Ralph, and mercilessly besieged him with indignant
question and protest. To all her expostulation he replied with

repeated requests for her confidence, requests the more madden-
ing because she was totally unable to explain, what she nevertheless
felt was true, why the appeal, in this case, was entirely unjustified.

    From that afternoon the ebony box began to assume at
Fairholt the position and importance which was described at
the beginning. Most of us have had the unhappy experience of
calling at a house just after some family bereavement or domestic
quarrel. A husband and wife may sit together dry-eyed and self-
controlled, talking common politeness to some casual visitor, who
nevertheless can see, after five minutes’ intercourse, that the only
thing in their minds is a subject whose interest and importance
can be measured by their avoidance of it. At first Mr Hicks’
friends were puzzled at the new atmosphere in the house. They
all felt, as Miss Jenkins said, that “Ralph and May talk to you as
if they were away and wished that you were anywhere except
with them”; but it was some months before the curious influence,
immanent in the room like some strong scent, was tracked to its
undoubted origin, the ebony box. The method of discovery was
accidental enough. At a dinner-party when the Hicks’ still gave
dinner-parties, one of the guests, a Dr Innes, picked up the box
and said to Hicks, “This is a very beautiful piece of work;
where——,” when he was interrupted by feeling Mrs Hicks look-
ing at him. He turned and saw her, oblivious of the company,
her face fixed in a hungry appeal for knowledge, pleasurably
apprehensive of the keen pain that she hoped was coming.
ith strained eyes, parted lips and short convulsive gasps, she
strained forward anticipant of the arrival of some potent passion
that would blot her body and ruin her soul; so might the Sibyl
have looked as she neared the acme of her ecstasy, or the half-
voluntary victim of some degrading drug or bestial indulgence.
Dr Innes was only saved from anxious and indiscreet inquiries by
the swift action of Ralph Hicks, who went over to his wife and,
under the pretence of conjugal attentions, changed the look on
her face into one of sheer and submissive terror. In similar cir-
cumstances, other events conspired to help Hicks in the game of
torture that he had now definitely, however indeliberately, entered
upon. He could no more help reacting upon his wife’s nervous
and terrified curiosity than the wall can Kale returning the fives’
ball; and the hand of fate was apparently very hard on Mrs Hicks.

                                      The Ebony Box

For years they lived together, a strange man with a strange woman,
their only bond to be found in the fear the husband encouraged,
the wife indulged and the box inspired. At times, in moments of
silly optimism, Mrs Hicks would once again definitely ask her
husband to tell her about the box, giving his devil’s pride one
more opportunity of irritating the wounds, to the nursing of
which she now abandoned all the shallow intensity of which
her nature was capable. More often, however, the box was as
it were the conscious background against which they played the
drama of life. If a man could be imagined carefully conscious of
the processes of breathing or motion, it would be a slight analogy
to the manner in which the ebony box entered into the lives of
May and her husband. Every remark he uttered, still more every
sentence that he checked half-way, was connected immediately to
the secret enclosed in the box, by his wife’s desperate attempts
for initiation into the mystery. In his sleep he uttered disjointed
sentences, of sufficient coherence to spur on May’s anxiety; and
the apogee of tragi-comedy was reached when she wrote to Notes
and Queries to inquire after Indian secret societies. They practi-
cally gave up seeing any of their neighbours, who were, in truth,
not a little scared by the unnatural atmosphere of the house; and
it is small wonder that the visit of Gillingham, an old friend of
Ralph’s, who had not seen him since his marriage, should
have aggravated the severe strain under which the two had
lived so long.

    When Gillingham arrived, one afternoon in September,
there was an armistice of mere weariness between Ralph and his
wife. His friend noticed some change in Hicks since his marriage,
changes that he put down, manlike, to the suffering influences of
matrimony, even accounting in that way for the furtive ingenuity
with which Ralph invested the most ordinary remarks as though
they were fraught with interior meanings. For when two people
live alone, their minds unnaturally intent on one object of thought,
one gradually learns to put into his conversation some hint of that
mystery which the other is always suspecting. So, quite apart
from direct references to the horror of his life’s secret as contained
in the ebony box, all Ralph’s spoken words seemed so arranged
as to be centripetal, so many radii that had only meaning and im-
portance as they were related to the centre. Of what that centre

was Roger Gillingham was of course entirely ignorant at first; but
his ignorance was soon to be dissipated.

    On the second evening of his visit, Gillingham and Mrs
Hicks were waiting in the drawing-room for her husband, who
had not finished dressing for dinner. Gillingham, to pass the
time, went round the room admiring the commonplace pictures in
a commonplace, genial manner, and discoursing occasionally on
one in particular with that elaborate carefulness of language of
a man more anxious to air his artistic vocabulary than to express
his appreciation, Finally his eye fell on the ebony box, and
recognizing India in its make, he took it up to pass some local
and suitable remark on it to Mrs Hicks. When he turned to her,
however, he saw she was looking not at him but at the door; her
face, a white wedge of terror, was fixed on her husband, who
stood in the doorway, on his countenance that calculated and lust-
ful cruelty that you may mark in the debased boy who will torture
a cat. The three stood then for a moment, Hicks making no
pretence to hide the joy he felt, any more than Gillingham
attempted to disguise his amazement or May her terror; the
advent of a servant, with his formula, seemed to restore things to
a more ordinary state, and Mrs Hicks fluttered out to the dining-
room, followed by her guest.

    Lack of imagination is a great source of worry. Gilling-
ham spent a good few hours of the night trying to solve the my-
stery of the scene before dinner and the heavy gloom that shrouded
the rest of the evening. At first—for he was one of those men
who are egotists, not through conviction of their own ability, but
merely through intellectual laziness, that makes them base things
on the personality that comes first to their minds—he thought
Hicks must be jealous of his wife. He soon dismissed this idea;
characteristically enough, not because of his long friendship with
Hicks, but because of May’s unattractiveness; then he worried
through most of the causes of matrimonial differences that had
impinged on his brain from the perusal of third-class novels.
After a troubled sleep, in which he eloped with May Hicks, and
her husband with the ebony box, he awoke with a cry: “Gad!
it’s to do with that black box.” He lay in bed pondering for some
time. It was getting towards half-past six, and Gillingham, full of
his clue, did not attempt to resist the temptation to get up and

                                      The Ebony Box

inspect for himself this box which had so mysterious an effect on
his old friend and his wife. It is needless to say that when Gil-
lingham arrived in the drawing-room and picked up the ebony
box he did not gain much from its inspection. He had just turned
it upside down and was going to carry it to the window to investi-
gate more carefully, when a footstep made him turn hastily, to see
Ralph Hicks coming towards him. Gillingham dropped the box
with a bang on the floor, looking and feeling, he could not explain
why, like a school-boy caught at the jam-cupboard.

    “Morning,” began Gillingham; “interesting box, that; hope
I haven’t——”

    But Hicks interrupted with a gesture and tone that was
almost melodramatic.

    “Don’t be a damned fool, Roger. You came down to look
at that box?—(“It is the box, then,” thought Gillingham.)—Well,
that box contains the secret of my life; that part of my life which
no one shall share, neither you nor May.”

    He spoke almost as if for an audience, and Gillingham,
turning from the window, saw in the doorway Mrs Hicks, with
the same look of terror as on the night before, gazing not on her
husband nor on his friend, but at the ebony box which lay on the
floor, with the cold sunlight picking out the fantastic limbs of the
god on the cover.

    After that morning Gillingham vamped up some conven-
tional excuse, and returned to his rooms in town, leaving Fairholt
to its strange monotony of perplexing horror.

            *                        *                        *                        *

    Ralph dying.  Come at once.  He wants you. — May Hicks.

    That was the telegram which, some three years after-
wards, Gillingham found lying in his rooms. Not altogether un-
willing to hear a death-bed confession, as he supposed would re-
sult from his answer to the summons, he put up a few things and
started off that afternoon for Fairholt.

    He was met at the door by Mrs Hicks. “Ralph wants to
see you about the box,” she said, her passion for knowledge cheer-
ing the sorrow she felt at her husband’s illness, for a woman never
loses all affection for a man she marries. Gillingham unconsciously
drew himself up, proud at his prospective role of confidant, and

followed Mrs Hicks to the door of the bedroom, where Hicks lay
dying of pneumonia.

    “The box, Roger,” gasped Ralph.

    “Yes?” queried Gillingham, anxious and important.

     “Get it me—you, no one else; not May.”

    A sick man must be humoured; and so Gillingham went
down to the drawing-room, murmuring his errand to Mrs Hicks
on the way, as she stood, expectant, on the landing. He returned
to the bedroom with the box, and put it into the invalid’s hands,
which let it fall, nerveless, on the bed-clothes. Gillingham,
with that irrelevant logic that attacks us at moments of emotion,
thought of the bang the box made when he had dropped it on
the floor.

    “Do you want to tell me anything, old chap?” said he
to Hicks.

    “Tell, tell? No, no,” murmured the sick man. “Where are
my keys?”

    Gillingham, who had noticed the absence of any key-hole in
the box, was startled at the request, but fetched the keys from
where they hung and gave them his friend.

    “Thanks,” said Hicks; “now go.”

    “But——,” began Gillingham.

    “Don’t chatter, but go; and you too,” he cried, turning to
the nurse. She nodded to Gillingham, and they left the sick man
to his secret in the close air of the room.

    Outside the door Mrs Hicks was still standing; she did not
attempt to disguise the fact that she had listened to all that passed
in the room. For minutes, that dragged like hours, she and
Gillingham stood side by side, waiting. On the staircase was a
cuckoo-clock, and the bird came out five minutes before the hour.
As it sounded its absurd note, Mrs Hicks said to Gillingham:
“The clock went wrong three weeks ago.”

    Just then came a cry from the room, baffled; then a loud
shout, “Not my wife, not my wife”; and then silence. Gillingham
fumbled for a few moments nervously, and then, full of his re-
sponsibility, went into the room. Ralph Hicks lay dead, with the
ebony box clasped in his arms.

    The next morning Mrs Hicks babbled to Gillingham the
story of her married life. It left him as unenlightened as

                                      The Ebony Box

before; and his practical sense propounded the immediate so-

    “Mrs Hicks, the box must be opened.”

    That afternoon, in the presence of the doctor, the vicar and
Hicks’ solicitor, the ebony box was solemnly smashed open. It
was perfectly empty.

     To us who read the story now the explanation is not diffi-
cult. Ralph’s treatment of his wife was simply a punishment,
begun perhaps in fun, of her inordinate curiosity. The box, of
course, never contained anything, nor had his life any mysterious
secrets. In time Hicks himself got obsessed by the idea of the box,
and his obsession was encouraged by the craven panic of his wife.
And so the game begun so lightly ended in grim horror. But Mrs
Hicks will never be content with the simple, true solution of the
problem; she still believes firmly in some mysterious secret, and
has even begun a course of study in Indian sociology in order to
probe it. It seems likely that, as she acquires fresh information of
this new kind, she will dose the terror that originally inspired the
secret; and so her natural stupidity may yet be victorious over the
ingenuity which played upon it so long and so mercilessly.

                                                              R. ELLIS ROBERTS

MLA citation:

Roberts, R. Ellis. “The Ebony Box.” The Venture: an Annual of Art and Literature, vol. 2, 1905, pp. 65-73. Venture Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2022. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2022,