Butler’s Pantry — 1918
The house was finally dark and quiet. The machine-gun-rat-a-tat of the clerk’s typewriter was at long last stilled. Captain Blackwell stared at the sheet of paper before him.
“18 August, 1918
“My dear Mrs. Culbertson,
“It is with heavy heart that I must inform you of the death of Private John William Culbertson today of the influenza. Pvt. Culbertson was….”
Was what? Blackwell had barely known the lad.
There was a brisk rap on the door. Blackwell turned to espy Mrs. Lowell, the manor’s housekeeper, holding a tray with tea and a few sandwiches.
“I thought you might want some refreshment, Captain, seeing how you’re working so hard and so late.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Lowell. Thank you.”
“And is everything to your satisfaction?” Mrs. Lowell asked as she set out the tray. “You have everything you need?”
“Yes, quite. It’s very generous of the family to allow us to use their house as an infirmary.”
“Yes, well, it’s hardly used this time of year. Most of the family is at the seaside. Only Miz Penelope and a few servants here now. That’s how we were able to offer you the butler’s pantry for your office; Henderson is with the family, and I’m staying here to give the house a good going over. Henderson manages the entire household from this room.”
“Those brave boys of yours. Are they getting better?”
Blackwell sighed and sipped his tea. “I’m afraid I lost one this evening. I was just writing to his mother.”
Mrs. Lowell looked wide-eyed at the trim officer. “Lost one? You mean he died?”
“Well, he wasn’t lost in the laundry.” Blackwell grimaced. “Sorry. Being a doctor in the Army is liable to give one quite the gallows humor.”
“Oh dear, oh dear.”
“Still, I have high hopes for the others we have on sick call. Once they were taken away from the camps, that is. The facilities and sanitation down there are completely inadequate, but the Army has had to muster so many, so quickly, for service in Europe. Unfortunately it’s a breeding ground for disease. But do not distress yourself, Mrs. Lowell. You and everyone else in the house is, I am certain, perfectly safe.”
“It’s not that. It’s just that I must go and tell Miz Penelope, straight away. She’ll want to know. She’s very… particular… about people dying in this house.”
“I’ve already made the arrangements, Mrs. Lowell. Private Culbertson will be leaving us tomorrow to return to the bosom of his family. You don’t need to lift a finger.”
“It’s not that at all, Captain! It’s just that… I am certain that Miz Penelope will insist that the young man be buried here, in the family plot. It’s a tradition, of sorts, that the family has. Any guest of the house who goes to their reward whilst here is also laid to rest here.”
“Thank you again, Mrs. Lowell, but as I have said, I have already made arrangements to return Culbertson to his family. It will be handled discreetly, I assure you. Miz Penelope need not be bothered at all.”
“Yes, well… “ Mrs. Lowell began tidying away the tea tray. “If there’s nothing else, Captain?”
“Thank you very much for the sandwiches, Mrs. Lowell. They are greatly appreciated.” She smiled tightly at him and scurried away.
Blackwell had just returned to the pantry from one final round among the half-dozen young men lying ill in the makeshift infirmary, and was considering turning in for the night when he became aware of a dark figure looming in the doorway.
“Captain Blackwell, I must speak with you.”
Blackwell had met Miz Penelope when he and his men had arrived at the house. She was a tall, thin woman with iron-gray hair and an iron-gray disposition, dressed in a long dress of rusty black. A great-aunt of the Worthington family, he was led to understand, she had been widowed several decades earlier and had become a devotee of Spiritualism as a result. Blackwell considered himself a man of science, above such poppycock.
“How may I help you, Miz Penelope?”
“The young man who has died, Captain. I wish him buried here on the grounds of Straeon Manor.”
“I’m terribly sorry, ma’am, but I am afraid that won’t be possible. As I explained to Mrs. Lowell…”
“You don’t understand,” she cut him off brusquely. “The Private must be buried here. It is imperative that he be buried here, to prevent him from rising.”
“The dead have an existence beyond death, Captain.”
“Miz Penelope, while I am fully cognizant of Spiritualism and its tenants, I am a scientist. Your table-rapping philosophy carries no water with me. I have the Private’s family to consider, not to mention several volumes of Army regulations. I am afraid that there is nothing to discuss.”
Miz Penelope stared at him with deep-set, glowing eyes. “The dead will walk, Captain, if not properly laid to rest.”
“Which his family and the United States of America will see to. Thank you, Ma’am. It is late and I perceive that you are tired; perhaps you would like to retire now.” He held the door open for her in a pointed manner.
“The dead will walk, Captain! I have warned you!” the old lady hissed as she stalked past him into the corridor.
“Telegram for you, Captain,” the orderly said, proffering the yellow envelope. “And they’re sending us five more patients from the camp. I’ll get their beds arranged, shall I?”
WHAT ARE YOU PLAYING AT STOP JOHN CULBERTSON NOT DEAD STOP YOU SENT GRAVELY ILL PATIENT HOME IN WOODEN BOX STOP FAMILY IN HYSTERICS STOP WILL BE LODGING STRONGEST PROTEST WITH DEPARTMENT OF ARMY STOP YOU SHOULD BE HORSEWHIPPED STOP DR P. J. WALLACE END
Blackwell stared at the telegram. What? He had declared Culbertson’s death himself! There was no heartbeat, no respiration. The body had been ice cold within hours. This had to be a joke!
He sent a rather stiff reply.
YOU THINK I AM JOKING STOP CULBERTSON LIVE AND MOVING ABOUT STOP RAVING DELIRIOUS HYPOTHERMIC COLOR TERRIBLE BUT DEFINITELY NOT DEAD STOP YOUR DIAGNOSIS WRONG CANNOT BE SPANISH INFLUENZA STOP ILL SEE YOU IN JAIL FOR THIS STOP DR P. J. WALLACE END
DR I HAVE FOURTEEN PATIENTS WITH SPANISH FLU AT THIS TIME STOP I KNOW FLU WHEN I SEE IT STOP CULBERTSON THE FIRST OF SEVERAL THREE OTHERS HAVE DIED SINCE STOP WHAT YOU RELATE IMPOSSIBLE STOP CAPT S. BLACKWELL MD END
HAVE ALSO SEEN MY SHARE OF INFLUENZA STOP MOST INTERESTING DEVELOPMENT OF DISEASE STOP CULBERTSON STILL NOT LUCID STOP UNDER CARE OF MOTHER AND SISTER STOP WILL APPRISE OF DEVELOPMENTS STOP DR P. J. WALLACE END
PLEASE DO SO STOP HAVE HANDS FULL HERE STOP MORE FLU PATIENTS ARRIVING FROM TRAINING CAMPS DAILY STOP DEATHS DAILY STOP CANNOT AT PRESENT MAKE TRIP TO ALLENDALE TO SEE CULBERTSON STOP CAPT S. BLACKWELL MD END
“I warned you,” Miz Penelope hissed at him. “The dead walk! They must be put to rest properly!” She shoved a newspaper into Blackwell’s face and he looked blearily at the headline. “Soldiers Returning From Army Camps Live In Coffins.” The story beneath claimed that at least three soldiers— and Blackwell gasped, recognizing the names— had been placed on trains in coffins and returned to their families as if they were dead, when in fact they were merely extremely ill. The editor of the paper alternated between castigating the Army for its callow-heartedness and lauding the families who struggled with the shock of finding their loved ones still alive— one was even discovered only as dirt was being thrown into his grave.
Blackstone sunk into his chair. What was going on? His normally well-ordered life was falling apart about him.
“No more!” the old lady declared. “No more will leave this house! You will bury them properly in our graveyard, as you should have done from the start! Else whatever happens is your fault; you will be made to answer for it!”
ALAS CULBERTSON DEAD STOP RAVING ATTACKED MOTHER TRIED TO BITE HER STOP COULD NOT BE PULLED AWAY STOP SISTER KILLED HIM WITH AXE STOP AM COMING TO YOU WITH BODY FOR AUTOPSY STOP DR P. J. WALLACE END
The body, what there was left of it, was a ghastly sight. Still clad in a bloody night shirt, Culbertson’s skin was a leprous gray-green color. Part of the skull was missing, hacked away by a frantic sister. The expression on what was left of his face was animalistic.
Blackwell and Wallace worked silently, incising; removing, examining, and recording organs; speaking only to comment on some new and surprising discovery. The flesh was necrotic all the way through; if Blackwell hadn’t the testimony of the doctor working beside him, he would have adjudged that the body had been dead for three days. Had died, in fact, the very evening Blackwell declared it dead.
Afterwards, over very large glasses of very fine brandy from the manor’s excellent cellars, the two doctors talked long into the night. They could not believe what they had seen, but they could not deny the evidence of their own eyes, either. They also had both read the newspaper stories about the other soldiers, each of whom had died in this very infirmary, who were also reported ill and raving and menacing their families. Their conclusions were inescapable. The dead of Straeon Manor were walking
“The old lady who lives in this house tried to warn me,” Blackwell admitted, his resistance worn utterly away. “She said they would walk unless buried in the family plot. She is,” he slurred half with drunkenness and half with fatigue, “a very formidable old lady. I think now I do not dare disbelieve her.”
“Shame for the families, though, to have their sons buried away from them.”
“This damn disease spreads so quickly, so many are dying, that I can order burials with all expediency for the sake of public health. The Army regulations allow me, as senior medical officer in the battalion, to do so. I think I shall. I also think I shall remove the infirmary and my sick men elsewhere as quickly as I can.”
The family plot at Straeon Manor is a lofty field on the brow of a windswept field. Even now you can visit, and see twenty-seven white crosses, arranged in rows with military precision, each one adorned with the name and rank of a soldier of the United States Army. Each one bearing the same date: August 1918.