Story of an Obstinate Corpse
by Elia W. Peattie
Virgil Hoyt is a photographer's assistant up at St. Paul, and
enjoys his work without being consumed by it. He has been in search of
the picturesque all over the West and hundreds of miles to the north,
in Canada, and can speak three or four Indian dialects and put a canoe
through the rapids. That is to say, he is a man of adventure, and no
dreamer. He can fight well and shoot better, and swim so as to put up
a winning race with the Indian boys, and he can sit in the saddle all
day and not worry about it to-morrow.
Wherever he goes, he carries a camera.
"The world," Hoyt is in the habit of saying to those who sit with
him when he smokes his pipe, "was created in six days to be
photographed. Man — and particularly woman — was made for the same
purpose. Clouds are not made to give moisture nor trees to cast shade.
They have been created in order to give the camera obscura something
In short, Virgil Hoyt's view of the world is whimsical, and he
likes to be bothered neither with the disagreeable nor the mysterious.
That is the reason he loathes and detests going to a house of mourning
to photograph a corpse. The bad taste of it offends him, but above all,
he doesn't like the necessity of shouldering, even for a few moments,
a part of the burden of sorrow which belongs to some one else. He
dislikes sorrow, and would willingly canoe five hundred miles up the
cold Canadian rivers to get rid of it. Nevertheless, as assistant
photographer, it is often his duty to do this very kind of thing.
Not long ago he was sent for by a rich Jewish family to photograph
the remains of the mother, who had just died. He was put out, but he
was only an assistant, and he went. He was taken to the front parlor,
where the dead woman lay in her coffin. It was evident to him that
there was some excitement in the household, and that a discussion was
going on. But Hoyt said to himself that it didn't concern him, and he
therefore paid no attention to it.
The daughter wanted the coffin turned on end in order that the
corpse might face the camera properly, but Hoyt said he could overcome
the recumbent attitude and make it appear that the face was taken in
the position it would naturally hold in life, and so they went out and
left him alone with the dead.
The face of the deceased was a strong and positive one, such as may
often be seen among Jewish matrons. Hoyt regarded it with some
admiration, thinking to himself that she was a woman who had known
what she wanted, and who, once having made up her mind, would prove
immovable. Such a character appealed to Hoyt. He reflected that he
might have married if only he could have found a woman with strength
of character sufficient to disagree with him. There was a strand of
hair out of place on the dead woman's brow, and he gently pushed it
back. A bud lifted its head too high from among the roses on her
breast and spoiled the contour of the chin, so he broke it off. He
remembered these things later with keen distinctness, and that his hand
touched her chill face two or three times in the making of his
Then he took the impression, and left the house.
He was busy at the time with some railroad work, and several days
passed before he found opportunity to develop the plates. He took them
from the bath in which they had lain with a number of others, and went
energetically to work upon them, whistling some very saucy songs he
had learned of the guide in the Red River country, and trying to forget
that the face which was.presently to appear was that of a dead woman.
He had used three plates as a precaution against accident, and they
came up well. But as they developed, he became aware of the existence
of something in the photograph which had not been apparent to his eye
in the subject. He was irritated, and without attempting to face the
mystery, he made a few prints and laid them aside, ardently hoping
that by some chance they would never be called for.
However, as luck would have it, — and Hoyt's luck never had been
good, — his employer asked one day what had become of those
photographs. Hoyt tried to evade making an answer, but the effort was
futile, and he had to get out the finished prints and exhibit them. The
older man sat staring at them a long time.
"Hoyt," he said, "you're a young man, and very likely you have
never seen anything like this before. But I have. Not exactly the same
thing, perhaps, but similar phenomena have come my way a number of
times since I went in the business, and I want to tell you there are
things in heaven and earth not dreamt of —"
"Oh, I know all that tommy-rot," cried Hoyt, angrily, "but when
anything happens I want to know the reason why and how it is done."
"All right," answered his employer, "then you might explain why and
how the sun rises."
But he humored the young man sufficiently to examine with him the
baths in which the plates were submerged, and the plates themselves.
All was as it should be; but the mystery was there, and could not be
done away with.
Hoyt hoped against hope that the friends of the dead woman would
somehow forget about the photographs; but the idea was unreasonable,
and one day, as a matter of course, the daughter appeared and asked to
see the pictures of her mother.
"Well, to tell the truth," stammered Hoyt, "they didn't come out
quite — quite as well as we could wish."
"But let me see them," persisted the lady. "I'd like to look at
"Well, now," said Hoyt, trying to be soothing, as he believed it
was always best to be with women, — to tell the truth he was an
ignoramus where women were concerned, — "I think it would be better
if you didn't look at them. There are reasons why —" he ambled on like
this, stupid man that he was, till the lady naturally insisted upon
seeing the pictures without a moment's delay.
So poor Hoyt brought them out and placed them in her hand, and then
ran for the water pitcher, and had to be at the bother of bathing her
forehead to keep her from fainting.
For what the lady saw was this: Over face and flowers and the head
of the coffin fell a thick veil, the edges of which touched the floor
in some places. It covered the features so well that not a hint of
them was visible.
"There was nothing over mother's face!" cried the lady at length.
"Not a thing," acquiesced Hoyt. "I know, because I had occasion to
touch her face just before I took the picture. I put some of her hair
back from her brow."
"What does it mean, then?" asked the lady.
"You know better than I. There is no explanation in science.
Perhaps there is some in — in psychology."
"Well," said the young woman, stammering a little and coloring,
"mother was a good woman, but she always wanted her own way, and she
always had it, too."
"And she never would have her picture taken. She didn't admire her
own appearance. She said no one should ever see a picture of
her."."So?" said Hoyt, meditatively. "Well, she's kept her word, hasn't
The two stood looking at the photographs for a time. Then Hoyt
pointed to the open blaze in the grate.
"Throw them in," he commanded. "Don't let your father see them —
don't keep them yourself.
They wouldn't be agreeable things to keep."
"That's true enough," admitted the lady. And she threw them in the
fire. Then Virgil Hoyt brought out the plates and broke them before
And that was the end of it — except that Hoyt sometimes tells the
story to those who sit beside him when his pipe is lighted.