As recorded on February 3, 1964 by Maggie Henith
I’m a busybody … or so I’ve heard. You can’t really keep that report a secret from the neighborhood busybody, now can you?
I love hearing everyone’s news, good and bad. Over the years there has been only one story I wish my ears never heard. Ironically, it is also the one story that I kept secret. I was already the busybody. I was determined not to be the town lunatic.
The doctors say I’m really dying this time. As such, I have decided to write the story of the Cahills down. Maybe the tale will help explain why the house sits empty to this very day.
Time is funny. Sometimes minutes seem like hours, and a lifetime passes in the blink of an eye. I cannot remember if it was only seconds or closer to an hour until she bolted again from the house. Suddenly, she was there, white as summer linen, racing toward my porch in the still twilight.
Marie’s mouth moved rapidly but no words came out.
“Marie!” I exclaimed, chills creeping up my arms despite the warm evening. “What? What’s happened?”
She seemed almost outside of her mind and ready to jump out of her skin. I forced her into a chair and tried to get her to drink some of my lemonade.
“What, Marie?” I asked frantically. “You must speak so I can help.”
I will never forget the horror in Marie’s eyes as she told me in broken sentences of the days leading up to her husband’s death and of her deception.
On the night of June 6, 1943, Robert A. Cahill and his wife Marie were alone in their expansive house.
“My dear, Marie,” Robert Cahill’s hand shook as he reached for his wife’s.
“Yes, dear?” Marie responded, her fingers busy with her knitting, her eyes counting stiches.
This had become their life. Robert, his health ailing considerably, remained on forced bed rest. Only one bout of fresh air each day, the doctor cautioned Marie strictly only a fortnight ago. For Robert, the doctor’s words came as a death knell. He lived for the open air and never stayed long within four walls. He felt restless and constricted indoors.
Although born into wealth as the son of Robert A. Cahill Sr., young Robert could not resist the call of the sea and left home to join the navy. Robert did not return to his family for some time. He moved up the ranks and became captain of his own vessel. A war injury brought about an early retirement with full honors.
In celebration of his son’s return and his decorated military service, the elder Robert hosted a grand event. It would be that fateful night when Robert would fall in love with Marie Sterling.
Marie and her only sister needed to marry well. The once respected Sterling estate remained only a façade. Mr. Sterling had long ago gambled away the family fortune. Marie fervently promised herself many nights as she cried into her pillow, that she would not marry an unsteady man for love as her late mother had done. She would find a respectable man whose honor opposed the very thought of gambling.
Marie’s and Robert’s courtship was short, the wedding ceremony planned and promptly executed, and the bride and groom settled into their home, to all the world a happy couple.
Robert and Marie found themselves unable to have children. With no little ones to spoil, Robert spent his time and fortune indulging his bride. Robert loved Marie. She was beautiful and when, for her purposes, she needed to be charming, her wit and grace were delightful. Robert strove daily to provide her every comfort and keep her happy. That is, up until a year ago when Robert’s age coupled with the injury he experienced during military service, took their toll and Robert’s health began to fail.
Now they spent their evenings in Robert’s room. Marie knitting, Robert lying in bed with the comforter pulled up, reminiscing at intervals about the sea.
The weakened hand Robert held toward his wife dropped to his side. His voice grew thin as if coming from far away, “There … is one thing I would like.”
“Yes, Robert?” Marie began a new row .
“To return to the sea.”
Marie looked up from her work quickly, her confusion apparent.
“You can’t, Robert … the Doctor said …”
“No, my dear,” Robert stared at her intently, desperate to relay his message. “I want you to spread my ashes on the North Atlantic.”
Although dimmed with time, Robert’s eyes held again the spark of his youth as he spoke. He waited anxiously for Marie’s response. His request was one of the few he had uttered in their marriage.
“I know the trip would be long for you … and that you have never sailed … but …” Robert’s voice faltered. “It would mean so much to me to be finally back at sea.”
Marie looked down at her knitting and began feverishly looping stiches. Quickly, her mind calculated the cost of an Atlantic voyage. Visions of her father at the card table, a raucous group of drunken men around him, played in her mind. Like father’s gambling, an expensive trip to sea only to scatter Robert’s ashes would be equal to throwing money over board.
Moments passed before she returned her husband’s steady gaze. She knew too well that if she showed her displeasure long enough, her devoted husband’s will would break. How many times had she succeeded in controlling him throughout their marriage?
At her hesitance, Robert pressed, “John Barkley assured me that when the time comes he will be at your assistance if you need help arranging the trip.”
“You spoke with the lawyer about this?”
“A year ago, when he and I prepared my will.”
Silence invaded the room almost as if it too sat personified at Robert’s bedside. Marie’s pulse beat rapidly. If Robert had spoken with John Barkley, there remained little she could do.
“Yes … yes, Robert. I’ll go. ”
With his mind at ease, Robert soon drifted off to sleep. The room fell quiet except for the click-click of Marie’s needles.
Four days later, Robert A. Cahill Jr. died. A modest service took place, mourners came, and Marie made her plans for departure. She refused Mr. Barkley’s help. He could not know there would be no boat ticket.
Marie planned to visit her sister for several weeks. To everyone else, it would appear that with heavy heart she departed on a voyage to disperse her late husband’s ashes.
I still remember seeing Marie Cahill leave her home. It was 3 o’clock on a sunny afternoon. I sat enjoying my afternoon tea as I always do by the study window where I can see the comings and goings along the street. She wore a charcoal gray dress befitting a state of mourning and clutched the alabaster urn to her chest.
Three weeks passed before I saw Marie again. Twilight was once my favorite time of the day. Shadows and light seem to play a tug-of-war until at last, the day always succumbs to sleep. I used to sit on my front porch watching the lights begin to flicker on in the houses along the street.
Marie’s car pulled slowly into her drive. As she made her way up her walk, I decided not to greet her. She must be tired and grieving. There would be time, I thought, to hear of her journey on the Atlantic. Just then, the ice settled in my lemonade. The sound echoed in the still evening air. Marie turned quickly to find the source of the noise. I raised my hand in greeting but still hesitated to intrude. I received a small wave back, but Marie continued up her front steps and into the house.
Like I said, time is funny. My mind struggles to recollect just how much time passed between when I heard the Cahill’s door click shut through the evening hush to when Marie stumbled up my front porch.
Then, suddenly, she was there, standing before me, panic-stricken and inconsolable; confessing to me the story of the old iron box.
Robert A. Cahill would never return to sea, I discovered from her broken sentences. The trip to the Atlantic would cost a pretty penny … her penny … pennies adding up to the fortune she married Robert to obtain.
Marie never planned to honor her husband’s last request. Instead, she descended into the basement of their home on the night before her departure. Even the servants rarely traversed into the dank depths of the decaying cellar. Marie treaded carefully through the dimly lit corridor, making her way into the old boiler room. Pipes covered the walls and ceiling, hissing and bubbling like a den of snakes. Far back, directly behind the hot boiler, a maze of small pipes coiled almost disguising an iron soot box from sight. The boiler had been converted to electric power almost a decade ago. No servant was needed to fuel the boiler with costly coal or empty the soot into the iron box. That had saved a sum of money; Marie comforted herself as she reached with shaking hand to open the small latch.
Her hardened heart beat faster despite itself for what she was about to do. The hinges shrieked in protest as Marie opened the archaic box. The metallic cry hastened the wretched deed. Ruthlessly, she shook the urn’s contents into the mouth of the small iron box. With the pipes hissing around her like angry souls goading her on, the last bits of Robert’s remains slid into the hidden recesses among the age old soot. Frantic to leave the cellar, Marie shut the iron box back tight and retreated with haste, hopeful perhaps that her conscience would be that easy to confine.
When her story ended, I remained speechless. Marie’s eyes darted towards her house as if afraid of something there. Her entire body racked with convulsions and again her lips moved wordlessly.
“Marie, what? Why are you so frightened?” the words fell reluctantly from my mouth.
“He- he …is there …” her voice came in a hoarse whisper as she pointed to her house.
“His ashes? Still in the box?”
Marie turned slowly to stare at me; terror drew deep lines in her brow.
“He… he’s not in the box,” she muttered, shaking her head. “He got out.”
An unknown fear gripped my heart. I could not speak. I could not comfort. I only stared back. Marie continued to shake her head, muttering.
Suddenly, she grew still. Her eyes widened and a renewed fear swept across her face. A choked scream escaped from her lips and she ran.