The Waxwork is a scary short story by AM Burrage about a journalist who spends the night in a wax museum that contains dummies and mannequins of infamous murderers and serial killers that seem almost alive.
While the uniformed attendants of Marriner’s Waxworks were ushering the last stragglers through the great glass-paneled double doors, the manager sat in his office interviewing Raymond Hewson.
The manager was a youngish man, stout, blond and of medium height. He wore his clothes well and contrived to look extremely smart without appearing overdressed. Raymond Hewson looked neither. His clothes, which had been good when new and which were still carefully brushed and pressed, were beginning to show signs of their owner’s losing battle with the world. He was a small, spare, pale man, with lank, errant brown hair, and though he spoke plausibly and even forcibly, he had the defensive and somewhat furtive air of a man who was used to rebuffs. He looked what he was, a man gifted somewhat above the ordinary, who was a failure through his lack of self-assertion.
The manager was speaking.
“There is nothing new in your request,” he said. “In fact we refuse it to different peopleâ€”mostly young bloods who have tried to make bets â€” about three times a week. We have nothing to gain and something to lose by letting people spend the night in our Murderers’ Den. If I allowed it, and some young idiot lost his senses, what
would be my position? But your being a journalist somewhat alters the case.”
Hewson smiled. “I suppose you mean that journalists have no senses to lose.”
“No, no,” laughed the manager, “but one imagines them to be responsible people. Besides, here we have something to gain: publicity and advertisement.”
“Exactly,” said Hewson, “and there I thought we mighty come to terms.” The manager laughed again.
“Oh,” he exclaimed, “I know what’s coming. You want to be paid twice, do you? It used to be said years ago that Madame Tussaud’s would give a man a hundred pounds for sleeping alone in the Chamber of Horrors. I hope you don’t think that we have made any such offer. Er â€” what is your paper, Mr Hewson?”
“I am free-lancing at present”, Hewson confessed, “working on space for several papers. However, I should get no difficulty in getting the story printed. The Morning Echo would use it like a shot. ‘A Night with Marriner’s Murderers’. No live paper could turn it down.”
The manager rubbed his chin. “Ah! And how do you propose to treat it?”
“I shall make it gruesome, of course, gruesome, with just a saving touch of humor.” The other nodded and offered Hewson his cigarette case. “Very well, Mr Hewson,” he said. “Get your story printed in the Morning Echo, and there will be a five-pound note waiting for you here when you care to come and call for it. But first
of all, it’s no small ordeal that you’re proposing to undertake. I’d like to be quite sure about you, and I’d like you to be quite sure of yourself. I own I shouldn’t care to take it on. I’ve seen those figures dressed and undressed. I know all about the process of their manufacture. I can walk about in company downstairs as unmoved as if I were walking among so many skittles, but I should hate having to sleep down there alone among them.”
“Why?” asked Hewson.
“I don’t know. There isn’t any reason, I don’t believe in ghosts. If I did, I should expect them to haunt the scene of their crimes or the spot where the bodies were laid, instead of a cellar, which happens to contain their waxwork effigies. It’s just that I couldn’t sit alone among them all night, with their seeming to stare at me in the way they do. After all, they represent the lowest and most appalling types of humanity, and â€” although I would not own it publicly â€” the people who come to see them are not generally charged with the very highest motives. The whole atmosphere of the place is unpleasant, and if you are susceptible to atmosphere I warn you that you are in for a very uncomfortable night.”
Hewson had known that from the moment when the idea first occurred to him. His soul sickened at the prospect, even while he smiled casually upon the manager. But he had a wife and a family to keep, and for the past month he had been living on paragraphs, eked out by his rapidly dwindling store of savings. Here was a chance not to be missed â€” the price of a special story in the Morning Echo, with a five-pound note to add to it. It meant comparative wealth and luxury for a week, and freedom from the worst anxieties for a fortnight. Besides, if he wrote the story well, it might lead to an offer of regular employment.
“The way of transgressorsâ€” and newspaper men â€” is hard,” he said. “I have already promised myself an uncomfortable night because your Murderers’ Den is obviously not fitted up as a hotel bedroom. But I don’t think your waxworks will worry me much.”
“You’re not superstitious?”
“Not a bit,” Hewson laughed.
“But you’re a journalist; you must have a strong imagination.”
“The news editors for whom I’ve worked have always complained that I haven’t any. Plain facts are not considered
sufficient in our trade, and the papers don’t like offering their readers unbuttered bread.”
The manager smiled and rose.
“Right,” he said. “I think the last of the people have gone. Wait a moment. I’ll give orders for the figures downstairs not to be draped, and let the night people know that you’ll be here. Then I’ll take you down and show you round.”
He picked up the receiver of a house telephone, spoke into it and presently replaced it.
“One condition I ‘m afraid I must impose on you,” he remarked. “I must ask you not to smoke. We had a fire scare down in the Murderers’ Den this evening. I don’t know who gave the alarm, but whoever it was it was a false one. Fortunately, there were very few people down there at the time, or there might have been a panic. And now, if you’re ready, we’ll make a move.”
He led the way through an open barrier and down ill-lit stone stairs which conveyed a sinister impression of giving access to a dungeon. In a passage at the bottom were a few preliminary horrors, such as relics of the Inquisition, a rack taken from a medieval castle, branding irons, thumb-screws, and other mementos of man’s one-time cruelty to man. Beyond the passage was the Murderers’ Den.
It was a room of irregular shape with a vaulted roof, and dimly lit by electric lights burning behind inverted bowls of frosted glass. It was, by design, an eerie and uncomfortable chamber â€” a chamber whose atmosphere invited its visitors to speak in whispers.
The waxwork murderers stood on low pedestals with numbered tickets at their feet. Seeing them elsewhere, and without knowing whom they represented, one would have thought them a dull looking crew, chiefly remarkable for the shabbiness of their clothes, and as evidence of the changes of fashions even among the unfashionable.
The manager, walking around with Hewson pointed out several of the more interesting of these unholy notabilities.
“That’s Crippen;14 I expect you recognize him. Insignificant little beast who looks as if he couldn’t tread on a worm. And of course thisâ€””
“Who’s that?” Hewson interrupted in a whisper, pointing.
“Oh, I was coming to him,” said the manager in a light undertone. “Come and have a good look at him. This is our star turn. He’s the only one of the bunch that hasn’t been hanged.”
The figure, which Hewson had indicated, was that of a small, slight man not much more than five feet in height. It wore little waxed mustaches, large spectacles, and a caped coat. There was something so exaggeratedly French in his appearance that it reminded Hewson of a stage caricature. He could not have said precisely why the mild-looking face seemed to him so repellent, but he had already recoiled a step and, even in the manager’s company, it cost him an effort to look again.
“But who is he?” he asked.
“That,” said the manager,” is Dr. Bourdette.”
Hewson shook his head doubtfully. “I think I’ve heard the name,” he said, “but I forget in connection with what.”
The manager smiled. “You’d remember better if you were a Frenchman,” he said. “For some long while the man was the terror of Paris. He carried on his work of healing by day, and of throat-cutting by night, when the fit was on him. He killed for the sheer devilish pleasure it gave him to kill, and always in the same way â€” with a razor. After his last crime, he left a clue behind him, which set the police upon his track. One clue led to another, and before very long they knew that they were on the track of the Parisian equivalent of our Jack the Ripper,
and had enough evidence to send him to the madhouse or the guillotine on a dozen capital charges. But even then our friend here was too clever for them. When he realized that the toils were closing about him he mysteriously
disappeared,-and ever since the police of every civilized country have been looking for him.”
Hewson shuddered and fidgeted with his feet. “I don’t like him at all,” he confessed. “Ugh! What eyes he’s
“Yes, this figure’s a little masterpiece. You find the eyes bite into you? Well, that’s excellent realism, then, for Bourdette practised mesmerism, and was supposed to mesmerize his victims before dispatching them. Indeed, had he not done so, it is impossible to see how so small a man could have done his ghastly work. There were never any signs of a struggle.”
“I thought I saw him move,” said Hewson with a catch in his voice.
The manager smiled.
“You’ll have more than one optical illusion before the night’s out, I expect. You shan’t be locked in. You can come upstairs when you’ve had enough of it. There are watchmen on the premises, so you’ll find company. Don’t be alarmed if you hear them moving about. I’m sorry I can’t give you any more light, because all the lights are on. For obvious reasons we keep this place as gloomy as possible. And now I think you had better return with me to the office and have a tot of whisky before beginning your night’s vigil.”
The member of the night staff who placed the armchair for Hewson was inclined to be facetious.
“Where will you have it, sir?” he asked grinning. “Just ‘ere, so as you can have a little talk with Crippen when you’re tired of sitting still? Say where, sir.”
Hewson smiled. The man’s chaff pleased him if only because, for the moment at least, it lent the proceedings a much desired air of the commonplace.
Hewson wished the man good night. It was easier than he had expected. He wheeled the armchair â€” a heavy one upholstered in plush â€” a little way down the central gangway, and deliberately turned it so that its back was toward the effigy of Dr Bourdette. For some undefined reason he liked Dr Bourdette a great deal less than
his companions. Busying himself with arranging the chair, he was almost lighthearted, but when the attendant’s footfalls had died away and a deep hush stole over the chamber, he realized that he had no slight ordeal before him.
The dim unwavering light fell on the rows of figures, which were so uncannily like human beings that the silence and the stillness seemed unnatural and even ghastly. He missed the sound of breathing, the rustling of clothes, the hundred and one minute noises one hears when even the deepest silence has fallen upon a crowd. All was still to the gaze and silent to the ear.
“It must be like this at the bottom of the sea,” he thought, and wondered how to work the phrase into his story on the morrow.
He faced the sinister figures boldly enough. They were only waxworks. So long as he let that thought dominate all other he promised himself that all would be well. It did not, however, save him long from the discomfort occasioned by the waxen stare of Dr Bourdette, which, he knew, was directed upon him from behind. The eyes of the little Frenchman’s effigy haunted and tormented him, and he itched with the desire to turn and look. At last, Hewson slewed his chair round a little and looked behind him.
Among the many figures standing in stiff, unnatural poses, the effigy of the dreadful little doctor stood out with a queer prominence, perhaps because a steady beam of light beat straight down upon it.
“He’s only a waxwork like the rest of you,” Hewson muttered defiantly. “You’re all only waxworks.”
They were only waxworks, yes, but waxworks don’t move. Not that he had seen the least movement anywhere, but it struck him that, in the moment or two while he had looked behind him, there had been the least subtle change in the grouping of the figures in front. Crippen, for instance, seemed to have turned at least one degree to the left. Or, thought Hewson, perhaps the illusion was due to the fact that he had not slewed his chair back into its exact original position. He took a notebook from his pocket and wrote quickly.
“Mem. â€” Deathly silence and unearthly stillness of figures. Like being bottom of sea. Hypnotic eyes of Dr. Bourdette. Figures seem to move when not being watched.”
He closed the book suddenly over his fingers and looked round quickly and awfully over his right shoulder. He had neither seen nor heard a movement, but it was as if some sixth sense had made him aware of one. He looked straight into the vapid countenance of Lefroy which smiled vacantly back as if to say, “It wasn’t I!”
Of course it wasn’t he, or any of them; it was his own nerves. Or was it? Hadn’t Crippen moved again during that moment when his attention was directed elsewhere? You couldn’t trust that little man! Once you took your eyes off him he took advantage of it to shift his position. That was what they were all doing, if he only knew it, he
told himself; and half rose out of his chair. This was not quite good enough! He was going. He wasn’t going to spend the night with a lot of waxworks which moved while he wasn’t looking.
Hewson sat down again. This was very cowardly and very
absurd. They were only waxworks and they couldn’t move; let him
hold to that thought and all would yet be well. Then why all that
silent unrest about him? â€” a subtle something in the air which did
not quite break the silence and happened; whichever way he looked,
just beyond the boundaries of his vision.
He swung round quickly to encounter the mild but baleful
stare of Dr Bourdette. Then, without warning, he jerked his head
back to stare straight at Crippen. Ha! He’d nearly caught Crippen that
time! “You’d better be careful, Crippen â€” and all the rest of you! If I
do see one of you move I’ll smash you to pieces! Do you hear?”
He ought to go, he told himself. Already he had experienced
enough to write his story, or ten stories, for the matter of that. Well,
then, why not go? The Morning Echo would be none the wiser as to
how long he had stayed, nor would it care so long as his story was a
good one. Yes, but that night watchmen upstairs would chaff him.
And the manager â€” one never knew â€” perhaps the manager would
quibble over that five-pound note which he needed so badly. He
wondered if Rose were asleep or if she were lying awake and
thinking, of him. She’d laugh when he told her that he had
This was a little too much! It was bad enough that the
waxwork effigies of murderers should move when they weren’t being
watched, but it was intolerable that they should breathe. Somebody
was breathing. Or was it his own breath which sounded to him as if it
came from a distance? He sat rigid, listening and straining, until he
exhaled with a long sigh. His own breath after all, or â€” if not,
something had divined that he was listening and had ceased
â€” This would not do! This distinctly would not do! He must
clutch at something, grip with his mind upon something which
belonged essentially to the workaday world, to the daylight London
streets. He was Raymond Hewson, an unsuccessful journalist, a
living and breathing man, and these figures grouped around him
were only dummies, so they could neither move nor whisper. What
did it matter if they were supposed to be life-like effigies of
murderers? They were only made of wax and sawdust,, and stood
there for the entertainment of morbid sightseers and orange-sucking
trippers.24 That was better! Now what was that funny story which
somebody told him in the Falstaff25 yesterday?
He recalled part of it, but not all, for the gaze of Dr Bour-dette
urged, challenged, and finally compelled him to turn.
Hewson half turned, and then swung his chair so as to bring
him face to face with the wearer of those dreadful hypnotic eyes. His
own were dilated, and his mouth, at first set in a grin of terror, lifted
at the corners in a snarl. Then Hewson spoke and woke a hundred
“You moved, damn you!” he cried. “Yes, you did, damn you! I
Then he sat quite still, staring straight before him, like a man
found frozen in the Arctic snows.
Dr Bourdette’s movements were leisurely. He stepped off his
pedestal with the mincing care of a lady alighting from a bus. The
platform stood about two feet from the ground, and above the edge
of it a plush-covered rope hung in arch-like curves. Dr Bourdette
lifted up the rope until it formed an arch for him to pass under,
stepped off the platform and sat down on the edge facing Hewson.
Then he nodded and smiled and said, “Good evening.”
“I need hardly tell you,” he continued, in perfect English, in
which was traceable only the least foreign accent, “that not until I
overhead the conversation between you and the worthy manager of
this establishment, did I suspect that I should have the pleasure of a
companion here for the night. You cannot move or speak without my
bidding,26 but you can hear me perfectly well. Something tells me
that you are â€” shall I say nervous? My dear sir, have no illusions. I
am not one of these contemptible effigies miraculously come to life:
I am Dr Bourdette himself.”
He paused, coughed and shifted his legs.
“Pardon me,” he resumed, “but I am a little stiff. And let me
explain. Circumstances with which I need not fatigue you, have
made it desirable that I should live in England. I was close to this
building this evening when I saw a policeman regarding me a
thought27 too curiously. I guessed that he intended to follow and
perhaps ask me embarrassing questions, so I mingled with the crowd
and came in here. An extra coin bought my admission to the chamber
in which we now meet, and an inspiration showed me a certain
means of escape.
“I raised a cry of fire, and when all the fools had rushed to the
stairs I stripped my effigy of the caped coat which you behold me
wearing, donned it, hid my effigy under the platform at the back, and
took its place on the pedestal.
“The manager’s description of me, which I had the embarrassment
of being compelled to overhear, was biased but not
altogether inaccurate. Clearly I am not dead, although it is as well
that the world thinks otherwise. His account of my hobby, which I
have indulged for years, although, through necessity, less frequently
of late, was in the main true although not intelligently expressed. The
world is divided between collectors and non-collectors. With the
non-collectors we are not concerned. The collectors collect anything,
according to their individual tastes, from money to cigarette cards,
from moths to matchboxes. I collect throats.”
He paused again and regarded Hewson’s throat with interest
mingled with disfavor.
“I am obliged to chance which brought us together tonight,” he
continued, “and perhaps it would seem ungrateful to complain. From
motives of personal safety my activities have been somewhat
curtailed of late years, and I am glad of this opportunity of gratifying
my somewhat unusual whim. But you have a skinny neck, sir, if you
will overlook a personal remark. I should have never selected you
from choice. I like men with thick necks … thick red necks …”
He fumbled in an inside pocket and took out something which
he tested against a wet forefinger and then proceeded to pass gently
to and fro against the palm of his left hand.
“This is a little French razor,” he remarked blandly. ‘They are
not much used in England, but perhaps you know them? One strops
them on wood. The blade, you will observe, is very narrow. They do
not cut very deep, see for yourself. I shall ask you the little civil
question of all the polite barbers: Does the razor suit you, sir?”
He rose up, a diminutive but menacing figure of evil, and
approached Hewson with the silent, furtive step of a hunting panther.
“You will have the goodness,” he said, “to raise your chin a
little. Thank you, and a little more. Just a little more. Ah, thank you!
… Merci, m’sieur … Ah, merci… merci …”
Over one end of the chamber was a thick skylight of frosted
glass which, by day, let in a few sickly and filtered rays from the
floor above. After sunrise these began to mingle with the subdued
light from the electric bulbs, and this mingled illumination added a
certain ghastliness to a scene which needed no additional touch of
The waxwork figures stood apathetically in their places, waiting to be admired or execrated by the crowds who would presently wander fearfully among them. In their midst, in the center gangway, Hewson sat still, leaning far back in his armchair. His chin was uptilted as if he were waiting to receive attention from a barber, and although there was not a scratch upon his throat, nor anywhere upon his body, he was cold and dead. His previous employers were wrong in having him credited with no imagination.
Dr Bourdette on his pedestal watched the dead man unemotionally. He did not move, nor was he capable of motion. But then, after all, he was only a waxwork.