Here to return to
IN a note at the end of Chapter V. of “Waverley,” Sir Walter Scott remarks: — “These introductory chapters have been a good deal censured as tedious and unnecessary. Yet there are circumstances recorded in them which the author has not been able to persuade himself to retract or cancel.” So if, in giving certain loose hints rather than sketches of characters and manners in a very interesting town, ardently beloved by all who have ever had any near connection with it, during a former generation of its inhabitants, I should be thought to have set down too many “unconsidered trifles,” I can only shelter myself under the shadow of his great name, and plead that I had not the heart to leave them out, as they occurred to my memory while writing; and however they may lack, as they necessarily must, the storied value of Sir Walter’s fascinating fictions, they have at least this merit, — that every narrative and anecdote in these pages is a veritable fact.
I should not wonder, however, if a couple of stories or so, which I am about to relate, were looked upon as purely fictitious by the philosophical reader. I do not pretend that the facts stated were within my own experience, only that I positively heard them related by persons of the strictest veracity, who were actual observers or actors in the transactions of which they professed to give an account. People ridicule, nowadays, when in company, the superstitions of earlier times; though it is not unlikely that the nerves of some of the boldest contemners of marvellous manifestations, once universally accepted as true, might still tremble, if alone and under circumstances calculated to awaken apprehension and to puzzle the understanding. Notwithstanding the accepted theory, that the very pretence of witchcraft, for example, was exploded a hundred and fifty years ago, and the idea of an apparition, in spite of Dr. Johnson’s belief, and that of others as wise and stout as he, would be scouted as preposterous in cultivated circles, I believe that there are many places in New England where undoubting faith in both superstitions still prevails, and I know that within a third part of the period above mentioned, very many creditable persons in a certain place in New England accepted the strangest occurrences of both kinds, upon the supposed evidence of their sober senses.
We will imagine, then, that we are sitting in a circle around the fire-place in Uncle Richard’s spacious kitchen, on the evening of Christmas-day, the room lighted only by the blazing logs upon the hearth, the glow of which glanced along the walls and drew brilliant reflections from the brightly‑scoured dishes and other utensils of metal, which stood ranged upon the shelves. We were quite a party, and had made merry, according to our fashion, during the day. Uncle Richard was himself the most conspicuous of the group. I have said that he was well-to-do, and he was certainly a gentleman in spirit and bearing. The black dress which he assumed on Sundays, and other occasions of public importance, set off his figure well, and his white hair gathered into a pig-tail behind and tied up with a ribbon by some one of his daughters, of a morning, gave him a venerable appearance, at least in the eyes of us youngsters, beyond what the actual number of his years warranted. For I have observed that those who may have seemed to us approaching the verge of old age, in our youth, begin to look almost like coevals again, as we ourselves have advanced in the stage of manhood. Aunt Judith, on the other hand, who was a maiden lady of a certain age, was dressed with all the care and neatness which somewhat scanty means enabled her to apply, and, as I am about to produce her as a witness, I feel it incumbent upon me to asseverate, that, being a devoutly religious woman, I have never met in my life with a more conscientious and scrupulously truth-telling person. After tea, my uncle had requested the young people present to sing a new Christmas Hymn, not to be found in the Prayer Book, but the production of a devout poetical acquaintance, in the performance of which he joined with a bass voice of singular compass and melody.
So the high song addressed the simple swains;THE CHRISTMAS HYMN.
“The gates of life again
The conversation, at such times, is very apt to run into story-telling, among those who have any stores of memory, or are possessed of inventive faculties, and often turns upon such inexplicable incidents as might well bewilder the imaginations of simple country folks. My uncle gave us an account of a lad not long before in his employ, who laughed at the idea of supernatural appearances, and was indeed afraid of nothing. “The young scamp,” said he, “though I don’t know why I should call him so, for he was as honest as he was bold, — appeared so thoroughly fearless, that it sometimes looked like mere bravado (I am afraid he pronounced it brave-ardor); and a companion who also lived with us resolved to put his courage to the test. Accordingly, at dusk one evening, when Jack was about to lead the horse to the pasture, he provided himself with a sheet, and placed himself on one end of the crossbeam which rested on the rather high posts of the gate. Jack came whistling along, leading the horse, and, opening the gate, slipping off the halter, gave the animal a slap with it; and as he shut the gate cocked up his eye at the elevated figure. “And as for you, Mr. Devil,” says he, “you may sit there just as long as you please.” A decent respect for the proprieties of his position kept the scarecrow quiet until Jack was well on his way to the house which was not far distant. Pretty soon the door was burst open, and, to our alarm, some one tumbled in upon the floor in an agony of terror, as we soon discovered, pale as a ghost and scarcely able to speak. As soon as he recovered some degree of self-possession, he could barely stutter out, — “When Jack got out of sight — I turned to get down — and there sat another one, on the other post — looking just like me!” 1
A great deal was thereupon said about the power of the imagination and the effect it was likely to have upon one who had placed himself in such an equivocal situation, and the terrors which, under its influence, might naturally revert to him, who in an excited state of his own nerves had endeavored to inflict such terrors upon another. Hereupon there was a general call upon Aunt Judith, from the youngsters present, to tell us something about reputed witches in her younger days, — a subject in regard to which she was said to be able to make some remarkable statements, though as yet we had never obtained from her any satisfactory information about it. She seemed a little reluctant to indulge our curiosity.
“As to witches,” said my uncle Richard, gravely, “I don’t know. Whether the denunciations of them in Holy Writ are intended to apply to any actually supernatural power possessed by them, or only to the pretence of it, — and both are mischievous in their effect on the popular mind, — I shall not undertake to say. It is certain that the poor old women who are thus stigmatized seem to have little power to help themselves in this world, or, if real tamperers with the powers of darkness, any enjoyable expectations from the other. But this I do know, that I was riding, not many days since, with my lawyer, a man of considerable acuteness, though a little eccentric at times, coming from K—’s Island, where we had been on some business; and as we neared the turn of the causeway to the main road, he pulled up the chaise, jumped out, and placing himself on a broad flat rock by the road-side, began violently to dance up and down and to shake his clothes. ‘Good Heavens!’ cried I, ‘are you mad?’ ‘Oh, no,’ said he, resuming his seat, ‘but my mother always told me, that whenever I was coming away from K—’s Island, I must stand upon that rock and shake the witches off!’ ”
“But your story, Aunt Judith! your story,” we all cried out, and after a little more hesitation the good woman prit la parole, as Madame de Stäel so often phrases it in “Corinne.”
“When I was a grown-up girl,” said she, “1 and my older sister, who had lost her husband at sea, lived with my mother, who was also a widow. We had few of this world’s goods, but health and energy enough to take care of ourselves. At one time, we moved into half a house, in a decent quarter of the town, the other part of which was occupied by an old woman called by the neighbors ‘Granny Holt.’ Coming from a street of the town at some distance, we had heard nothing that I remember about her; but the day had not gone by, before it was made fully known to us by such acquaintances as we saw, that we had taken up our abode in the same house with a person of a very crabbed disposition, whom all the neighborhood looked upon as a witch. This was not very agreeable news, but we tried to make the best of it. Our house was near the river-side, and we were surrounded by the families of those who followed the sea, and we endeavored to flatter ourselves with the idea, that idle tales of marvelous things are very common among that class of population; and that the stories we heard were mere gossip, as we whispered to ourselves, for fear of being overheard through the thin partition which divided us from the other tenant. But, ‘No!’ said one of our callers in a low voice — one of the Pearse girls (a young lady, by the way, about seventy, but Aunt Judith was of a certain age); ‘ I tell you it’s as true as a sermon in the meetin’-house. You’ll soon find out what she can do. Why, there’s young Stout, as fine a lad as ever walked the streets, or stood by the helm of his vessel in a gale o’ wind; and look at him now, pale and cadaverous, and walking round people’s gardens, on the edge of narrow fences where nobody but a rope-dancer, with a pole in his hands, could keep his balance, and a hundred more such antics; everybody knows she bewitched him.’
“‘But what for?’ we asked.
“‘Oh, they had a quarrel, and pretty soon he began to cut these capers.’
“My sister Ann, the widow, however, who had always a brave spirit, declared that she did not care a fig for all the witches in Christendom; but I must own that I was very much alarmed. You may be sure, we none of us much liked this sort of greeting, on the first day of our entering into our new habitation, and we prepared to retire early, my mother, who was a truly pious person, trusting to the only sure defence. Upon going to my chamber, I found there was no fastening to the door; in fact the handle itself was quite out of kilter, and it could not be shut tight. I moved up to it, therefore, a chest of drawers, putting some things on top, and thus brought the door close. I was just about to blow out the candle to get into bed, when I heard a scrambling in the chimney, and you may believe it or not, but it’s the solemn truth — a black cat jumped from the fire-place, ran and leaped a-top of the things I had placed against the door, put her paw upon the handle of it, gave me one sidelong glance, opened the door itself and passed out. I was too frightened for anything but to wrap myself thoroughly in the bedclothes, and trembling with terror, at last fell into a troubled sleep.”
“Are you sure, Aunt Judith,” said my uncle Richard, “that the cat did not go under the bed?”
I tell you, as plainly as I see you now, I saw her open the door, look round at me with that malicious kind of expression, go out and shut the door behind her; and in the morning everything I had piled up against it was unmoved.”
“It must have been the ghost of a cat, then,” said my uncle; “but did anything else happen, afterwards?”
“Yes, in a few days we had got a baking ready and the oven heated, when the old woman came in with an armful of wood, threw it down on the hearth, and said she wanted to bake. The oven was for the use of both parts of the house; but we told her as soon as we had got through she should have it. She went off muttering, and when we thought our batch was done and went to take it out, it was burned just as black as a coal.”
“I am afraid,” said my uncle, “you let it stay in too long, or the oven was too hot.”
“You may laugh as much as you please,” replied Aunt Judith, with spirit, “but I tell you what I actually saw with my own eyes. We did not stay longer in that house than we could find another place; but before we left something took place which perhaps you’ll not find it so easy to explain.
Young William Stout’s folks had been so troubled about him, and the doctors said they could do nothing, that they determined to try a ‘project.’ ”
I may as well explain what Aunt Judith’s modesty prevented her from doing; that a “project” was to inclose a certain liquid emanation of the afflicted person in a phial tightly stopped, and to put it over the fire in a pot to boil. Of course, as in the case of the sympathetic remedies described by Sir Kenelm Digby and practised by him, as the contents of the phial boil, the witch burns, and she is inevitably detected by the scorching she gets and the scars it leaves behind. It is from this circumstance, undoubtedly, that the nursery rhyme derives its authority,
“Hinx minx, the old witch winks,
The fat begins to fry,” etc.
This is precisely the operation of the process in question.
“Accordingly,” continued Aunt Judith, “the Stout folks made all their preparations, in company with some trusty neighbors; the doors were fastened, and exactly at twelve o’clock the ‘project’ was begun. Everything went on well; but, as often happens in such cases, something was forgotten, or the witches’ master interferes; for it seemed, after a while, that more water was wanted, and one of the company took the pail to go to the well for it. As he cautiously opened the door, there to their horror stood Granny Holt, in the darkness of midnight! She came in grinning and complimenting, and without expressing surprise at finding so many persons together, at such an unusual hour, or making any inquiry as to the reason, she said, ‘one of their folks was taken sick and seeing a light there, she had come over to beg some herbs.’ There was the end of the project, and I don’t know as it was ever tried again.”
“Were you there, yourself?” asked Uncle Richard.
“No, I can only swear to the black cat and the burnt pies; but everybody in our neighborhood knew all about the project and Granny Holt’s breaking it up.”
We had become pretty well stirred up by this time, but as is likely to be the case under such circumstances, were eager for whatever other marvel might be forthcoming; for no matter how intelligent or incredulous the circle of hearers may be, there is something strangely fascinating in these weird stories. People may affect indifference “amidst the blazing light of the nineteenth century;” but I think that of a dark night, in a lonely spot, the starting up of so familiar a creature as a white horse, for instance, would set the strongest nerves into perturbation, at the idea of something ghostly. Indeed, Addison declared in his day, that there “was not a village in England that had not a ghost in it; the churchyards were haunted; nor was there a peasant who had not seen a spirit.”
“Well, Aunt Judith,” said Uncle Richard, “these wonderful things seem to have very much gone by, in our day, or else people, for some reason, take less notice of them than formerly. Witches, nowadays, are characters entirely unknown, except,” he gallantly remarked, “for the sometimes really inexplicable fascinations of members of your own sex; and, except in one singular instance, I have known of no appearances which could not be rationally accounted for. I have heard my father, however, tell of one which, according to the tradition, manifested itself, one hundred years ago or more, upon a bridge, over the Ipswich River, in our Essex County town of Topsfield, and was the terror of all the country round. He appeared in the shape of a monstrous hog, taking his station, at night, in the very centre of the bridge; and those who had occasion to cross it, on horseback or on foot, were either fain to turn back, as he encountered them, bristling and snarling, or rushed by, if their occasion demanded it, in a state of extraordinary trepidation. At length, Parson Capen, the worthy minister of the town, riding up to the bridge one evening, saw the spectre in his usual position. Nothing daunted, in virtue of his holy office, the good man thus accosted him: ‘You that were once an angel of light, ain’t you ashamed to appear in the shape of a dirty swine?’ This expostulation was too much for the foul fiend, who at once jumped over the railing of the bridge into the river, and was no more seen.”
Amongst others of the few guests of the evening was a young gentleman, a member of one of the learned professions, who was accounted an intellectual person and was of rather grave demeanor. Though known to have been the author of occasional verses which gained applause, he would not have been thought likely to be the subject of any extraordinary hallucination. He was an intimate friend of our family, and on certain occasions of unusual excitement, if not danger, in the midst of the various adventures of young people, had shown a singular firmness of nerve and presence of mind, and was thought to be in fact insensible to fear. He had listened to the story of the bold lad who saw the supposed apparition on the gate-post, and to that of the Topsfield spectre, with much the same interest as that which Marmion exhibited at Sir David Lindesay’s narrative of the appearance of the beloved Apostle to King James in Linlithgow. Apparently induced by a similar irresistible impulse to that which drew from the redoubted warrior of Scott’s fascinating poem the rehearsal of his nocturnal adventure, our guest volunteered a relation quite as remarkable.
“I will tell you a story,” said he, “of something unaccountable which once happened to me, though the circumstances are still so vivid in my memory, that I look back upon it with a sort of superstitious dread, and feel a decided reluctance in appealing to the sympathy of others, in re- gard to an incident which seemed exclusively addressed to myself and was confined to my own sole experience.
“In my senior year at College, now as you know, not many years since, I was appointed by my class to prepare for delivery, on what is called Class Day, a literary exercise, — in fact a poem, in anticipation of the usual Commencement performances, and was at home, during the preceding long vacation, making ready for this event. The writing of poetry for public recitation before a critical audience is a rather exacting occupation, and my ambition was naturally excited to do the best in my power. Indeed, the work absorbed all my faculties; but I preferred to write during the still hours of the night, rather than amidst the ordinary distractions of the day, spending that period, usually, wandering in the neighboring fields and woods, or in other diversions. The season was summer, and I was sitting one night at an open window, committing to paper such thoughts as occurred to me, by the light of a single candle, — for lamps were then not very common and gas was entirely unknown. Outside, there was not a sound, for the whole town was buried in profound sleep, and our own household was in the same state of repose. It was just on the stroke of twelve. Our house was a very ancient one, though I never heard that there was anything peculiarly remarkable in its history. Sitting thus, and thus engaged in serious, solitary contemplation, the sudden fall of something heavy in the garret overhead gave me a momentary start. I could compare it to nothing but to the effect likely to be produced by something as solid as a smaller description of cannon-ball, though it afterwards appeared to have attracted the attention of no one else in the family. Supposing that some article of furniture had accidentally fallen, the noise of which had been rendered more noticeable by the perfect stillness of the night, I pursued my occupation, until I felt disposed for sleep. On the following night, while engaged in the same way, and at the same midnight hour, came the same heavy, sharp, distinct thud upon the floor directly above my head. I was disposed to philosophize on the subject, and, though the coincidence was certainly peculiar, I still conceived that this unusual sound, at such an unusual hour, might be attributed to some natural cause. Perhaps, a heavy cat might have jumped down from beams above, on both occasions, and the noise was magnified by the otherwise unbroken stillness, though so far as I remember we kept no such cat of our own. I am sure that the idea of anything supernatural scarcely occurred to me, or was dismissed with derision. Nevertheless, the circumstances were peculiar enough to induce me to make a thorough examination of the garret on the following morning, and I was struck by the fact, that it was perfectly bare of any article of furniture above my chamber, or in the neighborhood of that part of the attic, which could have fallen. I was naturally a good deal perplexed at an occurrence for which there seemed no rational means of accounting, but I kept my own counsel. On the third night, at the same hour, when the clear bell from the steeple of a meeting-house not far distant had just tolled twelve, came the same sudden, single, distinct sound of a fall on the floor, directly over my head. I will not say as Marmion did, on the occasion above referred to, —
“‘I care not though the truth I show, —
I trembled with affright’
“On the contrary, though not a little disturbed by incidents so unaccountable, and rendered by the interruption quite unfit to pursue my occupation further, I deliberately undressed, said my prayers, put out my candle, and went to bed. It was a bright starlight night, and the two windows of my chamber made objects within indistinctly visible. No sooner had I laid my head upon the pillow, than through a door at the foot of my bed appeared a slowly moving figure, turning the corner of the bed and approaching the side of it upon which I lay. I could distinctly see its outlines, and it seemed to me apparelled like a monk, with a hood drawn over its features, and long trailing garments. As Eliphaz the Temanite, under similar circumstances, has related, — ‘the hair of my flesh stood up.’ But I did not quite lose my self-possession. As the figure came nearer, I instantly threw off the bedclothes and jumped towards it into the middle of the room, — and it was gone! Though startled enough at so strange an occurrence, I reflected that it must be an illusion produced by some casual disorder of the natural faculties, and returned to bed and slept as usual until morning. But the next day I was much more disturbed in recalling the several circumstances of this extraordinary visitation. The repeated previous heavy blows upon the floor, and their apparent consummation in the vision I supposed myself to have seen, made me, as Othello says, ‘perplexed in the extreme.’ On that day I told my mother the story; she laughed at the idea of supernatural appearances, perhaps to quiet her son’s emotion; but she said she was afraid of no ghosts, proposed an exchange of chambers, and this accommodation at once took place. But though I finished and delivered the poem in question, I continued to muse by myself upon what had occurred, unwilling to speak to any one about it. It was many months before I recovered from the shock to my nervous system. Reflecting upon it at the time, again I summoned whatever philosophy I had at command, as well as I could. I conceived that possibly in the excitement of verse-writing, in the silence of the night, some tenseness had affected the drum of my ear; that hearing, or imagining that I heard some unusual sound, amid the perfect stillness around me, a continuous disordered state of physical functions had produced a similar effect at a correspondent hour; and that this experience not unnaturally culminated in the spectral visitation.”
We heard the story in terror, and put little faith in the theory of explanation.
“But,” said my uncle Richard, himself a good deal amazed at the narrative, “did anything happen afterwards, to account for what you have told us?”
“Nothing whatever,” replied our friend. “Did you ever sleep in that chamber again?”
“Yes, some years afterwards. It so happened that during several weeks in the summer, our whole family except myself, was away. My mother was in close attendance upon sick members of my sister’s family? My brothers were at sea, and even our ordinary servant was dismissed for the occasion. When the time for rest arrived, it was my habit to let myself into the house, to proceed to the same chamber, usually without a light, and go to bed. One night, putting my hand upon the pillow, I felt something soft and started back, but again reaching forward, the object proved to be a dove that had flown into the open window, and securing it without difficulty I gave that symbol of innocence immediate release. Perhaps, it was my former visitant in a less forbidding form. But this, as well as the other, passed into the course of ordinary events.”
I need not say, that we had listened to this extraordinary narrative with rapt attention and in breathless silence. Our friend had told his story with emotion, certainly, but still with serious deliberation, and exhibiting no undue signs of excitement. No one seemed disposed to make any observation upon it, and indeed most of the company were utterly incapable of the effort of speech. In a few moments, he remarked that he would quote to us a brief passage from Dante’s great poem which was applicable to the subject, and did so as follows: —
“But, Uncle Richard,” was now the cry, “you said you had once seen an apparition, or something like one; please tell us all about it.”
“I certainly saw something strange,” said he, “on more than one occasion, which has never yet been accounted for; and I suppose it is now too late to expect it.
If it was really a matter of concert and collusion, the motive for it has never been discovered. You remember the open space in town, in front of the Reverend Mr.—’s meeting-house. Your house, as you know, Jemmie,” addressing me, “looks directly up the street towards this square, and to the somewhat old-fashioned mansion opposite the meeting-house. On one side of the square was a small dwelling, occupied by several distant relatives of ours; Aunt Midkiff (Metcalf), Aunt Foggison (Ferguson, so called), and her sister, Miss Samples (Mrs. Semple), with the daughter of our Aunt Foggison, Mrs. Lane, and her only child. You remember, sister,” addressing my mother, “that you have told me, that one night, after you had gone to bed, your lamented husband stood at the window looking up the street towards the old house above, of which he had a complete view. Upon your asking what detained him, he called you up, and it was evident to you both that one chamber of the house was in a light blaze. Persons appeared to be moving rapidly around it, and, as it were, pulling down the curtains of the bed, which looked as if on fire. After a little time the appearance gradually ceased, and your husband remarking that he would inquire in the morning of his neighbor, a highly respectable lawyer, who occupied the house, what was the cause of the extraordinary spectacle of the night before, he also retired. But upon putting the question to his acquaintance on the following morning, he seemed astonished, and utterly denied that anything unusual had taken place in the chamber, which was the one occupied by himself and his wife, or that they had been at all disturbed during the night.
“Now all this,” continued my uncle, “is quite consistent with the supposition, that this gentleman may have had some secret motive for concealing the fact of a threatened conflagration, pretty sure, if known, to become the town talk and perhaps to expose him to inconvenient inquiries; and though a strictly moral and religious man, he may have thought that the circumstances warranted a direct denial of the matter, seeing it was, as it turned out, an affair of purely domestic concern.”
My mother, I thought, looked at my uncle a little anxiously, and seemed about to make a movement for our departure; but we urged him to tell us to what strange thing he had referred, and why he had so particularly described the situation and characteristics of this square, as if there were something more in relation to it which it might interest us to know; for you may be sure our mother had never mentioned to us children anything likely to alarm us.
“I am afraid,” said he, at last “that something, which really did happen in front of the house I have spoken of, will startle you young folks, and perhaps it is foolish to relate it, as you seem already quite excited enough; but I will premise by saying, that I will only tell you what I saw myself, or heard from those upon whose word I could implicitly rely; and, moreover, that I do not believe in ghosts, however singular the facts in question may appear. Of course, you know, sister,” addressing my mother, “my calls at your house were sometimes in the evening, after attending the market or to other business during the day. It was during one of your husband’s absences at sea, that we were sitting around the fire of a wintry night, when a lively neighbor, a lady who took much interest in whatever was going on, came in evidently in a state of agitation, and taking her seat, with very brief greeting, broke out with the exclamation, ‘There he is again!’ I did not understand what this meant; but it was soon explained to us that, for a week or ten days past, some person, or figure, or whatever it might be, had been observed walking fore and aft, in front of the house opposite the meeting-house, at a certain hour of the evening, and though many had passed, no one had recognized him, nor did he take any notice whatever of any one whom he met. He was said to wear a pea-jacket buttoned to the chin, and a glazed hat, as if prepared for any kind of weather; or, as the gossips afterwards said, indicating the fact that he was the forerunner of the loss of not a few masters of vessels residing in the neighborhood, who perished at sea during the storms of that season. I took my hat and went out to see if I could discover anything uncommon. It was a moonlight night, with a light fall of snow upon the ground. As I passed up the short street to the square, Aunt Foggison’s chamber window was thrown open, and her daughter’s voice was plainly heard berating the supposed spectral night-walker. ‘What are you doing there, you good-for-nothing scamp, you?’ cried she, in a voice that must have reached any mortal ears; ‘why don’t you go home to your family, if you’ve got any family, or wherever else you belong, instead of stalking up and down here, frightening honest folks out of their senses?’ Overcome perhaps by the vigor of her expostulation, the window was shut down with a slam. As I advanced, though I certainly had a full view of a human-looking figure upon its round and at no great distance either, and my senses had been confirmed by the objurgations addressed to it by our worthy relative, when I actually reached the ground of his perambulations, prepared to seize a single man by the collar and learn what he was about, it is certain that he was no longer visible. I returned to the house and made report of my unsuccessful doings, and unhitched my horse and drove home. I learned, a few days afterwards, that the figure regularly appeared, giving one sign of vitality by a regular tramp — tramp — tramp — upon the frozen ground, so far as any one was disposed to listen, and spreading consternation throughout the vicinity. The affair at length became unendurable. Women were afraid to go into the street, and, for that, a good many men too, and it was really so serious, that, as I learned, it was resolved to form what is called, I believe, a cordon, and gradually approaching the place simultaneously from every avenue, so to inclose him that escape would be impossible. Being much acquainted with the people of that part of the town, I was invited to join the company, and accordingly drove in seasonably for the purpose. Certainly, most sober people believed the whole was but some trick, which it only needed reasonable pains to discover and defeat. The mysterious figure, it seemed, continued to walk, ignorant of or indifferent to our devices.
“There were three main avenues, by streets, to the premises, together with a narrow passage way leading from one of the streets to another. At the appointed hour we duly assembled on our several stations. Our director was ‘a rude and boisterous captain of the sea’” — (for Uncle Richard could sometimes be poetical, at least in the way of quoting Shakespeare). “It had been arranged by him that, being on our posts, at a fixed moment, we should move rapidly up the several avenues and so join forces as to form a circle inclosing the open space, and gradually contracting our company, if the rogue was then within our compass we should have him sure. The arrangement had been made in profound secrecy, and if any there were traitors, I was not aware of it. Sure enough there was our guest on his usual stroll. As our circle speedily drew in, and just as hands were stretched out to seize him — presto, as the jugglers say — he was gone!”
“By the jumping gingerbread!” exclaimed Thurlow, our uncle’s hired man, springing from his chair by the wall, outside of our family party, — seeing this was Christmas night.
“Oh dear sus!” cried Sally Bannocks, our own particular help of many years, from the like position.
“Our detective band,” resumed my uncle, “looked at one another in amazement, and after some hard swearing from a few of the roughest, and the exchange of a hasty ‘good-night,’ dispersed, as far as convenient in companies of two or three, and departed, a good deal disconcerted, to their several places of abode. The same experiment was tried on two or three other occasions, as I was informed by friends, with no better success. Spectre or not, he always found means to elude them; and there were always those who, having no other means of accounting for his evasion, insisted upon it that he must have had confederates among those who sought to arrest him.”
“Could he not have escaped slyly into the house?” asked some incredulous inquirer.
“That was hardly likely, with so many eyes upon him. Besides there was nobody there but women and children, excessively alarmed themselves, the husband, Captain Y—, being at sea, and one of those who was afterwards known to have been lost with all his crew, upon nearing our dangerous coast.”
“But why did not the city government make a piece of work of putting an end to such a scandal?” inquired a doubter in spectral visitations.
“Well, I suspect a whole body of police could do little towards capturing an actual ghost; and then, too, there was at that time no city and no such force. Our town government consisted of mostly ancient citizens, and three or four constables, all of whom, probably, preferred to remain quietly and comfortably at home, instead of venturing out into the wintry night air, to hunt up ghosts.”
“Why didn’t somebody try the effect of a bullet?” inquired another.
“Well, shooting was a rather violent remedy; and as for firing at a ghost, I believe every one was afraid.”
“Wasn’t it strange, considering that he must have had some particular object in haunting that spot, and was likely, therefore, to be found out by some of the neighborhood by his face, or dress, or figure, or gait, or in some way or other, if a real person, that he never was recognized?” asked another of our evening guests.
“It was strange enough,” said my uncle; “but few, if any, got very near him, and they perhaps, casual passers-by, who paid no attention to the fact. As for him, he only walked steadily backward and forward, turning neither to the right nor to the left, except at each end of his beat; replying to no interrogatories, and appearing utterly unconscious of any epithets or railings which from a distance were hurled at him. Only one man ever professed to have seen his face.”
“Who was that, uncle?” we all eagerly exclaimed.
“Late one stormy night, when the snow was falling fast,” continued my uncle, — “and one would suppose that any reasonable creature of flesh and blood would wish to be safely housed, — an hostler named Dobbin, who had charge of a stable at one end of the street, was trudging home, swinging a lantern in his hand, to the small house in which he lived, at a little distance beyond the now pretty notorious ‘Ghost’s Walk.’ As he approached the spot, there, to be sure, was the object of terror, taking his usual exercise. ‘Now,’ as Dobbin told the story, ‘thinks I to myself, I’ll play you a trick, mister, and find out who you are, if I can. So, jest slyly unfastening the door of the lantern, as I met him, I flung the door wide open and held it up to his face, and I says, says I, “A stormy night, friend.” I thought I should know him, and guess I should if ever I do see him again, which I don’t want to, I tell you; and may I hope to die, if ever I saw that face before. He looked pale, and his eyes, as he fixed ‘em on me, had what I call a sort of a stony glare. He never opened his mouth, but just looked. It was only a glance, as it were, for I never was so frightened in my life, and jest dropped lantern and scampered away home as fast as my legs could carry me.’”
“Lud-a-massy!” screamed Sally Bannocks, on the verge of hysterics, — and some of the rest of us were not far from that condition. We were mostly on our feet, and as my mother insisted upon our bidding “Good-night,” Uncle Richard proposed, after a further trial of his capital cider, to harness his horse and drive us home in his covered wagon. But it was a fine night and, though getting rather late, we concluded that it would do us more good to take the air, in the mile or two of the walk to town. In the course of our preparations for departure, and in answer to a variety of questions, our uncle informed us, that the mystery was never cleared up, nor the trick, if trick it were, ever discovered. As to the tale of such a person as Dobbin, we might place what reliance upon it we saw fit; and though the motive seemed certainly difficult to see, it might have been, after all, a well-contrived piece of deception, to be sure, a very laborious and unaccountable one, concealed by the collusion of parties in the secret. How long the ghost continued to walk he did not know; but it finally disappeared, and the house had been inhabited by respectable people ever since, who had suffered no disturbance.
1 Jack’s composure has a parallel in that of an old-time Scottish clergyman, as the story is told by Dean Ramsay. On returning home late from a dinner abroad his way led through the churchyard, and some mischievous fellows thought to frighten him. One of them came up to him dressed as a ghost, but the minister coolly inquired, “Weel, maister Ghaist, is this a general rising, or are ye juist taking a daunder frae yer grave by yer-sel?”
2 Inferno, Canto xxv., Parsons’s translation.