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HOME > Short Stories > Floating Fancies among the Weird and the Occult > A NINETEENTH CENTURY GHOST.
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 My health had failed at last through constant work, long hours, insufficient and irregular diet, and my nerves paid the penalty for thus transgressing nature’s laws. Every sin brings its own punishment, whether it be mental, moral, or physical; it may be that payment is not exacted to-day, or to-morrow, but sooner or later the penalty will surely follow the sin. I was in fact mentally, as well as bodily exhausted; I had reached the very depths of disgust; nothing seemed worth doing, everything was useless; work was worse than useless, a foolishness; pleasure—nothing was a pleasure. Like one of old I cried out: “All is vanity and vexation of spirit.”
I went into the country; not to a distant railway station, to become one of a dissatisfied mob at a crowded summer hotel, but into the very heart of the green hills, where the limpid streams gurgled for very joy, as they frolicked on their way to the distant river; where the woods were so dense that the sun could only play hide and seek with the softly fluttering leaves, once in a while touching the soft mossy carpet, or the glossy leaves of the scarlet checkerberries lovingly.
Here I found the dearest, quaintest old houses 153with pointed gables under which the noisy swallows built their nests of mud—a house with small, many-paned windows, and great, yawning fireplaces.
The simple-hearted old people who owned the place welcomed me with unaffected curiosity.
I dawdled in the evenings in the sitting room with grandpa and grandma Yoeman, with no light save the flickering blaze of the hickory logs; idly watching the pictures in the glowing coals, and dreaming strange sweet dreams, which ever held a reflection of entrancing sadness.
The fitful blaze cast strange lights and shadows on the low ceiling; glinting on grandma’s busy knitting needles; brightening and fading like an uncertain life.
Occasionally one of the neighbors came in to exchange news about the planting; to borrow or “swap” garden seeds; to speculate on the weather; the greater reason being to see the city boarder.
Sometimes their frank inquisitiveness amused, at other times it annoyed me.
I had been there a month; the weather had grown too warm to permit a fire in the evening, and the sitting room looked dismal with its one small kerosene lamp, around which the moths fluttered, and singed their foolish wings, nearly obscuring the light.
“Drat the things,” said grandma, from time to time.
Heavy clouds lay low in the west, and the occasional low growling of thunder indicated the 154coming of a storm; the breeze scarcely lifted the muslin curtain at the window.
A rush of homesickness came over me; the gloom depressed me, and left me wretched; the sultry atmosphere seemed unbearable; the quaint, low-ceiled rooms seemed suffocating, and detestably ugly, and I wondered that I could have thought them so charming.
I hurried away to my room, which was at the further end of the house, to hide my tears. The long, draughty hall seemed filled with lurking shadows; I thought it endless, and was sure that the doors were opening on either side as I passed. I dashed open the door of my own room, and for a few breathless minutes crouched in the corner most thoroughly frightened. Presently, ashamed of my childish terror, I arose and lighted my lamp.
I could not shake off the frightened feeling; the dim, uncertain light of the small lamp left the corners of the room in wavering gloom; the gathering clouds sent out their advance signals—a fitful gust of moist wind—now and then, which suddenly flapped the curtain at the window as though shaken by an angry hand, and swayed the old-fashioned valance to the bed until I felt ready to scream.
I closed the blinds, turned the blaze of the lamp still higher, endeavoring to make the room look cheerful. Ah, well! The cheerfulness oftener comes from within than without, and I was nervously depressed and homesick.
I was in that restless mood in which everything is irksome. I wished to write, I could 155not; a thousand elusive fancies floated by me like thistledown; my mind reached out to grasp them—a tantalizing caprice of the brain, a feeling of mental inadequacy—and they were gone into the realm of the goblin, Incompetent.
I threw down the pen: “What a strange thing the brain is! At times docile and obedient; again, willful, elusive, exasperating; a thing over which one has no control,” I cried angrily.
I walked restlessly up and down the room until I was fatigued, and impatiently threw myself into a great armchair; taking up an unfinished book I tried to read, I turned a page or two without comprehending a thought; I threw the book to the furthest corner of the room in anger and disgust.
Again I walked the floor impatiently, and in the same wretched mood, undressed and went to bed, where I vainly endeavored to sleep.
The clouds, which had been gathering since dusk, now marshalled their forces for battle; the vivid lightning played about the room in wildly fantastic manner; a momentary white glare, then the darkness of Inferno. The heavy thunder growled an accompaniment, or broke into a sharp crash, dying away like the angry growl of the discomfited storm fiend.
The wind arose, and swung the rickety shutters to and fro throughout the whole house with many an angry crash; the dead branches of an old tree—standing by the corner window—tapped on the shaking pane with ghostly fingers.
I had extinguished my light, the flame annoyed me; and now—from being nervous—I became 156hysterical. Several times, as a vivid glow illumined the room, followed by an awful crash, I screamed outright; it disturbed no one; grandma and grandpa Yoeman slept in the far end of the house. I became so frightened that I pulled the covers over my head and lay there shivering.
The electrical storm had somewhat subsided, but the wind was blowing shrilly, and the rain coming down in sheets.
Some impulse compelled me to uncover my head; a nervous sensation that something or some one was in the room—a terror of the unseen. I drew down the bedclothes, arose on one elbow, and gave a horrified scream, which died away in an awful constriction of the throat.
A figure floated before my affrighted eyes; now coming toward me a pace, then receding; disappearing only to return again. It seemed to float in the air with a strange undulating motion. I could not turn my eyes away, although filled with a mortal terror. It stood out like a picture, clear and distinct, as though the body were filled with luminous light; the turn of the head, the glint of the hair, suggestive of one whom I had known and hated in the past—which it still drove me mad to remember—as I perceived the likeness, or as it seemed, the reality, all fear left me; instantly my soul was filled with wrath; all the old agony came over me like an overwhelming flood; I seemed to feel again all the pangs caused by the treachery and deceit of that false friend. I started up with a bitter cry, and rushed at the hated face to rend it.
157My hands clutched but empty air! The vision was as elusive as had been my thoughts; I could grasp neither.
I crept back into bed bathed in a cold perspiration, and such was my mental and bodily exhaustion that I sank into a stupor and knew no more until morning.
When I awoke the sun was shining brightly, and as I jumped out of bed and threw open the blinds my fears of the past night seemed like an absurd dream.
The face of nature looked so refreshed after her bath; the gentle breeze shook the blossoming lilacs, to which the raindrops still clung like countless jewels; their odor came deliciously wafted to me as I leaned from the open windows; the grass glittered with clinging moisture among its tender green; a bluebird swung on the branch of a gnarled old apple tree just bursting into bloom and let out a flood of glorious song; a meadow lark, sitting on the single post which rose above its fellows, accepted the challenge and sang with all his might: “Sweet, sweet, sweet; John G. Whittier!” again and again.
Fear seemed most absurd with all this wealth of sunshine and springing vegetation around me; but grandma Yoeman said to me as I entered the kitchen for breakfast, “You look awfully peaked, Miss Eda; was you so ’fraid of the storm that you didn’t sleep well?”
“Oh, I’m all right, grandma!” Nevertheless, I could not eat my breakfast of hot biscuit, golden honey, ham and eggs; although I made a pretense 158of enjoying the food, as I knew that grandma tried very hard to please me.
When night came my nerves again asserted themselves; every sound made me start apprehensively. My window was wide open; the great old lilac bushes seemed to lean caressingly in, their odor borne to me on the soft, warm wind, as it playfully lifted the thin curtain.
All was so balmy, quiet and sweet that after a time it soothed my excited nerves, and I slept soundly until morning.
Thus it continued for two weeks, until I began to think that I must have been dreaming. I saw nothing, I heard nothing more alarming than the rats, which scurried up and down between the plastering and the clapboards, or gnawed industriously at the narrow base.
I had been roaming over the fields all day; I had climbed from rock to rock down the shallow creek as happy as a child; I had lain on the last year’s leaves, and plaited a crown of checkerberries, the glossy green of the leaf, and the brilliant red of the berries forming a lovely contrast. I gathered also a great bunch of wild forget-me-nots; it was sunset when I reached home; I placed the flowers on the little stand in front of the mirror, and hung the wreath above it, so that the mirror reflected it like a duplicate.
I retired early, and immediately dropped to sleep. Some time during the night I was awakened—it might have been a shutter that slammed, or a door in one of the empty rooms—in my half-awakened state it sounded like a pistol shot. As I started up in bed I became conscious 159of an unusual commotion; the trees were swaying and creaking; the lilacs bent and shivered; my curtains were swept straight out into the room, and as I looked with startled eyes the luminous figure once more stood before me, fearfully distinct; the bouquet of forget-me-nots I had gathered held in her hand; the crown of leaves and berries resting on her head; even in my awful fright I observed that it was tipped coquettishly over the right side of the head, instead of being set demurely on top. She seemed to advance and recede, waving the flowers at me derisively; again the resemblance to that woman whom my soul loathed struck me with a sickening sense of pain and hatred.
I had often listened to my old grandmother as she told tales of supernatural visitations and mysterious warnings; of the death watch in the wall, and that immediately following these prognostications some beloved one surely departed this life; she related instances of ghostly tappings on the headboard, and of a deadly chill, like a cadaverous finger, creeping up and down the spine, to warn the unhappy recipient that a stranger was treading on their future grave.
These half-forgotten teachings recurred to me with awful vividness, and I experienced the same sensations which drove me, at that time, shivering to my bed to lie with sleepless eyes listening for the dread signal. I felt sure that this “presence” was a warning that my death was near, and that she brought the message, was an added menace—unless I forgave her. I had never known hate of any other being in my life; I had said egotistically 160that it was not in my nature to hate. Circumstances show us that we have a very limited acquaintance with our capabilities and proclivities; I learned that lesson through fiery tribulation. Another thing which I had been taught as a child now recurred to my mind as a torment. I had been taught that I must forgive, if I would be forgiven, and that I must love my enemy.
How could I forgive her? Though death, or that punishment which I had been taught would come after death, should stare me in the face, I could not forgive the deliberate wrecking of my life’s happiness.
The vision disappeared while these tormenting thoughts raced each other through my mind; as suddenly returning, it advanced menacingly toward the bed.
A fresh blast of wind shook the old house from garret to foundation; doors crashed, blinds rattled and shook; trees swayed and groaned dismally; the low of the frightened cattle was borne on the wings of the blast; a dog howled dismally from out the darkness. I could look no more; I covered my head and shivered with mortal terror. The following morning I was unable to rise; there was no questioning in my mind. I felt sure that I was doomed; that the warning was not only of my demise, but of future punishment as well, unless I forgave the bearer of that message. This last thought continually tortured me. How could I force forgiveness? I might profess it, I might even try and cheat myself into thinking it; but the 161turn of a head, the movement of a hand, the tone of a voice, would bring a never-to-be-forgotten picture before my mind, which would give the lie to all my pretense. I hated with just cause, and should I forgive, would I not thereby place myself on a level with that creature of debasement? Could I stoop to such forgiveness, and retain my own self-respect? No! no! no! I could pass by; I could leave her and her ways to the inevitable punishment that must follow her deeds; I could avoid being in anywise the instrument of vengeance in the hand of Providence, though Providence walked by my side and whispered in my ear temptingly; but forgive her and respect myself I could not; by condoning the offense I should actually sanction it.
Oh, the agony of that incessant thinking! Fighting the battle over and over again, only to cry out despairingly: “I cannot! I cannot!” Day by day my strength diminished; night after night ended in horror and despair.
Sometimes for a night or two the ghostly presence did not appear, then, as hope began to dawn, it suddenly stood leering at me motionlessly; at other times it undulated, advanced and receded, in maddening fashion. I made all necessary preparations for the end which I felt must be very near; there were none who would mourn me greatly; although I had but one enemy, yet I had few friends; I could not open my heart to the whole world.
I had lived as nearly right as I knew—now another question added to the torment of my 162mind; was I to be punished for that which I did not know? How well I remembered the grim old preacher, who, pacing back and forth, told us Sabbath after Sabbath that we were certain of punishment because we did not know, that we must repent; that all were born in sin. I used to think how much better it would have been not to have been born at all than to have to be sorry for something you did not know anything about.
He looked so savage as he pounded the pulpit that I used to slip off the seat and try and hide; I thought he was going to help the Lord punish us, and I tried so hard to be sorry, although I did not know for what. Now I was troubled fearing that this was a truth; we are so much more lazy than we wish to admit; we drift with circumstances, and call it fate; we crouch down and receive degrading blows because it is so much easier than fighting for the right. Letting things drift had ever been my weakness, I so enjoyed being lazily happy; now I was tormented with fear of the sins of omission.
All through the day I dreaded the coming of the night, and the detested vision; thus day brought me no solace because of harassing doubts, and too perplexing questions. I had irritably begged grandma Yoeman to take the hated wreath and flowers out of my sight, and from that day to this their sweet, woody odor turns me faint and sick.
The days lengthened with the fullness of summer, the petals of the apple blossoms covered the ground with their fragrant snow, and now the 163green globes hung from the bending boughs, and the old-fashioned garden was a wealth of color; still I lay languid and helpless, in the low-ceiled room—unheeding the beauty outside—as I lay with my face turned hopelessly to the wall; or if perchance I looked out of the open window, it was but to sigh despairingly: “I shall soon pass away from all things earthly.”
I had watched in vain for the tormenting presence for the past two weeks until my mind was in that strange paradoxical state in which I dreaded, yet anxiously awaited its appearance. I believed that one more visit would surely be the last.
Still another week passed, a week of dread anticipation; the day had been so invigorating that in spite of my morbid imaginings, my overwrought nerves loosed their tension. I had in the afternoon sat by the open window for an hour or two, drinking in the balm of the atmosphere, and when in the dusk I again crept into the bed I felt fatigued, and lying down was restful; the fresh, clean sheets smelled of lavender, and the soft mattress seemed fitted to every curve of my body. I nestled my head in the pillow, and with the soft wind blowing through the wide-open window, at once dropped asleep. Once or twice in the earlier part of the night I opened my eyes, drowsily conscious that the moon was lighting up the room with pale radiance, also vaguely realizing an unusual sense of peace and comfort.
It must have been very near morning when I awoke with a sinking sense of fright; perspiration 164stood on my brow cold as death dew; I thought that my hour of dissolution had come. Only the faintest ray of moonlight was visible, as it was disappearing behind a bank of clouds in the west; the wind was whistling shrilly through the trees, and into the room through the open window, between which and the bed, undulated, receded, or darted viciously forward the detestable specter.
For a single instant my whole being sank inertly; I thought the very elements in coalition with my tormenter; then a sudden anger, or antagonism—assailed me. This fiend had wrecked my material life, through my having been taught that resistance was wrong; that if “thine enemy smite thee on one cheek, turn to him also the other.”
Should I allow this old parody upon truth to drive me beyond the plane of material existence?
Since evolution began—and who can date its commencement?—resistance has been the law governing the survival of the fittest; can that natural law be wrong? The fact that the possessor of the greater power of resistance survives is practical demonstration of its justice and right. I had in the past weakly let go of home and happiness; now a rage assailed me as fierce as a devastating forest fire; I cried out as I leaped from the bed, “I will not succumb!” I rushed madly at the detested semblance; the hateful leer appeared to grow more diabolical, the poise of the head more insolent, as it evaded me. There came a blast which tore at the shutters, and dashed the old mirror with a crash to 165the floor; at that instant the specter dashed wildly toward me, swung dizzily around, and it seemed to my excited imagination that the features assumed an appalled look; a crash at the rear end of the room caused me to turn my head, a thousand misplaced stars seemed scattered over the floor, scintillating in the gloom.
I turned again to renew my warfare—but the specter was nowhere to be seen. I stood bewildered awaiting its return; but it came no more, and with a shiver—half of fright, half of cold—I closed the window and crept into bed; as I pulled the blankets about me, and snuggled down into the pillows, I felt a comforting sense of having defeated my adversary; from that beatific state I fell to musing upon the many contradictory teachings of this life, and idly wondering which was right, or if all were in error, and thus I drifted into slumber.
Grandma Yoeman was in a state of terrible excitement the next morning over the devastation of the storm.
“To think, I’ve had that looking-glass ever since I was married! I do hope it won’t bring you any bad luck, Miss Eda!” said she plaintively.
“Oh, nonsense, grandma! From this hour my better health and my happiness are assured,” I replied gayly. I had such perfect confidence that I should no more be troubled by the uncanny vision that it made me very happy.
As I was lazily putting on my clothing, grandma’s lamentations broke out afresh: “There’s 166that picture that my niece Mandy painted, broke all to bits!”
“I wonder that I never saw the picture,” said I, more to comfort grandma by an interest in her misfortune than for any other reason.
“Oh, I covered it up to keep the dust from it; it was real purty, jest shone at night like anything,” she concluded regretfully.
From that time on, I danced about the old house, and dreamed under the gnarled apple trees, or among the sweet-scented clover, as happy as it is possible to be—except for one longing pain.
I seemed to see that I might, and ought to be, uplifted, exalted above all evil; thus gaining the right from that elevation of purity, to pity and forgive the soul so warped as to prefer evil to good. I now understood that it was like crossing a bridge spanning a foul stream; one might shudder at the offensive sight, but no soil or attaint could touch even the outer garments. I let the sweet air of heaven blow all my bitterness away; the birds and flowers spoke only of love and harmony, and their sweet language taught me that I too had sinned, although I had transgressed simply because I did not understand that I need neither fraternize nor hold aloof, but walk my way in peace and quietude; inasmuch as it lies not in the power of any person to wound my feelings, or to injure me beyond the material; that within me, only, lies the weakness which makes that possible.
As I sat watching the great, lumbering bumble-bees crawl in and out of the hollyhocks, 167thinking what fortunate fellows they were, to taste only the sweets of life, there came a quiet step behind me, and a hand was laid upon my shoulder which thrilled me from head to foot; I essayed to rise, but my traitor limbs refused their support; the well-remembered voice sounded afar off, but—oh, so sweet!
“I have come to ask your forgiveness, and to acknowledge my wrong; little woman, will you be merciful?”
I cried out sharply: “But how can I trust you? You promised before, and deceived me so bitterly!” the pent-up agony vibrating through my voice.
Very gently he answered me: “I acknowledge that I did; but give me one more trial—a chance to prove my better self to you—you shall never regret it. Oh, Eda! Look at this tree upon which you are sitting; through some mishap it grew warped and unsightly; but see! it has changed its course, and is growing steadily upward, bearing an abundance of wholesome fruit. Can’t you believe that I, too, will mend my course, and that the fruit of my future life will be good?”
The earnest, thrilling voice was as sweetest music to my ear; my heart was so hungry, but—a memory—“But, oh, that woman!” I cried.
“My wife, let us never again mention her! At last I see——”
Manlike, he wished no mention made of his wrongdoing—that he put it behind him he considered sufficient. A sharp pain went through my heart, that all my agony was to be put aside 168so lightly; but—he was my husband. I sat a moment irresolute, then placed my hands in his, and replied, “As you wish; but let there be no looking backward, let us both live aright each day, and we shall not fail of being happy.”
I made instant resolve to put those higher and better thoughts into practical use, and I have never had cause to regret so doing. Neither the ghost of my enemy, nor the wraith of a regret have since visited me.

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