Story type: Literature
“Now, Sam, tell us certain true, is there any such things as ghosts?”
“Be there ghosts?” said Sam, immediately translating into his vernacular grammar: “wal, now, that are’s jest the question, ye see.” “Well, grandma thinks there are, and Aunt Lois thinks it’s all nonsense. Why, Aunt Lois don’t even believe the stories in Cotton Mather’s ‘Magnalia.’”
“Wanter know?” said Sam, with a tone of slow, languid meditation.
We were sitting on a bank of the Charles River, fishing. The soft melancholy red of evening was fading off in streaks on the glassy water, and the houses of Oldtown were beginning to loom through the gloom, solemn and ghostly. There are times and tones and moods of nature that make all the vulgar, daily real seem shadowy, vague, and supernatural, as if the outlines of this hard material present were fading into the invisible and unknown. So Oldtown, with its elm-trees, its great square white houses, its meeting-house and tavern and blacksmith’s shop and milly which at high noon seem as real and as commonplace as possible, at this hour of the evening were dreamy and solemn. They rose up blurred, indistinct, dark; here and there winking candles sent long lines of light through the shadows, and little drops of unforeseen rain rippled the sheeny darkness of the water.
“Wal, you see, boys, in them things it’s jest as well to mind your granny. There’s a consid’able sight o’ gumption in grandmas. You look at the folks that’s alius tellin’ you what they don’t believe,–they don’t believe this, and they don’t believe that,–and what sort o’ folks is they? Why, like yer Aunt Lois, sort o’ stringy and dry. There ain’t no ‘sorption got out o’ not believin’ nothin’.
“Lord a massy! we don’t know nothin’ ’bout them things. We hain’t ben there, and can’t say that there ain’t no ghosts and sich; can we, now?”
We agreed to that fact, and sat a little closer to Sam in the gathering gloom.
“Tell us about the Cap’n Brown house, Sam.”
“Ye didn’t never go over the Cap’n Brown house?”
No, we had not that advantage.
“Wal, yer see, Cap’n Brown he made all his money to sea, in furrin parts, and then come here to Oldtown to settle down.
“Now, there ain’t no knowin’ ’bout these ‘ere old ship-masters, where they’s ben, or what they’s ben a doin’, or how they got their money. Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell ye no lies, is ’bout the best philosophy for them. Wal, it didn’t do no good to ask Cap’n Brown questions too close, ’cause you didn’t git no satisfaction. Nobody rightly knew ’bout who his folks was, or where they come from; and, ef a body asked him, he used to say that the very fust he know’d ’bout himself he was a young man walkin’ the streets in London.
“But, yer see, boys, he hed money, and that is about all folks wanter know when a man comes to settle down. And he bought that ‘are place, and built that ‘are house. He built it all sea-cap’n fashion, so’s to feel as much at home as he could. The parlor was like a ship’s cabin. The table and chairs was fastened down to the floor, and the closets was made with holes to set the casters and the decanters and bottles in, jest’s they be at sea; and there was stanchions to hold on by; and they say that blowy nights the cap’n used to fire up pretty well with his grog, till he hed about all he could carry, and then he’d set and hold on, and hear the wind blow, and kind o’ feel out to sea right there to hum. There wasn’t no Mis’ Cap’n Brown, and there didn’t seem likely to be none. And whether there ever hed been one, nobody know’d. He hed an old black Guinea nigger-woman, named Quassia, that did his work. She was shaped pretty much like one o’ these ‘ere great crookneck-squashes. She wa’n’t no gret beauty, I can tell you; and she used to wear a gret red turban and a yaller short gown and red petticoat, and a gret string o’ gold beads round her neck, and gret big gold hoops in her ears, made right in the middle o’ Africa among the heathen there. For all she was black, she thought a heap o’ herself, and was consid’able sort o’ predominative over the cap’n. Lordy massy! boys, it’s alius so. Get a man and a woman together,–any sort o’ woman you’re a mind to, don’t care who ’tis,–and one way or another she gets the rule over him, and he jest has to train to her fife. Some does it one way, and some does it another; some does it by jawin’ and some does it by kissin’, and some does it by faculty and contrivance; but one way or another they allers does it. Old Cap’n Brown was a good stout, stocky kind o’ John Bull sort o’ fellow, and a good judge o’ sperits, and allers kep’ the best in them are cupboards o’ his’n; but, fust and last, things in his house went pretty much as old Quassia said.
“Folks got to kind o’ respectin’ Quassia. She come to meetin’ Sunday regular, and sot all fixed up in red and yaller and green, with glass beads and what not, lookin’ for all the world like one o’ them ugly Indian idols; but she was well-behaved as any Christian. She was a master hand at cookin’. Her bread and biscuits couldn’t be beat, and no couldn’t her pies, and there wa’n’t no such pound-cake as she made nowhere. Wal, this ‘ere story I’m a goin’ to tell you was told me by Cinthy Pendleton. There ain’t a more respectable gal, old or young, than Cinthy nowheres. She lives over to Sherburne now, and I hear tell she’s sot up a manty-makin’ business; but then she used to do tailorin’ in Oldtown. She was a member o’ the church, and a good Christian as ever was. Wal, ye see, Quassia she got Cinthy to come up and spend a week to the Cap’n Brown house, a doin’ tailorin’ and a fixin’ over his close: ’twas along toward the fust o’ March. Cinthy she sot by the fire in the front parlor with her goose and her press-board and her work: for there wa’n’t no company callin’, and the snow was drifted four feet deep right across the front door; so there wa’n’t much danger o’ any body comin’ in. And the cap’n he was a perlite man to wimmen; and Cinthy she liked it jest as well not to have company, ’cause the cap’n he’d make himself entertainin’ tellin’ on her sea-stories, and all about his adventures among the Ammonites, and Perresites, and Jebusites, and all sorts o’ heathen people he’d been among.
“Wal, that ‘are week there come on the master snow-storm. Of all the snow-storms that hed ben, that ‘are was the beater; and I tell you the wind blew as if ’twas the last chance it was ever goin’ to hev. Wal, it’s kind o’ scary like to be shet up in a lone house with all natur’ a kind o’ breakin’ out, and goin’ on so, and the snow a comin’ down so thick ye can’t see ‘cross the street, and the wind a pipin’ and a squeelin’ and a rumblin’ and a tumblin’ fust down this chimney and then down that. I tell you, it sort o’ sets a feller thinkin’ o’ the three great things,–death, judgment, and etarnaty; and I don’t care who the folks is, nor how good they be, there’s times when they must be feelin’ putty consid’able solemn.
“Wal, Cinthy she said she kind o’ felt so along, and she hed a sort o’ queer feelin’ come over her as if there was somebody or somethin’ round the house more’n appeared. She said she sort o’ felt it in the air; but it seemed to her silly, and she tried to get over it. But two or three times, she said, when it got to be dusk, she felt somebody go by her up the stairs. The front entry wa’n’t very light in the daytime, and in the storm, come five o’clock, it was so dark that all you could see was jest a gleam o’ some-thin’, and two or three times when she started to go up stairs she see a soft white suthin’ that seemed goin’ up before her, and she stopped with her heart a beatin’ like a trip-hammer, and she sort o’ saw it go up and along the entry to the cap’n’s door, and then it seemed to go right through, ’cause the door didn’t open.
“Wal, Cinthy says she to old Quassia, says she, ‘Is there anybody lives in this house but us?’
“‘Anybody lives here?’ says Quassia: ‘what you mean?’ says she.
“Says Cinthy, ‘I thought somebody went past me on the stairs last night and to-night.’
“Lordy massy! how old Quassia did screech and laugh. ‘Good Lord!’ says she, ‘how foolish white folks is! Somebody went past you? Was’t the capt’in?’
“‘No, it wa’n’t the cap’n,’ says she: ‘it was somethin’ soft and white, and moved very still; it was like somethin’ in the air,’ says she. Then Quassia she haw-hawed louder. Says she, ‘It’s hy-sterikes, Miss Cinthy; that’s all it is.’
“Wal, Cinthy she was kind o’ ‘shamed, but for all that she couldn’t help herself. Sometimes evenin’s she’d be a settin’ with the cap’n, and she’d think she’d hear somebody a movin’ in his room overhead; and she knowed it wa’n’t Quassia, ’cause Quassia was ironin’ in the kitchen. She took pains once or twice to find out that ‘are.
“Wal, ye see, the cap’n’s room was the gret front upper chamber over the parlor, and then right oppi-site to it was the gret spare chamber where Cinthy slept. It was jest as grand as could be, with a gret four-post mahogany bedstead and damask curtains brought over from England; but it was cold enough to freeze a white bear solid,–the way spare chambers allers is. Then there was the entry between, run straight through the house: one side was old Quassia’s room, and the other was a sort o’ storeroom, where the old cap’n kep’ all sorts o’ traps.
“Wal, Cinthy she kep’ a hevin’ things happen and a seein’ things, till she didn’t railly know what was in it. Once when she come into the parlor jest at sundown, she was sure she see a white figure a vanishin’ out o’ the door that went towards the side entry. She said it was so dusk, that all she could see was jest this white figure, and it jest went out still as a cat as she come in.
“Wal, Cinthy didn’t like to speak to the cap’n about it. She was a close woman, putty prudent, Cinthy was.
“But one night, ’bout the middle o’ the week, this ‘ere thing kind o’ come to a crisis.
“Cinthy said she’d ben up putty late a sewin’ and a finishin’ off down in the parlor; and the cap’n he sot up with her, and was consid’able cheerful and entertainin’, tellin’ her all about things over in the Bermudys, and off to Chiny and Japan, and round the world ginerally. The storm that hed been a blowin’ all the week was about as furious as ever; and the cap’n he stirred up a mess o’ flip, and hed it for her hot to go to bed on. He was a good-natured critter, and allers had feelin’s for lone women; and I s’pose he knew ’twas sort o’ desolate for Cinthy.
“Wal, takin’ the flip so right the last thing afore goin’ to bed, she went right off to sleep as sound as a nut, and slep’ on till somewhere about mornin’, when she said somethin’ waked her broad awake in a minute. Her eyes flew wide open like a spring, and the storm hed gone down and the moon come out; and there, standin’ right in the moonlight by her bed, was a woman jest as white as a sheet, with black hair hangin’ down to her waist, and the brightest, mourn fullest black eyes you ever see. She stood there lookin’ right at Cinthy; and Cinthy thinks that was what waked her up; ’cause, you know, ef anybody stands and looks steady at folks asleep it’s apt to wake ’em.
“Any way, Cinthy said she felt jest as ef she was turnin’ to stone. She couldn’t move nor speak. She lay a minute, and then she shut her eyes, and begun to say her prayers; and a minute after she opened ’em, and it was gone.
“Cinthy was a sensible gal, and one that allers hed her thoughts about her; and she jest got up and put a shawl round her shoulders, and went first and looked at the doors, and they was both on ’em locked jest as she left ’em when she went to bed. Then she looked under the bed and in the closet, and felt all round the room: where she couldn’t see she felt her way, and there wa’n’t nothin’ there.
“Wal, next mornin’ Cinthy got up and went home, and she kep’ it to herself a good while. Finally, one day when she was workin’ to our house she told Hepsy about it, and Hepsy she told me.”
“Well, Sam,” we said, after a pause, in which we heard only the rustle of leaves and the ticking of branches against each other, “what do you suppose it was?”
“Wal, there ’tis: you know jest as much about it as I do. Hepsy told Cinthy it might ‘a’ ben a dream; so it might, but Cinthy she was sure it wa’n’t a dream, ’cause she remembers plain hearin’ the old clock on the stairs strike four while she had her eyes open lookin’ at the woman; and then she only shet ’em a minute, jest to say ‘Now I lay me,’ and opened ’em and she was gone.
“Wal, Cinthy told Hepsy, and Hepsy she kep’ it putty close. She didn’t tell it to nobody except Aunt Sally Dickerson and the Widder Bije Smith and your Grandma Badger and the minister’s wife; and they every one o’ ’em ‘greed it ought to be kep’ close, ’cause it would make talk. Wal, come spring, somehow or other it seemed to ‘a’ got all over Old-town. I heard on ‘t to the store and up to the tavern; and Jake Marshall he says to me one day, ‘What’s this ‘ere about the cap’n’s house?’ And the Widder Loker she says to me, ‘There’s ben a ghost seen in the cap’n’s house;’ and I heard on ‘t clear over to Needham and Sherburne.
“Some o’ the women they drew themselves up putty stiff and proper. Your Aunt Lois was one on ’em.
“‘Ghost,’ says she; ‘don’t tell me! Perhaps it would be best ef ’twas a ghost,’ says she. She didn’t think there ought to be no sich doin’s in nobody’s house; and your grandma she shet her up, and told her she didn’t oughter talk so.”
“Talk how?” said I, interrupting Sam with wonder. “What did Aunt Lois mean?”
“Why, you see,” said Sam mysteriously, “there allers is folks in every town that’s jest like the Sadducees in old times: they won’t believe in angel nor sperit, no way you can fix it; and ef things is seen and done in a house, why, they say, it’s ’cause there’s somebody there; there’s some sort o’ deviltry or trick about it.
“So the story got round that there was a woman kep’ private in Cap’n Brown’s house, and that he brought her from furrin parts; and it growed and growed, till there was all sorts o’ ways o’ tellin on ‘t.
“Some said they’d seen her a settin’ at an open winder. Some said that moonlight nights they’d seen her a walkin’ out in the back garden kind o’ in and out ‘mong the bean-poles and squash-vines.
“You see, it come on spring and summer; and the winders o’ the Cap’n Brown house stood open, and folks was all a watchin’ on ’em day and night. Aunt Sally Dickerson told the minister’s wife that she’d seen in plain daylight a woman a settin’ at the chamber winder atween four and five o’clock in the mornin’,–jist a settin’ a lookin’ out and a doin’ nothin’, like anybody else. She was very white and pale, and had black eyes.
“Some said that it was a nun the cap’n had brought away from a Roman Catholic convent in Spain, and some said he’d got her out o’ the Inquisition.
“Aunt Sally said she thought the minister ought to call and inquire why she didn’t come to meetin’, and who she was, and all about her: ’cause, you see, she said it might be all right enough ef folks only know’d jest how things was; but ef they didn’t, why, folks will talk.”
“Well, did the minister do it?”
“What, Parson Lothrop? Wal, no, he didn’t. He made a call on the cap’n in a regular way, and asked arter his health and all his family. But the cap’n he seemed jest as jolly and chipper as a spring robin, and he gin the minister some o’ his old Jamaiky; and the minister he come away and said he didn’t see nothin’; and no he didn’t. Folks never does see nothin’ when they aint’ lookin’ where ’tis. Fact is, Parson Lothrop wa’n’t fond o’ inter-ferin’; he was a master hand to slick things over. Your grandma she used to mourn about it, ’cause she said he never gin no p’int to the doctrines; but ’twas all of a piece, he kind o’ took every thing the smooth way.
“But your grandma she believed in the ghost, and so did Lady Lothrop. I was up to her house t’other day fixin’ a door-knob, and says she, ‘Sam, your wife told me a strange story about the Cap’n Brown house.’
“‘Yes, ma’am, she did,’ says I.
“‘Well, what do you think of it?’ says she.
“‘Wal, sometimes I think, and then agin I don’t know,’ says I. ‘There’s Cinthy she’s a member o’ the church and a good pious gal,’ says I.
“‘Yes, Sam,’ says Lady Lothrop, says she; ‘and Sam,’ says she, ‘it is jest like something that happened once to my grandmother when she was livin’ in the old Province House in Bostin.’ Says she, ‘These ‘ere things is the mysteries of Providence, and it’s jest as well not to have ’em too much talked about.’
“‘Jest so,’ says I,–‘jest so. That ‘are’s what every woman I’ve talked with says; and I guess, fust and last, I’ve talked with twenty,–good, safe church-members,–and they’s every one o’ opinion that this ‘ere oughtn’t to be talked about. Why, over to the deakin’s t’other night we went it all over as much as two or three hours, and we concluded that the best way was to keep quite still about it; and that’s jest what they say over to Need-ham and Sherburne. I’ve been all round a hushin’ this ‘ere up, and I hain’t found but a few people that hedn’t the particulars one way or another.’ This ‘ere was what I says to Lady Lothrop. The fact was, I never did see no report spread so, nor make sich sort o’ sarchin’s o’ heart, as this ‘ere. It railly did beat all; ’cause, ef ’twas a ghost, why there was the p’int proved, ye see. Cinthy’s a church-member, and she see it, and got right up and sarched the room: but then agin, ef ’twas a woman, why that ‘are was kind o’ awful; it give cause, ye see, for thinkin’ all sorts o’ things. There was Cap’n Brown, to be sure, he wa’n’t a church-member; but yet he was as honest and regular a man as any goin’, as fur as any on us could see. To be sure, nobody know’d where he come from, but that wa’n’t no reason agin’ him: this ‘ere might a ben a crazy sister, or some poor critter that he took out o’ the best o’ motives; and the Scriptur’ says, ‘Charity hopeth all things.’ But then, ye see, folks will talk,–that ‘are’s the pester o’ all these things,–and they did some on ’em talk consid’able strong about the cap’n; but somehow or other, there didn’t nobody come to the p’int o’ facin’ on him down, and savin’ square out, ‘Cap’n Brown, have you got a woman in your house, or hain’t you? or is it a ghost, or what is it?’ Folks somehow never does come to that. Ye see, there was the cap’n so respectable, a settin’ up every Sunday there in his pew, with his ruffles round his hands and his red broadcloth cloak and his cocked hat. Why, folks’ hearts sort o’ failed ’em when it come to say in’ any thing right to him. They thought and kind o’ whispered round that the minister or the deakins oughter do it: but Lordy massy! ministers, I s’pose, has feelin’s like the rest on us; they don’t want to eat all the hard cheeses that nobody else won’t eat. Anyhow, there wasn’t nothin’ said direct to the cap’n; and jest for want o’ that all the folks in Old-town kep’ a bilin’ and a bilin’ like a kettle o’ soap, till it seemed all the time as if they’d bile over.
“Some o’ the wimmen tried to get somethin’ out o’ Quassy. Lordy massy! you might as well ‘a’ tried to get it out an old tom-turkey, that’ll strut and gobble and quitter, and drag his wings on the ground, and fly at you, but won’t say nothin’. Quassy she screeched her queer sort o’ laugh; and she told ’em that they was a makin’ fools o’ themselves, and that the cap’n’s matters wa’n’t none o’ their bisness; and that was true enough. As to goin’ into Quassia’s room, or into any o’ the store-rooms or closets she kep’ the keys of, you might as well hev gone into a lion’s den. She kep’ all her places locked up tight; and there was no gettin’ at nothin’ in the Cap’n Brown house, else I believe some o’ the wimmen would ‘a’ sent a sarch-warrant.”
“Well,” said I, “what came of it? Didn’t anybody ever find out?”
“Wal,” said Sam, “it come to an end sort o’, and didn’t come to an end. It was jest this ‘ere way. You see, along in October, jest in the cider-makin’ time, Abel Flint he was took down with dysentery and died. You ‘member the Flint house: it stood on a little rise o’ ground jest lookin’ over towards the Brown house. Wal, there was Aunt Sally Dickerson and the Widder Bije Smith, they set up with the corpse. He was laid out in the back chamber, you see, over the milk-room and kitchen; but there was cold victuals and sich in the front chamber, where the watchers sot. Wal, now, Aunt Sally she told me that between three and four o’clock she heard wheels a rumblin’, and she went to the winder, and it was clear starlight; and she see a coach come up to the Cap’n Brown house; and she see the cap’n come out bringin’ a woman all wrapped in a cloak, and old Quassy came arter with her arms full o’ bundles; and he put her into the kerridge, and shet her in, and it driv off; and she see old Quassy stand lookin’ over the fence arter it. She tried to wake up the widder, but ’twas towards mornin’, and the widder allers was a hard sleeper; so there wa’n’t no witness but her.’
“Well, then, it wasn’t a ghost,” said I, “after all, and it was a woman.”
“Wal, there ’tis, you see. Folks don’t know that ‘are yit, ’cause there it’s jest as broad as ’tis long. Now, look at it. There’s Cinthy, she’s a good, pious gal: she locks her chamber-doors, both on ’em, and goes to bed, and wakes up in the night, and there’s a woman there. She jest shets her eyes, and the woman’s gone. She gits up and looks, and both doors is locked jest as she left ’em. That ‘ere woman wa’n’t flesh and blood now, no way,–not such flesh and blood as we knows on; but then they say Cinthy might hev dreamed it!
“Wal, now, look at it t’other way. There’s Aunt Sally Dickerson; she’s a good woman and a church-member: wal, she sees a woman in a cloak with all her bundles brought out o’ Cap’n Brown’s house, and put into a kerridge, and driv off, atween three and four o’clock in the mornin’. Wal, that ‘ere shows there must ‘a’ ben a real live woman kep’ there privately, and so what Cinthy saw wasn’t a ghost.
“Wal, now, Cinthy says Aunt Sally might ‘a’ dreamed it,–that she got her head so full o’ stories about the Cap’n Brown house, and watched it till she got asleep, and hed this ‘ere dream; and, as there didn’t nobody else see it, it might ‘a’ ben, you know. Aunt Sally’s clear she didn’t dream, and then agin Cinthy’s clear she didn’t dream; but which on ’em was awake, or which on ’em was asleep, is what ain’t settled in Oldtown yet.”