The ghost that got into our house on the night of November 17, 1915, raised such a hullabaloo of misunderstandings that I am sorry I didn’t just let it keep on walking, and go to bed. Its advent caused my mother to throw a shoe through a window of the house next door and ended up with my grandfather shooting a patrolman. I am sorry, therefore, as I have said, that I ever paid any attention to the footsteps.
They began about a quarter past one o’clock in the morning, a rhythmic, quick-cadenced walking around the dining-room table. My mother was asleep in one room upstairs, my brother Herman in another; grandfather was in the attic, in the old walnut bed which, as you will remember, once fell on my father. I had just stepped out of the bathtub and was busily rubbing myself with a towel when I heard the steps. They were the steps of a man walking rapidly around the dining-room table downstairs.
The light from the bathroom shone down the back steps, which dropped directly into the dining-room; I could see the faint shine of plates on the plate-rail; I couldn’t see the table. The steps kept going round and round the table; at regular intervals a board creaked, when it was trod upon. I supposed at first that it was my father or my brother Roy, who had gone to Indianapolis but were expected home at any time. I suspected next that it was a burglar. It did not enter my mind until later that it was a ghost.
After the walking had gone on for perhaps three minutes, I tiptoed to Herman’s room. “Psst!” I hissed, in the dark, shaking him. “Awp,” he said, in the low, hopeless tone of a despondent beagle—he always half suspected that something would “get him” in the night. I told him who I was. “There’s something downstairs!” I said. He got up and followed me to the head of the back staircase. We listened together. There was no sound. The steps had ceased. Herman looked at me in some alarm: I had only the bath towel around my waist. He wanted to go back to bed, but I gripped his arm.
‘There’s something down there!” I said. Instantly the steps began again, circled the dining-room table like a man running, and started up the stairs toward us, heavily, two at a time. The light still shone palely down the stairs; we saw nothing coming; we only heard the steps. Herman rushed to his room and slammed the door. I slammed shut the door at the stairs top and held my knee against it. After a long minute, I slowly opened it again. There was nothing there. There was no sound. None of us ever heard the ghost again.
He always half suspected that something would get him.
The slamming of the doors had aroused mother: she peered out of her room. “What on earth are you boys doing?” she demanded. Herman ventured out of his room. “Nothing,” he said, gruffly, but he was, in color, a light green. “What was all that running around downstairs?” said mother. So she had heard the steps, too! We just looked at her. “Burglars!” she shouted intuitively. I tried to quiet her by starting lightly downstairs.
“Come on, Herman,” I said.
“I’ll stay with mother,” he said. “She’s all excited.”
I stepped back onto the landing.
“Don’t either of you go a step,” said mother. “We’ll call the police.” Since the phone was downstairs, I didn’t see how we were going to call the police—nor did I want the police—but mother made one of her quick, incomparable decisions. She flung up a window of her bedroom which faced the bedroom windows of the house of a neighbor, picked up a shoe, and whammed it through a pane of glass across the narrow space that separated the two houses.
Glass tinkled into the bedroom occupied by a retired engraver named Bodwell and his wife. Bodwell had been for some years in rather a bad way and was subject to mild “attacks.” Most everybody we knew or lived near had some kind of attacks.
It was now about two o’clock of a moonless night; clouds hung black and low. Bodwell was at the window in a minute, shouting, frothing a little, shaking his fist. “We’ll sell the house and go back to Peoria,” we could hear Mrs. Bodwell saying. It was some time before mother “got through” to Bodwell. “Burglars!” she shouted. “Burglars in the house!” Herman and I hadn’t dared to tell her that it was not burglars but ghosts, for she was even more afraid of ghosts than of burglars.
Bodwell at first thought that she meant there were burglars in his house, but finally he quieted down and called the police for us over an extension phone by his bed. After he had disappeared from the window, mother suddenly made as if to throw another shoe, not because there was further need of it but, as she later explained, because the thrill of heaving a shoe through a window glass had enormously taken her fancy. I prevented her.
The police were on hand in a commendably short time: a Ford sedan full of them, two on motorcycles, and a patrol wagon with about eight in it and a few reporters. They began banging at our front door. Flashlights shot streaks of gleam up and down the walls, across the yard, down the walk between our house and Bodwell’s. “Open up!” cried a hoarse voice.
“We’re men from Headquarters!” I wanted to go down and let them in, since there they were, but mother wouldn’t hear of it. “You haven’t a stitch on,” she pointed out. “You’d catch your death.” I wound the towel around me again. Finally the cops put their shoulders to our big heavy front door with its thick beveled glass and broke it in: I could hear a rending of wood and a splash of glass on the floor of the hall. Their lights played all over the living-room and crisscrossed nervously in the dining-room, stabbed into hallways, shot up the front stairs and finally up the back.
They caught me standing in my towel at the top. A heavy policeman bounded up the steps. “Who are you?” he demanded. “I live here,” I said. “Well, whattsa matta, ya hot?” he asked. It was, as a matter of fact, cold; I went to my room and pulled on some trousers. On my way out, a cop stuck a gun into my ribs. “Whatta you doin’ here?” he demanded. “I live here,” I said.
The officer in charge reported to mother. “No sign of nobody, lady,” he said. “Musta got away—whatt’d he look like?” “There were two or three of them,” mother said, “whooping and carrying on and slamming doors.” “Funny,” said the cop. “All ya windows and doors was locked on the inside tight as a tick.”
Downstairs, we could hear the tromping of the other police. Police were all over the place; doors were yanked open, drawers were yanked open, windows were shot up and pulled down, furniture fell with dull thumps. A half-dozen policemen emerged out of the darkness of the front hallway upstairs. They began to ransack the floor: pulled beds away from walls, tore clothes off hooks in the closets, pulled suitcases and boxes off shelves. One of them found an old zither that Roy had won in a pool tournament. “Looky here, Joe,” he said, strumming it with a big paw.
The cop named Joe took it and turned it over. “What is it?” he asked me. “It’s an old zither our guinea pig used to sleep on,” I said. It was true that a pet guinea pig we once had would never sleep anywhere except on the zither, but I should never have said so. Joe and the other cop looked at me a long time. They put the zither back on a shelf.
“No sign o’ nuthin’,” said the cop who had first spoken to mother. “This guy,” he explained to the others, jerking a thumb at me, “was nekked. The lady seems historical.” They all nodded, but said nothing; just looked at me. In the small silence we all heard a creaking in the attic. Grandfather was turning over in bed. “What’s ‘at?” snapped Joe.
Five or six cops sprang for the attic door before I could intervene or explain. I realized that it would be bad if they burst in on grandfather unannounced, or even announced. He was going through a phase in which he believed that General Meade’s men, under steady hammering by Stonewall Jackson, were beginning to retreat and even desert.
When I got to the attic, things were pretty confused. Grandfather had evidently jumped to the conclusion that the police were deserters from Meade’s army, trying to hide away in his attic. He bounded out of bed wearing a long flannel nightgown over long woolen underwear, a nightcap, and a leather jacket around his chest.
The cops must have realized at once that the indignant white-haired old man belonged in the house, but they had no chance to say so. “Back, ye cowardly dogs!” roared grandfather. “Back t’ the lines, ye goddam lily-livered cattle!” With that, he fetched the officer who found the zither a flat-handed smack alongside his head that sent him sprawling. The others beat a retreat, but not fast enough; grandfather grabbed Zither’s gun from its holster and let fly.
The report seemed to crack the rafters; smoke filled the attic. A cop cursed and shot his hand to his shoulder. Somehow, we all finally got downstairs again and locked the door against the old gentleman. He fired once or twice more in the darkness and then went back to bed. “That was grandfather,” I explained to Joe, out of breath. “He thinks you’re deserters.” “I’ll say he does,” said Joe.
The cops were reluctant to leave without getting their hands on somebody besides grandfather; the night had been distinctly a defeat for them. Furthermore, they obviously didn’t like the “layout”; something looked — and I can see their viewpoint — phony. They began to poke into things again. A reporter, a thin-faced, wispy man, came up to me. I had put on one of mother’s blouses, not being able to find anything else. The reporter looked at me with mingled suspicion and interest. “Just what the hell is the real lowdown here, Bud?” he asked.
I decided to be frank with him. “We had ghosts,” I said. He gazed at me a long time as if I were a slot machine into which he had, without results, dropped a nickel. Then he walked away. The cops followed him, the one grandfather shot holding his now-bandaged arm, cursing and blaspheming. “I’m gonna get my gun back from that old bird,” said the zither-cop. “Yeh,” said Joe. “You — and who else?” I told them I would bring it to the station house the next day.
“What was the matter with that one policeman?” mother asked, after they had gone. “Grandfather shot him,” I said. “What for?” she demanded. I told her he was a deserter. “Of all things!” said mother. “He was such a nice-looking young man.”
Grandfather was fresh as a daisy and full of jokes at breakfast next morning. We thought at first he had forgotten all about what had happened, but he hadn’t. Over his third cup of coffee, he glared at Herman and me. “What was the idee of all them cops tarryhootin’ round the house last night?” he demanded. He had us there.
The Night the Ghost Got In by James Thurber in My Life and Hard Times