It is with very deep regret that I find myself unable to keep the promise made to you last spring to provide you with a suitable ghost story for your Christmas number. I have made several efforts to prepare such a tale as it seemed to me you would require, but, one and all, these have proved unavailing. By a singular and annoying combination of circumstances in which only my unfortunate habit of meeting trouble in a spirit of badinage has involved me, I cannot secure the models which I invariably need for the realistic presentation of my stories, and I decline at present, as I have hitherto consistently declined, to draw upon my imagination for the ingredients necessary, even though tempted by the exigencies of a contract sealed, signed, and delivered. It is far from my wish to be known to you as one who makes promises only to break them, but there are times in a man’s life when he must consider seriously which is the lesser evil, to deceive the individual or to deceive the world, the latter being a mass of individuals, and, consequently, as much more worthy of respect as the whole is greater than a part. Could I bring myself to be false to my principles as a scribe, and draw upon my fancy for my facts, and, through a prostitution of my art, so sickly o’er my plot with the pale cast of realism as to hoodwink my readers into believing what I know to be false, the task were easy. Given a more or less active and unrestrained imagination, pen, ink, paper, and the will to do so, to construct out of these a ghost story which might have been, but as a matter of fact was not, presents no difficulties whatsoever; but I unfortunately have a conscience which, awkward as it is to me at times, I intend to keep clear and unspotted. The consciousness of having lied would forever rest as a blot upon my escutcheon. I cannot manufacture out of whole cloth a narrative such as you desire and be true to myself, and this I intend to be, even if by so doing I must seem false to you, I think, however, that, as one of my friends and most important consumer, you are entitled to a complete explanation of my failure to do as I have told you I would. To most others I should send merely a curt note evidencing, not pleading, a pressure of other work as the cause of my not coming to time. To you it is owed that I should enter somewhat into the details of the unfortunate business.
You doubtless remember that last summer, with our mutual friend Peters, I traveled abroad seeking health and, incidentally, ideas. I had discovered that imported ideas were on the whole rather more popular in America than those which might be said to be indigenous to the soil. The reading public had, for the time being at least, given itself over to moats and chateaux and bloodshed and the curious dialects of the lower orders of British society. Sherlock Holmes had superseded Old Sleuth in the affections of my countrymen who read books. Even those honest little critics the boys and girls were finding more to delight them in the doings of Richard Coeur de Lion and Alice in Wonderland than in the more remarkable and intensely American adventures of Ragged Dick or Mickie the Motorboy. John Storm was at that moment hanging over the world like the sword of Damocles, and Rudolph Rassendyll had completely overshadowed such essentially American heroes as Uncle Tom and Rollo. I found, to my chagrin, that the poetry of Tennyson was more widely read than my own, even though Tennyson was dead and I was not. And in the universities whole terms were devoted to the compulsory study of dramatists like Shakespeare and Moliere, while home talent, as represented by Mr. Hoyt or the facile productions of Messrs. Weber & Fields was relegated to the limbo of electives which the students might take up or not, as they chose, and then only in hours which they were expected to devote to recreation. All of which seemed to indicate that while there was no royal road to literary fame, there was with equal certainty no republican path thereto, and that real inspiration was to be derived rather under the effete monarchies of Europe than at home. To Peters the same idea had occurred, but in his case in relation to art rather than to literature. The patrons of art in America had a marked preference for the works of Meissonier, Corot, Gerome, Millet–anybody, so long as he was a foreigner, Peters said. The wealthy would pay ten, twenty, a hundred thousand dollars for a Rousseau or a Rosa. Bonheur rather than exchange a paltry one hundred dollars for a canvas by Peters, though, as far as Peters was concerned, his canvas was just as well woven, his pigments as carefully mixed, and his application of the one to the other as technically correct as was anything from the foreign brushes.
“You can’t take in the full import of a Turner unless you stand a way away from it,” said he, “and if you’ll only stand far enough away from mine you couldn’t tell it from a Meissonier.”
And when I jocularly responded to this that I thought a mile was the proper distance, he was offended. We quarreled, but made up after a while, and in the making up decided upon a little venture into foreign fields together, not only to recuperate, but to see if so be we could discover just where the workers on the other side got that quality which placed them in popular esteem so far ahead of ourselves.
What we discovered along this especial line must form the burden of another story. The main cause of our foreign trip, these discoveries, are but incidental to the theme I have in hand. Our conclusions were important, but they have no place here, and what they were you will have to wait until my work on Abroad versus Home is completed to learn. But what is important to this explanation is the fact that while going through the long passage leading from the Pitti Palace to the Uffizi Gallery at Florence we–or rather I–encountered one of those phantoms which have been among the chief joys and troubles of my life. Peters was too much taken up with his Baedeker to see either ghosts or pictures. Indeed, it used to irritate me that Peters saw so little, but he would do as most American tourists do, and spend all of his time looking for some especial thing he thought he ought to see, and generally missing not only it, but thousands of minor things quite as well worthy of his attention. I don’t believe he would have seen the ghost, however, under any circumstances. It requires a specially cultivated eye or digestion, one or the other, to enable one to see ghosts, and Peters’s eye is blind to the invisible and his digestion is good.
Why, under the canopy, the vulgar little spectre was haunting a picture-gallery I never knew, unless it was to embarrass the Americans who passed to and fro, for he claimed to be an American spook. I knew he was not a living thing the minute I laid eyes through him. He loomed up before me while I was engaged in chuckling over a particularly bad canvas by somebody whose name I have forgotten, but which was something like Beppo di Contarini. It represented the scene of a grand fete at Venice back in the fifteenth century, and while preserved by the art-lovers of Florence as something worthy, would, I firmly believe, have failed of acceptance even by the catholic taste of the editor of an American Sunday newspaper comic supplement. The thing was crude in its drawing, impossible in its coloring, and absolutely devoid of action. Every gondola on the canal looked as if it were stuck in the mud, and as for the water of the Grand Canal itself, it had all the liquid glory under this artist’s touch of calf’s-foot jelly, and it amused me intensely to think that these patrons of art, in the most artistic city in the world, should have deemed it worth keeping. However, whatever the merit of the painting, I was annoyed in the midst of my contemplation of it to have thrust into the line of vision a shape–I cannot call it a body because there was no body to it. There were the lineaments of a living person, and a very vulgar living person at that, but the thing was translucent, and as it stepped in between me and the wonderful specimen of Beppo di Somethingorother’s art I felt as if a sudden haze had swept over my eyes, blurring the picture until it reminded me of a cheap kind of decalcomania that in my boyhood days had satisfied my yearnings after the truly beautiful.
I made several ineffectual passes with my hands to brush the thing away. I had discovered that with certain classes of ghosts one could be rid of them, just as one may dissipate a cloud of smoke, by swirling one’s outstretched paw around in it, and I hoped that I might in this way rid myself of the nuisance now before me. But I was mistaken. He swirled, but failed to dissipate.
“Hum!” said I, straightening up, and addressing the thing with some degree of irritation. “You may know a great deal about art, my friend, but you seem not to have studied manners. Get out of my way.”
“Pah!” he ejaculated, turning a particularly nasty pair of green eyes on me. “Who the deuce are you, that you should give me orders?”
“Well,” said I, “if I were impulsive of speech and seldom grammatical, I might reply by saying Me, but as a purist, let me tell you, sir, that I’m I, and if you seek to know further and more intimately, I will add that who I am is none of your infernal business.”
“Humph!” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Grammatical or otherwise, you’re a coward! You don’t dare say who you are, because you are afraid of me. You know I am a spectre, and, like all commonplace people, you are afraid of ghosts.”
A hot retort was on my lips, and I was about to tell him my name and address, when it occurred to me that by doing so I might lay myself open to a kind of persecution from which I have suffered from time to time, ghosts are sometimes so hard to lay, so I accomplished what I at the moment thought was my purpose by a bluff.
“Oh, as for that,” said I, “my name is So and So, and I live at Number This, That Street, Chicago, Illinois.”
Both the name and the address were of course fictitious.
“Very well,” said he, calmly, making a note of the address. “My name is Jones. I am the president of the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks, enjoying a well earned rest from his labors on his savings from his salary as a walking delegate. You shall hear from me on your return to Chicago through the local chapter, the United Apparitions of Illinois.”
“All right,” said I, with equal calmness, “If the Illinois spooks are as Illinoisome as you are, I will summon the board of health and have them laid without more ado.”
Upon this we parted. That is to say, I walked on to the Uffizi, and he vanished, in something of a rage, it seemed to me.
I thought no more of the matter until a week ago, when, in accordance with an agreement with the principal thereof, I left New York to go to Chicago, to give a talk before a certain young ladies’ boarding school, on the subject of “Muscular Romanticism.” This was a lecture I had prepared on a literary topic concerning which I had thought much. I had observed that a great deal of the popularity of certain authors had come from the admiration of young girls–mostly those at boarding-school, and therefore deprived of real manly company–for a kind of literature which, seeming to be manly, did not yet appeal very strongly to men. In certain aspects it seemed strong. It presented heroes who were truly heroic, and who always did the right thing in the right manner. Writers who had more ink than blood to shed, and a greater knowledge of etiquette than of human nature, were making their way into temporary fame by compelling chaps to do things they could not do. I rather like to read of these fellows myself. I am no exception to the rule which makes human beings admire, and very strongly, too, the fellow who poses successfully. Indeed, I admire a poseur who can carry his pose through without disaster to himself, because he has nothing to back him up, and, wanting this, if by his assurance he can make himself a considerable personage he falls short of genius only by lacking it. But this is apart from the story. Whatever the general line of thought in the lecture, I was, as I have said, on my way to Chicago to deliver it before a young ladies’ boarding school. I should have been happy over the prospect, for I have many warm friends in Chicago, there was a moderately large fee ahead, and there is always a charm, as well, in the mere act of standing on a dais before some two or three hundred young girls and having their undivided attention for a brief hour. Yet, despite all this, I was dreadfully depressed. Why, I could not at first surmise. It seemed to me, however as though some horrid disaster were impending. I experienced all the sensations which make four o’clock in the morning so dreaded an hour to those who suffer from insomnia. My heart would race ahead, thumping like the screw of an ocean greyhound, and then slow down until it seemingly ceased to beat altogether; my hands were alternately dry and hot, and clammy and cold; and then like a flash I knew why, and what it was I feared. It suddenly dawned upon my mind that, by some frightfully unhappy coincidence, the address of Miss Brockton’s Academy for Young Ladies, whither I was bound, was precisely the same as that I had given the vulgar little spook at Florence as my own. I had entirely forgotten the incident; and then, as I drew near to the spot whereon I was to have been made to suffer through the machinations of the local chapter of the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks, my soul was filled with dread. Had Grand-Master-Spook Jones’s threat been merely idle? Had he, even as I had done, dismissed the whole affair as unworthy of any further care, or would he keep his word?–indeed, had he kept his word, and, through his followers in the Amalgamated Brotherhood, made himself obnoxious to the residents of Number This, That Street?
My nervous dread redoubled as I neared Chicago, and it was as much as I could do, when the train reached Kalamazoo, to keep from turning back. And the event showed that I suffered with only too much reason, for, on my arrival at the home of the institution, I found it closed. The door was locked, the shades pulled down, the building the perfect picture of gloom. Miss Brockton, I was informed, was in a lunatic asylum, and two hundred and eighty-three young girls, ranging from fourteen to twenty years of age, had been returned to their parents, the hair of every mother’s daughter of them blanched white as the driven snow. No one knew, my informant said, exactly what had occurred at the academy, but the fact that was plain to all was that, some two weeks previous to my coming, the school had retired at the usual hour one night, in the very zenith of a happy prosperity, and gathered at breakfast the next morning to find itself wrecked, and bearing the outward semblance of a home for indigent old ladies. No one, from Miss Brockton herself to the youngest pupil, could give a coherent account of what had turned them all gray in a single night, and brought the furrows of age to cheeks both old and young, nor could any inducement be held out to any of the pupils to pass another night within those walls. They one and all fled madly back to their homes, and Miss Brockton’s attempted explanation was so incredible that, protesting her sanity, she was nevertheless placed under restraint, pending a full investigation of the incident. She had, I was informed, asserted that some sixty ghosts of most terrible aspect had paraded through the house between the hours of midnight and 2 A.M., howling and shrieking and threatening the occupants in a most terrifying fashion. At their head marched a spectre brass band of twenty–four pieces, grinding out with horrid contortions and grimaces the most awful discords imaginable–discords, indeed, Miss Brockton had said, alongside of which those of the most grossly material German street band in creation became melodies of soothing sweetness. The spectre rabble to the rear bore transparencies, upon which were painted such legends as, “Hail to Jones, our beloved Chief!” “Strike One, Strike All!” and, “Down with Hawkins, the Grinder of Ghosts!” This last caused my heart to sink still lower, for Hawkins was the name I had given the vision at Florence, and I now understood all. It was only too manifest that I was the cause of the undoing of these innocents.