Monday, July 25, 2016
A Canadian Ghost Story by Rev. Herbert H Gowe 1893
A Canadian Ghost Story by Rev. Herbert H Gowe 1893
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A Ghost story in a new country ! Not a very likely thing, and, certainly, when I went to Canada from England for a few weeks' pursuit of health, ghost stories were about the last things I expected to hear.
Yet there was no mistaking the seriousness with which the Dean asked me, "Would you like to hear a ghost story, of which this is the very scene?"
I had been staying for a few days at the city of K___, in one of the snowiest parts of the country, and was so charmed by the winter beauties of the place, I expressed myself quite enthusiastically on the subject to the Bishop, to whom I had been introduced on the Sunday morning.
"Take him out, Mr. Dean," he replied, "to see some country work, and if you can manage to pitch him into a snow-drift, perhaps he will change his mind."
So it was settled that I should accompany Mr. Arthur every afternoon on his weekly journey to Mooseland, a small settlement nine or ten miles from the city.
It was a glorious drive. I had by this time got quite to revel in the delight of a long sleigh-ride. The tinkling of the bells seemed to me the pleasantest sound in Canada, and I had often gone on the river, where the ice was some three feet in thickness, jumped upon the first sleigh that I spied, and gone on for several miles until I saw a suitable vehicle in which to make the return journey. At night it was especially enchanting. The air was intensely clear, the sky spangled with innumerable stars—at least twice as many as I had ever seen in England—the vast sheet of ice shimmered with faint light, and the dark woods crowning the hills a quarter of a mile away on either side, gave a weirdness to the scenery which quite prepared my imagination for the howling rush of a pack of wolves. Moreover, there was the thought of the vanished races of this old, new land. In those woods I could feel
"My footsteps press, where centuries ago, The red men fought and conquer'd, lost and won!
Whole tribes and races, gone like last year's snow,
Have found the eternal hunting grounds, and run
The fiery gauntlet of their active days,
Until few are left to tell the mournful tale."
But I am wandering from the Sunday drive on which my tale opens.
Owing to the late period of the winter—it was now March—the pleasures of sleigh-driving were getting rather uncertain. In some places the road was through pools of water, which reached almost to the floor of the "pung," as our peculiar species of sleigh was termed. Then we would traverse for a time a road of soft, yielding snow, in which the poor horse would sink at every step up to his knees. This was, of course, slow work, and the unevenness of the road produced plenty of bumping, or as it is here called technically, "Thank'ee mums."
But as we got further from the town, the road became harder and smoother, and for a mile at a time we were able to dash along like the wind. Here the snow, in the snowy winter referred to, was many feet in depth, considerably over the tops of the fences, and it was curious to see the tops only of the low fir trees projecting from the snow. Woe betide the unlucky traveller who went one foot out of the beaten track. He would soon find himself in a perilous fix. To enable travellers to keep the road, small fir-trees are stuck in the snow along either side. This had been done since the first fall of the winter's snow, and so each layer had been firmly trodden down, and a beaten track made, itself of a considerable depth. At one point we were enabled to see the depth of the snow at a settlement where the folks had been digging up the meat put there at the beginning of the winter. The pit which formed this natural refrigerator was fully nine feet in depth.
In other parts there was less snow, and the dark forests on either side, of spruce, pine and fir, rising out of a carpet of the purest white, were very impressive in the solitude. The settlements themselves seemed indeed but very small slices cut out of the primeval wood. There were settlements of all degrees of cultivation. Here a mere log-house, surrounded by a few blackened stumps, which a year ago were flourishing giants of the forest; here a frame house, with outhouses and barns, where more than one generous harvest had been stored; here a prosperous farm, where the very stones and stumps had been removed, and the land broken up by the plough.
But these signs of civilization only made the virgin forest more awe-inspiring and gloomy; and it was at one point where the gloom was especially deep that the Dean almost involuntarily drew rein, and addressed to me the question I have written above:
"Would you like to hear a ghost story, of which this is the very scene?"
He did not speak lightly, as I had so often heard ghost tales spoken of, and his eyes had a strange light in them, which made me feel the slightest possible hair-stirring pass over me for a moment.
I said I should like to hear it very much; but, to my surprise, he said no more on the subject, and went back to the company of his own thoughts.
We got to Mooseland soon after this, had our service, which was as bright and hearty as Canadian country services generally are, and then started out on the homeward journey. We had been talking of various matters suggested by the service, till we arrived again at the dark pass of timber, when my companion suddenly stopped, seemed to hesitate for a moment or two, and then plunged into the following recital:
"You know," he said, "that since the making of this road, I have, as a rule, taken the journey to Mooseland every Sunday afternoon, and I have had, in the time, some strange experiences.
"One Sunday the wind blew away my buffalo robe, and I had to wade breast high through the snow to get at it, while the horse continued his way along the road, and I had the very narrowest squeak of being left to perish in the snow. Another time I found the forest burning on each side of the road, and I had to urge the horse frantically through the fiery avenue, emerging half-dead with suffocation on the other side. But these are ordinary Canadian experiences, and what I am now going to tell you is a little out of the ordinary.
"One Sunday afternoon, just over a year ago, I was driving along as usual, thinking of my sermon, when I was suddenly startled by seeing the figure of a man on the edge of the wood, some distance in advance. It would have been strange enough to see a man here at all, but this man—! How shall I describe him? In fact, I can't describe him, as I never saw his face. He was standing with his back half-turned towards me, and I noticed especially, though he seemed erect and young, he was dressed in a style which has certainly gone out of fashion for a generation or more. However, I said to myself, 'Some wayfarer about to ask for a lift to the next settlement!' and saying this, I slackened speed to give the stranger a chance of jumping into the sleigh. To my astonishment he took no notice of this whatever, but still keeping his face turned from me, slowly crossed the snow-road and disappeared into the forest on the other side. At the time I never thought what an impossible feat this was, but after service I felt a curious half fear as I approached the place. Nothing further, however, happened, nor all through the summer, but some months ago, soon after the first deep fall of snow, at the same place, in exactly the same position, and in the same odd dress, I saw the man again. This time I called out as I approached him, but he was as one that heard not; only again slowly crossing my path, he disappeared in the same mysterious fashion. My curiosity this time got the better of my fears, and I got out of the sleigh, to discover—not altogether to my surprise—that there was not the slightest trace of a footstep in the snow, which lay around as smooth as a sheet and perfectly undisturbed. As far as I dared, I examined the woods on either side, but there was no sign of the presence of any human creature. I called out till the echoes made me afraid, and then I went back to the sleigh, feeling that I must have been dozing on my journey, or that my mind was giving way to the strain of my work. For this reason, chiefly, I repressed a natural temptation to mention the apparition in the settlement, though perhaps there might have been some one to have thrown some light on the matter.
"That the appearance was not a creation of my own brain, however, I soon had substantial proof. About a month later, I had a young man named Peter Glynn with me in the "pung," and, as he was driving, I resigned myself to my usual meditations, and (I am afraid) soon fell fast asleep. From this I was awakened by the sudden pulling up of the sleigh. I heard a sharp cry of amazement from my companion, and awoke to hear:—
"'Who's that old chap ahead? He looks as if he had been buried and come out of his grave.'
"I said nothing, but followed with my eyes—now wide awake—the same dumb show I had seen on the two previous occasions. When the apparition had finally disappeared, I said aloud:
"'Now we must look into this. This is getting serious.'
"Glynn looked at me, as if not quite sure of my meaning, but we both got down. He took one side, and I the other, and, as long as we dared to stay—for it wanted not more than half an hour to service time—we made as thorough a search as it is possible for mortals to make in the realm of the apparently supernatural. Suffice it to say, that no footprint rewarded our exploration, no voice answered our shouts, and the wood seemed as though man had never broken its complete solitude. So we went on our way, and that is the last time the uncanny thing has crossed my path ; but though there seemed no disposition on the part of the ghost to speak to me, or to hear anything from me, I live in a weekly fear that all is not yet seen or heard, and that I may find myself some time or other in the midst of a strange and ugly story. Perhaps I ought to have followed my impulse, and made known the story in Mooseland, but the folks there were nearly all new settlers, and could hardly know anything of the traditions of the place."
That is the story, just as I was told it; and the narrative occupied the rest of the home journey. We reached home just after dark, and I confess I felt relieved that the darkness did not come on till we were well out of the wood.
As I thought of the story afterwards,, it seemed rather a meaningless one, after all; or at least it required another revelation to explain its meaning, and the few to whom I told the story smiled at it, and said that, even if they were accustomed to put faith in ghost stories, they would expect the ghost to behave in a rational manner (at least, rational for a ghost), tell its story, wring its hands, or display, in grim pantomime, the method by which its ghosthood was attained.
To all this, I had no answer to make, but I felt that a sequel was not impossible, and that some time or other I should hear that which would put a new light on the story.
In this hope I have not been disappointed. I am not a good correspondent, and so did not keep up the communication I ought to have had with my friends in Canada, but every now and then I did have a letter from the Dean, and one day I found a more than usually bulky one, with the Canadian postmark, and almost before I opened it, I had the apprehension that it related to the forest ghost.
It is this letter which enables me to give the following addition to the story, an addition sufficient to show that there probably was, after all, a reason for the strange way in which the restless spirit haunted the scene of his untimely death. A few things are still problematical to me,—especially have I always been puzzled to imagine why the ghost appeared three times to Mr. Arthur. Perhaps, had he spoken of what he had seen in Mooseland, there was an old woman among his hearers who would have found her rest a little sooner.
After I left K__, the ghost was seen once more, or rather twice, although of this there is no very direct evidence.
The first of theso occasions was as follows: It was summer time, and the woods were full of flowers and fast-ripening berries, tempting the children on their way to and from school to wander from the main roads and make more lengthy paths than actual necessity demanded.
Thus, when a child named Alice Graham was one day three hours late home from school, there was little doubt where she had been. But she brought no flowers or fruit—only a pale, ashy face, which frightened those who saw it, and puzzled them, too, till, after a long silence, succeeded by a passionate flow of tears, they got from her that she had seen the figure of a man first of all crossing the road, and then moving among the trees, silent, yet restless. She had lost herself, and went to ask him the way home, but what she saw struck her dumb with fright, though she could not tell what she saw, and, after a time of blankness, she had run all the way home by mere animal instinct, without knowing or thinking of the road.
People laughed at her, comforted her, pitied, questioned her, not without tremor themselves, in spite of their skepticism, but the only further grain of information they extracted was that the figure looked hither and thither, and seemed like one waiting very wearily.
"Ay, God in heaven, maybe he's waiting, too!" said old Janet, from the corner of the log-house.
The little knot of neighbors turned and looked at her, for her words seemed the fruit of a sudden awakening, and when they looked, they saw an awakening in her face, too.
Poor old Janet had had a strange history,—a fruitful theme to the gossips, though few knew very much about her. A poor, lone, silent old woman, so dull and stupid that half the neighbors set her down as bereft of her senses, and generally called her, "Puir Janet"—a woman now past the threescore and ten years of the Psalmist, and with all human beauty dead, yet she made the remark, "Maybe he's waiting, too," in such a tone that a whole life's history seemed to be stirring the soil of its grave, and her face betokened a sudden interest, such as had only been betrayed years and years ago. A strange old woman she was, indeed, who would sit in her corner day after day without stirring, or speaking, or doing anything, if only to make the hours fly faster. Consequently, this sudden resurrection from her habitual death in life startled those who now heard her exclaim, "Maybe he's waiting, too!" But she soon relapsed, or seemed to relapse, into her usual apathy, and the light faded from her face, as a brilliant sunset fades into the night gloom. Alice, too, was soon her former self again, though very quiet, and the neighbors went their various ways, to recount, with such additions as gossips love, their afternoon's experience.
Old Janet had no relative in the settlement,—or anywhere else, so far as it was possible to learn,—but she had lived there from the time that the first clearing had been made, and was far and away the oldest inhabitant. For many years she had supported herself in various ways, and, when age and increasing infirmities made this no longer possible, she had been taken in by a hospitable farmer, Tom Graham, who had too tender a heart to see the old woman die of want—helpless burden as she had become.
But she was not to be a burden much longer. That night there was an unaccustomed stir in the farmhouse. Alice was in bed, and the other inmates had been fulfilling their duties in various parts of the house, when, all else done, the help, Betty McKay, went to assist old Janet to her bed.
But when she peered into her corner, expecting the usual business of rousing the old woman to a state of consciousness, she was more than surprised to see that the place was empty.
All over the house went Betty in search, getting more and more amazed as she went, and at last, as she sank down on a chair, breathless with the zeal of her pursuit, genuinely alarmed. Calling her mistress, she took up the search again, and the two had a further hunt over the house, as resultless as the former; and it was soon clear that if Jane was to be found at all, it was certainly not within the house.
There was nothing to be done but to set to work outside, where the summer evening was now drawing to its close. It was as lovely as an evening outside Paradise could be, and the fading sunlight cast the long shadows of the trees across the clearing and made the distant mountains look like the bounds of fairy-land. No one could be surprised at a human being longing to be outside on such a night, only Janet had not been outside at all latterly, and her feeble feet could hardly carry her far. But there was no sign of her in the clearing, and the little search party, now swollen to five, wandered for some time on the outskirts, and questioned many a farmer returning from his work, before they got the smallest clue to the fugitive.
It was old Josh Dawson who had seen her, quite deep in the wood. She had 'skeered' him, he said, and to see an old dame making her way along the wagon road as though she had the strength of forty years back, made him clean forget to stop, or even to speak to her.
"The old critter," he said, "seemed more like a lassie hurrying to meet her sweetheart, than anything else I could think on." And though they abused him roundly for his stupidity in letting her pass, he consented to join them and point out the place where he had seen her last.
It was the place, as the reader may guess, where Alice Graham had seen the ghost. Guided by some subtle instinct unexplainable by any hypothesis of chance, she had come to the very place, where, among the tall trees, the weary spirit had watched and waited so long.
They could not see her at first, especially as in the forest it was getting dark, but presently the wind fluttered the loose end of a black shawl on the ground, and when they hurried up, they saw old Janet stretched along prone on the earth. The flowers of the forest seemed to have reached over her their blossoms, and twined them about her hair like a bridal wreath. And she looked like a bride, a bride not without a bridegroom, for, lo!—the sight froze the blood of the spectators with horror—a mouldered skeleton was crushed together in her arms, and her bloodless lips were pressed to the eyeholes of a naked skull. But she had not thought the sight gruesome. Death had made her young again, and though there were some who said she had been frightened to death by her discovery, and by the apparition which Alice had seen that afternoon, those who saw her face as it looked when they emerged once more into the clearing and it caught the very last beam of the dying sunlight, knew that the last moments of her life had been the happiest too, and that a bliss too strong for the poor old heart to bear had broken the last fetter and borne away her spirit.
What did it all mean? The gossips were busy for many a day, but the truth was, to a large extent, only a matter of surmise.
So much, however, was raked up amongst the old inhabitants of the settlement, and, separated from an abundant fringe of self-contradictory fable, may be set down as follows:
Fifty years ago Janet had been young and beautiful, and had had the tribute of admiration from many a love-lorn young farmer. Two had laid especial siege to her heart, and of the two she had no hesitation whatever in choosing one,—Will Stevens by name. The other took his rejection very unamiably, and it was no secret that he bitterly hated his more successful rival.
But, one day, both disappeared. Some whispered that there had been foul play, others said they had gone off to England, and a man answering to the description of Dick Watson—the rejected one of the twain—was said to have died in an English workhouse. But Janet would never believe that Will had deserted her. She vowed never to marry, declaring she would wait for Will, as she was sure Will would wait for her. So the years flew on and stole away her youth and beauty.
But, if all this be true, Janet's faith was justified, and the two lovers had been nearer to one another than the surviving one supposed. Who will say that the dead have no tender memories for this earth of ours?
Foully done to death, as the fractured skull proved, Will Stevens had not passed into the land of oblivion, where plighted troth is washed away in Lethe, and human love is dead for evermore, but his constant wraith guarded his forest grave till she should come who had been the music of his life.
Her delay had been long, but we doubt not that in the land beyond the grave, where all love which is eternal has fuller fruition and reward than we can know below, the freed spirits met and recognized each the other's faith. Janet's prayer was granted, too, that she might meet Will once more on earth, and so—there in the forest glade where they had first known the springtime of love, the ghost and the woman met, and the ghost kissed the weary lips and the cheeks pale with weeping, and left them—-dead.
Two days later Mr. Arthur buried the woman and the skeleton in one grave, at the very spot where they had been found together.
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