“Do you believe,” asked Jimmie Frise, in ghosts?”
“Certainly,” I said. “Who doesn’t?”
“I don’t,” said Jim. “And millions more besides me.”
“I don’t mean with your daylight brains,” I explained. “I myself, right now, in broad daylight, in this office, don’t believe in ghosts as I believe in birds or airplanes. But I bet your body and your night brain, your secret, real brain, believe in ghosts.”
“What are you talking about?” laughed Jim.
“Haven’t you ever,” I demanded, “felt spooky at night? Haven’t you ever felt all creepy on your skin? Your hair sort of prickles? And you have a perfect horror that there is something in the dark, something creeping toward you or past you?”
“Of course,” admitted Jim. “I suppose everybody has felt that way when their nerves were tired.”
“Nerves,” I scoffed. “A nerve, my dear Frise, is just an organ. A physical organ like your finger, for feeling things with. Nerves don’t feel imaginary things. They can’t. That isn’t their function.”
“Do you mean?” gasped Jim.
“I mean,” I said, that when you feel creepy, crawly and horror-struck like that, you are really in the presence of a ghost.”
“Haw,” laughed Jim, but looking rather eagerly out the window at the bright sunshine. “Haw, Haw!”
“Don’t haw,” I assured him. “I am one who believes my senses. I don’t believe what my poor little shallow daylight brain tries to teach me, for its own comfort and ease. I believe my whole me.”
“Your whole what?” asked Jim, anxiously.
“My whole me,” I repeated. “There is a lot of me besides what I know or am conscious of. There is a lot to you that you are utterly unaware of. The professors say that our conscious mind is like the varnish on a chest of drawers. A thin, pathetic little coating. The real us is a chest of drawers, deep-filled drawers, some of them maybe secret drawers and locked forever. Drawers filled with ages and ages of the past, of our ancestors back millions of years, and all they loved and feared and hated.”
“Tch, tch,” said Jimmie.
“How else,” I asked, “can you explain all our differences, that you can draw and I can sing; and I love birds and you love horses? What makes me so Grit and you so Tory? Why do I talk a lot and you sit smiling a lot?”
“This has nothing to do with ghosts,” interrupted Jim.
“It has everything to do with ghosts,” I assured him. “Because we are scared of ghosts – and rightly so – our little hand-made brains, our little shallow daylight minds, have tried, for ages, to prove there are no ghosts. No spirits. No anything that will frighten us. It is the job of our daylight brains to try and wiggle us out of anything unpleasant or disturbing.”
Our Usses Know
“Pure theory,” said Jim.
“All right,” I said, “what is your theory, then, about you and everybody else in the world feeling creepy at times? Is there anybody in the whole wide world who hasn’t felt leery and crawly one time or another? Especially at times when ghosts might be expected to be around, such as to haunted houses, on windy and wild nights, or on dreary. and deserted moors? What’s your theory there?”
“Imagination,” said Jim. “Just imagination.”
“Imagination of what?” I asked
“Just imagination,” repeated Jim. “Imagination of nothing.”
“Don’t be silly,” I cried. In 1,000,000 years of there being nothing, we would have long ago got rid of it. Imagination is only seeing with the mind. Our deeper minds, our deep and subconscious minds, know there are ghosts. Our poor little superficial minds fight like fury to pretend there aren’t any. But every once in a while, we get that feeling. It is our true usses seeing, or feeling. Our true usses.”
“Your whole me, and our true usses,” mocked Jimmie. “A lot of new words coming along?”
“When you deal with the unknown,” I pointed out, you have to invent new words.”
“Did you ever see a ghost?” asked Jim. “I mean really see?”
“Yes, lots of times,” I assured him. “And I’ve been a ghost, too.”
“Been a ghost?” shouted Jim.
“Sure,” I said. “In the Battle of Vimy, a ghost came to me the second night, when I was lying in a shell hole down the front face of the Ridge, and told me not to fear, because I would go home to Toronto and use the front door key of my father’s house that I still kept in my pocket. Even in the trenches.”
“What did it look like?” asked Jim.
“It looked like a lady,” I said.
“What kind of a lady?” demanded Jim.
“I wouldn’t care to say, but she was very beautiful,” I assured him. “She knelt right down beside me in the shell hole. If I had asked her, she would have turned me back into a baby again and lifted me up in her arms.”
“What about you being a ghost?” demanded Jim, thinly.
“That was in Houdain,” I said. “France is full of ghosts, it is so old. One terrible rainy night in February, 1918, I was walking down that long, sloping street of Houdain, with the tall houses rising sheer from the cobbled pavement, and no sidewalk. All the troops were in billet and only the provost-sergeant and his picket were abroad. It was my last duty before going to bed myself, to see the provost and his picket and tell them where they could find me in case of need.”
“So?” asked Jim.
“There I was,” I said, “in my trench coat, swinging my cane down the street in the lashing sleet and rain, all alone. When suddenly, for an instant, as if my heart stood still, I felt wet long curls blowing against my face. I felt great wide-topped leather boots around my own knees, and out from beside me hung heavily a long sheathed rapier in a leather scabbard.”
“Imagination,” said Jim.
“Or,” I said, “since my ancestors were mercenary soldiers in the old wars, coming out of Ireland and Scotland to fight for any king that had the money, I think the ghost of one of them knew me as I walked that lonely street, down which he, too, had walked in his time. And that for that one blazing, credible instant, he had entered me. Entered me through those same channels down which he had given me the color of his eyes, the roughness of his hair, his way of loving and his way of singing. Through those same mystic channels that he had come down in flesh to me, he came in spirit.”
“Gosh,” said Jimmie. Such thoughts!”
“If this life,” I assured him, “had only in it what we can see, it wouldn’t be worth bothering with for five minutes.”
“You mean you like ghosts?” begged Jim.
“Sure,” I said. “Any I’ve seen were all right. I have the feeling they’d like to be friends.”
“Do you believe in haunted houses?” asked Jim
“Yes, and I believe any house is a haunted house, if you try to believe it,” I explained. “This office is likely haunted.”
“Like to see a Ghost?”
Jimmie smiled around the office, looking at its bright walls, its cheery sunlit gleam.
“I bet,” said Jim, “you couldn’t show me a ghost in any house. Even an old tumbledown empty house out in the middle of a deserted field in the middle of the night.”
“Would you really like to see a ghost?” I asked earnestly.
“I sure would,” scoffed Jim.
“Of course,” I informed him, “If you try not to see one, it is going to be hard to show you one. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Haw, haw,” said Jim.
“I’ll do what I can,” I said. “I’m what they call a sensitive. I can usually feel where ghosts are likely to be. Often, when I’m driving through the country, I can feel where a ghost is in the old houses along the way. I’ll go and see where there is an easy ghost nearby.”
“An easy ghost?” asked Jim.
“Yes, one that shows itself without much shyness,” I pointed out. “You see, the reception ghosts generally get makes them kind of shy. But there are some tougher than others. Some old ghosts.”
“Take your time,” laughed Jim.
A few miles from the city there is a dear old tumbledown and long-abandoned farm that has been the apple of my eye for 20 years. I would love to own it and restore its battered old frame house and clean out the deserted well, with its splendid stonework untouched by the passing years. I recalled that on the near side of the front lot, as you came in from the road, there were three rough old tombstones, home-made, that commemorate the last resting place of some of the pioneers who first staked the land. I figured this would be a good place for ghost-calling for Jimmie.
An Attack of Chills
It was three nights, however, until there came a real nasty night with a howling wind, and shutters going bang, windows rattling and things going bump in the night.
“Jimmie,” I said, over the telephone, “put on your warm hunting togs. It will be a cold job.”
“Why not pick a decent night?” asked Jim. “I hate going out on a night like this, even to the movies.”
“Ghosts are often bewildered by high winds,” I explained. “They come easier on nights like this.”
“Er …” said Jim.
“I’ll be over for you in 10 minutes,” I warned.
I picked Jim up and we drove into the wild wind and the drizzle. Jimmie was gay. He wanted to talk about ghosts. He laughed loud and clear. But I sat silent. And after 10 minutes, I asked him to please be silent, as you could not expect to be in the mood if you acted like a couple of truck drivers.
So Jim grew silent and leaned forward and watched the road in the car lights as we left the highway and took a lonely country road rutted with mud and patches of dirty snow.
In silence, we came to the lane with its aged and rotting fences leading up to the ruined farm. Here I stopped and got out. And turned off the lights.
“How far is it?” asked Jim, getting out slowly.
“Only a little way.” I assured him, in a low voice. “About a quarter of a mile.”
“It’s an abandoned farm, is it?” asked Jim, slowly shutting the car door. “You’re sure you can find it in the dark?”
“I have a flashlight in case of emergency,” I whispered.
“What are you whispering for yet?” asked Jim, irritated.
“We don’t want to scare them all away by loud shouting,” I whispered.
I led. Jim coughed loudly and followed. At the place where the three old home-made tombstones are, I stopped reverently, and turned on the flashlight to show them to Jimmie. He coughed loudly again.
“Don’t cough,” I warned him in a hushed voice.
Then past bare hawthorn bushes that hissed and sighed in the wind, and tall bare mullein stalks that bowed and rattled, we marched in the wild night. The bare elms waved their arms and the wind moaned through them.
Jimmie took my arm.
“Tough going,” he said pleasantly and hoarsely.
“Shhhh,” I said.
We came to the ruins huddled in the dark. The old frame house was all that was really left, its veranda sagging drunkenly, and little root houses and cellars making deep shadows in the night. But over the old stone wall a gallows of tall timbers rose, on which the pioneers had a pulley for hauling water. The gallows starked against the wild night sky.
I took Jim’s arm to lead him, and he was shivering violently.
“Cold?” I whispered.
“Yes,” he replied. “This is silly.”
“Are you really cold?” I asked in a guarded voice. “Where do you feel the chills? Are they in your spine or not? Do you feel chilliest up along the back of your hair?”
“What are you getting at?” hissed Jim halting.
“It will help me,” I said gently, “if you will tell me just what kind of chills you have got? Are they ordinary, plain cold chills, or are they the other kind?”
“What other kind?” snarled Jim.
“What I mean,” I whispered, “is, are they chills, from the cold or from a psychic presence? The way you act, I would say there is Something-very-near.”
“Nnnnkkk,” said Jim.
“Do your fingers twitch?” I whispered. “Is your hair prickling? Is your heart beating faster than usual?”
“Did You See It?”
“I’m getting out of here,” said Jim, pulling away.
I held him. I led him toward the dreary ruin, with its walls sagging all awry.
With a quick flirt of my flashlight, I picked the way inside the open doorway. The roof was partly gone, and the inside was drifted with snow and frozen mud. I picked a bare beam and we sat down on it.
“Ssshhh,” I hissed minutely, when Jim leaned over to speak to me.
The wind outside rushed by. Some loose thing on the aged walls faintly rubbed and rattled. Jim put his mouth to my ear.
“I’m freezing,” he said. “Let’s go. We’re fools.”
I set my mouth to his ear.
“Give it,” I said, “10 minutes.”
We sat. Far off a hound bayed. Through the rush and sigh of the wind, a dozen other dogs answered dismally. The loose thing, whatever it was, rattled louder. Something fluttered. Something went thud.
We sat very, very still.
Then I snatched Jim’s wrist.
I felt him half rise and freeze.
“By the door,” I said, my face against his cold ear. “By–the–door.”
Jim started to shiver like a dog on a porch.
“By–the–door,” I whispered, low and slow. See it. The lower–left-hand–corner.”
“It’s–coming–in,” I murmured, “The left side.”
Jim leaped up with a frightful yell.
I shot the flashlight to show him his footing. But he just went through that ruined door with one gigantic leap.
By the time I got to my feet and out the door, Jim was vanishing down the muddy lane, his arms and legs flailing in his ecstasy of departure.
“Jimmie,” I bellowed.
But he never paused. He went down that witchthorn lane and past those gaunt elms waving in the night, and I after him. I got to the car and he was not there. I stood and shouted and roared, but he did not answer. I grew nervous and turned on lights. Still no Jimmie. I drove, as a matter of fact, a half mile down the road before I overtook him, and he walking like a champion, straight and strong, for Toronto.
He got in. He fell in his corner. He heaved a great sigh.
“Well,” I said, “did you see it?”
He just raised both hands and let them fall again.
“What did it look like?” I asked eagerly.
“Didn’t you see it?” said Jim weakly.
“No,” I said, “But I’m glad you did. It proves what I’ve been telling you, don’t it? Just because I couldn’t see it shows you how difficult …”
But it took us the rest of the night to go and get farmers with teams to come and pull my car out of the muddy ditch.
Editor’s Notes: Houdain is a town in France near the battlefields of World War One.
A provost sergeant is a non-commissioned officer associated with military police.