It was a balmy evening, and we were both sitting at the window, as was our custom in those days. I was particularly relaxed, having had my fill of good gin and more than enough amusing anecdotes to keep me entertained and make me drowsy.
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Robert was quite the story teller that evening, and had just commenced a lively tale about a woman who came home to find a dead clown in her bed, when suddenly he stopped and bade me look down across the garden at the thin, straggling woods beyond.
There was a full moon that evening as I recall, and the shifting play of light and shadow between the trees was really quite extraordinarily weird.
“Well,” he said, “one good ghost story before the evening is through, what do you say old chap?”
I said I thought that was a cap-it-tal idea, and drew the word out as if to drive home the meaning. He looked, for a moment, as if he were considering whether or not to begin his tale, and then said, “No, no I think we’ve had enough for tonight. Besides, the tale I’ve got in mind is rather frightening. You see, it happens to be true.”
“Balderdash!” I exclaimed. “Ghost stories are concocted to frighten children and the weak minded. They are by definition untrue, as every reasonable and intelligent man knows that there are no such things as ghosts.”
Robert drew on his pipe and considered. “No,” he said, after an interval of silence. “No, I don’t think you’re quite up to it. Your nerves, if you don’t mind me saying so, are already quite bad, and I think you’re rather better off…simply not knowing.”
I assured him that, to the contrary, I was quite equal to the challenge, so after fiddling with his pipe for a few more moments, he settled back and began to relate the following:
Many years ago, before the house in which he currently resided had even been built, the land was taken up by a small farm, owned by a very stern old man named Potterdam and his family, There were several sons, two of which died in the war, and a daughter named Suzzanah. Suzzanah was in love with a boy down the way, but, he not being to her father’s liking, was forbidden from seeing the poor girl, so that they commenced secret assignations outside, after dark.
The spot chosen for these assignations was, invariably, the little woods at the edge of the garden, the little woods that we were presently staring out the window at. Those little woods, I well knew, contained a little cemetery, weed-choked and left to ruin, with a few crumbling headstones that could barely be read.
“Did the cemetery exist then?” I asked, innocently enough.
Robert thought for a moment and then said, “Oh my yes, I suppose it did. Those graves have been out there for time out of mind.”
I smiled. Already I could see where this particular tale was headed.
At any rate, these secret meetings went on for quite some time, with Suzzanah always managing to slip out of the house after dark, and go to meet her secret paramour under the chilly light of the full moon. Such are the ways of love, one supposes.
Well, unfortunately for the young lovers, their luck did not hold out, as, one night, Suzzanah slipped out of the house only to find her father waiting for her at the cemetery, instead of her young beau. Apparently, the father had already chased him off.
He grabbed the girl, and shook her, and cursed at her, and bade her never to come home to again, as she was no longer welcome under his roof. Then he threw her violently, and that is when she twisted her ankle, and hit her head against one of the tombstones.
She was killed instantly. Her father, one supposes, stood there mutely for a few minutes before picking her up and taking her back to the house.
Well, there was no question but that the man swung for the deed. Of course, it had only been an accident, and he must have felt sickened within his very soul for having been the cause of it. Perhaps going to the gallows was the most merciful fate that could have befallen him, considering the circumstances. Whatever the case, though, it was not many years before a legend began to be built up around the small cemetery beyond the stand of trees, a legend having to do with the ghost of Suzzanah.
It began to be said that her restless spirit would appear, at the date of her untimely death, and would haunt the grounds of the little cemetery in search of her lost lover (who, at any rate, is never made mention of again in the tale). Supposed sightings of her had been made over the years, but, as to the factuality of these claims--who could say. I listened to all of this with rather a cheeky attitude, and once frobert had stopped I leaned back, put my fingertips together, and said, “So. I take it this is what we are waiting for tonight? The appearance of your ghostly maiden? Well, I think we shall probably be up half the night, and then, when sunrise rolls around and she hasn’t deigned to make an appearance, I suppose we will titter at our little foolishness and take ourselves off to bed. And we shall wake tomorrow feeling as if we hadn’t slept a wink for all our restless vigil. For there are a few things in this life that I am certain of, and one of them is: there are no ghosts. The dead stay dead, and do a good job of it, I might add.”
I felt satisfied and superior. Robert, on the other hand, was perfectly content to let me prattle on, and continued to hold the stem of his pipe in the corner of his mouth, and said, turned toward the window as if in honest enquiry, “We shall see, we shall see.”
“Very well. You maintain your foolishness, and I’ll observe you while you do it, and help myself to the brandy.”
I poured myself a stiff glass, and settled back. I found that a queer chill had descended upon us, though I was not altogether certain as to its cause. I suppose it was the effect of the ghastly little tale that had just been related, but I would not have, for the world, admitted that to Robert, who was still peering out the window with the idea that his sepulchral maiden was going to appear across the yard below, beyond the trees.
It was maybe a quarter of an hour later that I felt my head began to slip toward my breast, as sleep began to beckon me, probably from sheer boredom.
I jerked awake, uncertain as to what was going on.
“Wake up you besotted oaf. She’s here. Look, down there, in the cemetery: she’s right outside.”
I sprang forward and leaned against the sill, thrusting the curtain back with one hand as my breath made a cold circle of frost upon the pane. A swirling fog had crept in low across the grounds, and beyond the garden, beyond the stand of trees, just inside the confines of the little cemetery, I fancied that I could see…something.
“Nonsense, Robert, I don’t see anything.”
“Are you blind? Look damn you, down there, standing between those two headstones--a woman!”
Indeed, I did feel my pulse beat a shade quicker to realize that there did seem to be someone standing in the middle of the cemetery, very still, a figure that seemed to be adorned in old fashioned dress.
“Nonsense, Robert, it’s a trick of the shadow, a flux of moonlight and fog. We’ve been up far too late, and our eyes are deceiving us.”
“No, you don’t understand! I’ve seen her before, last year, on exactly this date, while sitting here. She appeared and, at first, I thought exactly as you do, that it was simply a trick of the moonlight playing hell with my nervous faculties. But, as I continued to stare, I became more and more convinced that it was the woman herself, returned from the grave, just as she is said to do in the story.”
I blew exasperated air out through my lips and settled back in my chair, taking a sip of brandy from the glass at my elbow. I said, “Well, maybe it’s the caretaker’s daughter for all we know, but, whoever it is, probably we had best leave them alone. I’m going to bed.”
It was now Robert who sighed in frustration as he hauled himself out of his chair and headed toward the door. I suddenly felt my eyes go wide as I said, “Where in the world are you off to? Not out there, I hope?”
He turned, half-angrily, and said, “Of course I’m going out. I’m going to get to the bottom of this, one way or another!”
And with that he was out the door and pounding down the stairs, leaving me there feeling a little apprehensive. Suddenly, realizing that I did not want to be left alone, I got up from my chair and began to pursue.
“Robert! Wait up, will you?”
I went down myself, just in time for the hall door to slam shut. I cautiously opened it and looked out across the porch as Robert, now nearly running, went out the gate at the back of the garden and toward the stand of trees that separated his property from the cemetery.
I stopped for a moment to consider the strange figure that I beheld there. Then, realizing that it must be a trick of the light, as there were no such things as ghosts, I hurried on after Robert, pushing open the gate and heading out into the damp grass.
I could see him just ahead, and, just ahead of him, I could see, becoming clearer and clearer the closer I got…the figure of a woman. The figure was very still, and seemed to be lost in some immense, somber calculation to which only she was privy. I could not believe my eyes, but as I looked I saw something that made the situation all the more unnerving.
Just ahead, Robert had now penetrated the small stand of trees, and I ran to catch up with him, but, as I looked on, I saw him suddenly take a tumble to the ground, collapsing over a tilting, crumbling headstone. I ran to him, calling his name, temporarily forgetting the strange figure of the woman just beyond, and as I approached the stand of trees, I could see that he had caught his foot on a twisting root and went sprawling quite by accident.
I bent down beside him and struck a match.
Robert was bleeding quite badly. He had hit his head at the edge of the headstone, and was quite unconscious. Panicked, I began to slap him, to try and revive him, and thought of going back and calling the servants. I struck a match.
It was then that I saw whose stone it was he had chanced to fall across. The stone was newer, and the lettering, though badly decayed, was still readable:
And that was all that it read, but it was enough. I suddenly heard a ghastly moan, as an infant wailing slow and deep, and I looked up. The strange figure at the edge of the cemetery was moving towards us, slowly, and I could see that, despite what is said of ghosts, she seemed as solid as any woman you might pass on the streets. The figure stopped a few paces from us, and I could feel my blood freeze in my veins as she said:
“Have you seen my father? He is looking for me, and I must go to him, or he’ll be, oh, so angry with me…”
I began to shake my head no, not quite believing, still, the evidence of my own eyes, when, suddenly, in the distance, I could see a light in the thick trees at the edge of the property.
I could then hear a voice, a yell, grow louder as what sounded to be a large, lumbering man began stomping around at the edge of my vision. I could see a bright light in the trees, and hear the heavy tread and rasping wheeze of someone trampling the underbrush.
“Suzzanah! Suzzanah!” called a distant voice, and I could see a vague shadow moving behind the bright light of an old lantern. “Where are you Suzzanah! I can’t find you! Please, come back to me! Come back! Come back!”
Robert was beginning to come around, and groaned, sitting up and holding his bleeding head with one hand. The lonely figure of the woman turned slowly, said, “I must go to him”, and began to glide swiftly into the moonlight, toward the dark thickets at the edge of the cemetery.
Finally, she was lost to vision, and the light behind the trees faded to darkness. I got Robert back into the house as best I could, and the servants helped me treat his head.
Thus ended my only conscious encounter with a ghost. I hope you have enjoyed it. It might have made a believer out of you. It certainly did me.