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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Alas, Poor Ghost!

By Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward (1844–1911)

[The Gates Between. 1887.]

IT was morning, and Brake’s clerk was coming in. It was very early; earlier than he usually came, perhaps; but I could not tell. He did not notice me at first, and, remembering Drayton’s hypothesis, I shrank behind the tall desk, and instinctively kept out of sight for a few uncertain minutes, wondering what I had better do. The clerk called the janitor, and scolded a little about the fire, which he ordered lighted in the grate. It was a cold morning. He said the room would chill a corpse. He had the morning papers in his hand. He unfolded the “Herald,” and laid it down upon his own desk, as if about to read it.

At that instant the telegraph clicked, and he pushed the damp, fresh paper away from him, and went immediately to the wires. The young man listened to the message with an expression of great intentness, and wrote rapidly. Moved by some unaccountable impulse, I softly rose and glanced over his shoulder.

The despatch was dated at midnight, and was addressed to Henry Brake. It said:

“Have you seen my husband to-night?” and it was signed, “Helen Thorne.”

Oh, poor Helen!…

Now, maniac with haste to get to her, it occurred to me that the moment while the clerk was occupied in recording this message was as good a time as I could ask for in which to escape unobserved, as I greatly wished to do. As quietly as I could—and I succeeded in doing it very quietly—I therefore moved to leave the broker’s office. As I did so, my eye caught the heading, in large capitals, of the morning news in the open “Herald” which lay upon the desk behind the clerk. I stopped, and stooped, and read. This is what I read:

  • The eminent and popular physician,
  • Dr. Esmerald Thorne,
  • At this moment the broker entered the office.

    With the “Herald” in my hand, I made haste to meet him.

    “Brake!” I cried, “Mr. Brake! Thank Heaven, you have come! I have passed such a night—and look here! Have you seen this abominable canard? This is what has come of my being locked into your”——

    The broker regarded me with a strange look; so strange that for very amazement I stood still before it. He did not advance to meet me; neither his hand nor his eyes gave me the human sign of welcome; he looked over me, he looked through me, as a man does at one whose acquaintance he has no desire to recognize.

    I thought—

    “Drayton has crammed him. He too believes that I was shut in here to sleep it off. The story will get out in two hours. I am doomed in this town henceforth for a drunken doctor. I’d better have been killed instantly, as this infernal paper says.”

    But I said—

    “Mr. Brake? You don’t recognize me, I think. It is I, Dr. Thorne. I couldn’t get here before two. I went to your house last evening. I got the impression you were here, so I came after you. I was locked in here by your confounded watchman. They have this minute let me free. I am in a great hurry to get home. Nice job this is going to be! Have you seen that?”

    I put my shaking finger upon the “Herald’s” fiery capitals, and held the column folded towards him.

    “Jason,” he said, after an instant’s pause, “pick up the ‘Herald,’ will you? A gust of wind has blown it from the table. There must be a draught. Please shut the door.”

    To say that I know of no earthly language which can express the sensation that crawled over me as the broker uttered these words is to say little or nothing about it. I use the expression “crawled” with some faint effort to define the slowness and the repulsiveness with which the suspicion of that to which I dared not and did not give a name made itself manifest to my mind.

    “Excuse me, Brake,” I said with some agitation, “you did not hear what I said. I was locked in. I am in a hurry to get home. Ask Drayton. Drayton let me in. I must get home at once. I shall sue the ‘Herald’ for that outrageous piece of work— What do you suppose my wife— Good God! She must have read it by this time! Let me by, Brake!”

    “Jason,” said the broker, “this is a terrible thing! I feel quite broken up about it.”

    “Brake!” I cried, “Henry Brake! Let me pass you! Let me home to my wife! You’re in my way—don’t you see? You’re standing directly between me and the door. Let me pass!”

    “There’s a private despatch come,” said the clerk sadly. “It is for you, sir. It is from Mrs. Thorne herself.”

    “Brake!” I pleaded, “Brake, Brake!—Jason!—Mr. Brake! Don’t you hear me?”

    “Give me the message, Jason,” said Brake, holding out his hand; he seated himself, as he did so, at the office table, where I had sat the night out; he looked troubled and pale; he handled the message reluctantly, as people do in the certainty of bad news.

    “In the name of mercy, Henry Brake!” I cried, “what is the meaning of this? Don’t you hear a word I say? Don’t you feel me?—There!” I gripped the broker by the shoulder, and clinched both hands upon him with all my might. “Don’t you feel me? God Almighty! don’t you see me, Brake?”

    “When did this despatch come, Jason?” said the broker. He laid Helen’s message gently down; he had tears in his eyes.

    “Henry Brake,” I pleaded brokenly, for my heart failed me with a mighty fear, “answer me, in human pity’s name. Are you gone deaf and blind? Or am I struck dumb? Or am I”——

    “It came ten minutes ago, sir,” replied Jason. “It is dated, I see, at midnight. They delivered it as soon as anybody was likely to be stirring here; a bit before, too; considering the nature of the message, I suppose, sir.”

    “It is a terrible affair!” repeated the broker nervously. “I have known the doctor a good many years. He had his peculiarities; but he was a good fellow. Say—Jason!”

    “Yes, sir?”

    “How does it happen that Mrs. Thorne—You say this message was dated at midnight?”

    “At midnight, sir. 12.15.”

    “How is it she didn’t know by that time? I pity the fellow who had to tell her. She’s a very attractive woman…. The ‘Herald’ says—Where is that paper?”

    “The ‘Herald’ says,” answered Jason decorously, “that he was scooped into the buggy-top, and dragged, and dashed against— Here it is.”

    He handed his employer the paper, as I had done, or had thought I did, with his finger on the folded column. The broker took the paper, and slowly put on his glasses, and slowly read aloud:

    “‘Dr. Thorne was dragged for some little distance, it is thought, before the horse broke free. He must have hit the lamp-post, or the pavement. He was found in the top of the buggy, which was a wreck. The robe was over him, and his face was hidden. His medicine-case lay beneath him; the vials were crushed to splinters. Life was extinct when he was discovered. His watch had stopped at five minutes past seven o’clock. It so happened that he was not immediately identified, though our reporter could not learn the reason of this extraordinary mischance. By some unpardonable blunder, the body of the distinguished and favorite physician was taken to the Morgue’”—

    “That accounts for it,” said Jason.

    —“‘Was taken to the Morgue,’” read on Mr. Brake with agitated voice. “‘It was not until midnight that the mistake was discovered. A messenger was despatched at twenty minutes after twelve o’clock to the elegant residence of the popular doctor, in Delight Street. The news was broken to the widow as agreeably as possible. Mrs. Thorne is a young and very beautiful woman, on whom this shocking blow falls with uncommon cruelty.

    “‘The body was carried to Dr. Thorne’s house at one o’clock. The time of the funeral is not yet appointed. The “Herald” will be informed as soon as a decision is reached.

    “‘The death of Dr. Thorne is a loss to this community which it is impossible to,’—hm—m—‘his distinguished talents’—hm—m—hm—m.”

    The broker laid down the paper and sighed.

    “I sent for him yesterday, to consult about his affairs,” he observed gently. “It is a pity for her to lose that Santa Ma. She will need it now. I’m sorry for her. I don’t know how he left her, exactly. He did a tremendous business, but he spent as he went. He was a good fellow—I always liked the doctor! Terrible affair! Terrible affair! Jason! Where is that advertisement of Grope County, Iowa, Mortgage? You have filed it in the wrong place! Be more careful in future.”

    “Mr. Brake!” I tried once more; and my voice was the voice of mortal anguish to my own appalled and ringing ear.

    “Do you not hear? Can you not see? Is there no one in this place who hears? Or sees me, either?”

    An early customer had strayed in; Drayton was there; and the watchman had entered. The men (there were five in all) collected by the broker’s desk, around the morning papers, and spoke to each other with the familiarity which bad news of any public interest creates. They conversed in low tones. Their faces wore a shocked expression. They spoke of me; they asked for more particulars of the tragedy reported by the morning press; they mentioned my merits and defects, but said more about merits than defects, in the merciful, foolish way of people who discuss the newly dead.

    “I’ve known him ten years,” said the broker.

    “I’ve had the pleasure of the doctor’s acquaintance myself a good while,” said the inspector politely.

    “Wasn’t he a quick-tempered man?” asked the customer.

    “He cured a baby of mine of the croup,” said the watchman. “It was given up for dead. And he only charged me a dollar and a half. He was very kind to the little chap.”

    “He set an ankle for me once, after a foot-ball match,” suggested the clerk. “I wouldn’t ask to be better treated. He wasn’t a bit rough.”

    … “Gentlemen,” I entreated, stretching out my hands toward the group, “there is some mistake—I must make it understood. I am here. It is I, Dr. Thorne—Dr. Esmerald Thorne. I am in this office. Gentlemen! Listen to me! Look at me! Look in this direction! For God’s sake, try to see me—some of you!”…

    “He drove too fast a horse,” said the customer. “He always has.”

    “I must answer Mrs. Thorne’s message,” said the broker sadly, rising and pushing back the office chair.

    … I shrank, and tried no more. I bowed my head, and said no other word. The truth, incredible and terrible though it were, the truth which neither flesh nor spirit can escape, had now forced itself upon my consciousness.

    I looked across the broker’s office at those five warm human beings as if I had looked across the width of the breathing world. Naught had I now to say to them; naught could they communicate to me. Language was not between us, nor speech, nor any sign. Need of mine could reach them not, nor any of their kind. For I was the dead, and they the living men.

    … “Here is your dog, sir,” said Jason. “He has followed you in. He is trying to speak to you, in his way.”

    The broker stooped and patted the dumb brute affectionately. “I understand, Lion,” he said. “Yes, I understand you.”

    The dog looked lovingly up into his master’s face, and whined for joy.

    This incident, trifling as it was, I think, did more than anything which had preceded it to make me aware of the nature of that which had befallen me. The live brute could still communicate with thriving man. Skill of scientist and philosopher was as naught to help the human spirit which had fled the body to make itself understood by one which occupied a body still. More blessed in that moment was Lion, the dog, than Esmerald Thorne, the dead man. I said to myself:

    “I am a desolate and an outcast creature. I am become a dumb thing in a deaf world.”

    I thrust my hands before me, and wrung them with a groan. It seemed incredible to me that I could die; that was more wonderful, even, than to know that I was already dead.

    “It is all over,” I moaned. “I have died. I am dead. I am what they call a dead man.”

    Now, at this instant the dog turned his head. No human tympanum in the room vibrated to my cry. No human retina was recipient of my anguish. What fine, unclassified senses had the highly-organized animal by which he should become aware of me? The dog turned his noble head. He was a St. Bernard, with the moral qualities of the breed well marked upon his physiognomy. He lifted his eyes and solemnly regarded me.

    After a moment’s pause he gave vent to a long and mournful cry.

    “Don’t, Lion,” I said. “Keep quiet, sir. This is dreadful!”

    The dog ceased howling when I spoke to him; after a little hesitation he came slowly to the spot where I was standing, and looked earnestly into my face, as if he saw me. Whether he did, or how he did, or why he did, I knew not, and I know not now. The main business of this narrative will be the recording of facts. Explanations it is not mine to offer; and of speculations I have but few, either to give or to withhold.

    A great wistfulness came into my soul as I stood shut apart there from those living men, within reach of their hands, within range of their eyes, within the vibration of their human breath. I looked into the animal’s eyes with the yearning of a sudden and an awful sense of desolation.

    “Speak to me, Lion,” I whispered. “Won’t you speak to me?”

    “What is that dog about?” asked the customer, staring. “He is standing in the middle of the room and wagging his tail as if he had met somebody.”

    The dog at this instant, with eager signs of pleasure or of pity—I could not, indeed, say which—put his beautiful face against my hand, and kissed, or seemed to kiss it, sympathetically.

    “He has queer ways,” observed Jason, the clerk, carelessly; “he knows more than most folks I know.”

    “True,” said his master, laughing. “I don’t feel that I am Lion’s equal more than half the time, myself. He is a noble fellow. He has a very superior nature. My wife declares he is a poet, and that when he goes off by himself, and gazes into vacancy with that sort of look, he is composing verses.”

    Another customer had strolled in by this time; he laughed at the broker’s easy wit; the rest joined in the laugh; some one said something which I did not understand, and Drayton threw back his head and guffawed heartily. I think their laughter made me feel more isolated from them than anything had yet done.

    “Why!” exclaimed the broker sharply, “what is this? Jason! What does this mean?”

    His face, as he turned it over his shoulder to address the clerk, had changed color; he was indeed really pale. He held his fingers on the great sheet of blue blotting-paper, to which he pointed unsteadily.

    “Upon my soul, sir,” said Jason, flushing and then paling in his turn. “That is a queer thing! May I show it to Mr. Drayton?”

    The inspector stepped forward as the broker nodded, and examined the blotting-paper attentively.

    “It is written over,” he said in a professional tone, “from end to end. I see that. It is written with one name. It is the name of——”

    “Helen!” interrupted the broker.

    “Yes,” replied the inspector. “Yes, it is: Helen; distinctly, Helen. Some one must have”——

    But I staid to hear no more. What some one must have done, I sprang and left the live men to decide—as live men do decide such things—among themselves. I sprang, and crying “Helen! Helen! Helen!” with one bound I brushed them by, and fled the room, and reached the outer air and sought for her.

    As nearly as one can characterize the emotion of such a moment, I should say that it was one of mortal intensity; perhaps of what in living men we should call maniac intensity. Up to this moment I could not be said to have comprehended the effect of what had taken place upon my wife.

    The full force of her terrible position now struck me like the edge of a weapon with whose sheath I had been idling.

    Hot in the flame of my anger I had gone from her; and cold indeed had I returned. Her I had left dumb before my cruel tongue, but dumb was that which had come back to her in my name.

    I was a dead man. But like any living of them all—oh, more than any living—I loved my wife. I loved her more because I had been cruel to her than if I had been kind. I loved her more because we had parted so bitterly than if we had parted lovingly. I loved her more because I had died than if I had lived. I must see my wife! I must find my wife! I must say to her—I must tell her—Why, who in all the world but me could do anything for Helen now?

    Out into the morning air I rushed, and got the breeze in my face, and up the thronging street, as spirits do, unnoted and unknown of men, I passed—solitary in the throng, silent in the outcry, unsentient in the press.

    The sun was strong. The day was cool. The dome of the sky hung over me, too, as over those who raised their breathing faces to its beauty. I, too, saw, as I fled on, that the day was fair. I heard the human voices say:

    “What a morning!”

    “It puts the soul into you said a burly stock-speculator to a railroad-treasurer; they stood upon the steps of the Exchange, laughing, as I brushed by.

    “It makes life worth while,” said a healthy elderly woman, merrily, making the crossing with the light foot that a light heart gives.

    “It makes life possible,” replied a pale young girl beside her, coming slowly after.

    “Poor fellow!” sighed a stranger whom I hit in hurrying on. “It was an ugly way to die. Nice air this morning!”

    “He will be a loss to the community,” replied this man’s companion. “There isn’t a doctor in town who has his luck with fevers. You can’t convince my wife he didn’t save her life last winter. Frost last night, wasn’t there? Very invigorating morning!”

    Now, at the head of the street some ladies were standing, waiting for a car. I was delayed in passing them, and as I stepped back to change my course I saw that one of them was speaking earnestly and that her eyes showed signs of weeping.

    “He wouldn’t remember me,” she said; “it was eleven years ago. But sick women don’t forget their doctors. He was as kind to me”——

    “Oh, poor Mrs. Thorne!” a soft voice answered, in the accented tone of an impulsive, tender-hearted woman. “It’s bad enough to be a patient. But, oh, his wife!”

    “Let me pass, ladies!” I cried, or tried to cry, forgetting, in the anguish which their words fanned to its fiercest, that I could not be heard and might not be seen. “There seems to be some obstruction. Let me by, for I am in mortal haste!”

    Obstruction there was, alas! but it was not in them whom I would have entreated. Obstruction there was, but of what nature I could not and I cannot testify. While I had the words upon my lips, even as the group of women broke and left a space about me while they scattered on their ways, there on the corner of the thoroughfare, in the heart of the town, by an invisible force, by an inexplicable barrier, I, the dead man fleeing to my living wife, was beaten back.

    Whence came that awful order? How came it? And wherefore? I knew no more than the November wind that passed me by and went upon its errand as it listed.

    I was thrust back by a blast of Power Incalculable; it was like the current of an unknown natural force of infinite capability. Set the will of soul and body as I would, I could not pass the head of the street.