The Bus Conductor by E. F. Benson
My friend, Hugh Grainger, and I had just returned from a two days'
visit in the country, where we had been staying in a house of
sinister repute which was supposed to be haunted by ghosts of a
peculiarly fearsome and truculent sort. The house itself was all that
such a house should be, Jacobean and oak-panelled, with long dark
passages and high vaulted rooms. It stood, also, very remote, and was
encompassed by a wood of sombre pines that muttered and whispered in
the dark, and all the time that we were there a southwesterly gale
with torrents of scolding rain had prevailed, so that by day and
night weird voices moaned and fluted in the chimneys, a company of
uneasy spirits held colloquy among the trees, and sudden tattoos and
tappings beckoned from the window-panes. But in spite of these
surroundings, which were sufficient in themselves, one would almost
say, to spontaneously generate occult phenomena, nothing of any
description had occurred. I am bound to add, also, that my own state
of mind was peculiarly well adapted to receive or even to invent the
sights and sounds we had gone to seek, for I was, I confess, during
the whole time that we were there, in a state of abject apprehension,
and lay awake both nights through hours of terrified unrest, afraid
of the dark, yet more afraid of what a lighted candle might show
Hugh Grainger, on the evening after our return to town, had dined
with me, and after dinner our conversation, as was natural, soon came
back to these entrancing topics.
"But why you go ghost-seeking I cannot imagine," he said, "because
your teeth were chattering and your eyes starting out of your head
all the rime you were there, from sheer fright."
"Or do you like being frightened?"
Hugh, though generally intelligent, is dense in certain ways; this
is one of them.
"Why, of course, I like being frightened," I said. "I want to be
made to creep and creep and creep. Fear is the most absorbing and
luxurious of emotions. One forgets all else if one is afraid."
"Well, the fact that neither of us saw anything," he said,
"confirms what I have always believed."
"And what have you always believed?"
"That these phenomena are purely objective, not subjective, and
that one's state of mind has nothing to do with the perception that
perceives them, nor have circumstances or surroundings anything to do
with them either. Look at Osburton. It has had the reputation of
being a haunted house for years, and it certainly has all the
accessories of one. Look at yourself, too, with all your nerves on
edge, afraid to look round or light a candle for fear of seeing
something! Surely there was the right man in the right place then, if
ghosts are subjective."
He got up and lit a cigarette, and looking at him--Hugh is about
six feet high, and as broad as he is long--I felt a retort on my
lips, for I could not help my mind going back to a certain period in
his life, when, from some cause which, as far as I knew, he had never
told anybody, he had become a mere quivering mass of disordered
nerves. Oddly enough, at the same moment and for the first time, he
began to speak of it himself.
"You may reply that it was not worth my while to go either," he
said, "because I was so clearly the wrong man in the wrong place. But
I wasn't. You for all your apprehensions and expectancy have never
seen a ghost. But I have, though I am the last person in the world
you would have thought likely to do so, and, though my nerves are
steady enough again now, it knocked me all to bits."
He sat down again in his chair.
"No doubt you remember my going to bits," he said, "and since I
believe that I am sound again now, I should rather like to tell you
about it. But before I couldn't; I couldn't speak of it at all to
anybody. Yet there ought to have been nothing frightening about it;
what I saw was certainly a most useful and friendly ghost. But it
came from the shaded side of things; it looked suddenly out of the
night and the mystery with which life is surrounded.
"I want first to tell you quite shortly my theory about
ghost-seeing," he continued, "and I can explain it best by a simile,
an image. Imagine then that you and I and everybody in the world are
like people whose eye is directly opposite a little tiny hole in a
sheet of cardboard which is continually shifting and revolving and
moving about. Back to back with that sheet of cardboard is another,
which also, by laws of its own, is in perpetual but independent
motion. In it too there is another hole, and when, fortuitously it
would seem, these two holes, the one through which we are always
looking, and the other in the spiritual plane, come opposite one
another, we see through, and then only do the sights and sounds of
the spiritual world become visible or audible to us. With most people
these holes never come opposite each other during their life. But at
the hour of death they do, and then they remain stationary. That, I
fancy, is how we 'pass over.'
"Now, in some natures, these holes are comparatively large, and
are constantly coming into opposition. Clairvoyants, mediums are like
that. But, as far as I knew, I had no clairvoyant or mediumistic
powers at all. I therefore am the sort of person who long ago made up
his mind that he never would see a ghost. It was, so to speak, an
incalculable chance that my minute spy-hole should come into
opposition with the other. But it did: and it knocked me out of
I had heard some such theory before, and though Hugh put it rather
picturesquely, there was nothing in the least convincing or practical
about it. It might be so, or again it might not.
"I hope your ghost was more original than your theory," said I, in
order to bring him to the point.
"Yes, I think it was. You shall judge."
I put on more coal and poked up the fire. Hugh has got, so I have
always considered, a great talent for telling stories, and that sense
of drama which is so necessary for the narrator. Indeed, before now,
I have suggested to him that he should take this up as a profession,
sit by the fountain in Piccadilly Circus, when times are, as usual,
bad, and tell stories to the passers-by in the street, Arabian
fashion, for reward. The most part of mankind, I am aware, do not
like long stories, but to the few, among whom I number myself, who
really like to listen to lengthy accounts of experiences, Hugh is an
ideal narrator. I do not care for his theories, or for his similes,
but when it comes to facts, to things that happened, I like him to be
"Go on, please, and slowly," I said. "Brevity may be the soul of
wit, but it is the ruin of story-telling. I want to hear when and
where and how it all was, and what you had for lunch and where you
had dined and what--Hugh began:
"It was the 24th of June, just eighteen months ago," he said. "I
had let my flat, you may remember, and came up from the country to
stay with you for a week. We had dined alone here--"
I could not help interrupting.
"Did you see the ghost here?" I asked. "In this square little box
of a house in a modern street?"
"I was in the house when I saw it." I hugged myself in
"We had dined alone here in Graeme Street," he said, "and after
dinner I went out to some party, and you stopped at home. At dinner
your man did not wait, and when I asked where he was, you told me he
was ill, and, I thought, changed the subject rather abruptly.
"You gave me your latch-key when I went out, and on coming back, I
found you had gone to bed. There were, however, several letters for
me, which required answers. I wrote them there and then, and posted
them at the pillar-box opposite. So I suppose it was rather late when
I went upstairs.
"You had put me in the front room, on the third floor, overlooking
the street, a room which I thought you generally occupied yourself.
It was a very hot night, and though there had been a moon when I
started to my party, on my return the whole sky was cloud-covered,
and it both looked and felt as if we might have a thunderstorm before
morning. I was feeling very sleepy and heavy, and it was not till
after I had got into bed that I noticed by the shadows of the
window-frames on the blind that only one of the windows was open. But
it did not seem worth while to get out of bed in order to open it,
though I felt rather airless and uncomfortable, and I went to
"What time it was when I awoke I do not know, but it was certainly
not yet dawn, and I never remember being conscious of such an
extraordinary stillness as prevailed. There was no sound either of
foot-passengers or wheeled traffic; the music of life appeared to be
absolutely mute. But now, instead of being sleepy and heavy, I felt,
though I must have slept an hour or two at most, since it was not yet
dawn, perfectly fresh and wide-awake, and the effort which had seemed
not worth making before, that of getting out of bed and opening the
other window, was quite easy now and I pulled up the blind, threw it
wide open, and leaned out, for somehow I parched and pined for air.
Even outside the oppression was very noticeable, and though, as you
know, I am not easily given to feel the mental effects of climate, I
was aware of an awful creepiness coming over me. I tried to analyse
it away, but without success; the past day had been pleasant, I
looked forward to another pleasant day to-morrow, and yet I was full
of some nameless apprehension. I felt, too, dreadfully lonely in this
stillness before the dawn.
"Then I heard suddenly and not very far away the sound of some
approaching vehicle; I could distinguish the tread of two horses
walking at a slow foot's pace. They were, though not yet visible,
coming up the street, and yet this indication of life did not abate
that dreadful sense of loneliness which I have spoken of. Also in
some dim unformulated way that which was coming seemed to me to have
something to do with the cause of my oppression.
"Then the vehicle came into sight. At first I could not
distinguish what it was. Then I saw that the horses were black and
had long tails, and that what they dragged was made of glass, but had
a black frame. It was a hearse. Empty.
"It was moving up this side of the street. It stopped at your
"Then the obvious solution struck me. You had said at dinner that
your man was ill, and you were, I thought, unwilling to speak more
about his illness. No doubt, so I imagined now, he was dead, and for
some reason, perhaps because you did not want me to know anything
about it, you were having the body removed at night. This, I must
tell you, passed through my mind quite instantaneously, and it did
not occur to me how unlikely it really was, before the next thing
"I was still leaning out of the window, and I remember also
wondering, yet only momentarily, how odd it was that I saw things--or
rather the one thing I was looking at--so very distinctly. Of course,
there was a moon behind the clouds, but it was curious how every
detail of the hearse and the horses was visible. There was only one
man, the driver, with it, and the street was otherwise absolutely
empty. It was at him I was looking now. I could see every detail of
his clothes, but from where I was, so high above him, I could not see
his face. He had on grey trousers, brown boots, a black coat buttoned
all the way up, and a straw hat. Over his shoulder there was a strap,
which seemed to support some sort of little bag. He looked exactly
like--well, from my description what did he look exactly like?"
"Why--a bus-conductor," I said instantly.
"So I thought, and even while I was thinking this, he looked up at
me. He had a rather long thin face, and on his left cheek there was a
mole with a growth of dark hair on it. All this was as distinct as if
it had been noonday, and as if I was within a yard of him. But--so
instantaneous was all that takes so long in the telling--I had not
time to think it strange that the driver of a hearse should be so
"Then he touched his hat to me, and jerked his thumb over his
"'Just room for one inside, sir,' he said.
"There was something so odious, so coarse, so unfeeling about this
that I instantly drew my head in, pulled the blind down again, and
then, for what reason I do not know, turned on the electric light in
order to see what time it was. The hands of my watch pointed to
"It was then for the first time, I think, that a doubt crossed my
mind as to the nature of what I had just seen. But I put out the
light again, got into bed, and began to think. We had dined; I had
gone to a party, I had come back and written letters, had gone to bed
and had slept. So how could it be half-past eleven?...Or--what
half-past eleven was it?
"Then another easy solution struck me; my watch must have stopped.
But it had not; I could hear it ticking.
"There was stillness and silence again. I expected every moment to
hear muffled footsteps on the stairs, footsteps moving slowly and
smally under the weight of a heavy burden, but from inside the house
there was no sound whatever. Outside, too, there was the same dead
silence, while the hearse waited at the door. And the minutes ticked
on and ticked on, and at length I began to see a difference in the
light in the room, and knew that the dawn was beginning to break
outside. But how had it happened, then, that if the corpse was to be
removed at night it had not gone, and that the hearse still waited,
when morning was already coming?
"Presently I got out of bed again, and with the sense of strong
physical shrinking I went to the window and pulled back the blind.
The dawn was coming fast; the whole street was lit by that silver
hueless light of morning. But there was no hearse there.
"Once again I looked at my watch. It was just a quarter-past four.
But I would swear that not half an hour had passed since it had told
me that it was half-past eleven.
"Then a curious double sense, as if I was living in the present
and at the same moment had been living in some other time, came over
me. It was dawn on June 25th, and the street, as natural, was empty.
But a little while ago the driver of a hearse had spoken to me, and
it was half-past eleven. What was that driver, to what plane did he
belong? And again what half-past eleven was it that I had seen
recorded on the dial of my watch?
"And then I told myself that the whole thing had been a dream. But
if you ask me whether I believed what I told myself, I must confess
that I did not.
"Your man did not appear at breakfast next morning, nor did I see
him again before I left that afternoon. I think if I had, I should
have told you about all this, but it was still possible, you see,
that what I had seen was a real hearse, driven by a real driver, for
all the ghastly gaiety of the face that had looked up to mine, and
the levity of his pointing hand. I might possibly have fallen asleep
soon after seeing him, and slumbered through the removal of the body
and the departure of the hearse. So I did not speak of it to
There was something wonderfully straight-forward and prosaic in
all this; here were no Jacobean houses oak-panelled and surrounded by
weeping pine-trees, and somehow the very absence of suitable
surroundings made the story more impressive. But for a moment a doubt
"Don't tell me it was all a dream," I said.
"I don't know whether it was or not. I can only say that I believe
myself to have been wide awake. In any case the rest of the story
"I went out of town again that afternoon," he continued, "and I
may say that I don't think that even for a moment did I get the
haunting sense of what I had seen or dreamed that night out of my
mind. It was present to me always as some vision unfulfilled. It was
as if some clock had struck the four quarters, and I was still
waiting to hear what the hour would be.
"Exactly a month afterwards I was in London again, but only for
the day. I arrived at Victoria about eleven, and took the underground
to Sloane Square in order to see if you were in town and would give
me lunch. It was a baking hot morning, and I intended to take a bus
from the King's Road as far as Graeme Street. There was one standing
at the corner just as I came out of the station, but I saw that the
top was full, and the inside appeared to be full also. Just as I came
up to it the conductor, who, I suppose, had been inside, collecting
fares or what not, came out on to the step within a few feet of me.
He wore grey trousers, brown boots, a black coat buttoned, a straw
hat, and over his shoulder was a strap on which hung his little
machine for punching tickets. I saw his face, too; it was the face of
the driver of the hearse, with a mole on the left cheek. Then he
spoke to me, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.
"'Just room for one inside, sir,' he said.
"At that a sort of panic-terror took possession of me, and I knew
I gesticulated wildly with my arms, and cried, 'No, no!' But at that
moment I was living not in the hour that was then passing, but in
that hour which had passed a month ago, when I leaned from the window
of your bedroom here just before the dawn broke. At this moment too I
knew that my spy-hole had been opposite the spy-hole into the
spiritual world. What I had seen there had some significance, now
being fulfilled, beyond the significance of the trivial happenings of
to-day and to-morrow. The Powers of which we know so little were
visibly working before me. And I stood there on the pavement shaking
"I was opposite the post-office at the corner, and just as the bus
started my eye fell on the clock in the window there. I need not tell
you what the time was.
"Perhaps I need not tell you the rest, for you probably conjecture
it, since you will not have forgotten what happened at the corner of
Sloane Square at the end of July, the summer before last. The bus
pulled out from the pavement into the street in order to get round a
van that was standing in front of it. At the moment there came down
the King's Road a big motor going at a hideously dangerous pace. It
crashed full into the bus, burrowing into it as a gimlet burrows into
"And that's my story," he said.