The Philosophy of Relative Existences by
Frank R. Stockton
In a certain summer, not long gone, my friend Bentley and I found
ourselves in a little hamlet which overlooked a placid valley, through
which a river gently moved, winding its way through green stretches
until it turned the end of a line of low hills and was lost to view.
Beyond this river, far away, but visible from the door of the cottage
where we dwelt, there lay a city. Through the mists which floated over
the valley we could see the outlines of steeples and tall roofs; and
buildings of a character which indicated thrift and business stretched
themselves down to the opposite edge of the river. The more distant
parts of the city, evidently a small one, lost themselves in the hazy
Bentley was young, fair-haired, and a poet; I was a philosopher, or
trying to be one. We were good friends, and had come down into this
peaceful region to work together. Although we had fled from the bustle
and distractions of the town, the appearance in this rural region of a
city, which, so far as we could observe, exerted no influence on the
quiet character of the valley in which it lay, aroused our interest. No
craft plied up and down the river; there were no bridges from shore to
shore; there were none of those scattered and half-squalid habitations
which generally are found on the outskirts of a city; there came to us
no distant sound of bells; and not the smallest wreath of smoke rose
from any of the buildings.
In answer to our inquiries our landlord told us that the city over
the river had been built by one man, who was a visionary, and who had a
great deal more money than common sense. It is not as big a town as
you would think, sirs, he said, because the general mistiness of
things in this valley makes them look larger than they are. Those
hills, for instance, when you get to them are not as high as they look
to be from here. But the town is big enough, and a good deal too big;
for it ruined its builder and owner, who when he came to die had not
money enough left to put up a decent tombstone at the head of his
grave. He had a queer idea that he would like to have his town all
finished before anybody lived in it, and so he kept on working and
spending money year after year and year after year until the city was
done and he had not a cent left. During all the time that the place was
building hundreds of people came to him to buy houses, or to hire them,
but he would not listen to anything of the kind. No one must live in
his town until it was all done. Even his workmen were obliged to go
away at night to lodge. It is a town, sirs, I am told, in which nobody
has slept for even a night. There are streets there, and places of
business, and churches, and public halls, and everything that a town
full of inhabitants could need; but it is all empty and deserted, and
has been so as far back as I can remember, and I came to this region
when I was a little boy.
And is there no one to guard the place? we asked; no one to
protect it from wandering vagrants who might choose to take possession
of the buildings?
There are not many vagrants in this part of the country, he said,
and if there were they would not go over to that city. It is haunted.
By what? we asked.
Well, sirs, I scarcely can tell you; queer beings that are not
flesh and blood, and that is all I know about it. A good many people
living hereabouts have visited that place once in their lives, but I
know of no one who has gone there a second time.
And travellers, I said, are they not excited by curiosity to
explore that strange uninhabited city?
Oh yes, our host replied; almost all visitors to the valley go
over to that queer citygenerally in small parties, for it is not a
place in which one wishes to walk about alone. Sometimes they see
things and sometimes they don't. But I never knew any man or woman to
show a fancy for living there, although it is a very good town.
This was said at supper-time, and, as it was the period of full
moon, Bentley and I decided that we would visit the haunted city that
evening. Our host endeavored to dissuade us, saying that no one ever
went over there at night; but as we were not to be deterred he told us
where we would find his small boat tied to a stake on the river-bank.
We soon crossed the river, and landed at a broad but low stone pier, at
the land end of which a line of tall grasses waved in the gentle night
wind as if they were sentinels warning us from entering the silent
city. We pushed through these, and walked up a street fairly wide, and
so well paved that we noticed none of the weeds and other growths which
generally denote desertion or little use. By the bright light of the
moon we could see that the architecture was simple, and of a character
highly gratifying to the eye. All the buildings were of stone, and of
good size. We were greatly excited and interested, and proposed to
continue our walks until the moon should set, and to return on the
following morningto live here, perhaps, said Bentley. What could
be so romantic and yet so real? What could conduce better to the
marriage of verse and philosophy? But as he said this we saw around
the corner of a cross-street some forms as of people hurrying away.
The spectres, said my companion, laying his hand on my arm.
Vagrants, more likely, I answered, who have taken advantage of
the superstition of the region to appropriate this comfort and beauty
If that be so, said Bentley, we must have a care for our lives.
We proceeded cautiously, and soon saw other forms fleeing before us
and disappearing, as we supposed, around corners and into houses. And
now suddenly finding ourselves upon the edge of a wide, open public
square, we saw in the dim lightfor a tall steeple obscured the
moonthe forms of vehicles, horses, and men moving here and there. But
before, in our astonishment, we could say a word one to the other, the
moon moved past the steeple, and in its bright light we could see none
of the signs of life and traffic which had just astonished us.
Timidly, with hearts beating fast, but with not one thought of
turning back, nor any fear of vagrantsfor we were now sure that what
we had seen was not flesh and blood, and therefore harmlesswe crossed
the open space and entered a street down which the moon shone clearly.
Here and there we saw dim figures, which quickly disappeared; but,
approaching a low stone balcony in front of one of the houses, we were
surprised to see, sitting thereon and leaning over a book which lay
open upon the top of the carved parapet, the figure of a woman who did
not appear to notice us.
That is a real person, whispered Bentley, and she does not see
No, I replied; it is like the others. Let us go near it.
We drew near to the balcony and stood before it. At this the figure
raised its head and looked at us. It was beautiful, it was young; but
its substance seemed to be of an ethereal quality which we had never
seen or known of. With its full, soft eyes fixed upon us, it spoke.
Why are you here? it asked. I have said to myself that the next
time I saw any of you I would ask you why you come to trouble us.
Cannot you live content in your own realms and spheres, knowing, as you
must know, how timid we are, and how you frighten us and make us
unhappy? In all this city there is, I believe, not one of us except
myself who does not flee and hide from you whenever you cruelly come
here. Even I would do that, had not I declared to myself that I would
see you and speak to you, and endeavor to prevail upon you to leave us
The clear, frank tones of the speaker gave me courage. We are two
men, I answered, strangers in this region, and living for the time in
the beautiful country on the other side of the river. Having heard of
this quiet city, we have come to see it for ourselves. We had supposed
it to be uninhabited, but now that we find that this is not the case,
we would assure you from our hearts that we do not wish to disturb or
annoy any one who lives here. We simply came as honest travellers to
view the city.
The figure now seated herself again, and as her countenance was
nearer to us, we could see that it was filled with pensive thought. For
a moment she looked at us without speaking. Men! she said. And so I
have been right. For a long time I have believed that the beings who
sometimes come here, filling us with dread and awe, are men.
And you, I exclaimedwho are you, and who are these forms that
we have seen, these strange inhabitants of this city?
She gently smiled as she answered, We are the ghosts of the future.
We are the people who are to live in this city generations hence. But
all of us do not know that, principally because we do not think about
it and study about it enough to know it. And it is generally believed
that the men and women who sometimes come here are ghosts who haunt the
And that is why you are terrified and flee from us? I exclaimed.
You think we are ghosts from another world?
Yes, she replied; that is what is thought, and what I used to
And you, I asked, are spirits of human beings yet to be?
Yes, she answered; but not for a long time. Generations of menI
know not how manymust pass away before we are men and women.
Heavens! exclaimed Bentley, clasping his hands and raising his
eyes to the sky, I shall be a spirit before you are a woman.
Perhaps, she said again, with a sweet smile upon her face, you
may live to be very, very old.
But Bentley shook his head. This did not console him. For some
minutes I stood in contemplation, gazing upon the stone pavement
beneath my feet. And this, I ejaculated, is a city inhabited by the
ghosts of the future, who believe men and women to be phantoms and
She bowed her head.
But how is it, I asked, that you discovered that you are spirits
and we mortal men?
There are so few of us who think of such things, she answered, so
few who study, ponder, and reflect. I am fond of study, and I love
philosophy; and from the reading of many books I have learned much.
From the book which I have here I have learned most; and from its
teachings I have gradually come to the belief, which you tell me is the
true one, that we are spirits and you men.
And what book is that? I asked.
It is 'The Philosophy of Relative Existences,' by Rupert Vance.
Ye gods! I exclaimed, springing upon the balcony, that is my
book, and I am Rupert Vance. I stepped toward the volume to seize it,
but she raised her hand.
You cannot touch it, she said. It is the ghost of a book. And did
you write it?
Write it? No, I said; I am writing it. It is not yet finished.
But here it is, she said, turning over the last pages. As a
spirit book it is finished. It is very successful; it is held in high
estimation by intelligent thinkers; it is a standard work.
I stood trembling with emotion. High estimation! I said. A
Oh yes, she replied, with animation; and it well deserves its
great success, especially in its conclusion. I have read it twice.
But let me see these concluding pages, I exclaimed. Let me look
upon what I am to write.
She smiled, and shook her head, and closed the book. I would like
to do that, she said, but if you are really a man you must not know
what you are going to do.
Oh, tell me, tell me, cried Bentley from below, do you know a
book called 'Stellar Studies,' by Arthur Bentley? It is a book of
The figure gazed at him. No, it said, presently, I never heard of
I stood trembling. Had the youthful figure before me been flesh and
blood, had the book been a real one, I would have torn it from her.
O wise and lovely being! I exclaimed, falling on my knees before
her, be also benign and generous. Let me but see the last page of my
book. If I have been of benefit to your world; more than all, if I have
been of benefit to you, let me see, I implore youlet me see how it is
that I have done it.
She rose with the book in her hand. You have only to wait until you
have done it, she said, and then you will know all that you could see
here. I started to my feet and stood alone upon the balcony.
I am sorry, said Bentley, as we walked toward the pier where we
had left our boat, that we talked only to that ghost girl, and that
the other spirits were all afraid of us. Persons whose souls are choked
up with philosophy are not apt to care much for poetry; and even if my
book is to be widely known, it is easy to see that she may not have
heard of it.
I walked triumphant. The moon, almost touching the horizon, beamed
like red gold. My dear friend, said I, I have always told you that
you should put more philosophy into your poetry. That would make it
And I have always told you, said he, that you should not put so
much poetry into your philosophy. It misleads people.
It didn't mislead that ghost girl, said I.
How do you know? said Bentley. Perhaps she is wrong, and the
other inhabitants of the city are right, and we may be the ghosts after
all. Such things, you know, are only relative. Anyway, he continued,
after a little pause, I wish I knew that those ghosts were now reading
the poem which I am going to begin to-morrow.