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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 summer atmosphere.

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 city—generally 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 morning—“to 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 to themselves.”

“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 light—for a tall steeple obscured the moon—the 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 vagrants—for we were now sure that what we had seen was not flesh and blood, and therefore harmless—we 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 us.”

“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 in peace.”

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 exclaimed—“who 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 place.”

“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 think.”

“And you,” I asked, “are spirits of human beings yet to be?”

“Yes,” she answered; “but not for a long time. Generations of men—I know not how many—must 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 spectres?”

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 standard work!”

“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 poems.”

The figure gazed at him. “No,” it said, presently, “I never heard of it.”

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 you—let 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 live.”

“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.”

 
 
 

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