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The Haunted Shanty - The Atlantic

As the principal personage of this story is dead, and there is no likelihood that any of the others will ever see, I feel free to tell it without reservation.

The mercantile house of which I was until recently an active member had many business connections throughout the Western States, and I was therefore in the habit of making an annual journey through them, in the interest of the firm. In fact, I was always glad to escape from the dirt and hubbub of Cortland Street, and to exchange the smell of goods and boxes, cellars and gutters, for that of prairie grass and even of prairie mud. Although wearing the immaculate linen and golden studs of the city Valentine, there still remained a good deal of the country Orson in my blood, and I endured many hard, repulsive, yea, downright vulgar experiences for the sake of a run at large, and the healthy animal exaltation which accompanied it.

Eight or nine years ago, (it is, perhaps, as well not to be very precise, as yet, with regard to dates,) I found myself at Peoria, in Illinois, rather late in the season. The business I had on hand was mostly transacted; but it was still necessary that I should visit Bloomington and Terre Haute before returning to the East. I had come from Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, and, as the great railroad spider of Chicago had then spun but a few threads of his present tremendous mesh, I had made the greater part of my journey on horseback. By the time I reached Peoria the month of November was well advanced, and the weather had become very disagreeable. I was strongly tempted to sell my horse and take the stage to Bloomington, but the roads were even worse to a traveller on wheels than to one in the saddle, and the sunny day which followed my arrival flattered me with the hope that others as fair might succeed it.

The distance to Bloomington was forty miles, and the road none of the best; yet, as my horse "Peck" (an abbreviation of "Pecatonica") had had two days' rest, I did not leave Peoria until after the usual dinner at twelve o'clock, trusting that I should reach my destination by eight or nine in the evening, at the latest. Broad bands of dull, gray, felt-like clouds crossed the sky, and the wind had a rough edge to it which predicted that there was rain within a day's march.

The oaks along the rounded river-bluffs still held on to their leaves, although the latter were entirely brown and dead, and rattled around me with an ominous sound, as I climbed to the level of the prairie, leaving the bed of the muddy Illinois below. Peck's hoofs sank deeply into the unctuous black soil, which resembled a jetty tallow rather than earth, and his progress was slow and toilsome. The sky became more and more obscured: the sun faded to a ghastly moon, then to a white blotch in the gray vault, and finally retired in disgust. Indeed, there was nothing in the landscape worth his contemplation. Dead flats of black, bristling with short corn-stalks, flats of brown grass, a brown belt of low woods in the distance,—that was all the horizon inclosed: no embossed bowl, with its rim of sculptured hills, its round of colored pictures, but a flat earthen pie-dish, over which the sky fell like a pewter cover.

After riding for an hour or two over the desolate level, I descended through rattling oaks to the bed of a stream, and then ascended through rattling oaks to the prairie beyond. Here, however, I took the wrong road, and found myself, some three miles farther, at a farm-house, where it terminated. "You kin go out over the perairah yander," said the farmer, dropping his maul beside a rail he had just split off,—"there's a plain trail from Sykes's that'll bring you onto the road not fur from Sugar Crick." With which knowledge I plucked up heart and rode on.

What with the windings and turnings of the various cart-tracks, the family resemblance in the groves of oak and hickory, and the heavy, uniform gray of the sky, I presently lost my compass-needle,—that natural instinct of direction, on which I had learned to rely. East, west, north, south,—all were alike, and the very doubt paralyzed the faculty. The growing darkness of the sky, the watery moaning of the wind, betokened night and storm; but I pressed on, hap-hazard, determined, at least, to reach one of the incipient villages on the Bloomington road.

After an hour more, I found myself on the brink of another winding hollow, threaded by a broad, shallow stream. On the opposite side, a quarter of a mile above, stood a rough shanty, at the foot of the rise which led to the prairie. After fording the stream, however, I found that the trail I had followed continued forward in the same direction, leaving this rude settlement on the left. On the opposite side of the hollow, the prairie again stretched before me, dark and flat, and destitute of any sign of habitation. I could scarcely distinguish the trail any longer; in half an hour, I knew, I should be swallowed up in a gulf of impenetrable darkness; and there was evidently no choice left me but to return to the lonely shanty, and there seek shelter for the night.

To be thwarted in one's plans, even by wind or weather, is always vexatious; but in this case, the prospect of spending a night in such a dismal corner of the world was especially disagreeable. I am—or at least I consider myself—a thoroughly matter-of-fact man, and my first thought, I am not ashamed to confess, was of oysters. Visions of a favorite saloon, and many a pleasant supper with Dunham and Beeson, (my partners,) all at once popped into my mind, as I turned back over the brow of the hollow and urged Peck down its rough slope. "Well," thought I, at last, "this will be one more story for our next meeting. Who knows what originals I may not find, even in a solitary settler's shanty?"

I could discover no trail, and the darkness thickened rapidly while I picked my way across dry gullies, formed by the drainage of the prairie above, rotten tree-trunks, stumps, and spots of thicket. As I approached the shanty, a faint gleam through one of its two small windows showed that it was inhabited. In the rear, a space of a quarter of an acre, inclosed by a huge worm-fence, was evidently the vegetable patch, at one corner of which a small stable, roofed and buttressed with corn-fodder, leaned against the hill. I drew rein in front of the building, and was about to hail its inmates, when I observed the figure of a man issue from the stable. Even in the gloom, there was something forlorn and dispiriting in his walk. He approached with a slow, dragging step, apparently unaware of my presence.

"Good evening, friend!" I said.

He stopped, stood still for half a minute, and finally responded,—

"Who air you?"

The tone of his voice, querulous and lamenting, rather implied, "Why don't you let me alone?"

"I am a traveller," I answered, "bound from Peoria to Bloomington, and have lost my way. It is dark, as you know, and likely to rain, and I don't see how I can get any farther to-night."

Another pause. Then he said, slowly, as if speaking to himself,—

"There a'n't no other place nearer 'n four or five mile."

"Then I hope you will let me stay here."

The answer, to my surprise, was a deep sigh.

"I am used to roughing it," I urged; "and besides, I will pay for any trouble I may give you."

"It a'n't that," said he; then added, hesitatingly,—"fact is, we're lonesome people here,—don't often see strangers; yit I s'pose you can't go no furder;—well, I'll talk to my wife."

Therewith he entered the shanty, leaving me a little disconcerted with so uncertain, not to say suspicious, a reception. I heard the sound of voices—one of them unmistakable in its nasal shrillness—in what seemed to be a harsh debate, and distinguished the words, "I didn't bring it on," followed with, "Tell him, then, if you like, and let him stay,"—which seemed to settle the matter. The door presently opened, and the man said,—

"I guess we'll have t' accommodate you. Give me your things, an' then
I'll put your horse up."

I unstrapped my valise, took off the saddle, and, having seen Peck to his fodder-tent, where I left him with some ears of corn in an old basket, returned to the shanty. It was a rude specimen of the article,—a single room of some thirty by fifteen feet, with a large fireplace of sticks and clay at one end, while a half-partition of unplaned planks set on end formed a sort of recess for the bed at the other. A good fire on the hearth, however, made it seem tolerably cheerful, contrasted with the dismal gloom outside. The furniture consisted of a table, two or three chairs, a broad bench, and a kitchen-dresser of boards. Some golden ears of seed-corn, a few sides of bacon, and ropes of onions hung from the rafters.

A woman in a blue calico gown, with a tin coffee-pot in one hand and a stick in the other, was raking out the red coals from under the burning logs. At my salutation, she partly turned, looked hard at me, nodded, and muttered some inaudible words. Then, having levelled the coals properly, she put down the coffee-pot, and, facing about, exclaimed,—"Jimmy, git off that cheer!"

Though this phrase, short and snappish enough, was not worded as an invitation for me to sit down, I accepted it as such, and took the chair which a lean boy of some nine or ten years old had hurriedly vacated. In such cases, I had learned by experience, it is not best to be too forward: wait quietly, and allow the unwilling hosts time to get accustomed to your presence. I inspected the family for a while, in silence. The spare, bony form of the woman, her deep-set gray eyes, and the long, thin nose, which seemed to be merely a scabbard for her sharp-edged voice, gave me her character at the first glance. As for the man, he was worn by some constant fret or worry, rather than naturally spare. His complexion was sallow, his face honest, every line of it, though the expression was dejected, and there was a helpless patience in his voice and movements, which I have often seen in women, but never before in a man. "Henpecked in the first degree," was the verdict I gave, without leaving my seat. The silence, shyness, and puny appearance of the boy might be accounted for by the loneliness of his life, and the usual "shakes"; but there was a wild, frightened look in his eye, a nervous restlessness about his limbs, which excited my curiosity. I am no believer in those freaks of fancy called "presentiments," but I certainly felt that there was something unpleasant, perhaps painful, in the private relations of the family.

Meanwhile, the supper gradually took shape. The coffee was boiled, (far too much, for my taste,) bacon fried, potatoes roasted, and certain lumps of dough transformed into farinaceous grape-shot, called "biscuits." Dishes of blue queensware, knives and forks, cups and saucers of various patterns, and a bowl of molasses were placed upon the table; and finally the woman said, speaking to, though not looking at, me,—

"I s'pose you ha'n't had your supper."

I accepted the invitation with a simple "No," and ate enough of the rude fare (for I was really hungry) to satisfy my hosts that I was not proud. I attempted no conversation, knowing that such people never talk when they eat, until the meal was over, and the man, who gladly took one of my cigars, was seated comfortably before the fire. I then related my story, told my name and business, and by degrees established a mild flow of conversation. The woman, as she washed the dishes and cleared up things for the night, listened to us, and now and then made a remark to the coffee-pot or frying-pan, evidently intended for our ears. Some things which she said must have had a meaning hidden from me, for I could see that the man winced, and at last he ventured to say,—

"Mary Ann, what's the use in talkin' about it?"

"Do as you like," she snapped back; "only I a'n't a-goin' to be blamed for your doin's. The stranger'll find out, soon enough."

"You find this life rather lonely, I should think," I remarked, with a view of giving the conversation a different turn.

"Lonely!" she repeated, jerking out a fragment of malicious laughter. "It's lonely enough in the daytime, Goodness knows; but you'll have your fill o' company afore mornin'."

With that, she threw a defiant glance at her husband.

"Fact is," said he, shrinking from her eye, "we're sort o' troubled with noises at night. P'raps you'll be skeered, but it's no more 'n noise,—onpleasant, but never hurts nothin'."

"You don't mean to say this shanty is haunted?" I asked.

"Well,—yes: some folks 'd call it so. There is noises an' things goin' on, but you can't see nobody."

"Oh, if that is all," said I, "you need not be concerned on my account.
Nothing is so strange, but the cause of it can be discovered."

Again the man heaved a deep sigh. The woman said, in rather a milder tone,—

"What's the good o' knowin' what makes it, when you can't stop it?"

As I was neither sleepy nor fatigued, this information was rather welcome than otherwise. I had full confidence in my own courage; and if anything should happen, it would make a capital story for my first New-York supper. I saw there was but one bed, and a small straw mattress on the floor beside it for the boy, and therefore declared that I should sleep on the bench, wrapped in my cloak. Neither objected to this, and they presently retired. I determined, however, to keep awake as long as possible. I threw a fresh log on the fire, lit another cigar, made a few entries in my note-book, and finally took the "Iron Mask" of Dumas from my valise, and tried to read by the wavering flashes of the fire.

In this manner another hour passed away. The deep breathing—not to say snoring—from the recess indicated that my hosts were sound asleep, and the monotonous whistle of the wind around the shanty began to exercise a lulling influence on my own senses. Wrapping myself in my cloak, with my valise for a pillow, I stretched myself out on the bench, and strove to keep my mind occupied with conjectures concerning the sleeping family. Furthermore, I recalled all the stories of ghosts and haunted houses which I had ever heard, constructed explanations for such as were still unsolved, and, so far from feeling any alarm, desired nothing so much as that the supernatural performances might commence.

My thoughts, however, became gradually less and less coherent, and I was just sliding over the verge of slumber, when a faint sound in the distance caught my ear. I listened intently: certainly there was a far-off, indistinct sound, different from the dull, continuous sweep of the wind. I rose on the bench, fully awake, yet not excited, for my first thought was that other travellers might be lost or belated. By this time the sound was quite distinct, and, to my great surprise, appeared to proceed from a drum, rapidly beaten. I looked at my watch: it was half-past ten. Who could be out on the lonely prairie with a drum, at that time of night? There must have been some military festival, some political caucus, some celebration of the Sons of Malta, or jubilation of the Society of the Thousand and One, and a few of the scattered members were enlivening their dark ride homewards. While I was busy with these conjectures, the sound advanced nearer and nearer,—and, what was very singular, without the least pause or variation,—one steady, regular roll, ringing deep and clear through the night.

The shanty stood at a point where the stream, leaving its general southwestern course, bent at a sharp angle to the southeast, and faced very nearly in the latter direction. As the sound of the drum came from the east, it seemed the more probable that it was caused by some person on the road which crossed the creek a quarter of a mile below. Yet, on approaching nearer, it made directly for the shanty, moving, evidently, much more rapidly than a person could walk. It then flashed upon my mind that this was the noise I was to hear, this the company I was to expect! Louder and louder, deep, strong, and reverberating, rolling as if for a battle-charge, it came on: it was now but a hundred yards distant,—now but fifty,—ten,—just outside the rough clapboard-wall,—but, while I had half risen to open the door, it passed directly through the wall and sounded at my very ears, inside the shanty!

The logs burned brightly on the hearth: every object in the room could be seen more or less distinctly: nothing was out of its place, nothing disturbed, yet the rafters almost shook under the roll of an invisible drum, beaten by invisible hands! The sleepers tossed restlessly, and a deep groan, as if in semi-dream, came from the man. Utterly confounded as I was, my sensations were not those of terror. Each moment I doubted my senses, and each moment the terrific sound convinced me anew. I do not know how long I sat thus in sheer, stupid amazement. It may have been one minute, or fifteen, before the drum, passing over my head, through the boards again, commenced a slow march around the shanty. When it had finished the first, and was about commencing the second round, I shook off my stupor, and determined to probe the mystery. Opening the door, I advanced in an opposite direction to meet it. Again the sound passed close beside my head, but I could see nothing, touch nothing. Again it entered the shanty, and I followed. I stirred up the fire, casting a strong illumination into the darkest corners; I thrust my hand into the very heart of the sound, I struck through it in all directions with a stick,—still I saw nothing, touched nothing.

Of course, I do not expect to be believed by half my readers,—nor can I blame them for their incredulity. So astounding is the circumstance, even yet, to myself, that I should doubt its reality, were it not therefore necessary, for the same reason, to doubt every event of my life.

At length the sound moved away in the direction whence it came, becoming gradually fainter and fainter until it died in the distance. But immediately afterwards, from the same quarter, came a thin, sharp blast of wind,—or what seemed to be such. If one could imagine a swift, intense stream of air, no thicker than a telegraph-wire, producing a keen, whistling rush in its passage, he would understand the impression made upon my mind. This wind, or sound, or whatever it was, seemed to strike an invisible target in the centre of the room, and thereupon ensued a new and worse confusion. Sounds as of huge planks lifted at one end and then allowed to fall, slamming upon the floor, hard, wooden claps, crashes, and noises of splitting and snapping, filled the shanty. The rough boards of the floor jarred and trembled, and the table and chairs were jolted off their feet. Instinctively, I jerked away my legs, whenever the invisible planks fell too near them.

It never came into my mind to charge the family with being the authors of these phenomena: their care and distress were too evident. There was certainly no other human being but myself in or near the shanty. My senses of sight and touch availed me nothing, and I confined my attention, at last, to simply noting the manifestations, without attempting to explain them. I began to experience a feeling, not of terror, but of disturbing uncertainty. The solid ground was taken from beneath my feet.

Still the man and his wife groaned and muttered, as if in a nightmare sleep, and the boy tossed restlessly on his low bed. I would not disturb them, since, by their own confession, they were accustomed to the visitation. Besides, it would not assist me, and, so long as there was no danger of personal injury, I preferred to watch alone. I recalled, however, the woman's remarks, remembering the mysterious blame she had thrown upon her husband, and felt certain that she had adopted some explanation of the noises, at his expense.

As the confusion continued, with more or less violence, sometimes pausing for a few minutes, to begin again with renewed force, I felt an increasing impression of somebody else being present. Outside the shanty this feeling ceased, but every time I opened the door I fully expected to see some one standing in the centre of the room. Yet, looking through the little windows, when the noises were at their loudest, I could discover nothing. Two hours had passed away since I first heard the drum-beat, and I found myself at last completely wearied with my fruitless exertions and the unusual excitement. By this time the disturbances had become faint, with more frequent pauses. All at once, I heard a long, weary sigh, so near me that it could not have proceeded from the sleepers. A weak moan, expressive of utter wretchedness, followed, and then came the words, in a woman's voice,—came I know not whence, for they seemed to be uttered close beside me, and yet far, far away,—"How great is my trouble! How long shall I suffer? I was married, in the sight of God, to Eber Nicholson. Have mercy, O Lord, and give him to me, or release me from him!"

These were the words, not spoken, but rather moaned forth in a slow, monotonous wail of utter helplessness and broken-heartedness. I have heard human grief expressed in many forms, but I never heard or imagined anything so desolate, so surcharged with the despair of an eternal woe. It was, indeed, too hopeless for sympathy. It was the utterance of a sorrow which removed its possessor into some dark, lonely world girdled with iron walls, against which every throb of a helping or consoling heart would beat in vain for admittance. So far from being moved or softened, the words left upon me an impression of stolid apathy. When they had ceased, I heard another sigh,—and some time afterwards, far-off, retreating forlornly through the eastern darkness, the wailing repetition,—"I was married, in the sight of God, to Eber Nicholson. Have mercy, O Lord!"

This was the last of those midnight marvels. Nothing further disturbed the night except the steady sound of the wind. The more I thought of what I had heard, the more I was convinced that the phenomena were connected, in some way, with the history of my host. I had heard his wife call him "Ebe," and did not doubt that he was the Eber Nicholson who, for some mysterious crime, was haunted by the reproachful ghost. Could murder, or worse than murder, lurk behind these visitations? It was useless to conjecture; yet, before giving myself up to sleep, I determined to know everything that could be known, before leaving the shanty.

My rest was disturbed: my hip-bones pressed unpleasantly on the hard bench; and every now and then I awoke with a start, hearing the same despairing voice in my dreams. The place was always quiet, nevertheless,—the disturbances having ceased, as nearly as I could judge, about one o'clock in the morning. Finally, from sheer weariness, I fell into a deep slumber, which lasted until daylight. The sound of pans and kettles aroused me. The woman, in her lank blue gown, was bending over the fire; the man and boy had already gone out. As I rose, rubbing my eyes and shaking myself, to find out exactly where and who I was, the woman straightened herself and looked at me with a keen, questioning gaze, but said nothing.

"I must have been very sound asleep," said I.

"There's no sound sleepin' here. Don't tell me that."

"Well," I answered, "your shanty is rather noisy; but, as I'm neither scared nor hurt, there's no harm done. But have you never found out what occasions the noise?"

Her reply was a toss of the head and a peculiar snorting interjection, "Hngh!" (impossible to be represented by letters,) "it's all her doin'."

"But who is she?"

"You'd better ask him."

Seeing there was nothing to be got out of her, I went down to the stream, washed my face, dried it with my pocket-handkerchief, and then looked after Peck. He gave a shrill whinny of recognition, and, I thought, seemed to be a little restless. A fresh feed of corn was in the old basket, and presently the man came into the stable with a bunch of hay, and commenced rubbing off the marks of Peck's oozy couch which were left on his flanks. As we went back to the shanty I noticed that he eyed me furtively, without daring to look me full in the face. As I was apparently none the worse for the night's experiences, he rallied at last, and ventured to talk at, as well as to, me.

By this time, breakfast, which was a repetition of supper, was ready, and we sat down to the table. During the meal, it occurred to me to make an experimental remark. Turning suddenly to the man, I asked,—

"Is your name Eber Nicholson?"

"There!" exclaimed the woman, "I knowed he'd heerd it!"

He, however, flushing a moment, and then becoming move sallow than ever, nodded first, and then—as if that were not sufficient—added, "Yes, that's my name."

"Where did you move from?" I continued, falling back on the first plan I had formed in my mind.

"The Western Reserve, not fur from Hudson."

I turned the conversation on the comparative advantages of Ohio and Illinois, on farming, the price of land, etc., carefully avoiding the dangerous subject, and by the time breakfast was over had arranged, that, for a consideration, he should accompany me as far as the Bloomington road, some five miles distant.

While he went out to catch an old horse, ranging loose in the creek-bottom, I saddled Peck, strapped on my valise, and made myself ready for the journey. The feeling of two silver half-dollars in her hard palm melted down the woman's aggressive mood, and she said, with a voice the edge whereof was mightily blunted,—

"Thankee! it's too much fur sich as you had."

"It's the best you can give," I replied.

"That's so!" said she, jerking my hand up and down with a pumping movement, as I took leave.

I felt a sense of relief when we had climbed the rise and had the open prairie again before us. The sky was overcast and the wind strong, but some rain had fallen during the night, and the clouds had lifted themselves again. The air was fresh and damp, but not chill. We rode slowly, of necessity, for the mud was deeper than ever.

I deliberated what course I should take, in order to draw from my guide the explanation of the nightly noises. His evident shrinking, whenever his wife referred to the subject, convinced me that a gradual approach would render him shy and uneasy; and, on the whole, it seemed best to surprise him by a sudden assault. Let me strike to the heart of the secret, at once,—I thought,—and the details will come of themselves.

While I was thus reflecting, he rode quietly by my side. Half turning in the saddle, I looked steadily at his face, and said, in an earnest voice,—

"Eber Nicholson, who was it to whom you were married in the sight of
God?"

He started as if struck, looked at me imploringly, turned away his eyes, then looked back, became very pale, and finally said, in a broken, hesitating voice, as if the words were forced from him against his will,—

"Her name is Rachel Emmons."

"Why did you murder her?" I asked, in a still sterner tone.

In an instant his face burned scarlet. He reined up his horse with a violent pull, straightened his shoulders so that he appeared six inches taller, looked steadily at me with a strange, mixed expression of anger and astonishment, and cried out,—

"Murder her? Why, she's livin' now!"

My surprise at the answer was scarcely less great than his at the question.

"You don't mean to say she's not dead?" I asked.

"Why, no!" said he, recovering from his sudden excitement, "she's not dead, or she wouldn't keep on troublin' me. She's been livin' in Toledo, these ten year."

"I beg your pardon, my friend," said I; "but I don't know what to think of what I heard last night, and I suppose I have the old notion in my head that all ghosts are of persons who have been murdered."

"Oh, if I had killed her," he groaned, "I'd 'a' been hung long ago, an' there 'd 'a' been an end of it."

"Tell me the whole story," said I. "It's hardly likely that I can help you, but I can understand how you must be troubled, and I'm sure I pity you from my heart."

I think he felt relieved at my proposal,—glad, perhaps, after long silence, to confide to another man the secret of his lonely, wretched life.

"After what you've heerd," said he, "there's nothin' that I don't care to tell. I've been sinful, no doubt,—but, God knows, there never was a man worse punished.

"I told you," he continued, after a pause, "that I come from the Western Reserve. My father was a middlin' well-to-do farmer,—not rich, nor yit exactly poor. He's dead now. He was always a savin' man,—looked after money a leetle too sharp, I've often thought sence: howsever, 't isn't my place to judge him. Well, I was brought up on the farm, to hard work, like the other boys. Rachel Emmons,—she's the same woman that haunts me, you understand,—she was the girl o' one of our neighbors, an' poor enough he was. His wife was always sickly-like,—an' you know it takes a woman as well as a man to git rich farmin'. So they were always scrimped, but that didn't hinder Rachel from bein' one o' the likeliest gals round. We went to the same school in the winter, he an' me, ('t isn't much schoolin' I ever got, though,) an' I had a sort o' nateral hankerin' after her, as fur back as I can remember. She was different lookin' then from, what she is now,—an' me, too, for that matter.

"Well, you know how boys an' gals somehow git to likin' each other afore they know it. Me an' Rachel was more an' more together, the more we growed up, only more secret-like; so by the time I was twenty an' she was nineteen, we was promised to one another as true as could be. I didn't keep company with her, though,—leastways, not reg'lar: I was afeard my father 'd find it out, an' I knowed what he 'd say to it. He kep' givin' me hints about Mary Ann Jones,—that was my wife's maiden name. Her father had two hundred acres an' money out at interest, an' only three children. He'd had ten, but seven of 'em died. I had nothin' agin Mary Ann, but I never thought of her that way, like I did towards Rachel.

"Well, things kep' runnin' on; I was a good deal worried about it, but a young feller, you know, don't look fur ahead, an' so I got along. One night, howsever,—'t was jist about as dark as last night was,—I'd been to the store at the Corners, for a jug o' molasses. Rachel was there, gittin' a quarter of a pound o' tea, I think it was, an' some sewin'-thread. I went out a little while after her, an' follered as fast as I could, for we had the same road nigh to home.

"It weren't long afore I overtook her. 'T was mighty dark, as I was sayin', an' so I hooked her arm into mine, an' we went on comfortable together, talkin' about how we jist suited each other, like we was cut out o' purpose, an' how long we'd have to wait, an' what folks 'd say. O Lord! don't I remember every word o' that night? Well, we got quite tender-like when we come t' Old Emmons's gate, an' I up an' giv' her a hug and a lot o' kisses, to make up for lost time. Then she went into the house, an' I turned for home; but I hadn't gone ten steps afore I come agin somebody stan'in' in the middle o' the road. 'Hullo!' says I. The next thing he had a holt o' my coat-collar an' shuck me like a tarrier-dog shakes a rat. I knowed who it was afore he spoke; an' I couldn't 'a' been more skeered, if the life had all gone out o' me. He'd been down to the tavern to see a drover, an' comin' home he'd follered behind us all the way, hearin' every word we said.

"I don't like to think o' the words he used that night. He was a professin' member, an' yit he swore the awfullest I ever heerd."—Here the man involuntarily raised his hands to his ears, as if to stop them against even the memory of his father's curses.—"I expected every minute he'd 'a' struck me down. I've wished, sence, he had: I don't think I could 'a' stood that. Howsever, he dragged me home, never lettin' go my collar, till we got into the room where mother was settin' up for us. Then he told her, only makin' it ten times harder 'n it really was. Mother always kind o' liked Rachel, 'cause she was mighty handy at sewin' an' quiltin', but she'd no more dared stan' up agin father than a sheep agin a bull-dog. She looked at me pityin'-like, I must say, an' jist begun to cry,—an' I couldn't help cryin' nuther, when I saw how it hurt her.

"Well, after that, 't wa'n't no use thinkin' o' Rachel any more. I had to go t' Old Jones's, whether I wanted to or no. I felt mighty mean when I thought o' Rachel, an' was afeard no good 'd come of it; but father jist managed things his way, an' I couldn't help myself. Old Jones had nothin' agin me, for I was a stiddy, hard-workin' feller as there was round,—an' Mary Ann was always as pleasant as could be, then;—well, I oughtn't to say nothin' agin her now; she's had a hard life of it, 'longside o' me. Afore long we were bespoke, an' the day set. Father hurried things, when it got that fur. I don't think Rachel knowed anything about it till the day afore the weddin', or mebby the very day. Old Mr. Larrabee was the minister, an' there was only the two families at the house, an' Miss Plankerton,—her that sewed for Mary Ann. I never felt so oneasy in my life, though I tried hard not to show it.

"Well, 't was all jist over, an' the kissin' about to begin, when I heerd the house-door bu'st open, suddent. I felt my heart give one jump right up to the root o' my tongue, an' then fall back ag'in, sick an' dead-like.

"The parlor-door flew open right away, an' in come Rachel without a bunnet, an' her hair all frowzed by the wind. She was as white as a sheet, an' her eyes like two burnin' coals. She walked straight through 'em all an' stood right afore me. They was all so taken aback that they never thought o' stoppin' her. Then she kind o' screeched out,—'Eber Nicholson, what are you doin'?' Her voice was strange an' onnatural-like, an' I'd never 'a' knowed it to be hern, if I hadn't 'a' seen her. I couldn't take my eyes off of her, an' I couldn't speak: I jist stood there. Then she said ag'in,—'Eber Nicholson, what are you doin'? You are married to me, in the sight of God. You belong to me an' I to you, forever an' forever!' Then they begun cryin' out,—'Go 'way!' 'Take her away!' 'What d's she mean?' an' old Mr. Larrabee ketched holt of her arm. She begun to jerk an' trimble all over; she drawed in her breath in a sort o' groanin' way, awful to hear, an' then dropped down on the floor in a fit. I bu'st out in a terrible spell o' cryin';—I couldn't 'a' helped it, to save my life."

The man paused, drew his sleeve across his eyes, and then timidly looked at me. Seeing nothing in my face, doubtless, but an expression of the profoundest commiseration, he remarked, with a more assured voice, as if in self-justification,—

"It was a pretty hard thing for a man to go through with, now, wasn't it?"

"You may well say that," said I. "Your story is not yet finished, however. This Rachel Emmons,—you say she is still living,—in what way does she cause the disturbances?"

"I'll tell you all I know about it," said he,—"an' if you understand it then, you're wiser 'n I am. After they carried her home, she had a long spell o' sickness,—come near dyin', they said; but they brought her through, at last, an' she got about ag'in, lookin' ten year older. I kep' out of her sight, though. I lived awhile at Old Jones's, till I could find a good farm to rent, or a cheap un to buy. I wanted to git out o' the neighborhood: I was oneasy all the time, bein' so near Rachel. Her mother was wuss, an' her father failin'-like, too. Mother seen 'em often: she was as good a neighbor to 'em as she dared be. Well, I got sort o' tired, an' went out to Michigan an' bought a likely farm. Old Jones giv' me a start. I took Mary Ann out, an' we got along well enough, a matter o' two year. We heerd from home now an' then. Rachel's father an' mother both died, about the time we had our first boy,—him that you seen,—an' she went off to Toledo, we heerd, an' hired out to do sewin'. She was always a mighty good hand at it, an' could cut out as nice as a born manty-maker. She'd had another fit after the funerals, an' was older-lookin' an' more serious than ever, they said.

"Well, Jimmy was six months old, or so, when we begun to be woke up every night by his cryin'. Nothin' seemed to be the matter with him: he was only frightened-like, an' couldn't be quieted. I heerd noises sometimes,—nothin' like what come afterwards,—but sort o' crackin' an' snappin', sich as you hear in new furnitur', an' it seemed like somebody was in the room; but I couldn't find nothin'. It got wuss and wuss: Mary Ann was sure the house was haunted, an' I had to let her go home for a whole winter. When she was away, it went on the same as ever,—not every night,—sometimes not more 'n onst a week,—but so loud as to wake me up, reg'lar. I sent word to Mary Ann to come on, an' I'd sell out an' go to Illinois. Good perairah land was cheap then, an' I'd ruther go furder off, for the sake o' quiet.

"So we pulled up stakes an' come out here: but it weren't long afore the noise follered us, wuss 'n ever, an' we found out at last what it was. One night I woke up, with my hair stan'in' on end, an' heerd Rachel Emmons's voice, jist as you heerd it last night. Mary Ann heerd it too, an' it's little peace she's giv' me sence that time. An' so it's been goin' on an' on, these eight or nine year."

"But," I asked, "are you sure she is alive? Have you seen her since?
Have you asked her to be merciful and not disturb you?"

"Yes," said he, with a bitterness of tone which seemed quite to obliterate the softer memories of his love, "I've seen her, an' I've begged her on my knees to let me alone; but it's no use. When it got to be so bad I couldn't stan' it, I sent her a letter, but I never got no answer. Next year, when our second boy died, frightened and worried to death, I believe, though he was scrawny enough when he was born, I took some money I'd saved to buy a yoke of oxen, an' went to Toledo o' purpose to see Rachel. It cut me awful to do it, but I was desprit. I found her livin' in a little house, with a bit o' garden, she'd bought. I s'pose she must 'a' had five or six hundred dollars when the farm was sold, an' she made a good deal by sewin', besides. She was settin' at her work when I went in, an' knowed me at onst, though I don't believe I'd ever 'a' knowed her. She was old, an' thin, an' hard-lookin'; her mouth was pale an' sot, like she was bitin' somethin' all the time; an' her eyes, though they was sunk into her head, seemed to look through an' through an' away out th' other side o' you.

"It jist shut me up when she looked at me. She was so corpse-like I was afraid she'd drop dead, then and there: but I made out at last to say, 'Rachel, I've come all the way from Illinois to see you.' She kep' lookin' straight at me, never sayin' a word. 'Rachel,' says I, 'I know I've acted bad towards you. God knows I didn't mean to do it. I don't blame you for payin' it back to me the way you're doin', but Mary Ann an' the boy never done you no harm. I've come all the way o' purpose to ask your forgiveness, hopin' you'll be satisfied with what's been done, an' leave off bearin' malice agin us.' She looked kind o' sorrowful-like, but drawed a deep breath, an' shuck her head, 'Oh, Rachel,' says I,—an' afore I knowed it I was right down on my knees at her feet,—'Rachel, don't be so hard on me. I'm the onhappiest man that lives. I can't stan' it no longer. Rachel, you didn't use to be so cruel, when we was boys an' girls together. Do forgive me, an' leave off' hauntin' me so.'

"Then she spoke up, at last, an' says she,—

"'Eber Nicholson, I was married to you, in the sight o' God!'

"'I know it,' says I; 'you say it to me every night; an' it wasn't my doin's that you're not my wife now: but, Rachel, if I'd 'a' betrayed you, an' ruined you, an' killed you, God couldn't 'a' punished me wuss than you're a-punishin' me.'

"She giv' a kind o' groan, an' two tears run down her white face. 'Eber Nicholson,' says she, 'ask God to help you, for I can't. There might 'a' been a time,' says she, 'when I could 'a' done it, but it's too late now.'

"'Don't say that, Rachel,' says I; 'it's never too late to be merciful an' forgivin'.'

"'It doesn't depend on myself,' says she; 'I'm sent to you. It's th' only comfort I have in life to be near you; but I'd give up that, if I could. Pray to God to let me die, for then we shall both have rest.'

"An' that was all I could git out of her.

"I come home ag'in, knowin' I'd spent my money for nothin'. Sence then, it's been jist the same as before,—not reg'lar every night, but sort o' comes on by spells, an' then stops three or four days, an' then comes on ag'in. Fact is, what's the use o' livin' in this way? We can't be neighborly; we're afeard to have anybody come to see us; we've got no peace, no comfort o' bein' together, an' no heart to work an' git ahead, like other folks. It's jist killin' me, body an' soul."

Here the poor wretch fairly broke down, bursting suddenly into an uncontrollable fit of weeping. I waited quietly until the violence of his passion had subsided. A misery so strange, so completely out of the range of human experience, so hopeless apparently, was not to be reached by the ordinary utterances of consolation. I had seen enough to enable me fully to understand the fearful nature of the retribution which had been visited upon him for what was, at worst, a weakness to be pitied, rather than a sin to be chastised. "Never was a man worse punished," he had truly said. But I was as far as ever from comprehending the secret of those nightly visitations. The statement of Rachel Emmons, that they were now produced without her will, overturned—supposing it to be true—the conjecture which I might otherwise have adopted. However, it was now plain that the unhappy victim sobbing at my side could throw no further light on the mystery. He had told me all he knew.

"My friend," said I, when he had become calmer, "I do not wonder at your desperation. Such continual torment as you must have endured is enough to drive a man to madness. It seems to me to spring from the malice of some infernal power, rather than the righteous justice of God. Have you never tried to resist it? Have you never called aloud, in your heart, for Divine help, and gathered up your strength to meet and defy it, as you would to meet a man who threatened your life?"

"Not in the right way, I'm afeard," said he. "Fact is, I always tuck it as a judgment hangin' over me, an' never thought o' nothin' else than jist to grin and bear it."

"Enough of that," I urged,—for a hope of relief had suggested itself to me,—"you have suffered enough, and more than enough. Now stand up to meet it like a man. When the noises come again, think of what you have endured, and let it make you indignant and determined. Decide in your heart that you will be free from it, and perhaps you may be so. If not, build another shanty and sleep away from your wife and boy, so that they may escape, at least. Give yourself this claim to your wife's gratitude, and she will be kind and forbearing."

"I don't know but you're more 'n half right, stranger," he replied, in a more cheerful tone. "Fact is, I never thought on it that way. It's lightened my heart a heap, tellin' you; an' if I'm not too broke an' used-up-like, I'll try to foller your advice. I couldn't marry Rachel now, if Mary Ann was dead, we've been druv so fur apart. I don't know how it'll be when we're all dead: I s'pose them 'll go together that belongs together;—leastways, 't ought to be so."

Here we struck the Bloomington road, and I no longer needed a guide. When we pulled our horses around, facing each other, I noticed that the flush of excitement still burned on the man's sallow cheek, and his eyes, washed by probably the first freshet of feeling which had moistened them for years, shone with a faint lustre of courage.

"No, no,—none o' that!" said he, as I was taking out my porte-monnaie; "you've done me a mighty sight more good than I've done you, let alone payin' me to boot. Don't forgit the turn to the left, after crossin' Jackson's Run. Good-bye, stranger! Take good keer o' yourself!"

And with a strong, clinging, lingering grasp of the hand, in which the poor fellow expressed the gratitude which he was too shy and awkward to put into words, we parted. He turned his horse's head, and slowly plodded back through the mud towards the lonely shanty.

On my way to Bloomington, I went over and over the man's story, in memory. The facts were tolerably clear and coherent: his narrative was simple and credible enough, after my own personal experience of the mysterious noises, and the secret, whatever it was, must be sought for in Rachel Emmons. She was still living in Toledo, Ohio, he said, and earned her living as a seamstress; it would, therefore, not be difficult to find her. I confess, after his own unsatisfactory interview, I had little hope of penetrating her singular reserve; but I felt the strongest desire to see her, at least, and thus test the complete reality of a story which surpassed the wildest fiction. After visiting Terre Haute, the next point to which business called me, on the homeward route, was Cleveland; and by giving an additional day to the journey, I could easily take Toledo on my way. Between memory and expectation the time passed rapidly, and a week later I registered my name at the Island House, Toledo.

After wandering about for an hour or two, the next morning, I finally discovered the residence of Rachel Emmons. It was a small story-and-a-half frame building, on the western edge of the town, with a locust-tree in front, two lilacs inside the paling, and a wilderness of cabbage-stalks and currant-bushes in the rear. After much cogitation, I had not been able to decide upon any plan of action, and the interval between my knock and the opening of the door was one of considerable embarrassment to me. A small, plumpish woman of forty, with peaked nose, black eyes, and but two upper teeth, confronted me. She, certainly, was not the one I sought.

"Is your name Rachel Emmons?" I asked, nevertheless.

"No, I'm not her. This is her house, though."

"Will you tell her a gentleman wants to see her?" said I, putting my foot inside the door as I spoke. The room, I saw, was plainly, but neatly furnished. A rag-carpet covered the floor; green rush-bottomed chairs, a settee with chintz cover, and a straight-backed rocking-chair were distributed around the walls; and for ornament there was an alphabetical sampler in a frame, over the low wooden mantel-piece.

The woman, however, still held the door-knob in her hand, saying, "Miss Emmons is busy. She can't well leave her work. Did you want some sewin' done?"

"No," said I; "I wish to speak with her. It's on private and particular business."

"Well," she answered with some hesitation, "I'll tell her. Take a cheer."

She disappeared through a door into a back room, and I sat down. In another minute the door noiselessly reopened, and Rachel Emmons came softly into the room. I believe I should have known her anywhere. Though from Eber Nicholson's narrative she could not have been much over thirty, she appeared to be at least forty-five. Her hair was streaked with gray, her face thin and of an unnatural waxy pallor, her lips of a whitish-blue color and tightly pressed together, and her eyes, seemingly sunken far back in their orbits, burned with a strange, ghastly—I had almost said phosphorescent—light. I remember thinking they must shine like touch-wood in the dark. I have come in contact with too many persons, passed through too wide a range of experience, to lose my self-possession easily; but I could not meet the cold, steady gaze of those eyes without a strong internal trepidation. It would have been the same, if I had known nothing about her.

She was probably surprised at seeing a stranger, but I could discern no trace of it in her face. She advanced but a few steps into the room, and then stopped, waiting for me to speak.

"You are Rachel Emmons?" I asked, since a commencement of some sort must be made.

"Yes."

"I come from Eber Nicholson," said I, fixing my eyes on her face.

Not a muscle moved, not a nerve quivered, but I fancied that a faint purple flush played for an instant under the white mask. If I were correct, it was but momentary. She lifted her left hand slowly, pressed it on her heart, and then let it fall. The motion was so calm that I should not have noticed it, if I had not been watching her so steadily.

"Well?" she said, after a pause.

"Rachel Emmons," said I,—and more than one cause conspired to make my voice earnest and authoritative,—"I know all. I come to you not to meddle with the sorrow—let me say the sin—which has blighted your life; not because Eber Nicholson sent me; not to defend him or to accuse you; but from that solemn sense of duty which makes every man responsible to God for what he does or leaves undone. An equal pity for him and for you forces me to speak. He cannot plead his cause; you cannot understand his misery. I will not ask by what wonderful power you continue to torment his life; I will not even doubt that you pity while you afflict him; but I ask you to reflect whether the selfishness of your sorrow may not have hardened your heart, and blinded you to that consolation which God offers to those who humbly seek it. You say that you are married to Eber Nicholson, in His sight. Think, Rachel Emmons, think of that moment when you will stand before His awful bar, and the poor, broken, suffering soul, whom your forgiveness might still make yours in the holy marriage of heaven, shrinks from you with fear and pain, as in the remembered persecutions of earth!"

The words came hot from my very heart, and the ice-crust of years under which hers lay benumbed gave way before them. She trembled slightly; and the same sad, hopeless moan which I had heard at midnight in the Illinois shanty came from her lips. She sank into a chair, letting her hands fall heavily at her side. There was no movement of her features, yet I saw that her waxy cheeks were moist, as with the slow ooze of tears so long unshed that they had forgotten their natural flow.

"I do pity him," she murmured at last, "and I believe I forgive him; but, oh! I've become an instrument of wrath for the punishment of both."

If any feeling of reproof still lingered in my mind, her appearance disarmed me at once. I felt nothing but pity for her forlorn, helpless state. It was the apathy of despair, rather than the coldness of cherished malice, which had so frozen her life. Still, the mystery of those nightly persecutions!

"Rachel Emmons," I said, "you certainly know that you still continue to destroy the peace of Eber Nicholson and his family. Do you mean to say that you cannot cease to do so, if you would?"

"It is too late," said she, shaking her head slowly, as she clasped both hands hard against her breast. "Do you think I would suffer, night after night, if I could help it? Haven't I stayed awake for days, till my strength gave way, rather than fall asleep, for his sake? Wouldn't I give my life to be free?—and would have taken it, long ago, with my own hands, but for the sin!"

She spoke in a low voice, but with a wild earnestness which startled me.
She, then, was equally a victim!

"But," said I, "this thing had a beginning. Why did you visit him in the first place, when, perhaps, you might have prevented it?"

"I am afraid that was my sin," she replied, "and this is the punishment. When father and mother died, and I was layin' sick and weak, with nothin' to do but think of him, and me all alone in the world, and not knowin' how to live without him, because I had nobody left,—that's when it begun. When the deadly kind o' sleeps came on—they used to think I was dead, or faintin', at first—and I could go where my heart drawed me, and look at him away off where he lived, 't was consolin', and I didn't try to stop it. I used to long for the night, so I could go and be near him for an hour or two. I don't know how I went: it seemed to come of itself. After a while I felt I was troublin' him and doin' no good to myself, but the sleeps came just the same as ever, and then I couldn't help myself. They're only a sorrow to me now, but I s'pose I shall have 'em till I'm laid in my grave."

This was all the explanation she could give. It was evidently one of those mysterious cases of spiritual disease which completely baffle our reason. Although compelled to accept her statement, I felt incapable of suggesting any remedy. I could only hope that the abnormal condition into which she had fallen might speedily wear out her vital energies, already seriously shattered. She informed me, further, that each attack was succeeded by great exhaustion, and that she felt herself growing feebler, from year to year. The immediate result, I suspected, was a disease of the heart, which might give her the blessing of death sooner than she hoped. Before taking leave of her, I succeeded in procuring from her a promise that she would write to Eber Nicholson, giving him that free forgiveness which would at least ease his conscience, and make his burden somewhat lighter to bear. Then, feeling that it was not in my power to do more, I rose to depart. Taking her hand, which lay cold and passive in mine,—so much like a dead hand that it required a strong effort in me to repress a nervous shudder,—I said, "Farewell, Rachel Emmons, and remember that they who seek peace in the right spirit will always find it at last."

"It won't be many years before I find it", she replied, calmly; and the weird, supernatural light of her eyes shone upon me for the last time.

I reached New York in due time, and did not fail, sitting around the broiled oysters and celery, with my partners, to repeat the story of the Haunted Shanty. I knew, beforehand, how they would receive it; but the circumstances had taken such hold of my mind,—so burned me, like a boy's money, to keep buttoned up in the pocket,—that I could no more help telling the tale than the man I remember reading about, a great while ago, in a poem called "The Ancient Mariner". Beeson, who, I suspect, don't believe much of anything, is always apt to carry his raillery too far; and thenceforth, whenever the drum of a target-company, marching down Broadway, passed the head of our street, he would whisper to me, "There comes Rachel Emmons!" until I finally became angry, and insisted that the subject should never again be mentioned.

But I none the less recalled it to my mind, from time to time, with a singular interest. It was the one supernatural, or, at least, inexplicable experience of my life, and I continued to feel a profound curiosity with regard to the two principal characters. My slight endeavor to assist them by such counsel as had suggested itself to me was actuated by the purest human sympathy, and upon further reflection I could discover no other means of help. A spiritual disease could be cured only by spiritual medicine,—unless, indeed, the secret of Rachel Emmons's mysterious condition lay in some permanent dislocation of the relation between soul and body, which could terminate only with their final separation.

With the extension of our business, and the increasing calls upon my time during my Western journeys, it was three years before I again found myself in Toledo, with sufficient leisure to repeat my visit. I had some difficulty in finding the little frame house; for, although it was unaltered in every respect, a number of stately brick "villas" had sprung up around it and quite disguised the locality. The door was opened by the same little black-eyed woman, with the addition of four artificial teeth, which were altogether too large and loose. They were attached by plated hooks to her eye-teeth, and moved up and down when she spoke.

"Is Rachel Emmons at home?" I asked.

The woman stared at me in evident surprise.

"She's dead," said she, at last, and then added,—"let's see,—ain't you the gentleman that called here, some three or four years ago?"

"Yes", said I, entering the room; "I should like to hear about her death."

"Well,—'twas rather queer. She was failin' when you was here. After that she got softer and weaker-like, an' didn't have her deathlike wearin' sleeps so often, but she went just as fast for all that. The doctor said 'twas heart-disease, and the nerves was gone, too; so he only giv' her morphy, and sometimes pills, but he knowed she'd no chance from the first. 'Twas a year ago last May when she died. She'd been confined to her bed about a week, but I'd no thought of her goin' so soon. I was settin' up with her, and 'twas a little past midnight, maybe. She'd been layin' like dead awhile, an' I was thinkin' I could snatch a nap before she woke. All't onst she riz right up in bed, with her eyes wide open, an' her face lookin' real happy, an' called out, loud and strong,—'Farewell, Eber Nicholson! farewell! I've come for the last time! There's peace for me in heaven, an' peace for you on earth! Farewell! farewell!' Then she dropped back on the piller, stone-dead. She'd expected it, 't seems, and got the doctor to write her will. She left me this house and lot,—I'm her second cousin on the mother's side,—but all her money in the Savin's Bank, six hundred and seventy-nine dollars and a half, to Eber Nicholson. The doctor writ out to Illinois, an' found he'd gone to Kansas, a year before. So the money's in bank yit; but I s'pose he'll git it, some time or other."

As I returned to the hotel, conscious of a melancholy pleasure at the news of her death, I could not help wondering,—"Did he hear that last farewell, far away in his Kansas cabin? Did he hear it, and fall asleep with thanksgiving in his heart, and arise in the morning to a liberated life?" I have never visited Kansas, nor have I ever heard from him since; but I know that the living ghost which haunted him is laid forever.

Reader, you will not believe my story: BUT IT IS TRUE.