GHOST STORY

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IMG_1566 Theoretically, I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve never seen or heard one. On the other hand, I’ve known a few not-crazy people who when traveling spent the night at nearby accommodations in New England or Great Britain, reported hearing strange and unexplained noises in the night, and then learned that an alleged resident ghost haunted the premises.

A similar story came from a woman I first “met” online in the mid-1990’s through an early predecessor of social media called Seniornet. We were both part of a five-person group that posted short vignettes of our childhoods on a Seniornet board with a misleading title that kept other people away. We were also, by coincidence, the only two group members living in Massachusetts.  (One of the others was in Texas and the remaining two in disparate locations in California.)

Our geographic proximity meant that eventually we arranged to meet in the flesh — first where she was, in the western part of the Commonwealth, and then in Boston and Cambridge, where I was. It was probably a mistake. She apparently took these two weekends to mean more than I did, and pressed for increasing closeness. Unable to reciprocate her feelings, they ended only by embarrassing me. I pulled away. One of the great deceptions of virtual “friendships” is that it’s hard to know how you will really feel about your internet-only “friends” once you meet them.

However, before we stopped emailing and the “friendship” came apart,  she sent me a birthday present: a small chapbook she had written about a ghost reputed to haunt an inn where she now and then worked part-time for extra money in her retirement. An acquaintance of hers had illustrated it, and the inn had arranged for a small local private printing.

This was almost twenty years ago.  During one of my recent ineffectual attempts to rid our basement of stuff we will never need or use again, I came across the book. I had completely forgotten it. I’m certain it’s out of print. And I know, because I looked it up, that the inn closed several years ago. But whatever the misunderstandings between its author and me so long ago, I don’t think I should throw it out.   Perhaps when you’ve read it, you’ll agree.

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A Note to the Reader

One day recently, I had occasion to go up to the attic of the Inn to look for some papers. In the course of the search, I stumbled over an old trunk in the corner. It was like the one my grandmother had, full of what I thought were strange treasures, when I was a child. And so I raised the lid of this one.

It had a musty dry smell, as if it had not been opened for a very long time. The contents were an assortment of receipts and registers, dating from the early part of this century. They seemed to have to do with the day-to-day business of the Inn. But I came upon one oddity, several sheets of heavy paper, folded twice and covered with spidery elegant handwriting. It was a letter, unsigned, evidently never sent, which I now pass on to you, word for word as written.

Sue Porter, who, like me, works at the Inn and knows it well, has drawn the illustrations.

Betty Hunt

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October 21, 1914

Dear Sister,

You will know by this that I have arrived safely.

The journey from Boston was not without its rigors. On the long hill beyond Greenfield the Maxwell overheated more than once, steam boiling from its radiator. By good fortune, water had been provided at intervals along the roadside, and I was ale to proceed.

On the downhill slopes the most astounding speed was possible: twenty miles an hour — more, if I had not been concerned to keep within the appointed limit. In the towns one may travel at twelve miles an hour; in especially hazardous stretches, eight.

But no — do not be alarmed. I am taking proper care. The Maxwell is a fine well-appointed motor car, and I marvel at the autumn colors; one finds grand prospects of wooded hills around every turn.

I believe the completion of the “Mohawk Trail” to have been a splendid project, and I shall attend the ceremonies tomorrow that celebrate its completion. You will recall Father’s rumbling about the expense: $345.000! For sixteen miles of highway between Charlemont and North Adams! So that gaggles of tourists can gawp at the view and fall off the hairpin turn, I’ll warrant!”

…. For now, I have sought shelter at the Inn in Charlemont. It seems a comfortable place, offering plain hearty fare and a warm fire against the evening chill.

However, I have had the most extraordinary experience here. I confess, dear Margaret, that I found it most perplexing; unsettling, even, since it so defies the rational tenets of our philosophy. I feel that I must write this morning to tell you about it; surely your sensible opinion will steady me.

When I had rested from the long journey, I thought to refresh my spirits in communion with rugged nature: so far from the complexities of Boston; so unrefined, I thought, and simple.

I carried along a copy of Mr. Thoreau’s essays, thinking these appropriate to my primitive situation. But I never read a word.

Yesterday, walking in the bright woods behind the inn, and climbing the hill, I came upon a strange old woman. She was all in black, a black shawl almost covered her ancient face. But she spoke to me kindly enough. Was I staying at the inn?  I answered yes; I was hardly prepared for her next question.

Had I heard or seen the ghost?

Laughing, I said that indeed I had not.

It may be you do not welcome her. She will not appear if you do not, or sing for you either.

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The old crone looked as if there was more to the story. As I was feeling humorous and indulgent, I asked her to go on, to tell me how there came to her a ghost at the inn, and who she was, and what she sang.

Sings the song about black hair. How and then a lullaby. She will tap her foot to a fiddler’s tune.

The old woman cocked her head and peered at me thoughtfully, as if appraising me. “Please go on,” I said.

Whereupon she studied me for a moment longer, then shrugged and sat down upon a rock. She said it had begun about this time of year, a great many years ago, and this was just as her great-grandmother had told it to her.

In those olden days, when stagecoaches stopped at the inn, there was a place for the horses too, a great barn where they stayed and a hostler who took care of them. He had six sons, strapping lads who had fought against the English tyrant a few years back, and though he was proud of them he longed for a daughter.

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At last a girl was born. But the mother was worn out with struggle, hard winters and deep snows and bearing of children, and a few days later, she died. However the child survived; her father watched and cherished her, praying nightly that she might not join her two small sisters who had earlier gone to the churchyard. The child was small and red and wizened as an apple.

He named the tiny girl Elizabeth, for her mother; she clung most stubbornly to life, and grew to be the apple of his eye.

She was a frail girl with solemn eyes, not pretty though she had flaxen hair that shone like pale gold. Much as her father and her brothers might have wished to spoil her, they could not, for there was much woman’s work to be done. At 10 years old she was keeping the house, rising at first light, cooking and washing and learning to spin.

Now and again she was allowed to visit the inn, keeping to the kitchen near the innkeeper’s wife and watching her at her baking. Sometimes there would be a fiddler in the tavern room. Elizabeth would turn her head to listen, round-eyed.

The years passed and she was 16, a plain good girl, her father thought with satisfaction. Not one for the young men (though in truth there were few of them about), and aloof to the swaggering coach drivers who passed through.

But one October day, while Elizabeth helped with the baking, there came from the tavern room the sound of a different fiddler: not the valiant workaday scraping of old Jacob, but a rich plaintive song so passionate that its sadness had a kind of joy. Elizabeth had never in her life heard any music like this. She wiped the dough from her hands and went to the door, using her wrist to push it aside a little, so as to see this wondrous player.

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At first she saw only his back, his ragged clothes, his black hair and the arm curved around the fiddle, and beyond him the fire leaping. Then he turned, still playing, and saw her!  Gave a flash of a smile and a bow!

Elizabeth started and shrank back from the door. But from that time, in the kitchen that had been only warm and simple, as she kneaded the dough, and that night as she slept in her narrow bed, she felt that somehow he was looking at her still.

So that the next day, when she heard the playing of the fiddle again, coming this time from farther away, from somewhere in the glowing woods, she left her work and went toward the sound of it. She climbed the hill, and there he sat, on a rock by the tumbling stream.

He said that he was a tinker by trade, and had not passed this way before. He had a curious way of speaking, his voice smoothing the words so that they flowed along like water. He said that he had been born in Ireland, on the estate of the Earl of Charlemont, the same great lord for whom the town was named.

She gazed at his black curls and his brown smooth face.

I am called Blackjack Davy, he said; my father was a man of Romany. His white teeth flashed with his pleasure in being who he was, and Elizabeth smiled as well. He reached out to touch her fine-spun hair. In the course of time, he made a bed of the gold and scarlet leaves.

On the following day the fiddler said he must go over the mountains before the winter came, but in the spring he would return. She listened to the sound of his wagon, hung with pans and pots, until its soft clanking faded over the western hills.

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When the first snows fell, Elizabeth knew that she was waiting not only for Blackjack Davy, but for his son as he grew, curled up and nestling inside her. She sang at her work in the day and in the evening stared into the fire, her round eyes seeing inward, dreaming.

At first her father was puzzled at the change in his plain dutiful daughter; then when her womb grew round, he was mightily wrathful, glancing at his long musket hanging over the fireplace. At last, when she told him sweetly about the beautiful dark fiddler and his promise to come again, his eyes grew sad.

The baby was born early, in May, but sturdy enough,with curls of black hair on his round head. Elizabeth tended him and sang to him and they waited together. She carried him on her back Indian style. Sometimes they climbed the hill behind the inn, and she sat down for a while on a rock by the tumbling stream. She sang:

Black is the color of my true love’s hair. His lips are like some rosy fair. The prettiest face and the neatest hands: I love the ground whereon he stands.

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Sometimes they went to visit the stable, among the patient standing horses. She sang to the baby, When you wake, you shall have, All the pretty horses. Blacks and bays, she sang, dapples and grays, coach and six-a little horses.

But most of the time, as she went about her work, Elizabeth seemed to be listening, as if at any moment she might hear the clank and tinkle of the tinker’s wagon.

But it did not come, you see, though the spring passed, and the summer, and October came round again. But Elizabeth never stopped listening, until the first frost came.

That frost was sharp and sudden, and brought a fever. Elizabeth took to her bed, and the fever was quick in its work. After a space of chills and burning, she lay cold and still.

When the tinker came again, on a dark November day, he found her in the churchyard. He wept, and went to fetch his fiddle, and played a wild sad song.

Then he stole the black-haired baby, and whipped his horse away in the jangling wagon.

And that is how there comes to be a ghost at the Inn, a young girl who appears in a silvery light.

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Sometimes you can just glimpse her face at the tavern door, darting away. Sometimes people hear her thin voice singing. Or you may see her standing quietly in a corner of the barn, or in the moonlight sitting on a rock by the tumbling stream.

The old woman had finished. She rose and gathered her black shawl about her.

At the top of the hill she turned and cackled, She’s still waiting for him, the silly young fool! And with a hideous wink the old crone went on her way.

Well! She had certainly had me enthralled with her yarn. Evidently she was playing a joke of some kind. I returned to the Inn for a good dinner and thought no more about it.

That is, I thought no more until I wakened about midnight. I was sure I had heard the distant cry of a child. Or was it laughter?

All was still. I prepared to sleep again, but suddenly it seemed that the warm smell of baking had risen from the kitchen and filled my room. Then I thought I heard, from below, a frail voice singing:

Black, black

Black is the color of my true love’s hair

His lips are like some rosy fair

If he on earth no more I see

My life will quickly fade away….

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© Betty Hunt 1994

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6 thoughts on “GHOST STORY

  1. A nice story and I wonder if Betty Hunt had read Franz Kafka’s “Der arme Spielmann”, (the poor fiddler)?
    At least love did not end unrequited. Poor Kafka never as much as had a wife to give him children.

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    • Kafka could be called “poor” Kafka for reasons of his health and his father, but not because of the lack of romance in his life. He could have had a wife at least twice over and kept stringing along the first “fiancee” for years. But as for Betty, she may well have read the Kafka story. Although American, she did graduate study in English literature at Oxford (England) on a Rhodes scholarship and on her return to the states taught Shakespeare at U Mass Amherst for many years. So she was a well read woman (which is what brought us together online in the first place).

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  2. Love the story. In 1974 we bought a house built in the 1960’s so not old at all. We used to hear footsteps going across the bedroom floor and on going upstairs we found the rooms were empty. I knew a priest quite well (I’m a Catholic) and he offered to bless the rooms . I didn’t believe in ghosts and thought there must be some logical explaination but to please our children I allowed him to sprinkle holy water around. For several weeks we didn’t hear anything and one day, I returned to work after lunch, leaving my 11 year old son at home. He phoned me at work saying that the footsteps and something banging about was back. He sound terrified so I told him to go out of the house and I would come and pick him up. He told me he wasn’t indoors , he was in our neighours house.!! The footsteps reocuured a couple of times more and then disappeared forever – I think. We sold the house to move to a bungalow and never told the new occupants.

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    • You tell a pretty good “ghost” story yourself, Margaret! About not telling the next buyers, that’s probably what I would have done myself before becoming a lawyer. Now I know that one must disclose “latent” (as opposed to “patent”) defects, or be liable if they are later discovered and cause some kind of harm. I suppose it would then depend on whether a court decided a resident ghost was a defect or not, and then how much emotional harm living with the ghost had caused. But that’s probably more legal complication than you need to know, especially as no one ever sued you!

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      • So funny. Yes, you are right but I met the new owners socially about 6 months later at a ex neighbours Xmas party. I casually asked if the floorboards where creaking. They looked at me as if I was mad so perhaps the ghost moved away with us and because we now lived in a bungalow they decided to move elsewhere to continue their fun.

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  3. What a charming little book. I can see why you don’t want to throw it away Nina. Having also experienced a ghost when I moved into a house near Reading UK., I can no longer disregard such tales.

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