The Ghost in the Cap'n Brown House

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The Ghost in the Cap'n Brown House  (1870) 
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
A short story first published in the December 1870 edition of the Atlantic Monthly.

Now, Sam, tell us certain true, is there any such things as ghosts?’

‘Be there ghosts?’ said Sam, immediately translating into his vernacular grammar: ‘wal, now that are’s jest the question, ye see.’

‘Well, grandma thinks there are, and Aunt Lois thinks it’s all nonsense. Why, Aunt Lois don’t even believe the stories in Cotton Mather’s “Magnalia.”’

‘Wanter know?’ said Sam, with a tone of slow, languid meditation.

We were sitting on a bank of the Charles River, fishing. The soft melancholy red of evening was fading off in streaks on the glassy water, and the houses of Oldtown were beginning to loom through the gloom, solemn and ghostly. There are times and tones and moods of nature that make all the vulgar, daily real seem shadowy, vague, and supernatural, as if the outlines of this hard material present were fading into the invisible and unknown. So Oldtown, with its elmtrees, its great square white houses, its meeting-house and tavern and blacksmith’s shop and mill, which at high noon seem as real and as commonplace as possible, at this hour of the evening were dreamy and solemn. They rose up blurred, indistinct, dark; here and there winking candles sent long lines of light through the shadows, and little drops of unforeseen rain rippled the sheeny dankness of the water.

‘Wal, you see, boys, in them things it’s jest as well to mind your granny. There’s a consid’able sight o’ gumption in grandmas. You look at the folks that’s allus tellin’ you what they don’t believe,—they don’t believe this, and they don’t believe that,—and what sort o’ folks is they? Why, like yer Aunt Lois, sort o’ stringy and dry. There ain’t no ‘sorption got out o’ not bet ievin’ nothin’.

‘Lord a massy! we don’t know nothin’ ’bout them things. We hain’t ben there, and can’t say that there ain’t no ghosts and sich; can we, now?’

We agreed to that fact, and sat a little closer to Sam in the gathering gloom.

‘Tell us about the Cap’n Brown house, Sam.’

‘Ye didn’t never go over the Cap’n Brown house?’

No, we had not that advantage.

‘Wal, yer see, Cap’n Brown he made all his money to sea, in furrin parts, and then come here to Oldtown to settle down.

‘Now, there ain’t now knowin’ ’bout these ’ere old shipmasters, where they’s ben, or what they’s ben a doin’, or how they got their money. Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell ye no lies, is ‘bout the best philosophy for them. Wal, it didn’t do no good to ask Cap’n Brown questions too close, ‘cause you didn’t git no satisfaction. Nobody rightly knew ‘bout who his folks was, or where they come from, and, ef a body asked him, he used to say that the very fust he know’d ’bout himself he was a young man walkin’ the streets in London.

‘But, yer see, boys, he hed money, and that is about all folks wanter know when a man comes to settle down. And he bought that ’are place, and built that ’are house. He built it all sea-cap’n fashion, so’s to feel as much at home as he could. The parlor was like a ship’s cabin. The table and chairs was fastened down to the floor, and the closets was made with holes to set the casters and the decanters and bottles in, jest’s they be at sea; and there was stanchions to hold on by; and they say that blowy nights the cap’n used to fire up pretty well with his grog, till he hed about all he could carry, and then he’d set and hold on, and hear the wind blow, and kind o’ feel out to sea right there to hum. There wasn’t no Mis’ Cap’n Brown, and there didn’t seem likely to be none. And whether there ever hed been one, nobody know’d. He hed an old black Guinea niggerwoman, named Quassia, that did his work. She was shaped pretty much like one o’ these ’ere great crooknecked-squashes. She wa’n’t no gret beauty, I can tell you; and she used to wear a gret red turban and a yaller short gown and red petticoat, and a gret string o’ gold beads round her neck, and gret big gold hoops in her ears, made right in the middle o’ Africa among the heathen there. For all she was black, she thought a heap o’ herself, and was consid’able sort o predominative over the cap’n. Lord massy! boys, it’s allus so. Get a man and a woman together,—any sort woman you’re a mind to, don’t care who ’tis,—and one way or another she gets the rule over him, and he jest has to train to her fife. Some does it one way, and some does it another; some does it by jawin’, and some does it by kissin’, and some does it by faculty and contrivance; but one way or another they alters does it. Old Cap’n Brown was a good stout, stocky kind o’ John Bull sort o’ fellow, and a good judge o’ sperits, and alters kep’ the best in them are cupboards o’ his’n; but, fust and last, things in his house went pretty much as old Quassia said. ‘Folks got to kind o’ respectin’ Quassia. She come to meetin’ Sunday regular, and sot all fixed up in red and yaller and green, with glass beads and what not, lookin’ for all the world like one o’ them ugly Indian idols; but she was well-behaved as any Christian. She was a master hand at cookin’. Her bread and biscuits couldn’t be beat, and no couldn’t her pies, and there wa’n’t no such pound-cake as she made nowhere. Wal, this ’ere story I’m a goin’ to tell you was told me by Cinthy Pendleton. There ain’t a more respectable gal, old or young, than Cinthy nowheres. She lives over to Sherburne now, and I hear tell she’s sot up a manty-makin’ business; but then she used to do tailorin’ in Oldtown. She was a member o’ the church, and a good Christian as ever was. Wal, ye see, Quassia she got Cinthy to come up and spend a week to the Cap’n Brown house, a doin’ taitorin’ and a fixin’ over his close: ‘twas along toward the fust o’ March. Cinthy she sot by the fire in the front parlor with her goose and her press-board and her work: for there wa’n’t no company callin’, and the snow was drifted four feet deep right across the front door; so there wa’n’t much danger o’ any body comin’ in. And the cap’n he was a perlite man to wimmen; and Cinthy she liked it jest as well not to have company, ’cause the cap’n he’d make himself entertainin’ teltin’ on her sea-stories, and all about this adventures among the Ammonites, and Perresites, and Jebusites, and all sorts o’ heathen people he’d been among. ‘Wal, that ’are week there come on the master snow-storm. Of all the snow-storms that bed ben, that ’are was the beater; and I tell you the wind blew as if ’twas the last chance it was ever goin’ to hey. Wal, it’s kind o’ scary like to be shet up in a lone house with all natur’ a kind o’ breakin’ out, and goin’ on so, and the snow a comin’ down so thick ye can’t see ‘cross the street, and the wind a pipin’ and a squeelin’ and a rumblin’ and a tumblin’ fust down this chimney and then down that. I tell you, it sort o’ sets a feller thinkin’ o’ the three great things,—death, judgment, and etarnaty; and I don’t care who the folks is, nor how good they be, there’s times when they must be feelin’ putty consid’able solemn.

‘Wal, Cinthy she said she kind o’ felt so along, and she bed a sort o’ queer feelin’ come over her as if there was somebody or somethin’ round the house more’n appeared. She said she sort o’ felt it in the air; but it seemed to her silly, and she tried to get over it. But two or three times, she said, when it got to be dusk, she felt somebody go by her up the stairs. The front entry wa’n’t very light in the day time, and in the storm, come five o’clock, it was so dark that all you could see was jest a gleam o’ somethin’, and two or three times when she started to go up stairs she see a soft white suthin’ that seemed goin’ up before her, and she stopped with her heart a beatin’ like a trip-hammer, and she sort o’ saw it go up and along the entry to the cap’n’s door, and then it seemed to go right through, ’cause the door didn’t open.

‘Wal, Cinthy says she to old Quassia, says she, “Is there anybody lives in this house but us?”

‘ “Anybody lives here?” says Quassia: “What you mean?” says she.

‘Says Cinthy, “I thought somebody went past me on the stairs last night and to-night.”

‘Lord massy! how old Quassia did screech and laugh. “Good Lord!” says she, “how foolish white folks is! Somebody went past you? Was’t the capt’in?”

‘“No, it wa’n’t the cap’n,” says she: “it was somethin’ soft and white, and moved very still; it was like somethin’ in the air,” says she.

‘Then Quassia she haw-hawed louder. Says she, “It’s hysterikes, Miss Cinthy; that’s all it is.”

‘Wa!, Cinthy she was kind o’ ’shamed, but for all that she couldn’t help herself. Sometimes evenin’s she’d be a settin’ with the cap’n, and she’d think she’d hear somebody a movin’ in his room overhead; and she knowed it wa’n’t Quassia, ’cause Quassia was ironin’ in the kitchen.

She took pains once or twice to find out that ’are. ‘Wal, ye see, the cap’n’s room was the gret front upper chamber over the parlor, and then right opposite to it was the gret spae chamber where Cinthy slept. It was jest as grand as could be, with a gret four-post mahogany bedstead and damask curtains brought over from England; but it was cold enough to freeze a white bear solid,—the way spare chambers alters is. Then there was the entry between, run straight through the house: one side was old Quassia’s room, and the other was a sort o’ storeroom, where the old cap’n kep’ all sorts o’ traps.

‘Wal, Cinthy she kep’ a hevin’ things happen and a seem’ thins, till she didn’t railly know what was in it. Once when she come into the parlor jest at sundown, she was sure she see a white figure a vanishin’ out o’ the door that went towards the side entry. She said it was so dusk, that all she could see was jest this white figure, and it jest went out still as a cat as she come in. ‘Wal, Cinthy didn’t like to speak to the cap’n about it. She was a close woman, putty prudent, Cinthy was. ‘But one night, ’bout the middle o’ the week, this ’ere thing kind o’ come to a crisis. ‘Cinthy said she’d ben up putty late a sewin’ and a finishin’ off down in the parlor; and the cap’n he sot up with her, and was consid’able cheerful and entertainin’, tellin’ her all about things over the Bermudys, and off to Chiny and Japan, and round the world ginerally. The storm that bed been a blowin’ all the week was about as furious as ever; and the cap’n he stirred up a mess o’ flip, and bed it for her hot to go to bed on. He was a good-natured critter, and alters had feelin’s for lone women; and I s’pose he knew ’twas sort o’ desolate for Cinthy.

‘Wal, takin’ the flip so right the last think afore goin’ to bed, she went right off to sleep as sound as a nut, and slep’ on till somehwere about mornin’, when she said somethin’ waked her broad awake in a minute. Her eyes flew wide open like a spring, and the storm hed gone down and the moon come out: and there, standin’ right in the moonlight by her bed, was a woman jest as white as a sheet, with black hair hangin’ down to her waist, and the brightest, mourn-fullest black eyes you ever see. She stood there bookin’ right at Cinthy; and Cinthy thinks that was what waked her up; ’cause, you know, ef anybody stands and looks steady at folks asleep it’s apt to wake ’em.

‘Any way, Cinthy said she felt jest as ef she was turnin’ to stone. She couldn’t move nor speak. She lay a minute, and then she shut her eyes, and begun to say her prayers; and a minute after she opened ‘em, and it was gone.

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.