THE TRANSFERRED GHOST
Copyright © 2015 Rafael Coira and J. H. Coira.
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While based on a public domain work, this adaptation is protected by Copyright law.
Cover by Rafael Coira
The country residence of Mr. John Hinckman was a delightful place. It had broad, smooth-shaven lawns and towering oaks and elms. Not far from the house was a little stream with a rustic bridge. There were fruits, flowers, chess, billiards, rides, walks and fishing. All these were great attractions but not one of them, or all of them together, could have kept me at that place for very long. I had been invited for the trout season and should have finished my visit by early summer had it not been that upon fair days when the grass was dry and the sun was not too hot, there strolled beneath the lofty elms my Madeline.
She was not, if I am honest, my Madeline. She had never given herself to me nor had I in any way acquired possession of her, but she was my only reason for living and for that reason I considered her mine. Maybe if I had told her my feelings she would have been.
But this was an unusually difficult thing to do. Not only did I dread, as all men do, sharing my feelings in the face of rejection, I was also dreadfully afraid of her uncle John Hinckman. He was a good friend of mine, but it would have required a bolder man than I to ask for the gift of his beloved niece. If I knew that Madeline felt for me the way I felt for her I would have brought it up with him in an instant. But I never asked her feelings. I thought of these things at all hours of the day and night, particularly the latter.
I was lying in bed one such night when, by the light of the moon, I saw John Hinckman standing by a large chair near the door of my spacious bedroom. I was surprised for two reasons. First, my host had never before come into my room. Second, he had left home that morning and was not expected to return for several days.
The figure was John Hinckman in his ordinary clothes but there was a vagueness about it, a certain translucency that left no room for doubt. The figure standing before me was a ghost.
Had the old man been murdered? Had this spirit come to tell me of the deed and perhaps to entrust me with the protection of his dear-? At that moment the figure spoke.
“Do you know,” he said anxiously, “if Mr. Hinckman will return tonight?”
I tried my best to stay calm and answered: “We’re not expecting him.”
“I am glad to hear it,” he said, sinking into the chair. “During the two and a half years that I have inhabited this house that man has never been away for a single night. You can’t imagine the relief it gives me.”
As he spoke, he stretched out his legs and leaned back in the chair. His form became less vague and the colors of his garments more distinct, while the look of anxiety on his face turned to relief.
“Two and a half years,” I exclaimed. “How is that possible? I saw John Hinckman alive just this morning.”
“That’s how long it’s been since I first came here. Mine is not an ordinary case. But before I go any further, let me ask you again. Are you sure that Mr. Hinckman will not return tonight?”
“I’m as sure as I can be. He left today for Bristol, two hundred miles away.”
“Then I will go on,” the Ghost said. “I am glad to have the opportunity to talk to someone who will listen. But if John Hinckman were to return and catch me here I would be scared out of my wits.”
“This is all very strange,” I said. “Aren’t you the ghost of Mr. Hinckman?”
“Yes, I am his ghost,” he replied, “and yet I have no right to be here. It is a strange story and I believe it is without precedent. Two and a half years ago, John Hinckman was dangerously ill in this very room. At one point he was so far gone that he was believed to be dead, and it was in that moment that I was appointed to be his ghost. Imagine my surprise and horror when, after I had accepted this position and taken its responsibilities, that old man revived, became convalescent and eventually regained his usual state of health. My situation was now one of extreme delicacy and embarrassment. I had no power to return to my unembodiment but no right to be the ghost of a man who was not dead. I was advised by my friends to maintain my position and assured that, as John Hinckman was an elderly man, it would not belong before I could rightfully assume the role for which I had been chosen.”
“But I tell you,” he continued, “the old man seems as vigorous as ever. I spend my time trying to stay out of that old man’s way but he seems to follow me everywhere I go. I tell you, sir, he haunts me!”
“But why are you afraid of him?” I asked. “He can’t hurt you, can he?”
“Of course he can’t. But his very presence is a terror to me. Imagine yourself in my shoes.”
I couldn’t imagine such a thing at all. I simply shuddered.
“And if one must be a wrongful ghost at all,” he continued, “it would be more pleasant to be the ghost of some man other than the ill-tempered John Hinckman. I can hardly imagine what would happen if he saw me and found out how long I have been wandering in his house. I have seen him in his bursts of anger and, although he did not hurt the people he stormed at any more than he would hurt me, they seemed to shrink before him.”
All this I knew too well. It was the reason I didn’t dare approach Mr. Hinckman about his niece.
“I feel sorry for you,” I said honestly. “It reminds me of those people who have doppelgangers.”
“That’s not the same thing at all,” the ghost said. “A doppelganger lives on earth with a man and, being exactly like him, makes all sorts of trouble. I am not here to live with Mr. Hinckman, and I am not here to make trouble. I am here to take his place. It would make Mr. Hinckman very angry if he knew that, don’t you think?”
I nodded in agreement.
“Now that he is away I can relax for a while,” the ghost continued. “And I am so glad to have an opportunity to talk to you. I have often come into your room and watched you from the corner as you slept. I dared not talk to you in fear that Mr. Hinckman would wake up and come to ask you why you were talking to yourself.”
“But wouldn’t he hear you talking?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he said. “There are times when some may see me but no one hears me except the person to whom I address myself.”
“But why do you wish to speak to me?”
“Because,” the ghost replied, “I like to talk to people sometimes, especially someone like yourself whose mind is so troubled by your own thoughts that you are not likely to be frightened by a visit from one of us. And I wanted to ask you a favor.”
“What is it?”
“There is every probability that John Hinckman will live a long time, and my situation is becoming unbearable. My current goal is to get myself transferred and I think that you may be of use to me.”
“Transferred,” I exclaimed. “What do you mean by that?”
“What I mean is this: now that I have started on my career I have got to be the ghost of someone, and I want to be the ghost of someone who is really dead.”
“That should be easy enough,” I said. “Opportunities must come up all the time.”
“Not at all,” he said quickly. “You have no idea the waiting list. Whenever there is a vacancy, if I may call it that, there are crowds of applications.”
“A waiting list,” I said, becoming interested. “There ought to be some sort of system by which you could all take turns, like customers in a barbershop.”
“Oh, that wouldn’t do,” he said. “Some of us would have to wait forever. There is such a rush when a good ghostship opens up, while there are other positions that no one would care for. It was my being in a rush for this position that led me to my current predicament. But you might be able to help me.”
“You might know of a case where an opportunity for a ghostship that was not generally expected might suddenly present itself. If you could give me short notice I could arrange for a transfer.”
“What do you mean? You don’t want me to kill somebody? Or commit suicide?”
“Oh no, no, no,” the ghost said with a smile. “I mean nothing of the sort. To be sure, there are lovers who are watched closely. Such persons have been known in moments of depression to offer very desirable ghostships. But I don’t expect that from you. I simply hoped that you might give me some information that would be of use and, in return, I would be very glad to help you with your love affair.”
“What do you know of my love affair?”
“I’ve wandered this house for two and a half years,” he said. “I know everything that happens within these walls.”
It was horrible to think of Madeline and I having been watched by a ghost, even in the most intimate of places.
“I must go now,” the ghost said, rising. “But I will see you somewhere tomorrow night. And remember: you help me and I will help you.”
The next morning at breakfast I debated telling Madeline about the meeting, but I quickly convinced myself that I must keep silent on the subject. If she knew there was a ghost wandering about the house she would probably leave instantly. Instead I went about my business as normally as I could so that she wouldn’t suspect a thing.
For a long time I had wished that Mr. Hinckman would leave the house for at least a day so that I could work up the nerve to speak to Madeline. But now that the opportunity presented itself I didn’t feel ready to seize it. What would I do if she refused me?
That evening I was with Madeline on the moon-lit porch, working up the courage to tell her how I felt, when I looked up to see the ghost sitting on the railing. I was lucky that Madeline was looking out over the landscape because I must have looked quite startled. I expected him to appear at some point in the night but I didn’t think he would materialize when I was with Madeline.
I didn’t make a sound but the ghost could tell I was troubled.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I will not let her see or hear me.”
I suppose I looked grateful.
“You needn’t trouble yourself about that,” he continued. “But it seems to me that you are not getting along very well with your affair. If I were you I would come right out and say it. You won’t have a better chance. There’s no knowing when John Hinckman will go away again, certainly not this summer. And I wouldn’t want to do it while he was here. If he were to catch anyone offering his love to Miss Madeline, he would be a terrible man to encounter.”
“I can’t stand to think of him,” I blurted out.
“Think of whom?” Madeline asked, turning hastily toward me.
I had to explain quickly. Of course I couldn’t tell her it was her dear uncle I was speaking of, so I spit out the first name that came to me: “Mr. Vilars.”
This statement was true as I could not stand to think of Mr. Vilars, a gentleman who had always paid too much attention to Madeline.
“It’s wrong for you to speak of Mr. Vilars that way,” Madeline said. “He’s a remarkably bright and educated man with pleasant manners. He expects to be elected to the legislature this fall and I wouldn’t be surprised if he excels in that position. Whenever Mr. Vilars has anything to say he knows just how and when to say it.”
“I know it’s wrong to think like that about a person,” I said, “but I can’t help it.”
She seemed to be in a better mood after hearing this admission. As for me, I was annoyed. I had never intended to let on that Mr. Vilars occupied any thought in my mind.
“You should not speak aloud that way,” said the ghost, “or you may get yourself in trouble. I want to see everything go well for you because then you might be disposed to help me.”
I wanted to tell him that the only way he could help me was by leaving. It was hard enough to speak to a young lady, let alone with the ghost of her dreaded uncle, the thought of whom made me tremble, sitting a few feet away. But I held back the words.
“I suppose,” the ghost continued, “that you have not heard anything that might be of use to me. But if you have anything to tell me I can wait until you are alone. I can come to your room tonight or I can stay here until the lady goes away.”
“You need not wait here,” I said. “I have nothing to say to you.”
Madeline sprung to her feet, her face flushed and her eyes on fire. “Wait here?” she cried. “What do you suppose I’m waiting for? What should you have to say to me?”
“Madeline,” I exclaimed, stepping forward. “Let me explain.”
But she had gone.
I turned fiercely to the ghost.
“Wretched apparition,” I cried. “You’ve ruined everything.”
“You wrong me,” the ghost said. “I haven’t done anything. I’ve only tried to help you. It was your blunder that caused this. But fear not. Such mistakes can be explained. Keep your head up.”
And he vanished from the railing like a bursting soap bubble.
I went gloomily to bed and saw no apparitions that night except for the ones of despair and misery that were running through my head. As for explaining myself, that was impossible. I thought about it over and over as I lay awake that night and decided I would never tell Madeline the truth. It would be better for me to suffer all my life than for her to know that the ghost of her uncle haunted the house. Mr. Hinckman was away and if she knew of this ghost, it would be impossible to convince her that Mr. Hinckman was not dead. She might not survive the shock.
The next day was fine, neither too cool nor too warm, and the breezes were gentle. But there were no walks with Madeline. She seemed to be very busy during the day. I barely saw her. When we met at meals she was polite but very quiet and reserved.
I was downcast and said very little. The only silver lining for me was that she did not appear to be happy, although she didn’t seem very affected at all. The moon-lit porch was deserted that evening, but wandering through the house I found Madeline in the library alone. She was reading, but I went and sat down near her. I felt that, although I couldn’t tell her everything, I should at least give some explanation for my behavior.
She listened quietly as I delivered a labored apology.
“I have no idea what you meant,” she said. “But you were very rude.”
I explained inartfully that I didn’t mean to be rude, and that if it weren’t for a certain obstacle I could make her understand everything.
She was silent for a while and then she said in a softer tone: “Does that obstacle have anything to do with my uncle?”
“Yes,” I said. “It has something to do with him.”
She didn’t respond. She sat looking at her book but not reading. She knew her uncle as well as I did.
I saw that my explanation was having some effect on her, and I thought that I should seize the opportunity and speak my mind without delay. No matter how she reacted, it couldn’t be any worse than the night before.
I drew my chair closer to her, and as I did, the ghost burst into the room from the doorway behind her. My heart dropped. When he came in the room my courage left. I couldn’t speak with him there.
“Did you know,” the ghost said, “that John Hinckman is coming up the hill? He will be here any minute. If you plan on declaring your love for the lady you better hurry it up. But that’s not what I came to say. I have glorious news. At last I am transferred! Not forty minutes ago a Russian noblemen was murdered by the Nihilists. It was quite unexpected. My friends instantly applied for me and I was accepted. I am off before that horrible Hinckman makes it up the hill. As soon as I get there I can leave this embodiment behind. You can’t imagine how glad I am to at last be somebody’s real ghost.”
“Oh,” I cried, rising to my feet and reaching for the ghost in rage. “I wish you were mine!”
“I am yours,” Madeline said, and she leapt into my outstretched arms.