Well, last summer, some time in July, I found myself in a part of the country I had not visited before. One night, near the hour of twelve, I halted for a rest, having trudged a long distance since the falling of darkness. I had been seated on a stone by the highway but a few minutes when I heard scraping footsteps proceeding from the direction whence I came.
Presently a large, or rather a broad, figure was silhouetted against the horizon. As it approached with a peculiar wobbling gait, I 18 could hear it puff as though winded with exertion. As it came closer I perceived that the pudgy figure was clad in a white robe. This sight quite startled me. Was I asleep, or the victim of a hallucination? I pinched my arm and convinced myself from the resulting pang that I was indeed wide awake.
In the course of five minutes the figure stood before me. It was, without doubt, a ghost.
“Good evening,” he said, in a wheezy voice. With a choking sensation of horror I managed to salute him.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he went on; “I am not abroad this night for any mischief. But may I ask you how it happens that you are on so desolate a road alone at this time of night?”
Something in his straightforward manner reassured me, and with increasing self-possession I briefly told him who I was and why I was there. I further explained that traveling as I did only by night, I had little or no knowledge of the country I was in.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting lost? Have you a family?” he asked.
“I never wander far from civilization,” I replied. “Yes, I have a wife and children, 19 but, as I told you, I do this to prevent insomnia.”
“Well, I am glad to meet you, sir; I don’t mind telling you that I am the spirit of Peter Simpkins, late of Buffalo, N. Y. If you made inquiries you would find out that I was a well-known contractor and builder there, and left close on to half a million, which my family are now throwing away in their efforts to get into society.”
“Can’t you exercise some spiritual restraint over them?” I enquired, now thoroughly interested in Peter Simpkins of Buffalo.
“No; more’s the pity. I was master of my house when in the earth-life, and but for one reason I might have some influence with my wife and children now. I have tried to materialize before them lots of times, but it’s no use. They have never felt even a suggestion of my presence since I passed away. Their goings-on make me very unhappy in the spirit-life, but I have another affliction which grieves me even more. You see I am a second-class ghost.”
“How is that?”
“Well, I was born bow-legged,” he said, apologetically. Thereupon he parted the sheet-like garment that had concealed his 20 form, which thus exposed the phosphorescent skeleton of a man who, when alive, must have tipped the scales at two hundred and eighty pounds. He was the most hopelessly and ridiculously bow-legged individual I had ever seen. This revelation sorely tempted me to laugh outright, but the intense glance from his fiery eyes restrained me.
“But I don’t see — ” I began.
“It’s like this,” he interrupted. “People who are badly misshapen, or who have any physical or mental abnormalities, carry them into the spirit world after death. And let me tell you, there isn’t half the democracy and social equality in this spirit-life that you can enjoy as a citizen of the United States. When I passed over into the spirit world I was not cordially received by many spirits I met. Some looked at me with a sneering smile; others with contempt. I observed that those who did give me a welcome were, like myself, not physically perfect, or else they were out of order mentally. When you come to the spirit kingdom you will find for yourself that caste will exclude you from the higher spirit circles, unless you are just right. The spirit aristocracy go to other spheres for permanent residence, though some of them, out of curiosity 21 or from some other motive, like to visit earth scenes. Yes, sir, spirits travel on their shape just as much as, in fact more than, mortals do on earth. Strange, isn’t it? Well, I am a second-class ghost, because I am bow-legged, and that’s all there is to it.”
After a while I found breath to say: “Mr. Simpkins, I need not assure you that you are the first materialized spirit I ever saw, and I cannot summon, on the spur of the moment, the proper words to express to you my thanks for the information you have given me. Will you grant me the privilege of repeating it, in my own humble way, to — ”
“Hist!” exclaimed Mr. Simpkins. “Some one is coming. Climb over this stone wall and lie down. We must not be seen.”
His cold, bony hand clutched my arm firmly, and together we scaled the wall.
“I’ll explain later. Don’t say a word.”
Lying prone on the soft turf, we waited in eager silence. Soon the sounds of footsteps and elfish voices were heard. I could not make out what was said by those who passed. It was an uncanny jargon enough. After they disappeared down the turnpike, Mr. Simpkins whispered: “The two spirits that just passed I know very well. One of them, Sam 22 Larkin, I used to know in the earth-life. He lived at Elmira; kept a feed store. We belonged to the Knights Templars, and that’s how I came to know him. Sam lost his left leg at the Battle of Bull Run, and his right arm at the Battle of Gettysburg, which accounts for his being a second-class ghost. The other one was George Tarbell — ‘Stammering George,’ they call him, because he stammers worse than any man you ever heard. He came from Kansas City. Just raise your head a little and you can look through a chink in the wall. Others will be coming along pretty soon.”
Sure enough, in a little while a scattered procession of loquacious spirits filed by, — some of them unsightly hunchbacks, several deaf and dumb ones, as I could see by the sign manual they employed; several male and female cranks and lunatics, as Mr. Simpkins afterward informed me, and divers other ghostly freaks and monstrosities, including a two-headed colored ghost, concerning whose earthly identity I failed to learn — making in all seventy-five grisly spectres.
Almost stupefied by these supernatural wonders, I still retained sense enough to listen when Mr. Simpkins began to speak again, 23 after the sounds of the ghostly procession died away.
“Now, of course, you are naturally puzzled to know what all this means. I can enlighten you in a few words. These spirits are on their way to the Zion Grove Camp Meeting grounds, about two miles west from here, where will be held to-night the Annual Convention of Unfortunate Spirits. I have been requested to act as chairman of this meeting, and am expected to deliver an address. I have chosen as my subject: ‘Can Second-Class Ghosts Be Happy?’ You see, I am ambitious to be elected the president of the association for this district, which numbers about twelve hundred members. But there are two other candidates for the office which lasts for three years. There — now I must be going.”
I desired to ask Mr. Simpkins numerous other questions; but, seeing that he was determined to depart, I said: “I hope you will be unanimously elected, sir. By the way, would it be asking too much of you to meet me after the convention, and let me know whether you have been successful?”
He hesitated a moment, heaved a long sigh, and replied: “The session may last till daybreak; but if it adjourns before then, since 24 you manifest so kindly an interest in my welfare, I will promise to come back and tell you the result. But you must not stir from this spot. Do you accept the conditions?”
I held out my hand as a signal of my willingness to bind the arrangement; but, like George Francis Train, he shook his own hands as a parting greeting, crawled ponderously over the wall, and soon shambled out of sight.
Left alone, after this bewildering encounter, my mind refused to be coherent in the least. I became acutely nervous as I have been when in the cruel throes of insomnia. Still with a strenuous determination, I remained there, awaiting the return of the bow-legged ghost. After three hours of torturing suspense, I espied him coming. The first faint glimmer of the dawn made him more vague and shadowy to my vision. Clambering over the wall, he stood before me — limp, dejected, and evidently deeply chagrined.
“Well, what’s the good word?” I inquired, eagerly.
This was Mr. Simpkins’ gloomy reply: “General Norwich was elected president. He read a paper describing his military achievements at the Battle of Antietam, where both his legs were shot off. The assemblage 25 went wild over him, and elected him on the first ballot. They are holding a jollification now. After all, I am only a bow-legged ghost, but to be beaten in race by a man without any legs at all is a terrible blow to me. I shall resign from the association, and devote myself hereafter to matters entirely outside of politics. Good-by.”
I tried to call him back to ask if he would meet me occasionally on my nightly rambles, but, like a flash of lightning, the bow-legged ghost disappeared.