Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
An Old Virginia Ghost Story
By Mary Virginia Hawes Terhune (Marion Harland) (1830–1922)
 
[Born in Amelia Co., Va., 1830. Died in New York, N. Y., 1922. Judith. By Marion Harland. 1883.]

“MADAM did a singular thing (for her), yet it was the most sensible step she could have taken. She took us into her confidence.
  1
  “‘It was within six months after I came to Selma to live that I had the first intimation that all was not right with the house,’ she said. ‘Colonel Trueheart was not at home, and I had gone to bed rather early one night, leaving the fire burning as brightly as it does now. I was not drowsy, but the firelight was too strong to be comfortable to my eyes, and I shut them, lying quietly at ease among the pillows, my thoughts busy and far away. There was no sound except the crackling of the blaze, but suddenly I felt the pressure of two hands on the bed-clothes covering my feet. They rested there for a moment, were lifted and laid upon my ankles, moving regularly upward until I felt them lie more heavily on my chest. I was sure that a robber had found his way into the house and wanted to convince himself that I was really asleep before beginning to plunder. My one hope of life was to remain perfectly still, to breathe easily, and keep my eyes shut. This I did, the sense of hearing made more acute by intense excitement, but my reason singularly steady. When the hands reached my chest. Something looked close into my face There was no breath or audible movement, but I felt the gaze. Then the pressure was removed—the Presence was gone! I lay still until I counted deliberately fifty, to assure myself that I was in full possession of my senses, and sat up. The fire showed every object distinctly. I was alone in the chamber. I arose, looked under the bed and in the wardrobe, but found nobody. The windows and shutters were bolted fast, the door was locked. Yet, so strong was my persuasion that the visitation was not a trick of the imagination, that I sat up for the rest of the night, keeping fire and candle burning.  2
  “‘When Colonel Trueheart returned I told him what had happened. He laughed heartily, and “hoped the like might occur when he was at home.” Three months later I felt the same pressure in the same order of movement. It was on a warm night in spring, and through the lighter coverings I fancied I could discern that the hands were small, the fingers slight, like those of a child or a little woman. I tried to call the Colonel, but could not speak until the Presence had stooped, as before, to look in my face and departed. Colonel Trueheart awoke at my voice, was greatly amazed at what I told him, and insisted upon making just such a tour of the house as you have just instituted, Captain Macon. This over, he tried to convince me that I had been dreaming, or that the sensation was caused by some obstruction of circulation. I did not argue the point, but when, some weeks afterward, I had a similar experience, asked him seriously if he had ever heard that any one else was disturbed in this way. He hesitated, tried to put me off, and finally owned that his first wife had declared to him privately her belief that the house was haunted; that she complained of hearing unaccountable noises at night; that Things passed and touched her in the halls after dark; and once in the daytime, when she was sitting alone in her room, Something had plucked her by the elbow with such force as almost to pull her from her chair. She was delicate and nervous, and he had attached no importance to her fancies.  3
  “‘“If sickly women and superstitious negroes are to be believed, half the country-houses in Virginia are haunted,” he said.  4
  “‘He cautioned me to say nothing on the subject, else “there would be no such thing as keeping a servant on the premises, and the house would not sell for the worth of the bricks should it ever come into the market.”  5
  “‘Two years went by without further disturbance. Then it came in a different form. One night, as I was locking the back door, holding a candle in my left hand, I heard a slight sound, like a sigh or long breath, and, looking up, saw a woman moving past and away from me, just as Betsey has described. She was dressed in a misty yellow-gray or grayish-yellow gown, as Betsey saw her, but with a white handkerchief or cap on her head. I had time to notice that she was small of stature, and that she glided along noiselessly. At the closed Venetian blinds she vanished. Colonel Trueheart entered the front door the next instant, and I made known to him what I had witnessed. He ridiculed the theory that it was supernatural, evidently suspecting some malicious or mischievous prank on the part of one of the servants. After a second thorough search of the house, he loaded his pistols and put them under his pillow, “to be ready,” he said, “for the next scare.” He always slept with them under his head afterward.  6
  “‘Again, for months, nothing unusual occurred. Then the pressure of the hands became frequent. From that time up to the night preceding Colonel Trueheart’s death scarcely a fortnight elapsed without my feeling them. Always beginning at my feet—always ending at my chest; always that long felt gaze into my face, then It was gone! Sometimes I strained my eyes in the darkness to catch some outline or shadow; again and again I opened them abruptly in the firelight or moonlight to surprise whatever it might be into revealing Itself. I never beheld face or shape or any visible token of living thing. Once I succeeded in arousing the Colonel at the first touch upon my feet. He struck a light immediately, but although the regular movement continued up to the fixed gaze, the room was apparently free of everybody but ourselves. We had a long consultation then. I was hurt and angry that he remained skeptical as to the reality of the visitations. When all my assertions failed to convince him that I was not the victim of a nervous hallucination, I said:  7
  “‘“I shall never allude to this subject again, whatever I may see or hear.”  8
  “‘“I hope you will keep your word,” he replied.  9
  “‘Neither of us ever mentioned the matter again to one another. Sometimes, when my pallor or heavy eyes told that I had not slept well, he would look at me anxiously, as if longing to question me; but I was proud and so was he, and neither would lead the way.  10
  “‘On the night before he died he had retired in his usual health, and I sat up late writing. My desk stood at one side of the fireplace, my back being toward that window. About twelve o’clock I was startled by a rustling behind me, and turned quickly, but saw nothing. Something swept right by me, with a sound like the waving of silk drapery, and passed toward the bed. I followed It, looked under the valance, behind the curtains—all through the room, but found nobody. I said aloud, to reassure myself, “It must have been the wind!” and returned to my desk. In perhaps fifteen minutes I heard the same sound going by me, as before, toward the bed. In just half an hour more by my watch, which I had laid on the desk, It came again. Carlo, then hardly more than a puppy, howled and ran behind my chair. I felt then that I could bear it no longer; moved toward the bed to awaken my husband. He was sleeping so soundly that, although I passed the candle close before his eyes, he did not stir. I thought I would wait to hear or see something more before arousing him. Nothing came. Carlo went back to his place on the rug, and I sat up all night, listening and watching.  11
  “‘Colonel Trueheart arose next morning to all appearance perfectly well. At nine o’clock he had an apoplectic stroke. At twelve he died. His will, executed two years before, directed that I should continue to live here and take care of the place for his children. I have done so at less cost of feeling and health than I anticipated. But once in five years have I had any reason to believe that the uneasy spirit—if spirit it was—still walked the premises. One night, in the second year of my widowhood, as I was coming down stairs, soon after supper, with a light in my hand, I heard the sweeping of a gown, the tap of high heels behind me. On the lower landing I stopped, wheeled short around, held up my light, and looked back. The steps had been close on my trade, but the staircase was empty and now silent.  12
  “‘I had flattered myself that there would never be a return of ghostly sights or sounds after four years of exemption. Least of all did I dream that one not connected with the family would be visited by such apparitions should they come.’  13
  “This was the story. If Madam guessed at anything else, if she had any theory as to the cause of the visitation, she never intimated it. Captain Macon privately instituted inquiries, at a later period, respecting the past history of the house, but without striking any trail that promised to unravel the mystery. It had been built by a Trueheart, and the estate had descended in the direct line to the Colonel. We pledged our word voluntarily to Madam never to speak of what we had seen while the truth could affect the value of the property, or cast imputation upon the character of those who had owned it. We kept silent until Madam had been fifteen years in her grave. Then Captain Macon rode over one day to show me a paragraph in a Richmond newspaper. I have it safe upstairs in my reliquary, but I can repeat it, word for word:  14
  “‘The march of improvement westward has condemned to demolition, among other fine old mansions, Selma, the ancestral home of the Truehearts. It passed out of the family at the demise of Mrs. Augusta Harrison Trueheart, relict of the late Colonel Elbert Trueheart. In order to effect an equitable division of the estate, the residence and contiguous plantation were sold. The extensive grounds have been cut up into building lots, and the mansion—a noble one in its day, although sadly neglected of late years—standing directly in the line of the extension of ——— street, has been bought by the city to be pulled down and carted away. In grading the sidewalk of the proposed thoroughfare, it was necessary to dig down six feet below the present level, laying bare the foundations of the building. At the depth of four feet from the surface, directly under the windows, and distant scarcely three feet from the drawing-room, the workmen disinterred the skeleton of a woman of diminutive stature, which had evidently lain there for years. There were no signs of a coffin or coffin-plate. A high tortoise-shell comb, richly wrought, was found by the head. The oldest inhabitant of our city has no recollection of any interment near this spot, nor would decent burial have been made so close to the surface. The whole affair is wrapped in mystery.’”  15
  Another prolonged pause. Then Harry raised both hands to push up her hair from her forehead, as if the weight oppressed the teeming brain.  16
  “How the storm roars!” she said. “Heaven have mercy upon the homeless souls wandering between sky and earth to-night! Papa told me that the secret is a secret still, the tragedy unexplained. Have you suspicions of your own?”  17
  “I know nothing beyond what you have heard. But—women who die natural deaths and have Christian burial do not wear expensive combs, such as belong to party-dresses, when they are shrouded for the grave. Nor are they thrust into the ground uncoffined!”  18
 
 
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