Piloted by a Spirit: 1870s

PILOTED BY A SPIRIT.

By A. Y.

I checked my horse, and after one long, straining look around owned to myself that I was lost. I had suspected the fact some time since, but had stubbornly fought down the suspicion, though my horse evidently realized it. With patient endurance he plodded along, resignation plainly expressed in the droop of his tail and ears. In place of the ranch, the hearty welcome, pleasant words, bed, supper and fire I had expected to reach by sunset, there was nothing to be seen before, behind or on either hand, but the dead level of the plain. There were paths in plenty; in fact, the trouble was there were too many—all narrow and winding, for whose meandering there seemed not the slightest excuse, except the general tendency to crookedness most things, animate and inanimate, alike possess. But it would have taken the instinct of a bloodhound or a trailing Indian to have said which paths had been made by horses’ feet or those of cattle.

Now that the sun was gone, I found my knowledge of the point of the compass gone with it. As I sat perplexed and worried the gloom of twilight gathered fast, and the chill of coming rain smote me through and through while in the distance there was the roll of thunder.

It was now quite dark, and very dark at that, though at short intervals close to the horizon a faint gleam of lightning showed too distant to cast brightness on my path and only sufficient to intensify the blackness about me.

All at once I saw a man walking about fifteen feet in front of me. Yes, I know I said it was intensely dark, but all the same I repeat it. I saw a man walking in front of me, and, furthermore, I could see that he was a large man, dressed in rough, but well-fitting clothes; that he wore a heavy red beard, and that he looked back at me from time to time with an expression of keen anxiety on his otherwise relaxed features.

“Halloo!” I cried, but as he did not halt I concluded he did not hear me. As a second hail produced no result I spurred my weary horse up to overtake the stranger. But, though the gray responded with alacrity most commendable under the circumstances I soon found that this strange pedestrian did not intend to let me catch up with him. Not that he hurried himself. He seemed without any exertion to keep a good fifteen feet between us.

Then I began to wonder how, with the intense darkness shutting me in as four black walls, I was yet able to see my strange companion so clearly, to take in the details of his dress, and even the expression of his face, and that at a distance more than twice my horse’s length, when I could hardly see his head before me. I am not given to superstitious fancies, and my only feeling was of curiosity.

We went on in silence for nearly half an hour, when as suddenly as he had appeared he was gone. I looked around for him, half afraid from his instant and complete disappearance, that I had been dreaming, when I perceived that I was close to a small, low building of some sort. I reined in and shouted several times, but not the slightest response could I hear, and at last I rode boldly up and tapped on the wall with the butt of my riding whip. Then as this elicited no sign of life, I concluded that I had stumbled on some deserted house or that it was the abode of my eccentric friend; so dismounting and tying the gray, I resolved to spend the rest of the night under a roof or to find some good reason for continuing my journey.

I felt my way along the wall till I reached a door, and trying this and finding that it yielded to me I stepped inside, striking a match as I did so. Fortunately, I carried my matches in an air tight case, and as it was dry the one I struck gave me a light at once. I found myself in a large room close to a fireplace over which a rude shelf was placed, and on this mantel I saw an oil lamp to which I applied my match.

On the hearth was heaped a quantity of ashes, and over these crouched a child, a little girl of 5 or 6. At the end of the room, which was plainly and scantily furnished, lay a man across a bed, and as I raised the lamp I saw that he was the same I had been following, but there was something in his attitude and face that struck me as peculiar, and I was about to go forward and look at him when the child who had at first seemed dazed at the light fairly threw herself upon me.

“Have you anything for Nelly to eat?” she said, and then, “Oh, Nelly so hungry!”

I ran my hand into my pocket and drew forth what had been a paper bag of chocolate candy, but now was a pulpy unappetizing mass. I must confess to a childish fondness for sweets, which I usually carry in some form about me. I handed the remains of my day’s supply to the child, and then walked over to the bed.

Yes, it was the same man, red beard, rough clothes, but setting off the magnificent frame to perfection; the same man, but dead, long dead.

I took his hand only to find it stiff and cold while his face had the dull gray aspect never seen in the newly dead. As I stood gazing down on him a little hand touched mine.

“Nelly so hungry!” said the child.

“Have you eaten all the candy?” I asked her.

“Yes, yes! But me hungry, for me had no dinner, no brekkus, no supper, and papa won’t get up.

The house, which consisted of the large room, a smaller kitchen and a shed, where I found a quantity of hay and fodder, seemed quite bare of food but by dint of searching in the hay I discovered a nest, which Nelly informed me was there, and in it two fresh eggs. These I boiled for her. When she had finished I soothed her to sleep on a bed I made for her before the fire. Then after I had put my horse in the shed room and fed him I performed as well as I could a service for the dead.

When day dawned I was able to discern at some distance from the house a line of telegraph poles, and taking the child with me I followed these to the nearest. town where I notified the authorities of the death.

The dead man’s name was Frederick Barnstaple. He was an Englishman, so I found, a recent arrival in those parts. His daughter was restored to her family across the water, and is now a pretty girl of 17. I have never told this story, but am ready to take an affidavit to its truth.

It all happened about thirty miles from Dallas.

Religio-Philosophical Journal 7 February 1891: p. 585

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Where, one wonders, was the child’s mother? Many of the Englishmen who came to America’s west were bachelor younger sons, looking to find a fortune or consumptives, seeking health.  Neither class of émigré brought little girls with them. A mystery.

But certainly no more of a mystery than the narrator’s ghostly guide, who was so mysteriously visible in the darkness of the prairie. How (again, one wonders) was the spirit of the dead man able to find and influence his child’s rescuer on that vast plain? Do spirits have some sort of heat-seeking apparatus or extremely acute hearing? Do they scent the living from miles away, as a blow-fly scents the dead? A mystery….

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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