“A Child’s Ghost Story” by Bret Harte

by theliterarymaiden

I am indebted to Mr. Velella for introducing this poignant story to us in his article, “Harte: goblins and ghosts,” on his website, the American Literary Blog (which I cannot recommend enough).

A Child’s Ghost Story
By Bret Harte
From Stories and Poems and Other Uncollected Writings by Bret Harte, pp. 33-36.

There was once a child whom people thought odd and queer. He was a puny little fellow. The only thing big about him was his head, and that was so disproportioned to the rest of the body, that some people laughed when they saw him. And to complete his grotesqueness, his parents, who were very learned people—and foolish as very learned people sometimes are—gave him a strange, queer name, “Poeta,” which meant a great deal, so they said; but his old nurse and his little sister called him “Etty,” which meant only that they loved him, and which I think was a great deal more pleasant, if not as sensible.
Not but that his parents were very proud of his peculiarities and queer ways. But they were very severe and strict with him. He deserved it, for he was fretful, peevish, and impatient. He imagined continually that people did n’t love him as he would like them to, which was partly the case; and he was moody and querulous sometimes; and instead of trying to find out why, and what could be done to help it, he would lie down in his little crib and hate everybody. And then his big head, which was always bothering him, would ache dreadfully.
But when he strayed into the green fields with his little sister, who could tell better than “Etty” what the birds said to each other, what the leaves of the big elms were always whispering, and the strange stories that the brook babbled to the stones as it ran away to the distant sea? And although he was not strong enough to play like larger boys with these things, he was fond of lying under the big elm, with his little sister supporting his head on her lap, watching all this, and telling her about it and many other wonderful things.
But I am sorry to say that he would sometimes tell very queer and strange stories; he would tell of goblins as high as the elm, and of ghosts that haunted the little churchyard where their grandmother slept; and he would continue to repeat them, getting more and more terrifying in intensity, until his little “Gracie” would open her big blue eyes in pretty terror, and catch his gesticulating hand.
“There now, Etty, dear,” she once said, “I don’t believe there are any ghosts.”
“Is n’t there,” said Etty, in deep scorn.
“No! Did you ever see any, Etty?”
(This was another sort of thing, you know, and poor Etty could n’t say that he had, but he was confident that other people had seen them.)
“Well,” said Gracie, “I don’t believe there are any. I know that dead people lie in their graves and make the grass grow; but if I die, I’ll come back to you and be a ghost.”
And so to these little children, the seasons were told over in flowers and fruits and different games; and it was kite time, and the lilacs were in blossom when a great hush and quiet fell upon their home. People walked about whispering to each other, and Etty was kept alone in a room until he was frightened and his head ached. But then Gracie did not come to him to console him. And when he could not stand it any longer he crept into a little bedroom, from which an awe seemed to spread over the whole house, and there was a smell of mignonette, and something white lying on the bed, and on top of that again a pinched little white face that he knew. And Etty cried.
His sister had died in early spring, and now it was the season when the rosy-cheeked apples are piled away in the barn, and the red leaves in the corners of the lane, and the nights were getting chilly, and Etty, whose health was poor, was lying in his crib watching the bright fire, thinking of the flowers that had passed away, when something soft and cool stole over his face and rested upon his forehead. It was a little hand—Gracie’s, and Gracie stood beside him.
He remembered what she had told him, and knew it was Gracie’s ghost and he was not frightened. But he whispered to her, and she soothed his aching head, and told him that when he was weary, and his head ached, she would come to him again, and that she was permitted to visit him only that she might soothe him when in trouble and keep him from harm. This and much more she whispered to him in the quiet little nursery, and at last holding her hand in his, he fell asleep.
He did not dare to tell his father or mother, or the people about him, of Gracie’s ghost. He knew they would look upon it as one of his peculiarities and he dreaded their disbelief. He did not dare to tell it to the Reverend Calvin Choakumchild, who gave him a great many very nice tracts, and talked to him a good deal about the “Holy Ghost.” He did not dare to tell it to Betsy, his nurse, who had frightened him often with hobgoblins and spectres. So he laid away his little secret in a quiet shelf in his memory, just as her toys had been put away in a corner of the great cupboard.
But Etty grew up a man and strong and well proportioned. His head no longer seemed to him so large, and people did not laugh at him. His old name gave place to Mr. So-and-So. But when he would get weary, his head would ache as it did when he was a boy, and the doctors, many of whom had D.D. written to their name, could do him no good. How welcome, then, was Gracie’s ghost, and her cool, soft touch, and her whispered words.
But he fell into wicked courses and among wicked men. And when his head would ache, as it often did from dissipation and excesses, he did not dare to invoke in such company Gracie’s ghost. So he fell sick and grew worse, and at last the doctors gave him up.
At the close of a bright spring day when he lay tossing upon his bed, she came and placed her hand upon his head; the dull throbbing and feverish heat passed away. He heard the whispering of the leaves of the old elm again, and the birds talking to each other, and even the foolish talk of the brook. It was saying, “He is coming.” And then with his hand holding one of Gracie’s, and her other upon his forehead, he floated out with the brook toward the distant, distant sea.
Children, have you ever seen “Gracie’s ghost”?