"The Ghost" (1942) by A. E. van Vogt

by A. E. van Vogt

This rare excursion of van Vogt into the realm of fantasy [1] first appeared in the August 1942 issue of the highly regarded Unknown Worlds bi-monthly magazine [2].

This unusual 12,500-word ghost novelette with whodunit and time-conundrum elements, written during van Vogt’s Canadian days [3] when he was at the peak of his golden-age writing form, having recently published masterpieces such as Black Destroyer, Discard in Scarlet, The Sea Thing, Recruiting Station, Co-Operate or Else! and Slan, is well worth discovering.

With the original Unknown Worlds illustrations by Orban.



e-book versions of The Ghost are available for downloading below.


THE GHOST


"Four miles," Kent thought, "four miles from the main-line town of Kempster to the railway-less village of Agan." At least, he remembered that much.
He remembered the hill, too, and the farm at the foot of it. Only it hadn’t been deserted when he saw it last.
He stared at the place as the hotel car edged down the long hill. The buildings showed with a curious, stark bleakness. All the visible windows of the farmhouse itself were boarded up. And great planks had been nailed across the barn door.
The yard was a wilderness of weeds and—Kent experienced an odd sense of shock—the tall, dignified old man who emerged abruptly from behind the house, seemed as out of place in that desolate yard as . . . as life itself.
Kent was aware of the driver leaning toward him, heard him say above the roar of the ancient engine:
"I was wondering if we’d see the ghost, as we passed; and yep, there he is, taking his morning walk."
"The ghost!" Kent echoed.
It was as if he had spoken a key word. The sun burst brilliantly from behind an array of dark clouds and flooded the valley with warm light. The blaze of it illuminated the drab old buildings—and wrought changes.
The over-all grayness of the house showed in that bright illumination as a faded green.
The old man walked slowly toward the gate that led to the main highway. Nearer now, he seemed taller, thinner, a gaunt caricature of a human being; his black frock coat glinted in the sun.
Kent found his voice. "Ghost!" he said again. "Why, that’s old Mr. Wainwright. He doesn’t look a day older than when I left this part of the world fifteen years ago."
The old, square-fronted car ground queasily to a stop before the farm gate. The driver turned. It struck Kent that the man was smugly enjoying the moment.
"See that gate?" the fellow asked. "Not the big one: the little one. It’s padlocked, eh?"
Kent nodded. "What about it?"
"Watch!"
The old man stood fumbling at the gate less than ten feet away. It was like gazing at a pantomime, Kent thought; for the man paid no attention to the padlock, but seemed absorbed with some simpler catch.
Abruptly, the patriarch straightened, and pushed at the gate. Kent had no real sense of alienness. Without having given the matter any thought be believed it was the gate that was going to open and that it was some unusual aspect of the opening that he had been admonished to watch.
The gate didn’t. It did not so much as stir; not a creak came from its rusty hinges. It remained solid, held in position by the uncompromising padlock.
The old man walked through it.
Through it! Then he turned, seemed to push at some invisible counter-part of the gate and, once again, stood there, as if manipulating a hidden catch.
Finally, apparently satisfied, he faced the car again; and, for the first time, saw it and its occupants. His long, finely wrinkled face lighted. "Hello, there!" he said.
Kent hadn’t expected speech. The words caught him like a blow. He felt a chill; his mind whirled with a queer, twisting motion that momen­tarily wrecked the coherence of his thought. He half leaned, half fell back against the seat because his muscles wouldn’t support him.
"Ghost," he thought finally, dizzily. Good heavens, what was going on here?

The world began to right itself. The land and the horizon straight­ened; and there was the house and the barn, an almost colorless, utterly lifeless background to the beanpole of an old, old man and the magic gate through which he had stepped.
"Hello!" Kent said shakily. "Hello!"
The old man came nearer, peered; and an expression of surprise flit­ted across his face. "Why, it’s Mr. Kent. I thought you’d left the Agan Hotel."
"Eh!" Kent began.
Out of the corner of his eyes be saw the driver make a sharp move­ment with one hand. The man whispered hastily:
"Don’t act surprised at anything the ghost says. It confuses him."
Ghost! There it was again. Kent swallowed hard. "Am I mad?" he thought, "The last time I saw this old follow was when I was twenty. He didn’t know my name then. How—"
The old man was speaking again, in bewilderment: "I distinctly remember Mr. Jenkins, the proprietor, informing me that you had found it necessary to leave at once. He said something about a prophecy coming out exactly to the day, August 17th. People are always talking to me about prophecies. But that was the date he said it was, August 17th."
He looked up, unscrewing the frown from his thin, worn face. "I beg your pardon, young sir, It is very remiss of me to stand here mumbling to myself. May I say that I am glad that the report was untrue, as I have very much enjoyed our several conversations."
He raised his hat. "I would invite you in for tea; but Mrs. Carmody is not in the best of moods this morning. Poor woman! Looking after an old man must be a great trial; and I dare not add to her afflictions. Good morning to you, Mr. Kent. Good morning, Tom."
Kent nodded, unable to speak. He heard the driver say:
"S’long, Mr. Wainwright."

Kent watched, as the tall, frail figure walked slowly across the road behind the car, and moved unhurriedly across the open pasture land to the south. His mind and gaze came back to the car, as the driver, Tom, said:
"Well, Mr. Kent, you’re lucky. You know how long you’re staying at the Agan Hotel."
"What do you mean?"
"Mr. Jenkins will have your bill ready for you August 17th."
Kent stared at him, uncertain whether he ought to laugh, or—what! "You’re not trying to tell me that the ghost also tells the future. Why, today’s only July 8th, and I intend to stay till the end of Septem—"
He stopped. The eyes that were staring into his were utterly earnest, humorless: "Mr. Kent, there never was anyone like Mr. Wainwright in the world before. When he tells the future, it happens; it was that way when he was alive, and it’s the same now that he’s dead.
"The only thing is that he’s old. He’s over ninety, and weak in the head. He gets confused; he always mixes the future with the past. To him it is the past, and it’s all equally blurred. But when he says anything as clear as a date, it’s so. You wait and see."
There were too many words; and the concreteness of them, the collo­quial twang of them on the still air, built an oddly insubstantial picture. Kent began to feel less startled. He knew these country folk; and the conviction was suddenly strong in him that, in some obscure way, he was being made the victim of a practical joke.
It wouldn’t do, of course, to say so. Besides, there was the unaccount­able episode of the gate.
"This Mrs. Carmody," he said finally. "I don’t recall her. Who is she?"
"She came to look after the farm when her sister-in-law, the old man’s granddaughter, died. No blood relation, but—" The driver drew a deep breath, tried hard to look casual, and said: "She’s the one, you know, who murdered old Wainwright five years ago. They put her in the crazy house at Peerton for doing it."
"Murdered!" Kent said. "What is this—the local ghost story?" He paused; then: "Just a minute. He talked as if he was still living with her."
"Look, Mr. Kent"—the man was pitying—"let’s not go into why the ghost says what he says. People have tried figuring out what’s going on, and have ended with their brains twisted into seventeen knots."
"There must be a natural explanation."
The driver shrugged. "Well, then, you find it." He added: "I was the one who drove Mrs. Carmody and her two kids from Kempster to the farm here. Maybe you’d like to hear as much of the story as I can tell you the rest of the way to the hotel."
Kent sat quietly as gears shifted; and the machine moved heavily off. He turned finally to look at the farm. It was just passing out of sight behind a long spread of trees.
That last look showed—desolation, deadness. He shuddered invol­untarily, and did not look again. He said: "This story . . . what about it?"

The woman saw the farm as the car slowed at the lip of the hill. She was dimly aware that the car was in low gear, with brakes on, slithering down the loose gravel of the steep incline.
The farm, she thought with a greedy intensity that shook her heavy body; safety at long, long last. And only a senile old man and a girl standing between her and possession.
Between her—and the hard, sordid years that stretched behind her. Years of being a widow with two children in a tenement house, with only an occasional job to eke out the income from the relief department.
Years of hell!
And here was heaven for the taking. Her hard blue eyes narrowed; her plump, hard body grew taut—if she couldn’t take the treasure of security that was here, she’d better—
The thought faded. Fascinated, she stared at the valley farm below, a green farmhouse, a great red barn and half a dozen outhouses. In the near distance a vast field of wheat spread; tiny wheat, bright green with a mid-spring greenness.
The car came down to the level of the valley; and trees hid the distant, rolling glory of the land. The automobile came to a stop, its shiny front pointed at the gate; and, beside her, the heavily built boy said:
"This it, ma?"
"Yes, Bill!" The woman looked at him anxiously. All her ultimate plans about this farm centered around him. For a moment she was preternatu­rally aware of his defects, his sullen, heavy, yet not strong face. There was a clumsiness of build in his chunky, sixteen-year-old body that made him something less than attractive.
She threw off that brief pattern of doubt; she ventured "Isn’t it won­derful?"
"Naw!" The thick lips twisted. "`I’d rather be in the city." He shrugged. "But I guess I know what’s good for us."
"That’s right." She felt relieved. "In this world it’s what you get, not what you want. Remember that, Bill . . . what is it, Pearl?"
She spoke impatiently. It was the way her daughter always affected her. What good was a pasty-faced, twelve-year-old, too plump, too plain, and without the faintest promise of ever being pretty. With an even sharper annoyance, the woman repeated:
"What is it?"
"There’s a skinny old man coming across the field. Is that Mr. Wain­wright, ma?"

Mrs. Carmody turned slowly and stared in the direction Pearl was point­ing. And, after a moment, a current of relief surged through her. Until this instant she had felt a sharp edge of worry about the old man. Old, her sister-in-law had written in her occasional letter. But she hadn’t imagined he’d be this old. Why, he must be ninety, a hundred; utterly no danger to her at all.
She saw that the driver had opened the gate, and was coming back to drive the car through. With a new confidence she raised her voice at him:
"Wait!" she said, "wait for the old man. He’s been out for a walk, and he’ll be tired. Give him a lift to the house."
Might as well make a good first impression, she thought. Politeness was the watchword. Iron hands within velvet gloves.
It struck her that the driver was staring at her peculiarly; the man said: "I wouldn’t count on him driving with us. He’s a queer old duck, Mr. Wainwright is. Sometimes he’s deaf and blind, and he don’t pay attention to no one. And he does a lot of queer things."
The woman frowned. "For instance?"
The man sighed. "Well, ma’am, it’s no use trying to explain. You might as well start learning by experience, now as later. Watch him."
The long, thin figure came at an even, slow pace across the pasture to the south. He crossed the road, passing the car less than three feet from the fenders, seemingly completely blind to its presence. He headed straight for the gate.
Not the open gate, wide enough for the car to go through, but the narrow, solidly constructed wooden gate for human beings. He seemed to fumble at some hidden catch. And then—
The gate did not open, but he stepped through as if it had. Stepped through the solid wooden gate.
For a long second Mrs. Carmody was aware of a harsh woman’s voice screaming. With a terrible shock, she realized it was her own voice.
The effort to choke that wild cry was so horrible that she fell back against the seat, the blood hammering at her temples. She sagged there, sick, cold as ice, her vision blurred, her throat ash dry, every muscle in her body jumping with tiny, painful surges of nervous convulsion; and, for a long moment, her mind wouldn’t hold thoughts.

"Just a minute!" Kent interrupted the driver. "I thought you told me the old man was alive at this time. How come he walked through the gate?"
His narrator stared at him strangely: "Mr. Kent, the only reason that old man hasn’t made us all crazy these past twelve years is that he’s harm­less. He walked through gates when he was alive just as he does now. And not only gates. The difference is that we know we buried him. Maybe he’s always been a ghost, and killing him don’t do no good. All we know is, he’s harmless. That’s enough, isn’t it?"
Kent nodded, but there was a world of doubt in his voice as he said: "I suppose so; anyway, go on."

The dark blur of fear in the woman’s mind yielded to an awareness of tugging at her arm; and then she realized that the driver was speaking:
"It’s all right, ma’am, he’s just a queer, harmless old man. Nothing to get excited about."
It was not the driver, but the boy beside her, whose words pulled her together; the boy saying rather scornfully:
"Gee, ma, you sure take on. I seen a trick like that on the stage last year, only it was better than that. It don’t mean a thing."
The woman began to feel better. Bill was such a solid, practical boy, she thought gratefully. And of course he was right. Some trick, of course, and—what was that stupid little fool of a girl saying. She found herself repeating the question out loud:
"What did you say, Pearl?"
"He sees us, ma—look!" the girl said.
The woman saw that the old man was peering at her over the gate. A thin, long, gentle, wrinkled face it was, bright with gathering interest. He said with an astonishingly crisp voice for one so old:
"You’re back from town rather early, Mrs. Carmody. Does that mean an early dinner?"
He paused politely; then: "I have no objection naturally. I am only too happy to fit myself into any routine you desire."
The deadly thought that came to her was that she was being made ridiculous in some way. Her face grew taut, her eyes narrowed, then she mustered an uncertain smile, and tried to force her mind past his words. The fierce whisper of the driver rescued her from that developing confu­sion:
"Begging your pardon, ma’am," the man said hurriedly, "don’t let on you’re new here. He’s got the gift of seeing, and he’s been acting for months as if you were already living here, and, if you contradict him, it only puzzles him. Toward the end, he was actually calling Mrs. Wainwright by your name. He’s just a queer old man."

Mrs. Carmody sat very still, her blue eyes brighter, wide with abrupt calculation. The thrill that came was warm along her nerves. Expected!
One of the several things she had feared was this moment of her ar­rival; but now—expected!
All her careful preparation would go over smoothly. The letter she had forged so painstakingly, in which the dead woman, the old man’s granddaughter, asked her to come to look after her daughter, Phyllis—that prize letter would merely be a confirmation of something which had already been accepted as inevitable. Though how—
The woman shook herself firmly. This was no time to worry about the curious actions of an old man. She had a farm to take over; and the quicker that problem was solved, the better.
She smiled again, her thick face smirking a little with the comfortable glow of her inner triumph.
"Won’t you ride to the house with us, Mr. Wainwright? You must be tired after your walk"
The old fellow nodded alertly. "Don’t mind if I do, madam. I was all the way to Kempster, and I’m a little tired. Saw your sister there, by the way."
He had come through the gate, this time the one that was standing open for the car, and he was heading for the front door of the machine when Mrs. Carmody managed heavily:
"My—sister?"
"Sssshh!" hissed the driver. "Pay no attention. He’s mixed up in his head. He thinks everyone of us has a living image, and he’s always meet­ing them. He’s been like this for years, perfectly harmless."
It was easier to nod this time. The episode of the gate was a vague unreality in her mind, becoming dimmer by the minute. She smiled her smile as the old man politely lifted his hat, watched as he climbed into the front seat beside the driver.
The car puffed along the yard road, rounded the house and drew up before the veranda. A girl in a white dress came to the screen door, and stood there very quietly staring at them.
She was a pretty, fragile thing, Mrs. Carmody noted with a sharp eye to detail, slim, with yellow hair, about fifteen or sixteen, and—the woman’s mind tightened—not very friendly.
The woman smiled sweetly. "Hello, Phyllis," she said, "I’m so glad to see you."
"Hello," said Phyllis; and the older woman smiled comfortably at the reluctant greeting. Because—it had been a greeting. It was acceptance of a sort.
The woman smiled a thin smile to herself. This simple country girl was going to learn how impossible it was to fight a friendly approach, backed by an iron purpose.
She could see the whole future smoothly fitting in with her wishes. First, to settle down; then to set about throwing Bill and Phyllis together, so that they’d consider marriage a natural and early conclusion to their relationship. And then—
It was night; and she had blown out the lamp in the master bedroom before she thought again of the old man, and the astounding things he had said and done.
She lay in the darkness, nestling into the special comfort of the great bed, frowning. Finally, sleepily, she shrugged. Harmless, the driver had said. Well, he’d better stay that way, the old coot.

Mrs. Carmody wakened the following morning to the sounds of movement downstairs. She dressed hurriedly with a sense of having been outmaneuvered on her first day; and that empty feeling became convic­tion when she saw the old man and Phyllis eating breakfast.
There were three other plates set with bowls of cereal: and Mrs. Carmody sank down before one of them in a dead silence. She saw that the girl had a notebook open in front of her; and she clutched at the straw of conversation it offered.
"Doing your homework?" she asked in her friendliest voice.
"No!" said the girl, closing the notebook and getting up from the table.
Mrs. Carmody sat very still, fighting the surge of dull color that crept up into her cheeks. No use getting excited, she thought. The thing was, somehow—somehow she had to make friends with this quiet girl.
And besides, there was some information she had to have—about food, about the house, about—money.
Abruptly, breakfast was a meaningless, tasteless act. She got up from her half-finished cereal; in the kitchen she found Phyllis washing the dishes. "Let me wash," said the woman, "you dry."
She added: "Pretty hands like yours shouldn’t be in dish water."
She sent a swift glance at the girl’s face, and spoke for the third time: "I’m rather ashamed of myself for getting up so late. I came here to work, not to rest."
"Oh, you’ll get used to it," said the girl; and Mrs. Carmody smiled her secret smile. The dangerous silence strike was over. She said:
"What about food? Is there any particular store where you buy it? Your mother didn’t mention such details in her letter. I—"
She stopped, startled in spite of herself at that mention of the letter. She stood for a moment, hands rigid in the hot water; then forced on:
"Your poor mother! It was such a tired letter she wrote. I cried when I read it."
From under half-closed eyes she saw that the girl’s lips were trem­bling—and she knew her victory. She had a brief, blazing exultation at the way every word, every mood of this moment was under her control. She said swiftly:
"We can talk about those details later."
The girl said tearfully: "We have a charge account at Graham’s General Store in Agan. You can phone up. He delivers this far."

The woman walked hurriedly into the dining room to get the dishes that were still there, and to hide the irrepressible light of triumph in her eyes. A charge account! The problem of obtaining control of the money had actually made her feel sick, the consciousness that legal steps might be necessary, the conviction that she must first establish herself in the household and in the community.
And here was her stepping-stone: a charge account! Now, if this Graham’s store would only accept her order—what was the girl saying?
"Mrs. Carmody, I want to apologize for not answering your question about my notebook at breakfast. You see, the neighbors always want know what great-grandfather says about them: so at breakfast, when he’s stron­gest, I ask him questions, and take notes. I pretend to him that I’m going to write a book about his life when grow up. I couldn’t explain all that in front of him, could I?"
"Of course not," said the woman. She thought sharply: So the neigh­bors were interested in the old man’s words about them. They’d be inter­ested and friendly with anyone who kept them supplied with the latest tidbits of news. She’d have keep her ears open, and perhaps keep a note­book herself.
She grew aware that the girl was speaking again: "I’ve been wanting to tell you, great-grandpa really has the gift of seeing. You won’t believe that yet, but—"
The girl’s eyes were bright, eager; and the woman knew better than to let such enthusiasm pass.
"Why, of course, I believe it," she said. "I’m not one of these skeptics who won’t face facts. All through history there have been people with strange powers; and besides, didn’t I see with my own eyes Mr. Wain­wright step through a solid gate. I—"
Her voice faltered; her own words describing that incredible action brought a vivid return of reality, and she could only finish weakly: "Of course, I believe it."
"What I meant, Mrs. Carmody," the girl was saying, "don’t be offended if he seems to say something unpleasant. He always thinks he’s talking about events that have already happened, and then, of course, there’s the way he talks about your sister, if you’re a woman, and your brother if you’re a man. It’s really you he means."
Really you—
The woman’s mind spun curiously; and the memory of the words stayed with her after the girl had ridden off to school, even after Graham’s accepted her order on behalf of the Wainwright farm with a simple, ut­terly effective: "Oh, yes, Mrs. Carmody, we know about you."
It was not until nearly noon that she went out onto the porch, where the old man was sitting and asked the question that had been quivering in her mind:
"Mr. Wainwright, yesterday you mentioned you had seen my sister in Kempster. W-what did she have to say?"
She waited with a tenseness that startled her; and there was the queer thought that she was being utterly ridiculous. The old man took his long pipe out of his mouth, thoughtfully. He said:
"She was coming out of the courthouse, and—"
"Courthouse!" said Mrs. Carmody.
The old man was frowning to himself. "She didn’t speak to me, so I cannot say what she was doing there." He finished politely: "Some little case, no doubt. We all have them."

Kent was aware of the car slowing. The driver nodded at a two-story wooden building with a veranda, and said:
"That’s the hotel. I’ll finish that story for you some other time. Or, if I’m too busy, just ask anyone. The whole district knows all about it."

The following morning the sun peered with dazzling force into his hotel room. Kent walked to the window and stared out over the peaceful village.
For a moment there was not a sound audible. The little spread of trees and houses lay almost dreamily under the blue, blue sky.
Kent thought quietly: He had made no mistake in deciding to spend the rest of the summer here, while, in a leisurely fashion, he carried on negotiations for the sale of the farm his parents had left him. Truth was he had been overworking.
He went downstairs and amazed himself by eating two eggs and four slices of bacon in addition to cereal and toast. From the dining room he walked to the veranda—and there was the ghost sitting in one of the wicker chairs.
Kent stopped short. The tiny beginning of a chill formed at the nape of his spine; then the old man saw him and said:
"Good morning. Mr. Kent. I should take it very kindly if you would sit down and talk with me. I need cheering up."
It was spoken with an almost intimate pathos; and yet Kent had a sudden sense of being beyond his depth. Somehow the old man’s friend­liness of the day before had seemed unreal.
Yet here it was again.
He shook himself. After all, part of the explanation at least was simple. Here was an old man—that ghost part was utterly ridiculous, of course—an old man, then, who could foretell the future. Foretell it in such a fash­ion that, in the case of Mrs. Carmody, he, the old man, had actually had the impression that she had been around for months before she arrived.
Apparently, he had had the same impression about Kent. Therefore—
"Good morning, Mr. Wainwright!" Kent spoke warmly as he seated himself. "You need cheering up, you say. Who’s been depressing you?"
"Oh!" The old man hesitated, his finely line face twisted into a faint frown. He said finally, slowly. "Perhaps it is wrong of me to have men­tioned it. It is no one’s fault, I suppose. The friction of daily life, in this case, Mrs. Carmody pestering me about what her sister was doing in court."
Kent sat silent, astounded. The reference of the old man to the only part of the story that he, Kent, knew was—shattering. His brain recoiled from the coincidence into a tight, corded layer of thoughts:
Was this—alien—creature a mind reader as well as seer and ghost? An old, worn-out brain that had taken on automaton qualities, and reacted almost entirely to thoughts that trickled in from other minds? Or—
He stopped, almost literally pierced by the thought that came: Or was this reference to Mrs. Carmody, this illusion that Mrs. Carmody was still looking after him, one of those fantastic brain-chilling re-enactments of which the history of haunted houses was so gruesomely replete?
Dead souls, murderess and murdered, doomed through all eternity to live over and over again their lives before and during the crime!
But that was impossible. Mrs. Carmody was still alive; in a madhouse to be sure, but alive.
Kent released carefully the breath of air he had held hard in his lungs for nearly a minute. "Why don’t you tell her," he said finally, "to ask her sister about what she was doing in court?"
The thin, gray, old face wrinkled into puzzlement. The old man said with a curious dignity:
"It is more complicated than that, Mr. Kent. I have never quite un­derstood the appearance of so many twins in the world during the recent years of my life; and the fact that so many of them are scarcely on speaking terms with each other is additionally puzzling."
He shook his head. "It is all very confusing. For instance, this court­room appearance of Mrs. Carmody’s sister—I seem to remember having heard something else about it, but it must have struck me as unimportant at the time, for I cannot rightly recollect the details. It’s not a pleasant situation for a harmless old man to handle."
Harmless! Kent’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. That was what people kept saying about—the ghost. First, the driver, Tom; then, according to Tom’s story, the girl Phyllis, and now the old man himself.
Harmless, harmless, harmless— Old man, he thought tensely, what about the fact that you drove a woman to murder you? What is your purpose? What—
Kent loosened the tight grip his fingers had taken on the arms of the chair. What was the matter with him, letting a thing like this get on his nerves?
He looked up. The sky was as blue as ever; the summer day peaceful, perfect. All was well with the world of reality.
There was silence, a deep, peaceful quiet during which Kent studied that long, aged face from half-closed eyes. The old man’s skin was of a normal grayish texture with many, very many crisscross lines. He had a lean, slightly hawklike nose, and a thin, rather fine mouth.
Handsome old man; only—that explained nothing, and—
He saw that the old man was rising; he stood for a moment very straight, carefully adjusting his hat on his head; then:
"I must be on my way. It is important, in view of our strained rela­tions, that I do not keep Mrs. Carmody waiting for lunch. I shall be seeing you again, Mr. Kent."
Kent stood up, a little, fascinated thought in his mind. He had in­tended to walk over to the farm that had belonged to his parents and introduce himself to the tenants. But that could wait.
Why not go with the—ghost—to the deserted Wainwright place, and—
What?
He considered the question blankly; then his lips tightened. After all, this mysterious business was on his mind. To let it go would be merely to have a distraction at the back of his head, sufficient perhaps to interfere with anything he might attempt. Besides, there was no rush about the business. He was here for a rest and change as much as anything.
He stood there, still not absolutely decided, chilled by a dark miasma of mind stuff that welled up inside him:
Wasn’t it perhaps dangerous to accompany a ghost to a hide-out in an isolated, old house?
He pressed the clammy fear out of his system because—it wasn’t Mrs. Carmody who had been killed. She was out of her head, yes; but the danger was definitely mental, not physical, and—
His mind grew hard, cool. No sudden panic, no totality of horrendous threats or eerie menaces would actually knock his reason off its base. Therefore—

Kent parted his lips to call after the old man, who was gingerly moving down the wooden walk to the wooden sidewalk. Before he could speak, a deep voice beside him said:
"I noticed you were talking to the ghost, Mr. Kent."
Kent turned and faced a great, gross fat man whom he had previously noticed sitting in a little office behind the hotel desk. Three massive chins quivered as the man said importantly:
"My name is Jenkins, sir, proprietor of the Agan Hotel."
His pale, deep-set eyes peered at Kent.
"Tom was telling me that you met our greatest local character yester­day. A very strange, uncanny case. Very uncanny."
The old man was farther up the street now, Kent saw, an incredibly lean, sedately figure, who vanished abruptly behind a clump of trees. Kent stared after him, his mind still half on the idea of following as soon as he could reasonably break away from this man.
He took another look at the proprietor; and the man said heavily:
"I understand from Tom that he didn’t have time to finish the story of what happened at the Wainwright farm. Perhaps I could complete the uncanny tale for you."
It struck Kent that the word "uncanny" must be a favorite with this dark mountain of flesh.
It struck him, too, that he would have to postpone his visit to the ghost farm, or risk offending his host.
Kent frowned and yielded to circumstances. It wasn’t actually necessary to trail the old man today. And it might be handy to have all the facts first, before he attempted to solve the mystery. He seated himself after watching the fat man wheeze into a chair. He said:
"Is there any local theory that would explain the"—he hesitated—"uncanny appearance of the ghost. You do insist that he is a ghost, in spite of his substantial appearance."
"Definitely a ghost!" Jenkins grunted weightily. "We buried him, didn’t we? And unburied him again a week later to see if he was still there; and he was, dead and cold as stone. Oh. yes, definitely a ghost. What other explanation could there be?"
"I’m not," said Kent carefully, "not exactly—a believer—in ghosts." The fat man waved the objection aside with flabby hand. "None of us were, sir, none of us. But facts are facts."
Kent sat silent; then: "A ghost that tells the future. What kind of future? Is it all as vague as that statement of his to Mrs. Carmody about her sister coming out of the courthouse?"
Sagging flesh shook as Mr. Jenkins cleared his throat. "Mostly local events of little importance, but which would interest an old man who lived here all his life."
"Has he said anything about the war?"
"He talks as if it’s over, and therefore acts as if the least said the better." Mr. Jenkins laughed a great husky, tolerant laugh. "His point about the war is amazement that prices continue to hold up. It confuses him. And it’s no use keeping after him, because talking tires him easily, and he gets a perse­cuted look. He did stay something about American armies landing in northern France, but"—he shrugged—"we all know that’s going to happen, anyway."
Kent nodded. "This Mrs. Carmody—she arrived when?"
"In 1933, nearly nine years ago."
"And Mr. Wainwright has been dead five years?"
The fat man settled himself deeper into his chair. "I shall be glad," he said pompously, "to tell you the rest of the story in an orderly fashion. I shall omit the first few months after her arrival, as they contained very little of importance—"

The woman came exultantly out of the Wholesale Marketing Co. She felt a renewal of the glow that had suffused her when she first discovered this firm in Kempster two mouths before.
Four chickens and three dozen eggs—four dollars cash.
Cash!
The glow inside her dimmed. She frowned darkly. It was no use fooling herself; now that the harvesting season was only a week away, this makeshift method of obtaining money out of the farm couldn’t go on—Her mind flashed to the bank book she had discovered in the house, with its tremendous information that the Wainwrights had eleven thousand seven hundred thirty-four dollars and fifty-one cents in the Kempster Bank.
An incredible fortune, so close yet so far away—
She stood very still in front of the bank finally, briefly paralyzed by a thought dark as night. If she went in—in minutes she’d know the worst.
This time it wouldn’t be an old, old man and a young girl she’d be facing. It would be—
The banker was a dapper little fellow with horn-rimmed glasses, behind which sparkled a large pair of gray eyes.
"Ah, yes, Mrs. Carmody!" The man rubbed his fingers together. "So it finally occurred to you to come and see me."
He chuckled. "Well, well, we can fix everything; don’t worry. I think between us we can manage to look after the Wainwright farm to the satisfaction of the community and the court, eh?"
Court! The word caught the woman in the middle of a long, ascending surge of triumph. So this was it. This was what the old man had prophesied. And it was good, not bad.
She felt a brief, ferocious rage at the old fool for having frightened her so badly—but the banker was speaking again:
"I understand you have a letter from your sister-in-law, asking you to look after Phyllis and the farm. It is possible such letter is not absolutely necessary, as you are the only relative, but in lieu of a will it will constitute a definite authorization on the basis of which the Courts can appoint you executrix."
The woman sat very still, almost frozen by the words. Somehow, while she had always felt that she would in a crisis produce the letter she had forged, now that the terrible moment was here—
She felt herself fumbling in her purse, and there was the sound of her voice mumbling some doubt about the letter still being around. But she knew better.
She brought it out, took it blindly from the blank envelope where she had carefully placed it, handed it toward the smooth, reaching fingers—and waited her doom.
As he read, the man spoke to himself, half to her: "Hm-m-m, she offers you twenty-five dollars a month over and above expenses—"
The woman quivered in every muscle of her thick body. The incredible violent thought came that she must have been mad to put such a thing in the letter. She said hurriedly: "Forget about the money. I’m not here to—"
"I was just going to say," interrupted the banker, "that it seems an inadequate wage. For a farm as large and wealthy as that of the Wainwrights’, there is no reason why the manager should not receive fifty dollars, at least, and that is the sum we shall petition the judge for."
He added: "The local magistrate is having a summer sitting this morning just down the street, and if you’ll step over there with me we can have this all settled shortly."
He finished: "By the way, he’s always interested in the latest predictions of old Mr. Wainwright."
"I know them all!" the woman gulped.
She allowed herself, a little later, to be shepherded onto the sidewalk. A brilliant, late July sun was pouring down on the pavement. Slowly, it warmed the chill out of her veins.

It was three years later, three undisturbed years. The woman stopped short in the task of running the carpet sweeper over the living-room car­pet, and stood frowning. Just what had brought the thought into her mind, she couldn’t remember, but—
Had she seen the old man, as she came out of the courthouse that July day three years before, when the world had been handed to her without a struggle.
The old man had predicted that moment. That meant, in some way, he must have seen it. Had the picture come in the form of a vision? Or as a result of some contact in his mind across the months? Had he in short been physically present; and the scene had flashed back through some connection across time?
She couldn’t remember having seen him. Try as she would, nothing came to her from that moment but a sort of blurred, enormous contentment.
The old man, of course, thought he’d been there. The old fool believed that everything he ever spoke about was a memory of his past. What a dim, senile world that past must be.
It must spread before his mind like a road over which shifting tendrils of fog drifted, now thick and impenetrable, now thin and bright with flashing rays of sunlight—and pictures.
Pictures of events.
Across the room from her she was vaguely aware of the old man stir­ring in his chair. He spoke:
"Seems like hardly yesterday that Phyllis and that Couzens boy got married. And yet it’s—"
He paused; he said politely: "When was that, Pearl? My memory isn’t as good as it was, and—"
The words didn’t actually penetrate the woman. But her gaze, in its idle turning, fastened on plump Pearl—and stopped. The girl sat rigid on the living-room couch, where she had been sprawling. Her round, baby eyes were wide.
"Ma?" she shrilled. "Did you hear that? Grandpa’s talking like Phyllis and Charlie Couzens are married."
There was a thick, muffled sound of somebody half choking. With a gulp the woman realized that it was she who had made the sound. Gasp­ing, she whirled on the old man and loomed over him, a big, tight-lipped creature, with hard blue eyes.
For a moment, her dismay was so all-consuming that words wouldn’t come. The immensity of the catastrophe implied by the old man’s state­ment scarcely left room for thought. But—
Marriage!
And she had actually thought smugly that Bill and Phyllis— Why, Bill had told her and—
Marriage! To the son of the neighboring farmer. Automatic end to her security. She had nearly a thousand dollars, but how long would that last, once the income itself stopped?
Sharp pain of fear released the explosion that, momentarily, had been dammed up by the sheer fury of her thoughts:
"You old fool, you!" she raged. "So you’ve been sitting here all these years while I’ve been looking after you, scheming against me and mine. A trick, that’s what it is. Think you’re clever, eh, using your gift to—"

It was the way the old man was shrinking that brought brief, vivid awareness to the woman of the danger of such an outburst after so many years of smiling friendliness. She heard the old man say:
"I don’t understand, Mrs. Carmody. What’s the matter?"
"Did you say it?" She couldn’t have stopped the words to save her soul.
"Did I say what?"
"About Phyllis and that Couzens boy—"
"Oh, them!" He seemed to forget that she was there above him. A benign smile crept into his face. He said at last quietly: "It seems like hardly yesterday that they were married—"
For a second time he became aware of the dark, forbidding expression of the woman who towered above him.
"Anything wrong?" he gasped. "Has something happened to Phyllis and her husband?"
With a horrible effort the woman caught hold of herself. Her eyes blazed at him with a slate-blue intensity.
"I don’t want you to talk about them, do you understand? Not a word. I don’t want to hear a word about them."
The old man stirred, his face creasing into a myriad extra lines of bewilderment. "Why, certainly, Mrs. Carmody, if you wish, but my own great-granddaughter—"
He subsided weakly as the woman whipped on Pearl: "If you mention one word of this to Phyllis, I’ll . . . you know what I’ll do to you."
"Oh, sure, ma," Pearl said. "You can trust me, ma."
The woman turned away shaking. For years there had been a dim plan in the back of her mind, to cover just such a possibility as Phyllis wanting to marry someone else.
She twisted her face with distaste and half fear, and brought the ugly thing out of the dark brain corridor where she had kept it hidden.

Her fingers kept trembling as she worked. Once she saw herself in the mirror over the sink—and started back in dismay at the distorted coun­tenance that reflected there.
That steadied her. But the fear stayed, sick surge after sick surge of it. A woman, forty-five, without income, in the depths of the depression. There was Federal relief, of course, but they wouldn’t give that to her till the money was gone. There was old-age pension—twenty-five years away.
She drew a deep breath. Actually, those were meaningless things, utter defeats. Actually, there was only her desperate plan—and that required the fullest co-operation from Bill.
She studied Bill when he came in from the field at lunch. There had been a quietness in him this last year or so that had puzzled her. As if, at twenty, he had suddenly grown up.
He looked like a man; he was strongly built, of medium height with lines of dark passion in his rather heavy face.
That was good, that passion; undoubtedly, he had inherited some of her own troubled ambition—and there was the fact that he had been caught stealing just before they left the city, and released with a warning.
She hadn’t blamed him then, felt only his bitter fury against a world that lashed out so cruelly against boys ruthlessly deprived by fate of spending money.
That was all over, of course. For two years he had been a steady, quiet worker, pulling his full share with the other hired men. Nevertheless—
To get Phyllis, that earlier, harder training would surely rise up once more—and win for all of them.
Slyly, she watched as, out of the corner of his eyes, he took one of his long, measured glances at Phyllis, where she sat across the table slantwise from him. For more than a year now, the woman had observed him look at Phyllis like that—and besides she had asked him, and—
Surely a young man of twenty would fight to get the girl he loved. Fight unscrupulously. The only thing was—
How did a mother tell her son the particular grim plan that was in her mind? Did she . . . she just tell him?
After lunch, while Phyllis and Pearl were washing the dishes, the woman softly followed Bill up to his room. And, actually, it was easier than she had thought.
He lay for a while, after she had finished, staring at the ceiling; his heavy face was quiet almost placid. Finally:
"So the idea is that this evening you take Pearl in to Kempster to a movie; the old man, of course, will sleep like a log. But after Phyllis goes to bed at her usual time, I go into her room—and then she’ll have to marry me."
It was so baldly put that the woman shrank, as if a mirror had been held up to her; and the image was an incredibly evil, ravaged thing. The cool voice went on:
"If I do this it means we’ll be able to stay on the farm, is that right?" She nodded, because no words would come. Then, not daring to stay a moment longer, she turned and left the room.
Slowly, the black mood of that interview passed. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon when she came out onto the veranda; and the old man looked up from his chair, and said:
"Terrible thing," he said, "your sister hanged. They told me at the hotel. Hanged. Terrible, terrible; you’ve been right to have nothing to do with her."
He seemed to forget her, simply sat there staring into space.
The whole thing was utterly unreal, and, after a moment quite un­thinkably fantastic. The woman stared at him with a sudden, calm, grim understanding of the faint smile that was creeping back into his face, a serene smile.
So that was his plan, she thought coolly. The mischievous old scoun­drel intended that Phyllis should not marry Bill. Therefore, knowing his own reputation for prophecy, he had cleverly told her that Phyllis and Charlie Couzens—
That was his purpose. And now he was trying to scare her into doing nothing about it. Hanging indeed. She smiled, her thick face taut with inward anger.
He was clever—but not clever enough.

In the theater she had a curious sense of chattering voices and flickering lights. Too much meaningless talk, too much light.
Her eyes hurt and, afterward, when they came out onto the pale dim­ness of Kempster’s main street, the difference—the greater darkness—was soothing.
She must have said, "Pearl, let’s go in and have a banana split."
She must have said that or agreed to it because after a while they were sitting at a little table; and the ice cream was cold as it went into her mouth; and there was a taste of banana.
Her mind held only a variation of one tense thought: If she and Bill could put this over, the world was won. Nothing thereafter could ever damage them to the same dreadful degree as this could.
"Aw, gee, ma, I’m sleepy. It’s half past eleven."
The woman came to reality with a start. She looked at her watch; and it was true. "Goodness gracious!" she exclaimed with artificial amazement. "I didn’t realize—"
The moon was shining, and the horse anxious to get home. Coming down the great hill, she could see no light anywhere in the house. The buildings loomed silent in the moonlit darkness, like great semi-formless shapes against the transparent background of the land.
She left Pearl to unhitch the animal and, trembling; went into the house. There was a lamp in the kitchen turned very low. She turned it into brightness, but the light didn’t seem to help her feet on the stairs. She kept stumbling, but she reached the top, reached Bill’s door. Ever so softly, she knocked.
No answer.
She opened the door. The pale, yellow light of the lamp poured onto the empty bed—and it was only the sound of Pearl coming into the kitchen downstairs that made her close hastily the door of Bill’s room. Pearl came up, yawning, and disappeared instantly into her own room.

The fat man stopped abruptly as a distant telephone thrummed. He rolled apologetically out of his seat. "I’ll be right back," he said.
“One question,” Kent asked hastily, “What about that prophecy of hanging? I thought Mrs. Carmody was in a madhouse, very much alive."
"She is." The vast bulk of the hotel proprietor filled the door. "We figured out that the old man was definitely tying to put something over."
The minutes dragged. Kent took his notebook and wrote with the elaborate ornateness of vague purpose:

An old man
Who can tell the future
Who caused a woman to murder him
But still lives
Who walks through solid objects
Who reads minds (possibly)

He sat thoughtful, then added to the list:

A senile ghost

For long minutes he stared at the combination. Finally, he laughed ruefully—and simultaneously grew aware of the clicking of pool balls inside.
He stood up, peered through the door—and smiled sardonically as he saw that fat Jenkins was playing a game of snooker with a chunky man of his own age.
Kent shrugged; and, turning, went down the steps. It was obvious that he would have to get the rest of this story piecemeal, here and there over the countryside; obvious, too, that he’d better write Miss Kincaid to send him some books on ghosts and seers, the folklore as well as anything remotely scientific.
He’d need everything he could lay his hands on if he was going to solve the mystery of—the ghost!

The books kept trickling in over a period of four weeks. Miss Kincaid sent ghost stories, compilations of true ghost tales, four books on psychic phenomena, a history of magic, a treatise on astrology and kindred arts, the works of Charles Fort; and, finally, three thin volumes by one J. W. Dunne, on the subject of time.
Kent sat on the veranda in the early morning just after the arrival of the mail that had brought them, and read the three books in one sitting, with an excitement that gathered at every page.
He got up at last, shaky, and half convinced that he had the tremendous answer; and yet—there were things to clear up—
An hour later he was lying in a little wooded dell that overlooked the house and yard, waiting. It was almost time for the—ghost—to come out, if he intended to take his morning walk—
At noon Kent returned to the hotel thinking tensely: The old man must have gone somewhere else today . . . somewhere else—
His mind nearly came out of his head from contemplating that some­where else. The following morning, eight o’clock found him in his little copse, waiting. Again, the old man failed to appear.
The third morning. Kent’s luck was better. Dark, threatening clouds rode the sky as he watch the thin, tall figure move from behind the house and slowly approach the gate. The old man came across the field; Kent showed himself in plenty of time striding along out of the bush as if he, too, was out for a walk.
"Hello, there, Mr. Wainwright," he said.
The old man came closer without answering, and Kent saw that the man was peering at him curiously. The old man stopped.
"Do I know you, young sir?" he asked politely.
For the barest moment Kent was thrown mentally off balance; and then—
"Good heavens!" he thought excitedly, "even this fits. It fits. There had to be a time when he met me."
Aloud, he explained patiently that he was the son of Angus Kent, and that he had come back to the district for a visit. When he had finished the old man said:
"I shall be glad to come to the hotel and talk about your father. It is a pleasure to have met you."
He walked off. The moment he was out of sight, Kent started toward the gate. The first drops of rain fell as he crawled laboriously under the wire. He stood just inside the gate, hesitant. It was important that he get inside the house before the old man, driven by the rain, returned.
The question was, would he have time?
He hurried toward the buildings, glancing over his shoulders every few seconds, expecting to see that long form come into sight.

The house stood quietly under the soft, glinting rain. The weight of the neglectful years lay heavily on its wooden walls. A burst of rain whipped into Kent’s face, and then thudded dully on the wood as he ducked into the shelter of the building.
He stood there waiting for the blast to die down. But, as the seconds passed, and there was no abatement, he peered around the corner and saw the veranda.
He reached the safety it offered; and then, more leisurely, investigated the two boarded windows and the boarded door. They were solid, and, though he had expected it, the reality brought a stab of disappointment.
Getting inside was going to be a tough job.
The rain became a thin splatter; and he went hastily down the steps, and saw that there was an open balcony on the second floor. It was hard work climbing, but the effort proved its worth.
A wide, loose board on one of the two balcony windows came off with a jerk, and made it easy to tear off the rest. Beyond was a window, locked.
Kent did not hesitate. He raised one of the boards and, with a single sharp blow, struck. The glass shattered with a curious, empty tinkling sound.
He was inside. The room was empty, dusty, dark, unfurnished. It led out onto a long, empty hallway, and a line of empty, dark rooms.
Downstairs it was the same; empty rooms, unlived in. The basement was dark, a cemented hole. He fumbled around it hurriedly, lighting matches; and then hurriedly went back to the ground floor. There were some cracks in the boards that covered the downstairs windows and, after locating the likeliest ones, he stationed himself at the one that faced the gate—and waited.
It didn’t take long.
The old man came through the gate, toward the house. Kent shifted to a window at the side of the house, then at the back; and each time the old man came into view after a moment.
Kent raced to the crack he had selected in the veranda window, expecting to see the old man come into sight.
Ten minutes passed; and that tall figure had still to come around the back corner of the house. Slowly, Kent went upstairs, and out onto the balcony.
It was simple hammering the boards back into position, not so simply easing down to the ground.
But he had his fact. Somewhere at the rear of the house the ghost vanished. The problem was—how to prevent that disappearance.
How did one trap the kind of—ghost—that the long-dead Mr. Wain­wright had become?

It was the next day, nearly noon. Kent lay well into the field south of the farmhouse. Earlier, he had watched the old man emerge from the gate, and go past his hiding place along the valley. Now—
Through his field glasses Kent watched the long, straight form coming toward him, toward the farm.
Kent emerged casually from the wood and walked along as if he had not seen the other. He was wondering just what his verbal approach should be when the old man hailed him:
"Hello there, Mr. Kent. Out for a walk?"
Kent turned and waited for the aged man to come up to him. He said: "I was just going to go in to Mrs. Carmody, and ask for a drink of water, before heading on to the hotel. If you don’t mind, I’ll walk with you."
"Not at all, sir," said the old man.
They walked along, Kent consciously more erect as he tried to match that superb straightness of body. His mind was seething. What would happen at the gate? Somewhere along here the old man’s body would become less substantial, but—
He couldn’t hold the thought. Besides, he’d better start laying his groundwork. He said tautly:
"The farm looks rather deserted from here, does it not, Mr. Wainwright?"
Amazingly, the old man gulped; he said almost swiftly: "Have you noticed it, too, Mr. Kent? I have long thought it an illusion on my part, and I have felt rather uneasy about my vision. I have found that the peculiar desolated appearance vanishes as soon as I pass through the gate."
So it was the gate where the change began— He jerked his soaring thought back to earth, listened as the old man said in evident relief:
"I am glad that we both share this illusion, Mr. Kent. It has had me worried."
Kent hesitated, and then very carefully took his field glasses out of their case; and handed than to the old man.
"Try a look through these," he said casually. "Perhaps they will help to break the illusion."
The moment he had given the instrument over, compunction came, a hard, bright pity for the incredible situation he was forcing.
Compunction passed; pity yielded to an almost desperate curiosity. From narrowed eyes he stared at that lined face as the man’s thin, bony hands held the glasses up to his face and slowly adjusted the lens.
There was a harsh gasp; and Kent, who had expected it, leaped forward and caught the glasses as they fell toward the ground.
"Why," the old man was quavering, "it’s impossible. Windows boarded up, and"—a wild suspicion leaped into his eyes—"has Mrs. Carmody gone so swiftly?"
"What’s wrong, sir?" Kent said, and felt like a villain. But—he couldn’t let this go now.
The old man was shaking his head. "I must be mad. My eyes . . . my mind . . . not what they used to be—"
"Let’s go over," Kent suggested. "I’ll get my drink and we’ll see what’s wrong."
It was important that the old man retain in his wandering mind that he had a companion. The patriarch straightened, said quietly:
"By all means, you shall have your drink, Mr. Kent."

Kent had a sick feeling as he walked beside that tall form across the road to the gate, the empty feeling that he had meddled in human trag­edy.
He watched, almost ill with his victory, as the trembling nonagenarian fumbled futilely with the padlocked gate.
He thought, his mind as tight as a drum: For perhaps the first time since this strange, strange phenomena had started, the old man had failed to walk through the gate.
"I don’t understand it!" the old man said. "This gate locked—why, this very morning, I—"
Kent had been unwinding the wire that held the large gate. "Let’s go in here," he said gently.
The dismay of the old man was so pitiful it was dreadful. He stopped and peered at the weeds. Incredulously, he felt the black old wood that was nailed, board on board of it, over one of the windows. His high shoulders began to sag. A haunted expression crept into his face. Paradoxically, he looked suddenly old.
He climbed the faded veranda steps with the weariness of unutterable age. And then—
The flashing, terrible realization of the truth struck at Kent in that last instant, as the old man stepped timidly, almost blindly, toward the nailed door.
"Wait!” He shrilled, "Wait!"
His piercing voice died. Where the old man had been was—nothing­ness.
A thin wind howled with brief mournfulness around the house, rat­tling the eaves.
He stood alone on that faded, long-unused veranda. Alone with the comprehension that had, in one dreadful kaleidoscope of mind picture, suddenly cleared up—everything.
And dominating everything else, was the dreadful fear that he would be too late.

He was running, his breath coming in great gulps. A tiny wind caught the dust that his shoes kicked up from the soft roadbed, and whipped it in little, unpleasant gusts around his nostrils.
The vague thought came that it was lucky he had done so much walking the past month; for the exercise had added just enough strength to bring the long, lone mile and a half to the hotel within his powers—
A tangy, unpleasant taste of salt was in his mouth as he staggered up the steps. Inside, he was blurrily aware of the man, Tom, staring at him across the counter. Kent grasped:
"I’ll give you five dollars if you can pack my things and get me to Kempster in time to catch the twelve-o’clock train. And tell me how to get to the insane asylum at Peerton. For Heaven’s sake, make it fast."
The man goggled. "I had the maid pack your things right after break­fast, Mr. Kent. Don’t you remember, this is August 17th."
Kent glared at him with a blank horror. That prophecy came true. Then what about the other, more awful one—
On the way to Kempster he was vaguely aware of the driver speaking, something about Peerton being a large town, and he’d be able to get a taxi at the station—
From the taxi the asylum showed as a series of long, white buildings, a green, tree-filled enclosure, surrounded by a high iron fence. He was led through an endless, quiet corridor; his mind kept straining past the sedate, white-clothed woman ahead of him. Couldn’t she realize this was life and death?
The doctor sat in a little, bright cozy room. He stood up politely as Kent entered, but Kent waited only for the woman to close the door as she went out.
"Sir, you have a woman here named Mrs. Carmody." He paused a fraction of a second to let the name sink in, then rushed on "Never mind if you can’t remember her name. It’s true."
The fine, strong face of the white-haired doctor cleared. "I remember the case."
"Look," said Kent desperately. "I’ve just found out the truth about that whole affair; and this is what you’ve got to do—at once:
"Take me to the woman, and I’ll assure her, and you assure her, that she has been found innocent, and will be freed. Do you understand?"
"I think," said the doctor quietly, "that you had better begin at the beginning."
Kent had a frantic sense of walls rising up between him and his pur­pose. "For Heaven’s sake, sir, believe me, there’s no time. I don’t know just how it is supposed to happen, but the prediction that she would be hanged can only come true in—"
"Now, Mr. Kent, I would appreciate—"
"Don’t you understand?" Kent yelled. "If that prophecy is not to be fulfilled, you must act. I tell you I have information that will release this woman. And, therefore, the next few minutes are the vital ones."
He stopped because the man was frowning at him. The doctor said: "Really, Mr. Kent, you will have to calm down. I am sure everything will be all right."
The strained wonder came to Kent, if all sane, becalmed people seemed as maddening as this quiet-spoken doctor.
He thought shakily: "He’d better be careful or they’d be keeping him in here with the rest of the lunatics."

He began to speak, to tell what he’d heard and seen and done. The man kept interrupting him with incisive questions; and, after a while, it came to Kent, that he would actually have to begin at the beginning to fill in the gaps of this fellow’s knowledge.
He stopped, sat shaky for a moment, struggling to clear his brain, and then with a tense quietness, began again.
He found himself, as the minutes dragged, listening to his own voice. Every time his words speeded up or rose in crescendo, he would deliberately slow down and articulate every syllable. He reached the point where the Dunne books came into the story, and—
His mind paused in a wild dismay: Good heavens, would he have to explain the Dunne theory of time with its emphasis on time as a state of mind. The rest was unimportant, but that part—
He grew aware that the doctor was speaking, saying: "I’ve read several volumes by Mr. Dunne. I’m afraid I cannot accept his theory of multidimensional time. I—"
"Listen," said Kent in a tight voice, "picture an old man in his dotage. It’s a queer, incoherent mind-world he lives in; strange, frequently unassociated ideas are the normal condition; memory, particularly memory, is unutterably mixed up. And it is in that confused environment that somehow once a variation of the Dunne phenomena operated.
"An old man whose time sense has been distorted by the ravages of senility, an old man who walks as easily into the future as you and I walk Into the next room."
"What!"
The doctor was on his feet, pacing the rugged floor. He stared at Kent finally.
"Mr. Kent, this is a most extraordinary idea. But still I fail to see why Mrs. Carmody—"
Kent groaned, then with a terrible effort pulled himself together. "Do you remember the murder scene?"
"Vaguely. A domestic tragedy, I believe."
"Listen. Mrs. Carmody woke up the morning after she thought she’d made everything right for herself and her family, and found a note on her dressing table. It had been lying there all night, and it was from her son, Bill.
"In it, he said he couldn’t go through with her plan. Besides, he didn’t like the farm, so he was going immediately to the city—and in fact he walked to Kempster and caught the train while she was in the theater.
"Among other things, he said in his note that a few days before the old man had acted surprised at seeing him, Bill, still around. The old man talked as if he thought Bill had gone to the city—"

That was what kept stabbing into the woman’s mind. The old man, the interfering old man—
He had, in effect, told Bill that he, Bill, had gone to the city, and so in a crisis Bill had gone.
Gone, gone, gone—and all hope with him. Phyllis would marry Charlie Couzens; and what then? What would become of a poor, miserable woman of forty-five?
The old man, she thought, as she went down the stairs from her room, the old man planned it all. Fiendish old man! First, telling Bill about the city, then suggesting who Phyllis was to marry, then trying to scare her with that hanging—
Hanging—
The woman stopped short in the downstairs hallway, her blue eyes stark, a strange, burning sensation in her brain. Why—
If all the rest came true, then—hanging!
Her mind whirled madly. She crouched for moment like an animal at bay, cunning in her eyes. They couldn’t hang you unless you murdered someone, and—
She’d see that she didn’t pull anything so stupid.
She couldn’t remember eating breakfast. But there was a memory of her voice asking monotonously:
"Where’s Mr. ’Wainwright?"
"He’s gone for a walk, ma. Hey, ma, are you ill?"
Ill! Who asked a silly question like that. It was the old man who’d be ill when she got through with him
There was a memory, too, of washing the dishes, but after that a strange, dark gap, a living, evil night flooding her mind . . . gone . . . hope . . . Bill . . . damned old man—
She was standing at the screen door for the hundredth time, peering malignantly at the corner of the house where the old man would come into sight—when it happened.
There was the screen door and the deserted veranda. That was one instant. The next, the old man materialized out of the thin air two feet away. He opened the screen door, and then half fell against the door, and slowly crumbled to the ground, writhing, as the woman screamed at him, meaningless words—

"That was her story," Kent said wearily, "that the old man simply fell dead. But the doctor who came testified that Mr. Wainwright died of choking, and besides, in her hysteria, Mrs. Carmody told everything about herself, and the various facts taken together combined to discredit her story."
Kent paused, then finished in a queer voice: "It is medically recognized, I believe, that very old people can choke themselves to death by swallowing saliva the wrong way, or by a paralysis of the throat produced by shock—"
"Shock!" The doctor sank back into his chair from which he had half risen. "Man!" he gasped, "are you trying to tell me that your interference with the old man that day caused his abrupt appearance before Mrs. Carmody, and that it was the shock of what he had himself gone through that—"
"I’m trying to tell you," said Kent, "that we’ve got minutes to prevent this woman from hanging herself. It could only happen if she did do it with her own hands; and it could only happen today, for if we can get there in time to tell her, why, she’ll have no incentive. Will you come . . . for Heaven’s sake, man—"
The doctor said: "But the prophecy. If this old man actually had this incredible power, how can we hope to circumvent the inevitable?"
"Look!" said Kent, "I influenced the past by an act from the future. Surely, I can change the future by—but come along!"

He couldn’t take his eyes off the woman. She sat there in her bright little room, and she was still smiling, as she had been when they first came in, a little more uncertainly now, as the doctor talked.
"You mean," she said finally, "that I am to be freed, that you’re going to write my children, and they’ll come and get me."
"Absolutely!" Kent spoke heartily, but with just the faintest bit of puzzlement in his voice. "I understand your son, Bill, is working in a machine factory, and that he’s married now, and that your daughter is a stenographer for the same company."
"Yes, that’s true." She spoke quietly—
Afterward, while the doctor’s maid was serving Kent a warmed-up lunch, he said frowningly: "I can’t understand it. I ought to feel that everything is cleared up. Her children have small jobs, the girl Phyllis is married to that Couzens chap, and is living in his family home. As for Mrs. Carmody—and this is what gets me—I had no impression that she was in danger of hanging herself. She was cheerful; she had her room fixed with dozens of little fancily sewed things and—"
The doctor said: "The records show that she’s been no trouble while she’s been here. She’s been granted special privileges; she does a lot of sewing— What’s the matter?"
Kent wondered grimly if he looked as wild as the thought that had surged into his mind. "Doctor!" he gasped, "there’s a psychological angle here that I forgot completely."
He was on his feet. "Doctor, we’ve got to get to that woman again, tell her she can stay here, tell her—"
There was the sound of a door opening violently, then running footsteps. A man in uniform burst in.
"Doctor, there’s a woman just hanged herself, a Mrs. Carmody. She cut her dress into strips and, using the light fixture—"
They had already cut her down when Kent and the doctor arrived. She lay stiff in death, a dark, heavily built woman. A faint smile was fixed on her rigid lips—Kent was aware of the doctor whispering to him:
"No one’s to blame, of course. How could we sane people remember that the greatest obsession in her life was security, and that here in this asylum was that security she craved."
Kent scarcely heard. He felt curiously cold; the room seemed remote. In his mind’s eye he could see the Wainwright house, empty, nailed-up; and yet for years an old, old man would come out of it and wander over the land before he, too, sank forever into the death that long ago struck him down.
The time would come when the—ghost—would walk no more.

THE END


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Footnotes

[1with the stories The Sea Thing (1940) and The Witch (1943), and the novel Ptath (1943).

[2this large, 130-page, A4-format issue contained articles by a number of well-known writers other than van Vogt, who had only started writing science-fiction three years earlier, in 1939: Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Malcolm Jameson, L. Sprague de Camp, Frank Belknap Long, and Lester del Ray.

[3van Vogt emigrated from Toronto to Los Angeles two years later, in 1944.