For Halloween, I’m posting a ghost story that is told in my recent novel Spirit of the North: a paranormal romance. It’s a story within a story, and is told by Mr. Whitman at the Whitmans’ boarding house to the novel’s main characters Adele and Barbara Traugott:
“Why, Pa!” Edna then perked up. “I had forgotten it was Halloween. You should tell us one of your ghost stories.”
“Oh no, your mother wouldn’t like that,” he replied.
Mr. Whitman raised his eyebrows to suggest Edna should be helping her mother, but she said, “Mother told me to come in here and entertain the Miss Traugotts, but your stories are far more entertaining than my conversation, and it is Halloween, Pa.”
“Very well,” he said. He had filled his pipe with tobacco as his daughter spoke. Now he lit it, took a good puff, and exhaled enough smoke to raise a sinister fog along the New England coast where his tale took place.
“Now this story,” he began, “was told to me by my Grandfather Whitman when I was young. It dates back to the beginning of this century, and every word of it is true. It concerns a young man named Enoch, and Sabrina, the pretty young girl who had the misfortune to love him. They had grown up in the same little seaside town—known each other since birth in fact, and gone to school together—and when they came of age, they fell in love, and there was talk of their marrying.
“Now Enoch was by no means a handsome boy, and he was not strong or athletic like most of the other young men, but he had a tall figure that stood out in a crowd, and his hard features suggested a determination not really there. Some say he had a little scar over his lip where his older brother had once struck him with a rock when he was a boy—I don’t know whether that’s true or not, since I was not there, but what is true—and you can verify this in the town’s records—is that his older brother went missing for several days, and when his body was found, it was lying on some rocks along a cliff above the sea. The townsfolk whispered that Enoch had murdered his brother to get revenge for that scar, but it’s just as likely his brother’s death was an accident and no fault of Enoch’s.
“Sabrina paid no heed to any ill rumors about the young man. She had her heart set on Enoch, and he had his heart set on her, and none of their parents was opposed to the match. But that spring, Enoch’s mother and father both died of the diphtheria, and then that summer, a terrible drought struck. Now Enoch had been raised a farmer, but his father had done all the hard work on the farm, and with his parents no longer there to keep a steady eye on him, he did not care for the crops as he should. The long and the short of it is that his crops failed, and ultimately, he knew he could not make a go of the farm. Plenty of other farmers had a hard time that year, but they struggled and got by, while the determination that appeared on Enoch’s brow did not compensate for the weakness of his character and his lack of backbone. Finally, he confessed to Sabrina that he wanted nothing to do with hard dirty work like farming, so he was going to sell the farm and seek his fortune elsewhere.
“Sabrina’s parents were beside themselves with dread when they heard this, for they did not know how Enoch would support their daughter. They had two sons of their own who were to split the farm between them, so Sabrina was expected to find a husband to care for her. When her parents considered breaking off the engagement, Sabrina flew into a fury, declaring if she could not marry Enoch, she would marry no man but throw herself off the same cliff that had caused the death of Enoch’s brother so the ocean would swallow her body for all time.
“As you can imagine, Sabrina’s parents were frightened by her outburst, for they truly believed their daughter meant to destroy herself if they did not let her wed Enoch. They told themselves the boy was young and foolish, but he came from a good family, and in time, he would settle down; they would do what they could for the young couple in the meantime.
“And so one day in early spring, Sabrina and Enoch were married, and a few weeks later, he went off to sea. He promised Sabrina he would make his fortune and come home with enough money to buy ten farms, or better yet, they might start up a tavern in the town, or even their own shipping business. Sabrina, because of the great love she bore for Enoch, allowed her soul to be fed on such dreams, while her parents worried their daughter and her unsteady husband would starve after they had gone to their reward.
“Well, Enoch’s ship sailed off—out to the South Seas it was. The summer and the autumn passed and then the winter came. An entire year went by, and in that time, not one letter came home from Enoch. You can imagine Sabrina’s anxiety and excitement when the ship finally sailed back into the harbor, but I don’t think any of us can imagine her disappointment when all the other sailors disembarked from the ship, yet no Enoch appeared.
“One young man on the ship was a couple of years older than Enoch and had known him since their schooldays. When Enoch’s brother had died, this young man had taken it upon himself to look after Enoch; it was said when one of the other boys at school had called Enoch a murderer because of his dead brother, this older boy had thrashed the accuser so hard no one else ever dared whisper such a rumor again. This young man was the last to come off the ship that day, and when he saw Sabrina standing on the dock, her eyes welling up with tears, he hated to be the one to tell her, but he felt it was his duty.
“‘Enoch decided to leave us,’ he told Sabrina, ‘in a foreign port’—I forget the name of it now—‘he…’ and then the man paused, trying to find words to soften the blow, but Sabrina could not bear the silence, and suddenly, everyone on the dock heard her shout out, ‘Why? Why? Where’s my Enoch?’
“So the young man quickly put his arm around her and led her from the crowd, and then to calm her, he said, ‘Enoch has great prospects. He believes he can make his fortune in that place, and—’
“‘How?’ she demanded, for in her heart, Sabrina had begun to doubt Enoch’s fidelity.
“‘He has a plan,’ said the young man. ‘He thought he’d start up a plantation there—pineapples and bananas—and he’ll make a great deal of money. He’s just starting out now, so he told me to give you all his love, and to ask you to be patient. He’s going to send for you to come to him just as soon as he can. He kept asking me to tell you that he loves you very much.’
“Sabrina tried to find comfort in these words. She let the young man walk her home to her parents’ house, and there he told the same story again, and her family politely thanked him and then let him go home to his own folks.
“But Sabrina’s family was not pleased. ‘Who does Enoch think he is to expect our sister to live in the wild with him?’ and ‘I don’t believe any of it—it’s all lies,’ said her brothers, and her mother confessed, ‘I always did fear that boy would come to no good.’ But her father only put his arm around Sabrina and consoled her by saying, ‘We can’t say whether his plans are right or wrong until we know more. We’ll just have to wait for word from him.’
“They waited all that next spring, and that summer, and into the autumn, and when winter came again, and they knew no word could reach them in those months because of the storms at sea, all their spirits fell, and in her heart, Sabrina began to doubt Enoch would return—she feared he might have died—that’s what she told herself—that’s what she almost hoped had happened, for the other possibility would have been just too much for her to bear.
“Now the other sailors who had been on Enoch’s ship had gone out again that spring, but when the next winter came and ice froze along the shores so it was not safe for ships to sail, the sailors had nothing better to do but drink in the tavern, drink and talk, and the drink loosened their tongues so that they said things perhaps they should not have. That’s when it came out—rumors that Enoch had gone native. When Sabrina’s brothers heard these stories, they feared they must be true because Enoch’s friend would have spoken out against such rumors if they were not, and soon Enoch’s friend quit coming to the tavern, ashamed perhaps to have been friends with such a one as Enoch.”
“What do you mean by ‘gone native’?” Adele interrupted Mr. Whitman.
“Well,” giggled Mr. Whitman. “I don’t know whether I should say in front of young ladies—but I guess I mean he went to live with the natives and follow their ways.”
“You mean with the savages?” asked one of the shopgirls.
“I don’t know whether they were savages or not,” said Mr. Whitman, “but the rumors were that he had gone to live among them, and some even said that he had taken a woman from among them.”
“Oh my!” said Adele.
My sense of propriety at that moment made me want to get up and leave the room; I would have expected Mr. Whitman to have a better sense of decorum, but I also perversely found myself wanting to know what had happened to the poor Sabrina.
“The brothers kept all these rumors from their sister,” Mr. Whitman said, “but I imagine some of the sailors told their own wives and fiancées, and you know how women talk, and so I’m sure if these rumors never actually reached Sabrina’s ears, she sensed the rest of the town knew Enoch had done something disgraceful, and her heart broke over it.
“The years passed, and Sabrina’s parents died. Her brothers married and started families of their own, and they prospered enough to build their own homes while Sabrina continued to live alone in her parents’ house. Her brothers begged her to come live with them, but she refused. She could no longer find joy in human companionship. Her house was near the ocean, and so she had a widow’s walk built upon the roof, and they say in the evenings at dusk, she could be seen pacing about there; sometimes she would walk the entire night while the rest of the town slept, for she craved no human company save that of her Enoch, and he was absent. Those children who dared creep near the house at night to catch a glimpse of the mysterious solitary woman said they heard her weeping and begging God to bring back her lover. That is when the story began to grow truly strange.
“The young man who had been Enoch’s friend had grown to love Sabrina, perhaps out of compassion for her pain, perhaps because he had always loved her, but he had been too loyal a friend to Enoch to speak earlier. Finally, he went to Sabrina and explained to her how unlikely it was that Enoch would ever return, that enough time had passed to presume Enoch was dead, and that if Sabrina would have him, he would be honored to marry her and care for her the rest of their days.
“Sabrina thanked him, but she refused his offer. She continued to live in that house alone, and after a few years, the young man gave up waiting for her and married another. He became a good husband and father, but the townsfolk whispered it was always Sabrina whom he truly loved.
“And then one night, many years after the day Enoch had sailed away, when Sabrina’s beauty had begun to fade, and she had shut herself up so that scarcely anyone ever saw her, the townsfolk heard a piercing scream coming from her house. When they ran and knocked on her door, there was no answer, but the screaming continued until finally, Sabrina’s brothers broke in through a window and went upstairs. They found their sister sitting up in bed, her hair turned gray overnight, her face pale with horror, blood soaking through all her bed sheets. She stood staring out the window, shrieking so that her brothers could barely stand it, and it took them several minutes before they could shake her enough to bring her to her senses.
“Some said she had tried to kill herself—to slit her wrists—though her brothers refused to let a doctor see her. I don’t know why they didn’t send for the doctor, but people say it was because they were afraid to know the truth about what had happened to her; others say she had not hurt herself, for there was a woman who came to clean for her, and she told everyone she had seen no scars on Sabrina’s wrists the next day.
“I hesitate to mention this part, but Sabrina was clearly mad after that night, such that her brothers ordered her tied to her bed so she would not hurt herself, and often she would thrash about in the bed, screaming out Enoch’s name. Most frightening of all, some say she went mad because her prayers had been answered—that Enoch had returned to her—only it was not the flesh and blood Enoch, but his ghost—come back to claim his wife in their bed.
“Really, Father!” said Edna, but I could see a smirk of pleasure on her face.
“Now, I’m only repeating the story the way my grandfather told it to me, and whether it is true, who is to say,” Mr. Whitman replied. “Anyway, after that, Sabrina grew weaker and weaker, and though she thrashed about in the bed for several more nights, soon she wasted away until she died before the year was out.
“Her brothers boarded up the house after she died, for they could not bear to go near it, their pain was so great, and they were too sentimental to sell or tear down their childhood home.
“And it is still said that to this day, Sabrina’s steps can be heard at night, pacing up and down the widow’s walk, and sometimes, a scream is heard in the night, and while some say it is just the wind during a storm at sea, no one can prove that it is not Sabrina, crying for her demon lover.”
Everyone was silent after Mr. Whitman finished his tale. I thought it completely distasteful and wanted to go upstairs to bed all the more now except that Mrs. Whitman had still not come in with the pie and coffee.
After a couple of minutes, Edna said, “It’s such a sad story.”
“Rather freakish,” laughed Mr. Wainscott. “I mean, especially that a dead man would come back to torture his wife like that.”
“I don’t believe it would have happened that way,” Adele said. “I can believe part of it—that Enoch might have come back to her, or that her ghost haunts the house because she still longs for him—I believe people can love like that, but I don’t believe he would return as her demon lover. If anything, I think he would have come back, repentant for deserting her, and if she saw his ghost, it would only show how great love is, that whatever our sins, we can make peace with one another after death.”
“What a romantic idea,” Edna said. “It’s like something out of a Brontë novel.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to say the whole story was ridiculous when Mrs. Whitman appeared with the coffee. She handed me my cup first, then gave a cup to one of the shopgirls, who rather than thanking her, said, “Mr. Whitman has been frightening us with ghost stories, so it won’t be the coffee that keeps me awake tonight.”
“Nathaniel, you and your ghosts,” Mrs. Whitman frowned.
“What? It’s Halloween after all,” he said.
“That any Christian man would find pleasure on the devil’s day,” his wife scolded. “And these poor young ladies mourning their uncle—you’ll have them so frightened they won’t dare go live in the woods, though perhaps that would be a good thing.”
“It really wasn’t that frightening,” Adele said. “It was more of a love story.”
“Well, I don’t know whether that makes it any better or any more true,” Mrs. Whitman replied. “Those love stories are all make-believe and can do a great deal of harm.”
For more about Spirit of the North: a paranormal romance, visit www.MarquetteFiction.com