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The Face at the Window


He had gone down at Christmas, where our host
Had opened up his house on the Maine coast,
For the week's holidays, and we were all,
On Christmas night, sitting in the great hall,
About the corner fireplace, while we told
Stories like those that people, young and old,
Have told at Christmas firesides from the first,
Till one who crouched upon the hearth, and nursed
His knees in his claspt arms, threw back his head,
And fixed our host with laughing eyes, and said,
"This is so good, here—with your hickory logs
Blazing like natural-gas ones on the dogs,
And sending out their flicker on the wall
And rafters of your mock-baronial hall,
All in fumed-oak, and on your polished floor,
And the steel-studded panels of your door—
I think you owe the general make-believe
Some sort of story that will somehow give
A more ideal completeness to our case,
And make each several listener in his place—
Or hers—sit up, with a real goose-flesh creeping
All over him—or her—in proper keeping
With the locality and hour and mood.
Come!" And amid the cries of "Yes!" and "Good!"
Our host laughed back; then, with a serious air,
Looked around him on our hemicycle, where
He sat midway of it. "Why," he began,
But interrupted by the other man,
He paused for him to say: "Nothing remote,
But something with the actual Yankee note
Of here and now in it!" "I'll do my best,"
Our host replied, "to satisfy a guest.
What do you say to Barberry Cove? And would
Five years be too long past?" "No, both are good.
Go on!" "You noticed that big house to-day
Close to the water, and the sloop that lay,
Stripped for the winter, there, beside the pier?
Well, there she has lain just so, year after year;
And she will never leave her pier again;
But once, each spring she sailed in sun or rain,
For Bay Chaleur—or Bay Shaloor, as they
Like better to pronounce it down this way."

"I like Shaloor myself rather the best.
But go ahead," said the exacting guest.
And with a glance around at us that said,
"Don't let me bore you!" our host went ahead.


"Captain Gilroy built the big house, and he
Still lives there with his aging family.
He built the sloop, and when he used to come
Back from the Banks he made her more his home,
With his two boys, than the big house. The two
Counted with him a good half of her crew,
Until it happened, on the Banks, one day
The oldest boy got in a steamer's way,
And went down in his dory. In the fall
The others came without him. That was all
That showed in either one of them except
That now the father and the brother slept
Ashore, and not on board. When the spring came
They sailed for the old fishing-ground the same
As ever. Yet, not quite the same. The brother,
If you believed what folks say, kissed his mother
Good-by in going; and by general rumor,
The father, so far yielding as to humor
His daughters' weakness, rubbed his stubbly cheek
Against their lips. Neither of them would speak,
But the dumb passion of their love and grief
In so much show at parting found relief.


"The weeks passed and the months. Sometimes they heard
At home, by letter, from the sloop, or word
Of hearsay from the fleet. But by and by
Along about the middle of July,
A time in which they had no news began,
And holding unbrokenly through August, ran
Into September. Then, one afternoon,
While the world hung between the sun and moon,
And while the mother and her girls were sitting
Together with their sewing and their knitting,—
Before the early-coming evening's gloom
Had gathered round them in the living-room,
Helplessly wondering to each other when
They should hear something from their absent men,—
They saw, all three, against the window-pane,
A face that came and went, and came again,
Three times, as though for each of them, about
As high up from the porch's floor without
As a man's head would be that stooped to stare
Into the room on their own level there.
Its eyes dwelt on them wistfully as if
Longing to speak with the dumb lips some grief
They could not speak. The women did not start
Or scream, though each one of them, in her heart,
Knew she was looking on no living face,
But stared, as dumb as it did, in her place."


Here our host paused, and one sigh broke from all
Our circle whom his tale had held in thrall.
But he who had required it of him spoke
In what we others felt an ill-timed joke:
"Well, this is something like!" A girl said, "Don't!"
As if it hurt, and he said, "Well, I won't.
Go on!" And in a sort of muse our host
Said: "I suppose we all expect a ghost
Will sometimes come to us. But I doubt if we
Are moved by its coming as we thought to be.
At any rate, the women were not scared,
But, as I said, they simply sat and stared
Till the face vanished. Then the mother said,
'It was your father, girls, and he is dead.'
But both had known him; and now all went on
Much as before till three weeks more were gone,
When, one night sitting as they sat before,
Together with their mother, at the door
They heard a fumbling hand, and on the walk
Up from the pier, the tramp and muffled talk
Of different wind-blown voices that they knew
For the hoarse voices of their father's crew.
Then the door opened, and their father stood
Before them, palpably in flesh and blood.
The mother spoke for all, her own misgiving:
'Father, is this your ghost? Or are you living?'
'I am alive!' 'But in this very place
We saw your face look, like a spirit's face,
There through that window, just three weeks ago,
And now you are alive!' 'I did not know
That I had come; all I know is that then
I wanted to tell you folks here that our Ben
Was dying of typhoid fever. He raved of you
So that I could not think what else to do.
He's there in Bay Shaloor!'


"Well, that's the end."
And rising up to mend the fire our friend
Seemed trying to shun comment; but in vain:
The exacting guest came at him once again;
"You must be going to fall down, I thought,
There at the climax, when your story brought
The skipper home alive and well. But no,
You saved yourself with honor." The girl said, "Oh,"
Who spoke before, "it's wonderful! But you,
How could you think of anything so true,
So delicate, as the father's wistful face
Coming there at the window in the place
Of the dead son's! And then, that quaintest touch,
Of half-apology—that he felt so much,
He had to come! How perfectly New England! Well,
I hope nobody will undertake to tell
A common or garden ghost-story to-night."


Our host had turned again, and at her light
And playful sympathy he said, "My dear,
I hope that no one will imagine here
I have been inventing in the tale that's done.
My little story's charm if it has one
Is from no skill of mine. One does not change
The course of fable from its wonted range
To such effect as I have seemed to do:
Only the fact could make my story true."

William Dean Howells