Colonel Ashley Hampton chewed his cigar and forced himself to relax, his glance slowly traversing the room, lingering on the mosaic of book-spines in the tall cases, the sunlight splashed on the faded pastel colors of the carpet, the soft-tinted autumn landscape outside the French windows, the trophies of Indian and Filipino and German weapons on the walls. He could easily feign relaxation here in the library of “Greyrock,” as long as he looked only at these familiar inanimate things and avoided the five people gathered in the room with him, for all of them were enemies.
There was his nephew, Stephen Hampton, greying at the temples but youthfully dressed in sports-clothes, leaning with obvious if slightly premature proprietorship against the fireplace, a whiskey-and-soda in his hand. There was Myra, Stephen’s smart, sophisticated-looking blonde wife, reclining in a chair beside the desk. For these two, he felt an implacable hatred. The others were no less enemies, perhaps more dangerous enemies, but they were only the tools of Stephen and Myra. For instance, T. Barnwell Powell, prim and self-satisfied, sitting on the edge of his chair and clutching the briefcase on his lap as though it were a restless pet which might attempt to escape. He was an honest man, as lawyers went; painfully ethical. No doubt he had convinced himself that his clients were acting from the noblest and most disinterested motives. And Doctor Alexis Vehrner, with his Vandyke beard and his Viennese accent as phony as a Soviet-controlled election, who had preempted the chair at Colonel Hampton’s desk. That rankled the old soldier, but Doctor Vehrner would want to assume the position which would give him appearance of commanding the situation, and he probably felt that Colonel Hampton was no longer the master of “Greyrock.” The fifth, a Neanderthal type in a white jacket, was Doctor Vehrner’s attendant and bodyguard; he could be ignored, like an enlisted man unthinkingly obeying the orders of a superior.
“But you are not cooperating, Colonel Hampton,” the psychiatrist complained. “How can I help you if you do not cooperate?”
Colonel Hampton took the cigar from his mouth. His white mustache, tinged a faint yellow by habitual smoking, twitched angrily.
“Oh; you call it helping me, do you?” he asked acidly.
“But why else am I here?” the doctor parried.
“You’re here because my loving nephew and his charming wife can’t wait to see me buried in the family cemetery; they want to bury me alive in that private Bedlam of yours,” Colonel Hampton replied.
“See!” Myra Hampton turned to the psychiatrist. “We are persecuting him! We are all envious of him! We are plotting against him!”
“Of course; this sullen and suspicious silence is a common paranoid symptom; one often finds such symptoms in cases of senile dementia,” Doctor Vehrner agreed.
Colonel Hampton snorted contemptuously. Senile dementia! Well, he must have been senile and demented, to bring this pair of snakes into his home, because he felt an obligation to his dead brother’s memory. And he’d willed “Greyrock,” and his money, and everything, to Stephen. Only Myra couldn’t wait till he died; she’d Lady-Macbethed her husband into this insanity accusation.
“ ... however, I must fully satisfy myself, before I can sign the commitment,” the psychiatrist was saying. “After all, the patient is a man of advanced age. Seventy-eight, to be exact.”
Seventy-eight; almost eighty. Colonel Hampton could hardly realize that he had been around so long. He had been a little boy, playing soldiers. He had been a young man, breaking the family tradition of Harvard and wangling an appointment to West Point. He had been a new second lieutenant at a little post in Wyoming, in the last dying flicker of the Indian Wars. He had been a first lieutenant, trying to make soldiers of militiamen and hoping for orders to Cuba before the Spaniards gave up. He had been the hard-bitten captain of a hard-bitten company, fighting Moros in the jungles of Mindanao. Then, through the early years of the Twentieth Century, after his father’s death, he had been that rara avis in the American service, a really wealthy professional officer. He had played polo, and served a turn as military attache at the Paris embassy. He had commanded a regiment in France in 1918, and in the post-war years, had rounded out his service in command of a regiment of Negro cavalry, before retiring to “Greyrock.” Too old for active service, or even a desk at the Pentagon, he had drilled a Home Guard company of 4-Fs and boys and paunchy middle-agers through the Second World War. Then he had been an old man, sitting alone in the sunlight ... until a wonderful thing had happened.
“Get him to tell you about this invisible playmate of his,” Stephen suggested. “If that won’t satisfy you, I don’t know what will.”
It had begun a year ago last June. He had been sitting on a bench on the east lawn, watching a kitten playing with a crumpled bit of paper on the walk, circling warily around it as though it were some living prey, stalking cautiously, pouncing and striking the paper ball with a paw and then pursuing it madly. The kitten, whose name was Smokeball, was a friend of his; soon she would tire of her game and jump up beside him to be petted.
Then suddenly, he seemed to hear a girl’s voice beside him:
“Oh, what a darling little cat! What’s its name?”
“Smokeball,” he said, without thinking. “She’s about the color of a shrapnel-burst...” Then he stopped short, looking about. There was nobody in sight, and he realized that the voice had been inside his head rather than in his ear.
“What the devil?” he asked himself. “Am I going nuts?”
There was a happy little laugh inside of him, like bubbles rising in a glass of champagne.
“Oh, no; I’m really here,” the voice, inaudible but mentally present, assured him. “You can’t see me, or touch me, or even really hear me, but I’m not something you just imagined. I’m just as real as ... as Smokeball, there. Only I’m a different kind of reality. Watch.”
The voice stopped, and something that had seemed to be close to him left him. Immediately, the kitten stopped playing with the crumpled paper and cocked her head to one side, staring fixedly as at something above her. He’d seen cats do that before--stare wide-eyed and entranced, as though at something wonderful which was hidden from human eyes. Then, still looking up and to the side, Smokeball trotted over and jumped onto his lap, but even as he stroked her, she was looking at an invisible something beside him. At the same time, he had a warm and pleasant feeling, as of a happy and affectionate presence near him.
“No,” he said, slowly and judicially. “That’s not just my imagination. But who--or what--are you?”
“I’m ... Oh, I don’t know how to think it so that you’ll understand.” The voice inside his head seemed baffled, like a physicist trying to explain atomic energy to a Hottentot. “I’m not material. If you can imagine a mind that doesn’t need a brain to think with ... Oh, I can’t explain it now! But when I’m talking to you, like this, I’m really thinking inside your brain, along with your own mind, and you hear the words without there being any sound. And you just don’t know any words that would express it.”
He had never thought much, one way or another, about spiritualism. There had been old people, when he had been a boy, who had told stories of ghosts and apparitions, with the firmest conviction that they were true. And there had been an Irishman, in his old company in the Philippines, who swore that the ghost of a dead comrade walked post with him when he was on guard.
“Are you a spirit?” he asked. “I mean, somebody who once lived in a body, like me?”
“N-no.” The voice inside him seemed doubtful. “That is, I don’t think so. I know about spirits; they’re all around, everywhere. But I don’t think I’m one. At least, I’ve always been like I am now, as long as I can remember. Most spirits don’t seem to sense me. I can’t reach most living people, either; their minds are closed to me, or they have such disgusting minds I can’t bear to touch them. Children are open to me, but when they tell their parents about me, they are laughed at, or punished for lying, and then they close up against me. You’re the first grown-up person I’ve been able to reach for a long time.”
“Probably getting into my second childhood,” Colonel Hampton grunted.
“Oh, but you mustn’t be ashamed of that!” the invisible entity told him. “That’s the beginning of real wisdom--becoming childlike again. One of your religious teachers said something like that, long ago, and a long time before that, there was a Chinaman whom people called Venerable Child, because his wisdom had turned back again to a child’s simplicity.”
“That was Lao Tze,” Colonel Hampton said, a little surprised. “Don’t tell me you’ve been around that long.”
“Oh, but I have! Longer than that; oh, for very long.” And yet the voice he seemed to be hearing was the voice of a young girl. “You don’t mind my coming to talk to you?” it continued. “I get so lonely, so dreadfully lonely, you see.”
“Urmh! So do I,” Colonel Hampton admitted. “I’m probably going bats, but what the hell? It’s a nice way to go bats, I’ll say that ... Stick around; whoever you are, and let’s get acquainted. I sort of like you.”
A feeling of warmth suffused him, as though he had been hugged by someone young and happy and loving.
“Oh, I’m glad. I like you, too; you’re nice!”
“Yes, of course.” Doctor Vehrner nodded sagely. “That is a schizoid tendency; the flight from reality into a dream-world peopled by creatures of the imagination. You understand, there is usually a mixture of psychotic conditions, in cases like this. We will say that this case begins with simple senile dementia--physical brain degeneration, a result of advanced age. Then the paranoid symptoms appear; he imagines himself surrounded by envious enemies, who are conspiring against him. The patient then withdraws into himself, and in his self-imposed isolation, he conjures up imaginary companionship. I have no doubt...”
In the beginning, he had suspected that this unseen visitor was no more than a figment of his own lonely imagination, but as the days passed, this suspicion vanished. Whatever this entity might be, an entity it was, entirely distinct from his own conscious or subconscious mind.
At first she--he had early come to think of the being as feminine--had seemed timid, fearful lest her intrusions into his mind prove a nuisance. It took some time for him to assure her that she was always welcome. With time, too, his impression of her grew stronger and more concrete. He found that he was able to visualize her, as he might visualize something remembered, or conceived of in imagination--a lovely young girl, slender and clothed in something loose and filmy, with flowers in her honey-colored hair, and clear blue eyes, a pert, cheerful face, a wide, smiling mouth and an impudently up-tilted nose. He realized that this image was merely a sort of allegorical representation, his own private object-abstraction from a reality which his senses could never picture as it existed.
It was about this time that he had begun to call her Dearest. She had given him no name, and seemed quite satisfied with that one.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said, “I ought to have a name for you, too. Do you mind if I call you Popsy?”
“Huh?” He had been really startled at that. If he needed any further proof of Dearest’s independent existence, that was it. Never, in the uttermost depths of his subconscious, would he have been likely to label himself Popsy. “Know what they used to call me in the Army?” he asked. “Slaughterhouse Hampton. They claimed I needed a truckload of sawdust to follow me around and cover up the blood.” He chuckled. “Nobody but you would think of calling me Popsy.”
There was a price, he found, that he must pay for Dearest’s companionship--the price of eternal vigilance. He found that he was acquiring the habit of opening doors and then needlessly standing aside to allow her to precede him. And, although she insisted that he need not speak aloud to her, that she could understand any thought which he directed to her, he could not help actually pronouncing the words, if only in a faint whisper. He was glad that he had learned, before the end of his plebe year at West Point, to speak without moving his lips.
Besides himself and the kitten, Smokeball, there was one other at “Greyrock” who was aware, if only faintly, of Dearest’s presence. That was old Sergeant Williamson, the Colonel’s Negro servant, a retired first sergeant from the regiment he had last commanded. With increasing frequency, he would notice the old Negro pause in his work, as though trying to identify something too subtle for his senses, and then shake his head in bewilderment.
One afternoon in early October--just about a year ago--he had been reclining in a chair on the west veranda, smoking a cigar and trying to re-create, for his companion, a mental picture of an Indian camp as he had seen it in Wyoming in the middle ‘90’s, when Sergeant Williamson came out from the house, carrying a pair of the Colonel’s field-boots and a polishing-kit. Unaware of the Colonel’s presence, he set down his burden, squatted on the floor and began polishing the boots, humming softly to himself. Then he must have caught a whiff of the Colonel’s cigar. Raising his head, he saw the Colonel, and made as though to pick up the boots and polishing equipment.
“Oh, that’s all right, Sergeant,” the Colonel told him. “Carry on with what you’re doing. There’s room enough for both of us here.”
“Yessuh; thank yo’, suh.” The old ex-sergeant resumed his soft humming, keeping time with the brush in his hand.
“You know, Popsy, I think he knows I’m here,” Dearest said. “Nothing definite, of course; he just feels there’s something here that he can’t see.”
“I wonder. I’ve noticed something like that. Funny, he doesn’t seem to mind, either. Colored people are usually scary about ghosts and spirits and the like ... I’m going to ask him.” He raised his voice. “Sergeant, do you seem to notice anything peculiar around here, lately?”
The repetitious little two-tone melody broke off short. The soldier-servant lifted his face and looked into the Colonel’s. His brow wrinkled, as though he were trying to express a thought for which he had no words.
“Yo’ notice dat, too, suh?” he asked. “Why, yessuh, Cunnel; Ah don’ know ‘zackly how t’ say hit, but dey is som’n, at dat. Hit seems like ... like a kinda ... a kinda blessedness.” He chuckled. “Dat’s hit, Cunnel; dey’s a blessedness. Wondeh iffen Ah’s gittin’ r’ligion, now?”
“Well, all this is very interesting, I’m sure, Doctor,” T. Barnwell Powell was saying, polishing his glasses on a piece of tissue and keeping one elbow on his briefcase at the same time. “But really, it’s not getting us anywhere, so to say. You know, we must have that commitment signed by you. Now, is it or is it not your opinion that this man is of unsound mind?”
“Now, have patience, Mr. Powell,” the psychiatrist soothed him. “You must admit that as long as this gentleman refuses to talk, I cannot be said to have interviewed him.”
“What if he won’t talk?” Stephen Hampton burst out. “We’ve told you about his behavior; how he sits for hours mumbling to this imaginary person he thinks is with him, and how he always steps aside when he opens a door, to let somebody who isn’t there go through ahead of him, and how ... Oh, hell, what’s the use? If he were in his right mind, he’d speak up and try to prove it, wouldn’t he? What do you say, Myra?”
Myra was silent, and Colonel Hampton found himself watching her with interest. Her mouth had twisted into a wry grimace, and she was clutching the arms of her chair until her knuckles whitened. She seemed to be in some intense pain. Colonel Hampton hoped she were; preferably with something slightly fatal.
Sergeant Williamson’s suspicion that he might be getting religion became a reality, for a time, that winter, after The Miracle.
It had been a blustery day in mid-January, with a high wind driving swirls of snow across the fields, and Colonel Hampton, fretting indoors for several days, decided to go out and fill his lungs with fresh air. Bundled warmly, swinging his blackthorn cane, he had set out, accompanied by Dearest, to tramp cross-country to the village, three miles from “Greyrock.” They had enjoyed the walk through the white wind-swept desolation, the old man and his invisible companion, until the accident had happened.
A sheet of glassy ice had lain treacherously hidden under a skift of snow; when he stepped upon it, his feet shot from under him, the stick flew from his hand, and he went down. When he tried to rise, he found that he could not. Dearest had been almost frantic.
“Oh, Popsy, you must get up!” she cried. “You’ll freeze if you don’t. Come on, Popsy; try again!”
He tried, in vain. His old body would not obey his will.
“It’s no use, Dearest; I can’t. Maybe it’s just as well,” he said. “Freezing’s an easy death, and you say people live on as spirits, after they die. Maybe we can always be together, now.”
“I don’t know. I don’t want you to die yet, Popsy. I never was able to get through to a spirit, and I’m afraid ... Wait! Can you crawl a little? Enough to get over under those young pines?”
“I think so.” His left leg was numb, and he believed that it was broken. “I can try.”
He managed to roll onto his back, with his head toward the clump of pine seedlings. Using both hands and his right heel, he was able to propel himself slowly through the snow until he was out of the worst of the wind.
“That’s good; now try to cover yourself,” Dearest advised. “Put your hands in your coat pockets. And wait here; I’ll try to get help.”
Then she left him. For what seemed a long time, he lay motionless in the scant protection of the young pines, suffering miserably. He began to grow drowsy. As soon as he realized what was happening, he was frightened, and the fright pulled him awake again. Soon he felt himself drowsing again. By shifting his position, he caused a jab of pain from his broken leg, which brought him back to wakefulness. Then the deadly drowsiness returned.
This time, he was wakened by a sharp voice, mingled with a throbbing sound that seemed part of a dream of the cannonading in the Argonne.