James Thurber, originally published 1933; translated to Modern English, otherwise exactly the same.
This story has been added to our Classics in the Rain collection! Hear Danie Dreadful’s magnificent narration here for the full experience!
The ghost that got into our house on the night of November 17, 1915 caused a horrible mess; I should have just kept walking and went to bed. Its presence caused my mother to throw a shoe through the neighbor’s window and ended with my grandfather shooting a policeman. I regret ever stopping to pay attention to the footsteps.
They began around 1:15am – walking around the dining-room table at a quick but steady pace. My mother and my brother, Herman were asleep upstairs; grandfather was in the attic – in the old walnut bed that once fell on my father. I was drying off after a bath when I heard the steps. It sounded like a man was running around the dining-room table downstairs. The light from the bathroom was shining down the back steps – directly into the dining-room; I could see the faint shine of plates on the shelf and table. The steps continued to circle, and a board creaked at regular intervals when stepped on. At first, I thought it was my father or my brother, Roy; they had gone to Indianapolis but were expected home any time. Next, I suspected it was a burglar. It was not until later that I realized it was a ghost.
After the walking had continued for roughly three minutes, I tiptoed to Herman’s room. “Psst!” I hissed in the dark, shaking him.
“Awp,” he said in the low, hopeless tone of a beagle; he was always paranoid that something would “get him” in the night.
I told him who I was and said, “there’s something downstairs!” He got up and followed me to the back staircase. We listened together, but there was no sound; the steps had stopped. Herman looked at me with surprise – I was only wearing a bath towel around my waist. He wanted to return to bed, but I grabbed his arm.
“There’s something down there!” I said. Instantly, the steps began again; it sounded like a man was running around the dining-room table, but then they rushed towards us – taking the stairs two at a time.
The pale light was still shining down the stairs, but we saw nothing – we only heard the steps. Herman rushed to his room and slammed the door. I slammed the door at the top of the stairs and held my knee against it. After a long moment, I slowly opened it again. Nothing was there; all was quiet. None of us ever heard the ghost again.
The slamming doors woke mother, and she peeked out of her room. “What on earth are you boys doing?” she demanded.
Herman came out of his room. “Nothing,” he said gruffly.
“What was all that running around downstairs?” Mother asked. She had heard the steps, too! We only looked at her. “Burglars!” she shouted.
I tried to calm her by starting downstairs. “Come on, Herman,” I said.
“I’ll stay with mother; she’s all excited.” He said.
I stepped back onto the landing. “Both of you are staying right here,” mother said. “We’ll call the police.”
Since the phone was downstairs, I didn’t see how we were going to make a call – nor did I want the police – but mother made one of her quick, uncompromising decisions. She flung open her bedroom window and threw a shoe through the neighbor’s window. Glass fell into the bedroom of a retired engraver named Bodwell and his wife. Bodwell had been rather ill for some years, and was prone to mild “attacks.” Most everybody we knew or lived near had some kind of attack.
It was now about 2:00 on a moonless night, and black clouds hung low in the sky. Bodwell was at the window in an instant – shouting and shaking his fist. “We’ll sell the house and go back to Peoria,” we could hear Mrs. Bodwell say.
It was some time before mother got through to Bodwell. “Burglars!” she shouted. “Burglars in the house!”
Herman and I hadn’t dared tell her differently – she was even more afraid of ghosts than burglars. At first, Bodwell thought she meant there were burglars in his house, but finally, he calmed down and called the police for us. After he disappeared from the window, mother suddenly tried to throw another shoe, but I stopped her. It was not because of a necessity, but because she greatly enjoyed the thrill of breaking glass.
The police arrived in an impressively short time; there was a Ford sedan full of them, two on motorcycles, and a patrol wagon with eight more plus a few reporters. They banged on our front door, and flashlights searched over the walls, across our yard, and between the houses.
“Open up!” cried a hoarse voice. “We’re from Headquarters!”
I wanted to go down and let them in, but mother wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re naked,” she pointed out. “You’d catch your death.”
I wound the towel around me again. Finally the cops put their shoulders to our big, heavy door with its thick windows and broke in. I could hear wood breaking and a splash of glass on the floor. Their lights danced all over the living-room and dining-room, stabbed into hallways, and shot up both flights of stairs. They caught me standing in my towel at the top.
A heavy policeman ran up the steps. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“I live here,” I said.
“Well, what’s the matter, are ya hot?” He asked.
As a matter of fact, it was cold; I went to my room and put on some pants. On my way out, a cop stuck a gun into my ribs. “What are you doin’ here?” he demanded.
“I live here,” I said again.
The officer in charge reported to mother. “No sign of nobody, lady. He must have got away. What’d he look like?”
“There were two or three of them, whooping and hollering and slamming doors.” Mother said.
“Funny; all your windows and doors were locked tight.” The cop said.
Downstairs, we could hear the other officers stomping around. They were all over the place; doors and drawers were yanked open, windows were thrown up, and furniture fell with dull thuds. A half-dozen policemen emerged from the darkness of the front, upstairs hallway. They began to ransack everything; beds were pulled away from walls, clothes were torn off hooks, and boxes were pulled from shelves. One of them found an old harp that Roy won in a pool tournament.
“Looky here, Joe,” he said, strumming it with a big paw.
The cop named Joe took it and turned it over. “What is it?” he asked me.
“It’s an old harp that our guinea pig used to sleep on,” I said. It was true – that guinea pig never slept anywhere else, but I should never have said so. Joe and the other cop looked at me a long time before putting the harp back.
“No sign of nothing,” the cop who first spoke with mother explained to the others. “This guy,” he pointed at me, “was naked, and the lady seems hysterical.”
They all nodded but said nothing; they just stared at me. In the silence, we all heard a creaking from the attic. Grandfather was rolling over in bed.
“What’s that?” Joe snapped. Five or six cops sprang for the attic door before I could intervene or explain.
I realized it would be bad if they burst in on grandfather. He was going through a phase where he believed General Meade’s men were under fire by Stonewall Jackson, and they were beginning to desert. When I got to the attic, things were pretty chaotic. Evidently, grandfather assumed the police were deserters from Meade’s army – trying to hide away in his attic. He leapt out of bed wearing a long, flannel nightgown over woolen underwear, a nightcap, and a leather jacket around his chest. The cops must have immediately realized the angry, white-haired, old man belonged in the house, but they had no chance to say so.
“Back, you cowardly dogs!” Grandfather roared. “Back to the lines, you goddamn, lily-livered cattle!” With that, he gave the officer who found the harp a flat-handed slap upside his head that sent him sprawling. The others retreated, but not fast enough; grandfather grabbed the first cop’s gun and fired. The bang seemed to crack the rafters, and smoke filled the attic. A cop cursed and slapped his hand to his shoulder. Somehow, we all finally got downstairs again and locked the door against the old man. He fired once or twice more and then returned to bed.
“That was grandfather,” I explained to Joe, out of breath. “He thinks you’re deserters.”
“I’ll say he does,” Joe said.
The cops were reluctant to leave without getting their hands on somebody besides grandfather; their night had been a distinct defeat. Furthermore, they obviously didn’t like how the situation ended; I can see their point when they said something seemed fishy. They resumed their search, and a thin-faced reporter approached me.
When I could not find a shirt to wear, I put on one of mother’s blouses. The reporter looked at me with a mixture of suspicion and interest. “Just what the hell is really going on here, Bud?”
I decided to be frank with him. “We had a ghost.”
He gazed at me for a long time – as if I were a slot machine he lost a nickel to – then he walked away. The cops followed him; the one grandfather shot was holding his bandaged arm, cursing. “I’m gonna get my gun back from that old bird.”
“Yea,” Joe said. “You and who else?”
I told them I would bring it to the station house the next day. “What was the matter with that one policeman?” Mother asked after they were gone.
“Grandfather shot him,” I said.
“What for?” She demanded. I told her he was a deserter. “Of all things! He was such a nice-looking young man.” Mother said.
The next morning, grandfather was fresh as a daisy and full of jokes at breakfast. At first, we thought he had forgotten, but he hadn’t. Over his third cup of coffee, he glared at Herman and I. “What was with all them cops stomping around the house last night?” He demanded. He had us there.