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A Shady Plot






BY ELSIE BROWN


So I sat down to write a ghost story.

Jenkins was responsible.

"Hallock," he had said to me, "give us another on the supernatural this
time. Something to give 'em the horrors; that's what the public wants,
and your ghosts are live propositions."

Well, I was in no position to contradict Jenkins, for, as yet, his
magazine had been the only one to print my stuff. So I had said,
"Precisely!" in the deepest voice I was capable of, and had gone out.

I hadn't the shade of an idea, but at the time that didn't worry me in
the least. You see, I had often been like that before and in the end
things had always come my way--I didn't in the least know how or why. It
had all been rather mysterious. You understand I didn't specialize in
ghost stories, but more or less they seemed to specialize in me. A ghost
story had been the first fiction I had written. Curious how that idea
for a plot had come to me out of nowhere after I had chased inspiration
in vain for months! Even now whenever Jenkins wanted a ghost, he called
on me. And I had never found it healthy to contradict Jenkins. Jenkins
always seemed to have an uncanny knowledge as to when the landlord or
the grocer were pestering me, and he dunned me for a ghost. And somehow
I'd always been able to dig one up for him, so I'd begun to get a bit
cocky as to my ability.

So I went home and sat down before my desk and sucked at the end of my
pencil and waited, but nothing happened. Pretty soon my mind began to
wander off on other things, decidedly unghostly and material things,
such as my wife's shopping and how on earth I was going to cure her of
her alarming tendency to take every new fad that came along and work it
to death. But I realized that would never get me any place, so I went
back to staring at the ceiling.

"This writing business is delightful, isn't it?" I said sarcastically at
last, out loud, too. You see, I had reached the stage of imbecility when
I was talking to myself.

"Yes," said a voice at the other end of the room, "I should say it is!"

I admit I jumped. Then I looked around.

It was twilight by this time and I had forgotten to turn on the lamp.
The other end of the room was full of shadows and furniture. I sat
staring at it and presently noticed something just taking shape. It was
exactly like watching one of these moving picture cartoons being put
together. First an arm came out, then a bit of sleeve of a stiff white
shirtwaist, then a leg and a plaid skirt, until at last there she was
complete,--whoever she was.

She was long and angular, with enormous fishy eyes behind big
bone-rimmed spectacles, and her hair in a tight wad at the back of her
head (yes, I seemed able to see right through her head) and a jaw--well,
it looked so solid that for the moment I began to doubt my very own
senses and believe she was real after all.

She came over and stood in front of me and glared--yes, positively
glared down at me, although (to my knowledge) I had never laid eyes on
the woman before, to say nothing of giving her cause to look at me like
that.

I sat still, feeling pretty helpless I can tell you, and at last she
barked:

"What are you gaping at?"

I swallowed, though I hadn't been chewing anything.

"Nothing," I said. "Absolutely nothing. My dear lady, I was merely
waiting for you to tell me why you had come. And excuse me, but do you
always come in sections like this? I should think your parts might get
mixed up sometimes."

"Didn't you send for me?" she crisped.

Imagine how I felt at that!

"Why, no. I--I don't seem to remember----"

"Look here. Haven't you been calling on heaven and earth all afternoon
to help you write a story?"

I nodded, and then a possible explanation occurred to me and my spine
got cold. Suppose this was the ghost of a stenographer applying for a
job! I had had an advertisement in the paper recently. I opened my mouth
to explain that the position was filled, and permanently so, but she
stopped me.

"And when I got back to the office from my last case and was ready for
you, didn't you switch off to something else and sit there driveling so
I couldn't attract your attention until just now?"

"I--I'm very sorry, really."

"Well, you needn't be, because I just came to tell you to stop bothering
us for assistance; you ain't going to get it. We're going on Strike!"

"What!"

"You don't have to yell at me."

"I--I didn't mean to yell," I said humbly. "But I'm afraid I didn't
quite understand you. You said you were----"

"Going on strike. Don't you know what a strike is? Not another plot do
you get from us!"

I stared at her and wet my lips.

"Is--is that where they've been coming from?"

"Of course. Where else?"

"But my ghosts aren't a bit like you----"

"If they were people wouldn't believe in them." She draped herself on
the top of my desk among the pens and ink bottles and leaned towards me.
"In the other life I used to write."

"You did!"

She nodded.

"But that has nothing to do with my present form. It might have, but I
gave it up at last for that very reason, and went to work as a reader on
a magazine." She sighed, and rubbed the end of her long eagle nose with
a reminiscent finger. "Those were terrible days; the memory of them made
me mistake purgatory for paradise, and at last when I attained my
present state of being, I made up my mind that something should be done.
I found others who had suffered similarly, and between us we organized
'The Writer's Inspiration Bureau.' We scout around until we find a
writer without ideas and with a mind soft enough to accept impression.
The case is brought to the attention of the main office, and one of us
assigned to it. When that case is finished we bring in a report."

"But I never saw you before----"

"And you wouldn't have this time if I hadn't come to announce the
strike. Many a time I've leaned on your shoulder when you've thought
you were thinking hard--" I groaned, and clutched my hair. The very
idea of that horrible scarecrow so much as touching me! and wouldn't my
wife be shocked! I shivered. "But," she continued, "that's at an end.
We've been called out of our beds a little too often in recent years,
and now we're through."

"But my dear madam, I assure you I have had nothing to do with that. I
hope I'm properly grateful and all that, you see."

"Oh, it isn't you," she explained patronizingly. "It's those Ouija board
fanatics. There was a time when we had nothing much to occupy us and
used to haunt a little on the side, purely for amusement, but not any
more. We've had to give up haunting almost entirely. We sit at a desk
and answer questions now. And such questions!"

She shook her head hopelessly, and taking off her glasses wiped them,
and put them back on her nose again.

"But what have I got to do with this?"

She gave me a pitying look and rose.

"You're to exert your influence. Get all your friends and acquaintances
to stop using the Ouija board, and then we'll start helping you to
write."

"But----"

There was a footstep outside my door.

"John! Oh, John!" called the voice of my wife.

I waved my arms at the ghost with something of the motion of a beginner
when learning to swim.

"Madam, I must ask you to leave, and at once. Consider the impression if
you were seen here----"

The ghost nodded, and began, very sensibly, I thought, to demobilize and
evaporate. First the brogans on her feet grew misty until I could see
the floor through them, then the affection spread to her knees and
gradually extended upward. By this time my wife was opening the door.

"Don't forget the strike," she repeated, while her lower jaw began to
disintegrate, and as my Lavinia crossed the room to me the last vestige
of her ear faded into space.

"John, why in the world are you sitting in the dark?"

"Just--thinking, my dear."

"Thinking, rubbish! You were talking out loud."

I remained silent while she lit the lamps, thankful that her back was
turned to me. When I am nervous or excited there is a muscle in my face
that starts to twitch, and this pulls up one corner of my mouth and
gives the appearance of an idiotic grin. So far I had managed to conceal
this affliction from Lavinia.

"You know I bought the loveliest thing this afternoon. Everybody's wild
over them!"

I remembered her craze for taking up new fads and a premonitory chill
crept up the back of my neck.

"It--it isn't----" I began and stopped. I simply couldn't ask; the
possibility was too horrible.

"You'd never guess in the world. It's the duckiest, darlingest Ouija
board, and so cheap! I got it at a bargain sale. Why, what's the matter,
John?"

I felt things slipping.

"Nothing," I said, and looked around for the ghost. Suppose she had
lingered, and upon hearing what my wife had said should suddenly
appear----Like all sensitive women, Lavinia was subject to hysterics.

"But you looked so funny----"

"I--I always do when I'm interested," I gulped. "But don't you think
that was a foolish thing to buy?"

"Foolish! Oh, John! Foolish! And after me getting it for you!"

"For me! What do you mean?"

"To help you write your stories. Why, for instance, suppose you wanted
to write an historical novel. You wouldn't have to wear your eyes out
over those musty old books in the public library. All you'd have to do
would be to get out your Ouija and talk to Napoleon, or William the
Conqueror, or Helen of Troy--well, maybe not Helen--anyhow you'd have
all the local color you'd need, and without a speck of trouble. And
think how easy writing your short stories will be now."

"But Lavinia, you surely don't believe in Ouija boards."

"I don't know, John--they are awfully thrilling."

She had seated herself on the arm of my chair and was looking dreamily
across the room. I started and turned around. There was nothing there,
and I sank back with relief. So far so good.

"Oh, certainly, they're thrilling all right. That's just it, they're a
darn sight too thrilling. They're positively devilish. Now, Lavinia, you
have plenty of sense, and I want you to get rid of that thing just as
soon as you can. Take it back and get something else."

My wife crossed her knees and stared at me through narrowed lids.

"John Hallock," she said distinctly. "I don't propose to do anything of
the kind. In the first place they won't exchange things bought at a
bargain sale, and in the second, if you aren't interested in the other
world I am. So there!" and she slid down and walked from the room
before I could think of a single thing to say. She walked very huffily.

Well, it was like that all the rest of the evening. Just as soon as I
mentioned Ouija boards I felt things begin to cloud up; so I decided to
let it go for the present, in the hope that she might be more reasonable
later.

After supper I had another try at the writing, but as my mind continued
a perfect blank I gave it up and went off to bed.

The next day was Saturday, and it being near the end of the month and a
particularly busy day, I left home early without seeing Lavinia.
Understand, I haven't quite reached the point where I can give my whole
time to writing, and being bookkeeper for a lumber company does help
with the grocery bills and pay for Lavinia's fancy shopping. Friday had
been a half holiday, and of course when I got back the work was piled up
pretty high; so high, in fact, that ghosts and stories and everything
else vanished in a perfect tangle of figures.

When I got off the street car that evening my mind was still churning.
I remember now that I noticed, even from the corner, how brightly the
house was illuminated, but at the time that didn't mean anything to me.
I recall as I went up the steps and opened the door I murmured:

"Nine times nine is eighty-one!"

And then Gladolia met me in the hall.

"Misto Hallock, de Missus sho t'inks you's lost! She say she done 'phone
you dis mawnin' to be home early, but fo' de lawd's sake not to stop to
argify now, but get ready fo' de company an' come on down."

Some memory of a message given me by one of the clerks filtered back
through my brain, but I had been hunting three lost receipts at the
time, and had completely forgotten it.

"Company?" I said stupidly. "What company?"

"De Missus's Ouija boahrd pahrty," said Gladolia, and rolling her eyes
she disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.

I must have gone upstairs and dressed and come down again, for I
presently found myself standing in the dimly lighted lower hall wearing
my second best suit and a fresh shirt and collar. But I have no
recollections of the process.

There was a great chattering coming from our little parlor and I went
over to the half-opened door and peered through.

The room was full of women--most of them elderly--whom I recognized as
belonging to my wife's Book Club. They were sitting in couples, and
between each couple was a Ouija board! The mournful squeak of the legs
of the moving triangular things on which they rested their fingers
filled the air and mixed in with the conversation. I looked around for
the ghost with my heart sunk down to zero. What if Lavinia should see
her and go mad before my eyes! And then my wife came and tapped me on
the shoulder.

"John," she said in her sweetest voice, and I noticed that her cheeks
were very pink and her eyes very bright. My wife is never so pretty as
when she's doing something she knows I disapprove of, "John, dear I know
you'll help us out. Mrs. William Augustus Wainright 'phoned at the last
moment to say that she couldn't possibly come, and that leaves poor
Laura Hinkle without a partner. Now, John, I know some people can work
a Ouija by themselves, but Laura can't, and she'll just have a horrible
time unless you----"

"Me!" I gasped. "Me! I won't----" but even as I spoke she had taken my
arm, and the next thing I knew I was sitting with the thing on my knees
and Miss Laura Hinkle opposite, grinning in my face like a flirtatious
crocodile.

"I--I won't----" I began.

"Now, Mr. Hallock, don't you be shy." Miss Laura Hinkle leaned forward
and shook a bony finger almost under my chin.

"I--I'm not! Only I say I won't----!"

"No, it's very easy, really. You just put the tips of your fingers
right here beside the tips of my fingers----"

And the first thing I knew she had taken my hands and was coyly holding
them in the position desired. She released them presently, and the
little board began to slide around in an aimless sort of way. There
seemed to be some force tugging it about. I looked at my partner, first
with suspicion, and then with a vast relief. If she was doing it, then
all that talk about spirits----Oh, I did hope Miss Laura Hinkle was
cheating with that board!

"Ouija, dear, won't you tell us something?" she cooed, and on the
instant the thing seemed to take life.

It rushed to the upper left hand corner of the board and hovered with
its front leg on the word "Yes." Then it began to fly around so fast
that I gave up any attempt to follow it. My companion was bending
forward and had started to spell out loud:

"'T-r-a-i-t-o-r.' Traitor! Why, what does she mean?"

"I don't know," I said desperately. My collar felt very tight.

"But she must mean something. Ouija, dear, won't you explain yourself
more fully?"

"'A-s-k-h-i-m!' Ask him. Ask who, Ouija?"

"I--I'm going." I choked and tried to get up but my fingers seemed stuck
to that dreadful board and I dropped back again.

Apparently Miss Hinkle had not heard my protest. The thing was going
around faster than ever and she was reading the message silently, with
her brow corrugated, and the light of the huntress in her pale blue
eyes.

"Why, she says it's you, Mr. Hallock. What does she mean? Ouija, won't
you tell us who is talking?"

I groaned, but that inexorable board continued to spell. I always did
hate a spelling match! Miss Hinkle was again following it aloud:

"'H-e-l-e-n.' Helen!" She raised her voice until it could be heard at
the other end of the room. "Lavinia, dear, do you know anyone by the
name of Helen?"

"By the name of----? I can't hear you." And my wife made her way over to
us between the Book Club's chairs.

"You know the funniest thing has happened," she whispered excitedly.
"Someone had been trying to communicate with John through Mrs. Hunt's
and Mrs. Sprinkle's Ouija! Someone by the name of Helen----"

"Why, isn't that curious!"

"What is?"

Miss Hinkle simpered.

"Someone giving the name of Helen has just been calling for your husband
here."

"But we don't know anyone by the name of Helen----"

Lavinia stopped and began to look at me through narrowed lids much as
she had done in the library the evening before.

And then from different parts of the room other manipulators began to
report. Every plagued one of those five Ouija boards was calling me by
name! I felt my ears grow crimson, purple, maroon. My wife was looking
at me as though I were some peculiar insect. The squeak of Ouija boards
and the murmur of conversation rose louder and louder, and then I felt
my face twitch in the spasm of that idiotic grin. I tried to straighten
my wretched features into their usual semblance of humanity, I tried
and----

"Doesn't he look sly!" said Miss Hinkle. And then I got up and fled from
the room.

I do not know how that party ended. I do not want to know. I went
straight upstairs, and undressed and crawled into bed, and lay there in
the burning dark while the last guest gurgled in the hall below about
the wonderful evening she had spent. I lay there while the front door
shut after her, and Lavinia's steps came up the stairs and--passed the
door to the guest room beyond. And then after a couple of centuries
elapsed the clock struck three and I dozed off to sleep.

At the breakfast table the next morning there was no sign of my wife. I
concluded she was sleeping late, but Gladolia, upon being questioned,
only shook her head, muttered something, and turned the whites of her
eyes up to the ceiling. I was glad when the meal was over and hurried
to the library for another try at that story.

I had hardly seated myself at the desk when there came a tap at the door
and a white slip of paper slid under it. I unfolded it and read:

"DEAR JOHN,

"I am going back to my grandmother. My lawyer will
communicate with you later."

"Oh," I cried. "Oh, I wish I was dead!"

And:

"That's exactly what you ought to be!" said that horrible voice from the
other end of the room.

I sat up abruptly--I had sunk into a chair under the blow of the
letter--then I dropped back again and my hair rose in a thick prickle on
the top of my head. Coming majestically across the floor towards me was
a highly polished pair of thick laced shoes. I stared at them in a sort
of dreadful fascination, and then something about their gait attracted
my attention and I recognized them.

"See here," I said sternly. "What do you mean by appearing here like
this?"

"I can't help it," said the voice, which seemed to come from a point
about five and a half feet above the shoes. I raised my eyes and
presently distinguished her round protruding mouth.

"Why can't you? A nice way to act, to walk in sections----"

"If you'll give me time," said the mouth in an exasperated voice, "I
assure you the rest of me will presently arrive."

"But what's the matter with you? You never acted this way before."

She seemed stung to make a violent effort, for a portion of a fishy eye
and the end of her nose popped into view with a suddenness that made me
jump.

"It's all your fault." She glared at me, while part of her hair and her
plaid skirt began slowly to take form.

"My fault!"

"Of course. How can you keep a lady up working all night and then expect
her to retain all her faculties the next day? I'm just too tired to
materialize."

"Then why did you bother?"

"Because I was sent to ask when your wife is going to get rid of that
Ouija board."

"How should I know! I wish to heaven I'd never seen you!" I cried. "Look
what you've done! You've lost me my wife, you've lost me my home and
happiness, you've----you've----"

"Misto Hallock," came from the hall outside, "Misto Hallock, I's gwine
t' quit. I don't like no hoodoos." And the steps retreated.

"You've----you've lost me my cook----"

"I didn't come here to be abused," said the ghost coldly. "I--I----"

And then the door opened and Lavinia entered. She wore the brown hat and
coat she usually travels in and carried a suitcase which she set down
on the floor.

That suitcase had an air of solid finality about it, and its lock leered
at me brassily.

I leaped from my chair with unaccustomed agility and sprang in front of
my wife. I must conceal that awful phantom from her, at any risk!

She did not look at me, or--thank heaven!--behind me, but fixed her
injured gaze upon the waste-basket, as if to wrest dark secrets from it.

"I have come to tell you that I am leaving," she staccatoed.

"Oh, yes, yes!" I agreed, flapping my arms about to attract attention
from the corner. "That's fine--great!"

"So you want me to go, do you?" she demanded.

"Sure, yes--right away! Change of air will do you good. I'll join you
presently!" If only she would go till Helen could de-part! I'd have
the devil of a time explaining afterward, of course, but anything would
be better than to have Lavinia see a ghost. Why, that sensitive little
woman couldn't bear to have a mouse say boo at her--and what would she
say to a ghost in her own living-room?

Lavinia cast a cold eye upon me. "You are acting very queerly," she
sniffed. "You are concealing something from me."

Just then the door opened and Gladolia called, "Mis' Hallock! Mis'
Hallock! I've come to tell you I'se done lef' dis place."

My wife turned her head a moment. "But why, Gladolia?"

"I ain't stayin' round no place 'long wid dem Ouija board contraptions.
I'se skeered of hoodoos. I's done gone, I is."

"Is that all you've got to complain about?" Lavinia inquired.

"Yes, ma'am."

"All right, then. Go back to the kitchen. You can use the board for
kindling wood."

"Who? Me touch dat t'ing? No, ma'am, not dis nigger!"

"I'll be the coon to burn it," I shouted. "I'll be glad to burn it."

Gladolia's heavy steps moved off kitchenward.

Then my Lavinia turned waspishly to me again. "John, there's not a bit
of use trying to deceive me. What is it you are trying to conceal from
me?"

"Who? Me? Oh, no," I lied elaborately, looking around to see if that
dratted ghost was concealed enough. She was so big, and I'm rather a
smallish man. But that was a bad move on my part.

"John," Lavinia demanded like a ward boss, "you are hiding somebody in
here! Who is it?"

I only waved denial and gurgled in my throat. She went on, "It's bad
enough to have you flirt over the Ouija board with that hussy----"

"Oh, the affair was quite above-board, I assure you, my love!" I cried,
leaping lithely about to keep her from focusing her gaze behind me.

She thrust me back with sudden muscle. "I will see who's behind you!
Where is that Helen?"

"Me? I'm Helen," came from the ghost.

Lavinia looked at that apparition, that owl-eyed phantom, in plaid skirt
and stiff shirtwaist, with hair skewed back and no powder on her nose. I
threw a protecting husbandly arm about her to catch her when she should
faint. But she didn't swoon. A broad, satisfied smile spread over her
face.

"I thought you were Helen of Troy," she murmured.

"I used to be Helen of Troy, New York," said the ghost. "And now I'll be
moving along, if you'll excuse me. See you later."

With that she telescoped briskly, till we saw only a hand waving
farewell.

My Lavinia fell forgivingly into my arms. I kissed her once or twice
fervently, and then I shoved her aside, for I felt a sudden strong
desire to write. The sheets of paper on my desk spread invitingly before
me.

"I've got the bulliest plot for a ghost story!" I cried.





Next: The Lady And The Ghost

Previous: In The Barn



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