Let me, at the very least, be most particular about the order of events, for time may have clouded my memory of some of the details. I had been summoned at short notice to the bedside of an aged uncle from whom I had expectations, and as the telegram informed me that he could not survive this latest battle against the scourges of old age I thought it best to visit and, so, one unseasonably warm day in March, 1911, I embarked on a journey to Killigarth, a little, out-of -the-way, Cornish hamlet, where the old gentleman lived. There were few passengers on the train, and I had the benefit of a carriage all to myself. The landscape was somehow familiar to me, yet I could not recall visiting this part of the country.
“It is just like a fresh canvas painting,” I said to myself as I gazed out of the window and observed the rear of the long corridor carriage, at the end of the train, speeding on its way. I had travelled for much of my life, including eight years’ sojourn on the Continent, but the scenery that met my eyes that day took my breath away. First you would catch a glimpse of the sea, blue and still, and then a sharp turn of the line would alter the scene to a view of the green hills with perhaps a few sheep or horses grazing on the skyline. Then the sea would come into view again, and this time not merely a glimpse between two hills, but a big expanse of blue stretched as far as the eye could see, and the white sails of a yacht gradually fading away, as its course took it farther from land. Closer in, a trawler, dropping anchor and right out where the sea and sky met, the just discernible smoke of an inbound liner. Then the sea was shut out again for a time, and the train rushed along between fields of green wheat, weaving its way across lands speckled by small settlements, churches and the occasional ruin.
It was then that the whistle sounded, and the brakes were put together sharply in the driver’s effort to stop. Presently the guard came rushing along the train, and asked: “Who pulled that cord?” I shook my head and sat watching as he continued to sweep his way through the carriages.
Turning to the window, I noticed that the train had come to a stop at an unnamed way-station, one that was in a considerable state of disrepair. I was examining the station from afar when the carriage was suddenly plunged into darkness. When the lights returned, I was most surprised to learn that I now had a companion, a gentleman who was seated directly opposite.
The man was notably tall and thin, and his skin that of someone in middle-age, with a face sharp and withered like a bad apple. His apparel was close fitting and faded; all in all, he looked to be a man who had lost all interest in his appearance, which perhaps accounted for the unkempt nature of his hair and beard. Studying his clothes, a layer of damp mist rising from the material, I became aware that the air in the carriage had become cold and heavy.
“Quite a sharp change in the weather from this morning,” I remarked. “It is particularly cold now, is it not?”
“Don’t feel the cold myself,” said the stranger. “Perhaps you would like to exchange places with me; there is, as far as one can tell, no draft here.”
I replied that I would appreciate this if it did not inconvenience him, and accordingly we swapped seats.
The temperature was dropping at quite a rate, and no mistake. I must have taken a chill, for the hairs on my arm began to rise, and the cold crept over me in a most unaccountable manner. Looking at the stranger occupying the seat opposite , on whom the lamplight now shone brightly, I saw that his face was not so gaunt nor his features so shrunken as I first supposed; and I must have made a mistake as to his age, for he was by no means as elderly as I had previously judged. How cold it was, to be sure! As I looked at him, I noticed that his countenance change momently — that he was becoming younger; that the creases in his face were filling out and smoothing down, and that he was, by degrees, becoming like someone I had seen before. As his once sallow cheeks grew round and ruddy, and his hair changed from silver to brown before my very eyes, I became nervous, and wanted to cry out, but could not. I was struck dumb with the biting cold— cold that hammered into my limbs and benumbed my vitals, for I was now aware that the man sitting before me was no longer a stranger— no more friend or travelling companion— he had become me!
I raised my hands to try to shut out the appalling sight, and, as I did so, I saw that they were withered, and thin, and old. I pressed them against my brow, to see if I were dreaming, and I found it shrivelled and puckered. And then I knew that this villain— this fiend — had taken my body, and given me his. I was at once both confused and maddened with the discovery, and rose to my feet— his feet— which tottered beneath me, and I struck uncontrollably at the vision of myself on the opposite seat. But I found my limbs light as vapour, for they passed through his body, and met with the wooden back of the seat, giving me the impression of pain. It was a body of shadow that had been given me for my own body of flesh and blood, which this scoundrel has stolen. By some devilry or another, we had indeed changed places.
“Witch— demon!” I cried out, only to hear myself calling with his sharp, throttled tone. When I saw myself sitting opposite, nonchalantly addressing me in my own voice, I could no longer be confident of my senses if, indeed, I had any of them left at all.
“I dare say you believe you are speaking loudly now,” he said.
I answered by calling for the guard as loudly as I could.
“Ah, you might shout a good deal louder than that. Why, if this compartment were full of passengers they could no more hear your cries than they could see you making them,” he continued, chuckling, and twisting my features into a gruesome grin, one so loathsome I could never have believed possible.
“You see, old chap, yours is a body of mist, of shade, a nebulous form, imperceptible to all but myself, just as it was to all but you when I stepped into this carriage. You desire, perhaps, to know who I am. Well, one year ago, this very night, I was a passenger on this line. There was a collision with an out-of-control freight train, you see, and the result was that several passengers were wounded. One of them was – well, not to put it too finely — killed on the spot. Quite so. It was I. Well, this mind at least —,” he gave another hideous chuckle.
“Yes, I am what you would consider to be a ghost, although we do not use the term ourselves— we have a better word for it. Now I have enlightened you to my nature, you will, undoubtedly, like to know what I want.”
He paused momentarily and then smiled. “Good, very good. You will see—.”
The ghost inhabiting my body then began to rummage in my pocket, from which he drew out my pipe, which he filled from my tobacco pouch and lit with one of my matches.
“Ah,” he continued, puffing like an engine, ” you smoke reasonable tobacco — natural leaf and Gallaher’s; not a terrible mixture, though I prefer a little Cope’s with it myself. Not at all a dreadful body of yours, either,” he went on, casting his eyes down upon the form in which he was sitting; “not at all a terrible body and it fits me to a T, only a little lacking in the arms. By the way, I am having an awful trouble with one of your front teeth, a little loose, so don’t challenge me and say I did that, when you come to yourself again, whenever that may be——”
I shuddered as I watched him take out my pocket-chief and wipe it upon my brow.
“Yes, I expect that you feel the cold somewhat. I did at first, but it’s really nothing when you are used to it. I find your body comfortable and warm — being a few pounds heavier than I am used to wear; but I shouldn’t require it forever—”
I stared deeply into my own eyes. With a throat dry with fear, I summoned enough strength of voice to ask him how long I should expect this situation to remain.
“I require it positively for this night, possibly tomorrow, too—”
“Then again, it is a perfectly respectable body in which one could reside for longer. But do not fear, old chap, I’m sure a month or two, at the outside.”
The wretch enjoyed playing games, for the last remark came with much toying of the lips and a smug and satisfied smile.
“No matter, but let me give you some advice. Be a little considerate of how you throw your arms around so much as you did just now, for my form is of a more fragile construction than yours and being so insubstantial, I am afraid you will shave off parts here and there. You will see, ladies and gentlemen”‘ he went on, with a style akin to a magician at work, “that if I take a lit match and place it in the corner of the gentleman’s eye, he will feel no pain.” Saying this, my wretched companion proceeded to put substance to his remark by leaning over and bringing to my twitching eye a burning match. There was a complete absence of pain as the match burned in my head.
This was, doubtless, a spectre of such extraordinary guile and cunning that I would need all my wits about me if I was ever to return to my own body. I observed him for a while as his hands travelled across my clothing, reaching in and out, exploring every pocket and crevice. I felt that I had little time left as Killigarth was only minutes away. There, I had imagined that the creature would leave me, walking off into the distance whilst I, fleshless, stood upon the platform bereft of all happiness, a soul without form.
“What do you intend to do with this body of mine?” I asked nervously.
The creature smiled. “Nothing that you would not do,” he replied, my mouth contorted into another dry grin.
“Then I dare say that I should accept this without question, should I not?”
“It would be wise, of course, for you to do so — otherwise the entire arrangement could become, let’s say, a little awkward—.”
“Yes, indeed,” I remarked. “For one would not want to be marooned in a body that has its limitations. ”
The stranger jerked forward and laughed, his hands moving about my vaporous form in a teasing fashion. “Limitations? Yes, you have them but you will learn to live with them. Your situation is not without its advantages—.”
“No,” I interrupted sharply, “You have misunderstood. I am talking about the flesh I see before me — that what was once mine. I must say I now see it in a very different light.”
“Yes, with envious eyes no doubt!” cried the demon.
“No, far from it. For isn’t it a questionable decision when we look upon the cover and not the book?”
My companion sat still, pressing the fresh, spongy tissue of his forehead into a frown.
“You speak in riddles, sir. But please continue, for it amuses me to hear the cries of a drowning man. Be warned, however, for am I not in the elevated position here? Curse me at your peril for I could take possession of this house for a lifetime if I so wished!”
“I very much doubt that you would,” said I. “For despite all your cunning, you have overlooked something. Something that lies beneath, a curse of the ages, something festering— and though I may look to be a man in my prime, I would not wish this upon you — yes, even you.”
“Ah, I can hear the sound of desperation — you are trying to trick me, surely?”
“What reason would I have to trick you? In this form, I am doomed to spend an eternity. I would rather face the ravages of the living than the intolerable sleep of the dead. But I dare say that you would prefer a more conventional form of death, for I am quite certain the pain and discomfort of this affliction would be nothing compared to the suffering you endured in that awful collision.”
I leant forward and glared at the creature, and for the first time since the wretch had taken it from me, I saw my face without a mocking expression, set and firm as stone, the lines of the mouth now hardened.
“How advanced is the malignancy?” enquired the scoundrel.
“I am not quite sure but in recent times it has plagued me something rotten. I was reluctantly obliged to give up some of my engagements, and found that after working for two or three days I needed a complete rest. Even the removal of that foul growth did not help. See for yourself— ”
I directed him to remove the flap of his shirt from his trousers and to examine his side just above the hip. Plain to see was an area where a significant amount of tissue had been removed. In actual fact, the wound from a Boer Mauser bullet I had taken in Africa.
“They wanted to remove a good deal more but I prevented them — the pain was unbearable.”
A note of doubt crept across his face and with this I knew that I had tricked him, robbed him of one of his last pleasures — quite possibly I had fooled the Devil himself!
Presently the train entered a tunnel and the carriage experienced a second edition of darkness.
I was seated in one of the carriages near the engine when it happened. My concern began when I detected that we had slowed down rapidly, and then ran into the tunnel. Suddenly there was a powerful jerk, and I was thrown from my seat. The carriage seemed then to touch the ground; with noise of crashing timber and escaping steam was mingled the cries of the men and the shrieks of the women. I heard a lady with a foreign accent crying out that her daughter was in the twisted metal, and watched as several of the passengers, with the help of the guard, the driver and stoker of the colliding engine, worked hard to release the unfortunate girl, but she was a prisoner, and moaned awfully. Amid the terrible groans and heartrending screams in the other carriages , the man opposite, a tall, thin, middle-aged gentleman spoke something inaudible and then rose from his seat, reaching up to force open a crack which must have been made by the collision on the roof, through which he crawled, scrambling out into the settling dust, shaken and bruised.
I quickly followed, and jumping out on to the line, I saw by the fire of our engine that we had collided with a train in front. Our engine was literally buried in the woodwork of the rear carriage. The struggles and cries of the wounded, the hissing and snorting of the engines, and the wreck of the ruined carriages, combined to make up a scene which could never be erased from those who witnessed it. Strangely, I was not in the least hurt, being as sound as I was before I entered the fated train.
I had begun to walk along the track, stumbling over the sleepers and torn rails, when I was overcome by a sensation of extreme cold and light-headedness. Half-blinded by the ash and smoke, I continued to make my way towards the light with this feeling growing inside, until it had coursed through me to such a degree that, ultimately, I had the impression that my body was no longer in touch with the ground, but merely passing through it.