The Philosophy Of Relative Existences
In a certain summer, not long gone, my friend Bentley and I found
ourselves in a little hamlet which overlooked a placid valley,
through which a river gently moved, winding its way through green
stretches until it turned the end of a line of low hills and was
lost to view. Beyond this river, far away, but visible from the door
of the cottage where we dwelt, there lay a city. Through the mists
which floated over the val
ey we could see the outlines of steeples
and tall roofs; and buildings of a character which indicated thrift
and business stretched themselves down to the opposite edge of the
river. The more distant parts of the city, evidently a small one,
lost themselves in the hazy summer atmosphere.
Bentley was young, fair-haired, and a poet; I was a philosopher, or
trying to be one. We were good friends, and had come down into this
peaceful region to work together. Although we had fled from the
bustle and distractions of the town, the appearance in this rural
region of a city, which, so far as we could observe, exerted no
influence on the quiet character of the valley in which it lay,
aroused our interest. No craft plied up and down the river; there
were no bridges from shore to shore; there were none of those
scattered and half-squalid habitations which generally are found on
the outskirts of a city; there came to us no distant sound of bells;
and not the smallest wreath of smoke rose from any of the buildings.
In answer to our inquiries our landlord told us that the city over
the river had been built by one man, who was a visionary, and who
had a great deal more money than common sense. "It is not as big a
town as you would think, sirs," he said, "because the general
mistiness of things in this valley makes them look larger than they
are. Those hills, for instance, when you get to them are not as high
as they look to be from here. But the town is big enough, and a good
deal too big; for it ruined its builder and owner, who when he came
to die had not money enough left to put up a decent tombstone at the
head of his grave. He had a queer idea that he would like to have
his town all finished before anybody lived in it, and so he kept on
working and spending money year after year and year after year until
the city was done and he had not a cent left. During all the time
that the place was building hundreds of people came to him to buy
houses, or to hire them, but he would not listen to anything of the
kind. No one must live in his town until it was all done. Even his
workmen were obliged to go away at night to lodge. It is a town,
sirs, I am told, in which nobody has slept for even a night. There
are streets there, and places of business, and churches, and public
halls, and everything that a town full of inhabitants could need;
but it is all empty and deserted, and has been so as far back as I
can remember, and I came to this region when I was a little boy."
"And is there no one to guard the place?" we asked; "no one to
protect it from wandering vagrants who might choose to take
possession of the buildings?"
"There are not many vagrants in this part of the country," he said,
"and if there were they would not go over to that city. It is
"By what?" we asked.
"Well, sirs, I scarcely can tell you; queer beings that are not
flesh and blood, and that is all I know about it. A good many people
living hereabouts have visited that place once in their lives, but I
know of no one who has gone there a second time."
"And travellers," I said, "are they not excited by curiosity to
explore that strange uninhabited city?"
"Oh yes," our host replied; "almost all visitors to the valley go
over to that queer city--generally in small parties, for it is not a
place in which one wishes to walk about alone. Sometimes they see
things and sometimes they don't. But I never knew any man or woman
to show a fancy for living there, although it is a very good town."
This was said at supper-time, and, as it was the period of full
moon, Bentley and I decided that we would visit the haunted city
that evening. Our host endeavored to dissuade us, saying that no one
ever went over there at night; but as we were not to be deterred he
told us where we would find his small boat tied to a stake on the
river-bank. We soon crossed the river, and landed at a broad but low
stone pier, at the land end of which a line of tall grasses waved in
the gentle night wind as if they were sentinels warning us from
entering the silent city. We pushed through these, and walked up a
street fairly wide, and so well paved that we noticed none of the
weeds and other growths which generally denote desertion or little
use. By the bright light of the moon we could see that the
architecture was simple, and of a character highly gratifying to the
eye. All the buildings were of stone, and of good size. We were
greatly excited and interested, and proposed to continue our walks
until the moon should set, and to return on the following
morning--"to live here, perhaps," said Bentley. "What could be so
romantic and yet so real? What could conduce better to the marriage
of verse and philosophy?" But as he said this we saw around the
corner of a cross-street some forms as of people hurrying away.
"The spectres," said my companion, laying his hand on my arm.
"Vagrants, more likely," I answered, "who have taken advantage of
the superstition of the region to appropriate this comfort and
beauty to themselves."
"If that be so," said Bentley, "we must have a care for our lives."
We proceeded cautiously, and soon saw other forms fleeing before us
and disappearing, as we supposed, around corners and into houses.
And now suddenly finding ourselves upon the edge of a wide, open
public square, we saw in the dim light--for a tall steeple obscured
the moon--the forms of vehicles, horses, and men moving here and
there. But before, in our astonishment, we could say a word one to
the other, the moon moved past the steeple, and in its bright light
we could see none of the signs of life and traffic which had just
Timidly, with hearts beating fast, but with not one thought of
turning back, nor any fear of vagrants--for we were now sure that
what we had seen was not flesh and blood, and therefore harmless--we
crossed the open space and entered a street down which the moon
shone clearly. Here and there we saw dim figures, which quickly
disappeared; but, approaching a low stone balcony in front of one of
the houses, we were surprised to see, sitting thereon and leaning
over a book which lay open upon the top of the carved parapet, the
figure of a woman who did not appear to notice us.
"That is a real person," whispered Bentley, "and she does not see
"No," I replied; "it is like the others. Let us go near it."
We drew near to the balcony and stood before it. At this the figure
raised its head and looked at us. It was beautiful, it was young;
but its substance seemed to be of an ethereal quality which we had
never seen or known of. With its full, soft eyes fixed upon us, it
"Why are you here?" it asked. "I have said to myself that the next
time I saw any of you I would ask you why you come to trouble us.
Cannot you live content in your own realms and spheres, knowing, as
you must know, how timid we are, and how you frighten us and make us
unhappy? In all this city there is, I believe, not one of us except
myself who does not flee and hide from you whenever you cruelly come
here. Even I would do that, had not I declared to myself that I
would see you and speak to you, and endeavor to prevail upon you to
leave us in peace."
The clear, frank tones of the speaker gave me courage. "We are two
men," I answered, "strangers in this region, and living for the time
in the beautiful country on the other side of the river. Having
heard of this quiet city, we have come to see it for ourselves. We
had supposed it to be uninhabited, but now that we find that this is
not the case, we would assure you from our hearts that we do not
wish to disturb or annoy any one who lives here. We simply came as
honest travellers to view the city."
The figure now seated herself again, and as her countenance was
nearer to us, we could see that it was filled with pensive thought.
For a moment she looked at us without speaking. "Men!" she said.
"And so I have been right. For a long time I have believed that the
beings who sometimes come here, filling us with dread and awe, are
"And you," I exclaimed--"who are you, and who are these forms that
we have seen, these strange inhabitants of this city?"
She gently smiled as she answered, "We are the ghosts of the future.
We are the people who are to live in this city generations hence.
But all of us do not know that, principally because we do not think
about it and study about it enough to know it. And it is generally
believed that the men and women who sometimes come here are ghosts
who haunt the place."
"And that is why you are terrified and flee from us?" I exclaimed.
"You think we are ghosts from another world?"
"Yes," she replied; "that is what is thought, and what I used to
"And you," I asked, "are spirits of human beings yet to be?"
"Yes," she answered; "but not for a long time. Generations of men--I
know not how many--must pass away before we are men and women."
"Heavens!" exclaimed Bentley, clasping his hands and raising his
eyes to the sky, "I shall be a spirit before you are a woman."
"Perhaps," she said again, with a sweet smile upon her face, "you
may live to be very, very old."
But Bentley shook his head. This did not console him. For some
minutes I stood in contemplation, gazing upon the stone pavement
beneath my feet. "And this," I ejaculated, "is a city inhabited by
the ghosts of the future, who believe men and women to be phantoms
She bowed her head.
"But how is it," I asked, "that you discovered that you are spirits
and we mortal men?"
"There are so few of us who think of such things," she answered, "so
few who study, ponder, and reflect. I am fond of study, and I love
philosophy; and from the reading of many books I have learned much.
From the book which I have here I have learned most; and from its
teachings I have gradually come to the belief, which you tell me is
the true one, that we are spirits and you men."
"And what book is that?" I asked.
"It is 'The Philosophy of Relative Existences,' by Rupert Vance."
"Ye gods!" I exclaimed, springing upon the balcony, "that is my
book, and I am Rupert Vance." I stepped toward the volume to seize
it, but she raised her hand.
"You cannot touch it," she said. "It is the ghost of a book. And did
you write it?"
"Write it? No," I said; "I am writing it. It is not yet finished."
"But here it is," she said, turning over the last pages. "As a
spirit book it is finished. It is very successful; it is held in
high estimation by intelligent thinkers; it is a standard work."
I stood trembling with emotion. "High estimation!" I said. "A
"Oh yes," she replied, with animation; "and it well deserves its
great success, especially in its conclusion. I have read it twice."
"But let me see these concluding pages," I exclaimed. "Let me look
upon what I am to write."
She smiled, and shook her head, and closed the book. "I would like
to do that," she said, "but if you are really a man you must not
know what you are going to do."
"Oh, tell me, tell me," cried Bentley from below, "do you know a
book called 'Stellar Studies,' by Arthur Bentley? It is a book of
The figure gazed at him. "No," it said, presently, "I never heard of
I stood trembling. Had the youthful figure before me been flesh and
blood, had the book been a real one, I would have torn it from her.
"O wise and lovely being!" I exclaimed, falling on my knees before
her, "be also benign and generous. Let me but see the last page of
my book. If I have been of benefit to your world; more than all, if
I have been of benefit to you, let me see, I implore you--let me see
how it is that I have done it."
She rose with the book in her hand. "You have only to wait until you
have done it," she said, "and then you will know all that you could
see here." I started to my feet and stood alone upon the balcony.
"I am sorry," said Bentley, as we walked toward the pier where we
had left our boat, "that we talked only to that ghost girl, and that
the other spirits were all afraid of us. Persons whose souls are
choked up with philosophy are not apt to care much for poetry; and
even if my book is to be widely known, it is easy to see that she
may not have heard of it."
I walked triumphant. The moon, almost touching the horizon, beamed
like red gold. "My dear friend," said I, "I have always told you
that you should put more philosophy into your poetry. That would
make it live."
"And I have always told you," said he, "that you should not put so
much poetry into your philosophy. It misleads people."
"It didn't mislead that ghost girl," said I.
"How do you know?" said Bentley. "Perhaps she is wrong, and the
other inhabitants of the city are right, and we may be the ghosts
after all. Such things, you know, are only relative. Anyway," he
continued, after a little pause, "I wish I knew that those ghosts
were now reading the poem which I am going to begin to-morrow."