Today my nephew and I moved an ancient, collapsing vanity with a wavy mirror out of my bedroom as part of an ongoing cleaning project. Jamie reminded me of this story from my Halloween 2009 archive about a mirror that showed something strange. (Mine never showed anything strange but me. ;))
The late Irish collector of ghostlore, Elliot O’Donnell, traveled over the whole world in search of stories. One of my favorites of the ones he collected comes from Denver, Colorado, in the year 1900, and is retold by Lawrence Wilson in John Canning’s 50 STRANGE STORIES OF THE SUPERNATURAL.
Stella Dean was a strong-willed young woman, fond of dominating those around her. She got this from her mother, who frequently told Stella she would never have been born at all had she, heavily pregnant with her only daughter, not killed an Indian with an axe during a raid while her husband hid under the bed. Mother Dean also told Stella this pearl: “Decide what you want, go and get it—and the hell with anyone else.”
Stella gave this some thought. She decided that what she wanted was enough money to live a comfortable life and a good-natured husband who would gladly let her be the boss.
She began to work on the money angle first, taking a job in a typing agency. The only others who worked there were the owner, Mrs. Bell, and a beautiful, fragile orphan named Hester Holt. Possibly because of her tragic background, Hester was a romantic at heart, naïve and trusting, always looking for joy at the end of the rainbow. She drove Stella almost to distraction, for Stella was practical rather than romantic; that is, until Stella found that she could tell Hester the cold hard facts of life and Hester would say admiringly, “What a lot you know, Stella!”, which Stella found flattering.
Stella also found a young man whom she thought would make a suitable husband. His name was Peter Simpkins, and he was good-natured and seemed malleable enough. In very short order, she turned on the charm and manuevered him into a proposal of marriage—and then turned bully, treating him with contempt, displaying jealousy of even his male friends, and—worst of all—showing her bullying side to his beloved mother.
Peter proved to have more backbone than Stella expected. He not only broke off their engagement; he began courting beautiful, fragile Hester Holt, who was looking for, as Ira Gershwin would write decades later, “someone to watch over me.” For some time he and Hester were able to keep their courtship a secret, for they both knew Stella could be a vindictive bitch. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep it a secret forever.
And one day, without warning, Hester simply vanished.
She had been missing for three days before Mrs. Bell, her employer, went to her lodgings and asked Hester’s landlord where the girl was. The landlord replied that he had no idea and had been about to come to Mrs. Bell to ask the same question. He also directed her to Peter Simpkins, Hester’s secret lover. Peter was as baffled as Mrs. Bell and the landlord. He did have one piece of information neither of them had, though; he had last seen Hester riding in a buggy with Stella Dean.
Stella denied that she had seen Hester at all; she had been riding in the buggy with her mother, an assertion cheerfully confirmed by Mrs. Dean. Mrs. Bell, by now really concerned about the beautiful orphan girl’s mysterious absence, reported what she knew to the Denver police. Unfortunately, they were understaffed and, without concrete evidence of foul play, let the case go cold.
Mrs. Bell, quite naturally, needed a replacement for the missing Hester. She hired a farmer’s daughter named Alice Cummings to take her place, and on the first day Alice was there, all hell broke loose. Alice complained of feeling an icy chill when she sat working beside Stella and moved to the opposite side of the table. Then she accused Stella of kicking her—which Stella denied—and moved to another table altogether. Mrs. Bell noticed in passing that these events, rather than angering the fiesty Stella, seemed to frighten her—a fright that only increased a few days later when Alice, during an afternoon tea break, asked who the beautiful girl was who had followed Stella into the building that morning and turned aside near the elevator that led up to their floor. When she described the girl, Mrs. Bell immediately identified her; it was undoubtedly Hester Holt. Stella denied seeing anyone, but she turned a bit green.
A few mornings later the three women happened to arrive outside the office door at the same time for work. They could hear the noisy clacking of a typewriter behind the locked door; when Mrs. Bell opened the door, the typing stopped. Stella all but fainted at this episode. That afternoon she pleaded influenza and went home.
Stella was ill for several days, returning pale as a ghost and having in the interim lost a considerable amount of weight. On that very evening, Mrs. Bell happened to meet Peter Simpkins, who excitedly told her that he had seen Hester entering the building that morning about ten, but had not approached her; he confessed he had felt afraid because “it was Hester, but it wasn’t.” Over cups of coffee, he and Mrs. Bell discussed the situation farther and reached a conclusion: he had not seen the living Hester—but her ghost.
Mrs. Bell herself fell ill and Stella and Alice were left to work alone. Alice would tell her employer and others that, on that first day, she and Stella were working when she looked up to see Stella staring at a black dispatch-case (apparently something like a briefcase) which was bouncing on the floor, as Alice described it, as if it were playing hopscotch. The case, which Alice hadn’t noticed before, was marked with the initials HH. Eventually the bouncing briefcase settled down and may have vanished, for Alice didn’t mention it again.
What she did mention was even more sensational. At lunchtime Alice planned to meet a friend. She had already put her hat on and was about to leave when she heard Stella scream. Alice turned back to see that Stella was standing in front of a large mirror that hung on the wall opposite the door. Alice was at the wrong angle to see her own reflection, but nonetheless there were two faces in the mirror: Stella’s, and that of the beautiful young woman Alice had seen before—whom Mrs. Bell had identified as Hester Holt—looking into the mirror over Stella’s right shoulder.
Alice did the sensible thing. She backed out of the room and slammed the door behind her. Seconds later, feeling a bit ashamed, she tried to open it, only to find it had apparently jammed. She summoned the elevator operator; it took them both, and he a large strong man, to open the door. They found Stella lying on the floor in a dead faint.
Stella was taken home, but she died that night. Her mother said she had always had a weak heart.
Some days later, after Mrs. Bell had returned to work and hired a replacement for Stella, a somber Peter Simpkins came to her and reported that he had seen both Stella and Hester entering the building—Stella, as always, in the lead, Hester following her. They both looked dreadful, he said—as if they were the haunted ones.
That was the last time either ghost was ever reported.