by Esther Darlington MacDonald
The last group of tourists had gone and we tour guides sat having coffee and a breather before leaving ourselves.
It had been a long day. A half dozen tour busses had driven in from early morning until late afternoon. It was my responsbility to see to the closure of Hat Creek House.
“Come on guys, let’s get out of here.” No quarrel from anyone there. They left and I took the mugs to the kitchen. I was anxious to leave myself. I’d noticed dark clouds gathering in the north and they were moving fast up the valley. I hadn’t bothered to bring a jacket that morning. The day had looked so promisingly sunny when I left home.
It was my job to see that all the doors and windows were locked at the end of the day. This was sometimes a lonely business, after the hustle and bustle of the day. A historic, cavernous building like Hat Creek House, one of the few remaining stopping places on the Old Cariboo Road, is bound to feel a little spooky when it’s empty of people. As I went about checking things, the House became quite dark. We had minimal lighting and in the kitchen, a single 40 watt bulb hung from the ceiling. I’m generally not bothered by creaking floor boards. There are quite a few of them here. The few stories that petered down from God knows where about the ranch gave us a laugh when we heard about them. Murder and mayhem had never had any historical fact here.
I had to go upstairs to check the inventory in the rooms. We weren’t too bothered by pilfering since we put wooden gates up as barricades to the rooms. But theft did happen now and then, that’s why we liked to keep the groups together, not let any one wander away. The tour of the House and ranch always included visiting the outbuildings and barns. The wash house, a weathered, wood panelled building about 20 feet long was of particular interest. The laundry, done by native women, had been done here. A water pump, enamel tubs, wooden troughs and wash boards told the story at a glance.
Now the approaching storm had brought the usual winds. Gusts hit the house as I entered the passage to upstairs from the kitchen. The side door from the kitchen rattled. The stairwell was almost completely dark. It was narrow and steep. I stopped to catch my breath at the top and looked down the long hall. The uncurtained windows of the rooms on either side shed little light. For some reason, I moved the barricade aside from the room at the top of the hall, the room we called, the Chinese Cook’s bedroom. I’d been working on this room for a few weeks, trying to get artifacts for it without much luck. But I found a patchwork quilt in the Thrift Shop and an old pillow. And one of our visitors donated a water pitcher and bowl. I’d sewn up a little cotton duck for the windows. No floor covering though, just the bare boards.
I entered the room and looked out out of the window, lifting the curtain. The room faced the orchard. In the half light, the tree trunks were black. The trees hadn’t been pruned for a few years.Eerily, the branches fingered the low dark clouds. I let the curtain fall.
Suddenly, I heard a footstep in the stairwell. I turned, eyes fastened at the darkness. Was it Frank, the manager? Maybe he’d forgotten something, though he seldom came up stairs. The footsteps stopped halfway up. I stopped breathing. Just stood there, waiting, terrified. Please God, let it be Frank.
He stood at the top of the stairs, looked squarely at me. A Chinese man, square built, hatless, could have been any age.
“Please,” he spoke softly, “I sorry. I did not know any one was here.”
I just stood there, mute, heart in my mouth.
“I come to see,” he said, then moved into the room. Then he said,
“Don’t be afraid. I just come to see.”
I stood, motionless in front of the window, rooted. He walked the few steps to the bed. Looked down at it for a moment. Then turned and looked at me. Sat down on the edge of the bed. The bed springs whimpered a little.
“You make it very nice,” he said so softly that I almost couldn’t hear him.
A little smile creased his full, well fleshed face. The face, unwrinkled, except for a deep crease across his forehead just above his eyebrows. The eyebrows almost invisible. Just a brush of grey. He was clean shaven, except for two whisps of grey hair on either side of his mouth.
“Thank you,” I croaked. But I was suddenly no longer afraid.It was crazy. Here was a Chinese man sitting on the edge of the bed, talking to me as if he’d known me for years. And here I was, talking to him.
“Is the room how you looked when you lived here?” I asked.
Again, the little smile. He shook his head, eyed the water pitcher and bowl. Shook his head again.
“I wash in wash house,” he said.
And I could see him, as he was maybe 50 years ago, a young man, going to the wash house to wash his face, his arms, his hands. Drying himself on the towel. Walking back to the House and entering the kitchen to build the fire in the woodstove, beginning to make breakfast for the guests upstairs.
The room had become quite dark. Still, he remained. And I stood there, looking at him. It was all so real. Too real. His large hands fingered the quilt. A dark shadow of a man, yet I could see him. I knew I would remember those details as long as I lived. Suddenly, I said,
“I have to go.” A rush of panic returned.
And I did. Flying down the back stairs, through the kitchen and the dining room, and through the front door. Not waiting to make sure it was locked. And as I ran down the road to the parking lot, I asked myself, how could I lock the door? He was inside!
Twenty minutes later, I called Frank.
“There’s a Chinese man in the bedroom upstairs,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” Frank was annoyed.
“A tourist?” he asked.
“I don’t think so.”
Annoyance again. “Who then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you lock the House up?”
“I think so.”
“Think so?” Frank was now thoroughly angry.
“He must have come up just before we all left,” I managed, groping for an explanation. But that didn’t make sense either.
“And you left him there?”
“Frank, I was scared.”
Then Frank laughed. That was the last thing I expected.
He told me to go home, forget what I thought I saw and spoke to. Get a good night’s sleep. Take a pill if you have to. Get over it, he said.
But needless to say, I didn’t sleep. In the morning, I left early.
When I entered the front door of the House, the odor of freshly baked bread permeated. But something told me the place was empty.
I went into the kitchen. Two loaves of bread sat on the work table. The stove was still warm.
When Frank arrived, two hours later, I told him, “Come see what our visitor left.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” he asked.
He stood there, looking at the loaves for a full minute,
“What shall I do with the bread?” I asked, realizing what a silly question it was.
Frank laughed a short laugh. “Take ‘em home for God’s sake. Eat them.”
“I don’t eat bread baked by a ghost!”
“Then sell them in the gift shop. Make a little sign. Say the bread was baked by the ghost of the Chinese cook.”
Then he left, calling behind him, “That should spark some interest.”