A Psychical Prank, by John Kendrick Bangs
Willis had met Miss Hollister but once, and that, for a certain purpose,
was sufficient. He was smitten. She represented in every way his ideal,
although until he had met her his ideal had been something radically
different. She was not at all Junoesque, and the maiden of his dreams had
been decidedly so. She had auburn hair, which hitherto Willis had
detested. Indeed, if the same hirsute wealth had adorned some other
woman's head, Willis would have called it red. This shows how completely
he was smitten. She changed his point of view entirely. She shattered his
old ideal and set herself up in its stead, and she did most of it with a
There was something, however, about Miss Hollister's eyes that contributed
to the smiting of Willis's heart. They were great round lustrous orbs, and
deep. So deep were they and so penetrating that Willis's affections were
away beyond their own depth the moment Miss Hollister's eyes looked into
his, and at the same time he had a dim and slightly uncomfortable notion
that she could read every thought his mind held within its folds—or
rather, that she could see how utterly devoid of thought that mind was
upon this ecstatic occasion, for Willis's brain was set all agog by the
sensations of the moment.
"By Jove!" he said to himself afterwards—for Willis, wise man that he
could be on occasions, was his own confidant, to the exclusion of all
others—"by Jove! I believe she can peer into my very soul; and if she
can, my hopes are blasted, for she must be able to see that a soul like
mine is no more worthy to become the affinity of one like hers than a
mountain rill can hope to rival the Amazon."
Nevertheless, Willis did hope.
"Something may turn up, and perhaps—perhaps I can devise some scheme by
means of which my imperfections can be hidden from her. Maybe I can put
stained glass over the windows of my soul, and keep her from looking
through them at my shortcomings. Smoked glasses, perhaps—and why not? If
smoked glasses can be used by mortals gazing at the sun, why may they not
be used by me when gazing into those scarcely less glorious orbs of hers?"
Alas for Willis! The fates were against him. A far-off tribe of fates were
in league to blast his chances of success forever, and this was how it
Willis had occasion one afternoon to come up town early. At the corner of
Broadway and Astor Place he entered a Madison Avenue car, paid his fare,
and sat down in one of the corner seats at the rear end of the car. His
mind was, as usual, intent upon the glorious Miss Hollister. Surely no one
who had once met her could do otherwise than think of her constantly, he
reflected; and the reflection made him a bit jealous. What business had
others to think of her? Impertinent, grovelling mortals! No man was good
enough to do that—no, not even himself. But he could change. He could at
least try to be worthy of thinking about her, and he knew of no other man
who could. He'd like to catch any one else doing so little as mentioning
"Impertinent, grovelling mortals!" he repeated.
And then the car stopped at Seventeenth Street, and who should step on
board but Miss Hollister herself!
"The idea!" thought Willis. "By Jove! there she is—on a horse-car, too!
How atrocious! One might as well expect to see Minerva driving in a
grocer's wagon as Miss Hollister in a horse-car. Miserable, untactful
world to compel Minerva to ride in a horse-cart, or rather Miss Hollister
to ride in a grocer's car! Absurdest of absurdities!"
Here he raised his hat, for Miss Hollister had bowed sweetly to him as she
passed on to the far end of the car, where she stood hanging on to a
"I wonder why she doesn't sit down?" thought Willis; for as he looked
about the car he observed that with the exception of the one he occupied
all the seats were vacant. In fact, the only persons on board were Miss
Hollister, the driver, the conductor, and himself.
"I think I'll go speak to her," he thought. And then he thought again:
"No, I'd better not. She saw me when she entered, and if she had wished to
speak to me she would have sat down here beside me, or opposite me
perhaps. I shall show myself worthy of her by not thrusting my presence
upon her. But I wonder why she stands? She looks tired enough."
Here Miss Hollister indulged in a very singular performance. She bowed her
head slightly at some one, apparently on the sidewalk, Willis thought,
murmured something, the purport of which Willis could not catch, and sat
down in the middle of the seat on the other side of the car, looking very
much annoyed—in fact, almost unamiable.
Willis was more mystified than ever; but his mystification was as nothing
compared to his anxiety when, on reaching Forty-second Street, Miss
Hollister rose, and sweeping by him without a sign of recognition, left
"Cut, by thunder!" ejaculated Willis, in consternation. "And why, I
wonder? Most incomprehensible affair. Can she be a woman of whims—with
eyes like those? Never. Impossible. And yet what else can be the matter?"
Try as he might, Willis could not solve the problem. It was utterly past
solution as far as he was concerned.
"I'll find out, and I'll find out like a brave man," he said, after
racking his brains for an hour or two in a vain endeavor to get at the
cause of Miss Hollister's cut. "I'll call upon her to-night and ask her."
He was true to his first purpose, but not to his second. He called, but he
did not ask her, for Miss Hollister did not give him the chance to do so.
Upon receiving his card she sent down word that she was out. Two days
later, meeting him face to face upon the street, she gazed coldly at him,
and cut him once more. Six months later her engagement to a Boston man was
announced, and in the autumn following Miss Hollister of New York became
Mrs. Barrows of Boston. There were cards, but Willis did not receive one
of them. The cut was indeed complete and final. But why? That had now
become one of the great problems of Willis's life. What had he done to be
so badly treated?
A year passed by, and Willis recovered from the dreadful blow to his
hopes, but he often puzzled over Miss Hollister's singular behavior
towards him. He had placed the matter before several of his friends, and,
with the exception of one of them, none was more capable of solving his
problem than he. This one had heard from his wife, a school friend and
intimate acquaintance of Miss Hollister, now Mrs. Barrows, that Willis's
ideal had once expressed herself to the effect that she had admired Willis
very much until she had discovered that he was not always as courteous as
he should be.
"Courteous? Not as courteous as I should be?" retorted Willis. "When have
I ever been anything else? Why, my dear Bronson," he added, "you know what
my attitude towards womankind—as well as mankind—has always been. If
there is a creature in the world whose politeness is his weakness, I am
that creature. I'm the most courteous man living. When I play poker in my
own rooms I lose money, because I've made it a rule never to beat my
guests in cards or anything else."
"That isn't politeness," said Bronson. "That's idiocy."
"It proves my point," retorted Willis. "I'm polite to the verge of
insanity. Not as courteous as I should be! Great Scott! What did I ever do
or say to give her that idea?"
"I don't know," Bronson replied. "Better ask her. Maybe you overdid your
politeness. Overdone courtesy is often worse than boorishness. You may
have been so polite on some occasion that you made Miss Hollister think
you considered her an inferior person. You know what the poet insinuated.
Sorosis holds no fury like a woman condescended to by a man."
"I've half a mind to write to Mrs. Barrows and ask her what I did," said
"That would be lovely," said Bronson. "Barrows would be pleased."
"True. I never thought of that," replied Willis.
"You are not a thoughtful thinker," said Bronson, dryly. "If I were you
I'd bide my time, and some day you may get an explanation. Stranger things
have happened; and my wife tells me that the Barrowses are to spend the
coming winter in New York. You'll meet them out somewhere, no doubt."
"No; I shall decline to go where they are. No woman shall cut me a second
time—not even Mrs. Barrows," said Willis, firmly.
"Good! Stand by your colors," said Bronson, with an amused smile.
A week or two later Willis received an invitation from Mr. and Mrs.
Bronson to dine with them informally. "I have some very clever friends I
want you to meet," she wrote. "So be sure to come."
Willis went. The clever friends were Mr. and Mrs. Barrows; and, to the
surprise of Willis, he was received most effusively by the quondam Miss
"Why, Mr. Willis," she said, extending her hand to him. "How delightful to
see you again!"
"Thank you," said Willis, in some confusion. "I—er—I am sure it is a
very pleasant surprise for me. I—er—had no idea—"
"Nor I," returned Mrs. Barrows. "And really I should have been a little
embarrassed, I think, had I known you were to be here. I—ha! ha!—it's so
very absurd that I almost hesitate to speak of it—but I feel I must. I've
treated you very badly."
"Indeed!" said Willis, with a smile. "How, pray?"
"Well, it wasn't my fault really," returned Mrs. Barrows; "but do you
remember, a little over a year ago, my riding up-town on a horse-car—a
Madison Avenue car—with you?"
"H'm!" said Willis, with an affectation of reflection. "Let me see;
ah—yes—I think I do. We were the only ones on board, I believe,
Here Mrs. Barrows laughed outright. "You thought we were the only ones on
board, but—we weren't. The car was crowded," she said.
"Then I don't remember it," said Willis. "The only time I ever rode on a
horse-car with you to my knowledge was—"
"I know; this was the occasion," interrupted Mrs. Barrows. "You sat in a
corner at the rear end of the car when I entered, and I was very much put
out with you because it remained for a stranger, whom I had often seen and
to whom I had, for reasons unknown even to myself, taken a deep aversion,
to offer me his seat, and, what is more, compel me to take it."
"I don't understand," said Willis. "We were alone on the car."
"To your eyes we were, although at the time I did not know it. To my eyes
when I boarded it the car was occupied by enough people to fill all the
seats. You returned my bow as I entered, but did not offer me your seat.
The stranger did, and while I tried to decline it, I was unable to do so.
He was a man of about my own age, and he had a most remarkable pair of
eyes. There was no resisting them. His offer was a command; and as I rode
along and thought of your sitting motionless at the end of the car,
compelling me to stand, and being indirectly responsible for my acceptance
of courtesies from a total and disagreeable stranger, I became so very
indignant with you that I passed you without recognition as soon as I
could summon up courage to leave. I could not understand why you, who had
seemed to me to be the soul of politeness, should upon this occasion have
failed to do not what I should exact from any man, but what I had reason
to expect of you."
"But, Mrs. Barrows," remonstrated Willis, "why should I give up a seat to
a lady when there were twenty other seats unoccupied on the same car?"
"There is no reason in the world why you should," replied Mrs. Barrows.
"But it was not until last winter that I discovered the trick that had
been put upon us."
"Ah?" said Willis. "Trick?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Barrows. "It was a trick. The car was empty to your eyes,
but crowded to mine with the astral bodies of the members of the Boston
"Wha-a-at?" roared Willis.
"It is just as I have said," replied Mrs. Barrows, with a silvery laugh.
"They are all great friends of my husband's, and one night last winter he
dined them at our house, and who do you suppose walked in first?"
"Madame Blavatsky's ghost?" suggested Willis, with a grin.
"Not quite," returned Mrs. Barrows. "But the horrible stranger of the
horse-car; and, do you know, he recalled the whole thing to my mind,
assuring me that he and the others had projected their astral bodies over
to New York for a week, and had a magnificent time unperceived by all save
myself, who was unconsciously psychic, and so able to perceive them in
their invisible forms."
"It was a mean trick on me, Mrs. Barrows," said Willis, ruefully, as soon
as he had recovered sufficiently from his surprise to speak.
"Oh no," she replied, with a repetition of her charming laugh, which
rearoused in Willis's breast all the regrets of a lost cause. "They didn't
intend it especially for you, anyhow."
"Well," said Willis, "I think they did. They were friends of your
husband's, and they wanted to ruin me."
"Ruin you? And why should the friends of Mr. Barrows have wished to do
that?" asked Mrs. Barrows, in astonishment.
"Because," began Willis, slowly and softly—"because they probably knew
that from the moment I met you, I—But that is a story with a
disagreeable climax, Mrs. Barrows, so I shall not tell it. How do you like