Fiction

The Flirtatious Phantom of Montreal

MICHAEL SHELDON February 1 1955
Fiction

The Flirtatious Phantom of Montreal

MICHAEL SHELDON February 1 1955

IT WAS ten o’clock on a damp and blustery March night. A slight young man, fair and bespectacled, stood under the traffic lights at the Bleury-Dorchester intersection. His hat was soaked, the wind had worked inside his overcoat, and his collar felt like a poultice. Every few minutes he took off his glasses and wiped them, but his damp handkerchief smeared rather than dried the lenses. Noel Desforges had been standing an hour in the rain, and misery had seeped right through him. The cars swishing along the macadam, the glowing galleons of streetcars, the reflected red and green light changes had no attraction for him. The Gothic oddity of the houses now being demolished for street widening, with their uncovered staircases leading to the heavens, had ceased to appeal.

Journalism, he now knew, was a damnable life. If he were not a reporter he would be in his warm comfortable apartment with a hot drink and a good book. His mother, knitting, could be relied on not to make conversation more than once a chapter. But someone had called in a tip about the unusual number of accidents occurring near this intersection, more than a dozen in the past three weeks and all after dark. Georges Santerre, his troubleseeking editor, assuming something wrong with the traffic lights, had scented an opportunity to needle City Hall. And Noel had been told to get the story.

None of the accidents had been serious; just twisted fenders, scraped paintwork and a couple of punched noses. Noel had interviewed the men involved. Almost all of them put everything down to the other fellow’s impossible driving, but five told similar, rather peculiar stories. Just as they were nearing the crossing, they said, something or someone seemed to dart across the street in front of them, making them swerve or brake sharply. They assumed it was some freak reflection off the lights of another car or a newspaper blowing across the street or perhaps a big dog. Except for one man.

He was a tall personable automobile salesman who had been driving back from an unsuccessful demonstration.

“It was some crazy dame,” he said to Noel. “I’m telling you. One moment she was on the sidewalk and the next she was bang in front of me. Did I ever step on that brake.”

“Didn’t she stay to apologize?”

“No sir. And yet I sort of felt she was still around. It was a filthy night, wet snow falling in big flakes, and she was wearing a light-colored coat. Difficult to see, you understand, but I thought I had a glimpse of her in one of those bust-in doorways. It was only for a moment.”

With the evidence so inconclusive, Noel had decided to try to witness a crash himself; it seemed the only way to solve the mystery and satisfy Santerre. But an hour in the driving rain had been more than enough and now he promised himself to leave after the next light-change.

The screech of sudden braking came from up Dorchester. A panel truck had run into the rear of a scarlet convertible. Nobody was hurt but there was a nasty tear in one scarlet fender. Noel arrived to hear the truck driver explaining why the convertible driver should not be allowed on the road.

“Pulling up like that in the middle of a block! Miles from a traffic light! Nothing coming toward you:

“A girl ran in front of me.” 

“Where’s she gone, then? There’s no girl. You want your head read, you’re seeing things.”

At that moment, looking back toward the intersection, Noel himself saw a figure speeding across the street, a slight figure in the palest grey or white. It was not a distinct person but rather an impression, very graceful and feminine. He ran to the corner but he could see nobody.

He had halted at the edge of an excavation. Now, glancing round it, he became aware of movement in a far corner. He jumped down and began to cross the muddy floor. He could not feel the wind down here but it was far more chilling than the street had been. Above him rose the brick side of an untouched house but the excavation itself was marked out with rough field stone, evidently the walls of a long-demolished building. He walked toward the corner with rising hesitation. The movement had frozen into what seemed a dense patch of mist, but when he was a dozen or so paces off it twisted back into a slender, feminine form and glided away, apparently into the wall. Noel understood that he had to do with a ghost.

HE WENT straight home to the family flat overlooking Parc Lafontaine. He found great comfort in the push of his fellow streetcar and bus travelers, their noise and liveliness. “Mon pauvre enfant,” his mother said as he entered. “You look frozen through. I’ll heat you some coffee. Or would you prefer a plate of soup?”

“Coffee will be fine, maman.“

“Whatever have you been doing to get into a state like this?”

Mother and son were very close to each other. “I’ve been chasing a ghost.” 

“Noel!” For him to come home pale and soaked through, and then talk like that, it frightened her. He was not too strong, he could have a fever.

He smiled to reassure her. “For my editor.”

“Oh, a newspaper stunt. Were you successful?”

“I think so.”

“ Une belle jeune fille, your ghost of course?”

“How did you guess, maman?“

“No newspaper would be interested in any other kind, would it?”

Noel was an imaginative young man; he read a lot and wrote verses, and he often wondered whether he were really suited to the brawling life of a daily paper. But he hoped one day to take over the page of art and literature. Possessing a keen sense of history, he saw nothing unusual in a Montreal ghost. Indeed, in the shelter of his own home, he came to find quite a fascination in it—or rather in her. He recalled the enchanting way she had glided across the street. She must find the Bleury-Dorchester intersection a depressing neighborhood to haunt.

Reporting on her, though, would be a problem. Georges Santerre was a down-to-earth man, devoted to facts, who had a strong taste for political insinuation but no patience with fantasy.

Yet he was sufficiently intrigued with the ghost, himself, to wish to know more about her. Who was she? What was the place she haunted ?

He asked among his colleagues where he could find an expert on the old buildings of the city. “Try the Institut Généalogique de Montréal,” an editorial writer said. “It’s run by a wild Irishman called O’Donovan, a Canadien by conversion.”

The Institut was located in the dark grey part of the city near the docks, at the foot of a courtyard of wholesale furriers. Noel climbed a couple of flights of uncertain stairs and banged on what seemed the most likely door.

“Come in,” came a roar from inside, and he walked into an office so lined with bookshelves that there was room as well for just one wide desk, two chairs and the floor space to take off one’s coat. Behind the desk sat a vast grey-bearded man wearing a suit of glowing purple tweed. His nose was large and red, his eyes bright blue.

“And what can I do for you, sir?” The voice had a strong rhythm.

Noel had intended to say he was preparing a piece for the Saturday supplement on old demolished Dorchester Street but the room and the man persuaded him to tell the truth. O’Donovan listened in silence.

“It’s years I’ve been waiting for Montreal to turn up a decent ghost,” he said when Noel had finished. He took a map out of an ancient cabinet and spread it over the littered desk. “The intersection of Bleury and Dorchester, you say?” Together they traced the course of St. Peter Street, where it is now Bleury, out beyond the city walls into the meadows, copses and streams of the eighteenth century. “But, of course, the St. Eusèbe farmhouse. Torn down about 1870 if I remember right. A fine family once, the St. Eusèbe, but there’s not one left alive today. And their women were noted for their beauty.” He paused. “As residuary guardian of the family tree I feel a certain responsibility toward your phantom. Might we go and pay her a call?”

The rain had cleared. It was one of those rumor-of-spring days when the still unbudded trees are a golden glow, and warmth creeps back into the city walls. Steam was rising from the excavation as Noel and O’Donovan jumped in to examine it more closely.

They went to the corner where Noel had seen the figure disappear. “Very respectable folk they were, the St. Eusèbe,” O’Donovan remarked. “Not the kind you’d expect to give rise to ghosts. Not like some families I could tell you of . . .” he broke off suddenly. “Look,” he said. “This corner is right out of line. There’s a sort of projection in the wall. Standing out a foot or more.”

“It might be an old chimney. The fireplace or stove could have been about here.”

“Possibly. But the stone doesn’t seem as heavy as the rest of the wall.”

“It’s hollow though. You can see that where it’s been chipped away at the top.”

They stood back, studying the stonework.

“I’d give a lot,” O’Donovan said, “to tear some more down. We could do it easily with a pickaxe.” They looked at each other. “There’s a hardware down the street.”

They returned with a pickaxe and set to work. Luckily there had been so much demolition in the neighborhood that even the small boys were no longer interested. In a quarter of an hour O’Donovan, a powerful axe wielder, broke through the wall. Noel lit a match and peered inside.

He jerked his head back into the open suddenly. “I—I think there are some bones in there.”

O’Donovan followed him and thrust his hand down, to lift out a skull, small, brown and round. “A woman, certainly a woman,” he murmured, shaking his great head in sympathy. “A fine story for your paper,” he added.

A body, however old, was a fact and therefore a story. But Noel thought of the crude way Georges Santerre would want it handled, and his sensitivity warred with his sense of career.

O’Donovan was watching him closely. “You don’t want to abandon her to the public, do you?” he said. “You feel for the creature and her troubles?” 

“I suppose that’s it.”

“I can feel for her myself. The poor thing is in a pretty predicament, we should not throw her to the dogs of the press. Oh, my apologies for that expression.”

“But we must do something. There are accidents all the time.”

O’Donovan pondered the problem. “If these bones were taken away and given proper burial,” he said at last, “it’s likely all would be well. You agree.”’

“That is the tradition.”

“Then with your permission I shall arrange for that.”

Noel nodded, adding after a minute, “But I would like to know who she is.” 

“I should myself’ O’Donovan agreed. “My records ought to tell us.” 

They returned to the Institut Généalogique. O’Donovan collected a dozen volumes from the shelves, some in manuscript. “Pick yourself something to read while you’re waiting. I’ve reminiscences to suit every palate.” About an hour later he exclaimed, “That surely is the girl. Poor soul, poor soul.”

“Who is she?” Noel asked abruptly. He felt deeply, personally concerned.

“Her name was Marie-Claire St. Eusèbe, the daughter of a certain Réal St. Eusèbe. Listen.” O’Donovan pushed his chair back from the desk and the dust flew. “In 1775 our independence-minded friends to the south thought they would like to free Canada too, and General Montgomery, you will recall, marched into Montreal. You’ll likely be aware too that our good forefathers had mixed feelings about this event. Some welcomed the Americans as liberators but the majority preserved other views. It was just like any invasion, there were collaborators and a resistance. Réal St. Eusèbe remained loyal. We know that from the records. But one of his seven daughters, a diary of the time reports, was a collaborator. In fact MarieClaire St. Eusèbe fell head over heels in love with a gallant Yankee captain.” 

“That sort of thing happens in wartime.”

“I’m told that in Europe they shaved the girls’ heads. My diary says that when the Americans withdrew in the spring of ’76 Marie-Claire left with her lover and was never heard from again. But now it seems she didn’t leave.” Noel eyed the skull on the ground beside him.

“Enclosing in a wall,” O’Donovan said slowly, “was not unknown in the Middle Ages. They used it on nuns who had been unchaste. You can see where Réal, who was a stern man, got his inspiration.”

“I imagine,” Noel said, “that the demolition broke open the chamber and let her—-Marie-Claire—-out.” Now that he could put a name to her he could almost distinguish her features. “She must be terrified by our hideous modern world—the street noises, the tearing automobiles. She runs from place to place seeking refuge, yet never daring to go far from her family home.” 

“I’ve seen an old print,” O’Donovan said. “It was a lovely place with fruit trees and a stream alongside.”

Noel returned to the excavation that night. In a few minutes Marie-Claire glided across the street to keep him company. She stayed by the wall, not too far from him; her presence drove from his mind many of the things he had meant to say to her. But he did manage to assure her she would soon be granted the peace she sought, though he delicately refrained from explaining how. Meanwhile she should be more careful of the traffic. Then the one-sided conversation lapsed into an awkward but tender silence, and after a while he raised his hat and said he must be going home. When he was out on Bleury he looked back. Marie-Claire had moved to the spot against the stone where he had been standing.

The next day he spoke to his editor. “I can find no single cause for the accidents,” he said. “Perhaps the traffic lights require adjustment. The City is looking into it. But mostly they seem to have been due to imagination and the way the moon shines through the half-demolished buildings. Anyway it’s my impression the trouble is over.”

Georges Santerre, who was concerned with a ministerial speech about double taxation, merely said, “That’s a pity, Noel.”

BUT WITHIN hours of O’Donovan calling to say that Marie-Claire St. Eusèbe had been finally laid to rest Noel was told abruptly to get back on the job. A young man in a sports car had run into an oil tanker right at the intersection, breaking his arm and suffering concussion.

O’Donovan understood immediately why their plan had failed. “It was a natural mistake,” he said. “We believed her aim was to draw attention to her mortal remains. But the girl obviously has other things on her mind. She was robbed of so much in life.” 

“But she’s terrified, too,” Noel argued. “There’s no doubt of that. Even if there’s a compelling reason for what she’s doing she can’t enjoy it, not in the middle of this monstrous city. We’ve got to help her.”

O’Donovan broke the long, thoughtful silence. “We know one thing about our Marie-Claire. She was a rather susceptible young woman.”

“It would seem so.”

“Well then, if the American captain could win her, Noel, why shouldn’t you?”

“Me!”

“Just to persuade her to move to a pleasanter less dangerous place. You’re not a bad-looking fellow and I’m sure she can sense your feeling for her.”

Noel’s desire to help Marie-Claire was very great. “But what place? She really needs a big country estate.”

 “Where do you live?”

“Near Parc Lafontaine, in an apartment with my mother.”

“You would have room?”

“Yes, but . . .”

“It’s a quiet neighborhood.”

“We only have an apartment—with two window boxes.”

“My friend, it’s up to you. Certainly she would be happier with you and your good mother than she is at present. And I’m sure she’s a gentle spirit, quite without malice.”

Noel thought of the damp excavation, the bitter unfriendliness of the city at night. “Very well, I’ll invite her.”

O’Donovan advised hiring a carriage for the journey. Marie-Claire could scarcely be expected to make it on foot or by streetcar and she might well be frightened to enter a taxi. He had a friend who drove tourists round Mount Royal and would be delighted to assist.

The next night was misty, the moon was barely visible and the shadows lay thick round the farmhouse walls. The carriage was parked on a filled-in lot just behind the excavation and, while O’Donovan watched from a distance, Noel walked up to the edge of the stones. The traffic noises came to him muffled, as from a great distance.

“Marie - Claire, Marie - Claire,” he called softly. “This is your friend Noel.” He could discern no movement, no sign of her presence. He repeated his words, paused, and then just as he was about to call a third time the mist eddied in a far corner and the young and graceful form began to appear.

“Marie-Claire, things have not worked out the way we hoped. So I want you to leave here with me. The years have passed, your home has gone, you have no friends or family here any longer. You are in the middle of a big and ugly city, and it will destroy you. But I will take you to my own home. It’s not in the country but it’s peaceful and there’s a park opposite where you can go for walks. You’ll be much happier there, my dear.”

The misty form began to move, as if with cautious steps, toward him, though still clinging to the wall. “The carriage is over here,” he called and walked, just as slowly, across the vacant lot. At the carriage steps he paused and watched her rise above the excavation.

He stood, hand outstretched, and she glided by to settle into the corner. The scent of a rose garden on a summer evening swept through the carriage.

During the fifteen minutes of their journey Noel talked gently to Marie-Claire. He was much less shy of her now; he assured her that all was well and she had nothing to fear, that the apartment was comfortable and his mother a most kindhearted woman Also, she would be free to come and go just as she wished.

When the carriage reached his home she followed him without hesitation. His mother called out, “You’re home early, Noel.”

“Yes, maman, it’s a beastly night.’"

He had decided to say nothing yet about Marie-Claire; he would let her get used to the girl’s presence first. He was delighted next morning when she remarked, “What a heavenly scent there is in the apartment today. It’s as if we were living in the heart of a rose garden.”

He was always aware of Marie-Claire when she was near him even though it was difficult to see her in the well-lighted apartment. At night she would come into his room and he would chat for hours with her, whispering intimately, explaining the changes that 175 years had wrought in Montreal and the world. Talk about fashion and social life interested her; she seemed rather inattentive in the periods of political history. She could stay for hours listening to chansons and light music on the radio.

Since the Bleury-Dorchester accidents had stopped Georges Santerre gave up asking for a story on them, but one evening two cars smashed right opposite the apartment and Noel felt Marie-Claire come in a few moments later. That night he gave her a serious lecture on being a good pedestrian; she must always cross on the green light. And for three weeks everything went swimmingly.

THEN, as he came home to supper, Madame Castonguay, the woman who lived in the apartment opposite, remarked from her front door, “I saw your fiancee again last night, Monsieur Desforges. Such a lovely girl. She added with clear intention, “She visits you very late, doesn’t she?”

“She’s been staying with us for a few days,” he managed. The spying interfering witch, he thought, she’s bound to talk to mother. And the following evening Madame Desforges asked over the supper table, 

“What’s this about your fiancée, Noel?”

He had his answer ready. “I’ve been pulling our neighbor’s leg a little.” 

“But she told me she’s seen a girl enter our apartment several times in the past few weeks.”

“She has an imagination.”

“Mais c'est drôle tout de même. Also the janitor has commented on a girl he saw waiting by our door.” Noel was silent. “Mon enfant," his mother went on, looking at him with practiced solicitude, “it has seemed to me too as if a girl were sometimes in the apartment. I’ve even thought I heard you speaking to her. And quite often that lovely scent of roses comes to me.” His conscience had troubled him about the secret he continued to keep. Now he had a good practical reason for speaking. “Her name is Marie-Claire, maman. You remember that wet night some weeks back when you were worried that I had caught a fever ...”

After he had finished Madame Desforges said slowly, with consideration, “Noel, so far as I am concerned your spirit is welcome. She behaves elegantly and seems a sweet-tempered girl. There’s no doubt young people were better brought up in the old days. But if we have trouble with the neighbors, gossiping and so on, it may become difficult.”

It was the following week that Monsieur Lecours, the gay middle-aged bachelor who lived upstairs, hailed Noel at the bus stop and said with a magnificent wink, “'That’s some girl, Noel, ta petite amie. So graceful, so well made. I didn’t believe you had it in you.” The wink was repeated. “But I bet you have to keep your eye on her.”

And Madame Castonguay was still on the watch; the front door so often ajar told him that. Noel came sadly to admit to his mother that she had been right; they could not give Marie-Claire a permanent home.

“But I can’t think of anyone with a place in the country who would welcome her,” he said. “Can you imagine her being received by our cousins near Joliette?”

 “No, they are not the type. But there must be people, Noel, who would be delighted to acquire a family ghost. People who might perhaps be considered nouveaux riches but with good hearts.”

“And how do I find them?”

“Write an article in your paper.”

“But . . .”

“You do not need to give names and addresses. Just tell the story and ask if someone has a home for her.”

He consulted O’Donovan who agreed it was the only solution, and he wrote the article. He was apprehensive about Georges Santerre’s reaction but the editor just remarked, “You must have enjoyed yourself, Noel, writing this. We’ll try to find room in the Saturday supplement.”

He passed a nervous week end awaiting the invitations. But there was no message of any kind for him at the paper on Monday morning, nor was there any letter in the mail referring to Marie-Claire. Montreal readers, it seemed, were unable to believe in ghosts. Then, just before lunch, he was called to the phone.

“Is that Monsieur Noel Desforges, the writer of the story about a ghost?”

“Yes, madame.”

“This is the mayor’s secretary. His Worship would like you to come round to his office.”

“The mayor of Montreal?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

THE IMPOSING mayor, seated at his imposing desk, held out his hand. “Thank you for coming, Monsieur Desforges.” His smile was encouraging. “The questions I am going to ask you, please be quite candid in your answers to them. Your Marie-Claire is real, is she not?”

“She is real, Monsieur le Maire.”

 “And she is a Montreal girl?”

“Her name is Marie-Claire St. Eusèbe. The house I wrote of is at the intersection of Dorchester and Bleury.”

“Which the City demolished. That would seem to give us a certain responsibility. And, tell me, what is the position taken by her family?”

“There are no St. Eusèbe alive in the province, Monsieur le Maire.” 

“Has she been offered a home yet?” 

“No, not yet.”

“C’est très bien.” The mayor, having conducted his essential questioning, allowed himself to relax. “Let me tell you, young man, that I have been most interested by your story. I could regret the paper it appeared in, for your editor is not one of my better friends. But we must not let politics influence us where the welfare of our city and our people is concerned. Must we?” Noel saw an answer was expected. “No, Monsieur le Maire.”

“Of course you agree. And I’m glad I chose to go directly to you, the author, rather than approach your superiors.”

In the following silence Noel asked, “How can I be of assistance?”

The mayor seemed genuinely surprised. “Why, surely it is clear to you that this young lady you have befriended belongs to the City of Montreal?” He gauged Noel’s uncertainty. “There’s no doubt about it. And we cannot have some outsider take her away from us, even another Yankee invader. To let that occur would be a gross betrayal of my office.” The mayor allowed his attitude to sink in. Then he sat forward in his chair, resuming his more businesslike approach. “Monsieur Desforges, I have an offer to make to Mademoiselle St. Eusèbe on behalf of the City of Montreal. I should be grateful if you would consider it in her name. The City is prepared to provide her with a permanent home, furnished and maintained by the Public Works Department.” 

“Where would it be, Monsieur le Maire?”

“A stone cottage on top of Mount Royal. A charming spot. The old keeper and his wife who live there have assured me they have no objection to receiving an additional member of the household. Provided she does not upset the horses of the Sunday riders I’m sure it will prove most suitable.”

“You are most generous, Monsieur le Maire,” Noel’s conscience made him continue. “But there is one problem. The City of Montreal, I imagine, would like it to be known publicly that a municipal ghost has been acquired. Marie-Claire is a gentle sensitive girl. I have done my best to shield her from publicity.”

The mayor chortled with hearty reassurance. “You need have no fear, mon ami. We will not even hold a formal ceremony of welcome. I shall go myself to greet the young lady; I consider it my duty. But there will be no councilors, no speeches, no statements to the press.”

“Well, in that case . . .”

“But I will make one reservation. Once Mademoiselle St. Eusèbe feels at home, I should like to have the right to bring an occasional visitor, only someone of the highest importance, you understand. There are cabinet ministers from overseas, or members of royalty, for whom it is sometimes hard to arrange an attractive program.”

It seemed to Noel a reasonable enough request. “Monsieur le Maire, I am sure that I can accept your offer with gratitude on Marie-Claire’s behalf.”

HE ARRANGED for O’Donovan’s friend to drive them. As the carriage clip-clopped west along Sherbrooke Street he told Marie-Claire that he was bringing her to a delightful new home on top of Mount Royal where a kindly hospitable old couple would look after her. “I hate to have you leave us,” he said, “but there are too many complications. And you will find this much more peaceful.” He could sense the sadness his words aroused in her. “I’ll come and see you often,” he assured her. Still there was no lightening of her mood. “Ma chérie,” he said finally, “if you don’t like it I—I’ll take you back home. I promise.” He was aware then of movement on the seat beside him, the lifting of her bowed head.

It was a beautiful stone-fronted cottage. The crocuses were banked on each side of the door. “You’ll be happy here, Marie-Claire,” he said. “I know you will be.”

A tall white-haired man answered his ring.

“I’ve brought the young lady,” Noel said.

“Monsieur le Maire is waiting for her inside.”

Noel gestured to Marie-Claire but she did not move. “I—she is not certain she wishes to stay.”

“I will speak to the mayor. I’m sure he can convince her.”

The keeper went indoors and returned with the mayor, who stood on the porch and called out in his fine full voice, “Welcome, mademoiselle, on behalf of the City of Montreal. You will do us a great honor if you accept our hospitality.”

There was no movement from the carriage.

“I think she is afraid of being lonely,” Noel murmured.

“She shouldn’t be,” the keeper said. “There’s my wife and myself—and Jean-Louis.”

“Who is Jean-Louis?”

“My son. A sergeant in the Fusiliers, just back from Korea.”

“Is he home now?”

“Oh yes. He is watching the hockey on television.”

“A good fast game,” the mayor commented. “Our Rocket has scored twice.”

Noel found his next few words very painful. “Would you ask your son to come to the door.”

Jean-Louis was as tall as his father, with black hair, a curling moustache and military features. Noel called out, “Please, Marie-Claire, won’t you just come and look at the house.”

The slight girlish form slipped down from the carriage and glided toward them, through the open door. Noel alone remained outside. After a while the mayor came out onto the porch. “Thank you, Monsieur Desforges,” he said. “The City of Montreal is profoundly grateful.”

“She is staying?”

“She is watching television with that fine-looking sergeant.”

The scent of roses drifted faintly through the open door. “I’ll be going then,” Noel said, holding tight the jealousy that was rising within him. For her sake he must be happy it had all turned out so well. ★