WE had been sitting round the fire, rather late at night some half dozen of us, talking about ghosts, as people will talk sometimes on winter nights over the fire. We had none of us apparently anything very new to say upon the subject We were only dealing with tales told at second hand; matters we had heard from others or read of in books ; no one pretended to have undergone any personal experiences in connection with ghosts. One man had narrated a curious story touching an apparition said to have been seen by his grandfather; another had to tell about a house, alleged to be haunted, which had at one time been occupied by his uncles. We did not seem to get any nearer to the spirit world than this. We had only "hearsay" testimony to offer : no evidence bearing upon the question that would have been listened to for a moment in a court of law.
Of course some of our number had been talking a great deal more than the rest In conversation, as in racing, there are always a few who make all the running, while the rest are content to come in anyhow. But to continue the figure, it isn't always those who start off with the lead that manage to keep it; their pace slackens, and they drop back, and occasionally some from quite the rear show very respectably in front at the finish.
There was a lull. The talkers had rather exhausted their subject; they had perhaps no great stock of it on hand to draw from. One of our number, who had been sitting a little apart and somewhat silent, then rose from his chair and approached the fire. With the tongs he lifted a red-hot coal from the grate, and began deliberately to light his pipe. Somehow it happened that as he did this simple thing we all watched him without speaking, as though deeply interested in his movements. Our conversation, I suppose, had inclined us to lay an absurd stress upon trifles. We had started with rather a light treatment of our theme, and had at no time professed to attach much faith to the various recitals that had been ventured upon concerning supernatural visitations; but gradually, and perhaps uncon-sciously, we had become more and more held and possessed by our topic We did not derive strength and support from our numbers, for each man seemed to communicate his weakness to his neighbor: we rather awed and influenced each other, and had at last wrought our nervous systems up to such a pitch of "receptivity," that I believe any sudden loud knocking at the door, or the fall of any article of furniture, or the winking or quenching of the gaslights, would have occasioned us very acute alarm. In this state of morbid impressibility we looked on raptly intent while George Venn went through the business of lighting his pipe with a hot coal.
"I don't think—you fellows—know much what—you're talking about," he said, breaking up his observation into little pieces, as it were, by the interjection of puffs from his pipe. He had at all times a habit of speaking calmly and slowly, almost solemnly. Upon the present occasion he was more than ever deliberate, and seemed somehow to force upon us an air of waiting breathlessly for his oracular utterances. "For all—you've been saying—it doesn't seem to me—that any of you—have really seen—a ghost Now I HAVE ! "
He spoke these last words loudly, and rather imperiously, I thought He had a deep bass voice, somewhat hollow in tone. Upon the present occasion it seemed to me to possess almost a sepulchral quality. For a moment the hot coal lit up his face with a peculiar red glow; then he enveloped himself in quite a cloud of smoke, through which he stalked back to his chair, all eyes following him with earnest curiosity, and perhaps some apprehension.
I think it must have occurred at the same moment to the other men in the room as well as to me that, all things considered, perhaps George Venn was the most likely of any of us to have been favored with personal experiences in relation to the world of ghosts. This idea might have been due to the fact that less was really known about him than about the others, most of whom had been intimately connected with each other from quite schoolboy times, whereas Venn was comparatively a recent acquaintance. He was older than the rest, with a more decided manner; was somewhat taciturn, while we were inclined to be talkative ; with no affectation of being blasé, he was apt to maintain a deliberate serenity while our spirits were at their highest and wildest—was, indeed, especially quiet and calm when we were most boisterous. But at the same time it must be said of him, that if he never yielded to our exhilaration, so also he never was deeply affected by our depression; and we had the usual juvenile propensity of oscillating with exceeding rapidity between ecstatic joy and abject despondency.
No one knew much about Venn. He was an artist, he had passed the greater part of his life abroad, and was now perhaps thirty years old or so. Within the last few years he had settled in London, and had gradually been introduced into the small group of men—art-students for the most part, and intimate friends—who were now assembled round the fire talking about ghosts. Though we were bound by no rules, and our meetings were the result of little pre-arrangement, and were irregular and accidental enough, we formed, in truth, a sort of club of young men, bound together by similar pursuits and inclinations. We met in each other's studios from time to time, talked art, smoked pipes, discussed each other's achievements and aspirations, had a turn now and then with the gloves or a bout with single-stick, and emptied tumblers of punch. We were decidedly young men, as you will perhaps have already concluded from this report of our proceedings; and we gladly opened our ranks to admit George Venn. He was older, more experienced, was clever, good-tempered, and could give us valuable information about the methods and manners of continental art and artists. Moreover, the fact that he presented a type of character dissimilar to the general was in itself an urgent reason for his acceptance amongst us with promptness and goodwill.
Yes, decidedly I thought he was the very man to have seen a ghost The more I considered him, the more I grew fixed in that opinion. Who should have seen a ghost if George Venn had not ? That calm manner of his, which nothing seemed to affect—that settled repose, from which nothing could rouse him—those deep, yet hollow tones—those steady, earnest, dark eyes of his—all pertained appropriately to a man who had, it may be, looked into the other world, and was not, therefore, to be startled by the incidents of this—who was, as it were, en rapport with the supernatural, and therefore little likely to be affected by the normal occurrences of life. If a stranger of ordinary capacity had been introduced into the room at that moment, and asked to select from among us the man who had seen a ghost, I felt positive that he would have singled out George Venn. The pretensions of the others in such respect were contemptible, compared to Venn's.
Not that his appearance was remarkable, otherwise than by a simplicity of toilet that was perhaps a little studied. We, after the manner of young art-students, were a little prone to eccentricities of dress, to certain fanciful exuberances in our modes of arranging our hair, training our moustaches, and shaping our beards, (We did not all possess those last-named appendages; all, however, affected a growth, more or less downy in quality and slight in quantity, upon the upper lip.) But Venn, if he had ever been subjected to such weaknesses, had now, at any rate, outgrown and got rid of them. He never appeared in the picturesque, brightly-lined, many-buttoned velvet painting jackets which were favorites with us. He wore generally a simple suit of tweed, and looked rather as though he were going shooting or on a pedestrian expedition than merely to work at his easel. In fact he never seemed to pose himself as a painter, whereas I think we were fond of attitudinizing a good deal in that character. He had possibly passed through that first stage of excited pride in his profession to which the student is prone. He wore no beard whatever, shaving close; though, to judge by the blue-black shades about his chin and lips, he might, had he so listed, have indulged in hirsute decoration on a most liberal scale. His hair was clipped close, the forelock drooping a little over his broad forehead, something after the fashion made memorable by the First Napoleon. Indeed, now I come to think of it, Venn had a good deal of the straight-ruled brow, the olive complexion, the sunken but steady eyes, and the regularity of feature of the great Emperor. Perhaps, upon the whole, his face was a little more aquiline in mould ; while his figure, without being less broad, was taller, and more lithe and sinewy ; and he was without the tendency to corpulence which spoilt the contour of le petit caporal, especially as he advanced in life.
"You've seen a ghost, Venn?" some one asked "Really?"
"I have," he answered, simply.
"In this studio."
We received this announcement with quite a gasp of astonishment.
I should have said, perhaps, that we were sitting in Venn's painting-room. We had a habit of meeting now at Frank Ripley's, now at Tom Thoroton's, now at Venn's, now at my studio. There was no settled plan about the thing, no pre-cise invitation issued; but at times a sort of understanding seemed to pervade our small society that on a particular night Frank, or Tom, or George, or Harry, as the case might be, would be in his rooms " at home," when men were expected "to look him up" accordingly. Somehow the information circulated rapidly amongst us. We were too intimate to stand upon much ceremony with each other. No one waited for any further or more official intimation on the subject, but, when the night arrived, forthwith proceeded to his friend's abode, with unquestioning acceptance of the idea that he would find a host prepared to give him welcome. So it happened that it was in Venn's studio, on Venn's chairs, round Venn's fire, that we met on the evening under mention, smoking Venn's tobacco, drinking Venn's grog, and talking about ghosts in the manner already alluded to.
Now there was this to be said about Venn, that he never did anything quite as anybody else would do it. His arrangements in connection with the practice of his profession were differently ordered to those of other students. We were for the most part content with furnished apartments, improvising as convenient studios as we could ; Venn had taken a whole house to himself.
"After all, it costs very little more," he one day explained in his quiet way, "while the advantages are enormous. Sometimes I like to be quiet, very quiet; with other people living in a house, you know, that's not possible. Occasionally it happens that I prefer to be noisy, particularly noisy: it occurs to me that I want to ascertain whether I've lost my aim, whether my nerve is steady, and my eye correct; and then I blaze away with my revolver at a mark on the wall for hours, sometimes for days together; or, feeling a passion for exercise, I pile up my furniture, and amuse myself with taking a flying leap over it, or jumping down a whole flight of stairs, coming down sometimes rather loudly and heavily, I can tell you. Other lodgers in the house might reasonably object to that kind of thing. They could no more stand me than I could tolerate them, in fact We should never agree. We could never come to terms as to being noisy or quiet at quite the same times. In fact, I've tried life in lodgings, and found it a dead failure. The landlady always came up to give me notice to quit just as I was thinking of going down to let her know that I couldn't endure to stop under her roof any longer. So now I'm on a different plan. I've a house of my own. A man's house is his castle. This is my castle—Venn Castle, if you like; and I can do what I like in it ; play the drum or the organ, or leap-frog ; fire off anything from a popgun to an Armstrong; be as quiet as a mouse of noisy as Verdi's orchestra ; and there's no one to interfere with me or say me nay. It's a capital good house; wants a great deal doing to it, I admit; in fact, it's terribly out of repair ; but then that makes it cheap. I've got it for the fag end of a lease: the landlord won't do anything until the lease fells in ; and of course no reasonable—I was going to say no respectable—tenant would take a place upon which he had to spend no end of money to make it decently habitable, especially as he couldn't be certain of having his term renewed. But I'm not particular; it suits me very well. I don't mind cracked ceilings, or broken cornices, or uneven floors ; and so long as there are stairs, I don't think banisters matter much ; for cobwebs, I'm rather partial to them, and we all know that dirt is picturesque. So here I've pitched my tent, and I shall get on well enough if I can only persuade the public to buy my pictures. After all, that's the main desideratum of an artists life."
Certainly it was a queer old place, was Venn's Castle, built at a time when London houses were allowed a little more elbow room than at present The rooms were large and numerous, the entrance wide ; it belonged to the days when there were "halls," real halls, and not "passages" merely ; the staircase solid and spacious, ascending gently, with large landings, and wooden globes at the corners of the banisters. The house was situate in a street near Soho Square, and had been once the abode of wealth and fashion, no doubt, but these had long since departed, leaving few traces behind them. "Venn's Castle" was shouldered by public-houses and hucksters' shops ; the neighborhood had sadly lost caste, and consideration, and money too, I should drink. Decidedly it had a very down-at-heel, out-at-elbow, impecunious, insolvent look. The scavengers didn't do their duty by the street, nor the paving commissioners, if there are such functionaries, nor the gas companies. It was always muddy, the roadway most uneven, and the lamps few and far between, emitting the feeblest of rays. Poverty had taken possession of the precinct, and was left to have its own way, to do its best or its worst there, undisturbed and unassisted. Proceeding to Venn's you felt sure that you were entering a district certain to be described in parliamentary and registrar-general reports as " thickly populated and very poor." The evidence was clear on the subject: to be quite satisfied, you had only to look aloft at the number of bird-cages, at the pigeons perched on the coping-stones or the chimney stacks, at the vermilioned flower-pots, the bright-green mignonette boxes upon the window-sills, or below at the mangles, to be arrived at down the area steps, and the clothes hanging up to dry in the areas; or all round at the coal-sheds, the beer-shops, the numberless bells on the door-posts, and zinc plates on the doors, And then the tide of children that flooded the streets and broke into waves on the kerb-stones ; the children forever singing shrill choruses, of performing wild dances, or playing strange games, very noisy, and dirty, and ill clad, and bareheaded, wanting, perhaps, fresh air and more food, and yet apparently very happy and high-spirited notwithstanding ! Arriving at Venn's door, it was always necessary to break the ranks of a brigade of children drawn up in very close order, and holding possession of the steps against all comers. Having reached the knocker, and obtained entrance into the house, the brigade instantly re-formed in your rear, as though effectually to prevent your retreat by the same road. A thorough conviction must have occupied the minds of the juvenile population that to them belonged, by the right of long custom, Venn's doorsteps a great deal more than to Venn, and that if there was any permission required in the matter, he had to seek such permission of them rather than they of him.
"You've seen a ghost in this studio, Venn ? "
"Certainly I have."
Now if Venn was a likely man to have seen a ghost, it was not less clear that Venn's studio was the very place of all others in which a ghost—from all one had ever read of heard by tale or history of ghosts—would be likely to make its appearance. It was a large room, so large that it seemed hardly possible by any process of lighting to disperse the gloom that would somehow gather in its corners. Indeed, not the painting-room simply, but every other room in the house, seemed to present itself as a likely and promising haunt for a ghost. Almost everywhere a mysterious murki-ness pervaded; projecting masses of wall flung dark shadows, sunken windows starved the light, while dust-crusted panes sullied it And then the stairs creaked, the boards started, the wainscot cracked in a way that was certainly rather alarming : especially when you had once got thoroughly into our mind the notion that the house was haunted. Hitherto, I confess, such an idea had not occurred to me, and I had constantly visited Venn, passing up and down his great staircase, and in and out of his great grim rooms without over suspecting that ghosts were possibly dogging my steps, or lurking in corners watching my movements, or creeping into nooks and corners to get out of my way. Now, how-ever, I saw the thing from a very different point of view. It was palpable the place was haunted. As I glanced over my shoulder, and round the room—not without, I admit, a vague dread of detecting some horrid object, unperceived before, crouching among the distant shadows—I felt more and more convinced of the fact We had often laughed at Venn about his cheap house, had made facetious reference to its being in chancery, the property of a lunatic landlord, and so on, but I don't think we had ever hit upon the real truth, now so self-evident, it was beyond all question—Venn had got his house cheaply because it was haunted, and no one else could be found to live in it.
And yet, after all, there was little enough in the studio; it was simply a large room, barely habitable from the comfortless way in which it was fitted up. Venn carried his views as to the picturesqueness of dirt and litter to quite an excess : he never permitted the dust to be disturbed, or a cobweb to be removed. Some of us were, on the other hand, very dainty about our studios, decking them with carved oak and choice specimens of china and Venetian glass, hangings of mediaeval tapestry, cut velvet, or stamped leather, making them as spruce and pretty as a lady's boudoir. Venn denounced all such doings as fopperies and finicking rubbish.
"I hate to be surrounded by things I can smash or spoil I only want room to turn round and splash my oils or spurt my turps about in. This is a studio, not a hair-cutting saloon. Some of you fellows can't paint unless you have diamond rings on your fingers, and bear's-grease on your hair, and scent on your pocket-handkerchiefs. You'll mix your colors with eau-de-Cologne next This studio not comfortable ! What more do you want ? Aren't there chairs to sit down upon, and a square of carpet in front of the fire ? It is a little ragged, I own ; but that's from the hot coals jumping out of the fire now and then, and fellows dropping their fusees about. I'm not going to load the place with gimcracks and furniture, as you do. What good do you get out of them ? They only cost money, and absorb the light. There's not too much of either of those articles in this studio, I can tell you." So he held to his desolate, destitute painting-room, with its few ricketty Windsor chairs, its cloudy ceiling and uneven floor, its bare, dingy wainscoting, only ornamented here and there by a " life study," or a vague outline in chalk or charcoal ; stray canvasses resting here and there with their faces turned to the wall, the failures to be found in all studios: inchoate undertakings which the artist can never persuade himself to complete or destroy thoroughly, but suffers rather to wear out and perish of their own accord, aided by time and dust and damp.
"Well, tell us about this ghost, Venn," said Tom Thoroton. We had waited for some few minutes, in hopes that Venn would volunteer a narration on the subject. But he did not seem inclined to speak; sat quietly smoking his pipe, apparently absorbed in the contemplation of its well-colored bowl. It was evident that he required to be stimulated into talking by coaxing and questioning.
"Tell us about this ghost, Venn."
"What do you want to know about it ? " he asked.
"When did you first see it ?"
"Not long after I took this house."
"Weren't you frightened ? "
"Well, not exactly frightened. I was vexed and annoyed at first, but I got used to it afterwards ; there was nothing so very alarming about it."
"Did it stay long ? "
"Some few days."
"What! then you saw it by daylight? I thought ghosts never appeared except at night ?"
"Ah, it's clear you get your notion of ghosts from the theatre; you're thinking of ' his majesty of buried Denmark," and Banquo, and the tent scene in Richard the Third. But the ghosts have changed all that; they take their walks by day now as well as by night."
"You're joking, Venn."
"Very well, then, let's change the subject; I didn't start it; and I'm sure I don't want to go on with it."
But of course we were not going to let the thing drop in that unsatisfactory way. Venn's coyness only piqued our curiosity the more.
"No, no," I said, " let's hear all about it, old fellow. Does it come often ? "
"Well, no. I couldn't stand it constantly ; it would be rather too much of a good thing, you know. A little of it I don't so much mind; but of course it would be terrible in the way of my work if it were here always. I should have to give up the place, in fact."
"But how often does it come? "
"Well; two or three times a year, say—not more."
"And stop a few days each time? "
"Hanged if I should like it, though," said Tom Thoroton, and he passed his hand across his forehead " It's all very well for you, Venn, to talk in that cool way about it; but I know I should be terribly upset if a ghost were to come and take up his abode in my place for days together. I shouldn't be able to do a stroke of work while it stayed, or to get a wink of sleep, or to eat or drink ever so little." And Tom Thoroton emptied his tumbler. He looked very white, I thought He was at all times a young fellow off rather an active imagination.
"One gets used to things," said Venn, with a philosophical air; " and I always find that if one's appetite goes away, it comes back again, sure enough. I wish one's money would do the same."
"Does it come upon you suddenly, or do you know when to expect it ?"
"Well, some time before, I have a notion that it will make its appearance."
"Ah! I see ? a presentiment ? "
"A presentiment, if you like."
"A presage of coming misfortune ?"
"That, too, if you will have it so. I don't go in for fine language much myself."
"You find yourself disturbed in mind; oppressed in an unaccountable way ?"
"I find that, after certain bad attacks of extravagance and idleness, comes a depression of spirits, and then the ghost."
"But you're never low-spirited, Venn ? "
"I am, sometimes. But when such misfortune happens to me I know what course to pursue. I keep myself to myself, as people say. I don't victimize my friends. I don't try to pull them down to my low level. I don't want to inoculate every one I meet with my malady. Low spirits are very catching sort of things. A determined man may spread his disorder far and wide among his acquaintances, if he gives his mind to it For my part I feel penitent, and a little ashamed ; and I lock myself up till I am better. I don't care to go whining about, making everybody miserable under the pretence of obtaining their sympathy."
I don't know whether Venn meant it so or not; but this was certainly rather hard upon some of us, who, I own, were a little apt to impart not only our joys but also our griefs, in fact, especially our griefs, to our friends, without much regard to their feelings so long as we obtain some small sense of relief by the proceeding.
"But you're not speaking of a real ghost, Venn, but a sort of apparition of the mind, born of gloom, and idleness, and some irregularity of life, and consequent contrition. Your ghost is only the result of a disordered fancy, weakened nerves, disturbed health."
"Nothing of the kind," said Venn, quietly. "I'm speaking of a real ghost, tangible, unmistakable, who comes into this studio, and sits in that chair for long, long hours together."
He pointed to the "sitter's" chair, raised on a dais, the usual studio property. Of course we all turned to look at the chair, following his hand as he pointed to it, almost expecting to see the ghost then and there occupying that seat of vantage. No ghost was there, however.
"By George ! it must be very awful," said Tom Thoroton, in a moved voice. " Fancy a ghost coming into a fellow's studio, and sitting down there for hours together ! By George ! enough to drive a fellow mad."
"As I said before, Tom, it's annoying until one get's accustomed to it."
"Is the ghost—a woman ? " asked Frank Ripley.
"No, Frank—you needn't grin—not a woman ; not at all like a woman."
Frank Ripley's organ of veneration was by no means well developed. It was no laughing matter that we were discussing. Perhaps in truth he was only laughing—as the scoffer will sometimes laugh—to conceal his fears.
"Not a woman, Frank, nor anything so very awful, Tom, I'm not setting up to be tremendous in the way of nerve and pluck. But the ghost doesn't come to me in an alarming form ; it is, on the contrary, a simple, unpretending ghost enough, is quiet and pacific in its nature and demeanor, seems indeed anxious to give me as little trouble as possible under the circumstances.
"What form does it take then ? "
"That of a little wizen old man in a shabby long brown great-coat, with a red comforter round his neck."
"Why then—," I began.
"What have you got to say on the subject?" Venn inquired rather sharply, I fancied.
"Why, don't you remember? I called on you one day—there was some difficulty about my seeing you, but I was let in at last—and there was some one sitting here, answering that description : a little old man in a long brown coat, with a comforter round his neck; he was sitting quietly in that chair; he didn't speak a word—in fact, I don't remember that he moved."
"When was it?"
"Not long after Christmas."
"Ah I yes, I remember now. Well, that was the ghost that haunts this house."
"By Jove I then I've seen him."
I took a new interest in myself. I was master of an extraordinary experience. I also had seen a ghost. That seeing it, I didn't at the time know it to be a ghost, was a little disappointing, I admit; yet in truth it did not materially affect the question."
"Then I've seen him !" I became an object of attention to the whole room.
"Let us have no more scepticism about this matter," said Venn, almost hilarious in his "triumph." "No more talk about nerves, and fancy, and bad health—that sort of thing. The story doesn't rest upon my credit solely ; unlooked—for evidence has turned up quite at the right moment The ghost has been seen by other eyes than mine."
"But I say, weren't you frightened, old fellow?" Tom Thoroton inquired of me.
"Well, not so much as you might fancy, Tom; because, don't you see, I never thought about the man being a ghost In fact, he didn't look the least like a ghost—that is to say, according to one's preconceived ideas as to what a ghost should look like. No more like a ghost than I look, or you, for that matter—not so much as you, perhaps, Tom, for you're looking uncommonly white to-night, old man,"
"What! the ghost was sitting there, and you didn't know that it was a ghost ? "
"No; I thought the old man was a model In fact, I think Venn said he was a model. Certainly he made a sketch of him."
"You made a sketch of the ghost, Venn?" they all exclaimed in amazement.
"Yes, a very slight thing," he said.
"By George! you have a nerve! " cried Tom Thoroton admiringly.
"Here's the sketch," said Venn, as he took a millboard from a corner of the room. "It's flimsy enough, and a little too low in tone; but it was done on a very dark day. It will give you some idea of the man. I described him as a model, because—well—because," he explained, half laughing, "I thought it would be pleasanter for all parties that his real character should not be revealed; it saved a great deal of awkwardness and troublesome explanation; nothing could be more embarrassing, I should think, than a formal introduction to a ghost, as a ghost; it was better to regard him for the nonce in the light of an ordinary human being. I'm sure he was grateful to me for so considering him. You're not afraid to look at the drawing, Tom ? That can't hurt you, at all events."
We all looked at the drawing. Certainly there was nothing very remarkable about it It was very slight, in oils; thinly painted, and sketchily treated: not well defined—hardly made out at all in places. Yet undoubtedly it bore a decided resemblance to the old man I had seen in the studio.
"Still, I wonder at your nerve," persisted Tom Thoroton.
"Well, you see, Tom, I'm a practical sort of fellow. Given a ghost in your studio, the question arises how to utilize him? Well, why not make a study of him? It always is good practice to make sketches and studies of any and everything. The thing's very simple."
"Did the ghost make any objection?"
"Not the least in the world. He was rather pleased at the idea—was flattered—glad to be of use. Ghosts, it seems to me, have a good many of the weaknesses of the flesh, and they are not nearly so black, or for that matter so white, as they are often painted. For instance, the ghost in question was very happy to make himself at home. I begged him to do so, and he complied. He was even so accommodating as to smoke a pipe with me."
"He smoked a pipe !" we all exclaimed.
"Fancy smoking a pipe with a ghost!" cried Tom Thoroton in a scared voice.
"Yes; here's the identical pipe ! I put it on one side for him in case he should want it again." And Venn took from the high mantelpiece a long clay " churchwarden." We all examined it with deep interest, though of course it was a facsimile of thousands of other " churchwardens." But then a pipe which had been smoked by a ghost was naturally a curiosity, of its kind almost unique.
"He smoked ! Did he talk ? "
"Yes. But he was not a ghost of any great conversational powers. He did his best, however, to make himself agreeable. I think he appreciated my method of treating him, which was decidedly polite. I flatter myself I'm polite to every one. Why should I alter my usual line of conduct in the presence of a ghost ? I was polite to him and considerate. I endeavored to make his abode here, while it lasted, as agreeable as I could to both of us. I fancy in other haunts he meets with a less pleasant reception. When you come to think of it, you know, people generally are really very rude to ghosts. Instead of treating them with any sort of respect, they stare at them, scream at them, call them names, such as "horrible shadow," "unreal mockery," "goblin damned;" apply to them other equally offensive epithets, and sometimes go into convulsive fits, or faint right off at the sight of them. Well, you know that's really not pleasant to the ghost, and a ghost has his feelings like anybody else—places him, indeed, in a very awkward and painful position. He doesn't want to disturb the peace of families, or to do any harm really. He only asks to be let alone. Perfect quiet is much more congenial to him than indecent uproar and alarm. If his appearance is not attractive, that's hardly to be considered as his fault If his presence is objectionable, he can't very well help that I'll undertake to say he doesn't really want to be wandering about to and fro upon the earth, making himself unpleasant He'd much prefer sitting quietly at home—wherever that may be—if he could have altogether his own way in the matter."
"This is all very well, you know, Venn ; but if the ghost were to come in now, you wouldn't like it."
"I quite admit it, Frank. I should dislike it very much. Still, I trust I should know how to behave with a proper regard for the decencies of life. A ghost understands seemly behavior ; while for good manners I'm convinced that ghosts have quite as good manners as—well, let us say picture-dealers. "
"But are you sure this is a ghost, Venn? Are there no other lodgers in the house ?"
"None, only the old woman—my housekeeper—who let you fellows in and who'll let you out, presently; there's no hurry."
"But how do you account for this ghost? "
"Ah, that's a very grave question (I don't mean a pun) I may have a notion myself on the subject."
"Well, what is it?"
"No. I won't state it just at present I should like to hear first what is the usual theory about ghosts. Can any one tell me ?—in a few words, of course. No one wants to have a long lecture on the subject."
"Well, a man dies with something on his mind, consequently his spirit can get no rest, but continues to haunt the earth," explained Tom Thoroton.
"And that something on his mind?"
"Well, let us say that in his lifetime he has hidden a treasure, which remains undiscovered; he has died suddenly without time to make a revelation on the subject Perhaps for want of the money his family are in great distress, so he can't rest quiet, but haunts the place where his treasure lies secreted. Plenty of ghost stories run like that. There may be some treasure hidden beneath the floor of this room."
"If I thought it I'd soon have the boards up and secure it But I don't believe a word of it The only treasure in this room amounts to about fifteen and fourpence, which I have here "—Venn slapped his pocket as he spoke. " Only fifteen and fourpence—and I owe—well, never mind how much I owe. Of course I don't include in my calculation such small coin as you fellows may have in your pockets. Your money can't be said in any way to pertain to the room. No, Tom ; I can't admit your explanation about the buried treasure. It's too improbable. A buried treasure in a studio ! Impossible !"
"But it needn't be a buried treasure," cried Thoroton; " ghosts haunt places for other reasons than that Instance, a sin committed, unatoned for, unavenged."
"Ah!" Venn seemed to think this explanation more reasonable. "But what sort of a sin? Something rather strong in that way, of course ? "
"Well, say a bigamy?" Thoroton exclaimed rather at random. I fancy he had been reading a good many sensational novels of late.
"Or a forgery!" suggested some one.
"Or murder!" Then there was silence for a few minutes.
"What do you say, Venn ? " Thoroton asked breathlessly.
"No. Not murder, I should think, Tom. Not murder exactly, but rather an execution !"
"An execution !" we all shouted.
"Ah! Like that in 'Les Trois Mousquetaires,' perhaps ! " cried Tom Thoroton, breathlessly.
Before Venn could answer, there came aloud single knock at the door. We were instantly silent "Come in," said Venn.
There was a shuffling sound, the door opened slowly—very slowly—and then a figure appeared, advanced into the room, and stood amongst us.
It was the ghost !
I think we were all frightened I know I was; and we had real cause for alarm. There was no mistake about it The new-comer was the little old man I had once before seen in Venn's studio, not knowing him to be a ghost: it was the little wizen old man in the long brown coat and the red comforter, a sketch of whose portrait Venn had just showed us. We looked at the ghost, then at each other, then at the ghost again, then at Venn. What white faces we all had! from the glare of the gas, of course.
Even Venn was disturbed, I could see, though he made an effort to conceal or to overcome his emotion. He made a step forward to where the figure of the little old man was standing.
"You'll think me very late, I'm afraid," said the ghost, in an odd, quavering voice. He made a bow as he spoke—a bow that was almost grotesque in its exceeding obsequiousness, I remember thinking at the time.
"Well, it is late," said Venn, with a forced air of not caring about the thing.
"Better late than never, you know, Mr. Venn," observed the ghost.
"I don't quite see that," said Venn, with tolerable coolness. He must have had a very critical turn of mind. Fancy taking an objection to the ghost's simple citation of a popular proverb ! How Thoroton marvelled at him !
"I'm afraid I'm disturbing you, and these good gents," and the ghost glanced around at us with a queer smile. What a sparkle—quite a supernatural sparkle—there was in his little round black eyes ! And then—I'm sure it grated upon all of us to be called gents by a ghost!
"Stow me anywheres if I'm at all in the way. There ain't no need, you know, Mr. Venn, to be pertikler to a shade," said the ghost.
("By George, though," murmured Tom Thoroton. "I thought ghosts talked better English than that! ")
"Only you know, Mr. Venn, the other parts of the 'ouse ain't over and above 'abitable. Still, I'm accommodatin', I am ; and if it's ill-conwenient for me to come in here at the present moment, why I don't mind sittin' down on the stairs outside for a hour or two—only mind, fair's fair; no larks, fain smuggings ; no disturbing the property, such as there is," and he looked round the room, not reverently, I thought in regard to its few contents. "You've always behaved the thorough gen'elman to me, Mr. Venn, that I will say : tipping me liberal and treating me 'andsome, it would be 'ard if I couldn't be accommodatin' for a hour or two ; wouldn't it cow, gents ? " and he looked round at us again.
"We'll go, Venn.' There was a general movement towards our hats and coats. We seemed all stirred by a common desire to get away from Venn's studio as quickly as we might.
"Stop," cried Venn, in some excitement, the tones of his voice very hollow and solemn, and yet with a sort of desire to laugh twitching about his lips as he spoke.
"You mustn't go like this. The unforeseen circumstance that has occurred forces upon me an explanation, though I had not contemplated giving any. Some one just now suggested that there had been a murder committed in this house. I proposed by way of amendment to substitute the word execution. That is the truth, the real truth, gentlemen. There has been an execution in this house. In point of fact there have been many executions in this house ; and there is an execution in this house at the present moment Moreover, my old acquaintance here, the ghost, is no other than—a man in possession.
"A man in possession !" we echoed.
"Yes; and he haunts me, and this house, soon after quarter-day, especially. My landlord has a great regard for me as his tenant, but he is ridiculously punctilious on the subject of the receipt of his rent I have a great respect for him, as a landlord; but I concede that, owing to circumstances over which I have no control, and to which I will not further allude, I am oftentimes not quite so well prepared to pay my rent as doubtless I ought to be. The result generally is—an execution, and the presence of my friend here, in the character of a man in possession. It's one of the inconveniences of having a house all to oneself—an inconvenience that is amply compensated for by the many advantages of the arrangement I have already referred to them. I said just now that, after bad attacks of extravagance and idleness, came depression of spirits ; and then—the ghost. In plainer words, I don't work, and I get into debt I don't pay my rent, and the landlord puts in an execution, and I am haunted by my friend here—a very worthy old person in his way—who s presently going to smoke a pipe, and have a glass of grog with me, as he's done before now. But he'll go out on Monday, when I shall receive money enough to satisfy all outstanding claims, my landlord's among the rest Why hurry away ? This is a ' most honest ghost; that let me tell you.' Come, another tumbler all round. Why not ? That's right Don't talk about spirits any more; but put them in your glasses and drink them—properly diluted, of course, and with a little sugar, and lemon."
It was evident that, in considering George Venn, we had entirely failed to appreciate one element in his character. He possessed an inclination for humor and practical jesting beyond anything we had ever given him credit for. But then—the tact has been already stated—we were all very young men; and perhaps our conduct occasionally rendered us particularly open to jocose comment and criticism.