The Angel and the Author by Jerome K. Jerome - HTML preview

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CHAPTER XVI

[The Ghost and the Blind Children.]

Ghosts are in the air. It is difficult at this moment to avoid talking of ghosts. The first question you are asked on being introduced this season is:

"Do you believe in ghosts?"

I would be so glad to believe in ghosts. This world is much too small for me. Up to a century or two ago the intellectual young man found it sufficient for his purposes. It still contained the unknown--the possible--within its boundaries. New continents were still to be discovered: we dreamt of giants, Liliputians, desert- fenced Utopias. We set our sail, and Wonderland lay ever just beyond our horizon. To-day the world is small, the light railway runs through the desert, the coasting steamer calls at the Islands of the Blessed, the last mystery has been unveiled, the fairies are dead, the talking birds are silent. Our baffled curiosity turns for relief outwards. We call upon the dead to rescue us from our monotony. The first authentic ghost will be welcomed as the saviour of humanity.

But he must be a living ghost--a ghost we can respect, a ghost we can listen to. The poor spiritless addle-headed ghost that has hitherto haunted our blue chambers is of no use to us. I remember a thoughtful man once remarking during argument that if he believed in ghosts--the silly, childish spooks about which we had been telling anecdotes--death would possess for him an added fear: the idea that his next dwelling-place would be among such a pack of dismal idiots would sadden his departing hours. What was he to talk to them about? Apparently their only interest lay in recalling their earthly troubles. The ghost of the lady unhappily married who had been poisoned, or had her throat cut, who every night for the last five hundred years had visited the chamber where it happened for no other purpose than to scream about it! what a tiresome person she would be to meet! All her conversation during the long days would be around her earthly wrongs. The other ghosts, in all probability, would have heard about that husband of hers, what he said, and what he did, till they were sick of the subject. A newcomer would be seized upon with avidity.

A lady of repute writes to a magazine that she once occupied for a season a wainscotted room in an old manor house. On several occasions she awoke in the night: each time to witness the same ghostly performance. Four gentlemen sat round a table playing cards. Suddenly one of them sprang to his feet and plunged a dagger into the back of his partner. The lady does not say so: one presumes it was his partner. I have, myself, when playing bridge, seen an expression on my partner's face that said quite plainly:

"I would like to murder you."

I have not the memory for bridge. I forget who it was that, last trick but seven, played the two of clubs. I thought it was he, my partner. I thought it meant that I was to take an early opportunity of forcing trumps. I don't know why I thought so, I try to explain why I thought so. It sounds a silly argument even to myself; I feel I have not got it quite right. Added to which it was not my partner who played the two of clubs, it was Dummy. If I had only remembered this, and had concluded from it--as I ought to have done--that my partner had the ace of diamonds--as otherwise why did he pass my knave?--we might have saved the odd trick. I have not the head for bridge. It is only an ordinary head--mine. I have no business to play bridge.

[Why not, occasionally, a cheerful Ghost.]

But to return to our ghosts. These four gentlemen must now and again, during their earthly existence, have sat down to a merry game of cards. There must have been evenings when nobody was stabbed. Why choose an unpleasant occasion to harp exclusively upon it? Why do ghosts never give a cheerful show? The lady who was poisoned! there must have been other evenings in her life. Why does she not show us "The first meeting": when he gave her the violets and said they were like her eyes? He wasn't always poisoning her. There must have been a period before he ever thought of poisoning her. Cannot these ghosts do something occasionally in what is termed "the lighter vein"? If they haunt a forest glade, it is to perform a duel to the death, or an assassination. Why cannot they, for a change, give us an old-time picnic, or "The hawking party," which, in Elizabethan costume, should make a pretty picture? Ghostland would appear to be obsessed by the spirit of the Scandinavian drama: murders, suicides, ruined fortunes, and broken hearts are the only material made use of. Why is not a dead humorist allowed now and then to write the sketch? There must be plenty of dead comic lovers; why are they never allowed to give a performance?

[Where are the dead Humorists?]

A cheerful person contemplates death with alarm. What is he to do in this land of ghosts? there is no place for him. Imagine the commonplace liver of a humdrum existence being received into ghostland. He enters nervous, shy, feeling again the new boy at school. The old ghosts gather round him.

"How do you come here--murdered?" "No, at least, I don't think so." "Suicide?

"No--can't remember the name of it now. Began with a chill on the liver, I think."

The ghosts are disappointed. But a happy suggestion is made. Perhaps he was the murderer; that would be even better. Let him think carefully; can he recollect ever having committed a murder? He racks his brains in vain, not a single murder comes to his recollection. He never forged a will. Doesn't even know where anything is hid. Of what use will he be in ghostland? One pictures him passing the centuries among a moody crowd of uninteresting mediocrities, brooding perpetually over their wasted lives. Only the ghosts of ladies and gentlemen mixed up in crime have any "show" in ghostland.

[The Spirit does not shine as a Conversationalist.]

I feel an equal dissatisfaction with the spirits who are supposed to return to us and communicate with us through the medium of three- legged tables. I do not deny the possibility that spirits exist. I am even willing to allow them their three-legged tables. It must be confessed it is a clumsy method. One cannot help regretting that during all the ages they have not evolved a more dignified system. One feels that the three-legged table must hamper them. One can imagine an impatient spirit getting tired of spelling out a lengthy story on a three-legged table. But, as I have said, I am willing to assume that, for some spiritual reason unfathomable to my mere human intelligence, that three-legged table is essential. I am willing also to accept the human medium. She is generally an unprepossessing lady running somewhat to bulk. If a gentleman, he so often has dirty finger-nails, and smells of stale beer. I think myself it would be so much simpler if the spirit would talk to me direct; we could get on quicker. But there is that about the medium, I am told, which appeals to a spirit. Well, it is his affair, not mine, and I waive the argument. My real stumbling-block is the spirit himself--the sort of conversation that, when he does talk, he indulges in. I cannot help feeling that his conversation is not worth the paraphernalia. I can talk better than that myself.

The late Professor Huxley, who took some trouble over this matter, attended some half- dozen seances, and then determined to attend no more.

"I have," he said, "for my sins to submit occasionally to the society of live bores. I refuse to go out of my way to spend an evening in the dark with dead bores."

The spiritualists themselves admit that their table-rapping spooks are precious dull dogs; it would be difficult, in face of the communications recorded, for them to deny it. They explain to us that they have not yet achieved communication with the higher spiritual Intelligences. The more intelligent spirits--for some reason that the spiritualists themselves are unable to explain--do not want to talk to them, appear to have something else to do. At present--so I am told, and can believe--it is only the spirits of lower intelligence that care to turn up on these evenings. The spiritualists argue that, by continuing, the higher-class spirits will later on be induced to "come in." I fail to follow the argument. It seems to me that we are frightening them away. Anyhow, myself I shall wait awhile.

When the spirit comes along that can talk sense, that can tell me something I don't know, I shall be glad to meet him. The class of spirit that we are getting just at present does not appeal to me. The thought of him--the reflection that I shall die and spend the rest of eternity in his company--does not comfort me.

[She is now a Believer.]

A lady of my acquaintance tells me it is marvellous how much these spirits seem to know. On her very first visit, the spirit, through the voice of the medium--an elderly gentleman residing obscurely in Clerkenwell--informed her without a moment's hesitation that she possessed a relative with the Christian name of George. (I am not making this up--it is real.) This gave her at first the idea that spiritualism was a fraud. She had no relative named George--at least, so she thought. But a morning or two later her husband received a letter from Australia. "By Jove!" he exclaimed, as he glanced at the last page, "I had forgotten all about the poor old beggar."

"Whom is it from?" she asked.

"Oh, nobody you know--haven't seen him myself for twenty years--a third or fourth cousin of mine--George--"

She never heard the surname, she was too excited. The spirit had been right from the beginning; she HAD a relative named George. Her faith in spiritualism is now as a rock.

There are thousands of folk who believe in Old Moore's Almanac. My difficulty would be not to believe in the old gentleman. I see that for the month of January last he foretold us that the Government would meet with determined and persistent opposition. He warned us that there would be much sickness about, and that rheumatism would discover its old victims. How does he know these things? Is it that the stars really do communicate with him, or does he "feel it in his bones," as the saying is up North?

During February, he mentioned, the weather would be unsettled. He concluded:

"The word Taxation will have a terrible significance for both Government and people this month."

Really, it is quite uncanny. In March: "Theatres will do badly during the month."

There seems to be no keeping anything from Old Moore. In April "much dissatisfaction will be expressed among Post Office employees." That sounds probable, on the face of it. In any event, I will answer for our local postman.

In May "a wealthy magnate is going to die." In June there is going to be a fire. In July "Old Moore has reason to fear there will be trouble."

I do hope he may be wrong, and yet somehow I feel a conviction that he won't be. Anyhow, one is glad it has been put off till July.

In August "one in high authority will be in danger of demise." In September "zeal" on the part of persons mentioned "will outstrip discretion." In October Old Moore is afraid again. He cannot avoid a haunting suspicion that "Certain people will be victimized by extensive fraudulent proceedings."

In November "the public Press will have its columns full of important news." The weather will be "adverse," and "a death will occur in high circles." This makes the second in one year. I am glad I do not belong to the higher circles.

[How does he do it?]

In December Old Moore again foresees trouble, just when I was hoping it was all over. "Frauds will come to light, and death will find its victims."

And all this information is given to us for a penny.

The palmist examines our hand. "You will go a journey," he tells us. It is marvellous! How could he have known that only the night before we had been discussing the advisability of taking the children to Margate for the holidays?

"There is trouble in store for you," he tells us, regretfully, "but you will get over it." We feel that the future has no secret hidden from him.

We have "presentiments" that people we love, who are climbing mountains, who are fond of ballooning, are in danger.

The sister of a friend of mine who went out to the South African War as a volunteer had three presentiments of his death. He came home safe and sound, but admitted that on three distinct occasions he had been in imminent danger. It seemed to the dear lady a proof of everything she had ever read.

Another friend of mine was waked in the middle of the night by his wife, who insisted that he should dress himself and walk three miles across a moor because she had had a dream that something terrible was happening to a bosom friend of hers. The bosom friend and her husband were rather indignant at being waked at two o'clock in the morning, but their indignation was mild compared with that of the dreamer on learning that nothing was the matter. From that day forward a coldness sprang up between the two families.

I would give much to believe in ghosts. The interest of life would be multiplied by its own square power could we communicate with the myriad dead watching us from their mountain summits. Mr. Zangwill, in a poem that should live, draws for us a pathetic picture of blind children playing in a garden, laughing, romping. All their lives they have lived in darkness; they are content. But, the wonder of it, could their eyes by some miracle be opened!

[Blind Children playing in a World of Darkness.]

May not we be but blind children, suggests the poet, living in a world of darkness-- laughing, weeping, loving, dying--knowing nothing of the wonder round us?

The ghosts about us, with their god-like faces, it might be good to look at them.

But these poor, pale-faced spooks, these dull-witted, table-thumping spirits: it would be sad to think that of such was the kingdom of the Dead.