Told After Supper by Jerome K. Jerome - HTML preview
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As soon as my uncle had finished his story, I, as I have already told you, rose up and said that I would sleep in the Blue Chamber that very night.
"Never!" cried my uncle, springing up. "You shall not put yourself in this deadly peril. Besides, the bed is not made."
"Never mind the bed," I replied. "I have lived in furnished apartments for gentlemen, and have been accustomed to sleep on beds that have never been made from one year's end to the other. Do not thwart me in my resolve. I am young, and have had a clear conscience now for over a month. The spirits will not harm me. I may even do them some little good, and induce them to be quiet and go away. Besides, I should like to see the show."
Saying which, I sat down again. (How Mr. Coombes came to be in my chair, instead of at the other side of the room, where he had been all the evening; and why he never offered to apologise when I sat right down on top of him; and why young Biffles should have tried to palm himself off upon me as my Uncle John, and induced me, under that erroneous impression, to shake him by the hand for nearly three minutes, and tell him that I had always regarded him as father,--are matters that, to this day, I have never been able to fully understand.)
They tried to dissuade me from what they termed my foolhardy enterprise, but I remained firm, and claimed my privilege. I was 'the guest.' 'The guest' always sleeps in the haunted chamber on Christmas Eve; it is his perquisite.
They said that if I put it on that footing, they had, of course, no answer; and they lighted a candle for me, and accompanied me upstairs in a body.
Whether elevated by the feeling that I was doing a noble action, or animated by a mere general consciousness of rectitude, is not for me to say, but I went upstairs that night with remarkable buoyancy. It was as much as I could do to stop at the landing when I came to it; I felt I wanted to go on up to the roof. But, with the help of the banisters, I restrained my ambition, wished them all good- night, and went in and shut the door.
Things began to go wrong with me from the very first. The candle tumbled out of the candlestick before my hand was off the lock. It kept on tumbling out of the candlestick, and every time I picked put it up and put it in, it tumbled out again: I never saw such a slippery candle. I gave up attempting to use the candlestick at last, and carried the candle about in my hand; and, even then, it would not keep upright. So I got wild and threw it out of window, and undressed and went to bed in the dark.
I did not go to sleep,--I did not feel sleepy at all,--I lay on my back, looking up at the ceiling, and thinking of things. I wish I could remember some of the ideas that came to me as I lay there, because they were so amusing. I laughed at them myself till the bed shook.
I had been lying like this for half an hour or so, and had forgotten all about the ghost, when, on casually casting my eyes round the room, I noticed for the first time a singularly contented-looking phantom, sitting in the easy-chair by the fire, smoking the ghost of a long clay pipe.
I fancied for the moment, as most people would under similar circumstances, that I must be dreaming. I sat up, and rubbed my eyes.
No! It was a ghost, clear enough. I could see the back of the chair through his body. He looked over towards me, took the shadowy pipe from his lips, and nodded.
The most surprising part of the whole thing to me was that I did not feel in the least alarmed. If anything, I was rather pleased to see him. It was company.
I said, "Good evening. It's been a cold day!"
He said he had not noticed it himself, but dared say I was right.
We remained silent for a few seconds, and then, wishing to put it pleasantly, I said, "I believe I have the honour of addressing the ghost of the gentleman who had the accident with the wait?"
He smiled, and said it was very good of me to remember it. One wait was not much to boast of, but still, every little helped.
I was somewhat staggered at his answer. I had expected a groan of remorse. The ghost appeared, on the contrary, to be rather conceited over the business. I thought that, as he had taken my reference to the wait so quietly, perhaps he would not be offended if I questioned him about the organ-grinder. I felt curious about that poor boy.
"Is it true," I asked, "that you had a hand in the death of that Italian peasant lad who came to the town once with a barrel-organ that played nothing but Scotch airs?"
He quite fired up. "Had a hand in it!" he exclaimed indignantly. "Who has dared to pretend that he assisted me? I murdered the youth myself. Nobody helped me. Alone I did it. Show me the man who says I didn't."
I calmed him. I assured him that I had never, in my own mind, doubted that he was the real and only assassin, and I went on and asked him what he had done with the body of the cornet-player he had killed.
He said, "To which one may you be alluding?" "Oh, were there any more then?" I inquired.
He smiled, and gave a little cough. He said he did not like to appear to be boasting, but that, counting trombones, there were seven.
"Dear me!" I replied, "you must have had quite a busy time of it, one way and another."
He said that perhaps he ought not to be the one to say so, but that really, speaking of ordinary middle-society, he thought there were few ghosts who could look back upon a life of more sustained usefulness.
He puffed away in silence for a few seconds, while I sat watching him. I had never seen a ghost smoking a pipe before, that I could remember, and it interested me.
I asked him what tobacco he used, and he replied, "The ghost of cut cavendish, as a rule."
He explained that the ghost of all the tobacco that a man smoked in life belonged to him when he became dead. He said he himself had smoked a good deal of cut cavendish when he was alive, so that he was well supplied with the ghost of it now.
I observed that it was a useful thing to know that, and I made up my mind to smoke as much tobacco as ever I could before I died.
I thought I might as well start at once, so I said I would join him in a pipe, and he said, "Do, old man"; and I reached over and got out the necessary paraphernalia from my coat pocket and lit up.
We grew quite chummy after that, and he told me all his crimes. He said he had lived next door once to a young lady who was learning to play the guitar, while a gentleman who practised on the bass- viol lived opposite. And he, with fiendish cunning, had introduced these two unsuspecting young people to one another, and had persuaded them to elope with each other against their parents' wishes, and take their musical instruments with them; and they had done so, and, before the honeymoon was over, SHE had broken his head with the bass-viol, and HE had tried to cram the guitar down her throat, and had injured her for life.
My friend said he used to lure muffin-men into the passage and then stuff them with their own wares till they burst and died. He said he had quieted eighteen that way.
Young men and women who recited long and dreary poems at evening parties, and callow youths who walked about the streets late at night, playing concertinas, he used to get together and poison in batches of ten, so as to save expense; and park orators and temperance lecturers he used to shut up six in a small room with a glass of water and a collection-box apiece, and let them talk each other to death.
It did one good to listen to him. I asked him when he expected the other ghosts--the ghosts of the wait and the cornetplayer, and the German band that Uncle John had mentioned. He smiled, and said they would never come again, any of them.
I said, "Why; isn't it true, then, that they meet you here every Christmas Eve for a row?"
He replied that it WAS true. Every Christmas Eve, for twenty-five years, had he and they fought in that room; but they would never trouble him nor anybody else again. One by one, had he laid them out, spoilt, and utterly useless for all haunting purposes. He had finished off the last German-band ghost that very evening, just before I came upstairs, and had thrown what was left of it out through the slit between the window-sashes. He said it would never be worth calling a ghost again.
"I suppose you will still come yourself, as usual?" I said. "They would be sorry to miss you, I know."
"Oh, I don't know," he replied; "there's nothing much to come for now. Unless," he added kindly, "YOU are going to be here. I'll come if you will sleep here next Christmas Eve."
"I have taken a liking to you," he continued; "you don't fly off, screeching, when you see a party, and your hair doesn't stand on end. You've no idea," he said, "how sick I am of seeing people's hair standing on end."
He said it irritated him.
Just then a slight noise reached us from the yard below, and he started and turned deathly black.
"You are ill," I cried, springing towards him; "tell me the best thing to do for you. Shall I drink some brandy, and give you the ghost of it?"
He remained silent, listening intently for a moment, and then he gave a sigh of relief, and the shade came back to his cheek.
"It's all right," he murmured; "I was afraid it was the cock."
"Oh, it's too early for that," I said. "Why, it's only the middle of the night."
"Oh, that doesn't make any difference to those cursed chickens," he replied bitterly. "They would just as soon crow in the middle of the night as at any other time--sooner, if they thought it would spoil a chap's evening out. I believe they do it on purpose."
He said a friend of his, the ghost of a man who had killed a water- rate collector, used to haunt a house in Long Acre, where they kept fowls in the cellar, and every time a policeman went by and flashed his bull's-eye down the grating, the old cock there would fancy it was the sun, and start crowing like mad; when, of course, the poor ghost had to dissolve, and it would, in consequence, get back home sometimes as early as one o'clock in the morning, swearing fearfully because it had only been out for an hour.
I agreed that it seemed very unfair.
"Oh, it's an absurd arrangement altogether," he continued, quite angrily. "I can't imagine what our old man could have been thinking of when he made it. As I have said to him, over and over again, 'Have a fixed time, and let everybody stick to it--say four o'clock in summer, and six in winter. Then one would know what one was about.'"
"How do you manage when there isn't any cock handy?" I inquired.
He was on the point of replying, when again he started and listened. This time I distinctly heard Mr. Bowles's cock, next door, crow twice.
"There you are," he said, rising and reaching for his hat; "that's the sort of thing we have to put up with. What IS the time?"
I looked at my watch, and found it was half-past three.
"I thought as much," he muttered. "I'll wring that blessed bird's neck if I get hold of it." And he prepared to go.
"If you can wait half a minute," I said, getting out of bed, "I'll go a bit of the way with you."
"It's very good of you," he rejoined, pausing, "but it seems unkind to drag you out."
"Not at all," I replied; "I shall like a walk." And I partially dressed myself, and took my umbrella; and he put his arm through mine, and we went out together.
Just by the gate we met Jones, one of the local constables.
"Good-night, Jones," I said (I always feel affable at Christmas- time).
"Good-night, sir," answered the man a little gruffly, I thought. "May I ask what you're adoing of?"
"Oh, it's all right," I responded, with a wave of my umbrella; "I'm just seeing my friend part of the way home."
He said, "What friend?"
"Oh, ah, of course," I laughed; "I forgot. He's invisible to you. He is the ghost of the gentleman that killed the wait. I'm just going to the corner with him."
"Ah, I don't think I would, if I was you, sir," said Jones severely. "If you take my advice, you'll say good-bye to your friend here, and go back indoors. Perhaps you are not aware that you are walking about with nothing on but a night-shirt and a pair of boots and an opera-hat. Where's your trousers?"
I did not like the man's manner at all. I said, "Jones! I don't wish to have to report you, but it seems to me you've been drinking. My trousers are where a man's trousers ought to be--on his legs. I distinctly remember putting them on."
"Well, you haven't got them on now," he retorted.
"I beg your pardon," I replied. "I tell you I have; I think I ought to know."
"I think so, too," he answered, "but you evidently don't. Now you come along indoors with me, and don't let's have any more of it."
Uncle John came to the door at this point, having been awaked, I suppose, by the altercation; and, at the same moment, Aunt Maria appeared at the window in her nightcap.
I explained the constable's mistake to them, treating the matter as lightly as I could, so as not to get the man into trouble, and I turned for confirmation to the ghost.
He was gone! He had left me without a word--without even saying good-bye!
It struck me as so unkind, his having gone off in that way, that I burst into tears; and Uncle John came out, and led me back into the house.
On reaching my room, I discovered that Jones was right. I had not put on my trousers, after all. They were still hanging over the bed-rail. I suppose, in my anxiety not to keep the ghost waiting, I must have forgotten them.
Such are the plain facts of the case, out of which it must, doubtless, to the healthy, charitable mind appear impossible that calumny could spring.
But it has.
Persons--I say 'persons'--have professed themselves unable to understand the simple circumstances herein narrated, except in the light of explanations at once misleading and insulting. Slurs have been cast and aspersions made on me by those of my own flesh and blood.
But I bear no ill-feeling. I merely, as I have said, set forth this statement for the purpose of clearing my character from injurious suspicion.