"Bones and I"/Chapter 9

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A HUNDRED years ago there was scarce a decent country house in England or Scotland that did not pride itself on two advantages—the inexhaustible resources of its cellar and the undoubted respectability of its ghost. Whether the generous contents of the one had not something to do with the regular attendance of the other, I will not take upon me to decide; but in those times hall, castle, manor-house, and even wayside inn were haunted every one. The phantoms used to be as various, too, as the figures in a pantomime. Strains of unaccountable music sometimes floated in the air. Invisible carriages rolled into courtyards at midnight, and door-bells rang loudly, pulled by unearthly visitors, who were heard but never seen. If you woke at twelve o'clock you were sure to find a nobleman in court-dress, or a lady in farthingale and high-heeled shoes, warming a pair of ringed and wasted hands at the embers of your wood-fire; failing these, a favourite sample of the supernatural consisted of some pale woman in white garments, with her black hair all over her shoulders and her throat cut from ear to ear. In one instance I remember a posting-house frequented by the spirit of an ostler with a wooden leg; but perhaps the most blood-chilling tale of all is that which treats of an empty chamber having its floor sprinkled with flour to detect the traces of its mysterious visitant, and the dismay with which certain horror-stricken watchers saw footsteps printing themselves off, one by one, on the level spotless surface—footsteps plain and palpable, but of the Fearful Presence nothing more!

As with houses in those, so is it with men in these days. Most of the people I have known in life were haunted: so haunted, indeed, that, for some the infliction has led at last to madness, though, in most instances, productive only of abstracted demeanour, wandering attention, idiotic cross-purposes, general imbecility of intellect, and, on occasion, reckless hilarity with quaint, wild, incoherent talk. These haunted head-pieces, too, get more and more dilapidated every day; but how to exorcise them, that is the difficulty! What spells shall have power to banish the evil spirit from its tenement, and lay it in the Red Sea? if, indeed, that is the locality to which phantoms should properly be consigned. Haunted men are, of all their kind, the most unhappy; and you shall not walk along a London street without meeting them by the dozen.

The dwelling exclusively on one idea, if not in itself an incipient symptom, tends to produce, ere long, confirmed insanity. Yet how many people have we seen going about with the germs of so fearful a calamity developing into maturity! This man is haunted by hope, that by fear,—others by remorse, regret, remembrance, desire, or discontent. Each cherishes his ghost with exceeding care and tenderness, giving it up, as it were, room after room in the house, till by degrees it pervades the whole tenement, and there is no place left for a more remunerative lodger, healthy, substantial, and real. I have seen people so completely under the dominion of expectation, that in their morbid anticipation of the Future, they could no more enjoy the pleasures afforded by the Present than the dead. I have known others for whom the brightest sunshine that ever shone was veiled by a cloud of apprehension, lest storms should be lurking below their horizon the while, who would not so much as confess themselves happy because of a conviction such happiness was not to last,—and for whom time being—as is reasonable—only temporal could bring neither comfort nor relief. It is rarer to find humanity suffering from the tortures of remorse, a sensation seldom unaccompanied, indeed, by misgivings of detection and future punishment; still, when it does fasten on a victim, this Nemesis is of all others the most cruel and vindictive. Regret, however, has taken possession of an attic, in most of our houses, and refuses obstinately to be dislodged. It is a quiet, well-behaved ghost enough, interfering but little with the ordinary occupations of the family, content to sit in a dark corner weeping feebly and wringing its hands, but with an inconvenient and reprehensible tendency to emerge on special occasions of rejoicing and festivity, to obtrude its unwelcome presence when the other inmates are gladdened by any unusual beauty of sight or sound.

Discontent, perhaps, should hardly be dignified with the title of a ghost. He resembles rather those Brownies and Lubbers of northern superstition, who, unsightly and even ludicrous in appearance, were not yet without their use in performing the meaner offices of a household. If properly treated and never dragged into undue notice, the Brownie would sweep up the hearth, bring in the fuel, milk the cows, and take upon him the rough work generally, in an irregular, uncouth, but still tolerably efficient style. So perhaps a spirit of discontent, kept within proper bounds, may prove the unsuspected mainspring of much useful labour, much vigorous effort, much eventual success. The spur is doubtless a disagreeable instrument to the horse, and its misapplication has lost many a race ere now; but there is no disputing that it can rouse into action such dull torpid temperaments as, thus unstimulated, would never discover their own powers nor exert themselves to do their best.

But I should draw a wide distinction between the discontent which instigates us to improve our lot, and the desire, the desiderium, the poisonous mixture of longing and sorrow, defiance and despair, which bids us only rend our garments, scatter ashes on our heads, and sit down in the dust unmanly to repine. It is the difference between the Brownie and the Fiend, Of all evil spirits I think this last is the most fatal, the most accursed. We can none of us forget how our father Abraham, standing at his tent-door on the plains of Mamre, entertained three angels unawares. And we, too, his descendants, are always on the look out for the visitors from heaven. Do they ever tarry with any of us for more than a night's lodging? Alas! that the very proof of our guest's celestial nature is the swiftness with which he vanishes at daybreak like a dream. But oftener the stranger we receive, though coming from another world, is not from above. His beauty, indeed, seems angelic, and he is clad in garments of light. For a while we are glad to be deceived, cherishing and prizing our guest, the more perhaps for those very qualities which should warn us of his origin. So we say to him, "Thou art he for whom we have been looking. Abide, with us here for ever." And he takes us at our word.

Henceforth the whole house belongs to the ghost. When we go to dinner, he sits at the head of the table. Try to shame him away with laughter, and you will soon know the difference between mirth and joy. Try to drown him with wine. No. Don't try that. It is too dangerous an experiment, as any doctor who keeps a private mad-house will tell you. Our duties we undertake hopelessly and languidly, because of his sneer, which seems to say, "What is the use? Am I not here to see that you reap no harvest from your labour, earn no oblivion with your toil?" And for our pleasures—how can we have any pleasures in that imperious presence, under the lash of that cruel smile?

Even if we leave our home and walk abroad, in hope to free ourselves from the tenacious incubus, it is in vain. There is beauty in the outside world, quiet in the calm distant skies, peace in the still summer evening, but not for us—nevermore for us—

"Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright sun,
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the sun."

Ay, therein lurks our curse. We bear the presence well enough when cold winds blow and snow falls, or when all the landscape about is bleak and bare and scathed by bitter frosts. The cruel moment is that in which we feel a capability of enjoyment still left but for our affliction, a desire to bask in his rays, a longing to turn our faces towards his warmth—

"When that strange shape drives suddenly
Betwixt us and the sun."

There is no exorciser from without who can help us. Alas! that we can so seldom help ourselves. The strength of Hercules could not preserve the hero from his ghastly fate. Our ghost is no more to be got rid of by main force than was Dejanira's fatal tunic, clinging, blistering, wrapping its wearer all the closer, that he tore away the smarting flesh by handfuls. Friends will advise us to make the best of it, and no doubt their counsel is excellent though gratuitous, wanting indeed nothing but the supplementary information, how we are to make the best of that which is confessedly at its worst. Enemies opine that we are weak fools, and deserve to be vanquished for our want of courage—an argument that would hold equally good with every combatant overpowered by superior strength; and all the time the ghost that haunted us sits aloft, laughing our helplessness to scorn, cold, pitiless, inexorable, and always

"Betwixt us and the sun."

If we cannot get rid of him, he will sap our intellects and shorten our lives; but there is a spell which even this evil spirit has not power to withstand, and it is to be found in an inscription less imitated perhaps than admired by the "monks of old."

"Laborare est orare," so runs the charm. "Work and worship, and a stern resolve to ignore his presence, will eventually cause this devil to "come out of the man." Not, be sure, till he has torn and rent him cruelly—not till he has driven him abroad to wander night and day amongst the tombs, seeking rest, poor fevered wretch, and finding none, because of his tormentor—not till, in utter helplessness and sheer despair, stunned, humbled, and broken-hearted, the demoniac has crept feebly to the Master's feet, will he find himself delivered from his enemy, weary, sore, and wasted, but "clothed, and in his right mind."

Amongst the many ghost stories I have read there is one of which I only remember that it turned upon the inexplicable presence of a window too much in the front of a man's house. This individual had lately taken a farm, and with it a weird, long-uninhabited dwelling in which he came to reside. His first care, naturally enough, was to inspect the building he occupied, and he found, we will say, two rooms on the second floor, each with two windows. The rooms were close together, and the walls of not more than average thickness. It was some days ere he made rather a startling discovery. Returning from the land towards his own door, and lifting the eyes of proprietorship on his home, he counted on the second story five windows in front instead of four! The man winked and stared and wondered. Knowing he was not drunk, he thought he must be dreaming, and counted them over again—still with the same result. Entering his house, he ran up-stairs forthwith, and made a strict investigation of the second floor. There were the two rooms, and there were the four windows as usual. Day after day he went through the same process, till by degrees his wonder diminished, his apprehensions vanished; his daily labour tired him so that he could have slept sound in a grave-yard, and by the time his harvest was got in, the subject never so much as entered his head.

Now this is the way to treat the haunted chamber in our own brain. Fasten its door; if necessary brick up its window. Deprive it of air and light. Ignore it altogether. When you walk along the passage never turn your head in its direction, no, not even though the dearest hope of your heart lies dead and cold within; but if duty bids you, do not shrink from entering—walk in boldly! Confront the ghost, and show it that you have ceased to tremble in its presence. Time after time the false proportions, once so ghastly and gigantic, will grow less and less—some day the spectre will vanish altogether. Mind, I do not promise you another inmate. While you live the tenement will probably remain bare and uninhabited; but at the worst an empty room is surely better than a bad lodger! It is difficult, you will say, thus to ignore that of which both head and heart are full. So it is. Very difficult, very wearisome, very painful, yet not impossible! Make free use of the spell. Work, work, till your brain is so overwrought it cannot think, your body so tired it must rest or die. Pray, humbly, confidingly, sadly, like the publican, while your eyes can hardly keep open, your hands droop helpless by your side, and your sleep shall be sound, holy, unhaunted, so that with to-morrow's light you may rise to the unremitting task once more.

Do not hope you are to gain the victory in a day. It may take months. It may take years. Inch by inch, and step by step, the battle must be fought. Over and over again you will be worsted and give ground, but do not therefore yield. Resolve never to be driven back quite so far as you have advanced. Imperceptibly, the foe becomes weaker, while you are gaining strength. The time will come at last, when you can look back on the struggle with a half-pitying wonder that he could ever have made so good a fight. Do not then forget to be grateful for the aid you prayed so earnestly might be granted at your need; and remember also, for your comfort, that the harder won the victory, the less likely it is you will ever have to wage such cruel battle again.

"Would it not be wiser," observed Bones, quietly, "never to begin the conflict? Not to take possession of the haunted house at all?"

There is a pseudo-philosophy about some of his remarks that provokes me intensely.

"Would it not be wiser," I repeated, in high disdain, "to sit on the beach than put out to sea, to walk a-foot than ride on horse-back, to loll on velvet cushions in the gallery, than go down under shield into the lists, and strike for life, honour, and renown? No. It would not be wiser. True wisdom comes by experience. He who shrinks from contact with his fellow-men—who fears to take his share of their burdens, their sorrows, their sufferings is but a poor fool at best. He may be learned in the learning of the schools, but he is a dunce in all that relates to 'the proper study of mankind;' he is ignorant of human nature, its sorrows, its passions, its feelings, its hidden vein of gold, lying under a thick crust of selfishness and deceit; above all, he knows nothing of his inmost heart, nothing of the fierce, war-like joy in which a hold spirit crushes and tramples out its own rebellion—nothing of that worshipper's lofty courage who

'Gives the first watch of the night
To the red planet Mars,'

who feels a stern and dogged pride in the consciousness that he

'Knows how sublime a thing it is
To suffer and be strong.'

No: in the moral as in the physical battle, though you be pinned to the earth, yet writhe yourself up against the spear, like the 'grim Lord of Colonsay,' who, in his very death-pang, swung his claymore, set his teeth, and drove his last blow home.

"Besides, if you are to avoid the struggle entirely, how are you ever to learn the skill of self-defence, by which a thrust may be parried or returned? the art of tying an artery or stanching a wound? How are you to help others who cannot help yourself? A man is put into this world to do a certain share of the world's work; to stop a gap in the world's fencing; to form a cog, however minute, in the world's machinery. By the defalcation even of the humblest individual, some of its movements must be thrown out of gear. The duty is to be got through, and none of us, haunted or unhaunted, ghost or no ghost, may shirk our share. Stick to your post like a Roman soldier during the watches of the night. Presently morning will come, when every phantom must vanish into air, every mortal confront that inevitable reality for which the dream we call a life-time is but a novitiate and a school."