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Mrs Craik: A Dreadful Ghost (Online Text)

Dinah Maria Mulock Craik
(1826 -- 1887)

After her mother died, in 1845, Dinah Maria Mulock decided to make her living as a writer. She began writing stories for children, progressed into adult fiction, and ended up being one of the best-selling novelists of her day.

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A Dreadful Ghost

by Mrs Craik (Dinah Mulock)

More Stories by Mrs. Craik
"Such a dreadful ghost!—oh, such a dreadful ghost!"

My wife, who was luckily sitting by me, was at first as much frightened as I was, but gradually she succeeded in quieting both me and herself, which indeed she has a wonderful faculty for doing.

When she had drawn from me the cause of my terrified exclamations, we discussed the whole matter:—in which we differed considerably; and on this subject we invariably and affectionately do. She is a perfectly matter-of-fact, unimaginative, and unsuperstitious individual: quite satisfied that in the invisible, as in the visible world, two and two must make four, and cannot by any possibility make five. Only being, with all her gentleness, a little pig-headed, she does not see the one flaw in her otherwise very sensible argument, namely, the taking for granted that we finite creatures, who are so liable to error even in material things, can in things immaterial decide absolutely upon what is two and what is four.

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half your creeds.

And it is just possible that when the Devil tempted our forefather to eat of the tree of knowledge, he was laughing, as maybe he often laughs now, to think what a self-conceited fool a man must be, ever to suppose that he can know everything.

When I preach this to my helpmate—who is the humblest and sweetest of women—she replies, in perhaps the safest way a woman can reply to an argument, with a smile; as she did, when, having talked over and viewed on all sides my Dreadful Ghost, she advised me to make it public, for the good of the community: in which we agreed, though differing. She considered it would prove how very silly it is to believe in ghosts at all. I considered—but my story will explain that.

She and I were, I thought, invited to a strange house, with which, and with the family, we were only acquainted by hearsay. It was, in fact, one of those "invitations on business,"—such as literary persons like myself continually get; and which give little pleasure, as we are perfectly aware from what motives they spring; and that if we could pack up our reputation in a portmanteau, and our head in a hat-box, it would answer exactly the same purpose, and be equally satisfactory to the inviting parties. However, the present case was an exception; since though we had never seen our entertainers, we had heard that they were, not a show-loving, literary lion-hunting household, but really a family; affectionately united among themselves, and devoted to the memory of the lately-lost head. He was a physician, widely esteemed, and also a man of letters, whose death had created a great blank, both in his own circle and in the literary world at large. Now, after a year's interval, his widow and three daughters were beginning to reappear in society; and at the British Association meeting, held at the large town which I need not particularise, had opened the doors of their long-hospitable house to my wife and me.

Being strangers, we thought it best to appear, as I would advise all stranger-guests to do, at the tail-end of the day; when candle-light and fire-light cast a kindly mystery over all things, and the few brief hours of awkwardness and unfamiliarity are followed by the nocturnal separation—when each party has time to think over and talk over the other—meeting next morning with the kindly feeling of those who have passed a night under the same friendly roof.

As my wife and I stepped from our cab, the dull day was already closing into twilight, and the fire only half-illumined the room into which we were shown. It was an old-fashioned, rather gloomy apartment—half study, half sitting-room; one end being fitted up as a library, while at the other—pleasant thoughtfulness, which already warmed our hearts towards our unseen hosts!—was spread out that best of all meals for a weary traveller, a tea dinner. So hungry were we, that this welcome, well-supplied, elegant board was the only thing we noticed about the room—except one other thing, which hung close above the tea table, on the panelled wall.

It was a large full-length portrait, very well painted; the sort of portrait of which one says at once, "What a good likeness that must be." It had individuality, character—the soul of the man as well as his body: and as he sat in his chair, looking directly at you, in a simple, natural attitude, you felt what a beautiful soul this must have been: one that even at sixty years of age—for the portrait seemed thus old—would have shed a brightness over any home, and over any society where the person moved.

"I suppose that must be the poor Doctor," said my wife, as her eyes and mine both met upon the canvas face, which glimmered in the fire-light with a most life-like aspect, the gentle, benevolent eyes seeming to follow one about the room, as the eyes of most well-painted full-face portraits do. "You never saw him, Charles?"

"No; but this is exactly the sort of man he must have been."

And our conviction on the matter was so strong, that when the widow came in, we abstained from asking the question, lest we strangers might touch painfully on a scarcely healed wound.

She was a very sweet-looking little woman: pale, fragile, and rather silent than otherwise. She merely performed the duties of the tea-table, whilst the conversation was carried on with spirit and intelligence by her three daughters—evidently highly accomplished women. They were no longer young, or particularly handsome; but they appeared to have inherited the inexpressible charm of manner which, I had heard, characterised their lost father: and they had, my wife whispered me, a still greater attraction in her eyes—(she had, dear soul, two little daughters of her own growing up)—which was the exceeding deference they paid to their mother, who was not by any means so clever as themselves.

Perhaps I, who had not married a woman for her cleverness, admired the mother most. The Doctor's widow, with her large, soft, sorrowful eyes, where the tears seemed to have dried up, or been frozen up in a glassy quietness, was to me the best evidence of what an excellent man he must have been: how deeply beloved, how eternally mourned.

She never spoke of her husband, nor the daughters of their father. This silence—which some families consider it almost a religious duty to preserve regarding their dead, we, of course, as complete strangers, had no business to break; and, therefore, it happened that we were still in the dark as to the original of that remarkable portrait—which minute by minute took a stronger hold on my imagination; my wife's, too—or that quality of universal tender-heartedness, which in her does duty for imagination. I never looked at her, but she was watching either our hostess, or that likeness, which she supposed to be the features which to the poor widow had been so deservedly dear.

A most strange picture. It seemed, in its wonderfully true simulation of life, to sit, almost like an unobserved, silent guest, above our cheerful and conversational table. Many times during the evening I started, as if with the sense of a seventh person being in the room—in the very social circle—hearing everything, observing everything, but saying nothing. Nor was I alone in this feeling, for I noticed that my wife, who happened to sit directly opposite to the portrait, fidgeted in her chair, and finally moved her position to one where she could escape from those steady, kindly, ever-pursuing, painted eyes.

Now I ask nobody to believe what I am going to relate: I must distinctly state that I do not believe it myself: but I tell it because it involves an idea and moral, which the reader can apply if he chooses. All I can say is, that so far as it purports to go—and when you come to the end you will find that out—this is really a true story.

My wife, you must understand, sat exactly before the portrait, till she changed places with me, and went a little way down the oblong table, on the same side. Thus, one of us had a front, and the other a slightly foreshortened view. Between us and it was the table, in the centre of which stood a lamp—one of those reading-lamps which throw a bright circle of light below them, and leave the upper half of the room in comparative shadow. I thought it was this shadow, or some fanciful flicker of the fire, which caused a peculiarity in the eyes of the portrait. They seemed actually alive—moving from right to left in their orbits, opening and closing their lids, turning from one to the other of the family circle with a variable expression, as if conscious of all that was done or said.

And yet the family took no notice, but went on in their talk with us: choosing the common topics with which unfamiliar persons try to plumb one another's minds and characters: yet never once reverting to this peculiar phenomenon—which my wife, I saw, had also observed, and interchanged with me more than one uneasy glance in the pauses of conversation.

The evening was wearing on—it was nearly ten o'clock, when looking up at the picture, from which for the last half-hour I had steadily averted my gaze, I was startled by a still more marvellous fact concerning it.

Formerly, the eyes alone had appeared alive: now the whole face was rounded. It grew up, out of the flat canvas as if in bas-relief, or like one of those terribly painful casts after death—except that there was nothing painful or revolting here. As I have said, the face was a beautiful face—a noble face: such an one as, under any circumstances, you would have been attracted by. And it had the colouring and form of life—no corpse-like rigidity or marble whiteness. The grey hair seemed gradually to rise, lock by lock, out of the level surface—and the figure, clothed in ordinary modern evening-dress, to become shapely and natural,—statuesque, yet still preserving the tints of a picture. Even the chair which it sat upon—which I now perceived to be the exact copy of one that stood empty on the other side of the fire, gave a curious reality to the whole.

By and by, my wife and I both held our breaths—for, from an ordinary oil painting the likeness had undoubtedly become a life-like figure, or statue, sitting in an alcove, the form of which was made by the frame of the picture.

And yet the family took no notice: but appeared as if, whether or not they were conscious of the remarkable thing that was happening, it did not disturb them in the least: was nothing at all alarming or peculiar, or out of the tenor of their daily life.

No, not even when, on returning with a book that I had gone to fetch from the shelves at the further end of the room, my poor little wife caught my hand in speechless awe—awe, rather than fear—and pointed to the hitherto empty chair by the fire-side.

It was empty no longer. There, sitting in the self-same attitude as the portrait; identical with it in shape, countenance, and dress—was a figure. That it was a human figure I dare not say, and yet it looked like one. There was nothing ghastly or corpse-like about it, though it was motionless, passionless: endowed as it were with that divine calm which Wordsworth ascribes to Protesilaus:

Elysian beauty, melancholy grace,
Brought from a pensive though a happy place.

Yet there was an air tenderly, pathetically human in the folding of the hands on the knees, as a man does when he comes and sits down by his own fireside, with his family round him: and in the eyes that followed, one after the other, each of this family, who now quietly put away their several occupations, and rose.

But none of them showed any terror—not the slightest. The presence at the hearth was evidently quite familiar—awaking no shudder of repulsion, no outburst of renewed grief. The eldest daughter said—in a tone as natural as if she were merely apologising to us heterodox or indifferent strangers for some domestic ceremonial, some peculiar form of family prayer, for instance:

"I am sure our guests will excuse us if we continue, just as if we were alone, our usual evening duties. Which of us is to speak to papa tonight?"

It was him then: summoned back, how or why, or in what form, corporeal or incorporeal, I knew not, and they gave no explanation. They evidently thought none was needed: that the whole proceeding was as natural as a man coming home at evening to his own hearth, and being received by his wife and children with affectionate familiarity.

The widow and the youngest daughter placed themselves one on each side of the figure in the chair. They did not embrace it or touch it, but regarded it with tender reverence, in which was mingled a certain sadness; but that was all. And then they began to talk to it, in a perfectly composed and matter-of-fact way; as people would talk to a beloved member of a family, who had been absent for a day or longer from the home circle.

The daughter told how she had been shopping in town; how she had bought a shawl and a bonnet "of the colour that papa used to like;" the books she had brought home from the library, and her opinion of them; the people she had met in the street, and the letters she had received during the day: in short, all the pleasant little chit-chat that a daughter would naturally pour out to an affectionately-interested living father; but which now sounded so unnatural, so contemptibly small, such a mixture of the ludicrous and the horrible, that one's common sense, and one's sense of the solemn unseen alike recoiled.

No answer came: apparently none was expected. The figure maintained its place, never altering that gentle smile—reminding one of the spectral Samuel's rebuke to the Witch of Endor—"Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?" or of that superior calm with which, after death, we may view all these petty things which so perplexed us once, in ourselves and in those about us.

Then the widow took up the tale, with a regretful under-tone of complaint running through it. She told him how dull she had been all day; how in the preparations for these strangers (meaning my wife and me—how we shivered as the eyes of the figure moved and rested on us!) she had found various old letters of his, which vividly revived their happy wedlock days; how yesterday one of his former patients died, and to-day a professorship, which he meant to have tried for, had been given to a gentleman, a favourite pupil; how his old friends, Mr A and Sir B C, had had a quarrel, and everybody said it would never have happened had the Doctor been alive—and so on, and so on. To all of which the figure listened with its immovable silence; its settled, changeless smile.

My wife and I uttered not a word. We sat apart, spell bound, fascinated, neither attempting to interfere, nor question, nor rebuke. The whole proceeding was so entirely beyond the pale of rational cause and effect, that it seemed to throw us into a perfectly abnormal condition, in which we were unable to judge, or investigate, or escape from, the circumstances which surrounded us.

We know nothing—absolutely nothing—except the very little that Revelation hints at, rather than directly teaches of the world beyond the grave. But any one of us who has ever seen a fellow-creature die, has watched the exact instant when the awful change takes place which converts the body with a soul to the corpse without a soul, must feel certain—convinced by an intuition which is stronger than all reasoning—that if the life beyond, to which that soul departs, be anything, or worth anything, it must be a very different life from this; with nobler aspirations, higher duties, purer affections. The common phrase breathed over so many a peaceful dead face, "I would not bring him back again if I could," has a significance, instructive as true; truer than all misty, philosophical speculations, tenderer than all the vagaries of fond spiritualists, with big hearts and no heads worth mentioning. If ever I had doubted this, my doubts would have been removed by the sight which I here depict—of this good, amiable, deeply beloved husband and father—returning in visible form to his own fireside; no ghastly spectre, but an apparition full of mildness and beauty, yet communicating a sense of revolting incongruity, utter unsanctity, and ridiculous, degrading contrast between mortal and immortal, spirit in the flesh, and spirit out of the flesh, stronger than I can attempt to describe.

That the dead man's family did not feel this, having become so familiar with their nightly necromancy that its ghastliness never struck them, and its ludicrous profanity never jarred upon their intellect or affections, only made the fact more horrible.

For a time, long or short I cannot tell, my wife and I sat witnessing, like people bound in a nightmare dream, this mockery of mockeries, the attempt at restoring the sweet familiar relations of the living and the dead. How many days or months it had lasted, or what result was expected from it, we never inquired; nor did we attempt to join in it: we merely looked on.

"Will papa ever speak?" entreated one of the daughters; but there was no reply. The Figure sat passive in its chair—unable or unwilling to break the silent barrier which divides the two worlds, maintaining still that benign and tender smile, but keeping its mystery unbroken, its problem unsolved.

And now my wife, whose dear little face was, I saw, growing white and convulsed minute by minute, whispered to me:

"Charles, I can bear this no longer. Make some excuse to them—we will not hurt their feelings. Don't let them think we are frightened, or disgusted, or the like; but we must go—I shall go mad if I do not."

And the half-insane look which I have seen in more than one of the pseudo-spiritualists of the present day—people who twenty years ago would have been sent to Bedlam, but now are only set down as "rather peculiar," rose in those dear, soft, sensible eyes, which have warmed and calmed my restless heart and unquiet brain for more than fifteen years.

I took advantage of the next pause in the "communications," or whatever the family called them, to suggest that my wife and I were very weary, and anxious to retire to rest.

"Certainly," politely said the eldest daughter. "Papa, Mr and Mrs —," naming our names, "have had a long railway journey, and wish to bid us all good-night."

The appearance bent upon us—my wife and me—its most benevolent, gentle aspect, apparently acquiescing in our retiring; and slowly rose as if to bid good-night—like any other courteous host.

Now, in his life-time, no one had had a warmer, more devoted admiration for this learned and loveable man than I. More than once I had travelled many miles for the merest chance of seeing him, and when he died my regret at never having known him personally, never having even beheld his face, was mingled with the grief which I, in common with all his compatriots, felt at losing him so suddenly, with his fame at its zenith, his labours apparently only half done.

But here, set face to face with this image or phantasm, or whatever it was, of the man whom living I had so honoured—I felt no delight; nay, the cold clearness of that gaze seemed to shoot through me with a chill of horror.

When, going round the circle, I shook hands with the widow and daughters, one after the other, I paused before that chair; I attempted to pass it by. Resolutely I looked another way, as if trying to make believe I saw nothing there; but it was in vain.

For the Figure advanced noiselessly, with that air of irresistibly charming, dignified courtesy of the old school, for which, everybody said, the Doctor had been so remarkable. It extended its hand—a hand which a year ago I would have travelled five hundred miles to grasp. Now, I shrank from it—I loathed it.

In vain. It came nearer. It touched mine with a soft, cold, unearthly touch. I could endure no longer. I shrieked out; and my wife woke me from what was, thank Heaven, only a dream.

"Yes, it was indeed a Dreadful Ghost," said that excellent woman, when she had heard my whole story, and we had again composed ourselves as sole occupants of the railway carriage which was conveying us through the dead of night to visit that identical family whom I had been dreaming about—whom, as stated, we had never seen.

"Let us be thankful, Charles, that it was a mere fantasy of your over-excited imagination—that the dear old Doctor sleeps peacefully in his quiet grave; and that his affectionate family have never summoned him, soul or body, to sit of nights by their uncanny fire-side, as you so horribly describe. What a blessing that such things cannot be."

"Ay," replied I—"though, as Imlac says in 'Rasselas,' 'that the dead cannot return, I will not undertake to prove;' still, I think it in the highest degree improbable. Their work here is done; they are translated to a higher sphere of being; they may still see us, love us, watch over us; but they belong to us no more. Mary, when I leave you, remember I don't wish ever to be brought back again; to come rapping on tables and knocking about chairs; delivering ridiculous messages to deluded inquirers, and altogether comporting myself in a manner that proves, great fool as I may have been in the body, I must be a still greater fool out of it."

"And, Charles," said the little woman, creeping up to me with tears in her eyes,"if I must lose you—dearly as I love you—I would rather bury you under the daisies and in my heart; bury you, and never see you again till we meet in the world to
More Stories by Mrs. Craik
come, than I would have you revisiting your old fire-side after the fashion of this Dreadful Ghost."

Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (1826 -- 1887)