H. G. Wells – The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost

The scene amidst which Clayton told his last story comes back very vividly to my mind. There he sat, for the greater part of the time, in the corner of the authentic settle by the spacious open fire, and Sanderson sat beside him smoking the Broseley clay that bore his name. There was Evans, and that marvel among actors, Wish, who is also a modest man. We had all come down to the Mermaid Club that Saturday morning, except Clayton, who had slept there overnight—which indeed gave him the opening of his story. We had golfed until golfing was invisible; we had dined, and we were in that mood of tranquil kindliness when men will suffer a story. When Clayton began to tell one, we naturally supposed he was lying. It may be that indeed he was lying—of that the reader will speedily be able to judge as well as I. He began, it is true, with an air of matter-of-fact anecdote, but that we thought was only the incurable artifice of the man. “I say!” he remarked, after a long consideration of the upward rain of sparks from the log that Sanderson had thumped, “you know I was alone here last night?” “Except for the domestics,” said Wish. “Who sleep in the other wing,” said Clayton. “Yes. Well—” He pulled at his cigar for some little time as though he still hesitated about his confidence. Then he said, quite quietly, “I caught a ghost!” “Caught a ghost, did you?” said Sanderson. “Where is it?” And Evans, who admires Clayton immensely and has been four weeks in America, shouted, “Caught a ghost, did you, Clayton? I’m glad of it! Tell us all about it right now.” Clayton said he would in a minute, and asked him to shut the door.

He looked apologetically at me. “There’s no eavesdropping of course, but we don’t want to upset our very excellent service with any rumours of ghosts in the place. There’s too much shadow and oak panelling to trifle with that. And this, you know, wasn’t a regular ghost. I don’t think it will come again —ever.” “You mean to say you didn’t keep it?” said Sanderson. “I hadn’t the heart to,” said Clayton. And Sanderson said he was surprised. We laughed, and Clayton looked aggrieved. “I know,” he said, with the flicker of a smile, “but the fact is it really was a ghost, and I’m as sure of it as I am that I am talking to you now. I’m not joking. I mean what I say.” Sanderson drew deeply at his pipe, with one reddish eye on Clayton, and then emitted a thin jet of smoke more eloquent than many words. Clayton ignored the comment. “It is the strangest thing that has ever happened in my life.

You know, I never believed in ghosts or anything of the sort, before, ever; and then, you know, I bag one in a corner; and the whole business is in my hands.” He meditated still more profoundly, and produced and began to pierce a second cigar with a curious little stabber he affected. “You talked to it?” asked Wish. “For the space, probably, of an hour.” “Chatty?” I said, joining the party of the sceptics. “The poor devil was in trouble,” said Clayton, bowed over his cigar-end and with the very faintest note of reproof. “Sobbing?” some one asked. Clayton heaved a realistic sigh at the memory. “Good Lord!” he said; “yes.” And then, “Poor fellow! yes.” “Where did you strike it?” asked Evans, in his best American accent. “I never realised,” said Clayton, ignoring him, “the poor sort of thing a ghost might be,” and he hung us up again for a time, while he sought for matches in his pocket and lit and warmed to his cigar. “I took an advantage,” he reflected at last. We were none of us in a hurry. “A character,” he said, “remains just the same character for all that it’s been disembodied.

That’s a thing we too often forget. People with a certain strength or fixity of purpose may have ghosts of a certain strength and fixity of purpose—most haunting ghosts, you know, must be as one-idea’d as monomaniacs and as obstinate as mules to come back again and again. This poor creature wasn’t.” He suddenly looked up rather queerly, and his eye went round the room. “I say it,” he said, “in all kindliness, but that is the plain truth of the case. Even at the first glance he struck me as weak.” He punctuated with the help of his cigar. “I came upon him, you know, in the long passage. His back was towards me and I saw him first. Right off I knew him for a ghost. He was transparent and whitish; clean through his chest I could see the glimmer of the little window at the end. And not only his physique but his attitude struck me as being weak. He looked, you know, as though he didn’t know in the slightest whatever he meant to do. One hand was on the panelling and the other fluttered to his mouth. Like—SO!” “What sort of physique?” said Sanderson.

“Lean. You know that sort of young man’s neck that has two great flutings down the back, here and here—so! And a little, meanish head with scrubby hair—And rather bad ears. Shoulders bad, narrower than the hips; turn-down collar, ready-made short jacket, trousers baggy and a little frayed at the heels. That’s how he took me. I came very quietly up the staircase. I did not carry a light, you know—the candles are on the landing table and there is that lamp— and I was in my list slippers, and I saw him as I came up. I stopped dead at that—taking him in. I wasn’t a bit afraid. I think that in most of these affairs one is never nearly so afraid or excited as one imagines one would be. I was surprised and interested. I thought, ‘Good Lord! Here’s a ghost at last! And I haven’t believed for a moment in ghosts during the last five-and-twenty years.'” “Um,” said Wish. “I suppose I wasn’t on the landing a moment before he found out I was there. He turned on me sharply, and I saw the face of an immature young man, a weak nose, a scrubby little moustache, a feeble chin. So for an instant we stood—he looking over his shoulder at me and regarded one another.

Then he seemed to remember his high calling. He turned round, drew himself up, projected his face, raised his arms, spread his hands in approved ghost fashion—came towards me. As he did so his little jaw dropped, and he emitted a faint, drawn-out ‘Boo.’ No, it wasn’t—not a bit dreadful. I’d dined. I’d had a bottle of champagne, and being all alone, perhaps two or three—perhaps even four or five—whiskies, so I was as solid as rocks and no more frightened than if I’d been assailed by a frog. ‘Boo!’ I said. ‘Nonsense. You don’t belong to this place. What are you doing here?’ “I could see him wince. ‘Boo-oo,’ he said. “‘Boo—be hanged! Are you a member?’ I said; and just to show I didn’t care a pin for him I stepped through a corner of him and made to light my candle. ‘Are you a member?’ I repeated, looking at him sideways. “He moved a little so as to stand clear of me, and his bearing became crestfallen. ‘No,’ he said, in answer to the persistent interrogation of my eye; ‘I’m not a member—I’m a ghost.

’ “‘Well, that doesn’t give you the run of the Mermaid Club. Is there any one you want to see, or anything of that sort?’ and doing it as steadily as possible for fear that he should mistake the carelessness of whisky for the distraction of fear, I got my candle alight. I turned on him, holding it. ‘What are you doing here?’ I said. “He had dropped his hands and stopped his booing, and there he stood, abashed and awkward, the ghost of a weak, silly, aimless young man. ‘I’m haunting,’ he said. “‘You haven’t any business to,’ I said in a quiet voice. “‘I’m a ghost,’ he said, as if in defence. “‘That may be, but you haven’t any business to haunt here. This is a respectable private club; people often stop here with nursemaids and children, and, going about in the careless way you do, some poor little mite could easily come upon you and be scared out of her wits. I suppose you didn’t think of that?’ “‘No, sir,’ he said, ‘I didn’t.’ “‘You should have done. You haven’t any claim on the place, have you? Weren’t murdered here, or anything of that sort?’ “‘None, sir; but I thought as it was old and oak-panelled—’ “‘That’s no excuse.’ I regarded him firmly. ‘Your coming here is a mistake,’ I said, in a tone of friendly superiority.

I feigned to see if I had my matches, and then looked up at him frankly. ‘If I were you I wouldn’t wait for cock-crow—I’d vanish right away.’ “He looked embarrassed. ‘The fact is, sir—’ he began. “‘I’d vanish,’ I said, driving it home. “‘The fact is, sir, that—somehow—I can’t.’ “‘You can’t?’ “‘No, sir. There’s something I’ve forgotten. I’ve been hanging about here since midnight last night, hiding in the cupboards of the empty bedrooms and things like that. I’m flurried. I’ve never come haunting before, and it seems to put me out.’ “‘Put you out?’ “‘Yes, sir. I’ve tried to do it several times, and it doesn’t come off. There’s some little thing has slipped me, and I can’t get back.’ “That, you know, rather bowled me over.

He looked at me in such an abject way that for the life of me I couldn’t keep up quite the high, hectoring vein I had adopted. ‘That’s queer,’ I said, and as I spoke I fancied I heard some one moving about down below. ‘Come into my room and tell me more about it,’ I said. ‘I didn’t, of course, understand this,’ and I tried to take him by the arm. But, of course, you might as well have tried to take hold of a puff of smoke! I had forgotten my number, I think; anyhow, I remember going into several bedrooms—it was lucky I was the only soul in that wing—until I saw my traps. ‘Here we are,’ I said, and sat down in the arm-chair; ‘sit down and tell me all about it. It seems to me you have got yourself into a jolly awkward position, old chap.’ “Well, he said he wouldn’t sit down! he’d prefer to flit up and down the room if it was all the same to me. And so he did, and in a little while we were deep in a long and serious talk. And presently, you know, something of those whiskies and sodas evaporated out of me, and I began to realise just a little what a thundering rum and weird business it was that I was in. There he was, semi-transparent — the proper conventional phantom, and noiseless except for his ghost of a voice—flitting to and fro in that nice, clean, chintz-hung old bedroom. You could see the gleam of the copper candlesticks through him, and the lights on the brass fender, and the corners of the framed engravings on the wall, —and there he was telling me all about this wretched little life of his that had recently ended on earth. He hadn’t a particularly honest face, you know, but being transparent, of course, he couldn’t avoid telling the truth.” “Eh?” said Wish, suddenly sitting up in his chair. “What?” said Clayton.

“Being transparent—couldn’t avoid telling the truth—I don’t see it,” said Wish. “I don’t see it,” said Clayton, with inimitable assurance. “But it is so, I can assure you nevertheless. I don’t believe he got once a nail’s breadth off the Bible truth. He told me how he had been killed—he went down into a London basement with a candle to look for a leakage of gas—and described himself as a senior English master in a London private school when that release occurred.”


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