John And The Ghosts by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

In the kingdom of Illyria there lived, not long ago, a poor wood-cutter with three sons, who in time went forth to seek their fortunes. At the end of three years they returned by agreement, to compare their progress in the world. The eldest had become a lawyer, and the second a merchant, and each of these had won riches and friends; but John, the youngest, who had enlisted in the army, could only show a cork leg and a medal.

“You have made a bad business of it,” said his brothers. “Your medal is worthless except to a collector of such things, and your leg a positive disadvantage. Fortunately we have influence, and since you are our brother we must see what we can do for you.”

Now the King of Illyria lived at that time in his capital, in a brick palace at the end of the great park. He kept this park open to all, and allowed no one to build in it. But the richest citizens, who were so fond of their ruler that they could not live out of his sight, had their houses just beyond the park, in the rear of the Palace, on a piece of ground which they called Palace Gardens. The name was a little misleading, for the true gardens lay in front of the Palace, where children of all classes played among the trees and flower-beds and artificial ponds, and the King sat and watched them, because he took delight in children, and because the sight of them cheered his only daughter, who had fallen into a deep melancholy. But the rich citizens clung to it, for it gave a pleasant neighbourly air to their roadway, and showed what friendliness there was between the monarch of Illyria and his people.

At either end you entered the roadway (if you were allowed) by an iron gate, and each gate had a sentry-box beside it, and a tall beadle, and a notice-board to save him the trouble of explanation. The notice ran–

PRIVATE.–The Beadle has orders to refuse
admittance to all Waggons, Tradesmen’s
Carts, Hackney Coaches, Donkeys, Beggars,
Disorderly Characters, or Persons carrying

A sedentary life had told so severely upon one of the two beadles that he could no longer enter his box with dignity or read his newspaper there with any comfort. He resigned, and John obtained the post by his brothers’ interest, in spite of his cork leg.

He had now a bright green suit with scarlet pipings, a gold-laced hat, a fashionable address, and very little to do. But the army had taught him to be active, and for lack of anything better he fell into deep thinking. This came near to bringing him into trouble. One evening he looked out of his sentry-box and saw a mild and somewhat sad-featured old gentleman approaching the gate.

“No admittance,” said John.

“Tut, tut!” said the old gentleman. “I’m the King.”

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John looked at the face on his medal, and sure enough there was a resemblance. “But, all the same, your Majesty carries a burden,”–here he pointed to the notice-board,–“and the folks along this road are mighty particular.”

The King smiled and then sighed heavily.

“It’s about the Princess, my daughter,” said he; “she has not smiled for a whole year.”

“I’ll warrant I’d make her,” said John.

“I’ll warrant you could not,” said the King. “She will never smile again until she is married.”

“Then,” answered John, “speaking in a humble way, as becomes me, why the dickens alive don’t you marry her up and get done with it?”

The King shook his head.

“There’s a condition attached,” said he. “Maybe you have heard of the famous haunted house in Puns’nby Square?”

“I’ve always gone by the spelling, and pronounced it Ponsonby,” said John.

“Well, the condition is that every suitor for my daughter’s hand must spend a night alone in that house; and if he survives and is ready to persevere with his wooing, he must return a year later with his bride and spend the night of his marriage there.”

“And very handy,” said John, “for there’s a wedding-cake shop at the corner.”

The King sighed again.

“Unhappily, none survive. One hundred and fifty-five have undertaken the adventure, and not a man of them but has either lost his wits or run for it.”

“Well,” said John, “I’ve been afraid of a great many men–“

“That’s a poor confession for a soldier,” put in the King.

“–when they all happened to come at me together. But I’ve never yet met the ghost that could frighten me; and if your Majesty will give me the latch-key I’ll try my luck this very night.”

It could not be done in this free-and-easy way; but at eight o’clock, after John had visited the Palace and taken an oath in the Princess’s presence (which was his first sight of her), he was driven down to the house beside the Lord Chamberlain, who admitted him to the black front hall, and, slamming the door upon him, scuttled out of the porch as quickly as possible and into his brougham.

John struck a match, and as he did so heard the carriage roll away. The walls were bare, and the floor and great staircase ahead of him carpetless. As the match flickered out he caught a glimpse of a pair of feet moving up the stairs; that was all–only feet.

“I’ll catch up with the calves on the landing, maybe,” said he; and, striking another match, he followed them up.

The feet turned aside on the landing and led him into a room on the right. He paused on the threshold, drew a candle from his pocket, lit it, and stared about him. The room was of great size, bare and dusty, with crimson hangings, gilt panels, and one huge gilt chandelier, from which and from the ceiling and cornice long cobwebs trailed down like creeping plants. Beneath the chandelier a dark smear ran along the boards. The feet crossed it towards the fireplace; and as they did so, John saw them stained with blood. They reached the fire-place and vanished.

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Scarcely had this happened, before the end of the room opposite the window began to glow with an unearthly light. John, whose poverty had taught him to be economical, promptly blew out his candle. A moment later two men entered, bearing a coffin between them. They rested it upon the floor and, seating themselves upon it, began to cast dice. “Your soul!” “My soul!” they kept saying in hollow tones, according as they won or lost. At length one of them–a tall man in a powdered wig, with a face extraordinarily pale–flung a hand to his brow, rose and staggered from the room. The other sat waiting and twirling his black moustache, with an evil smile. John, who by this time had found a seat in a far corner, thought him the most poisonous-looking villain he had ever seen; but as the minutes passed and nothing happened, he turned his back to the light and pulled out a penny-dreadful. His literary taste was shocking, and when it came to romance he liked the incidents to follow one another with great rapidity.

He was interrupted by a blood-curdling groan, and the first ruffian broke into the room, dragging by its grey locks the body of an old man. A young girl followed, weeping and protesting, with dishevelled hair, and behind her entered a priest with a brazier full of glowing charcoal. The girl cast herself forward on the old man’s body, but the two scoundrels dragged her from it by force. “The money!” demanded the dark one; and she drew from her bosom a small key and cast it at his feet. “My promise!” demanded the other, and seized her by the wrist as the priest stepped forward. “Quick! over this coffin–man and wife!” She wrenched her hand away and thrust him backward. The priest retreated to the brazier and drew out a red-hot iron.

John thought it about time to interfere.

“I beg your pardon,” said he, stepping forward; “but I suppose you really are ghosts?”

“We are unhallowed souls,” answered the dark man impressively, “who return to blight the living with the spectacle of our awful crimes.”

“Meaning me?” asked John.

“Ay, sir; and to destroy you to-night if you contract not, upon your soul, to return with your bride and meet us here a twelvemonth hence.”

“H’m!” said John to himself, “they are three to one; and, after all, it’s what I came for. I suppose,” he added aloud, “some form of document is usual in these cases?”

The dark man drew out pen and parchment.

“Hold forth your hand,” he commanded; and as John held it out, thinking he meant to shake it over the bargain, the fellow drove the pen into his wrist until the blood spurted. “Now sign!”

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“Sign!” said the other villain.

“Sign!” said the lady.

“Oh, very well, miss. If you’re in the swindle too, my mind is easier,” said John, and signed his name with a flourish. “But a bargain is a bargain, and what security have I for your part in it?”

“Our signature!” said the priest terribly, at the same moment pressing his branding-iron into John’s ankle. A smell of burnt cork arose as John stooped and clapped his hand over the scorched stocking. When he looked up again his visitors had vanished; and a moment later the strange light, too, died away.

But the coffin remained for evidence that he had not been dreaming. John lit a candle and examined it.

“Just the thing for me,” he exclaimed, finding it to be a mere shell of pine-boards, loosely nailed together and painted black. “I was beginning to shiver.” He knocked the coffin to pieces, crammed them into the fireplace, and very soon had a grand fire blazing, before which he sat and finished his penny-dreadful, and so dropped off into a sound sleep.

The Lord Chamberlain arrived early in the morning, and, finding him stretched there, at first broke into lamentations over the fate of yet another personable young man; but soon changed his tune when John sat up, and, rubbing his eyes, demanded to be told the time.

“But are you really alive? We must drive back and tell his Majesty at once!”

“Stay a moment,” said John. “There’s a brother of mine, a lawyer, in the city. He will be arriving at his office about this time, and you must drive me there; for I have a document here of a sort, and must have it stamped, to be on the safe side.”

So into the city he was driven beside the Lord Chamberlain, and there had his leg stamped and filed for reference; and, having purchased another, was conveyed to the Palace, where the King received him with open arms.

He was now a favoured guest at Court, and had frequent opportunities of seeing and conversing with the Princess, with whom he soon fell deeply in love. But as the months passed and the time drew near for their marriage, he grew silent and thoughtful, for he feared to expose her, even in his company, to the sights he had witnessed in the haunted house.

He thought and thought, until one fine afternoon he snapped his fingers suddenly, and after that went about whistling. A fortnight before the day fixed for the wedding he drove into the city again–but this time to the office of his other brother, the merchant.

“I want,” he said, “a loan of a thousand pounds.”

“Nothing easier,” said his brother. “Here are eight hundred and fifty. Of the remainder I shall keep fifty as interest for the first year at five per cent., and the odd hundred should purchase a premium of insurance for two thousand pounds, which I will retain as security against accidents.”

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This seemed not only fair but brotherly. John pocketed his eight hundred and fifty pounds, shook his creditor affectionately by the hand, and hurried westward.

The marriage was celebrated with great pomp; and in the evening the King, who had been shedding tears at intervals throughout the ceremonies, accompanied his daughter to the haunted house. The Princess was pale. John, on the contrary, who sat facing her father in the state-coach, smiled with a cheerfulness which, under the circumstances, seemed a trifle ill-bred. The wedding-guests followed in twenty-four chariots. Their cards of invitation had said “Two to five-thirty p.m.,” and it was now eight o’clock; but they could not resist the temptation to see the last of “the poor dear thing,” as they agreed to call the bride.

The King sat silent during the drive; he was preparing his farewell speech, which he meant to deliver in the porch. But arriving and perceiving a crowd about it, and also, to his vast astonishment, a red baize carpet on the perron, and a butler bowing in the doorway with two footmen behind him, he coughed down his exordium, and led his daughter into the hall amid showers of rice and confetti. The bridegroom followed; and so did the wedding-guests, since no one opposed them.

The hall and staircase were decorated with palms and pot-plants, flags and emblems of Illyria; and in the great drawing-room–which they entered while John persuaded the King to a seat–they found many rows of morocco-covered chairs, a miniature stage with a drop representing the play-scene in Hamlet, a row of footlights, a boudoir-grand piano, and a man seated at the keyboard whom they recognised as a performer in much demand at suburban dances.

The company had scarcely seated itself, before a strange light began to illuminate that end of the room at which the stage stood, and immediately the curtain rose to the overture of M. Offenbach’s Orphee aux Enfers, the pianist continuing with great spirit until a round of applause greeted the entrance of the two spectral performers.

Its effect upon them was in the highest degree disconcerting. They set down the coffin, and, after a brief and hurried conference in an undertone, the black-mustachioed ghost advanced to the footlights, singled out John from the audience, and with a terrific scowl demanded to know the reason of this extraordinary gathering.

“Come, come, my dear sir,” answered John, “our contract, if you will study it, allows me to invite whom I choose; it merely insists that my bride and I must be present, as you see we are. Pray go on with your part, and assure yourself it is no use to try the high horse with me.”

The dark ghost looked at his partner, who shuffled uneasily.

“I told you,” said he, “we should have trouble with this fellow. I had a presentiment of it when he came to spend the night here without bringing a bull-dog. That frightening of the bull-dog out of his wits has always been our most effective bit of business.”

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Hereupon the dark ghost took another tone.

“Our fair but unfortunate victim has a sore throat to-night,” he announced. “The performance is consequently postponed;” and he seated himself sulkily upon the coffin, when the limelight-man from the wings promptly bathed him in a flood of the most beautiful rose-colour. “Oh, this is intolerable!” he exclaimed, starting to his feet.

“It is not first-rate, I agree,” said John, “but, such as it is, we had better go through with it. Should the company doubt its genuineness, I can go around afterwards and show the brand on the cork.” Here he tapped the leg, which he had been careful to bring with him.

Before this evidence of contract the ghosts’ resistance collapsed. They seated themselves on the coffin and began the casting of dice; the performance proceeded, but in a half-hearted and perfunctory manner, notwithstanding the vivacious efforts of the limelight-man.

The tall ghost struck his brow and fled from the stage. There were cries of “Call him back!” But John explained that this was part of the drama, and no encores would be allowed; whereupon the audience fell to hissing the villain, who now sat alone with the most lifelike expression of malignity.

“Oh, hang it!” he expostulated after a while, “I am doing this under protest, and you need not make it worse for a fellow. I draw the line at hissing.”

“It’s the usual thing,” explained John affably.

But when the ghostly lady walked on, and in the act of falling on her father’s body was interrupted by the pianist, who handed up an immense bouquet, the performers held another hurried colloquy.

“Look here,” said the dark-browed villain, stepping forward and addressing John; “what will you take to call it quits?”

“I’ll take,” said John, “the key which the lady has just handed you. And if the treasure is at all commensurate with the fuss you have been making about it, we’ll let bygones be bygones.”

Well, it did; and John, having counted it out behind the curtain, came forward and asked the pianist to play “God save the King”; and so, having bowed his guests to the door, took possession of the haunted house and lived in it many years with his bride, in high renown and prosperity.

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