The Canterville Ghost

By Oscar Wilde

ESL English Listening - Advanced ESL English Listening

 

I

When Mr. Hiram B. Otis, the American Minister, bought Canterville Chase,
every one told him he was doing a very foolish thing, as there was no
doubt at all that the place was haunted. Indeed, Lord Canterville
himself, who was a man of the most punctilious honour, had felt it his
duty to mention the fact to Mr. Otis when they came to discuss terms.

"We have not cared to live in the place ourselves," said Lord
Canterville, "since my grandaunt, the Dowager Duchess of Bolton, was
frightened into a fit, from which she never really recovered, by two
skeleton hands being placed on her shoulders as she was dressing for
dinner, and I feel bound to tell you, Mr. Otis, that the ghost has been
seen by several living members of my family, as well as by the rector of
the parish, the Rev. Augustus Dampier, who is a Fellow of King's
College, Cambridge. After the unfortunate accident to the Duchess, none
of our younger servants would stay with us, and Lady Canterville often
got very little sleep at night, in consequence of the mysterious noises
that came from the corridor and the library."

"My Lord," answered the Minister, "I will take the furniture and the
ghost at a valuation. I have come from a modern country, where we have
everything that money can buy; and with all our spry young fellows
painting the Old World red, and carrying off your best actors and
prima-donnas, I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost in
Europe, we'd have it at home in a very short time in one of our public
museums, or on the road as a show."

"I fear that the ghost exists," said Lord Canterville, smiling, "though
it may have resisted the overtures of your enterprising impresarios. It
has been well known for three centuries, since 1584 in fact, and always
makes its appearance before the death of any member of our family."

"Well, so does the family doctor for that matter, Lord Canterville. But
there is no such thing, sir, as a ghost, and I guess the laws of Nature
are not going to be suspended for the British aristocracy."

"You are certainly very natural in America," answered Lord Canterville,
who did not quite understand Mr. Otis's last observation, "and if you
don't mind a ghost in the house, it is all right. Only you must remember
I warned you."

A few weeks after this, the purchase was concluded, and at the close of
the season the Minister and his family went down to Canterville Chase.
Mrs. Otis, who, as Miss Lucretia R. Tappan, of West 53d Street, had been
a celebrated New York belle, was now a very handsome, middle-aged woman,
with fine eyes, and a superb profile. Many American ladies on leaving
their native land adopt an appearance of chronic ill-health, under the
impression that it is a form of European refinement, but Mrs. Otis had
never fallen into this error. She had a magnificent constitution, and a
really wonderful amount of animal spirits. Indeed, in many respects, she
was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we
have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of
course, language. Her eldest son, christened Washington by his parents
in a moment of patriotism, which he never ceased to regret, was a
fair-haired, rather good-looking young man, who had qualified himself
for American diplomacy by leading the German at the Newport Casino for
three successive seasons, and even in London was well known as an
excellent dancer. Gardenias and the peerage were his only weaknesses.
Otherwise he was extremely sensible. Miss Virginia E. Otis was a little
girl of fifteen, lithe and lovely as a fawn, and with a fine freedom
in her large blue eyes. She was a wonderful Amazon, and had once raced
old Lord Bilton on her pony twice round the park, winning by a length
and a half, just in front of the Achilles statue, to the huge delight of
the young Duke of Cheshire, who proposed for her on the spot, and was
sent back to Eton that very night by his guardians, in floods of tears.
After Virginia came the twins, who were usually called "The Star and
Stripes," as they were always getting swished. They were delightful
boys, and, with the exception of the worthy Minister, the only true
republicans of the family.

As Canterville Chase is seven miles from Ascot, the nearest railway
station, Mr. Otis had telegraphed for a waggonette to meet them, and
they started on their drive in high spirits. It was a lovely July
evening, and the air was delicate with the scent of the pinewoods. Now
and then they heard a wood-pigeon brooding over its own sweet voice, or
saw, deep in the rustling fern, the burnished breast of the pheasant.
Little squirrels peered at them from the beech-trees as they went by,
and the rabbits scudded away through the brushwood and over the mossy
knolls, with their white tails in the air. As they entered the avenue of
Canterville Chase, however, the sky became suddenly overcast with
clouds, a curious stillness seemed to hold the atmosphere, a great
flight of rooks passed silently over their heads, and, before they
reached the house, some big drops of rain had fallen.

Standing on the steps to receive them was an old woman, neatly dressed
in black silk, with a white cap and apron. This was Mrs. Umney, the
housekeeper, whom Mrs. Otis, at Lady Canterville's earnest request, had
consented to keep in her former position. She made them each a low
curtsey as they alighted, and said in a quaint, old-fashioned manner,
"I bid you welcome to Canterville Chase." Following her, they passed
through the fine Tudor hall into the library, a long, low room, panelled
in black oak, at the end of which was a large stained glass window. Here
they found tea laid out for them, and, after taking off their wraps,
they sat down and began to look round, while Mrs. Umney waited on them.

Suddenly Mrs. Otis caught sight of a dull red stain on the floor just by
the fireplace, and, quite unconscious of what it really signified, said
to Mrs. Umney, "I am afraid something has been spilt there."

"Yes, madam," replied the old housekeeper in a low voice, "blood has
been spilt on that spot."

"How horrid!" cried Mrs. Otis; "I don't at all care for blood-stains in
a sitting-room. It must be removed at once."

The old woman smiled, and answered in the same low, mysterious voice,
"It is the blood of Lady Eleanore de Canterville, who was murdered on
that very spot by her own husband, Sir Simon de Canterville, in 1575.
Sir Simon survived her nine years, and disappeared suddenly under very
mysterious circumstances. His body has never been discovered, but his
guilty spirit still haunts the Chase. The blood-stain has been much
admired by tourists and others, and cannot be removed."

"That is all nonsense," cried Washington Otis; "Pinkerton's Champion
Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent will clean it up in no time," and
before the terrified housekeeper could interfere, he had fallen upon his
knees, and was rapidly scouring the floor with a small stick of what
looked like a black cosmetic. In a few moments no trace of the
blood-stain could be seen.

"I knew Pinkerton would do it," he exclaimed, triumphantly, as he
looked round at his admiring family; but no sooner had he said these
words than a terrible flash of lightning lit up the sombre room, a
fearful peal of thunder made them all start to their feet, and Mrs.
Umney fainted.

"What a monstrous climate!" said the American Minister, calmly, as he
lit a long cheroot. "I guess the old country is so overpopulated that
they have not enough decent weather for everybody. I have always been of
opinion that emigration is the only thing for England."

"My dear Hiram," cried Mrs. Otis, "what can we do with a woman who
faints?"

"Charge it to her like breakages," answered the Minister; "she won't
faint after that;" and in a few moments Mrs. Umney certainly came to.
There was no doubt, however, that she was extremely upset, and she
sternly warned Mr. Otis to beware of some trouble coming to the house.

"I have seen things with my own eyes, sir," she said, "that would make
any Christian's hair stand on end, and many and many a night I have not
closed my eyes in sleep for the awful things that are done here." Mr.
Otis, however, and his wife warmly assured the honest soul that they
were not afraid of ghosts, and, after invoking the blessings of
Providence on her new master and mistress, and making arrangements for
an increase of salary, the old housekeeper tottered off to her own room.

 

II

The storm raged fiercely all that night, but nothing of particular note
occurred. The next morning, however, when they came down to breakfast,
they found the terrible stain of blood once again on the floor. "I don't
think it can be the fault of the Paragon Detergent," said Washington,
"for I have tried it with everything. It must be the ghost." He
accordingly rubbed out the stain a second time, but the second morning
it appeared again. The third morning also it was there, though the
library had been locked up at night by Mr. Otis himself, and the key
carried up-stairs. The whole family were now quite interested; Mr. Otis
began to suspect that he had been too dogmatic in his denial of the
existence of ghosts, Mrs. Otis expressed her intention of joining the
Psychical Society, and Washington prepared a long letter to Messrs.
Myers and Podmore on the subject of the Permanence of Sanguineous Stains
when connected with Crime. That night all doubts about the objective
existence of phantasmata were removed for ever.

The day had been warm and sunny; and, in the cool of the evening, the
whole family went out to drive. They did not return home till nine
o'clock, when they had a light supper. The conversation in no way turned
upon ghosts, so there were not even those primary conditions of
receptive expectations which so often precede the presentation of
psychical phenomena. The subjects discussed, as I have since learned
from Mr. Otis, were merely such as form the ordinary conversation of
cultured Americans of the better class, such as the immense superiority
of Miss Fanny Devonport over Sarah Bernhardt as an actress; the
difficulty of obtaining green corn, buckwheat cakes, and hominy, even in
the best English houses; the importance of Boston in the development of
the world-soul; the advantages of the baggage-check system in railway
travelling; and the sweetness of the New York accent as compared to the
London drawl. No mention at all was made of the supernatural, nor was
Sir Simon de Canterville alluded to in any way. At eleven o'clock the
family retired, and by half-past all the lights were out. Some time
after, Mr. Otis was awakened by a curious noise in the corridor, outside
his room. It sounded like the clank of metal, and seemed to be coming
nearer every moment. He got up at once, struck a match, and looked at
the time. It was exactly one o'clock. He was quite calm, and felt his
pulse, which was not at all feverish. The strange noise still continued,
and with it he heard distinctly the sound of footsteps. He put on his
slippers, took a small oblong phial out of his dressing-case, and opened
the door. Right in front of him he saw, in the wan moonlight, an old man
of terrible aspect. His eyes were as red burning coals; long grey hair
fell over his shoulders in matted coils; his garments, which were of
antique cut, were soiled and ragged, and from his wrists and ankles hung
heavy manacles and rusty gyves.

"My dear sir," said Mr. Otis, "I really must insist on your oiling those
chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of the
Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator. It is said to be completely efficacious
upon one application, and there are several testimonials to that effect
on the wrapper from some of our most eminent native divines. I shall
leave it here for you by the bedroom candles, and will be happy to
supply you with more, should you require it." With these words the
United States Minister laid the bottle down on a marble table, and,
closing his door, retired to rest.

For a moment the Canterville ghost stood quite motionless in natural
indignation; then, dashing the bottle violently upon the polished floor,
he fled down the corridor, uttering hollow groans, and emitting a
ghastly green light. Just, however, as he reached the top of the great
oak staircase, a door was flung open, two little white-robed figures
appeared, and a large pillow whizzed past his head! There was evidently
no time to be lost, so, hastily adopting the Fourth dimension of Space
as a means of escape, he vanished through the wainscoting, and the house
became quite quiet.

On reaching a small secret chamber in the left wing, he leaned up
against a moonbeam to recover his breath, and began to try and realize
his position. Never, in a brilliant and uninterrupted career of three
hundred years, had he been so grossly insulted. He thought of the
Dowager Duchess, whom he had frightened into a fit as she stood before
the glass in her lace and diamonds; of the four housemaids, who had gone
into hysterics when he merely grinned at them through the curtains on
one of the spare bedrooms; of the rector of the parish, whose candle he
had blown out as he was coming late one night from the library, and who
had been under the care of Sir William Gull ever since, a perfect martyr
to nervous disorders; and of old Madame de Tremouillac, who, having
wakened up one morning early and seen a skeleton seated in an armchair
by the fire reading her diary, had been confined to her bed for six
weeks with an attack of brain fever, and, on her recovery, had become
reconciled to the Church, and broken off her connection with that
notorious sceptic, Monsieur de Voltaire. He remembered the terrible
night when the wicked Lord Canterville was found choking in his
dressing-room, with the knave of diamonds half-way down his throat, and
confessed, just before he died, that he had cheated Charles James Fox
out of L50,000 at Crockford's by means of that very card, and swore that
the ghost had made him swallow it. All his great achievements came back
to him again, from the butler who had shot himself in the pantry because
he had seen a green hand tapping at the window-pane, to the beautiful
Lady Stutfield, who was always obliged to wear a black velvet band round
her throat to hide the mark of five fingers burnt upon her white skin,
and who drowned herself at last in the carp-pond at the end of the
King's Walk. With the enthusiastic egotism of the true artist, he went
over his most celebrated performances, and smiled bitterly to himself as
he recalled to mind his last appearance as "Red Reuben, or the Strangled
Babe," his _debut_ as "Guant Gibeon, the Blood-sucker of Bexley Moor,"
and the _furore_ he had excited one lovely June evening by merely
playing ninepins with his own bones upon the lawn-tennis ground. And
after all this some wretched modern Americans were to come and offer him
the Rising Sun Lubricator, and throw pillows at his head! It was quite
unbearable. Besides, no ghost in history had ever been treated in this
manner. Accordingly, he determined to have vengeance, and remained till
daylight in an attitude of deep thought.

 

III

The next morning, when the Otis family met at breakfast, they discussed
the ghost at some length. The United States Minister was naturally a
little annoyed to find that his present had not been accepted. "I have
no wish," he said, "to do the ghost any personal injury, and I must say
that, considering the length of time he has been in the house, I don't
think it is at all polite to throw pillows at him,"--a very just remark,
at which, I am sorry to say, the twins burst into shouts of laughter.
"Upon the other hand," he continued, "if he really declines to use the
Rising Sun Lubricator, we shall have to take his chains from him. It
would be quite impossible to sleep, with such a noise going on outside
the bedrooms."

For the rest of the week, however, they were undisturbed, the only thing
that excited any attention being the continual renewal of the
blood-stain on the library floor. This certainly was very strange, as
the door was always locked at night by Mr. Otis, and the windows kept
closely barred. The chameleon-like colour, also, of the stain excited a
good deal of comment. Some mornings it was a dull (almost Indian) red,
then it would be vermilion, then a rich purple, and once when they came
down for family prayers, according to the simple rites of the Free
American Reformed Episcopalian Church, they found it a bright
emerald-green. These kaleidoscopic changes naturally amused the party
very much, and bets on the subject were freely made every evening. The
only person who did not enter into the joke was little Virginia, who,
for some unexplained reason, was always a good deal distressed at the
sight of the blood-stain, and very nearly cried the morning it was
emerald-green.

The second appearance of the ghost was on Sunday night. Shortly after
they had gone to bed they were suddenly alarmed by a fearful crash in
the hall. Rushing down-stairs, they found that a large suit of old
armour had become detached from its stand, and had fallen on the stone
floor, while seated in a high-backed chair was the Canterville ghost,
rubbing his knees with an expression of acute agony on his face. The
twins, having brought their pea-shooters with them, at once discharged
two pellets on him, with that accuracy of aim which can only be attained
by long and careful practice on a writing-master, while the United
States Minister covered him with his revolver, and called upon him, in
accordance with Californian etiquette, to hold up his hands! The ghost
started up with a wild shriek of rage, and swept through them like a
mist, extinguishing Washington Otis's candle as he passed, and so
leaving them all in total darkness. On reaching the top of the staircase
he recovered himself, and determined to give his celebrated peal of
demoniac laughter. This he had on more than one occasion found extremely
useful. It was said to have turned Lord Raker's wig grey in a single
night, and had certainly made three of Lady Canterville's French
governesses give warning before their month was up. He accordingly
laughed his most horrible laugh, till the old vaulted roof rang and
rang again, but hardly had the fearful echo died away when a door
opened, and Mrs. Otis came out in a light blue dressing-gown. "I am
afraid you are far from well," she said, "and have brought you a bottle
of Doctor Dobell's tincture. If it is indigestion, you will find it a
most excellent remedy." The ghost glared at her in fury, and began at
once to make preparations for turning himself into a large black dog, an
accomplishment for which he was justly renowned, and to which the family
doctor always attributed the permanent idiocy of Lord Canterville's
uncle, the Hon. Thomas Horton. The sound of approaching footsteps,
however, made him hesitate in his fell purpose, so he contented himself
with becoming faintly phosphorescent, and vanished with a deep
churchyard groan, just as the twins had come up to him.

On reaching his room he entirely broke down, and became a prey to the
most violent agitation. The vulgarity of the twins, and the gross
materialism of Mrs. Otis, were naturally extremely annoying, but what
really distressed him most was that he had been unable to wear the suit
of mail. He had hoped that even modern Americans would be thrilled by
the sight of a Spectre in armour, if for no more sensible reason, at
least out of respect for their natural poet Longfellow, over whose
graceful and attractive poetry he himself had whiled away many a weary
hour when the Cantervilles were up in town. Besides it was his own suit.
He had worn it with great success at the Kenilworth tournament, and had
been highly complimented on it by no less a person than the Virgin Queen
herself. Yet when he had put it on, he had been completely overpowered
by the weight of the huge breastplate and steel casque, and had fallen
heavily on the stone pavement, barking both his knees severely, and
bruising the knuckles of his right hand.

For some days after this he was extremely ill, and hardly stirred out of
his room at all, except to keep the blood-stain in proper repair.
However, by taking great care of himself, he recovered, and resolved to
make a third attempt to frighten the United States Minister and his
family.


Continue to Part II >