The Canterville Ghost

By Oscar Wilde

ESL English Listening - Advanced ESL English Listening

 

He selected Friday, August 17th, for his appearance, and spent
most of that day in looking over his wardrobe, ultimately deciding in
favour of a large slouched hat with a red feather, a winding-sheet
frilled at the wrists and neck, and a rusty dagger. Towards evening a
violent storm of rain came on, and the wind was so high that all the
windows and doors in the old house shook and rattled. In fact, it was
just such weather as he loved. His plan of action was this. He was to
make his way quietly to Washington Otis's room, gibber at him from the
foot of the bed, and stab himself three times in the throat to the sound
of low music. He bore Washington a special grudge, being quite aware
that it was he who was in the habit of removing the famous Canterville
blood-stain by means of Pinkerton's Paragon Detergent. Having reduced
the reckless and foolhardy youth to a condition of abject terror, he was
then to proceed to the room occupied by the United States Minister and
his wife, and there to place a clammy hand on Mrs. Otis's forehead,
while he hissed into her trembling husband's ear the awful secrets of
the charnel-house. With regard to little Virginia, he had not quite made
up his mind. She had never insulted him in any way, and was pretty and
gentle. A few hollow groans from the wardrobe, he thought, would be more
than sufficient, or, if that failed to wake her, he might grabble at the
counterpane with palsy-twitching fingers. As for the twins, he was quite
determined to teach them a lesson. The first thing to be done was, of
course, to sit upon their chests, so as to produce the stifling
sensation of nightmare. Then, as their beds were quite close to each
other, to stand between them in the form of a green, icy-cold corpse,
till they became paralyzed with fear, and finally, to throw off the
winding-sheet, and crawl round the room, with white, bleached bones and
one rolling eyeball, in the character of "Dumb Daniel, or the Suicide's
Skeleton," a _role_ in which he had on more than one occasion produced a
great effect, and which he considered quite equal to his famous part of
"Martin the Maniac, or the Masked Mystery."

At half-past ten he heard the family going to bed. For some time he was
disturbed by wild shrieks of laughter from the twins, who, with the
light-hearted gaiety of schoolboys, were evidently amusing themselves
before they retired to rest, but at a quarter-past eleven all was still,
and, as midnight sounded, he sallied forth. The owl beat against the
window-panes, the raven croaked from the old yew-tree, and the wind
wandered moaning round the house like a lost soul; but the Otis family
slept unconscious of their doom, and high above the rain and storm he
could hear the steady snoring of the Minister for the United States. He
stepped stealthily out of the wainscoting, with an evil smile on his
cruel, wrinkled mouth, and the moon hid her face in a cloud as he stole
past the great oriel window, where his own arms and those of his
murdered wife were blazoned in azure and gold. On and on he glided, like
an evil shadow, the very darkness seeming to loathe him as he passed.
Once he thought he heard something call, and stopped; but it was only
the baying of a dog from the Red Farm, and he went on, muttering strange
sixteenth-century curses, and ever and anon brandishing the rusty dagger
in the midnight air. Finally he reached the corner of the passage that
led to luckless Washington's room. For a moment he paused there, the
wind blowing his long grey locks about his head, and twisting into
grotesque and fantastic folds the nameless horror of the dead man's
shroud. Then the clock struck the quarter, and he felt the time was
come. He chuckled to himself, and turned the corner; but no sooner had
he done so than, with a piteous wail of terror, he fell back, and hid
his blanched face in his long, bony hands. Right in front of him was
standing a horrible spectre, motionless as a carven image, and monstrous
as a madman's dream! Its head was bald and burnished; its face round,
and fat, and white; and hideous laughter seemed to have writhed its
features into an eternal grin. From the eyes streamed rays of scarlet
light, the mouth was a wide well of fire, and a hideous garment, like
to his own, swathed with its silent snows the Titan form. On its breast
was a placard with strange writing in antique characters, some scroll of
shame it seemed, some record of wild sins, some awful calendar of crime,
and, with its right hand, it bore aloft a falchion of gleaming steel.

Never having seen a ghost before, he naturally was terribly frightened,
and, after a second hasty glance at the awful phantom, he fled back to
his room, tripping up in his long winding-sheet as he sped down the
corridor, and finally dropping the rusty dagger into the Minister's
jack-boots, where it was found in the morning by the butler. Once in the
privacy of his own apartment, he flung himself down on a small
pallet-bed, and hid his face under the clothes. After a time, however,
the brave old Canterville spirit asserted itself, and he determined to
go and speak to the other ghost as soon as it was daylight. Accordingly,
just as the dawn was touching the hills with silver, he returned towards
the spot where he had first laid eyes on the grisly phantom, feeling
that, after all, two ghosts were better than one, and that, by the aid
of his new friend, he might safely grapple with the twins. On reaching
the spot, however, a terrible sight met his gaze. Something had
evidently happened to the spectre, for the light had entirely faded from
its hollow eyes, the gleaming falchion had fallen from its hand, and it
was leaning up against the wall in a strained and uncomfortable
attitude. He rushed forward and seized it in his arms, when, to his
horror, the head slipped off and rolled on the floor, the body assumed a
recumbent posture, and he found himself clasping a white dimity
bed-curtain, with a sweeping-brush, a kitchen cleaver, and a hollow
turnip lying at his feet! Unable to understand this curious
transformation, he clutched the placard with feverish haste, and there,
in the grey morning light, he read these fearful words:--

+------------------------------------+
| YE OTIS GHOSTE |
| Ye Onlie True and Originale Spook, |
| Beware of Ye Imitationes. |
| All others are counterfeite. |
+------------------------------------+

The whole thing flashed across him. He had been tricked, foiled, and
out-witted! The old Canterville look came into his eyes; he ground his
toothless gums together; and, raising his withered hands high above his
head, swore according to the picturesque phraseology of the antique
school, that, when Chanticleer had sounded twice his merry horn, deeds
of blood would be wrought, and murder walk abroad with silent feet.

Hardly had he finished this awful oath when, from the red-tiled roof of
a distant homestead, a cock crew. He laughed a long, low, bitter laugh,
and waited. Hour after hour he waited, but the cock, for some strange
reason, did not crow again. Finally, at half-past seven, the arrival of
the housemaids made him give up his fearful vigil, and he stalked back
to his room, thinking of his vain oath and baffled purpose. There he
consulted several books of ancient chivalry, of which he was
exceedingly fond, and found that, on every occasion on which this oath
had been used, Chanticleer had always crowed a second time. "Perdition
seize the naughty fowl," he muttered, "I have seen the day when, with my
stout spear, I would have run him through the gorge, and made him crow
for me an 'twere in death!" He then retired to a comfortable lead
coffin, and stayed there till evening.

 

IV

 

The next day the ghost was very weak and tired. The terrible excitement
of the last four weeks was beginning to have its effect. His nerves were
completely shattered, and he started at the slightest noise. For five
days he kept his room, and at last made up his mind to give up the point
of the blood-stain on the library floor. If the Otis family did not want
it, they clearly did not deserve it. They were evidently people on a
low, material plane of existence, and quite incapable of appreciating
the symbolic value of sensuous phenomena. The question of phantasmic
apparitions, and the development of astral bodies, was of course quite a
different matter, and really not under his control. It was his solemn
duty to appear in the corridor once a week, and to gibber from the large
oriel window on the first and third Wednesdays in every month, and he
did not see how he could honourably escape from his obligations. It is
quite true that his life had been very evil, but, upon the other hand,
he was most conscientious in all things connected with the supernatural.
For the next three Saturdays, accordingly, he traversed the corridor as
usual between midnight and three o'clock, taking every possible
precaution against being either heard or seen. He removed his boots,
trod as lightly as possible on the old worm-eaten boards, wore a large
black velvet cloak, and was careful to use the Rising Sun Lubricator for
oiling his chains. I am bound to acknowledge that it was with a good
deal of difficulty that he brought himself to adopt this last mode of
protection. However, one night, while the family were at dinner, he
slipped into Mr. Otis's bedroom and carried off the bottle. He felt a
little humiliated at first, but afterwards was sensible enough to see
that there was a great deal to be said for the invention, and, to a
certain degree, it served his purpose. Still in spite of everything he
was not left unmolested. Strings were continually being stretched across
the corridor, over which he tripped in the dark, and on one occasion,
while dressed for the part of "Black Isaac, or the Huntsman of Hogley
Woods," he met with a severe fall, through treading on a butter-slide,
which the twins had constructed from the entrance of the Tapestry
Chamber to the top of the oak staircase. This last insult so enraged
him, that he resolved to make one final effort to assert his dignity and
social position, and determined to visit the insolent young Etonians the
next night in his celebrated character of "Reckless Rupert, or the
Headless Earl."

He had not appeared in this disguise for more than seventy years; in
fact, not since he had so frightened pretty Lady Barbara Modish by means
of it, that she suddenly broke off her engagement with the present Lord
Canterville's grandfather, and ran away to Gretna Green with handsome
Jack Castletown, declaring that nothing in the world would induce her to
marry into a family that allowed such a horrible phantom to walk up and
down the terrace at twilight. Poor Jack was afterwards shot in a duel by
Lord Canterville on Wandsworth Common, and Lady Barbara died of a broken
heart at Tunbridge Wells before the year was out, so, in every way, it
had been a great success. It was, however an extremely difficult
"make-up," if I may use such a theatrical expression in connection with
one of the greatest mysteries of the supernatural, or, to employ a more
scientific term, the higher-natural world, and it took him fully three
hours to make his preparations. At last everything was ready, and he was
very pleased with his appearance. The big leather riding-boots that went
with the dress were just a little too large for him, and he could only
find one of the two horse-pistols, but, on the whole, he was quite
satisfied, and at a quarter-past one he glided out of the wainscoting
and crept down the corridor. On reaching the room occupied by the twins,
which I should mention was called the Blue Bed Chamber, on account of
the colour of its hangings, he found the door just ajar. Wishing to make
an effective entrance, he flung it wide open, when a heavy jug of water
fell right down on him, wetting him to the skin, and just missing his
left shoulder by a couple of inches. At the same moment he heard stifled
shrieks of laughter proceeding from the four-post bed. The shock to his
nervous system was so great that he fled back to his room as hard as he
could go, and the next day he was laid up with a severe cold. The only
thing that at all consoled him in the whole affair was the fact that he
had not brought his head with him, for, had he done so, the consequences
might have been very serious.

He now gave up all hope of ever frightening this rude American family,
and contented himself, as a rule, with creeping about the passages in
list slippers, with a thick red muffler round his throat for fear of
draughts, and a small arquebuse, in case he should be attacked by the
twins. The final blow he received occurred on the 19th of September. He
had gone down-stairs to the great entrance-hall, feeling sure that
there, at any rate, he would be quite unmolested, and was amusing
himself by making satirical remarks on the large Saroni photographs of
the United States Minister and his wife which had now taken the place of
the Canterville family pictures. He was simply but neatly clad in a long
shroud, spotted with churchyard mould, had tied up his jaw with a strip
of yellow linen, and carried a small lantern and a sexton's spade. In
fact, he was dressed for the character of "Jonas the Graveless, or the
Corpse-Snatcher of Chertsey Barn," one of his most remarkable
impersonations, and one which the Cantervilles had every reason to
remember, as it was the real origin of their quarrel with their
neighbour, Lord Rufford. It was about a quarter-past two o'clock in
the morning, and, as far as he could ascertain, no one was stirring. As
he was strolling towards the library, however, to see if there were any
traces left of the blood-stain, suddenly there leaped out on him from a
dark corner two figures, who waved their arms wildly above their heads,
and shrieked out "BOO!" in his ear.

Seized with a panic, which, under the circumstances, was only natural,
he rushed for the staircase, but found Washington Otis waiting for him
there with the big garden-syringe, and being thus hemmed in by his
enemies on every side, and driven almost to bay, he vanished into the
great iron stove, which, fortunately for him, was not lit, and had to
make his way home through the flues and chimneys, arriving at his own
room in a terrible state of dirt, disorder, and despair.

After this he was not seen again on any nocturnal expedition. The twins
lay in wait for him on several occasions, and strewed the passages with
nutshells every night to the great annoyance of their parents and the
servants, but it was of no avail. It was quite evident that his feelings
were so wounded that he would not appear. Mr. Otis consequently resumed
his great work on the history of the Democratic Party, on which he had
been engaged for some years; Mrs. Otis organized a wonderful
clam-bake, which amazed the whole county; the boys took to lacrosse
euchre, poker, and other American national games, and Virginia rode
about the lanes on her pony, accompanied by the young Duke of Cheshire,
who had come to spend the last week of his holidays at Canterville
Chase. It was generally assumed that the ghost had gone away, and, in
fact, Mr. Otis wrote a letter to that effect to Lord Canterville, who,
in reply, expressed his great pleasure at the news, and sent his best
congratulations to the Minister's worthy wife.

The Otises, however, were deceived, for the ghost was still in the
house, and though now almost an invalid, was by no means ready to let
matters rest, particularly as he heard that among the guests was the
young Duke of Cheshire, whose grand-uncle, Lord Francis Stilton, had
once bet a hundred guineas with Colonel Carbury that he would play dice
with the Canterville ghost, and was found the next morning lying on the
floor of the card-room in such a helpless paralytic state that, though
he lived on to a great age, he was never able to say anything again but
"Double Sixes." The story was well known at the time, though, of course,
out of respect to the feelings of the two noble families, every attempt
was made to hush it up, and a full account of all the circumstances
connected with it will be found in the third volume of Lord Tattle's
_Recollections of the Prince Regent and his Friends_. The ghost, then,
was naturally very anxious to show that he had not lost his influence
over the Stiltons, with whom, indeed, he was distantly connected, his
own first cousin having been married _en secondes noces_ to the Sieur de
Bulkeley, from whom, as every one knows, the Dukes of Cheshire are
lineally descended. Accordingly, he made arrangements for appearing to
Virginia's little lover in his celebrated impersonation of "The Vampire
Monk, or the Bloodless Benedictine," a performance so horrible that when
old Lady Startup saw it, which she did on one fatal New Year's Eve, in
the year 1764, she went off into the most piercing shrieks, which
culminated in violent apoplexy, and died in three days, after
disinheriting the Cantervilles, who were her nearest relations, and
leaving all her money to her London apothecary. At the last moment,
however, his terror of the twins prevented his leaving his room, and the
little Duke slept in peace under the great feathered canopy in the Royal
Bedchamber, and dreamed of Virginia.

 

V

A few days after this, Virginia and her curly-haired cavalier went out
riding on Brockley meadows, where she tore her habit so badly in getting
through a hedge that, on their return home, she made up her mind to go
up by the back staircase so as not to be seen. As she was running past
the Tapestry Chamber, the door of which happened to be open, she fancied
she saw some one inside, and thinking it was her mother's maid, who
sometimes used to bring her work there, looked in to ask her to mend
her habit. To her immense surprise, however, it was the Canterville
Ghost himself! He was sitting by the window, watching the ruined gold of
the yellowing trees fly through the air, and the red leaves dancing
madly down the long avenue. His head was leaning on his hand, and his
whole attitude was one of extreme depression. Indeed, so forlorn, and so
much out of repair did he look, that little Virginia, whose first idea
had been to run away and lock herself in her room, was filled with pity,
and determined to try and comfort him. So light was her footfall, and so
deep his melancholy, that he was not aware of her presence till she
spoke to him.

"I am so sorry for you," she said, "but my brothers are going back to
Eton to-morrow, and then, if you behave yourself, no one will annoy
you."

"It is absurd asking me to behave myself," he answered, looking round in
astonishment at the pretty little girl who had ventured to address him,
"quite absurd. I must rattle my chains, and groan through keyholes, and
walk about at night, if that is what you mean. It is my only reason for
existing."

"It is no reason at all for existing, and you know you have been very
wicked. Mrs. Umney told us, the first day we arrived here, that you had
killed your wife."

"Well, I quite admit it," said the Ghost, petulantly, "but it was a
purely family matter, and concerned no one else."

"It is very wrong to kill any one," said Virginia, who at times had a
sweet puritan gravity, caught from some old New England ancestor.

"Oh, I hate the cheap severity of abstract ethics! My wife was very
plain, never had my ruffs properly starched, and knew nothing about
cookery. Why, there was a buck I had shot in Hogley Woods, a magnificent
pricket, and do you know how she had it sent to table? However, it is
no matter now, for it is all over, and I don't think it was very nice of
her brothers to starve me to death, though I did kill her."

"Starve you to death? Oh, Mr. Ghost--I mean Sir Simon, are you hungry? I
have a sandwich in my case. Would you like it?"

"No, thank you, I never eat anything now; but it is very kind of you,
all the same, and you are much nicer than the rest of your horrid, rude,
vulgar, dishonest family."

"Stop!" cried Virginia, stamping her foot, "it is you who are rude, and
horrid, and vulgar, and as for dishonesty, you know you stole the
paints out of my box to try and furbish up that ridiculous blood-stain
in the library. First you took all my reds, including the vermilion, and
I couldn't do any more sunsets, then you took the emerald-green and the
chrome-yellow, and finally I had nothing left but indigo and Chinese
white, and could only do moonlight scenes, which are always depressing
to look at, and not at all easy to paint. I never told on you, though I
was very much annoyed, and it was most ridiculous, the whole thing; for
who ever heard of emerald-green blood?"

"Well, really," said the Ghost, rather meekly, "what was I to do? It is
a very difficult thing to get real blood nowadays, and, as your brother
began it all with his Paragon Detergent, I certainly saw no reason why I
should not have your paints. As for colour, that is always a matter of
taste: the Cantervilles have blue blood, for instance, the very bluest
in England; but I know you Americans don't care for things of this
kind."

"You know nothing about it, and the best thing you can do is to emigrate
and improve your mind. My father will be only too happy to give you a
free passage, and though there is a heavy duty on spirits of every kind,
there will be no difficulty about the Custom House, as the officers are
all Democrats. Once in New York, you are sure to be a great success. I
know lots of people there who would give a hundred thousand dollars to
have a grandfather, and much more than that to have a family ghost."

"I don't think I should like America."

"I suppose because we have no ruins and no curiosities," said Virginia,
satirically.

"No ruins! no curiosities!" answered the Ghost; "you have your navy and
your manners."

"Good evening; I will go and ask papa to get the twins an extra week's
holiday."

"Please don't go, Miss Virginia," he cried; "I am so lonely and so
unhappy, and I really don't know what to do. I want to go to sleep and I
cannot."

"That's quite absurd! You have merely to go to bed and blow out the
candle. It is very difficult sometimes to keep awake, especially at
church, but there is no difficulty at all about sleeping. Why, even
babies know how to do that, and they are not very clever."

"I have not slept for three hundred years," he said sadly, and
Virginia's beautiful blue eyes opened in wonder; "for three hundred
years I have not slept, and I am so tired."


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