The Canterville Ghost

By Oscar Wilde

ESL English Listening - Advanced ESL English Listening

 

Virginia grew quite grave, and her little lips trembled like
rose-leaves. She came towards him, and kneeling down at his side, looked
up into his old withered face.

"Poor, poor Ghost," she murmured; "have you no place where you can
sleep?"

"Far away beyond the pine-woods," he answered, in a low, dreamy voice,
"there is a little garden. There the grass grows long and deep, there
are the great white stars of the hemlock flower, there the nightingale
sings all night long. All night long he sings, and the cold crystal
moon looks down, and the yew-tree spreads out its giant arms over the
sleepers."

Virginia's eyes grew dim with tears, and she hid her face in her hands.

"You mean the Garden of Death," she whispered.

"Yes, death. Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth,
with the grasses waving above one's head, and listen to silence. To have
no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at
peace. You can help me. You can open for me the portals of death's
house, for love is always with you, and love is stronger than death
is."

Virginia trembled, a cold shudder ran through her, and for a few moments
there was silence. She felt as if she was in a terrible dream.

Then the ghost spoke again, and his voice sounded like the sighing of
the wind.

"Have you ever read the old prophecy on the library window?"

"Oh, often," cried the little girl, looking up; "I know it quite well.
It is painted in curious black letters, and is difficult to read. There
are only six lines:

"'When a golden girl can win
Prayer from out the lips of sin,
When the barren almond bears,
And a little child gives away its tears,
Then shall all the house be still
And peace come to Canterville.'

"But I don't know what they mean."

"They mean," he said, sadly, "that you must weep with me for my sins,
because I have no tears, and pray with me for my soul, because I have no
faith, and then, if you have always been sweet, and good, and gentle,
the angel of death will have mercy on me. You will see fearful shapes in
darkness, and wicked voices will whisper in your ear, but they will not
harm you, for against the purity of a little child the powers of Hell
cannot prevail."

Virginia made no answer, and the ghost wrung his hands in wild despair
as he looked down at her bowed golden head. Suddenly she stood up, very
pale, and with a strange light in her eyes. "I am not afraid," she said
firmly, "and I will ask the angel to have mercy on you."

He rose from his seat with a faint cry of joy, and taking her hand bent
over it with old-fashioned grace and kissed it. His fingers were as cold
as ice, and his lips burned like fire, but Virginia did not falter, as
he led her across the dusky room. On the faded green tapestry were
broidered little huntsmen. They blew their tasselled horns and with
their tiny hands waved to her to go back. "Go back! little Virginia,"
they cried, "go back!" but the ghost clutched her hand more tightly,
and she shut her eyes against them. Horrible animals with lizard tails
and goggle eyes blinked at her from the carven chimneypiece, and
murmured, "Beware! little Virginia, beware! we may never see you again,"
but the Ghost glided on more swiftly, and Virginia did not listen. When
they reached the end of the room he stopped, and muttered some words she
could not understand. She opened her eyes, and saw the wall slowly
fading away like a mist, and a great black cavern in front of her. A
bitter cold wind swept round them, and she felt something pulling at her
dress. "Quick, quick," cried the Ghost, "or it will be too late," and
in a moment the wainscoting had closed behind them, and the Tapestry
Chamber was empty.

 

VI

About ten minutes later, the bell rang for tea, and, as Virginia did not
come down, Mrs. Otis sent up one of the footmen to tell her. After a
little time he returned and said that he could not find Miss Virginia
anywhere. As she was in the habit of going out to the garden every
evening to get flowers for the dinner-table, Mrs. Otis was not at all
alarmed at first, but when six o'clock struck, and Virginia did not
appear, she became really agitated, and sent the boys out to look for
her, while she herself and Mr. Otis searched every room in the house. At
half-past six the boys came back and said that they could find no trace
of their sister anywhere. They were all now in the greatest state of
excitement, and did not know what to do, when Mr. Otis suddenly
remembered that, some few days before, he had given a band of gipsies
permission to camp in the park. He accordingly at once set off for
Blackfell Hollow, where he knew they were, accompanied by his eldest son
and two of the farm-servants. The little Duke of Cheshire, who was
perfectly frantic with anxiety, begged hard to be allowed to go too,
but Mr. Otis would not allow him, as he was afraid there might be a
scuffle. On arriving at the spot, however, he found that the gipsies had
gone, and it was evident that their departure had been rather sudden, as
the fire was still burning, and some plates were lying on the grass.
Having sent off Washington and the two men to scour the district, he ran
home, and despatched telegrams to all the police inspectors in the
county, telling them to look out for a little girl who had been
kidnapped by tramps or gipsies. He then ordered his horse to be brought
round, and, after insisting on his wife and the three boys sitting down
to dinner, rode off down the Ascot road with a groom. He had hardly,
however, gone a couple of miles, when he heard somebody galloping after
him, and, looking round, saw the little Duke coming up on his pony, with
his face very flushed, and no hat. "I'm awfully sorry, Mr. Otis," gasped
out the boy, "but I can't eat any dinner as long as Virginia is lost.
Please don't be angry with me; if you had let us be engaged last year,
there would never have been all this trouble. You won't send me back,
will you? I can't go! I won't go!"

The Minister could not help smiling at the handsome young scapegrace,
and was a good deal touched at his devotion to Virginia, so leaning down
from his horse, he patted him kindly on the shoulders, and said, "Well,
Cecil, if you won't go back, I suppose you must come with me, but I must
get you a hat at Ascot."

"Oh, bother my hat! I want Virginia!" cried the little Duke, laughing,
and they galloped on to the railway station. There Mr. Otis inquired of
the station-master if any one answering to the description of Virginia
had been seen on the platform, but could get no news of her. The
station-master, however, wired up and down the line, and assured him
that a strict watch would be kept for her, and, after having bought a
hat for the little Duke from a linen-draper, who was just putting up his
shutters, Mr. Otis rode off to Bexley, a village about four miles away,
which he was told was a well-known haunt of the gipsies, as there was a
large common next to it. Here they roused up the rural policeman, but
could get no information from him, and, after riding all over the
common, they turned their horses' heads homewards, and reached the Chase
about eleven o'clock, dead-tired and almost heart-broken. They found
Washington and the twins waiting for them at the gate-house with
lanterns, as the avenue was very dark. Not the slightest trace of
Virginia had been discovered. The gipsies had been caught on Brockley
meadows, but she was not with them, and they had explained their sudden
departure by saying that they had mistaken the date of Chorton Fair, and
had gone off in a hurry for fear they should be late. Indeed, they had
been quite distressed at hearing of Virginia's disappearance, as they
were very grateful to Mr. Otis for having allowed them to camp in his
park, and four of their number had stayed behind to help in the search.
The carp-pond had been dragged, and the whole Chase thoroughly gone
over, but without any result. It was evident that, for that night at any
rate, Virginia was lost to them; and it was in a state of the deepest
depression that Mr. Otis and the boys walked up to the house, the groom
following behind with the two horses and the pony. In the hall they
found a group of frightened servants, and lying on a sofa in the library
was poor Mrs. Otis, almost out of her mind with terror and anxiety, and
having her forehead bathed with eau de cologne by the old housekeeper.
Mr. Otis at once insisted on her having something to eat, and ordered up
supper for the whole party. It was a melancholy meal, as hardly any one
spoke, and even the twins were awestruck and subdued, as they were very
fond of their sister. When they had finished, Mr. Otis, in spite of the
entreaties of the little Duke, ordered them all to bed, saying that
nothing more could be done that night, and that he would telegraph in
the morning to Scotland Yard for some detectives to be sent down
immediately. Just as they were passing out of the dining-room, midnight
began to boom from the clock tower, and when the last stroke sounded
they heard a crash and a sudden shrill cry; a dreadful peal of thunder
shook the house, a strain of unearthly music floated through the air, a
panel at the top of the staircase flew back with a loud noise, and out
on the landing, looking very pale and white, with a little casket in her
hand, stepped Virginia. In a moment they had all rushed up to her. Mrs.
Otis clasped her passionately in her arms, the Duke smothered her with
violent kisses, and the twins executed a wild war-dance round the group.

"Good heavens! child, where have you been?" said Mr. Otis, rather
angrily, thinking that she had been playing some foolish trick on them.
"Cecil and I have been riding all over the country looking for you, and
your mother has been frightened to death. You must never play these
practical jokes any more."

"Except on the Ghost! except on the Ghost!" shrieked the twins, as they
capered about.

"My own darling, thank God you are found; you must never leave my side
again," murmured Mrs. Otis, as she kissed the trembling child, and
smoothed the tangled gold of her hair.

"Papa," said Virginia, quietly, "I have been with the Ghost. He is dead,
and you must come and see him. He had been very wicked, but he was
really sorry for all that he had done, and he gave me this box of
beautiful jewels before he died."

The whole family gazed at her in mute amazement, but she was quite grave
and serious; and, turning round, she led them through the opening in the
wainscoting down a narrow secret corridor, Washington following with a
lighted candle, which he had caught up from the table. Finally, they
came to a great oak door, studded with rusty nails. When Virginia
touched it, it swung back on its heavy hinges, and they found themselves
in a little low room, with a vaulted ceiling, and one tiny grated
window. Imbedded in the wall was a huge iron ring, and chained to it was
a gaunt skeleton, that was stretched out at full length on the stone
floor, and seemed to be trying to grasp with its long fleshless fingers
an old-fashioned trencher and ewer, that were placed just out of its
reach. The jug had evidently been once filled with water, as it was
covered inside with green mould. There was nothing on the trencher but
a pile of dust. Virginia knelt down beside the skeleton, and, folding
her little hands together, began to pray silently, while the rest of the
party looked on in wonder at the terrible tragedy whose secret was now
disclosed to them.

"Hallo!" suddenly exclaimed one of the twins, who had been looking out
of the window to try and discover in what wing of the house the room was
situated. "Hallo! the old withered almond-tree has blossomed. I can see
the flowers quite plainly in the moonlight."

"God has forgiven him," said Virginia, gravely, as she rose to her feet,
and a beautiful light seemed to illumine her face.

"What an angel you are!" cried the young Duke, and he put his arm round
her neck, and kissed her.

 

 

VII

 

Four days after these curious incidents, a funeral started from
Canterville Chase at about eleven o'clock at night. The hearse was drawn
by eight black horses, each of which carried on its head a great tuft of
nodding ostrich-plumes, and the leaden coffin was covered by a rich
purple pall, on which was embroidered in gold the Canterville
coat-of-arms. By the side of the hearse and the coaches walked the
servants with lighted torches, and the whole procession was wonderfully
impressive. Lord Canterville was the chief mourner, having come up
specially from Wales to attend the funeral, and sat in the first
carriage along with little Virginia. Then came the United States
Minister and his wife, then Washington and the three boys, and in the
last carriage was Mrs. Umney. It was generally felt that, as she had
been frightened by the ghost for more than fifty years of her life, she
had a right to see the last of him. A deep grave had been dug in the
corner of the churchyard, just under the old yew-tree, and the service
was read in the most impressive manner by the Rev. Augustus Dampier.
When the ceremony was over, the servants, according to an old custom
observed in the Canterville family, extinguished their torches, and, as
the coffin was being lowered into the grave, Virginia stepped forward,
and laid on it a large cross made of white and pink almond-blossoms. As
she did so, the moon came out from behind a cloud, and flooded with its
silent silver the little churchyard, and from a distant copse a
nightingale began to sing. She thought of the ghost's description of the
Garden of Death, her eyes became dim with tears, and she hardly spoke a
word during the drive home.

The next morning, before Lord Canterville went up to town, Mr. Otis had
an interview with him on the subject of the jewels the ghost had given
to Virginia. They were perfectly magnificent, especially a certain ruby
necklace with old Venetian setting, which was really a superb specimen
of sixteenth-century work, and their value was so great that Mr. Otis
felt considerable scruples about allowing his daughter to accept them.

"My lord," he said, "I know that in this country mortmain is held to
apply to trinkets as well as to land, and it is quite clear to me that
these jewels are, or should be, heirlooms in your family. I must beg
you, accordingly, to take them to London with you, and to regard them
simply as a portion of your property which has been restored to you
under certain strange conditions. As for my daughter, she is merely a
child, and has as yet, I am glad to say, but little interest in such
appurtenances of idle luxury. I am also informed by Mrs. Otis, who, I
may say, is no mean authority upon Art,--having had the privilege of
spending several winters in Boston when she was a girl,--that these gems
are of great monetary worth, and if offered for sale would fetch a tall
price. Under these circumstances, Lord Canterville, I feel sure that you
will recognize how impossible it would be for me to allow them to remain
in the possession of any member of my family; and, indeed, all such
vain gauds and toys, however suitable or necessary to the dignity of the
British aristocracy, would be completely out of place among those who
have been brought up on the severe, and I believe immortal, principles
of Republican simplicity. Perhaps I should mention that Virginia is very
anxious that you should allow her to retain the box, as a memento of
your unfortunate but misguided ancestor. As it is extremely old, and
consequently a good deal out of repair, you may perhaps think fit to
comply with her request. For my own part, I confess I am a good deal
surprised to find a child of mine expressing sympathy with mediaevalism
in any form, and can only account for it by the fact that Virginia was
born in one of your London suburbs shortly after Mrs. Otis had returned
from a trip to Athens."

Lord Canterville listened very gravely to the worthy Minister's speech,
pulling his grey moustache now and then to hide an involuntary smile,
and when Mr. Otis had ended, he shook him cordially by the hand, and
said: "My dear sir, your charming little daughter rendered my unlucky
ancestor, Sir Simon, a very important service, and I and my family are
much indebted to her for her marvellous courage and pluck. The jewels
are clearly hers, and, egad, I believe that if I were heartless enough
to take them from her, the wicked old fellow would be out of his grave
in a fortnight, leading me the devil of a life. As for their being
heirlooms, nothing is an heirloom that is not so mentioned in a will or
legal document, and the existence of these jewels has been quite
unknown. I assure you I have no more claim on them than your butler, and
when Miss Virginia grows up, I dare say she will be pleased to have
pretty things to wear. Besides, you forget, Mr. Otis, that you took the
furniture and the ghost at a valuation, and anything that belonged to
the ghost passed at once into your possession, as, whatever activity
Sir Simon may have shown in the corridor at night, in point of law he
was really dead, and you acquired his property by purchase."

Mr. Otis was a good deal distressed at Lord Canterville's refusal, and
begged him to reconsider his decision, but the good-natured peer was
quite firm, and finally induced the Minister to allow his daughter to
retain the present the ghost had given her, and when, in the spring of
1890, the young Duchess of Cheshire was presented at the Queen's first
drawing-room on the occasion of her marriage, her jewels were the
universal theme of admiration. For Virginia received the coronet, which
is the reward of all good little American girls, and was married to her
boy-lover as soon as he came of age. They were both so charming, and
they loved each other so much, that every one was delighted at the
match, except the old Marchioness of Dumbleton, who had tried to catch
the Duke for one of her seven unmarried daughters, and had given no less
than three expensive dinner-parties for that purpose, and, strange to
say, Mr. Otis himself. Mr. Otis was extremely fond of the young Duke
personally, but, theoretically, he objected to titles, and, to use his
own words, "was not without apprehension lest, amid the enervating
influences of a pleasure-loving aristocracy, the true principles of
Republican simplicity should be forgotten." His objections, however,
were completely overruled, and I believe that when he walked up the
aisle of St. George's, Hanover Square, with his daughter leaning on his
arm, there was not a prouder man in the whole length and breadth of
England.

The Duke and Duchess, after the honeymoon was over, went down to
Canterville Chase, and on the day after their arrival they walked over
in the afternoon to the lonely churchyard by the pine-woods. There had
been a great deal of difficulty at first about the inscription on Sir
Simon's tombstone, but finally it had been decided to engrave on it
simply the initials of the old gentleman's name, and the verse from the
library window. The Duchess had brought with her some lovely roses,
which she strewed upon the grave, and after they had stood by it for
some time they strolled into the ruined chancel of the old abbey. There
the Duchess sat down on a fallen pillar, while her husband lay at her
feet smoking a cigarette and looking up at her beautiful eyes. Suddenly
he threw his cigarette away, took hold of her hand, and said to her,
"Virginia, a wife should have no secrets from her husband."

"Dear Cecil! I have no secrets from you."

"Yes, you have," he answered, smiling, "you have never told me what
happened to you when you were locked up with the ghost."

"I have never told any one, Cecil," said Virginia, gravely.

"I know that, but you might tell me."

"Please don't ask me, Cecil, I cannot tell you. Poor Sir Simon! I owe
him a great deal. Yes, don't laugh, Cecil, I really do. He made me see
what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than
both."

The Duke rose and kissed his wife lovingly.

"You can have your secret as long as I have your heart," he murmured.

"You have always had that, Cecil."

"And you will tell our children some day, won't you?"

Virginia blushed.