In Castle Perilous by Andrew Lang

“What we suffer from most,” said the spectre, when I had partly recovered from my fright, “is a kind of aphasia.”

The spectre was sitting on the armchair beside my bed in the haunted room of Castle Perilous.

“I don’t know,” said I, as distinctly as the chattering of my teeth would permit, “that I quite follow you.  Would you mind—excuse me—handing me that flask which lies on the table near you. . . .  Thanks.”

The spectre, without stirring, so arranged the a priori sensuous schemata of time and space that the silver flask, which had been well out of my reach, was in my hand.  I poured half the contents into a cup and offered it to him.

“No spirits,” he said curtly.

I swallowed eagerly the heady liquor, and felt a little more like myself.

“You were complaining,” I remarked, “of something like aphasia?”

“I was,” he replied.  “You know what aphasia is in the human subject?  A paralysis of certain nervous centres, which prevents the patient, though perfectly sane, from getting at the words which he intends to use, and forces others upon him.  He may wish to observe that it is a fine morning, and may discover that his idea has taken the form of an observation about the Roman Calendar under the Emperor Justinian.  That is aphasia, and we suffer from what, I presume, is a spiritual modification of that disorder.”

“Yet to-night,” I responded, “you are speaking like a printed book.”

“To-night,” said the spectre, acknowledging the compliment with a bow, “the conditions are peculiarly favourable.”

“Not to me,” I thought, with a sigh.

“And I am able to manifest myself with unusual clearness.”

“Then you are not always in such form as I am privileged to find you in?” I inquired.

“By no means,” replied the spectre.  “Sometimes I cannot appear worth a cent.  Often I am invisible to the naked eye, and even quite indiscernible by any of the senses.  Sometimes I can only rap on the table, or send a cold wind over a visitor’s face, or at most pull off his bedclothes (like the spirit which appeared to Caligula, and is mentioned by Suetonius) and utter hollow groans.”

“That’s exactly what you did,” I said, “when you wakened me.  I thought I should have died.”

“I can’t say how distressed I am,” answered the spectre.  “It is just an instance of what I was trying to explain.  We don’t know how we are going to manifest ourselves.”

“Don’t apologize,” I replied, “for a constitutional peculiarity.  To what do you attribute your success to night?”

“Partly to your extremely receptive condition, partly to the whisky you took in the smoking-room, but chiefly to the magnetic environment.”

“Then you do not suffer at all from aphasia just now?”

“Not a touch of it at this moment, thank you; but, as a rule, we all do suffer horribly.  This accounts for everything that you embodied spirits find remarkable and enigmatic in our conduct.  We mean something, straight enough; but our failure is in expression.  Just think how often you go wrong yourselves, though your spirits have a brain to play on, like the musician with a piano.  Now we have to do as well as we can without any such mechanical advantage as a brain of cellular tissue”—here he suddenly took the form of a white lady with a black sack over her head, and disappeared in the wainscot.

“Excuse me,” he said a moment afterwards, quite in his ordinary voice, “I had a touch of it, I fancy.  I lost the thread of my argument, and am dimly conscious of having expressed myself in some unusual and more or less incoherent fashion.  I hope it was nothing at all vulgar or distressing?”

“Nothing out of the way in haunted houses, I assure you,” I replied, “merely a white lady with a black sack over her head.”

“Oh, that was it,” he answered with a sigh; “I often am afflicted in that way.  Don’t mind me if I turn into a luminous boy, or a very old man in chains, or a lady in a green gown and high-heeled shoes, or a headless horseman, or a Mauth hound, or anything of that sort.  They are all quite imperfect expressions of our nature,—symptoms, in short, of the malady I mentioned.”

“Then the appalling manifestations to which you allude are not the apparitions of the essential ghost?  It is not in those forms that he appears among his friends?”

“Certainly not,” said the spectre; “and it would be very promotive of good feeling between men and disembodied spirits if this were more generally known.  I myself—”

Here he was interrupted by an attack of spirit rappings.  A brisk series of sharp faint taps, of a kind I never heard before, resounded from all the furniture of the room.  While the disturbance continued, the spectre drummed nervously with his fingers on his knee.  The sounds ended as suddenly as they had begun, and he expressed his regrets.  “It is a thing I am subject to,” he remarked; “nervous, I believe, but, to persons unaccustomed to it, alarming.”

“It is rather alarming,” I admitted.

“A mere fit of sneezing,” he went on; “but you are now able to judge, from the events of to-night, how extremely hard it is for us, with the best intentions, to communicate coherently with the embodied world.  Why, there is the Puddifant ghost—in Lord Puddifant’s family, you know: he has been trying for generations to inform his descendants that the drainage of the castle is execrable.  Yet he can never come nearer what he means than taking the form of a shadowy hearse-and-four, and driving round and round Castle Puddifant at midnight.  And old Lady Wadham’s ghost, what a sufferer that woman is!  She merely desires to remark that the family diamonds, lost many years ago, were never really taken abroad by the valet and sold.  He only had time to conceal them in a secret drawer behind the dining-room chimney-piece.  Now she can get no nearer expressing herself than producing a spirited imitation of the music of the bagpipes, which wails up and down the house, and frightens the present Sir Robert Wadham and his people nearly out of their wits.  And that’s the way with almost all of us: there is literally no connection (as a rule) between our expressions and the things we intend to express.  You know how the Psychical Society make quite a study of rappings, and try to interpret them by the alphabet?  Well, these, as I told you, are merely a nervous symptom; annoying, no doubt, but not dangerous.  The only spectres, almost, that manage to hint what they really mean are Banshees.”

They intend to herald an approaching death?” I asked.

“They do, and abominably bad taste I call it, unless a man has neglected to insure his life, and then I doubt if a person of honour could make use of information from—from that quarter.  Banshees are chiefly the spectres of attached and anxious old family nurses, women of the lower orders, and completely destitute of tact.  I call a Banshee rather a curse than a boon and a blessing to men.  Like most old family servants, they are apt to be presuming.”

It occurred to me that the complacent spectre himself was not an unmixed delight to the inhabitants of Castle Perilous, or at least to their guests, for they never lay in the Green Chamber themselves.

“Can nothing be done,” I asked sympathetically, “to alleviate the disorders which you say are so common and distressing?”

“The old system of spiritual physic,” replied the spectre, “is obsolete, and the holy-water cure, in particular, has almost ceased to number any advocates, except the Rev. Dr F. G. Lee, whose books,” said this candid apparition, “appear to me to indicate superstitious credulity.  No, I don’t know that any new discoveries have been made in this branch of therapeutics.  In the last generation they tried to bolt me with a bishop: like putting a ferret into a rabbit-warren, you know.  Nothing came of that, and lately the Psychical Society attempted to ascertain my weight by an ingenious mechanism.  But they prescribed nothing, and made me feel so nervous that I was rapping at large, and knocking furniture about for months.  The fact is that nobody understands the complaint, nor can detect the cause that makes the ghost of a man who was perfectly rational in life behave like an uneducated buffoon afterwards.  The real reason, as I have tried to explain to you, is a solution of continuity between subjective thought and will on the side of the spectre, and objective expression of them—confound it—”

Here he vanished, and the sound of heavy feet was heard promenading the room, and balls of incandescent light floated about irresolutely, accompanied by the appearance of a bearded man in armour.  The door (which I had locked and bolted before going to bed) kept opening and shutting rapidly, so as to cause a draught, and my dog fled under the bed with a long low howl.

“I do hope,” remarked the spectre, presently reappearing, “that these interruptions (only fresh illustrations of our malady) have not frightened your dog into a fit.  I have known very valuable and attached dogs expire of mere unreasoning terror on similar unfortunate occasions.”

“I’m sure I don’t wonder at it,” I replied; “but I believe Bingo is still alive; in fact, I hear him scratching himself.”

“Would you like to examine him?” asked the spectre.

“Oh, thanks, I am sure he is all right,” I answered (for nothing in the world would have induced me to get out of bed while he was in the room).  “Do you object to a cigarette?”

“Not at all, not at all; but Lady Perilous, I assure you, is a very old fashioned châtelaine.  However, if you choose to risk it—”

I found my cigarette-case in my hand, opened it, and selected one of its contents, which I placed between my lips.  As I was looking round for a match-box, the spectre courteously put his forefinger to the end of the cigarette, which lighted at once.

“Perhaps you wonder,” he remarked, “why I remain at Castle Perilous, the very one of all my places which I never could bear while I was alive—as you call it?”

“I had a delicacy about asking,” I answered.

“Well,” he continued, “I am the family genius.”

“I might have guessed that,” I said.

He bowed and went on.  “It is hereditary in our house, and I hold the position of genius till I am relieved.  For example, when the family want to dig up the buried treasure under the old bridge, I thunder and lighten and cause such a storm that they desist.”

“Why on earth do you do that?” I asked.  “It seems hardly worth while to have a genius at all.”

“In the interests of the family morality.  The money would soon go on the turf, and on dice, drink, etc., if they excavated it; and then I work the curse, and bring off the prophecies, and so forth.”

“What prophecies?”

“Oh, the rigmarole the old family seer came out with before they burned him for an unpalatable prediction at the time of the ’15.  He was very much vexed about it, of course, and he just prophesied any nonsense of a disagreeable nature that came into his head.  You know what these crofter fellows are—ungrateful, vindictive rascals.  He had been in receipt of outdoor relief for years.  Well, he prophesied stuff like this: ‘When the owl and the eagle meet on the same blasted rowan tree, then a lassie in a white hood from the east shall make the burn of Cross-cleugh run full red,’ and drivel of that insane kind.  Well, you can’t think what trouble that particular prophecy gave me.  It had to be fulfilled, of course, for the family credit, and I brought it off as near as, I flatter myself, it could be done.”

“Lady Perilous was telling me about it last night,” I said, with a shudder.  “It was a horrible affair,”

“Yes, no doubt, no doubt; a cruel business!  But how I am to manage some of them I’m sure I don’t know.  There’s one of them in rhyme.  Let me see, how does it go?

“‘When Mackenzie lies in the perilous ha’,
The wild Red Cock on the roof shall craw,
And the lady shall flee ere the day shall daw,
And the land shall girn in the deed man’s thraw.’

“The ‘crowing of the wild Red Cock’ means that the castle shall be burned down, of course (I’m beginning to know his style by this time), and the lady is to elope, and the laird—that’s Lord Perilous—is to expire in the ‘deed man’s thraw’: that is the name the old people give the Secret Room.  And all this is to happen when a Mackenzie, a member of a clan with which we are at feud, sleeps in the Haunted Chamber—where we are just now.  By the way, what is your name?”

I don’t know what made me reply, “Allan Mackenzie.”  It was true, but it was not politic.

“By Jove!” said the spectre, eagerly.  “Here’s a chance!  I don’t suppose a Mackenzie has slept here for those hundred years.  And now, how is it to be done?  Setting fire to the castle is simple”—here I remembered how he had lighted my cigarette—“but who on earth is to elope with Lady Perilous?  She’s fifty if she’s a day, and evangelical à tout casser!  Oh no; the thing is out of the question.  It really must be put off for another generation or two.  There is no hurry.”

I felt a good deal relieved.  He was clearly a being of extraordinary powers, and might, for anything I knew, have made me run away with Lady Perilous.  And then, when the pangs of remorse began to tell on her ladyship, never a very lively woman at the best of times—However, the spectre seemed to have thought better of it.

“Don’t you think it is rather hard on a family,” I asked, “to have a family genius, and prophecies, and a curse, and—”

“And everything handsome about them,” he interrupted me by exclaiming; “and you call yourself a Mackenzie of Megasky!  What has become of family pride?  Why, you yourselves have Gruagach of the Red Hand in the hall, and he, I can tell you, is a very different sort of spectre from me.  Pre-Christian, you know—one of the oldest ghosts in Ross-shire.  But as to ‘hard on a family,’ why, noblesse oblige.”

“Considering that you are the family genius, you don’t seem to have brought them much luck,” I put in, for the house of Perilous is neither rich in gold nor very distinguished in history.

“Yes, but just think what they would have been without a family genius, if they are what they are with one!  Besides, the prophecies are really responsible,” he added, with the air of one who says, “I have a partner—Mr. Jorkins.”

“Do you mind telling me one thing?” I asked eagerly.  “What is the mystery of the Secret Chamber—I mean the room whither the heir is taken when he comes of age, and he never smiles again, nor touches a card except at baccarat?”

“Never smiles again!” said the spectre.  “Doesn’t he?  Are you quite certain that he ever smiled before?”

This was a new way of looking at the question, and rather disconcerted me.

“I did not know the Master of Perilous before he came of age,” said I; “but I have been here for a week, and watched him and Lord Perilous, and I never observed a smile wander over their lips.  And yet little Tompkins” (he was the chief social buffoon of the hour) “has been in great force, and I may say that I myself have occasionally provoked a grin from the good-natured.”

“That’s just it,” said the spectre.  “The Perilouses have no sense of humour—never had.  I am entirely destitute of it myself.  Even in Scotland, even here, this family failing has been remarked—been the subject, I may say, of unfavourable comment.  The Perilous of the period lost his head because he did not see the point of a conundrum of Macbeth’s.  We felt, some time in the fifteenth century, that this peculiarity needed to be honourably accounted for, and the family developed that story of the Secret Chamber, and the Horror in the house.  There is nothing in the chamber whatever,—neither a family idiot aged three hundred years, nor a skeleton, nor the devil, nor a wizard, nor missing title-deeds.  The affair is a mere formality to account creditably for the fact that we never see anything to laugh at—never see the joke.  Some people can’t see ghosts, you know” (lucky people! thought I), “and some can’t see jokes.”

“This is very disappointing,” I said.

“I can’t help it,” said the spectre; “the truth often is.  Did you ever hear the explanation of the haunted house in Berkeley Square?”

“Yes,” said I.  “The bell was heard to ring thrice with terrific vehemence, and on rushing to the fatal scene they found him beautiful in death.”

“Fudge!” replied the spectre.  “The lease and furniture were left to an old lady, who was not to underlet the house nor sell the things.  She had a house of her own in Albemarle Street which she preferred, and so the house in Berkeley Square was never let till the lease expired.  That’s the whole affair.  The house was empty, and political economists could conceive no reason for the waste of rent except that it was haunted.  The rest was all Miss Broughton’s imagination, in ‘Tales for Christmas Eve.’”

He had evidently got on his hobby, and was beginning to be rather tedious.  The contempt which a genuine old family ghost has for mere parvenus and impostors is not to be expressed in mere words apparently, for Mauth-hounds of prodigious size and blackness, with white birds, and other disastrous omens, now began to display themselves profusely in the Haunted Chamber.  Accustomed as I had become to regard all these appearances as mere automatic symptoms, I confess that I heard with pleasure the crow of a distant cock.

“You have enabled me to pass a most instructive evening, most agreeable, too, I am sure,” I remarked to the spectre, “but you will pardon me for observing that the first cock has gone.  Don’t let me make you too late for any appointment you may have about this time—anywhere.”

“Oh, you still believe in that old superstition about cock-crow, do you?” he sneered.  “‘I thought you had been too well educated.  ‘It faded on the crowing of the cock,’ did it, indeed, and that in Denmark too,—almost within the Arctic Circle!  Why, in those high latitudes, and in summer, a ghost would not have an hour to himself on these principles.  Don’t you remember the cock Lord Dufferin took North with him, which crowed at sunrise, and ended by crowing without intermission and going mad, when the sun did not set at all?  You must observe that any rule of that sort about cock-crow would lead to shocking irregularities, and to an early-closing movement for spectres in summer, which would be ruinous to business—simply ruinous—and, in these days of competition, intolerable.”

This was awful, for I could see no way of getting rid of him.  He might stay to breakfast, or anything.

“By the way,” he asked, “who does the Cock at the Lyceum just now?  It is a small but very exacting part—‘Act I. scene I.  Cock crows.’”

“I believe Mr. Irving has engaged a real fowl, to crow at the right moment behind the scenes,” I said.  “He is always very particular about these details.  Quite right too.  ‘The Cock, by kind permission of the Aylesbury Dairy Company,’ is on the bills.  They have no Cock at the Français; Mounet Sully would not hear of it.”

I knew nothing about it, but if this detestable spectre was going to launch out concerning art and the drama there would be no sleep for me.

“Then the glow-worm,” he said—“have they a real glow-worm for the Ghost’s ‘business’ (Act I. scene 5) when he says?—

      “‘Fare thee well at once,
The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And ’gins to pale his ineffectual fire.’

Did it ever strike you how inconsistent that is?  Clearly the ghost appeared in winter; don’t you remember how they keep complaining of the weather?

“‘For this relief much thanks; ’tis bitter cold,’

and

“‘The air bites shrewdly: it is very cold.’”

“Horatio blows on his hands to warm them, at the Français,” I interrupted.

“Quite right; good business,” said he; “and yet they go on about the glow-worms in the neighbourhood!  Most incongruous.  How does Furnivall take it?  An interpolation by Middleton?”

I don’t like to be rude, but I admit that I hate being bothered about Shakespeare, and I yawned.

“Good night,” he said snappishly, and was gone.

Presently I heard him again, just as I was dropping into a doze.

“You won’t think, in the morning, that this was all a dream, will you?  Can I do anything to impress it on your memory?  Suppose I shrivel your left wrist with a touch of my hand?  Or shall I leave ‘a sable score of fingers four’ burned on the table?  Something of that sort is usually done.”

“Oh, pray don’t take the trouble,” I said.  “I’m sure Lady Perilous would not like to have the table injured, and she might not altogether believe my explanation.  As for myself, I’ll be content with your word for it that you were really here.  Can I bury your bones for you, or anything?  Very well, as you must be off, good night!”

“No, thanks,” he replied.  “By the way, I’ve had an idea about my apparitions in disguise.  Perhaps it is my ‘Unconscious Self’ that does them.  You have read about the ‘Unconscious Self’ in the Spectator?”

Then he really went.

A nun in grey, who moaned and wrung her hands, remained in the room for a short time, but was obviously quite automatic.

I slept till the hot water was brought in the morning.