John and the Ghosts
by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
The White Wolf and Other
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
"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."
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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!"
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."
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
"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
"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