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Ghost-Stories
by [?]

Why do ghosts walk at Christmas? What seduction hath Yule Tide for these phantastic fellows, that it lures them from their warm fireplaces? Is it that the cool snow is grateful after the fervours of their torrid zone, where even the pyrometer would fail to record the temperature? Is it that Dickens is responsible for the season, and that Marley’s ghost has set the fashion among the younger spooks? The ghost of Hamlet’s father was not so timed: he walked in all weathers. Perhaps it is the supernatural associations of Christmas that create the atmosphere in which ghosts live and move and have their being. Or perchance it is at the season of family reunion that the thoughts turn most naturally to vacant chairs and the presences that once filled them. Or is it that the ghosts walk for me alone, by reason that Christmas always brings me haunting thoughts of them? For my youth was nursed upon the “penny dreadfuls” of an age that knew not “Chums,” nor the “Boys’ Own Paper.” They were not so very dreadful, those “penny dreadfuls,” though dreadfully disrespectful to schoolmasters, who were wont to rend them in pieces in revenge. The heroes of the stories began to urge on their wild career in the school-room, where they executed practical jokes that would have gladdened the heart of Mr. Gilbert’s merry Governor; the jokers were never found out unless they confessed to spare another boy’s feelings, and then the schoolmaster was so touched that he spared theirs. After passing through five forms and upsetting them all, they arrived at the sixth form, which demanded a new volume to itself, called, let us say, “Tom Tiddler’s School-days Continued,” and mainly devoted to cigars and flirtation. “Tom Tiddler at College” followed–all “wines” and proctor-baiting, with Tom Tiddler as stroke in the victorious ‘Varsity eight. “Tom Tiddler Abroad” was the next title, for the chronicle of a popular hero would run on for years and years; and in this section red Indians and wild beasts were rampant. ‘T were long to trace the fortunes of Tom Tiddler in all their thrilling involutions; but when he had painted the globe red he married and settled down. And then began “Young Tom Tiddler’s School-days,” “Young Tom Tiddler’s Schooldays Continued,” “Young Tom Tiddler Abroad,” and all the weekly round of breathlessness; and never was proverb truer than that the young cock cackles as the old cock crows. By the time interest palled in the son a new generation of readers had arisen, and the unblushing paper commenced to run “Tom Tiddler’s School-days” again. So went the whirligig. But at Christmas, when the blue-nosed waifs carol in the cold and boys have extra pennies, Tom Tiddler himself slunk into the background, lost in the ample folds of a “Double Number,” the same blazoned impudently, as though it did not demand double money. But the extra pennyworth was all ghosts: ghosts, ghosts, ghosts; full measure, pressed down and running over; not your Ibsenian shadows of heredity, but real live ghosts, handsomely appointed, with chains and groans and wavy wardrobes. They lived in moated granges and ivy-wreathed castles, and paced snowy terraces or dark, desolate corridors. There was no talk then of psychic manifestations, or auras, or telepathy, or spiritual aether. Ghosts were solid realities in those days of the double number.

“To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late,” as Macaulay sings, and it is no less impossible to escape spirit-rapping and all the fascinating menu of the Psychical Society. The epidemic, which is contagious to the last degree, seizes its victims when they are off guard, under pretense of amusing an idle hour, and ends by robbing them of sleep and health; some it drives into lunatic asylums and some into newspaper correspondence. That thought-reading is not necessarily delusion or collusion is now generally recognised; a protegee of Mr. F. W. Myers convinced me of the possibility of simple feats, though not of her explanation of them. She credited them to spirits, and wicked spirits to boot. In vain, I pointed out that spirits who occupied themselves so docilely about matters so trivial must be harmless creatures with no more guile than the village idiot: she would concede no grain of goodness in their composition. Table-turning I had never seen. Ghosts I had never met, though I had met plenty of persons who had their acquaintance. Like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu–or is it Madame de Staeel[*]?–I did not believe in them, but I was afraid of them. Premonitions I had often had, but they had scarcely ever come true. But now I am prepared to believe anything and everything, and to come up to the Penitent Form–if there be one–of the Psychical Society and to declare myself saved. I am already preparing a waxen image of a notorious critic, to stick pins thereinto. Not that I did not always believe the Spook Society was doing necessary work in supplementing the crude treatises of our psychologists, who are the most fatuous and self-complacent scientists going.