Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 34

Christmas Tales — Classical Tales of Wonder — The Host’s Ghost — A Tale of a Shadow — A Tale of a Bogle — The Legend of St. Laura

Jane . . . We’ll draw round

The fire, and grandmamma perhaps will tell us

One of her stories.

Harry . . . Ay, dear grand maamma!

A pretty story! something dismal now!

A bloody murder.

Jane . . . Or about a ghost.

Southey: The Grandmother’s Fate.

In the evening Miss Gryll said to the doctor, ‘We have passed Christmas without a ghost story. This is not as it should be. One evening at least of Christmas ought to be devoted to merveilleuses histoires racontées autour du foyer; which Chateaubriand enumerates among the peculiar enjoyments of those qui n’ont pas quitté leur pays natal. You must have plenty of ghosts in Greek and Latin, doctor.’

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. No doubt. All literature abounds with ghosts. But there are not many classical ghosts that would make a Christmas tale according to the received notion of a ghost story. The ghosts of Patroclus in Homer, of Darius in Æschylus, of Polydorus in Euripides, are fine poetical ghosts: but none of them would make a ghost story. I can only call to mind one such story in Greek: but even that, as it has been turned into ballads by Goethe, in the Bride of Corinth, and by Lewis, in the Gay Gold Ring,1 would not be new to any one here. There are some classical tales of wonder, not ghost stories, but suitable Christmas tales. There are two in Petronius, which I once amused myself by translating as closely as possible to the originals, and, if you please, I will relate them as I remember them. For I hold with Chaucer:

Whoso shall telle a tale after a man,

He most reherse, as nigh as ever he can,

Everich word, if it be in his charge,

All speke he never so rudely and so large:

Or elles he moste tellen his tale untrewe,

Or feinen things, or finden wordes newe.2

This proposal being received with an unanimous ‘By all means, doctor,’ the doctor went on:

‘These stories are told at the feast of Trimalchio: the first by Niceros, a freedman, one of the guests:

‘While I was yet serving, we lived in a narrow street, where now is the house of Gavilla. There, as it pleased the gods, I fell in love with the wife of Terentius, the tavern-keeper — Melissa Tarentiana — many of you knew her, a most beautiful kiss-thrower.’

Miss Gryll. That is an odd term, doctor.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. It relates, I imagine, to some graceful gesture of pantomimic dancing: for beautiful hostesses were often accomplished dancers. Virgil’s Copa, which, by the way, is only half panegyrical, gives us, nevertheless, a pleasant picture in this kind It seems to have been one of the great attractions of a Roman tavern: and the host, in looking out for a wife, was probably much influenced by her possession of this accomplishment. The dancing, probably, was of that kind which the moderns call demi-caractère, and was performed in picturesque costume ——

The doctor would have gone off in a dissertation on dancing hostesses, but Miss Gryll recalled him to the story, which he continued, in the words of Niceros:

‘But, by Hercules, mine was pure love; her manners charmed me, and her friendliness. If I wanted money, if she had earned an as, she gave me a semis. If I had money, I gave it into her keeping. Never was woman more trustworthy. Her husband died at a farm which they possessed in the country. I left no means untried to visit her in her distress; for friends are shown in adversity. It so happened that my master had gone to Capua, to dispose of some cast-off finery. Seizing the opportunity, 1 persuaded a guest of ours to accompany me to the fifth milestone. He was a soldier, strong as Pluto. We set off before cockcrow; the moon shone like day; we passed through a line of tombs. My man began some ceremonies before the pillars. I sat down, singing, and counting the stars. Then, as I looked round to my comrade, he stripped himself, and laid his clothes by the wayside. My heart was in my nose: I could no more move than a dead man. But he walked three times round his clothes, and was suddenly changed into a wolf. Do not think I am jesting. No man’s patrimony would tempt me to lie. But, as I had begun to say, as soon as he was changed into a wolf, he set up a long howl, and fled into the woods. I remained awhile, bewildered; then I approached to take up his clothes, but they were turned into stone. Who was dying of fear but I? But I drew my sword, and went on cutting shadows till I arrived at the farm. I entered the narrow way. The life was half boiled out of me; perspiration ran down me like a torrent: my eyes were dead. I could scarcely come to myself. My Melissa began to wonder why I walked so late; “and if you had come sooner,” she said, “you might at least have helped us; for a wolf entered the farm and fell on the sheep, tearing them, and leaving them all bleeding. He escaped; but with cause to remember us; for our man drove a spear through his neck.” When I heard these things I could not think of sleep; but hurried homeward with the dawn; and when I came to the place where the clothes had been turned into stone, I found nothing but blood.

‘When I reached home, my soldier was in bed, lying like an ox, and a surgeon was dressing his neck. I felt that he was a turnskin, and I could never after taste bread with him, not if you would have killed me. Let those who doubt of such things look into them. If I lie, may the wrath of all your Genii fall on me.’

This story being told, Trimalchio, the lord of the feast, after giving his implicit adhesion to it, and affirming the indisputable veracity of Niceros, relates another, as a fact of his own experience.

‘While yet I wore long hair, for from a boy I led a Chian life,3 our little Iphis, the delight of the family, died; by Hercules, a pearl; quick, beautiful, one of ten thousand. While, therefore, his unhappy mother was weeping for him, and we all were plunged in sorrow, suddenly witches came in pursuit of him, as dogs, you may suppose, of a hare. We had then in the house a Cappadocian, tall, brave to audacity, capable of lifting up an angry bull. He boldly, with a drawn sword, rushed out through the gate, having his left hand carefully wrapped up, and drove his sword through a woman’s bosom; here as it were; safe be what I touch! We heard a groan; but, assuredly, I will not lie, we did not see the women. But our stout fellow returning, threw himself into bed, and all his body was livid, as if he had been beaten with whips; for the evil hand had touched him. We closed the gate, and resumed our watch over the dead; but when the mother went to embrace the body of her son, she touched it, and found it was only a figure, of which all the interior was straw, no heart, nothing. The witches had stolen away the boy, and left in his place a straw-stuffed image. I ask you — it is impossible not — to believe, that there are women with more than mortal knowledge, nocturnal women, who can make that which is uppermost downmost. But our tall hero after this was never again of his own colour; indeed, after a few days, he died raving.’

‘We wondered and believed,’ says a guest who heard the story, ‘and kissing the table, we implored the nocturnals to keep themselves to themselves, while we were returning from supper.’

Miss Gryll. Those are pleasant stories, doctor; and the peculiar style of the narrators testifies to their faith in their own marvels. Still, as you say, they are not ghost stories.

Lord Curryfin. Shakespeare’s are glorious ghosts, and would make good stories, if they were not so familiarly known. There is a ghost much to my mind in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Lover’s Progress. Cleander has a beautiful wife, Calista, and a friend, Lisander, Calista and Lisander love each other, en tout bien, tout honneur. Lisander, in self-defence and in fair fight, kills a court favourite, and is obliged to conceal himself in the country. Cleander and Dorilaus, Calista’s father, travel in search of him. They pass the night at a country inn. The jovial host had been long known to Cleander, who had extolled him to Dorilaus; but on inquiring for him they find he has been dead three weeks. They call for more wine, dismiss their attendants, and sit up alone, chatting of various things, and, among others, of mine host, whose skill on the lute and in singing is remembered and commended by Cleander. While they are talking, a lute is struck within; followed by a song, beginning

’Tis late and cold, stir up the fire —

Sit close, and draw the table nigher:

Be merry! and drink wine that’s old.

And ending

Welcome, welcome, shall go round,

And I shall smile, though underground.

And when the song ceases, the host’s ghost enters. They ask him why he appears. He answers, to wait once more on Cleander, and to entreat a courtesy —

— to see my body buried

In holy ground: for now I lie unhallowed,

By the clerk’s fault: let my new grave be made

Amongst good fellows, that have died before me,

And merry hosts of my kind.

Cleander promises that it shall be done; and Dorilaus, who is a merry old gentleman throughout the play, adds —

And forty stoops of wine drank at thy funeral.

Cleander asks him —

Is’t in your power, some hours before my death, To give me warning?

The host replies —

I cannot tell you truly:

But if I can, so much on earth I loved you,

I will appear again.

In a subsequent scene the ghost forewarns him, and he is soon after assassinated: not premeditatedly, but as an accident, in the working out, by subordinate characters, of a plot to bring into question the purity of Calista’s love for Lisander.

Miss Ilex. In my young days ghosts were so popular that the first question asked about any new play was, Is there a ghost in it? The Castle Spectre had set this fashion. It was one of the first plays I saw, when I was a very little girl. The opening of the folding-doors disclosing the illuminated oratory; the extreme beauty of the actress who personated the ghost; the solemn music to which she moved slowly forward to give a silent blessing to her kneeling daughter; and the chorus of female voices chanting Jubilate; made an impression on me which no other scene of the kind has ever made. That is my ghost, but I have no ghost story worth telling.

Mr. Falconer. There are many stories in which the supernatural is only apparent, and is finally explained. But some of these, especially the novels of Brockden Brown, carry the principle of terror to its utmost limits. What can be more appalling than his Wielandt It is one of the few tales in which the final explanation of the apparently supernatural does not destroy or diminish the original effect.

Miss Gryll. Generally, I do not like that explaining away. I can accord a ready faith to the supernatural in all its forms, as I do to the adventures of Ulysses and Orlando. I should be sorry to see the enchantments of Circe expounded into sleights of hand.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I agree with you, Miss Gryll. I do not like to find a ghost, which has frightened me through two volumes, turned into a Cock Lane ghost in the third.

Miss Gryll. We are talking about ghosts, but we have not a ghost story. I want a ghost story.

Miss Niphet.. I will try to tell you one, which I remember imperfectly. It relates, as many such stories do, to a buried treasure. An old miser had an only daughter; he denied himself everything, but he educated her well, and treated her becomingly. He had accumulated a treasure, which he designed for her, but could not bear the thought of parting with it, and died without disclosing the place of its concealment. The daughter had a lover, not absolutely poor, nor much removed from it. He farmed a little land of his own, When her father died, and she was left destitute and friendless, he married her, and they endeavoured by economy and industry to make up for the deficiencies of fortune. The young husband had an aunt, with whom they sometimes passed a day of festival, and Christmas Day especially. They were returning home late at night on one of these occasions; snow was on the ground the moon was in the first quarter, and nearly setting. Crossing a field, they paused a moment to look on the beauty of the starry sky; and when they again turned their eyes to the ground, they saw a shadow on the snow; it was too long to have any distinct outline; but no substantial form was there to throw it. The young wife clung trembling to the arm of her husband. The moon set, and the shadow disappeared. New Year’s Day came, and they passed it at the aunt’s. On their return the moon was full, and high in heaven. They crossed the same field, not without hesitation and fear. In the same spot as before they again saw the shadow; it was that of a man in a large loose wrapper, and a high-peaked hat. They recognised the outline of the old miser. The husband sustained his nearly fainting wife; as their eyes were irresistibly fixed on it, it began to move, but a cloud came over the moon, and they lost sight of it. The next night was bright, and the wife had summoned all her courage to follow out the mystery; they returned to the spot at the same hour; the shadow again fell on the snow, and again it began to move, and glided away slowly over the surface of the snow. They followed it fearfully. At length it stopped on a small mound in another field of their own farm. They walked round and round it, but it moved no more. The husband entreated his wife to remain, while he sought a stick to mark the place. When she was alone, the shadow spread out its arms as in the act of benediction, and vanished. The husband found her extended on the snow; he raised her in his arms; she recovered, and they walked home. He returned in the morning with a pickaxe and spade, cleared away the snow, broke into the ground, and found a pot of gold, which was unquestionably their own. And then, with the usual end of a nurse’s tale, ‘they lived happily all the rest of their lives.’

Miss Ilex. Your story, though differing in all other respects, reminds me of a ballad in which there is a shadow on the snow,

Around it, and round, he had ventured to go,

But no form that had life threw that stamp on the snow.4

Mr. Gryll. In these instances the shadow has an outline, without a visible form to throw it. I remember a striking instance of shadows without distinguishable forms. A young chevalier was riding through a forest of pines, in which he had before met with fearful adventures, when a strange voice called on him to stop. He did not stop, and the stranger jumped up behind him. He tried to look back, but could not turn his head. They emerged into a glade, where he hoped to see in the moonlight the outline of the unwelcome form. But ‘unaccountable shadows fell around, unstamped with delineations of themselves.’5

Miss Gryll. Well, Mr. MacBorrowdale, have you no ghost story for us?

Mr. MacBorrowdale. In faith, Miss Gryll, ghosts are not much in my line: the main business of my life has been among the driest matters of fact; but I will tell you a tale of a bogle, which I remember from my boyish days.

There was a party of witches and warlocks assembled in the refectory of a ruined abbey, intending to have a merry supper, if they could get the materials. They had no money, and they had for servant a poor bogle, who had been lent to them by his Satanic majesty, on condition that he should provide their supper if he could; but without buying or stealing. They had a roaring fire, with nothing to roast, and a large stone table, with nothing on it but broken dishes and empty mugs. So the firelight shone on an uncouth set of long hungry faces. Whether there was among them ‘ae winsome wench and wawlie,’ is more than I can say; but most probably there was, or the bogle would scarcely have been so zealous in the cause. Still he was late on his quest. The friars of a still nourishing abbey were making preparations for a festal day, and had despatched a man with a cart to the nearest town, to bring them a supply of good things. He was driving back his cart well loaded with beef, and poultry, and ham; and a supply of choice rolls, for which a goodwife in the town was famous; and a new arrival of rare old wine, a special present to the Abbot from some great lord. The bogle having smelt out the prize, presented himself before the carter in the form of a sailor with a wooden leg, imploring charity, The carter said he had nothing for him, and the sailor seemed to go on his way. He reappeared in various forms, always soliciting charity, more and more importunately every time, and always receiving the same denial. At last he appeared as an old woman, leaning on a stick, who was more pertinacious in her entreaties than the preceding semblances; and the carter, after asseverating with an oath that a whole shipload of beggars must have been wrecked that night on the coast, reiterated that he had nothing for her. ‘Only the smallest coin, master,’ said the old woman. ‘I have no coin,’ said the carter. ‘Just a wee bite and sup of something,’ said the old woman; ‘you are scarcely going about without something to eat and drink; something comfortable for yourself. Just look in the cart: I am sure you will find something good.’ ‘Something, something, something,’ said the carter; ‘if there is anything fit to eat or drink in the cart, I wish a bogle may fly away with it.’ ‘Thank you,’ said the bogle, and changed himself into a shape which laid the carter on his back, with his heels in the air. The bogle made lawful prize of the contents of the cart. The refectory was soon fragrant with the odour of roast, and the old wine flowed briskly, to the great joy of the assembly, who passed the night in feasting, singing, and dancing, and toasting Old Nick.

But Tarn kend what was whni fu’ brawlie:

There was ae winsome wend and wawlie,

Thai night enlisted in the core,

Lang after kend on Carrick shore.

— Tam o’ Shanter.

Miss Gryll. And now, Mr. Falconer, you who live in an old tower, among old books, and are deep in the legends of saints, surely you must have a ghost story to tell us.

Mr. Falconer. Not exactly a ghost story. Miss Gryll but there is a legend which took my fancy, and which I taured into a ballad. If you permit me, I will repeat it.

The permission being willingly granted, Mr. Falconer closed the series of fireside marvels by reciting

THE LEGEND OF SAINT LAURA

Saint Larua, in her sleep of death,

Preserves beneath the tomb

—’Tis willed where what is willed must be-6

In incorruptability

Her beauty and her bloom.

So pure her maiden life had been,

So free from earthly stain,

’Twas fixed in fate by Heaven’s own Queen,

That till the earth’s last closing scene

She should unchanged remain.

Within a deep sarcophagus

Of alabaster sheen,

With sculptured lid of roses white,

She slumbered in unbroken night,

By mortal eyes unseen.

Above her marble couch was reared

A monumental shrine,

Where cloistered sisters, gathering round,

Made night and morn the aisle resound

With choristry divine

The abbess died: and in her pride

Her parting mandate said,

They should her final rest provide

The alabaster couch beside,

Where slept the sainted dead.

The abbess came of princely race:

The nuns might not gainsay:

And sadly passed the timid band,

To execute the high command

They dared not disobey.

The monument was opened then:

It gave to general sight

The alabaster couch alone:

But all its lucid substance shone

With preternatural tight.

They laid the corpse within the shrine!

They closed its doors again:

But nameless terror seemed to fall,

Throughout the livelong night, on all

Who formed the funeral train.

Lo! on the morrow morn, still closed

The monument was found;

But in its robes funereal drest,

The corpse they had consigned to rest

Lay on the stony ground.

Fear and amazement seized on all:

They called on Mary’s aid:

And in the tomb, unclosed again,

With choral hymn and funeral train,

The corpse again was laid.

But with the incorruptible

Corruption might not rest:

The lonely chapel’s stone-paved floor

Received the ejected corpse once more,

In robes funereal drest.

So was it found when morning beamed:

In solemn suppliant strain

The nuns implored all saints in heaven,

That rest might to the corpse be given,

Which they entombed again.

On the third night a watch was kept

By many a friar and nun:

Trembling, all knelt in fervent prayer,

‘Till on the dreary midnight air

Rolled the deep bell-toll, ‘One’!

The saint within the opening tomb

Like marble statue stood:

All fell to earth in deep dismay:

And through their ranks she passed away,

In calm unchanging mood.

No answering sound her footsteps raised

Along the stony floor:

Silent as death, severe as fate,

She glided through the chapel gate,

And none beheld her more.

The alabaster couch was gone:

The tomb was void and bare:

For the last time, with hasty rite,

Even ‘mid the terror of the night,

They laid the abbess there.

’Tis said the abbess rests not well

In that sepulchral pile:

But yearly, when the night comes round

As dies of ‘One’ the bell’s deep sound

She flits along the aisle.

But whither passed the virgin saint,

To slumber far away,

Destined by Mary to endure,

Unaltered in her semblance pure,

Until the judgment-day?

None knew, and none may ever know:

Angels the secret keep:

Impenetrable ramparts bound,

Eternal silence dwells around

The chamber of her sleep.

1 Lewis says, in a note on the Gay Gold Ring:—‘I once read in some Grecian author, whose name I have forgotten, the story which suggested to me the outline of the foregoing ballad. It was as follows: A young man arriving at the house of a friend, to whose daughter he was betrothed, was informed that some weeks had passed since death had deprived him of his intended bride. Never having seen her, he soon reconciled himself to her loss, especially as, during his stay at his friend’s house, a young lady was kind enough to visit him every night in his chamber, whence she retired at daybreak, always carrying with her some valuable present from her lover. This intercourse continued till accident showed the young man the picture of his deceased bride, and he recognised, with horror, the features of his nocturnal visitor. The young lady’s tomb being opened, he found in it the various presents which his liberality had bestowed on his unknown innamorata.’— M. G. Lewis: Tales of Wonder, v. i. p. 99.

2 Canterbury Tales, w. 733–738.

3 Free boys wore long hair. A Chian life is a delicate and luxurious life. Trimalchio implies that, though he began life as a slave, he was a pet in the household, and was treated as if he had been free.

4 Miss Bannerman’s Tales of Superstition and Chivalry.

5 The Three Brothers, vol. iv. p. 193.

6 Vuolsi cosi cola dove si puote

Ciô che si vuole, e piii non domandare.

— Dante.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24