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Sunday, August 13, 2017
SUNDAY REVIEW / STORY OF THE INEXPERIENCED GHOST
FICTION FROM THE PUBLIC DOMAIN
BY H.G. WELLS
First published in
The scene amidst which Clayton told his
last story comes back very vividly to my mind. There he sat, for the greater
part of the time, in the corner of the authentic settle by the spacious open
fire, and Sanderson sat beside him smoking the Broseley clay that bore his
name. There was Evans, and that marvel among actors, Wish, who is also a modest
man. We had all come down to the Mermaid Club that Saturday morning, except
Clayton, who had slept there overnight—which indeed gave him the opening of his
We had golfed until golfing was invisible; we had dined, and
we were in that mood of tranquil kindliness when men will suffer a story. When
Clayton began to tell one, we naturally supposed he was lying. It may be that
indeed he was lying—of that the reader will speedily be able to judge as well
as I. He began, it is true, with an air of matter-of-fact anecdote, but that we
thought was only the incurable artifice of the man.
"You know I was
alone here last night," he remarked, after a long consideration of the
upward rain of sparks from the log that Sanderson had thumped.
"Except for the domestics," said Wish.
"Who sleep in the other wing," said Clayton.
"Yes. Well—" He pulled at his cigar for some little time as though he
still hesitated about his confidence. Then he said, quite quietly, "I
caught a ghost!"
"Caught a ghost?" said Sanderson. "Where is
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Herbert George Wells,
better known as H. G. Wells, was an English writer best known for such science
fiction novels as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man
and The Island of Doctor Moreau. He was a prolific writer of both fiction and
non-fiction, and produced works in many different genres, including
contemporary novels, history, and social commentary. He was also an outspoken
socialist. His later works become increasingly political and didactic, and only
his early science fiction novels are widely read today. Wells, along with Hugo
Gernsback and Jules Verne, is sometimes referred to as "The Father of
And Evans, who admires Clayton immensely and has been four
weeks in America, shouted, "A ghost? Tell us all about it."
Clayton said he would in a minute, and asked to shut the
He looked apologetically at me. "There's no
eavesdropping of course, but we don't want to upset our very excellent service
with any rumors of ghosts in the place. There's too much shadow and oak
panelling to trifle with that. And this, you know, wasn't a regular ghost. I
don't think it will come again—ever."
"You mean you didn't keep it?" said Sanderson.
"I hadn't the heart to," said Clayton.
And Sanderson said he was surprised.
We laughed, and Clayton looked aggrieved. "I
know," he said, with the flicker of a smile, "but the fact is it
really was a ghost, and I'm as sure of it as I am talking to you now. I'm not
Sanderson drew deeply at his pipe, with one reddish eye on
Clayton, and then emitted a thin jet of smoke more eloquent than many words.
Clayton added, "It is the strangest thing. I never
believed in ghosts or anything of the sort, until I bag one in a corner; and
the whole business is now in my hands."
He meditated still more profoundly, and produced and began
to pierce a second cigar with a curious little stabber he affected.
"You talked to it?" asked Wish.
"For an hour."
"Chatty?" I said, joining the party of the skeptics.
"The poor devil was in trouble," said Clayton,
bowed over his
cigar end and with the very faintest note of reproof.
"Sobbing?" some one asked.
Clayton heaved a realistic sigh at the memory. "As a
matter of act—he was!"
"Really?” asked Evans, in his best American
"I never realised," said Clayton, ignoring him,
"that a ghost could be in such a state.” He paused, while he sought for
matches in his pocket and lit and warmed to his cigar.
"I’ve heard people with a certain strength or fixity of
purpose may have ghosts of a certain strength and fixity of purpose—most
haunting ghosts, you know, must be as one-idea'd as monomaniacs and as
obstinate as mules to come back again and again. This poor creature
wasn't." Clayton suddenly looked up rather queerly, and his eye went round
the room. "I say it," he said, "in all kindliness, but that is the plain truth of the case. Even at the first
glance he struck me as weak." He punctuated with the help of his cigar.
Clayton explained, "I came upon him in the long
passage. His back was towards me and I saw him first. Right off I knew him for
a ghost. He was transparent and whitish; clean through his chest I could see
the glimmer of the little window at the end. And not only his physique but his
attitude struck me as being weak. He looked, as though he didn't have the
slightest clue he was meant to do. One hand was on the panelling and the other
fluttered to his mouth. Like—SO!"
"What sort of physique?" said Sanderson.
"Lean. And a little, meanish head with scrubby hair—And
rather bad ears. Shoulders bad, narrower than the hips; turn-down collar,
ready-made short jacket, trousers baggy and a little frayed at the heels. That's
how he took me. I came very quietly up the staircase. I did not carry a light,
you know—the candles are on the landing table and there is that lamp— and I was
in my list slippers, and I saw him as I came up. I stopped dead at that—taking
him in. I wasn't a bit afraid. I think that in most of these affairs one is
never nearly so afraid or excited as one imagines one would be. I was surprised
and interested. I thought, 'Good Lord! Here's a ghost at last! And I haven't believed
for a moment in ghosts ever.'"
"Um," said Wish.
I suppose I wasn't on the landing a moment before he found
out I was there. He turned on me sharply, and I saw the face of an immature
young man, a weak nose, a scrubby little moustache, a feeble chin. So for an
instant we stood—he looking over his shoulder at me and regarded one another.
Then he seemed to remember his high calling. He turned round, drew himself up,
projected his face, raised his arms, spread his hands in approved ghost
fashion—came towards me. As he did so his little jaw dropped, and he emitted a
faint, drawn-out 'Boo.' No, it wasn't—not a bit dreadful. I'd dined. I'd had a
bottle of champagne, and being all alone, perhaps two or three—perhaps even
four or five—whiskies, so I was as solid as rocks and no more frightened than
if I'd been assailed by a frog.
'Boo!' I said. 'Nonsense. You don't belong to this place.
What are you doing here?'
"I could see him wince. 'Boo-oo,' he said.
"Boo—be hanged! Are you a member?” I said; and just to
show I didn't care a pin for him I stepped through a corner of him and made to
light my candle. 'Are you a member?' I repeated, looking at him sideways.
"He moved a little so as to stand clear of me, and his
bearing became crestfallen.”
'No,' he said, in answer to the persistent interrogation of
my eye; 'I'm not a member—I'm a ghost.'
"'Well, that doesn't give you the run of the Mermaid
Club. Is there any one you want to see, or anything of that sort?' and doing it
as steadily as possible for fear that he should mistake the carelessness of
whisky for the distraction of fear, I got my candle alight. I turned on him,
holding it. 'What are you doing here?' I said.
"He had dropped his hands and stopped his booing, and
there he stood, abashed and awkward, the ghost of a weak, silly, aimless young
man. 'I'm haunting,' he said.
"'You have no business being here,' I said in a quiet
"I'm a ghost,” he said, as if in defence.
"That may be, but you haven't any business to haunt
here. This is a respectable private club; people often stop here with
nursemaids and children, and, going about in the careless way you do, some poor
little mite could easily come upon you and be scared out of her wits. I suppose
you didn't think of that?'
"No, sir,' he said, “I didn't.”
"'You should have done. You haven't any claim on the
place, have you? Weren't murdered here, or anything of that sort?”
"'No, sir; but I thought as it was old and
"That's no excuse.” I regarded him firmly. 'Your coming
here is a mistake,”I said, in a tone of friendly superiority. I feigned to see
if I had my matches, and then looked up at him frankly. 'If I were you I'd
vanish right away.”
"He looked embarrassed. 'The fact is, sir—' he began.
"'I'd vanish,' I interrupted, driving it home.
"The fact is, sir, that—somehow—I can't.”
"'No, sir. There's something I've forgotten. I've been
hanging about here since midnight last night, hiding in the cupboards of the
empty bedrooms and things like that. I'm confused. I've never come haunting
'That's queer,' I said, and as I spoke I heard some one
moving about down below. “Come into my room and tell me more about it,' I said.
I tried to take him by the arm. But, of course, you might as well have tried to
take hold of a puff of smoke! I had forgotten my room number, I was lucky as I
was the only soul in that wing—until I saw my room. 'Here we are,' I said, and
sat down in the armchair; “sit down and tell me all about it. It seems to me
you have got yourself into an awkward position.”
In a little while we were deep in a long and serious talk.
And as those whiskies and sodas evaporated out of me, and I began to realize what
a weird business I was in. There he was, semi-transparent— the proper
conventional phantom, and noiseless except for his ghost of a voice—flitting to
and fro in that nice, clean, chintz-hung old bedroom. You could see the gleam
of the copper candlesticks through him, and the lights on the brass fender, and
the corners of the framed engravings on the wall,—and there he was telling me
all about this wretched little life of his that had recently ended on earth. He
hadn't a particularly honest face, you know, but being trans- parent, of
course, he couldn't avoid telling the truth."
"Eh?" said Wish, suddenly sitting up in his chair.
"What?" said Clayton.
"Being transparent—couldn't avoid telling the truth—I
see it," said Wish.
"But it is so,” Clayton said, “I can assure you
nevertheless. I don't believe he got once a nail's breadth off the Bible truth.
He told me how he had been killed—he went down into a London basement with a
candle to look for a leakage of gas—and described himself as a senior English
master in a London private school when it occurred."
"Poor wretch!" said I.
"That's what I thought, and the more he talked the more
I thought it. There he was, purposeless in life and purposeless out of it. He
talked of his father and mother and his schoolmaster, and all who had ever been
anything to him in the world, meanly. He had been too sensitive, too nervous;
none of them had ever valued him properly or understood him, he said. He had
never had a real friend in the world, I think; he had never had a success. He
had shirked games and failed examinations. 'It's like that with some people,'
he said; 'whenever I got into the examination-room or anywhere everything
seemed to go”
He was engaged to be married of course—to another
over-sensitive person, I suppose—when the indiscretion with the gas leak ended
his affairs. 'And where are you now?' I asked. 'Not in—?'
"He wasn't clear on that point at all. The impression
he gave me was of a sort of vague, intermediate state, a special reserve for
souls too non-existent for anything so positive as either sin or virtue.
I don't know. He was much too egotistical and unobservant to
give me any clear idea of the kind of place, kind of country, there is on the
Other Side of Things. Wherever he was, he seems to have fallen in with a set of
kindred spirits: ghosts of weak Cockney young men, who were on a footing of
Christian names, and among these there was certainly a lot of talk about 'going
haunting' and things like that. Yes—going haunting! They seemed to think
'haunting' a tremendous adventure.”
"But really!" said Wish to the fire.
"These are the impressions he gave me, anyhow,"
said Clayton, modestly. "I may, of course, have been in a rather uncritical
state, but that was the sort of background he gave to himself. He kept flitting
up and down, with his thin voice going talking, talking about his wretched self,
and never a word of clear, firm statement from first to last. He was thinner
and sillier and more pointless than if he had been real and alive. Only then,
you know, he would not have been in my bedroom here—if he had been alive. I
should have kicked him out."
"Of course," said Evans, "there are poor
mortals like that."
"And there's just as much chance of their having ghosts
as the rest of us," I admitted and decided, what gave a sort of point to
him was the fact that he did seem within limits to have found himself out. The
mess he had made of haunting had depressed him terribly. He had been told it
would be a 'lark'; he had come expecting it to be a 'lark,' and here it was,
nothing but another failure added to his record!
He proclaimed himself an utter out-and-out failure. He said,
and I can quite believe it, that he had never tried to do anything all his life
that he hadn't made a perfect mess of—and through all the wastes of eternity he
never would. If he had had sympathy, perhaps—.
He paused at that, and stood regarding me. He remarked that,
strange as it might seem to me, nobody, not any one, ever, had given him the
amount of sympathy as I was doing now. I
could see what he wanted straight away, and I determined to head him off at
once. I did not want to be the best friend of a ghost. I got up briskly. “Don't
you brood on these things too much,”I said. “The thing you've got to do is to
get out of this get out of this—sharp. You pull yourself together and try.”
“I can't,' he said.
“You try,' I said, and try he did."
"Try!" said Sanderson. "How?"
"Passes," said Clayton.
"Complicated series of gestures and passes with the hands.
That's how he had come in and that's how he had to get out again. Lord! what a
business I had!"
"But how could any series of passes—?" I began.
"I see," said Clayton, turning on me and putting a
great emphasis on certain words, "you want everything clear. I don't know
how. All I know is that you do—that he did, anyhow, at least. After a fearful
time, you know, he got his passes right and suddenly disappeared."
"Did you," said Sanderson, slowly, "observe
"Yes," said Clayton, and seemed to think. "It
was tremendously odd," he said. "There we were, I and this thin vague
ghost, in that silent room, in this silent, empty inn, in this silent little
Friday-night town. Not a sound except our voices and a faint panting he made
when he swung. There was the bedroom candle, and one candle on the dressing-
table alight, that was all—sometimes one or other would flare up into a tall,
lean, astonished flame for a space. And odd things happened.
“I can't,” the ghost said; “I shall never—!' And suddenly he
sat down on a little chair at the foot of the bed and began to sob and sob.
Lord! what a harrowing, whimpering thing he seemed!
"'Pull yourself together,” I said, and tried to pat him
on the back, and ... my confounded hand went through him! By that time, you
know, I wasn't nearly so—massive as I had been on the landing. The weirdness of what just happened hit me.
I remember snatching back my hand out of him, as it were,
with a little thrill, and walking over to the dressing-table. 'You pull
yourself together,' I said to him, 'and try.' And in order to encourage and
help him I began to try as well."
"What!" said Sanderson, "the passes?"
"Yes, the passes."
"But—" I said, moved by an idea that eluded me for
a space. "This is interesting," said Sanderson, with his finger in
his pipe bowl. "You mean to say this ghost of yours gave away—"
"Did his level best to give away the whole confounded barrier?
“Yes,” Clayton said,
"He didn't," said Wish; "he couldn't. Or
you'd have gone there too."
"That's precisely it," I said, finding my elusive
idea put into words for me.
"That is precisely it," said Clayton, with
thoughtful eyes upon the fire.
For just a little while there was silence.
"Did he show you the passes?" said Sanderson.
“Awkwardly at best,” Clayton said.“He said rather peevishly that he couldn’t do
the passes if I stared at him.”
The ghost said, “I can't do it if you look at me—I really
can't; it's been that, partly, all along. I'm such a nervous fellow that you
put me out..”
Clayton added, “Well, we had a bit of an argument. Naturally
I wanted to see; but he was as obstinate as a mule, and suddenly I had come
over as tired as a dog—he tired me out.Finally I said, All right, I won't look at you and turned towards the
mirror, on the wardrobe, by the bed..”
“Go on,” Sanderson said.
Clayton nodded, “He started off very fast. I tried to follow
him by looking in the looking-glass, to see just what it was had hung. Round
went his arms and his hands, so, and so, and so, and then with a rush came to
the last gesture of all—you stand erect and open out your arms—and so, he did
it.When I wheeled around from the
looking glass I was alone with the flaring candles and a staggering mind. What
had happened? Had any- thing happened? Had I been dreaming?And then, with an absurd note of finality
about it, the clock upon the landing discovered the moment was ripe for
striking one. So!—Ping! And I was as
grave and sober as a judge, with all my champagne and whisky gone into the vast
serene. Feeling odd, you know—confoundedly queer!”
No one in the room spoke.
Clayton, too, was silent.He regarded his cigar ash for a moment. "That's all that
happened," he said.
"And then you went to bed?" asked Evans.
"What else was there to do?"
I looked Wish in the eye. We wanted to scoff, and there was
something, something perhaps in Clayton's voice and manner,
that hampered our desire.
"And about these passes?" said Sanderson.
"I believe I could do them now."
"Oh!" said Sanderson, and produced a penknife, "Why
don't you do them now?" he said shutting his penknife with a click.
"That's what I'm going to do," said Clayton.
"They won't work," said Evans.
"If they do—" I suggested.
"You know, I'd rather you didn't," said Wish,
stretching out his legs.
"Why?" asked Evans.
"I'd rather he didn't," said Wish.
"But he hasn't got 'em right," said Sanderson,
plugging too much tobacco in his pipe.
"All the same, I'd rather he didn't," said Wish.
We argued with Wish. He
said that for Clayton to go through those gestures was like mocking a serious
"But you don't believe—?" I said.
Wish glanced at Clayton, who was staring into the fire,
weighing something in his mind. "I do—more than half, anyhow, I do,"
"Clayton," said I, "you're too good a liar
for us. Most of it was all right. But that disappearance ... happened to be
convincing. Tell us, it's a tale of cock and bull."
He stood up without heeding me, took the middle of the
hearthrug, and faced me. For a moment he regarded his feet thoughtfully, and
then for all the rest of the time his eyes were on the opposite wall, with an
intent expression. He raised his two hands slowly to the level of his eyes but
he was still speechless.
Now, Sanderson is a Freemason, a member of the lodge of the
Four Kings, which devotes itself so ably to the study and elucidation of all
the mysteries of Masonry past and present, and among the students of this lodge
Sanderson is by no means the least. He followed Clayton's motions with a
singular interest in his reddish eye.
"That's not bad," he said, when it was done.
"You really do, you know, put things together, Clayton, in a most amazing
fashion. But there's one little detail out."
"I know," said Clayton. "I believe I could
tell you which."
"Well?" asked Sanderson.
"This," said Clayton, and did a queer little twist
and writhing and thrust of the hands.
"Yes." Sanderson agreed.
"That, you know, was what he couldn't get right,"
said Clayton. "But how do you—?"
"Most of this business, and particularly how you
invented it, I don't understand at all," said Sanderson, "but just
that phase—I do." He reflected. "These happen to be a series of gestures—connected
with a certain branch of esoteric Masonry. Probably you know. Or
else—how?" He reflected still further. "I do not see I can do any
harm in telling you just the proper twist. After all, if you know, you know; if
you don't, you don't."
"I know nothing," said Clayton, "except what
the poor devil let out last night."
"Well, anyhow," said Sanderson, and placed his pipe
on the shelf over the fireplace. Then very rapidly he gesticulated with his
"So?" said Clayton, repeating.
"Do it," said Sanderson, and took his pipe in hand
"Ah, now," said Clayton, "I can do the whole
thing—right." He stood up before the waning fire and smiled at us all. But
I think there was just a little hesitation in his smile. "If I
begin—" he said.
"I wouldn't begin," said Wish.
"It's all right!" said Evans. "Matter is
indestructible. You don't think any jiggery-pokery of this sort is going to
snatch Clayton into the world of shades. No way! You may try, Clayton, so far
as I'm concerned, until your arms drop off at the wrists."
"I don't believe that," said Wish, and stood up
and put his arm on Clayton's shoulder. "You've made me half believe in
that story somehow, and I don't want to see the thing done!"
"Goodness!" said I, "here's Wish
"I am," said Wish, with real or admirably feigned
intensity. "I believe that if he goes through these motions right he'll
"He'll not do anything of the sort," I cried.
"There's only one way out of this world for men, and Clayton is 30 years
from that. Besides ... And such a ghost! Do you think—?"
Wish interrupted me by moving. He walked out from among our
chairs and stopped beside the fireplace and stood there. "Clayton,"
he said, "you're a fool."
Clayton, with a humorous light in his eyes, smiled back at
him. "Wish," he said, "is right and all you others are wrong. I
shall go. I shall get to the end of these passes, and as the last swish
whistles through the air, Presto!—this hearthrug will be vacant, the room will
be blank amazement, and a respectably dressed gentleman of fifteen stone will
plump into the world of shades. I'm certain. So will you be. I decline to argue
further. Let the thing be tried."
"No," said Wish, and made a step and ceased.
Clayton raised his hands once more he was ready to try the
By that time, you know, we were all in a state of tension—largely
because of the behaviour of Wish. We sat all of us with our eyes on Clayton—I,
at least, with a sort of tight, stiff feeling about me as though from the back
of my skull to the middle of my thighs my body had been changed to steel. And
there, with a gravity that was imperturbably serene, Clayton bowed and swayed
and waved his hands and arms before us. As he drew towards the end one piled
up, one tingled in one's teeth. The last gesture, I have said, was to swing the
arms out wide open, with the face held up. And when at last he swung out to
this closing gesture I ceased even to breathe. It was ridiculous, of course,
but you know that ghost-story feeling. It was after dinner, in a queer, old
shadowy house. Would he, after all—?
There he stood for one stupendous moment, with his arms open
and his upturned face, assured and bright, in the glare of the hanging lamp. We
hung through that moment as if it were an age, and then came from all of us
something that was half a sigh of infinite relief and half a reassuring
For visibly—he wasn't going. It was all nonsense. He had
told an idle story, and carried it almost to conviction, that was all! ... And
then in that moment the face of Clayton, changed.
It all changed.
It changed as a lit house changes when its lights are
suddenly extinguished. His eyes were suddenly eyes that were fixed, his smile
was frozen on his lips, and he stood there still. He stood there, very gently
That moment, too, was an age. And then, you know, chairs
were scraping, things were falling, and we were all moving. His knees seemed to
give, and he fell forward, and Evans rose and caught him in his arms.
It stunned us all.
For a minute I suppose no one said a coherent thing. We
believed it, yet could not believe it. I came out of a muddled stupefaction to
find myself kneeling beside him, and his vest and shirt were torn open, and
Sanderson's hand lay on his heart... .
Well—the simple fact before us could very well wait our convenience;
there was no hurry for us to comprehend. It lay there for an hour; it lies
athwart my memory, black and amazing still, to this day. Clayton had, indeed,
passed into the world that lies so near to and so far from our own, and he had
gone thither by the only road that mortal man may take.
But whether he did indeed pass there by that poor ghost's
incantation, or whether he was stricken suddenly by apoplexy in the midst of an
idle tale—as the coroner's jury would have us believe—is no matter for my
judging; it is just one of those inexplicable riddles that must remain unsolved
until the final solution of all things shall come. All I certainly know is
that, in the very moment, in the very instant, of concluding those passes, he
changed, and staggered, and fell down before us—dead!
SOURCE:This book is brought to you by Feedbooks http://www.feedbooks.com
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Also available on Feedbooks for Wells:
• The War of the Worlds (1898)
• The Time Machine (1895)
• A Modern Utopia (1905)
• The Invisible Man (1897)
• Tales of Space and Time (1900)
• The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)
• The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904) • The
Sleeper Awakes (1910)