Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas and Ghosts

On a yuletide note, the following article, from the 12 December 1936 issue of the Melbourne newspaper The Argus, may be of interest - a rare insight into the history of these popular Victorian annuals. Roy Bridges was a Tasmanian author of popular novels and tales who lived for most of his life with his sister Hilda, herself a noted crime writer.


The copy of "Beeton's Christmas Annual" is faded and fingermarked. It is musty with the burial of years in a deal chest, dating from the Portsmouth lad who, in 1817, left his ship to settle in Van Diemen's Land. The book was a Christmas gift to a youngster of this Tasmanian farm in the eighteen-sixties. The title page bears his name; a stone in the Sorell Cemetery has borne the name for years.

Not all the fingermarks, of a Christmastide stickiness, could have been his. Possibly none was, for his youth was of a time when a new book was rare and precious in the farmhouse. Even a paper-covered book must have a brown paper wrapper put on to protect it. This book, like all the children's books of the farmhouse of his time, came down to other generations because of the care shown through the eighteen sixties. So the "Annual" survives, draggle tailed, disreputable, and dog-eared, but bearing, from its shred of paper cover to its last worm-eaten page, a record of the pleasure it has given to youngsters from one generation to another down 70 years.

Not that the "Annual" was a children's Christmas book and no more. The idea of the publisher was Dickensian - Christmas was an affair for family and friends, and for young and for old. The "Annual" was planned to amuse the adult as well as the juvenile. Clearly it succeeded, for this number - for 1865 - was the sixth of the series, edited and published by S. O. Beeton, of the Strand, London, and written, illustrated, and decorated by authors and artists who could conjure up the spirit of Christmas on sound old English lines.

So the "General Contents" range from "Beautiful Helen" - F. C. Burnand's parody of a Greek comedy, not of his best work, but meant only for performance in the "Theatre Royal, Back Drawing-room" - to "Amusing and Curious Card Tricks" - were card tricks ever amusing? Certainly the pages of funny pictures by Charles H. Ross are really funny - illustrating the sort of jokes folk at Christmas parties would see very easily when they were in a seasonable mood and were beginning to see double, before beginning not to see at all.

But the quality of the "Annual" for entertainment-and its real quality lies in the ghost stories, collected as "Hatch-ups," or "Tales Told in the Dark" - the chief section of the worthy old Christmas book.

The tales are told by youngsters in a dormitory at the Rev. Jabez Owlthorpe's school - the idea recalls David Copperfield’s telling his stories to Steerforth and his fellows at Salem House. Mr. Owlthorpe's young gentlemen listen and thrill to, or laugh at, the yarns spun by their fellow with a skill that suggests an early development of literary talent. The usher seems a distant relative of Mr. Mell. Regardless of discipline, he listens secretly in the darkness, and nobody suspects his presence till he is due to take the floor and to reveal a gift for the ghostly decidedly suggestive of J. S. le Fanu. A deep sigh is heard from the middle of the room –a low, wailing sigh: "Gentlemen," says a solemn voice, "pardon the intrusion, but I have been an undetected listener to your stories."

He has interrupted, not to do his duly to the Rev. Mr. Owlthorpe and the young gentlemen, but to reveal himself as an authority on the awful. Nobody is afraid of him. Matched with the ghostly, ghastly, and ghoulish creatures of imagination, the poor, shabby-genteel usher simply docs not matter.

"Since I am here," says the usher, “shall I tell you a ghost story? Shall I tell you of a ghost that sat upon a rail in Australia, with the moonbeams shining through him, till his murderer was brought lo justice?"

“No, please don't!" says the smallest boy. “We have all read it!”

"Well," says the usher, "will you have the story of some other ghost not yet introduced to the public?"

“Yes, if it’s jolly horrible!"

“I must be a poor hand,” says the usher, "if I can’t make you feel like fifty eels running all over your body, and if I don't set your hair on end, so straight and so stiff that it pulls you out of your boots. I'll permit you to call me a humbug!"

They tell him gleefully to go ahead.

“Well," he says, "I have seen so many horrible things in my life, boys that I scarcely know what particular horror I shall put forth for your benefit to-night. I have heard of ghosts who were torn cruelly from their fleshy tenement by murder, walking to and fro on the earth till the appointed day arrives, when, in the course of nature, they would have died, until which time they had no right to enter the abode of spirits. So they wandered restless through the world without a home, haunting houses, sitting on graves in churchyards, or walking in lonely places There was a soldier at Perran buried alive, and his spirit was often seen at night haunting the new-made graves, tearing at the earth, as though he thought any poor creature like himself was buried living."

The dismal usher is warming up - or freezing down - to his work. He wants to thrill his audience, and he succeeds. He preludes his story, told to him by his cousin Phoebe, of a ghostly face looking from a stone wall in an old chateau of the Ardennes with the declaration, “I can never relate the history without referring first to Phoebe’s death at sea and her bridegroom’s dream: I believe my poor cousin has laid a spell on me which forces me to call her up to tell herself the story of the old chateau!”

The moonlight suddenly streaming into the room discloses the melancholy usher, leaning his pale face on one hand, and holding up the other to impose silence while he fixes his large, prominent eyes on the darkest portion of the room. All eyes follow his, and for a moment several nervous youngsters take a long bolster lying on the floor for the corpse of the dead girl sewn up in her shroud, and floating in the sea. The ticking of a watch grows loud and ghostly “a very death-watch in sound,” and the low growl of the dog downstairs seems to warn the approach of a ghostly visitant.

First the usher tells that his cousin Phoebe died on her way to India to marry Captain Herbert. On the night of her death her lover dreamed that he saw a woman’s hand floating towards him, he was on the seashore, and the waves cast it up at his feet. On the fourth finger of the hand was the diamond ring which he had given to Phoebe. He took the ring and read within it: “Died at sea on 10th September 1845.” On the arrival of the ship the ring was sent to him at Calcutta by a fellow passenger with a letter stating she died on 10th September.

Now as a girl Phoebe was one of a wedding party at the old chateau which was haunted. A white face showed from the wall in the lumber room upstairs. First a little girl who had been sent up to the little room in the turret to look for an embroidery frame came rushing into the drawing room, white as death, and went off into violent hysterics. After the “usual amount of hartshorn and fuss,” she shrieked out, “Oh don t let me see that horrible face again!” Quietened and consoled she told that looking from the wall she had seen a woman’s face - a face white as snow with dark hollow eyes and an expression of unutterable horror.

The room was searched, nothing was found. Wedding guests crowded into the chateau. The room, brightened with a glowing stove, was allotted to Phoebe’s brother Jack. He was about to go to bed late that night when he saw in the wall- “a face, dead, white, and ghastly, staring at him in a fixed and awful manner.” He rushed from the room, and roused Captain Herbert; again search revealed nothing. The young man did not spend the night in the room.

Next day was the wedding day. Phoebe ran up to the room, thinking to find her brother. Not finding him, she turned to go – when, suddenly, she saw in the midst of the wall a ghastly face, whose eyes met hers with a look of such unutterable anguish that she fell on the floor in a swoon.

After that, thorough search was made. High up in the wall a deep hollow was found – a stone had been left out from the masonry. From it a skull grinned at the searchers. It was resting on an iron collar. Long black hair and bones had fallen in a heap into the deep hollow space of the wall. Far back in the Middle Ages a girl, in chains, had been built up in the wall, with an iron collar set around her neck.

“We never heard the story,” the usher tells. “Perhaps, in the old cruel days when she died, the peasants feared their feudal lord too much even to whisper it among themselves, and so the tale of her wrongs, her crime, and her death, was lost in the world forever.

But the usher rounds it off very neatly. “The three who had seen the face in the wall died young. Jack was drowned about a year afterwards in fording a river in Australia, and the little girl, Maggie, before the year was out, was thrown from her pony, and “never spoke again. It looks as if death took the ghost-seers in succession, just in the order in which they saw the apparition.”

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