Jorkens Among the Ghosts

‘I SUPPOSE you’ve seen lots of ghosts,’ said a young member of our club one day to Jorkens.

Of course he meant to imply that the tales that Jorkens had told us at different times were rather along the borders of credibility, in those dim places in which ghost stories might be expected to flourish.

‘No,’ said Jorkens, ‘I have never seen a ghost.’

‘Not?’ said the other.

‘No,’ said Jorkens. ‘I’ve heard them, of course, but I have never actually seen one.’

‘Why “of course”?’ asked Terbut.

‘Well, knocking about the world as I have done,’ said Jorkens, ‘one comes sooner or later pretty near to most things. I have been in the next room to a ghost. I might even say that for a moment I had been in the same room with one. But they are queer elusive things, that always move when you move; and I never actually saw one.’

‘What did it sound like?’ asked Terbut.

‘Sweeping,’ said Jorkens. ‘Sweeping floors with a broom. And sometimes hammering nails into a wall, to hang a picture. And poking a fire, and raking out ashes; and doors shutting, and long skirts swishing, and somebody looking for something mislaid.’

‘Not very romantic,’ said Terbut.

‘No,’ said Jorkens. ‘Just common daily things, but haunting with just as much vigor as any romantic ghost that you ever read of. In fact that’s how I was sure it was a ghost. If it had been doing romantic things I might have suspected that someone was pulling my leg; but hammering nails into walls and sweeping floors — there could be no trick about that; no one would make it so dull.’

‘And how did you know that it wasn’t housemaids at work?’ asked Terbut.

‘The house was empty.’

‘Tell us the story,’ I said.

’I wanted to rent a cottage for a few weeks in the country: one room and a kitchen was all I needed. I wanted rest and quiet — that was all. Well, I found the quiet all right; I found it in some folds of the South downs. By far the loudest sound was the whir of the wind in the trees, where there were any trees; and, where there were not, the principal sound was the chirrup of grasshoppers, and perhaps an occasional skylark, and sometimes a dog barking on the other side of two valleys. The quiet was all right, but I couldn’t find a cottage quite small enough. And then one day a house agent, to whom I went in a little town, offered me quite a large house.

‘“That wouldn’t do at all,” I said.

‘“Why not?” he asked.

‘ “I only want to pay half a crown a week.”

“‘You can have it for that,” he told me.

‘“Drains?” I said.

“‘No, the drains are all right. But some people find it a little noisy.”

“‘What’s the noise?” I asked.

‘“It seems quiet enough to me,” he said. “But some people hear it, or say they do.”

‘“Hear what?” I asked.

“‘I’m sure I don’t know,” he said.

‘“I like it quiet,” I told him.

‘“Well, we can’t put in soundproof doors and windows,” he answered, “for half a crown a week.”

‘I saw the point of that, and I said no more. And he motored me over to see the house. It had nearly twenty rooms in it, counting everything. Small ones, of course, but a very nice house, and silent as a cemetery at night; and half a crown a week for the rent. I jumped at it. And I went in next day, doing my own cooking, and arranging with a charwoman to come once a week from a village two miles away. I went there in the morning and the sounds were as I told you, grasshoppers on the overgrown lawn, the wind in a few trees, and very rarely the distant voice of a dog, probably the charwoman’s.

‘It wasn’t until the afternoon, just after I had made a pot of tea for myself, that the other noises began. I heard them faintly at first; and gradually they passed the various points, when one wonders if one heard a sound at all, when one cannot make out quite what the sound was, when one wonders if it was really what one thought it — and then unmistakably sweeping. “I didn’t tell that charwoman to come until Friday,” I said to myself; and went into the next room to see what she was doing. There was no charwoman there; and the sweeping receded to the far door as I entered, and went to another room. I followed, and the sweeping went faintly, but hurriedly, out through another door. Then I came back and finished my tea, and I very soon heard the broom at work on the carpet again. And not only that, but I heard other brooms going, taking up the tune from each other as grasshoppers do. I got up again, and went through all the rooms, and not a broom was sweeping. I sat quite still and listened, and counted as many as six brooms sweeping.

‘Of course I didn’t like it; and a phrase of the house agent’s came to me without any comfort: “What do you expect for half a crown a week?” Once I heard a nail being hammered into the v ail in the very next room, and jumped up and went there at once, and there was no one there. I remember the bark of the very distant dog coming over the downs then; and, faint though it was, there was a reality in the sound of it for which I felt intensely thankful. Then I went through the whole house, room after room, and still there was no one there.

‘If it had happened at night I could never have stood it, but as the afternoon wore on the sweeping ceased. Then a chill seemed to fall on the little neglected house and there came sounds of the poking of fires, and those were the only sounds that troubled me any more till night came. And with night it was perfectly quiet, after the boom of the shutting of shutters on the ground floor had died away. I went to bed early, and lay awake a long time with the door locked, which is of course a silly precaution to take against ghosts, and waited to hear more voices haunting the house. And none came.

‘ There was nothing like electric light in the house, and I kept my one candle burning; and some while after midnight I must have gone to sleep, and the candle burnt itself out.

‘In the bright morning I was called by footsteps. You might think that I started awake with a pretty good jump, but I didn’t: the steps were so quiet and usual, so natural and so ordinary, that they only just awoke me; and it was only by noticing that no hot water had been placed on the mouldering wash-hand-stand that I knew I had not been called by a live housemaid. There was a lot of raking of fires going on; but as soon as I got down to the kitchen to boil an egg, for which I had to light the fire all over again . . .’

‘What do you mean by “all over again”?’ asked Terbut.

‘ Well,’ said Jorkens, ‘I had the impression that the kitchen fire had been lighted already, and that the ashes of the old one had been all raked out. But it was not so. It was just as I had left it the day before. The noise in the morning was perfectly dreadful; sweeping in every room, sounds of feet scurrying, and heavy noises booming up chimneys from grates, while I ate my egg. The whole house promised rest, and each room whispered of quiet among its old curtains, but I had no quiet all that morning.

‘It was obviously ghosts, and I knew that the house agent could help me no more than the plumber. I decided that the clergyman would be the man, and to him I went, over at the village where my charwoman lived. I was lucky enough to meet him in the street, which was a lot easier than going up to his house and ringing the bell. And I asked him at once if he would mind giving me some advice, and, as of course it was his job to do that kind of thing, he said he would. He did not know much of my house, having taken over that parish some while after the last owner had died; then it had been let, and tenants stayed a very short time, and the rent came down and down until it reached the figure at which I had found it, of half a crown a week.

‘He was a tall man about fifty, with a grayish moustache, and I told him the whole story of the house on our way to the vicarage. And then he brought me inside, and we sat in his smoking room and he made me tell him everything all over again. And then he sat and thought for a long while. And at last he said: “I always try to be as practical as I possibly can. I have to be. If I weren’t, I couldn’t rim a village cricket club, and about twelve other organizations that you have never heard of, and that wouldn’t interest you if you had. But it is not my job to be a. materialist. Well, then, you’ve got ghosts up at that house. I have heard rumors of it before. But what you have told me leaves no doubt of it. And they are pretty restless. Going on all the morning, you tell me.”

‘“Yes, hard at it,” I said.

“‘Well, then,” he said, “there must have been trouble in the house, and perhaps it affected the air, so that spirits can’t rest in it. You can’t tell what may trouble the air: look at wireless.”

“‘But why so many of them?” I asked. “I heard six brooms going at once. And they can’t have had six housemaids in a little house like that.”

‘“Not at the same time,” he said. “But you don’t know how far the trouble went back, or how long it lasted.”

“‘I never thought of that,” I said. “But what can I do? I want to stay there and to have quiet. And I can’t have that with the housemaids tearing round all the morning.”

‘“No,” he said, “no. It seems as if the air must have got all jagged and worried. You’ll have to patch it up, I suppose.”

‘“Patch it up?” I said.

‘ “Yes — little kindnesses of various sorts,” he said. “Quite small things will sometimes do it.”

‘“What sort of things?” I asked.

‘But he was thinking away by himself and hardly seemed to hear me.

“‘Little things that might soothe bygone years,” he said. “Small kindnesses that might take the edge off old worries. You must look at it practically, you know. You have to be far more practical with ghosts than you do with a football team. Just a few kindnesses. Do what you can. And do it in a practical way.”

‘And, practical though he probably was, the problem that I had brought him seemed to have sunk him almost in a reverie, so that when I thanked him he seemed hardly to hear me, and he said good-bye to me with a look on his face as though he pondered problems far deeper than that which I brought. Thinking things over, I went to the old charwoman and asked her if she could come that very afternoon, and she said she would; so I bought a bottle of champagne at the grocer’s, and when she came I gave her champagne instead of tea. She drank the whole bottle that afternoon and was enormously delighted and ran through all the rooms singing. I got a very bad name in the village over that champagne, but I have often had a bad name before; for the more you travel, the more prejudices you meet. But what is much more to the point, and is in fact the whole point of the story, the weary sweeping ceased and quiet came back to the house, and I had a month of it for only ten shillings. Obviously that does not include what I paid to the grocer. LORD DUNS ANT