It’s about time we had a Christmas ghost story with a little decent sexual tension and a few snarky one-liners! This latest in our series, The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall, is probably the first one I ever read (including A Christmas Carol), having somehow bullied its way into a Scholastic anthology of seasonal cheer with many more age-appropriate tales.
It features some stock characters including a smartass heir and a sorrowful but totally-had-it-coming-to-her ghost who can be vicious when provoked. So far, so unsympathetic, but it gets better, for the heir and the ghost engage in a battle of wits and (yes, I’m going to say it) icy repartee that makes this unusual Christmas tale something that might have been written on a particularly inspired night by the last two regulars at the bar: Dorothy Parker and Jerome K. Jerome.
And what I wouldn’t give to have been at THAT party!
The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall
by John Kendrick Bangs
The trouble with Harrowby Hall was that it was haunted, what was worse, the ghost did not content itself with merely appearing at the bedside of the afflicted person who saw it, but persisted in remaining there for one mortal hour before it would disappear.
It never appeared except on Christmas eve, and then as the clock was striking twelve, in which respect alone was it lacking in that originality which in these days is a sine qua non of success in spectral life. The owners of Harrowby Hall had done their utmost to rid themselves of the damp and dewy lady who rose up out of the best bedroom floor at midnight, but without avail. They had tried stopping the clock, so that the ghost would not know when it was midnight; but she made her appearance just the same, with that fearful miasmatic personality of hers, and there she would stand until everything about her was thoroughly saturated.
Then the owners of Harrowby Hall calked up every crack in the floor with the very best quality of hemp, and over this were placed layers of tar and canvas; the walls were made waterproof, and the doors and windows likewise, the proprietors having conceived the notion that the unexorcised lady would find it difficult to leak into the room after these precautions had been taken; but even this did not suffice. The following Christmas eve she appeared as promptly as before, and frightened the occupant of the room quite out of his senses by sitting down alongside of him and gazing with her cavernous blue eyes into his; and he noticed, too, that in her long, aqueously bony fingers bits of dripping seaweed were entwined, the ends hanging down, and these ends she drew across his forehead until he became like one insane. And then he swooned away, and was found unconscious in his bed the next morning by his host, simply saturated with seawater and fright, from the combined effects of which he never recovered, dying four years later of pneumonia and nervous prostration at the age of seventy-eight.
The next year the master of Harrowby Hall decided not to have the best spare bedroom opened at all, thinking that perhaps the ghost’s thirst for making herself disagreeable would be satisfied by haunting the furniture, but the plan was as unavailing as the many that had preceded it.
The ghost appeared as usual in the room — that is, it was supposed she did, for the hangings were dripping wet the next morning, and in the parlor below the haunted room a great damp spot appeared on the ceiling. Finding no one there, she immediately set out to learn the reason why, and she chose none other to haunt than the owner of the Harrowby himself. She found him in his own cozy room drinking whiskey — whiskey undiluted — and felicitating himself upon having foiled her ghostship, when all of a sudden the curl went out of his hair, his whiskey bottle filled and overflowed, and he was himself in a condition similar to that of a man who has fallen into a water-butt. When he recovered from the shock, which was a painful one, he saw before him the lady of the cavernous eyes and seaweed fingers. The sight was so unexpected and so terrifying that he fainted, but immediately came to, because of the vast amount of water in his hair, which, trickling down over his face, restored his consciousness.
Now it so happened that the master of Harrowby was a brave man, and while he was not particularly fond of interviewing ghosts, especially such quenching ghosts as the one before him, he was not to be daunted by an apparition. He had paid the lady the compliment of fainting from the effects of his first surprise, and now that he had come to he intended to find out a few things he felt he had a right to know. He would have liked to put on a dry suit of clothes first, but the apparition declined to leave him for an instant until her hour was up, and he was forced to deny himself that pleasure. Every time he would move she would follow him, with the result that everything she came in contact with got a ducking. In an effort to warm himself up he approached the fire, an unfortunate move as it turned out, because it brought the ghost directly over the fire, which immediately was extinguished. The whiskey became utterly valueless as a comforter to his chilled system, because it was by this time diluted to a proportion of ninety percent of water. The only thing he could do to ward off the evil effects of his encounter he did, and that was to swallow ten two-grain quinine pills, which he managed to put into his mouth before the ghost had time to interfere. Having done this, he turned with some asperity to the ghost, and said:
“Far be it from me to be impolite to a woman, madam, but I’m hanged if it wouldn’t please me better if you’d stop these infernal visits of yours to this house. Go sit out on the lake, if you like that sort of thing; soak the water-butt, if you wish; but do not, I implore you, come into a gentleman’s house and saturate him and his possessions in this way. It is damned disagreeable.”
“Henry Hartwick Oglethorpe,” said the ghost, in a gurgling voice, “you don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Madam,” returned the unhappy householder, “I wish that remark were strictly truthful. I was talking about you. It would be shillings and pence — nay, pounds, in my pocket, madam, if I did not know you.”
“That is a bit of specious nonsense,” returned the ghost, throwing a quart of indignation into the face of the master of Harrowby. “It may rank high as repartee, but as a comment upon my statement that you do not know what you are talking about, it savors of irrelevant impertinence.
You do not know that I am compelled to haunt this place year after year by inexorable fate. It is no pleasure to me to enter this house, and ruin and mildew everything I touch. I never aspired to be a shower-bath, but it is my doom. Do you know who I am?”
“No, I don’t,” returned the master of Harrowby. “I should say you were the Lady of the Lake, or Little Sallie Waters.”
“You are a witty man for your years,” said the ghost.
“Well, my humor is drier than yours ever will be,” returned the master.
“No doubt. I’m never dry. I am the Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall, and dryness is a quality entirely beyond my wildest hope. I have been the incumbent of this highly unpleasant office for two hundred years tonight.”
“How the deuce did you ever come to get elected?” asked the master.
“Through a suicide,” replied the specter. “I am the ghost of that fair maiden whose picture hangs over the mantelpiece in the drawing room. I should have been your great-great-great-great-great-aunt if I had lived, Henry Hartwick Oglethorpe, for I was the own sister of your great-great-great-great-grandfather.”
“But what induced you to get this house into such a predicament?”
“I was not to blame, sir,” returned the lady. “It was my father’s fault. He it was who built Harrowby Hall, and the haunted chamber was to have been mine. My father had it furnished in pink and yellow, knowing well that blue and gray formed the only combination of color I could tolerate. He did it merely to spite me, and, with what I deem a proper spirit, I declined to live in the room; whereupon my father said I could live there or on the lawn, he didn’t care which. That night I ran from the house and jumped over the cliff into the sea.”
“That was rash,” said the master of Harrowby.
“So I’ve heard,” returned the ghost. “If I had known what the consequences were to be I should not have jumped; but I really never realized what I was doing until after I was drowned. I had been drowned a week when a sea nymph came to me and informed me that I was to be one of her followers forever afterwards, adding that it should be my doom to haunt Harrowby Hall for one hour every Christmas eve throughout the rest of eternity. I was to haunt that room on such Christmas eves as I found it inhabited; and if it should turn out not to be inhabited, I was and am to spend the allotted hour with the head of the house.”
“I’ll sell the place.”
“That you cannot do, for it is also required of me that I shall appear as the deeds are to be delivered to any purchaser, and divulge to him the awful secret of the house.”
“Do you mean to tell me that on every Christmas eve that I don’t happen to have somebody in that guest chamber, you are going to haunt me wherever I may be, ruining my whiskey, taking all the curl out of my hair, extinguishing my fire, and soaking me through to the skin?” demanded the master.
“You have stated the case, Oglethorpe. And what is more,” said the water ghost, “it doesn’t make the slightest difference where you are, if I find that room empty, wherever you may be I shall douse you with my spectral pres–”
Here the clock struck one, and immediately the apparition faded away. It was perhaps more of a trickle than a fade, but as a disappearance it was complete.
“By St. George and his Dragon!” ejaculated the master of Harrowby, wringing his hands. “It is guineas to hot-cross buns that next Christmas there’s an occupant of the spare room, or I spend the night in a bathtub.”
But the master of Harrowby would have lost his wager had there been any one there to take him up, for when Christmas eve came again he was in his grave, never having recovered from the cold contracted that awful night. Harrowby Hall was closed, and the heir to the estate was in London, where to him in his chambers came the same experience that his father had gone through, saving only that, being younger and stronger, he survived the shock. Everything in his rooms was ruined — his clocks were rusted in the works; a fine collection of watercolor drawings was entirely obliterated by the onslaught of the water ghost; and what was worse, the apartments below his were drenched with the water soaking through the floors, a damage for which he was compelled to pay, and which resulted in his being requested by his landlady to vacate the premises immediately.
The story of the visitation inflicted upon his family had gone abroad, and no one could be got to invite him out to any function save afternoon teas and receptions. Fathers of daughters declined to permit him to remain in their houses later than eight o clock at night, not knowing but that some emergency might arise in the supernatural world which would require the unexpected appearance of the water ghost in this on nights other than Christmas eve, and before the mystic hour when weary churchyards, ignoring the rules which are supposed to govern polite society, begin to yawn. Nor would the maids themselves have aught to do with him, fearing the destruction by the sudden incursion of aqueous femininity of the costumes which they held most dear.
So the heir of Harrowby Hall resolved, as his ancestors for several generations before him had resolved, that something must be done. His first thought was to make one of his servants occupy the haunted room at the crucial moment; but in this he tailed, because the servants themselves knew the history of that room and rebelled. None of his friends would consent to sacrifice their personal comfort to his, nor was there to be found in all England a man so poor as to be willing to occupy the doomed chamber on Christmas eve for pay.
Then the thought came to the heir to have the fireplace in the room enlarged, so that he might evaporate the ghost at its first appearance, and he was felicitating himself upon the ingenuity of his plan, when he remembered what his father had told him — how that no fire could withstand the lady’s extremely contagious dampness. And then he bethought him of steam-pipes. These, he remembered, could lie hundreds of feet deep in water, and still retain sufficient heat to drive the water away in vapor; and as a result of this thought the haunted room was heated by steam to a withering degree, and the heir for six months attended daily the Turkish baths, so that when Christmas eve came he could himself withstand the awful temperature of the room.
The scheme was only partially successful. The water ghost appeared at the specified time, and found the heir of Harrowby prepared; but hot as the room was, it shortened her visit by no more than five minutes in the hour, during which time the nervous system of the young master was wellnigh shattered, and the room itself was cracked and warped to an extent which required the outlay of a large sum of money to remedy. And worse than this, as the last drop of the water ghost was slowly sizzling itself out on the floor, she whispered to her would-be conqueror that his scheme would avail him nothing, because there was still water in great plenty where she came from, and that next year would find her rehabilitated and as exasperatingly saturating as ever.
It was then that the natural action of the mind, in going from one extreme to the other, suggested to the ingenious heir of Harrowby the means by which the water ghost was ultimately conquered, and happiness once more came within the grasp of the house of Oglethorpe.
The heir provided himself with a warm suit of fur underclothing. Donning this with the furry side in, he placed over it a rubber garment, tightfitting, which he wore just as a woman wears a jersey. On top of this he placed another set of underclothing, this suit made of wool, and over this was a second rubber garment like the first. Upon his head he placed a light and comfortable diving helmet, and so clad, on the following Christmas eve he awaited the coming of his tormentor.
It was a bitterly cold night that brought to a close this twenty-fourth day of December. The air outside was still, but the temperature was below zero. Within all was quiet, the servants of Harrowby Hall awaiting with beating hearts the outcome of their master’s campaign against his supernatural visitor.
The master himself was lying on the bed in the haunted room, clad as has already been indicated, and then — the clock clanged out the hour of twelve.
There was a sudden banging of doors, a blast of cold air swept through the halls, the door leading into the haunted chamber flew open, a splash was heard, and the water ghost was seen standing at the side of the heir of Harrowby, from whose outer dress there streamed rivulets of water, but whose own person deep down under the various garments he wore was as dry and as warm as he could have wished.
“Ha!” said the young master of Harrowby. “I’m glad to see you.”
“You are the most original man I’ve met, if that is true,” returned the ghost. “May I ask where did you get that hat?”
“Certainly, madam,” returned the master, courteously. “It is a little portable observatory I had made for just such emergencies as this. But, tell me, is it true that you are doomed to follow me about for one mortal hour — to stand where I stand, to sit where I sit?”
“That is my delectable fate,” returned the lady.
“We’ll go out on the lake,” said the master, starting up.
“You can’t get rid of me that way,” returned the ghost. “The water won’t swallow me up; in fact, it will just add to my present bulk.”
“Nevertheless,” said the master, firmly, “we will go out on the lake.”
“But, my dear sir,” returned the ghost, with a pale reluctance, “it is fearfully cold out there.
You will be frozen hard before you’ve been out ten minutes.”
“Oh no, I’ll not,” replied the master. “I am very warmly dressed. Come!” This last in a tone of command that made the ghost ripple.
And they started.
They had not gone far before the water ghost showed signs of distress.
“You walk too slowly,” she said. “I am nearly frozen. My knees are so stiff now I can hardly move. I beseech you to accelerate your step.”
“I should like to oblige a lady,” returned the master, courteously, “but my clothes are rather heavy, and a hundred yards an hour is about my speed. Indeed, I think we would better sit down here on this snowdrift and talk matters over.”
“Do not! Do not do so, I beg!” cried the ghost. “Let me move on. I feel myself growing rigid as it is. If we stop here, I shall be frozen stiff.”
“That madam,” said the master slowly, and seating himself on an ice-cake — “that is why I have brought you here. We have been on this spot just ten minutes; we have fifty more. Take your time about it, madam, but freeze, that is all I ask of you.”
“I cannot move my right leg now,” cried the ghost, in despair, “and my overskirt is a solid sheet of ice. Oh, good, kind Mr. Oglethorpe, light a fire, and let me go free from these icy fetters.”
“Never, madam. It cannot be. I have you at last.”
“Alas!” cried the ghost, a tear trickling down her frozen cheek. “Help me, I beg. I congeal!”
“Congeal, madam, congeal!” returned Oglethorpe, coldly. “You have drenched me and mine for two hundred and three years, madam. Tonight have had your last drench.”
“Ah, but I shall thaw out again, and then you’ll see. Instead of the comfortably tepid, genial ghost I have been in my past, sir, I shall be iced water,” cried the lady, threateningly.
“No, you won’t, either,” returned Oglethorpe; “for when you are frozen quite stiff, I shall send you to a cold-storage warehouse, and there shall you remain an icy work of art forever more.”
“But warehouses burn.”
“So they do, but this warehouse cannot burn. It is made of asbestos and surrounding it are fireproof walls, and within those walls the temperature is now and shall forever be 416 degrees below the zero point; low enough to make an icicle of any flame in this world — or the next,” the master added, with an ill-suppressed chuckle.
“For the last time let me beseech you. I would go on my knees to you, Oglethorpe, were they not already frozen. I beg of you do not doo –”
Here even the words froze on the water ghost’s lips and the clock struck one. There was a momentary tremor throughout the ice-bound form, and the moon, coming out from behind a cloud, shone down on the rigid figure of a beautiful woman sculptured in clear, transparent ice.
There stood the ghost of Harrowby Hall, conquered by the cold, a prisoner for all time.
The heir of Harrowby had won at last, and today in a large storage house in London stands the frigid form of one who will never again flood the house of Oglethorpe with woe and seawater.
As for the heir of Harrowby, his success in coping with a ghost has made him famous, a fame that still lingers about him, although his victory took place some twenty years ago; and so far from being unpopular with the fair sex, as he was when we first knew him, he has not only been married twice, but is to lead a third bride to the altar before the year is out.