Hauntings / Fantastic Stories

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HAUNTINGS

FANTASTIC STORIES
VERNON LEE

1890

To FLORA PRIESTLEY and ARTHUR LEMON

Are Dedicated

DIONEA, AMOUR DURE,

and THESE PAGES OF INTRODUCTION AND APOLOGY.

Preface

We were talking last evening—as the blue moon-mist poured in through
the old-fashioned grated window, and mingled with our yellow
lamplight at table—we were talking of a certain castle whose
heir is initiated (as folk tell) on his twenty-first birthday to the
knowledge of a secret so terrible as to overshadow his subsequent life.
It struck us, discussing idly the various mysteries and terrors that
may lie behind this fact or this fable, that no doom or horror
conceivable and to be defined in words could ever adequately solve this
riddle; that no reality of dreadfulness could seem caught but paltry,
bearable, and easy to face in comparison with this vague we know not
what.

And this leads me to say, that it seems to me that the supernatural, in
order to call forth those sensations, terrible to our ancestors and
terrible but delicious to ourselves, skeptical posterity, must
necessarily, and with but a few exceptions, remain enwrapped in
mystery. Indeed, ’tis the mystery that touches us, the vague shroud of
moonbeams that hangs about the haunting lady, the glint on the
warrior’s breastplate, the click of his unseen spurs, while the figure
itself wanders forth, scarcely outlined, scarcely separated from the
surrounding trees; or walks, and sucked back, ever and anon, into the
flickering shadows.

A number of ingenious persons of our day, desirous of a
pocket-superstition, as men of yore were greedy of a pocket-saint to
carry about in gold and enamel, a number of highly reasoning men of
semi-science have returned to the notion of our fathers, that ghosts
have an existence outside our own fancy and emotion; and have culled
from the experience of some Jemima Jackson, who fifty years ago, being
nine years of age, saw her maiden aunt appear six months after decease,
abundant proof of this fact. One feels glad to think the maiden aunt
should have walked about after death, if it afforded her any
satisfaction, poor soul! but one is struck by the extreme
uninterestingness of this lady’s appearance in the spirit,
corresponding perhaps to her want of charm while in the flesh.
Altogether one quite agrees, having duly perused the collection of
evidence on the subject, with the wisdom of these modern ghost-experts,
when they affirm that you can always tell a genuine ghost-story by the
circumstance of its being about a nobody, its having no point or
picturesqueness, and being, generally speaking, flat, stale, and
unprofitable.

A genuine ghost-story! But then they are not genuine ghost-stories,
those tales that tingle through our additional sense, the sense of the
supernatural, and fill places, nay whole epochs, with their strange
perfume of witchgarden flowers.

No, alas! neither the story of the murdered King of Denmark (murdered
people, I am told, usually stay quiet, as a scientific fact), nor of
that weird woman who saw King James the Poet three times with his
shroud wrapped ever higher; nor the tale of the finger of the bronze
Venus closing over the wedding-ring, whether told by Morris in verse
patterned like some tapestry, or by Mérimée in terror of cynical
reality, or droned by the original mediaeval professional story-teller,
none of these are genuine ghost-stories. They exist, these ghosts, only
in our minds, in the minds of those dead folk; they have never stumbled
and fumbled about, with Jemima Jackson’s maiden aunt, among the
armchairs and rep sofas of reality.

They are things of the imagination, born there, bred there, sprung from
the strange confused heaps, half-rubbish, half-treasure, which lie in
our fancy, heaps of half-faded recollections, of fragmentary vivid
impressions, litter of multi-colored tatters, and faded herbs and
flowers, whence arises that odor (we all know it), musty and damp, but
penetratingly sweet and intoxicatingly heady, which hangs in the air
when the ghost has swept through the unopened door, and the flickering
flames of candle and fire start up once more after waning.

The genuine ghost? And is not this he, or she, this one born of
ourselves, of the weird places we have seen, the strange stories we
have heard—this one, and not the aunt of Miss Jemima Jackson? For what
use, I entreat you to tell me, is that respectable spinster’s vision?
Was she worth seeing, that aunt of hers, or would she, if followed,
have led the way to any interesting brimstone or any endurable
beatitude?

The supernatural can open the caves of Jamschid and scale the ladder of
Jacob: what use has it got if it land us in Islington or Shepherd’s
Bush? It is well known that Dr. Faustus, having been offered any ghost
he chose, boldly selected, for Mephistopheles to convey, no less a
person than Helena of Troy. Imagine if the familiar fiend had summoned
up some Miss Jemima Jackson’s Aunt of Antiquity!

That is the thing—the Past, the more or less remote Past, of which the
prose is clean obliterated by distance—that is the place to get our
ghosts from. Indeed we live ourselves, we educated folk of modern
times, on the borderland of the Past, in houses looking down on its
troubadours’ orchards and Greek folks’ pillared courtyards; and a
legion of ghosts, very vague and changeful, are perpetually to and fro,
fetching and carrying for us between it and the Present.

Hence, my four little tales are of no genuine ghosts in the scientific
sense; they tell of no hauntings such as could be contributed by the
Society for Psychical Research, of no specters that can be caught in
definite places and made to dictate judicial evidence. My ghosts are
what you call spurious ghosts (according to me the only genuine ones),
of whom I can affirm only one thing, that they haunted certain brains,
and have haunted, among others, my own and my friends’—yours, dear
Arthur Lemon, along the dim twilit tracks, among the high growing
bracken and the spectral pines, of the south country; and yours, amidst
the mist of moonbeams and olive-branches, dear Flora Priestley, while
the moonlit sea moaned and rattled against the moldering walls of the
house whence Shelley set sail for eternity.

VERNON LEE

MAIANO, near FLORENCE, June 1889.

Amour Dure:

PASSAGES FROM THE DIARY OF SPIRIDION TREPKA.

Part I

Urbania, August 20th, 1885.—

I had longed, these years and years, to be in Italy, to come face to
face with the Past; and was this Italy, was this the Past? I could have
cried, yes cried, for disappointment when I first wandered about Rome,
with an invitation to dine at the German Embassy in my pocket, and
three or four Berlin and Munich Vandals at my heels, telling me where
the best beer and sauerkraut could be had, and what the last article by
Grimm or Mommsen was about.

Is this folly? Is it falsehood? Am I not myself a product of modern,
northern civilization; is not my coming to Italy due to this very
modern scientific vandalism, which has given me a traveling scholarship
because I have written a book like all those other atrocious books of
erudition and art-criticism? Nay, am I not here at Urbania on the
express understanding that, in a certain number of months, I shall
produce just another such book? Dost thou imagine, thou miserable
Spiridion, thou Pole grown into the semblance of a German pedant,
doctor of philosophy, professor even, author of a prize essay on the
despots of the fifteenth century, dost thou imagine that thou, with thy
ministerial letters and proof-sheets in thy black professorial
coat-pocket, canst ever come in spirit into the presence of the Past?

Too true, alas! But let me forget it, at least, every now and then; as
I forgot it this afternoon, while the white bullocks dragged my gig
slowly winding along interminable valleys, crawling along interminable
hill-sides, with the invisible droning torrent far below, and only the
bare grey and reddish peaks all around, up to this town of Urbania,
forgotten of mankind, towered and battlemented on the high Apennine
ridge. Sigillo, Penna, Fossombrone, Mercatello, Montemurlo—each single
village name, as the driver pointed it out, brought to my mind the
recollection of some battle or some great act of treachery of former
days. And as the huge mountains shut out the setting sun, and the
valleys filled with bluish shadow and mist, only a band of threatening
smoke-red remaining behind the towers and cupolas of the city on its
mountain-top, and the sound of church bells floated across the
precipice from Urbania, I almost expected, at every turning of the
road, that a troop of horsemen, with beaked helmets and clawed shoes,
would emerge, with armor glittering and pennons waving in the sunset.
And then, not two hours ago, entering the town at dusk, passing along
the deserted streets, with only a smoky light here and there under a
shrine or in front of a fruit-stall, or a fire reddening the blackness
of a smithy; passing beneath the battlements and turrets of the
palace…. Ah, that was Italy, it was the Past!

August 21st.—

And this is the Present! Four letters of introduction to deliver, and
an hour’s polite conversation to endure with the Vice-Prefect, the
Syndic, the Director of the Archives, and the good man to whom my
friend Max had sent me for lodgings….

August 22nd-27th.—

Spent the greater part of the day in the Archives, and the greater part
of my time there in being bored to extinction by the Director thereof,
who today spouted Aeneas Sylvius’ Commentaries for three-quarters of an
hour without taking breath. From this sort of martyrdom (what are the
sensations of a former racehorse being driven in a cab? If you can
conceive them, they are those of a Pole turned Prussian professor) I
take refuge in long rambles through the town. This town is a handful of
tall black houses huddled on to the top of an Alp, long narrow lanes
trickling down its sides, like the slides we made on hillocks in our
boyhood, and in the middle the superb red brick structure, turreted and
battlemented, of Duke Ottobuono’s palace, from whose windows you look
down upon a sea, a kind of whirlpool, of melancholy grey mountains.
Then there are the people, dark, bushy-bearded men, riding about like
brigands, wrapped in green-lined cloaks upon their shaggy pack-mules;
or loitering about, great, brawny, low-headed youngsters, like the
parti-colored bravos in Signorelli’s frescoes; the beautiful boys, like
so many young Raphaels, with eyes like the eyes of bullocks, and the
huge women, Madonnas or St. Elizabeths, as the case may be, with their
clogs firmly poised on their toes and their brass pitchers on their
heads, as they go up and down the steep black alleys. I do not talk
much to these people; I fear my illusions being dispelled. At the
corner of a street, opposite Francesco di Giorgio’s beautiful little
portico, is a great blue and red advertisement, representing an angel
descending to crown Elias Howe, on account of his sewing-machines; and
the clerks of the Vice-Prefecture, who dine at the place where I get my
dinner, yell politics, Minghetti, Cairoli, Tunis, ironclads, &c., at
each other, and sing snatches of La Fille de Mme. Angot, which I
imagine they have been performing here recently.

No; talking to the natives is evidently a dangerous experiment. Except
indeed, perhaps, to my good landlord, Signor Notaro Porri, who is just
as learned, and takes considerably less snuff (or rather brushes it off
his coat more often) than the Director of the Archives. I forgot to jot
down (and I feel I must jot down, in the vain belief that some day
these scraps will help, like a withered twig of olive or a three-wicked
Tuscan lamp on my table, to bring to my mind, in that hateful Babylon
of Berlin, these happy Italian days)—I forgot to record that I am
lodging in the house of a dealer in antiquities. My window looks up the
principal street to where the little column with Mercury on the top
rises in the midst of the awnings and porticoes of the market-place.
Bending over the chipped ewers and tubs full of sweet basil, clove
pinks, and marigolds, I can just see a corner of the palace turret, and
the vague ultramarine of the hills beyond. The house, whose back goes
sharp down into the ravine, is a queer up-and-down black place,
whitewashed rooms, hung with the Raphaels and Francias and Peruginos,
whom mine host regularly carries to the chief inn whenever a stranger
is expected; and surrounded by old carved chairs, sofas of the Empire,
embossed and gilded wedding-chests, and the cupboards which contain
bits of old damask and embroidered altar-cloths scenting the place with
the smell of old incense and mustiness; all of which are presided over
by Signor Porri’s three maiden sisters—Sora Serafina, Sora Lodovica,
and Sora Adalgisa—the three Fates in person, even to the distaffs and
their black cats.

Sor Asdrubale, as they call my landlord, is also a notary. He regrets
the Pontifical Government, having had a cousin who was a Cardinal’s
train-bearer, and believes that if only you lay a table for two, light
four candles made of dead men’s fat, and perform certain rites about
which he is not very precise, you can, on Christmas Eve and similar
nights, summon up San Pasquale Baylon, who will write you the winning
numbers of the lottery upon the smoked back of a plate, if you have
previously slapped him on both cheeks and repeated three Ave Marias.
The difficulty consists in obtaining the dead men’s fat for the
candles, and also in slapping the saint before he has time to vanish.

“If it were not for that,” says Sor Asdrubale, “the Government would

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