English Literature » Jerome K. Jerome » Whibley’s Spirit

Whibley’s Spirit by

I never met it myself, but I knew Whibley very well indeed, so that I came to hear a goodish deal about it.

It appeared to be devoted to Whibley, and Whibley was extremely fond of it. Personally I am not interested in spirits, and no spirit has ever interested itself in me. But I have friends whom they patronise, and my mind is quite open on the subject. Of Whibley’s Spirit I wish to speak with every possible respect. It was, I am willing to admit, as hard-working and conscientious a spirit as any one could wish to live with. The only thing I have to say against it is that it had no sense.

It came with a carved cabinet that Whibley had purchased in Wardour Street for old oak, but which, as a matter of fact, was chestnut wood, manufactured in Germany, and at first was harmless enough, saying nothing but “Yes!” or “No!” and that only when spoken to.

Whibley would amuse himself of an evening asking it questions, being careful to choose tolerably simple themes, such as, “Are you there?” (to which the Spirit would sometimes answer “Yes!” and sometimes “No!”) “Can you hear me?” “Are you happy?”—and so on. The Spirit made the cabinet crack—three times for “Yes” and twice for “No.” Now and then it would reply both “Yes!” and “No!” to the same question, which Whibley attributed to over-scrupulousness. When nobody asked it anything it would talk to itself, repeating “Yes!” “No!” “No!” “Yes!” over and over again in an aimless, lonesome sort of a way that made you feel sorry for it.

After a while Whibley bought a table, and encouraged it to launch out into more active conversation. To please Whibley, I assisted at some of the earlier séances, but during my presence it invariably maintained a reticence bordering on positive dulness. I gathered from Whibley that it disliked me, thinking that I was unsympathetic. The complaint was unjust; I was not unsympathetic, at least not at the commencement. I came to hear it talk, and I wanted to hear it talk; I would have listened to it by the hour. What tired me was its slowness in starting, and its foolishness when it had started, in using long words that it did not know how to spell. I remember on one occasion, Whibley, Jobstock (Whibley’s partner), and myself, sitting for two hours, trying to understand what the thing meant by “H-e-s-t-u-r-n-e-m-y-s-f-e-a-r.” It used no stops whatever. It never so much as hinted where one sentence ended and another began. It never even told us when it came to a proper name. Its idea of an evening’s conversation was to plump down a hundred or so vowels and consonants in front of you and leave you to make whatever sense out of them you could.

We fancied at first it was talking about somebody named Hester (it had spelt Hester with a “u” before we allowed a margin for spelling), and we tried to work the sentence out on that basis, “Hester enemies fear,” we thought it might be. Whibley had a niece named Hester, and we decided the warning had reference to her. But whether she was our enemy, and we were to fear her, or whether we had to fear her enemies (and, if so, who were they?), or whether it was our enemies who were to be frightened by Hester, or her enemies, or enemies generally, still remained doubtful. We asked the table if it meant the first suggestion, and it said “No.” We asked what it did mean, and it said “Yes.”

This answer annoyed me, but Whibley explained that the Spirit was angry with us for our stupidity (which seemed quaint). He informed us that it always said first “No,” and then “Yes,” when it was angry, and as it was his Spirit, and we were in his house, we kept our feelings to ourselves and started afresh.

This time we abandoned the “Hestur” theory altogether. Jobstock suggested “Haste” for the first word, and, thought the Spirit might have gone on phonetically.

“Haste! you are here, Miss Sfear!” was what he made of it.

Whibley asked him sarcastically if he’d kindly explain what that meant.

I think Jobstock was getting irritable. We had been sitting cramped up round a wretched little one-legged table all the evening, and this was almost the first bit of gossip we had got out of it. To further excuse him, it should also be explained that the gas had been put out by Whibley, and that the fire had gone out of its own accord. He replied that it was hard labour enough to find out what the thing said without having to make sense of it.

“It can’t spell,” he added, “and it’s got a nasty, sulky temper. If it was my spirit I’d hire another spirit to kick it.”

Whibley was one of the mildest little men I ever knew, but chaff or abuse of his Spirit roused the devil in him, and I feared we were going to have a scene. Fortunately, I was able to get his mind back to the consideration of “Hesturnemysfear” before anything worse happened than a few muttered remarks about the laughter of fools, and want of reverence for sacred subjects being the sign of a shallow mind.

We tried “He’s stern,” and “His turn,” and the “fear of Hesturnemy,” and tried to think who “Hesturnemy” might be. Three times we went over the whole thing again from the beginning, which meant six hundred and six tiltings of the table, and then suddenly the explanation struck me—“Eastern Hemisphere.”

Whibley had asked it for any information it might possess concerning his wife’s uncle, from whom he had not heard for months, and that apparently was its idea of an address.

The fame of Whibley’s Spirit became noised abroad, with the result that Whibley was able to command the willing service of more congenial assistants, and Jobstock and myself were dismissed. But we bore no malice.

Under these more favourable conditions the Spirit plucked up wonderfully, and talked everybody’s head off. It could never have been a cheerful companion, however, for its conversation was chiefly confined to warnings and prognostications of evil. About once a fortnight Whibley would drop round on me, in a friendly way, to tell me that I was to beware of a man who lived in a street beginning with a “C,” or to inform me that if I would go to a town on the coast where there were three churches I should meet someone who would do me an irreparable injury, and, that I did not rush off then and there in search of that town he regarded as flying in the face of Providence.

In its passion for poking its ghostly nose into other people’s affairs it reminded me of my earthly friend Poppleton. Nothing pleased it better than being appealed to for aid and advice, and Whibley, who was a perfect slave to it, would hunt half over the parish for people in trouble and bring them to it.

It would direct ladies, eager for divorce court evidence, to go to the third house from the corner of the fifth street, past such and such a church or public-house (it never would give a plain, straightforward address), and ring the bottom bell but one twice. They would thank it effusively, and next morning would start to find the fifth street past the church, and would ring the bottom bell but one of the third house from the corner twice, and a man in his shirt sleeves would come to the door and ask them what they wanted.

They could not tell what they wanted, they did not know themselves, and the man would use bad language, and slam the door in their faces.

Then they would think that perhaps the Spirit meant the fifth street the other way, or the third house from the opposite corner, and would try again, with still more unpleasant results.

One July I met Whibley, mooning disconsolately along Princes Street, Edinburgh.

“Hullo!” I exclaimed, “what are you doing here? I thought you were busy over that School Board case.”

“Yes,” he answered, “I ought really to be in London, but the truth is I’m rather expecting something to happen down here.”

“Oh!” I said, “and what’s that?”

“Well,” he replied hesitatingly, as though he would rather not talk about it, “I don’t exactly know yet.”

“You’ve come from London to Edinburgh, and don’t know what you’ve come for!” I cried.

“Well, you see,” he said, still more reluctantly, as it seemed to me, “it was Maria’s idea; she wished—”

“Maria!” I interrupted, looking perhaps a little sternly at him, “who’s Maria?” (His wife’s name I knew was Emily Georgina Anne.)

“Oh! I forgot,” he explained; “she never would tell her name before you, would she? It’s the Spirit, you know.”

“Oh! that,” I said, “it’s she that has sent you here. Didn’t she tell you what for?”

“No,” he answered, “that’s what worries me. All she would say was, ‘Go to Edinburgh—something will happen.’”

“And how long are you going to remain here?” I inquired.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ve been here a week already, and Jobstock writes quite angrily. I wouldn’t have come if Maria hadn’t been so urgent. She repeated it three evenings running.”

I hardly knew what to do. The little man was so dreadfully in earnest about the business that one could not argue much with him.

“You are sure,” I said, after thinking a while, “that this Maria is a good Spirit? There are all sorts going about, I’m told. You’re sure this isn’t the spirit of some deceased lunatic, playing the fool with you?”

“I’ve thought of that,” he admitted. “Of course that might be so. If nothing happens soon I shall almost begin to suspect it.”

“Well, I should certainly make some inquiries into its character before I trusted it any further,” I answered, and left him.

About a month later I ran against him outside the Law Courts.

“It was all right about Maria; something did happen in Edinburgh while I was there. That very morning I met you one of my oldest clients died quite suddenly at his house at Queensferry, only a few miles outside the city.”

“I’m glad of that,” I answered, “I mean, of course, for Maria’s sake. It was lucky you went then.”

“Well, not altogether,” he replied, “at least, not in a worldly sense. He left his affairs in a very complicated state, and his eldest son went straight up to London to consult me about them, and, not finding me there, and time being important, went to Kebble. I was rather disappointed when I got back and heard about it.”

“Umph!” I said; “she’s not a smart spirit, anyway.”

“No,” he answered, “perhaps not. But, you see, something did really happen.”

After that his affection for “Maria” increased tenfold, while her attachment to himself became a burden to his friends. She grew too big for her table, and, dispensing with all mechanical intermediaries, talked to him direct. She followed him everywhere. Mary’s lamb couldn’t have been a bigger nuisance. She would even go with him into the bedroom, and carry on long conversations with him in the middle of the night. His wife objected; she said it seemed hardly decent, but there was no keeping her out.

She turned up with him at picnics and Christmas parties. Nobody heard her speak to him, but it seemed necessary for him to reply to her aloud, and to see him suddenly get up from his chair and slip away to talk earnestly to nothing in a corner disturbed the festivities.

“I should really be glad,” he once confessed to me, “to get a little time to myself. She means kindly, but it is a strain. And then the others don’t like it. It makes them nervous. I can see it does.”

One evening she caused quite a scene at the club. Whibley had been playing whist, with the Major for a partner. At the end of the game the Major, leaning across the table toward him, asked, in a tone of deadly calm, “May I inquire, sir, whether there was any earthly reason” (he emphasised “earthly”) “for your following my lead of spades with your only trump?”

“I—I—am very sorry, Major,” replied Whibley apologetically. “I—I—somehow felt I—I ought to play that queen.”

“Entirely your own inspiration, or suggested?” persisted the Major, who had, of course, heard of “Maria.”

Whibley admitted the play had been suggested to him. The Major rose from the table.

“Then, sir,” said he, with concentrated indignation, “I decline to continue this game. A human fool I can tolerate for a partner, but if I am to be hampered by a damned spirit—”

“You’ve no right to say that,” cried Whibley hotly.

“I apologise,” returned the Major coldly; “we will say a blessed spirit. I decline to play whist with spirits of any kind; and I advise you, sir, if you intend giving many exhibitions with the lady, first to teach her the rudiments of the game.”

Saying which the Major put on his hat and left the club, and I made Whibley drink a stiff glass of brandy and water, and sent him and “Maria” home in a cab.

Whibley got rid of “Maria” at last. It cost him in round figures about eight thousand pounds, but his family said it was worth it.

A Spanish Count hired a furnished house a few doors from Whibley’s, and one evening he was introduced to Whibley, and came home and had a chat with him. Whibley told him about “Maria,” and the Count quite fell in love with her. He said that if only he had had such a spirit to help and advise him, it might have altered his whole life.

He was the first man who had ever said a kind word about the spirit, and Whibley loved him for it. The Count seemed as though he could never see enough of Whibley after that evening, and the three of them—Whibley, the Count, and “Maria”—would sit up half the night talking together.

The precise particulars I never heard. Whibley was always very reticent on the matter. Whether “Maria” really did exist, and the Count deliberately set to work to bamboozle her (she was fool enough for anything), or whether she was a mere hallucination of Whibley’s, and the man tricked Whibley by “hypnotic suggestions” (as I believe it is called), I am not prepared to say. The only thing certain is that “Maria” convinced Whibley that the Count had discovered a secret gold mine in Peru. She said she knew all about it, and counselled Whibley to beg the Count to let him put a few thousands into the working of it. “Maria,” it appeared, had known the Count from his boyhood, and could answer for it that he was the most honourable man in all South America. Possibly enough he was.

The Count was astonished to find that Whibley knew all about his mine. Eight thousand pounds was needed to start the workings, but he had not mentioned it to any one, as he wanted to keep the whole thing to himself, and thought he could save the money on his estates in Portugal. However, to oblige “Maria,” he would let Whibley supply the money. Whibley supplied it—in cash, and no one has ever seen the Count since.

That broke up Whibley’s faith in “Maria,” and a sensible doctor, getting hold of him threatened to prescribe a lunatic asylum for him if ever he found him carrying on with any spirits again. That completed the cure.

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