Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/We all saw it




I wish to premise that I am myself a believer in ghosts. I have too the pleasure of a slight acquaintance with Mr. Home, and am by no means so convinced as some people seem that that gentleman is an impostor. This admission may indispose some to put faith in my statements. If so, I am sorry, but cannot help it. The thing is true. We all saw it. Others have seen it beside ourselves: many others.

I wish also to premise that the circumstances I am about to relate have not affected one way or another my former belief. It is neither weakened nor strengthened by what we saw. I will tell you why presently.

It was about a month ago. We were a large party, a very large one. A holiday party bent on a full allowance of Easter enjoyment, thinking of anything but the grisly King of Terrors. Suddenly the room grew dark. An invisible hand seemed to shut out, as with a thick curtain, the brilliant glow of day. A solitary lamp, lighted for some former purpose of amusement, and apparently forgotten on a distant table alone threw a few feeble rays of light athwart the gloom of the spacious apartment. Even that seemed to burn with a grim and unearthly lustre. Still we were not awed. Perhaps numbers gave us courage. Perhaps—but I will not waste words in conjecture. Enough that at all events our high spirits carried us through. One even, more reckless than the rest, exclaimed:

“Now is the time for a ghost! But he should come with three knocks in the regular way.”

Rap! Rap! Rap!


Rap! Rap! Rap!

“Who is there?”

No one. The door is opened. There is no one outside.

Rap! Rap! Rap!

“Come in!”

The door did not open now. There was no trap—no opening in papered wall or carpeted floor. No grating as of lifted window or sliding panel; no sound save as of the wind sighing wildly through some distant corridor.

But It came in! It! The nameless, the terrible one!

Or rather, It was there! There before us all, where but that moment, for some purpose of amusement, a wide space had been cleared. There, right in the gleam of the solitary lamp.

Tall, shadowy, motionless. Draped from head to foot in long, shapeless robes of white. Dim and indistinct at first, as though but some nascent vision sketched lightly by fancy’s pencil on the unsubstantial air. Clearer and sharper as the dim outline filled slowly in with fold after fold of the long gleaming robe. Standing out at last plain as some sculptured form. Even now shadowy and unreal, for the furniture of the room, the pictures on the wall, were showing plainly through its form.

Then slowly the white robes parted, the gleaming veil was lifted from the head. The folded arms flung back their covering and stretched themselves as though to fold us in their grasp. And it stood confessed.

A skeleton!

Were none of us startled then? Did no one in that throng, but now so joyous, thrill with unutterable horrors now? One at least retained his courage. Grasping the first weapon that came to hand, he rushed forward and aimed a fearful blow at the spectre. The blow fell harmless upon the empty air. Again he struck; this time with slower and surer aim, and again the heavy weapon passed harmlessly through the terrible figure. He rushed recklessly forward, and strove to grasp the spectre with his hands! He passed again and again over the very spot where the hideous apparition still waved in triumph its bony arms and grinned horribly with its fleshless lips. It was nothing—a vision—impalpable as the air from which it grew.

“The earth hath bubbles as the water hath:
And this was of them.”

It was gone!

But it had been there. I saw it myself. We all saw it. Here, in this very London, in which I write. Here, at—well, “in point of fact,” as cousin Emma says—at the Polytechnic!

We saw another there too, when, as Professor Pepper read to us the first chapter of Mr. Dickens’s “Haunted Man,” the whole scene, as he described it, passed before us on the little stage, and the “double” of the brooding alchemist glided slowly to his side, and showed him the vision of his dead sister in her bridal robes, and drew him cunningly into the fatal compact, and then vanished once more into kindred darkness. And we saw yet another, and a still better one, at the Britannia Theatre, where our old friend the skeleton played a part in a real drama “of thrilling interest,” with all the “appliances and means to boot” of one of the best appointed stages in London.

And now I will tell you how it is that this very excellent ghost has in nowise altered my previous belief upon the subject. I grant you that he is perfect. Nothing can be more horribly real, and at the same time more horribly unreal, than this “patent” apparition when properly managed. Nothing can be more ingenious than the optical arrangements by which this singular delusion is effected, and which Professor Pepper has kindly permitted me thoroughly to examine. Some day, with his permission, I may explain to my readers the whole apparatus, with diagrams to illustrate its working. They will then see that the machinery is far too costly and too cumbrous for use in churchyards and haunted rooms, and other places where spectres “most do congregate.” You might just as well account the fiery dragons of old as products of the hydrogen microscope.

But as an optical delusion it is perfect, and more than deserves the enormous success it has obtained. Alas! that ever such success should be so grievously alloyed. Poor Professor Pepper![1] Into what a hornet’s nest has he thrust his head in this harmless exercise of his ingenuity for the public amusement. What showers of abuse he undergoes for not at once revealing his innocent secret. What virtuous indignation is hurled at his poor “patent” ghost. What shoals of letters does he receive from half the alphabet, A to O, furious at being able to find out nothing about it, and the other half still more furious because it thinks—poor deluded P to Z—that it has found out all. Poor Professor! Let us hope his troubles will not reduce him to play the part of his own ghost, and raise a new excitement by haunting in propriâ personâ the scene of his triumphs and his woes.

C. W. A.


  1. The Ghost Illusion was invented by Mr. H. Dircks, C.E., and has since been improved and patented by Messrs. Dircks and Pepper.