I am not a believer in ghosts in general; I see no good in them. They come -- that is, are reported to come -- so irrelevantly, purposelessly -- so ridiculously, in short -- that one's common sense as regards this world, one's supernatural sense of the other, are alike revolted. Then nine out often 'capital ghost stories' are so easily accounted for; and in the tenth, when all natural explanation fails, one who has discovered the extraordinary difficulty there is in all society in getting hold of that very slippery article called a fact, is strongly inclined to shake a dubious head, ejaculating, 'Evidence! a question of evidence!'
But my unbelief springs from no dogged or contemptuous scepticism as to the possibility -- however great the improbability -- of that strange impression upon or communication to, spirit in matter, from spirit wholly immaterialized, which is vulgarly called 'a ghost'. There is no credulity more blind, no ignorance more childish, than that of the sage who tries to measure 'heaven and earth and the things under the earth', with the small two-foot-rule of his own brains. Dare we presume to argue concerning any mystery of the universe, 'It is inexplicable, and therefore impossible'?
Premising these opinions, though simply as opinions, I am about to relate what I must confess is to me a thorough ghost story; its external and circumstantial evidence being indisputable, while its psychological causes and results, though not easy of explanation, are still more difficult to be explained away. The ghost, like Hamlet's, was 'an honest ghost'. From her daughter -- an old lady, who, bless her good and gentle memory! has since learned the secrets of all things -- I learnt this veritable tale.
'My dear,' said Mrs MacArthur to me -- it was in the early days of table-moving, when young folk ridiculed and elder folk were shocked at the notion of calling up one's departed ancestors into one's dinner-table, and learning the wonders of the angelic world by the bobbings of a hat or the twirlings of a plate; -- 'My dear,' continued the old lady, 'I do not like playing at ghosts.'
'Why not. Do you believe in them?'
'Did you ever see one?'
'Never. But once I heard --'
She looked serious, as if she hardly liked to speak about it, either from a sense of awe or from fear of ridicule. But no one could have laughed at any illusions of the gentle old lady, who never uttered a harsh or satirical word to a living soul; and this evident awe was rather remarkable in one who had a large stock of common sense, little wonder, and no ideality.
I was rather curious to hear MacArthur's ghost story.
'My dear, it was a long time ago, so long that you may fancy I forget and confuse the circumstances. But I do not. Sometimes I think one recollects more clearly things that happened in one's teens -- I was eighteen that year -- than a great many nearer events. And besides, I had other reasons for remembering vividly everything belonging to this time, -- for I was in love, you must know.'
She looked at me with a mild, deprecating smile, as if hoping my youthfulness would not consider the thing so very impossible or ridiculous. No; I was all interest at once.
'In love with Mr MacArthur,' I said, scarcely as a question, being at that Arcadian time of life when one takes as a natural necessity, and believes as an undoubted truth, that everybody marries his or her first love.
'No, my dear; not with Mr MacArthur.'
I was so astonished, so completely dumb-foundered -- for I had woven a sort of ideal round my good old friend -- that I suffered Mrs MacArthur to knit in silence for full five minutes. My surprise was not lessened when she said, with a little smile --
'He was a young gentleman of good parts; and he was very fond of me. Proud, too, rather. For though you might not think it, my dear, I was actually a beauty in those days.'
I had very little doubt of it. The slight lithe figure, the tiny hands and feet, -- if you had walked behind Mrs MacArthur you might have taken her for a young woman still. Certainly, people lived slower and easier in the last generation than in ours.
'Yes, I was the beauty of Bath. Mr Everest fell in love with me there. I was much gratified; for I had just been reading Miss Burney's Cecilia, and I thought him exactly like Mortimer Delvil. A very pretty tale, Cecilia; did you ever read it?'