Punch, December 30, 1903


X.—The Return of the Prodigal


The Haunted Mill.

Dear Mr. Punch,—I feel sure that at Christmas you will not refuse to insert in your jocund journal a little story of a purely sentimental nature. I feel that at such a season it would be out of place for me to jest. I enclose the MS. Look me up here if you are doing nothing else. The Headless Man will be delighted to see you.

Yours respectrefully
The Analyst.


’Twas Christmas night.

Down in the village, at the “Bee and Beer Bottle” all was revelry. Gaffer Giles was singing, for the fifth time in half-an-hour, “The Fly on the Turmut.” Farmer Bates and Farmer Scroggins, forgetful of ancient disagreements, were sitting on the floor with their arms round each other’s necks, as lovingly as if they had been Lord Rosebery and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Everybody was flushed and happy. But up at the Castle old Sir Guy Scrymgeour-de-Vere-Scrymgeour sat silent in his vast dining-hall, alone, but for the pictures of his ancestors that looked down on him from their oak frames. There was little Christmas cheer at the Castle. A dry biscuit and a bottle of Vichy water represented the limits of Sir Guy’s taste for orgies. This was not economy. He did not believe that his food would cost him more. He suffered from gout. There was a tap at the door.

“Come in,” said Sir Guy, raising his gloomy eyes.

The door did not open, but through it shimmered a white figure. It stood beside the table, shuffling its feet, and looking shame-faced.

The Baronet started from his chair.

“You!” he cried.

“Me!” said the ghost. “What is bad grammar if it covers a warm heart?”

“To what am I indebted for the honour of this visit?” Sir Guy’s chilly manner was a byword in Little Pigbury. Once, when he had employed it in an argument with a poacher, the poacher had caught pneumonia. The ghost shivered, and wrapped his winding-sheet more closely round him.

“I thought,” he stammered, “that is to say—perhaps—Christmas comes but once a year—goodwill to man—glad to see me.”

“My memory,” said Sir Guy, with cold courtesy, “is not, I regret to say, what it was, but I think that if I had invited you to visit Castle Scrymgeour, I should remember the circumstance.”

The ghost shuffled uneasily.

“Sir Guy,” he said hastily, “can we not let bygones be bygones? May I not come back?”

“You left the castle——”

“A year ago to-day.”

“As you justly observe, a year ago to-day. You left of your own free will, and against mine. I may add that you seriously dislocated my Christmas arrangements. I had invited a housefull of people to meet you. You were not there to be met. You left to better yourself. I trust you succeeded.”

“Alas, no. For the past twelve months I have endured agonies. For some time I haunted a hopeless vulgarian of the name of Skinner. He disgusted me, and I left him. After that my career was one long failure. Three times, Sir Guy—pity me—have I been laid.”

“Eggs,” said the baronet, “are laid every day. They make no complaint.”

“But to an egg the process is painless. To a ghost it is anguish. Conceive, Sir Guy, what your sensations would be, were you to tread on a tack and fall backwards downstairs into a tank of ice-cold water. That is the sensation a ghost experiences when laid.”

In spite of himself, a look of pity flashed across his hearer’s face. The ghost marked it.

“You would not turn me from your door?” he pleaded.

“If,” said Sir Guy, “you prefer, from force of habit, to make your exit through the wall, you are at liberty to do so. Good evening.”

“But, Sir Guy——”

At this moment the door opened, and an angel form danced in.

It was Sir Guy’s little granddaughter. She saw her old friend the ghost, and uttered a shriek of delight.

“Mewwy Chwistmas, doast,” she cried; “doast tum back again.”

Though, even at that early age accustomed to mind her p’s and q’s, Marjorie Scrymgeour-de-Vere-Scrymgeour had not yet obtained a mastery over her r’s and g’s.

The ghost placed a shadowy hand on Marjorie’s head, and made a last appeal.

“Sir Guy,” he said, in a trembling voice, “it is Christmas night. Down in the village men are treating those who have wronged them to ale, and even whisky. The poacher is digging the game-keeper in the ribs and calling him by his Christian name. The village policeman pats the head which, two days ago, he would have clumped. Will you alone refuse forgiveness to one who pleads for it? And really, don’t you know, trifling apart, I am dashed sorry.”

There was a silence.

Then Sir Guy rose, and stretched out his hand. There were tears in his eyes.




Unsigned story as printed; credited to P. G. Wodehouse in the Index to Vol. 125 of Punch.