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An Old-world Ghost

from The Strange Story Book





Children are often inclined to think that the nations who ruled the
world long, long ago, were quite unlike ourselves, and always busy with
very serious things, such as the passing of laws or fighting. It is
quite a surprise sometimes to learn that they really shared our feelings
on a whole quantity of subjects, and even, as this story will show, were
quite as much afraid of ghosts or haunted houses as anybody in these
days could be. It is told by a famous Roman citizen called Pliny, who
was born near Lake Como in the reign of the Emperor Nero.

There was, he says, at that time a large and comfortable house in a good
part of the town of Athens which, to the astonishment of everybody,
stood empty for many years. It seemed odd that so fine a building should
remain so long unoccupied, and at length one man more curious than the
rest asked his host when at a small dinner party if he could explain the
reason. The tale he heard from the Athenian noble was a marvellous one,
and the guest shuddered as he listened, for though he was bold enough in
the field of battle, he trembled in the presence of that which he did
not understand.

Once the house had been filled with a gay family; music had floated
through the garden, children had played at knuckle bones in the hall,
and young men had thrown discs in the courts. But gradually sounds of
laughter grew more rare and the dwellers in the house fell ill of
mysterious maladies, till at last the few that were left departed for
another place, hoping amidst new surroundings to shake off the gloom
which possessed them. For a while none dared ask why the home of their
fathers had been thus forsaken; but little by little whispers of the
truth got abroad, and it was noticed that men turned down another street
sooner than pass the empty mansion.

A little girl was the first to hear the noise and sat up straight in her
bed with wide-open eyes peering into the darkness, too frightened even
to call to her slave, as a sound like the clanking of chains struck upon
her ear. It seemed to come from very far off; but soon, to the child's
wild terror, it drew closer and closer, till she expected every moment
to feel the touch of the cold iron on her cheek. Then, to her immense
relief, it became fainter, and went farther and farther away, by and bye
dying out altogether.

Such was the tale the little girl told to her mother in the morning, and
very shortly there was not a person in the house who had not been roused
by the mysterious noise. For a time this was all that happened, and
though it was bad enough, perhaps it might have been borne; but there
was worse to come. One night the form of an old man appeared, so thin
you could almost see his bones, his hair standing up like bristles, and
a white beard flowing to his waist. On his wrists and ankles were iron
chains, which shook as he moved. Henceforward there was no sleep for any
of the household; their days were passed in dread of the nights, and one
by one they fell a prey to their terrors. At length there came a time
when the living skeletons could endure it no longer and fled, leaving
the ghost behind them. Such was the tale told to the guest, but the end
was yet to come.

Years passed by, and the survivors began gradually to recover their
health and spirits, and wondered if things had really been so bad as
they had thought, and if some stranger, ignorant of the story, might not
be persuaded to take the house if the rent was made low enough. So a
notice was put up in a public place, offering the mansion for sale or
hire, and one of the first to read it happened to be Athenodorus the
philosopher, who had arrived on a visit to Athens. He knew nothing of
the evil reputation which belonged to the house, but the low price asked
aroused his suspicions, and he at once inquired why so fine a dwelling
should be offered for so little. With some difficulty he managed to
piece together the true story, and when he heard it, instantly took the
house, resolved to find out if possible the secret of the ghost.



As it grew dark, he bade his slave carry a couch for him to the front
part of the mansion, and place a lamp and writing materials on a table
near it. He afterwards dismissed the slaves to their own quarters, and
turned his whole attention to the book he happened to be writing, so
that he might not from idleness fancy he saw or heard all sorts of
things which were not there. For a little while he worked amidst dead
silence; then a faint sound as of the clanking of chains smote on his
ears, always coming nearer and nearer, and growing louder and louder.
But Athenodorus, as became a philosopher, was master of himself, even at
this moment. He gave no sign of having heard anything out of the common,
and his sharp-pointed instrument never faltered for an instant in
drawing the words on the waxen tablet. In a few seconds the noise
reached the door; next, it was within the door and coming down the room.
At last Athenodorus did lift his head and beheld the figure he had
been told of standing close to him, and signalling with his finger. In
reply the philosopher waved his hand, begging the ghost to wait until he
had finished the sentence he was writing, and this he succeeded in doing
in spite of the fact that the figure incessantly rattled the chains
close to his ears. Athenodorus, however, would not hurry himself, and
wrote on deliberately. Then he laid down his stylus and looked round.
The ghost was again beckoning to him, so he took up the lamp and
motioned the figure to go before him. With a slow step, as of one who
carries a heavy weight on his feet, the old man walked through the house
as far as the courtyard, where he vanished quite suddenly; nor could the
philosopher discover the smallest trace of him, though he searched every
corner carefully by the aid of his lamp. As it was now night and too
late to examine further, Athenodorus made a little heap of leaves and
grass to mark the spot where the figure disappeared, and returned to his
couch where he slept peacefully till dawn.

When he awoke next morning he at once visited a magistrate of the city
and, after telling his story, begged that some men might be sent to dig
up that part of the courtyard. The magistrate gave the order without
delay, and, accompanied by Athenodorus, the slaves set about their task.
A few feet from the surface the pickaxes struck upon iron and the
philosopher drew nearer, for he felt that the secret of the haunting was
about to be disclosed. And so it was, for there lay a heap of bones with
chains fastened to them.

How they came there, how long they had been there, whose bones they
were, none could tell; but they were collected in a box and buried by
order of the magistrate, at the expense of the public. This seemed to
satisfy the unquiet spirit, for the house was henceforward left in
peace, and as Athenodorus had no further interest in the matter its
owners were free to return and dwell there, which they gladly did.

[From Pliny's Letters.]





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