Jessie Catherine Couvreur (1848-1897), writing as “Tasma”.
Published in 1878 in The Australian Ladies’ Annual, “The Rubria Ghost” concerns a young wife, “chained” to an ancient husband, who meets a ghost by moonlight on the grounds of their rural homestead and is faced with an invidious choice. A ghost tale with a comic twist, the story makes light of moralistic fictions.
I wonder why, in the face of all the unexplained phenomena that are always greeting us in this generally phenomenal world of ours, an unexplained ghost should be so uniformly goaded and worried –– every shred of character, even to its very existence, which seems to be a sort of aimless and unsatisfactory one at the best of times, torn from it –– and itself impeached and hounded down, until, from being a sociably-inclined ghost, it takes to sulking, and remains altogether out of the way of its detractors. Though from what I can gather of the habits of ghosts, they are not gregarious at the best of times; a proof, I imagine, of their consideration for mortals –– one ghost at a time being usually found sufficient company for anyone, and indeed, quite a host in itself. They are shrinking, too, and timid, requiring as many conditions in the way of darkness and antiquity, before they will favour any special locality, as a prince might require in the way of comfort and grandeur, before he could be induced to settle down in any particular neighbourhood.
Objection might certainly be taken to their good breeding, on the score of their general disregard of conventionality. In the last century, especially, we hear of pushing ghosts who thought nothing of intruding upon even the privacy of the bed-chamber, and though it must be admitted that no Russian waltzer could have glided among the furniture with less detriment to it, these ghost lacked the essential of good manners in their reluctance to efface themselves, when they were “de trop.” I say, “in the last century,” advisedly, for what with telegraphs as a sort of forestalling of second sight, and photographs and phonographs, as a more complete reproduction of the identity of the departed, than the completest warranted ghost could pretend to –– they have found, like Othello, their occupation gone. I don’t know how many tables, and cabinets, and dim lights, and excited brains, and inordinate faith, it doesn’t require now-a-days, to coax even the very shallowest ghost out of its stronghold. And ghosts are not good company either. I do not say this in the way of an aspersion, but because it is forced upon my mind by a recollection of the ghost of Rubria, upon which, indeed, my story hinges.
Of course it had its idiosyncrasy. We know that there are ––
Black spirits and white,
Red spirits and grey;
and the notwithstanding that little tendency to make themselves at home, without a formal invitation, of which, as I have explained, they seem to have cured themselves latterly, ghosts have their amour-propre as well as more solid individuals. This general feature, vouching for their human origin, argues the possession of distinctive characteristics likewise, and enables me to affirm of the Rubria Ghost, that what I must call, for want of a better word, its “selectness,” was its one predominant and most disagreeable quality. This it was which made it even poorer company than the general run of ghosts. For, as it took the mean advantage of never disclosing itself to more than one person at a time, and was quite unlike the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who was not at all particular about the number of people he entertained collectively, and seems as a ghost to have been fond of a little buffoonery in a quiet way, it followed that there could be no braving it in parties, no excuse for pleasant moonlight outings, no graceful flutterings on the part of young lady visitors, no possible “raison d’être,” such as comets and considerate ghosts have been known to supply, for mysterious and blissful wanderings among dew-besprinkled, night-invaded pathways. Perhaps the sense that in a country like Australia, as young in all that constitutes age in countries, as a fine baby in leading-strings, the genus ghost had hardly had time to develop itself, may have had something to do with the retiring disposition of the Rubria ghost. Perhaps the evident incongruity of associating itself occasionally with anything so prosaic as the woolshed of a sheep-station, may have helped to confirm this natural bashfulness. I can only surmise, in respect of the opinions it may have held, from its own ghostly point of view. As for the facts, I am prepared to state them clearly and unwaveringly –– after Burns’ conception of them, indeed, as ––
Cheils that winna ding
An’ dzurna be disputed.
And of all these indisputable facts, I hold none more indisputable than the fact of the Rubria Ghost. In the first place, everyone had seen it, that is to say, everyone on the station had had a private view of it within three months from the time of its first appearance, when, on a cloudy night, it actually chased the stockman from the well, a space, by the way, that his own proclivities did not lead him to patronise too extensively, as it was. The manager, indeed, fond of pungent suggestions, whether in conversation or curry, for a long time “d––d” the ghost, and everyone who had seen it;” which, as the boundary rider, who had a turn for epigram remarked, “might only help to give it a sense of fellowship, as it was probably that way already.” But even the manager’s goodwill did not suppress the ghost.
Of course, like every other abstract fact, upon which it is impossible to get at a united judgment, the Rubria ghost was differently translated by all the minds that had been brought into contact with it. If you had depended for a knowledge of it upon the individual impressions of the station-hands, you would have learnt that it was white, that it was black, that it was tall, that it was small, that it planted behind trees, that it skipped round stumps with a kind of diabolical prance, that it “ran at people,” –– a vague and horrible accusation, putting it almost on the level of a bull –– and that it was, taking it altogether, too fearful and intangible a ghost to be rightly described.
Now, as affecting Rubria, in a marketable sense, that is to say, as a station renowned for sending a fair percentage of fat sheep to the Melbourne market, I am well aware that the ghost carried no more weight than might be expected from a spirit of its substance, or rather, no substance; but as affecting it in a habitable sense, as the prospective home of a beautiful English bride, it was something of a drawback to know that quiet reflections upon the tranquillity of the moonlit plains might be disturbed by the inconsequent gambols of an ungainly ghost. Which was a catastrophe as certain to ensue sooner or later, as the impending catastrophe that is to hurl us into the sun, or freeze away all our caloric, in a few billion years. For the ghost, with a nice discrimination, hardly to be looked for from a new chum of a ghost, had chosen for its beat just such a spot as a newly-arrived home-girl might turn into her bower and weave an airy fabric in, winding it about her spirit, under shelter of the pines and ferns –– to the detriment of that more solid fabric of gold and silver, she had imprisoned herself in so remorselessly. A natural footpath, fringed with tangled scrub of leather fern, and magenta heath, and dainty eucalyptus sapling, wound itself, clean and white, through myrtle shrubs down to the very edge of the river. But before losing itself among the reed-covered banks, it halted in the midst of a natural clump of Murray pines, softly, mysteriously dark and green, where, just after sunset, fragrant peppermint odours mingled with the fresh exhalations from the river below, and the wild laughing chorus of the jackasses and magpies, like the mirth of the goblins in the Catskill mountains, seemed to mount on high in an abandonment of unrestraint, blended with the wild scents of the primeval bush. But what had all this to do with the bride? The track was a narrow one, even before threading its way in labyrinthine fashion through the heart of the clump of pines, but there was room for two beings who had “hit the mood of Love on Earth.” What carnal or spiritual reason could the most sagacious of ghosts have had for inferring that it must needs be trodden by only one, and that one “a true and honourable wife”?
If you had been at Rubria on that particular October night when the newly-married pair arrived, and had looked at bride and bridegroom, with the coldly impartial eyes of a person who sees “studies” as a surgeon sees “subjects” in every poor palpitating piece of humanity, you would have admitted that there might be something in the foresight of the ghost. I cannot recall all those trite comparisons regarding the linking of May and December, and crabbed age and youth, and spring and winter, which so inevitably occur when there is a margin of fifty years between husband and wife. I can only marvel, as the manager did (though affirming my amazement, perhaps, less profanely), at so incongruous a mating.
Hebe’s face, with the blood of six generations of milk-imbibing Devonshire ancestors crimsoning her full lips – Hebe’s figure, encased in a French cut robe that lent itself to every exquisite curve beneath – that was the bride. As for the bridegroom, well, “Oh! Flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified!” A palsied head, acquiescing, with senile chuckle and dribbling lips, in the closing farce that was soon to make it rigid; cold, cramped fingers, clinging to youth’s firm arm; filmy, red-rimmed eyes; shaking legs, that could totter only to the grave – that was the bridegroom.
I think the most terrible thing connected with him was the pale reflection of passion that flickered in his dulled eyes every time they rested on his wife. But then there was a redundancy of youth and bloom about her, that might have reanimated the chill blood of any worn-out David. He had long ago passed that central phase in man’s life when our self-love takes the pleasing form of deferring to others, as a means of securing their good-will, and had relapsed into the infant’s unabashed notion of regarding self as the pivot round which the word revolves. And, notwithstanding, she appeared to cherish him! If, indeed, he had been one of those wayward infants whose naïve self-absorption it is so easy to pardon, instead of a doting infant of eighty, with gleams of sensuality, she could not have served him more faithfully.
The station hands were accustomed to see her lead him, on sunny mornings, to the verandah, where she would prop him up in a great arm-chair, hedge him in with hot bottles and air-cushions, inflated by her own sweet breath, and walk beneath the over-arching creepers, nodding and smiling at him as she went. If she stepped beyond an imaginary boundary that he had feebly conceived as her limit, a faint cracked voice would make itself heard: “Em-my, Mrs. Ja-son, wi-ife, come!” The cry was in a kind of minor key, very plaintive, and out of tune; but she never allowed it to be repeated. She ran to him at once, and patted his flannel cap or stroked his cheeks, whereat he would whimper with gratification; and every day the same scenes would be repeated, until she put him to bed at dusk. Then only, after a faint sing-song snore proclaimed him to be asleep, she would cover her face with her hands, and crying, perhaps, with the Psalmist, from the bottom of her heart, “How long! O Lord! how long?” would run from the atmosphere imbued with the presence of unwholesome old age, and breathe largely of the pure air without.
And how about the chance of encountering the ghost? I think a constant sense of the pressure of some self-inflicting nightmare, such as many of us incontinently burden our lives with, is a sure shield against ghostly terrors. Is it not misery always that courts the supernatural? It seems sometimes as if only a miraculous aid could save us from the effects of our own blunders, but who that is well content with his lot would not scout miraculous aid!
Emily felt one night that the final note of that inward cry she was always sending forth against her destiny had been reached at last. Old Jason had been captious in the forenoon, and the wiles by which she had humoured him had so captivating an effect, that he seemed to be infused with a ghastly rekindling of youth’s ardour. She could have fled from his fondling to the bottom of the deepest coal-pit, and felt herself less sullied by the contact of the blacking smut than by the touch of his grisly lips. He was thriving like an infant under her care. Sickened and despairing, she coaxed him to sleep, chanting to him a refrain that sounded in her ears like the dirge of her own immolated youth, and escaped – escaped, as far as her loathsome office allowed – for, as she asked herself that evening, in how much was she better than those criminals of old whose ghastly punishment it was to be chained to the body of a corpse! His cracked voice was the chain that restrained her, and reminded her of the clog at the end of it. She thought all these things as she went outside to-night. The homestead behind her was a huge vault. It was full of charnel associations. She took the path towards the river instinctively, as if the night mists rising from its bosom could purify her. She had thrown a little scarlet shawl over her head, and either this, or her dreary reflections, made her look pale in the evening light. The boundary-rider, returning to the homestead, could descry her scarlet hood, like a large robin-red-breast among the pines in the distance. These trees, too, were old and twisted, but what sheltering arms they stretched out! what moist aromatic perfumes their ancient branches seemed to exhale! Was it only Humanity that must not grow old? Remembering the old man lying asleep within the house, Emily could have found it in her heart to die like “those whom the gods love” – even now, with every youthful impulse ready to respond to the physical life around – rather than to gain old age at any cost, or with any flattering promise, though it should be an old age
Serene and bright,
And lovely as a Lapland night.
Were the pine-trees cognisant of her desires? Was there a heart within their thick-set trunks that beat with her own, or had the Hamadryads, driven out of Greece, found shelter behind the tattered bark of the Australian gums? For as surely as she was standing in the midst of the clump of pines, with her pale face flushed by the red sunbeams piercing their branches, so surely she heard her own name, “Emily,” – first in a whisper – “Emily,” then louder, “Emily, Emily,” and then she turned her head.
The ghost was struggling with some white head-gear, that looked suspiciously like a flannel jersey drawn over its face. A shame-faced ghost, detected at the outset, and a long-legged broad-shouldered ghost, as you would have said when the jersey was torn off, and an accusing ghost too, before whose pained handsome eyes Emily’s head seemed to sink, as she stood with her back to one of the pines, and cried out “Oh, Tom! You! ––”
“Yes,” said the ghost, half making as if he would have taken her into his arms, and then suddenly remembering. “What did I say when you broke faith with me? What did I say when you drove me away?”
“That you’d haunt me always, Tom.”
“And so I have, though you mayn’t have seen me; and so I will. Aren’t you mine? When I knew how they had desecrated you” –– he waved his hand in the direction of the homestead with a gesture of repugnance –– “I felt so bitter, Emily, I could have killed you and myself too. That is over now. I have suffered too much.”
“Not that I believe you care. It’s quite enough for me to see you looking so fresh and beautiful. That’s proof enough for me. May the Lord forgive me, Emily. But I’ll put an end to it. If any ghost troubles you now, it won’t be a flesh-and-blood one; that’s all about it.”
She made a step forward. The ghost’s nervous arms seemed to envelop her all in a minute, and she cried with her face against the ghost’s shoulder as if her heart would break.
“Emily, my darling, come away from it all; come right away with me now.” Don’t hang on waiting for that poor old wretch to die. He’s good for any number of years. It’s a lie to say you’re his wife. I don’t care how many churches you were married in. Come, and I’ll keep you like a lady. I’ll slave so that you shan’t do a hand’s turn. Wouldn’t I––”
But it is hard to say what he would have done. What he did do, was to kiss her over and over again, while she still cried quietly. She was thinking all the time of what was lying there in the house, at the end of her chain. The remembrance of it a moment ago had made her almost willing to die, but if, instead of dying, she should live, and live only for her lover, throwing to the winds all thought of social restrictions, all prospect of those riches which had once seemed to her worth the sacrifice of her youth, and her purity, and her womanhood? Could it be holier to toil on, waiting for a dead man’s shoes, that she might see them filled by her handsome penniless sweetheart, than to retract her evil bargain, and atone? What, if the atonement should involve the loss or prospective wealth, and her own good name?
She knew that the tribunal before which good names are arraigned signified nothing here in the Wilds. And was wealth of any consequence, either? Was not the natural wealth of youth, vigour, and beauty, the natural impulse that would have made them blend their lives into one, worth all that artificial mockery of wealth she had left behind her?
It is the same with individuals as with countries. They never know till sickness lays the one low, and famine or war devastates the other, that wealth does not mean clinking bits of metal, but something inherent, some inward springs of well-being, without which even the wealth that lay in Midas’ finger-tips would be as nought. In real wealth they were as rich as the offspring of a golden age – and should she cast it all away for a delusion?
“Tom, I will come back,” she whispered at last. “Wait till it is dark, wait till midnight, if you will. I must return now; the people will be talking. I shall come, really. And oh! take me away, Tom, do! I’m so tired of it all.”
She was speaking straight out, as Nature bade her. I cannot say that the ghost did just what he ought to have done, and argued down these impulses. On the contrary, he pleaded even harder than Nature herself, and swore to his love that he would devote every fibre in his body, every sentiment of his soul to her, and to her only, for ever and ever.
The boundary-rider was close as well as epigrammatic. He did not confide to anyone that evening his suspicion that “young Mrs. Jason was ‘thick’ with the ghost;” holding, perhaps, that “thickness” with immaterial essences was no more reprehensible on her part than on the part of the good King Numa, or anyone else who seeks ghostly countenance. Nevertheless, he watched her run back to the house by moonlight, with her little scarlet wrapper fluttering behind. I daresay he would have liked to see her when she got inside, and with her wrapper thrown down, and her beautiful lips parted, and breathing hard after her run, stood irresolute, with uplifted lamp, looking at her husband’s shrivelled hand, depending from the bed wherein she had laid him. Pysche may have looked so when she approached Cupid with the lamp, her eyes full of dread at the possibility of beholding a monster. For Emily, as if fascinated, drew nearer to the bed, and allowed a subdued stream of light to fall aslant her husband’s face. What pathos there was in it, to be sure! What a mute protest against the old age that had made him so unlovely! The blear eyes had quite disappeared into their hollow sockets; the wisp of hair escaping from beneath his nightcap upon his creased forehead, the pale line that showed where his fallen lips (unsupported by his toothless gums) had merged into each other – all spoke of his helplessness, all appealed to the sense of pity she shared in an emotional way with the generality of women; and while she stood looking, his withered lips moved, as if he felt his dependence on her even in sleep, and articulated tremulously the cracked cry –– “Em-my, Mrs. Jason, wi-ife, come!”
Now the gold, the prospective possession of beautiful, hateful Rubria, the sheep, the plains, sank into nothingness.
These, I can declare, had nothing to do with the impulse which made her fall upon her knees, and swear to retract her former resolve. He stood in such terrible need of her. The thought of his looking out for her in the morning, with his poor worn-out eyes, was too sad and too cruel. Tom must hear reason!
She had burdened her life with the daily decaying life that now rested upon hers. Nature had two voices after all, or was it duty only that cried out to her now, and told her she would be a murderess if she abandoned this life that she held in her hands? She was very white when she rose from her knees. Her resolution was taken.
But old Jason had taken his resolution too. How few of us know when our day is over! I think that opportune inspiration of his expiated all his fretfulness, his exactingness, his repulsive fondling. Emily had not had time to turn away from the bed, when the change that so soon brings us all – age and youth, beauty and ugliness – to the same uncomely level, fell upon his face. He muttered in feeble choking tones his old cry, –– “Em-my, Mrs Ja-on, wi-ife, come!” –– and so went.
It may be that what faint life his wife had hitherto sustained in him, had succumbed before the chill of her intended desertion. Influences are so subtle, and their range is so little understood. The fact is there. She had put him to bed, shuddering at his ghastly rejuvenescence, and now, two hours later, he was dead.
But all this is obviously very wrong and very immoral, –– for of course, she married almost directly, and kept house with the ghost. But what a shocking moral! Here was a woman who had done worse than many a courtesan of ancient Rome –– selling, under cover of the church, instead of fairly and openly, her virgin beauty for gold. It was a shameless sale. And when she sickened of her bargain, she would have made matters worse by flying from one sin into another. For though it may be charitable to conclude that she quite intended to keep all the vows inspired by the sight of her sleeping husband, I, for one, am inclined to think a little more pressing from the ghost would have shaken her resolutions considerably. And just in the very nick of time her husband dies, and leaves her all his property, and there is nothing –– both she and the ghost being robust, and young, and prosaic –– to stand in the way of their enjoying themselves for evermore.
But I have one thing to say in apology. How many of my reader have ever seen a moral properly worked out in real life? Is any one of them unable to call to mind some very worthy and obviously meritorious individual, who ought, according to the most rudimentary principles of poetical justice, to be having a good time of it, and who, instead, is having a very sorry time of it altogether? Don’t they know, without being uncharitable, people without end, worldy, sharp, and pushing, whose lines have fallen in pleasant places, and who have nothing to do but to sail merrily through life with a fair wind all the time? And again, in extenuation of the immorality of the story, which, being a story, should, of course, belie real life, and have a big moral at the end of it: who can say whether anyone is happy until the end? We all know what Solon, poet, politician, and wise man – the two former definitions for the most part quite exclusive of the latter – said to the Lydian king on the subject of happiness. Poor pampered Croesus! whose very name conveys in the pronunciation of it, such a sense of richness and repletion. Was it only in vindication of the sage’s warning that the gods suffered you to be brought so low? Your cry of “Solon! Solon!” will re-echo through the Ages so long as man inhabits a world of catastrophes – so long as, day after day, he learns how individual welfare is swamped by those “most disastrous chances” we can none of us foresee.
So for anyone who is outraged upon hearing that Emily married the ghost, and that she and he are now in the spring-time of their delight, I will offer this pale reflection of a moral: Who can foresee the end? Let us hope he will beat her.
“Tasma”, “The Rubria Ghost“, The Australian Ladies’ Annual, 1878, edited by F R C Hopkins (Melbourne: M’Carron, Bird & Co, 1878)
Image source: “Madame Couvreur“, Mathilde Philippson (artist) – link to SLVIC digital collection (accessed 10/11/22)