Punch, November 18, 1903


VIII.—The Reformed Humourist.


When I told you,” said the Headless Man, “that ghosts never played practical jokes on human beings, I meant, of course, hardly ever. It is not considered good form, and all the better class of spectres set their faces against it. But you get an occasional case here and there with a very young ghost. You can’t expect old heads on young shoulders, can you? If you aren’t particularly anxious to get to sleep?—Then you might care to——? Very well, then.

“No. 704523186 Holborn was about the very wildest young spook that ever came across to the Back of Beyond. Most ghosts have sown their wild oats by the time they leave the world, but he had been cut off early, before he had time to get rid of that youthful exuberance which is so painful to the thoughtful spectre. He had, I believe, broken his neck while robbing an orchard. At any rate he was a mere boy when he came across, and you would hardly believe the trouble he gave the authorities. Things came to a head when he cheeked—there is no other word for it—when he cheeked Rhadamanthus in open court. ‘That boy must go,’ said Rhadamanthus, ‘and that’s all about it. I don’t care how young he is, he must be given a haunting somewhere. I shall never feel easy in my mind till I know that the Styx is between us. Make out his papers.’

“So they made out his papers, and off he went. The house to which he had been appointed belonged to a bachelor. I believe his name was Brown. On the night of his arrival, the ghost went to the smoking-room to announce himself. Brown was sitting before the fire, smoking. No. 704523186 flitted into the room, and coughed.

“ ‘Hullo, kiddy,’ said Brown, looking up, ‘and what might you happen to want?’

“ ‘Don’t call me kiddy,’ replied the ghost with hauteur. ‘If you really want to know, I’ve come to haunt this old shanty.’

Brown rocked in his chair. ‘Haunt!’ he shouted. ‘You! Oh, don’t make me laugh, I’ve got a cracked lip.’

“ ‘All right,’ said the boy bitterly, ‘all right. You just wait.’ And he began haunting that night. I suppose no ghost ever had quite such a thin time. Whatever he did, Brown simply laughed. He tried everything. He groaned: Brown smiled—the smile that wouldn’t come off. He turned himself into all sorts of things: the smile became a grin. He disappeared with a report like a pistol shot: Brown had to be helped to bed by his servant. So at last he gave up trying to frighten him, and thought of another plan. He thought it would be a great triumph for him—‘no end of a score,’ as he put it—if he could induce Brown to go hunting about for non-existent buried treasure all over the house and grounds, while he hovered near and did the laughing. He had heard of one case where a facetious spectre had persuaded his host to pull his house almost to pieces by these means. He accordingly woke Brown up at two o’clock next morning.

“ ‘I say,’ he said.

“ ‘Aw’ri,’ muttered Brown. ‘Leave it on the mat.’

“ ‘Treasure,’ howled the boy. ‘Buried treasure. Under the flower-bed.’

Brown sat up. ‘What’s that?’ he asked.

“ ‘Do you want some buried treasure?’ inquired the ghost. ‘There’s a lot of it hidden under one of the flower-beds.’

“ ‘It’s very cold,’ said Brown.

“ ‘Oh, all right,’ said the ghost, huffily; ‘if you don’t want it——’

“ ‘Hold on, don’t go. But why dig to-night? Why not to-morrow morning after breakfast?’

“ ‘My good sir,’ replied No. 704523186, ‘have you ever known buried treasure dug for except at night? It isn’t done.’

Brown was persuaded. He dressed, got a spade, and sallied out. There was a frost, and the ground was like iron. It was hard work digging, and No. 704523186 flitted about, chuckling to himself. ‘Hot work,’ he said, after a quarter of an hour.

“ ‘Doocid,’ said the man, wiping his forehead. ‘You’re sure the treasure is here?’

“ ‘Oh, quite, quite. Keep moving.’ And off he went again.

“When he had been at it for about an hour No. 704523186 went into the house to fetch an overcoat. When he reappeared, Brown was no longer digging. The ghost shimmered up to him. ‘Mr. Brown,’ he said.

“ ‘Yes?’

“ ‘I may as well tell you,’ said the ghost, ‘that there’s no treasure there. Not a penny.’

“ ‘No,’ replied Brown with a genial smile, ‘there is not. I have just taken it all out.’

“ ‘You’ve what!’ stammered the ghost. ‘You don’t mean to tell me there was treasure there?’

“ ‘To the tune of one thousand pounds,’ said Brown, ‘and thank you very much for your kind co-operation.’

“No. 704523186 uttered one unearthly shriek, writhed, and fled. He re-appeared amongst us a fortnight later, a changed spectre. Before, he had been flippant and boisterous. Now he seldom spoke, and his youthful exuberance had entirely disappeared. He is now one of the most respected ghosts in the whole of the Back of Beyond. He has a rooted hatred of practical jokes.”

“But how,” I asked, “did the treasure come there? Was that ever found out?”

“Well,” admitted the Headless Man, “I own I never quite understood that part of the story. The tale was that the thousand sovereigns were buried there by the editor of Snippy Shots, a weekly paper of high literary aims, and it was supposed to have something to do with some competition or other. But we can’t swallow that, can we? Even an editor wouldn’t go and do a silly thing like that, would he? No, how the money came there I can’t imagine, but there it was, and Brown found it, and the moral of that story is, if you must play practical jokes, stick to the old-fashioned apple-pie bed, and don’t try to be too original. G’night.”

And he vanished.




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