A tale of Whoopshire

Last year we had a P.G. Wodehouse story for Halloween. This year it’s Robert Benchley’s turn. This is technically a Christmas story, but it’s equally inappropriate for October 31.

Uncle Edith’s Ghost Story

“Tell us a ghost story, Uncle Edith,” cried all the children late Christmas afternoon when everyone was cross and sweaty.

“Very well, then,” said Uncle Edith, “it isn’t much of a ghost story, but you will take it—and like it,” he added, cheerfully. “And if I hear any whispering while it is going on, I will seize the luckless offender and baste him one.

“Well, to begin, my father was a poor woodchopper, and we lived in a charcoal-burner’s hut in the middle of a large, dark forest.”

“That is the beginning of a fairy story, you big sap,” cried little Dolly, a fat, disagreeable child who never should have been born, “and what we wanted was a ghost story.”

“To be sure,” cried Uncle Edith, “what a stupid old woopid I was. The ghost story begins as follows:

“It was late in November when my friend Warrington came up to me in the club one night and said: ‘Craige, old man, I want you to come down to my place in Whoopshire for the week-end. There is greffle shooting to be done and grouse no end. What do you say?’

“I had been working hard that week, and the prospect pleased. And so it was that the 3:40 out of Charing Cross found Warrington and me on our way into Whoopshire, loaded down with guns, plenty of flints, and two of the most beautiful snootfuls ever accumulated in Merrie England.

“It was getting dark when we reached Breeming Downs, where Warrington’s place was, and as we drove up the shadowy path to the door, I felt Warrington’s hand on my arm.

“‘Cut that out!’ I ordered, peremptorily. ‘What is this I’m getting into?’

“‘Sh-h-h!’ he replied, and his grip tightened. With one sock I knocked him clean across the seat. There are some things which I simply will not stand for.

“He gathered himself together and spoke. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I was a bit unnerved. You see, there is a shadow against the pane in the guest room window.’

“‘Well, what of it?’ I asked. It was my turn to look astonished.

Warrington lowered his voice. ‘Whenever there is a shadow against the windowpane as I drive up with a guest, that guest is found dead in bed the next morning—dead from fright,’ he added, significantly.

“I looked up at the window toward which he was pointing. There, silhouetted against the glass, was the shadow of a gigantic man. I say, ‘a man,’ but it was more the figure of a large weasel except for a fringe of dark-red clappers that it wore suspended from its beak.”

“How do you know they were dark red,” asked little Tom-Tit, “if it was the shadow you saw?”

“You shut your face,” replied Uncle Edith. “I could hardly control my astonishment at the sight of this thing, it was so astonishing. ‘That is in my room?’ I asked Warrington.

“‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I am afraid that it is.’

“I said nothing, but got out of the automobile and collected my bags. ‘Come on,’ I announced cheerfully, ‘I’m going up and beard Mr. Ghost in his den.’

“So up the dark, winding stairway we went into the resounding corridors of the old seventeenth-century house, pausing only when we came to the door which Warrington indicated as being the door to my room. I knocked.

“There was a piercing scream from within as we pushed the door open. But when we entered, we found the room empty. We searched high and low, but could find no sign of the man with the shadow. Neither could we discover the source of the terrible scream, although the echo of it was still ringing in our ears.

“‘I guess it was nothing,’ said Warrington, cheerfully. ‘Perhaps the wind in the trees,’ he added.

“‘But the shadow on the pane?’ I asked.

“He pointed to a fancily carved piece of guest soap on the washstand. ‘The light was behind that,’ he said, ‘and from outside it looked like a man.’

“‘To be sure,’ I said, but I could see that Warrington was as white as a sheet.

“‘Is there anything that you need?’ he asked. ‘Breakfast is at nine—if you’re lucky,’ he added, jokingly.

“‘I think that I have everything,’ I said. ‘I will do a little reading before going to sleep, and perhaps count my laundry. . . . But stay,’ I called him back, ‘you might leave that revolver which I see sticking out of your hip pocket. I may need it more than you will.’

“He slapped me on the back and handed me the revolver as I had asked. ‘Don’t blow into the barrel,’ he giggled, nervously.

“‘How many people have died of fright in this room?’ I asked, turning over the leaves of a copy of Town and Country.

“‘Seven,’ he replied. ‘Four men and three women.’

“‘When was the last one here?’

“‘Last night,’ he said.

“‘I wonder if I might have a glass of hot water with my breakfast,’ I said. ‘It warms your stomach.’

“‘Doesn’t it though?’ he agreed, and was gone.

“Very carefully I unpacked my bag and got into bed. I placed the revolver on the table by my pillow. Then I began reading.

“Suddenly the door to the closet at the farther end of the room opened slowly. It was in the shadows and so I could not make out whether there was a figure or not. But nothing appeared. The door shut again, however, and I could hear footfalls coming across the soft carpet toward my bed. A chair which lay between me and the closet was upset as if by an unseen hand, and, simultaneously, the window was slammed shut and the shade pulled down. I looked, and there, against the shade, as if thrown from the outside, was the same shadow that we had seen as we came up the drive that afternoon.”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” said little Roger, aged six, at this point.

“Well, go ahead,” said Uncle Edith. “You know where it is.”

“I don’t want to go alone,” whined Roger.

“Go with Roger, Arthur,” commanded Uncle Edith, “and bring me a glass of water when you come back.”

“And whatever was this horrible thing that was in your room, Uncle Edith?” asked the rest of the children in unison when Roger and Arthur had left the room.

“I can’t tell you that,” replied Uncle Edith, “for I packed my bag and got the 9:40 back town.”

“That is the lousiest ghost story I have ever heard,” said Peterkin.

And they all agreed with him.


From Inside Benchley.

About “Uncle” Edith: I’ve read that Benchley’s proto-feminist aunts were not noticeably feminine, so the young Robert figured that they must actually be uncles.


For those who prefer a more traditional scary story, here’s an old classic: