I’ve run across a ghost story in several traditional collections about an English noblewoman who leases a mansion in Aquitaine around the time of the French Revolution. Although it’s not a particularly scary tale, as these things go, it was structured in a way that seemed a bit odd, so I had a random impulse to make fun of it.
The story starts when Lady Pennyman and her two daughters arrive in the town of Lisle and are surprised to find a very nice house with an unusually low rent. It’s been vacant for a number of years, so the ladies can move in immediately. (Oh yeah, you know there’s got to be a catch.)
While Lady Pennyman is signing the papers, she overhears a porter and the banker referring to it as “The Haunted House” but pays this no mind. Sometimes people are just silly and superstitious. No reason to get worked up over a little gossip.
After a few weeks in the house, the housekeeper informs her ladyship that two servants are on the verge of quitting and returning to England because they’re convinced that the large bedroom above their quarters is inhabited by a ghost. Lady Pennyman decides to put an end to this foolishness by moving into the room where the servants have been sleeping. She’ll show them there’s nothing to worry about.
It’s only at this point that the storyteller reveals there’s a huge, spooky-looking iron cage smack in the middle of the room the servants say is haunted. One supposes that Lady Pennyman took a tour of the house when she leased it, but she apparently didn’t bother to ask why the cage was there or to have it removed. I don’t care how cheap the rent is — surely having the landlord get rid of it wouldn’t be too much to ask, right?
Oh, and another thing the storyteller neglects to mention at the outset is that the previous owner of the house, a wealthy teenage orphan, had been imprisoned in the cage by his wicked uncle and starved to death. The uncle inherited the house and his nephew’s fortune but was soon forced to flee by the boy’s vengeful ghost or his own guilty conscience. Or both.
Lady Pennyman has been aware of this from almost the beginning, and you know the servants have been totally freaked out by it. But no, let’s stay in the creepy house that has a feature everyone officially calls the Cage Room.
I don’t know about y’all, but even I might start to think the place was haunted, with that kind of history.
Her ladyship’s first two nights in the former servants’ quarters are quiet, but she hears footsteps pacing overhead on the third night. She gets pretty agitated about it at the time, but being kind of a jerk, she decides to keep it to herself and basically gaslight the servants.
At breakfast the next morning, her son, whose room is down the hall from the Cage Room, says he couldn’t sleep because he heard footsteps and knocking all night. And she gaslights him, too. Maybe she just hates moving, but for whatever reason, she’s determined not to admit to anyone that they were right and she was wrong.
Eventually, the whole house is in uproar. There are noises every night. Her kids say the house is haunted, and the servants pretty much have one foot out the door — but Lady Pennyman is still determined to act like nothing’s going on.
Enter Mrs. Atkins, a long-time friend of the family and the most diehard skeptic of their acquaintance. She comes to visit and insists on sleeping in the Cage Room. She says that’s the only way to convince everyone the house isn’t haunted. Being a proper ghost-debunker type, she goes over the whole room to look for hidden doors and compartments. Once she’s convinced the room is secure, she bolts herself and her little dog inside. Oh, and of course the cage is still there. I don’t know if it’s just too heavy too move, it’s bolted to the floor, or moving it would void the lease.
Mrs. Atkins has just fallen asleep when the poor dog starts howling, and she wakes to see a ghostly figure opening the door and approaching the huge iron cage. The odd-looking young man hovers there for a moment and then goes back out the way he came.
She leaps out of bed and heads for the door, only to find that it is still bolted, just as she left it. She flings it open and sees the same young man retreating down the hallway. She pursues him down the stairs and is on the verge of catching up with him when he vanishes into thin air.
So now the skeptic has been completely converted. The house is haunted, for sure. When Lady Pennyman goes back to the banker to complain and try to break the lease, he mumbles something about guillotines if she talks shit about the property to anybody. And I’m like, really, he’s going there? Okay.
She finally finds another place to live and makes up an excuse that the new house is a better size for her family.
I’m just not clear at all on why she kept up this pretense about the house not being haunted and even roped her friend into sleeping in the room with the murder cage. And yeah, I’ve already said I didn’t understand why they kept the cage at all.
With some of these old tales, you can’t look too closely at the plot and the characters’ motivations. The whole thing falls apart.
The story first appeared in a collection that was compiled in 1823 by T.M. Jarvis. I’ve seen other variants, most of them ending with a sneer at weak minds who believe in ghosts, but also some kind of classist comment about how this must be true because such wealthy and well-educated people said it happened.