Aristocracy, Death, Democracy, Destiny, E. F. Benson, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Hugh Grainger, Lord Dufferin, Lord Dufferin's Ghost, Melvin Harris, Pall Mall Magazine, Premonition, Premonitory Tales, Room For One More, The Bus Conductor, The Devil, Tullamore
[#1 is here.]
Our story begins with Lord Dufferin – or, to give him his full title, Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the first Marquis of Dufferin and Ava – whose agreeable-sounding career included spells as Governor General of Canada and Viceroy of India. In 1879, Dufferin was holidaying at an unspecified friend’s manor house in Tullamore, central Ireland. Awakening in the dead of night – or, in other renditions of the story, very early in the morning – Dufferin was drawn to his window, which overlooked a vast garden, and there he spotted a man who was crossing the lawn with a coffin perched on his back. Here, the different versions of the story cannot agree upon what happened: the man either looked up to meet Dufferin’s gaze or else Dufferin descended, his bare feet on the dewy lawn, to accost the man; and sometimes the man is hideously ugly and/or an over-eager Dufferin walks straight through him.
Over breakfast, Dufferin’s hosts were bemused by his account of the spectre, who resembled none of the local ghosts, and they could only suggest that the vision must have been a dream. For years, this odd, inconclusive story remained at the back of Dufferin’s mind, until a point in the mid 1890s when his latest commission was that of the British ambassador to France and we find him in the queue for the elevator at a diplomatic reception in the Grand Hotel, Paris. The elevator attendant looked up at Dufferin and – behold! – it was none other than the very man whom Dufferin had seen years before at Tullamore! No way would Dufferin get into that elevator, although he was too flustered to share this advice with any of his fellow guests, and the elevator duly plummeted to its doom, killing all of its passengers. Some renditions cap the story by reporting that the hotel staff were unable to provide satisfactory answers to Dufferin’s inquiries about the now-deceased elevator attendant. Nobody answering the attendant’s description worked at the hotel – or else he was a new start and nothing was known about him.
One of the least interesting things about this story is that it is absolute rubbish. In Investigating the Unexplained (2003), the BBC researcher Melvin Harris explodes the whole thing as “nothing more than a gross pastiche of myths.” Harris establishes that the story did not appear in print until eighteen years after Dufferin’s death, as an anecdote contained in the French astronomer Flammarion’s Death and Its Mystery. In 1949, the Lady Dufferin of the day reported that the tale “was simply a new version of an old story her grandfather used to tell about somebody else,” whilst Harris finally traces the tale to its “first” appearance in 1892 as “an anonymous secondhand account in the spiritualist paper Light.”
Yet Harris’ game is to debunk “the unexplained,” and he fails to register that an openly fictional version of Dufferin’s tale had been published in a 1906 edition of the Pall Mall Magazine. Whilst Harris verifies that recognisable versions of “Lord Dufferin’s Ghost” were knocking about in the late nineteenth century – including the one which was presumably peddled by the man himself – this narrative was first launched as a fictional ghost story in the pages of Pall Mall with E. F. Benson’s tale “The Bus-Conductor.” This story would be retold endlessly as the famous ghost yarn “Room For One More,” and it would be included in the influential Ealing Studios portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945) and the Twilight Zone episode “Twenty Two” (1961) (in which the bus is now an aeroplane). Benson’s tale seems to have actually predated the first published appearance of “Lord Dufferin’s Ghost” by over a decade, and both stories were conceivably inspired by the same 1892 contribution to Light. Yet there are significant differences between the two stories, the most obvious being that “Lord Dufferin’s Ghost” purports to be fact – and this story is occasionally included in volumes of “true” ghost accounts – whilst “Room For One More” is content to remain fictional.
Benson’s hero Hugh Grainger finds himself in the same shoes as Lord Dufferin, in that he is staying in a friend’s home and that he has been accorded a room in which he is destined to awaken in the dead of night. Yet when Grainger arrives at his own window, he is greeted by the sight of a hearse in the street below. This vision has the flavour of a hallucination – the street is marked by an “extraordinary stillness,” in which “the music of life appeared to be absolutely mute.” Grainger is struck by a “dreadful sense of loneliness.” Despite the darkness, he discerns the hearse “very distinctly,” and he found it “curious how every detail… was visible.” Grainger and his host agree from the former’s account that the driver of the hearse looked “exactly” like a “bus-conductor.” As with Dufferin’s ghost, the hearse-driver looks up at Grainger, but this time the ghost has a speaking part and he utters the now-immortal words, “Just room for one inside, sir…” This ghost is next encountered as a “real” bus-conductor and when his single line is repeated in its natural setting, Grainger is unnerved into foregoing a doomed journey, just as Dufferin was warned from his plummeting elevator.
Benson seems to register a premonition of this tale’s popularity amongst subsequent storytellers, and his narrative contains some good-humoured and knowing references to the art of telling ghost stories. The tale begins with a country house “of sinister repute” which sounds a lot like the Tullamore manor of Dufferin’s tale, or the archetypal “haunted house.” Benson additionally presents us with a hypersensitive narrator, whose “own state of mind was peculiarly well adapted to receive or even to invent” messages from the next world, but this narrator returns from his haunted house to report that “in spite of these surroundings… nothing of any description had occurred.” This seemingly reflects the action of Dufferin’s tale, in which the ghost branches out from haunting the usual country pile to appear before a newfangled steam elevator, but Benson’s story more pointedly insists upon a straightforward, rather than an aristocratic or a sensitive, elite protagonist. The new ghost story – and Benson seems to have been aware that his was a new sort of ghost story – required an unglamorous democratic hero, and Benson gives us Grainger, who is “generally intelligent” but “dense in certain ways.”
The narrator is apparently scandalised that the ghost was spotted in “this square little box of a house in a modern street?” Whilst the narrator exalts that, “Fear is the most absorbing and luxurious of emotions. One forgets all else if one is afraid,” Grainger reports his sighting of “certainly a most useful and friendly ghost.” Yet Grainger can only understand the spiritual through the painfully materialistic jargon of aligning “peep-holes,” and if he is adamant that “my spy-hole had been opposite the spy-hole into the spiritual world,” this whiff of carpentry is echoed in the overt physicality of the traffic accident, in which the motor car crashed into the bus as a “gimlet burrows into a board.” Benson is possibly cracking a joke about Grainger’s materialism being bore-ing.
Yet even a chap as dull as Grainger is offended by the impersonal nature of his spiritual experience. We are told that the driver/conductor “had a rather long thin face, and on his left cheek there was a mole with a growth of dark hair on it.” Grainger finds his casual attitude “so odious, so coarse, so unfeeling,” and he is affronted by “…all the ghastly gaiety of the face… and the levity of his pointing hand.” This is not necessarily modern, however, as Virgil had dwelled upon the ferryman Charon’s “uncombed, unclean” beard and his “girdle, foul with grease”; whilst Dickens’ signalman was mocked by unresponsive spectres.
Unlike with the death of Dickens’ signalman, the salvations of Dufferin and Grainger should raise our spirits – a guardian angel has intervened to preserve both men from death – but their stories retain the uneasiness of Dickens’ tale. Those recounting Dufferin’s story are typically at pains to provide the guardian angel with a demonic visage – the coffin-bearer is fiercely, monstrously ugly! – although this may convey an innocent practicality, as Dufferin may not have recognised his warning if its bearer had been physically undistinguished. To my mind, Benson’s narrative is more successful because the messenger is characterised by the blank appearance which men assume when they are working on public transport, and this leads one to the eerie conclusion that higher powers have simply appropriated the features and voice of a passing bus conductor in order to deliver their warning to Grainger.
But this demands that we address the question of motive. The Dufferin story is haunted by a faint, troubling suspicion that the Lord was only saved because he was a Lord – that the forces watching over us are firmly of the ancient regime and that they took the unprecedented step of intervening in the physical world to save Dufferin because he alone out of all the elevator passengers was such an eminent aristocrat. Grainger, on the other hand, is eminently ordinary, and his own clunky materialism provides no explanation for why he was spared. Dufferin’s saviour is a dastardly leering figure, who may be not particularly inconvenienced by the prospect of dying a human death because he is a demon. The coffin on his back will contain his own discarded human body, rather than that of Dufferin, in which case Dufferin may remain in some sort of obscure diabolical debt to the figure who has taken his place. The bus conductor, however, is necessarily unaware of the warning which he imparts, and he must forsake his own life in order to deliver his message. If the conductor knew that his bus was going to crash, then he would have saved himself and everybody else, and henceforth Grainger can only be saved in isolation if everybody else dies.
It is never explained whether Dufferin’s deliverance is freely given or obscurely conditional, but if the former then it seems that divine forces have engineered an elaborate, spectacular stunt which only serves to illustrate their own power and to belittle the agency of the man whom they profess to be saving. After all, if such forces were genuinely benevolent, then they would have discreetly prevented the elevator from crashing in the first place. Benson sets his own story in a blank, everyday context in order to further emphasise the helplessness of the chosen man and the arbitrary nature of his choosing. Grainger may need exclusive knowledge in order to recognise the significance of the bus conductor’s prompt in its natural setting, rendering those ostensibly commonplace words the equivalent of a Masonic handshake, but he otherwise displays the bewilderment of one invited accidentally to a Masonic function. For Dufferin and Grainger, the “ghosts” may dispense salvation, but the choreography of the visions – with their surprising “punch lines” – have the quality of a joke or a trick, and perhaps the divine guardians are just showing off their powers for the sake of it, rather than because they are genuinely concerned with saving anybody.
The somewhat outmoded narrator of “The Bus Conductor” concedes that:
“the most part of mankind, I am aware, do not like long stories, but to the few, among whom I number myself, who really like to listen to lengthy accounts of experiences, Hugh is an ideal narrator. I do not care for his theories, or for his similes, but when it comes to facts, to things that happened, I like him to be lengthy.”
“Go on, please, and slowly,” the narrator insists. “Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is the ruin of story-telling…” Yet whilst Grainger is “telling” the story, the narrating is, of course, left to the narrator, who deals us a brief, deft tale. Both “Lord Dufferin’s Ghost” and “The Bus-Conductor” provide the perfect ghost story – a stunt-narrative with a surprise ending – a tale which is short and snappy enough to dependably deliver fireside thrills, and which can be retold endlessly whilst allowing the teller to dress the tale with their own particular characters, setting, and narrative detail. And this tale would be retold endlessly throughout the twentieth century, not only around camp fires, but within the literary tradition of the ghost story, culminating in the pioneering radio broadcasts of A. J. Alan.