The following story is one of the most time-honored tropes of British supernatural fiction: a ghost story told over the fire of an inn about a spirit that roams its very halls. The conventional story goes thus: a group of travelers – strangers to one another – seek shelter from a winter storm at a wayside inn. Bored and tired, they begin talking about metaphysics after they have wasted small talk, politics, and gossip.
The conversation turns to the existence of ghosts, and one or more of those present explain that the very house they have taken refuge in hosts a supernatural tradition. The ghost is frequently a victim of violent death – suicide or murder – and typically its appearance heralds the death of its witness. The story is common in both literary and veridic ghost stories (that is, urban legends).
One such veridic folk story is that of the Radiant Boy – the ghost of a young boy who has been killed by his mother, who haunts the rooms they were smothered in. Radiant Boys appear to unwitting guests at the darkest hours of night in the form of a blazing, yellow specter, awakening their victims who typically suspect a house fire, only to see a beautiful, blond lad motioning sinisterly to their throats. These unhappy men are destined to commit suicide shortly after seeing the apparition. Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769 - 1822) is one such historical person who is said to have cut his throat after witnessing a Radiant Boy at a manor house.
The trope is also very popular in literary stories: W. W. Jacobs’ masterful Christmas tragedy “Jerry Bundler” tells the story of a ghostly highwayman who lingers at an inn after hanging himself in an upstairs room. H. G. Wells’ “The Inexperienced Ghost” – like “Jerry Bundler” – goes from humorous to tragic after a man at a country lodge recounts his conversation with a ghost the night before and jokingly performs the spirit’s invisibility ritual. Washington Irving depicts a group of overnight guests pondering the subject of a transfixing portrait in “The Haunted Painting,” only to have the sitter appear to them in the night, and J. S. Le Fanu’s “Dickon the Devil” features an inn where a mad ghost roams the countryside, peering in the windows and pleading for divine mercy. Nesbit enters into this tradition in fine form, but be warned: like “Jerry Bundler” and “The Inexperienced Ghost,” this story takes you down a long, predictable hallway, only to jerk you around with a twist at the end. It is not un-pleasant.
A group of travelers are gathered around a snapping fire at an old-fashioned hotel, while one of them – a large, bombastic salesman – waxes tediously on his views of ghost stories: “Speaking from the journalistic point of view—I may tell you, gentlemen, that I once occupied the position of advertisement editor to the Bradford Woollen Goods Journal—and speaking from that point of view, I hold the opinion that all the best ghost stories have been written over and over again; and if I were to leave the road and return to a literary career I should never be led away by ghosts. Realism's what's wanted nowadays, if you want to be up-to-date.” The narrator is tolerantly listening to him, while the other salesmen share their own ghost stories and equally tedious opinions (related to their experiences as salesmen trying to “sell” clients on spurious wares), and becomes increasingly weary of their droning.
At this point, however, a newcomer pipes up – a man none of them have noticed so far: ‘Very good story,’ said the smart little man by the fire. He was a traveller, as the rest of us were; his presence in the room told us that much. He had been rather silent during dinner, and afterwards, while the red curtains were being drawn and the red and black cloth laid between the glasses and the decanters and the mahogany, he had quietly taken the best chair in the warmest corner. We had got our letters written and the large traveller had been boring for some time before I even noticed that there was a best chair, and that this silent, bright-eyed, dapper, fair man had secured it.”
The little man politely disagrees with the company’s definition of “realism” – which, up until now, has solely relied on vague second and third-hand accounts. He notes that the best, most realistic ghost stories always come from detailed, first-hand accounts told by the person who experienced it. The other salesmen naturally kick pack against this interloper with their critiques and theories (e.g., that ghost stories are all hallucinations or drunken visions), but the large, bombastic salesman ultimately challenges the small, dapper traveler to prove his point, and so he does. Before he proceeds, though, he notes that his ghost story cannot be a drunken vision, because he has been teetotaler for five years.
He then settles in to tell his story, and asks for the lights to be lowered. He explains that his story involves yet another traveling salesman, Herbert Hatteras (“Did any of you know [him]? He was on this road a good many years. No? Well, never mind.”) who was recognizable by his bright, straight teeth and a fine, black mustache. The story involves Hatteras and a certain room in a certain hotel – which he won’t name out of consideration, since a story like this would likely harm the house’s reputation. Either way, he still uses the hotel, but has never been back to the room, and supposes that it may have been “shut up” following “what happened.”
It all started one day when he was speaking with an old friend and asked about the man’s brother. This resulted in the tragic news that the brother, Fred, had unexpectedly killed himself by cutting his own throat with a razor in a hotel room. The suicide was absolutely senseless, and the dapper man was so shocked that he asked for more specifics about the case. He learned that the hotel were it happened was one which he himself frequented, and that the room was rather unusual: it had a French bed with red curtains, a massive, mahogany wardrobe (“as big as a herse”), a mirror hung between the two windows, and a print of Rembrandt’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” placed over the mantlepiece. At these details the large salesman perks up and briefly tries to interject, but is silenced.
The little man notes that not long after learning of Fred’s suicide, he found that his firm had booked him a room in the same hotel. In those days he didn’t believe in ghosts, so it didn’t bother him in the slightest, and on the night that he checked in, he and the other salesmen sat around the fire (just as they were that night) and their conversation turned to ghosts (just as they did that night). One of the salesmen there that night grimly noted that he didn’t believe in ghosts, but that he still wouldn’t stay in Room Number 17 for anything. The other salesmen asked him why, and he curtly explained that it was because “that was the room where chaps cut their throats.” It all started, he said, with Herbert Hatteras, who killed himself with his razor years ago, and since then, every travelling salesman who has slept in Number 17 – regardless of his circumstances or happiness – has done likewise.
The salesmen agreed that they had heard that 17 had been shut up, but the little man announces that this is untrue: he is assigned to Number 17. They are all shocked and ask if he truly intends to sleep there. He ponders his options and does check to see if he can change rooms, learning that Number 16 is available. Not wanting to spend the night in such a fearful room, he has his rooms changed and goes to bed feeling pleased as Punch with his narrow escape. That being said, even the fact that he was sharing a wall with Number 17 still disturbed him.
As he undressed for bed, he took in his surroundings. It certainly reminded him of his friend’s description of the room where his brother killed himself: French bed with red curtains, mirror hung between the windows, hearse-sized mahogany wardrobe, and even the print of “Belshazzar’s Feast” placed over the fireplace. Maybe, he supposed, the furniture from Number 17 had been moved into Number 16. Would it be haunted? He searched the room – under the bed, in the wardrobe – for anyone or anything hiding to frighten him (his theory was that “something” had hidden itself in the room, jumped out, and terrified the men into killing themselves), and went to bed satisfied that he was alone. He read a little and then went to sleep (leaving the candle burning).
Hours later, he was awoken by a soft knocking: it was the chambermaid with a basin of hot shaving water, announcing that it was six o’clock… Suddenly, the salesmen listening to the dapper traveler balk at this twist, and the large salesman grumbles that his story was unimpressive. “You haven’t heard it yet,” the little man retorts. It was a cold winter morning, he notes, and completely dark. He opened the door to find no water at all. Confused, he begins to dress and lights the two candles by the mirror. With no warm water to shave with, he uses his basin of cold water. He begins drawing the razor down his jaws and is rounding his chin when he notices something moving in the mirror behind him.
“The big door of the wardrobe had swung open, and by a sort of double reflection I could see the French bed with the red curtains. On the edge of it sat a man in his shirt and trousers—a man with black hair and whiskers, with the most awful look of despair and fear on his face that I've ever seen or dreamt of. I stood paralysed, watching him in the mirror. I could not have turned round to save my life. Suddenly he laughed. It was a horrid, silent laugh, and showed all his teeth. They were very white and even. And the next moment he had cut his throat from ear to ear, there before my eyes. Did ever see a man cut his throat? The bed was all white before.”
He turns around in horror and sees that the room is again empty, and the bed is again white and bloodless. He now understands what led three men to cut their throats: the sight of Hatteras’ ghost in the mirror had so shocked them that their slit their own throats with their straight razors. He looked down at his watch: it was two in the morning – there had never been a chambermaid at his door at all. He also realized the truth about Number 16: they hadn’t changed his room at all – they had merely switched the numbers.
The other salesmen are stupefied. The large, bombastic salesman can no longer contain himself: he rants that he is in Number 16, but that it has the same furniture and dressings as the little man described. The little man confesses, begrudgingly, that the hotel he has been describing is the one they are currently in, and that Number 16 is the same room where he had narrowly escaped death. However, he notes, the large man doesn’t believe in ghosts, so surely he will be safe. The large man doesn’t find any comfort in this and quickly disappears – as they later learn – to change rooms.
He returns looking the worse for wear, and declares that he will have a drink. The little man offers to make the whole group a fantastic punch – his trademark specialty – and darts behind the bar. The large salesman is briefly taken aback (after all, wasn’t the little man a teetotaler?). Now that the danger has been narrowly avoided, the other salesmen note one last loose string: how did the storyteller survive his encounter with Herbert Hatteras’ demented ghost?
Surely, he too would have slit is throat, he says, except that he doesn’t use an open-bladed straight razor: he, too, is a salesman, and he specializes in selling fix-bladed safety razors. The large salesman suddenly seems to know where this is going: “But – but… I’ve gone and given up my room!” he roars.
“’Yes,’ said the dapper man, squeezing the lemon; “I've just had my things moved into it. It's the best room in the house. I always think it worth while to take a little pains to secure it.’”
While “Jerry Bundler” ends with a false haunting and an accidental murder, and the “Inexperienced Ghost” begins with a farcical ghost and ends with a traumatic death – both of which play toyingly with the expectations of the fireside ghost story – Nesbit does the same amount of impish defiance to the cliché, but ends on a light rather than tragic note. The story also doubles as an interesting treatise on literary aesthetics. At the time of its writing, realism was de rigueur, and romanticism was a thing of the past – of grandmothers and doe-eyed ingénues. Realism – stories told in everyday settings, with everyday people, and everyday details, about everyday events – was championed by Jack London, Mark Twain, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Thomas Hardy (all of whom, by the way, wrote ghost stories, notwithstanding – the antithesis of realism), and the movement had steamrolled over the romanticism of Washington Irving, James Fennimore Cooper, Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, R. L. Stevenson, S. T. Coleridge, and Lord Byron. Their fantastical tales of treasure, ghosts, mountain vistas, white whales, and haunted houses peopled by decadent aristocrats were replaced by stories of middle classed clerks courting plain-faced stenographers, tidy tea rooms, fishing boats, whitewashed fences, unplanned pregnancies, farmers covered in pig shit, and foul mouthed prospectors.
The large man – who thinks that an editorship at a wool catalog is sufficient experience to make him a literary critic – is a parody of the style-loathing realists: a man who looks down on purple prose and would probably prefer to read a journalist’s measured account of a factory workers’ strike to the lush indulgence of Kidnapped, The Scarlet Letter, or Walden. Nesbit was both a romantic and a realist (not unlike Crane, London, and Twain), reveling in regionalism, folklore, and natural dynamism.
In “Number 17” we are handed a realist’s ghost story (compare to James’ ambiguous “Turn of the Screw” or Hardy’s plain-spoken “The Superstitious Man’s Story”) – a philosophical attempt to reconcile the sincerity of realism with the indulgences of romanticism. “Number 17” is a delicious Gothic farce (far better than her fun but sentimental “Haunted Inheritance”) with wry humor lurking impishly behind the unpretentious prose. The story-teller is an archetypal trickster – an impish but lovable character who uses wit, intelligence, and reverse psychology to secure an advantage over pompous, imperceptive people who typically mock or condescend the trickster. In this way our winsome rogue is a spirit of flesh and blood (like Shakespeare’s Puck and Ariel, African Americans’ Br’er Rabbit, Native Americans’ Coyote, Grimm’s wolves, or Aesop’s foxes): the man who found the comfortable chair that no one else noticed is a figure of admirable mischief and brilliant tomfoolery. He manages to turn the tables on the skeptical fat man – a condescending prig who writes off the supernatural and resents romanticism – by frightening him with a romantic ghost story told in a realistic way.