Mr Burke’s Ghost Story
I became acquainted with Mrs (wife of Colonel) Dixon, first at Acton,* afterwards here. From her conversation I gained much amusement, and, I hope some instruction. One or two stories that told us I am determined not to forget.
At a meeting of the Literary Club, at which Dr. Johnson, Mr. Burke, and several other eminent characters of the day were present, it was observed that an old gentleman, who had never missed one of the me meetings of the society, was that day absent. His absence was considered as the more extraordinary because happened to be president that day.
While the company were expressing their surprise at this circumstance they saw their friend enter the room, wrapped in a long white gown, his countenance wan and very much fallen.
He sat down in his place, and when his friends wondered at his dress, he waved his hand, nodded to each separately, and disappeared from the room without speaking. The gentlemen, surprised at this circumstance, and determined to investigate it, called for the waiters, and asked whether anybody had been seen upon the staircase which led to the room where they were sitting. They were answered that no person had been seen either to enter the house or to mount the stairs and that both the staircase and the entrance had been constantly filled with comers and goers.
Not satisfied with this, they sent to the house of the gentleman whom they had just seen, to enquire whether he had been out. His residence happened to be very near the coffee-house where they were, and their messenger immediately returned with the following melancholy intelligence: their friend had died about ten minutes before, of a violent fever, which had confined him entirely to his bed for several days.
Some of the most eminent men of the club gave themselves great pains to discover the imposition which some thought had been practised upon them; others firmly believed fehat their friend's ghost had actually appeared to them; and the latter opinion wag confirmed by the total failure of all enquiries. All their efforts proved vain to remove the veil of mystery which hung over this transaction. At last they determined to remove the club to another part of the town, entering at the same time into an engagement never to reveal the circumstance which had occasioned this change.
They wisely thought that such a story, supported by the evidence of such men as Johnson, Burke, &c., might do much mischief while the causes remained unexplained.
Many years afterwards, as Mr. Burke was sitting at dinner with some friends at his own house, he was told that a poor old woman, who was dying in an obscure garret in the midst of the greatest wretchedness, had just said that she could not die in peace unless she could reveal a most important secret to Mr. Burke. This summons appeared so like a fraudulent means of extorting money, that Mr. Burke refused to go. In a short time, he received a second message still more pressing, and at the same time, such an account was given of the extreme poverty and misery of the poor expiring object, that .his compassion was excited, and he determined to go, in spite of the earnest entreating of his friends, who still feared for his safety. They accordingly watched in the little obscure alley, saw him ascend the staircase which led to the garret in which he was told that the poor woman was lying, and reminded him that succour was at hand.
Mr. Burke soon returned. He told his friends that he had found everything as it had been represented; that the old woman had died after telling him a very extraordinary circumstance, which had given him great satisfaction ; he then related all the former part of this story; and added that the dying woman had confessed that she had been guilty of a neglect which had cost an unfortunate man his life. She said that upon her death-bed, she was determined to make all the atonement in her power, confess her error, and had therefore requested his presence, knowing him to be the most intimate friend of the deceased.
She said that some years before, she was nurse to a gentleman who was ill of a dangerous fever, and named Mr. Burke's friend. She said that on a particular day—which she named—she was told by the physician that the crisis of the disease was that day to be expected, and that the ultimate issue of the malady would very much depend upon the patient's being kept perfectly quiet at that moment; which could only be done by incessant watching, as the delirium would probably run very high just before. In that case the physician directed that the patient should be forcibly detained in his bed, as the least cold would prove fatal.
He therefore ordered the nurse not to leave the room upon any account the whole of the day. The nurse added that in the afternoon of that day a neighbour had called upon her; that, seeing the gentleman perfectly quiet, she had ventured to leave his room for ten minutes; when she returned, she found her patient gone. In a few minutes he returned and expired immediately. When she heard the enquiries made, she was well aware what had given birth to them, but was at that time prevented by shame from confessing the truth!**
* Acton Park, Wrexham : the seat of Sir R. A, Cunliffe, Bart
** If anything of the kind had occurred at the Literary Club, it could hardly have escaped Boswell. Sir Walter Scott relates a similar story, the scene of which ‘is a club of persons connected with science and literature’ at Plymouth.