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The Book of Dreams and Ghosts by Andrew Lang online

The Book of Dreams and Ghosts by Andrew Lang


_Something had Happened_!

On the night before his speech, that of Wednesday, 24th November, Lyttelton had seen the ghost, and had been told that he would die in three days. He mentioned this to Rowan Hamilton on the Friday. {129a} On the same day, or on Friday, he mentioned it to Captain Ascough, who told a lady, who told Mrs. Thrale. {129b} On the Friday he went to Epsom with friends, and mentioned the ghost to them, among others to Mr. Fortescue. {129c} About midnight on 28th November, Lord Lyttelton died suddenly in bed, his valet having left him for a moment to fetch a spoon for stirring his medicine. The cause of death was not stated; there was no inquest.

This, literally, is all that is _known_ about Lord Lyttelton's ghost. It is variously described as: (1) "a young woman and a robin" (Horace Walpole); (2) "a spirit" (Captain Ascough); (3) a bird in a dream, "which changed into a woman in white" (Lord Westcote's narrative of 13th February, 1780, collected from Lord Lyttelton's guests and servants); (4) "a bird turning into a woman" (Mrs. Delany, 9th December, 1779); (5) a dream of a bird, followed by a woman, Mrs. Amphlett, in white (Pitt Place archives after 1789); (6) "a fluttering noise, as of a bird, followed by the apparition of a woman who had committed suicide after being seduced by Lyttelton" (Lady Lyttelton, 1828); (7) a bird "which vanished when a female spirit in white raiment presented herself" (Scots Magazine, November-December, 1779).

Out of seven versions, a bird, or a fluttering noise as of a bird (a common feature in ghost stories), {130a} with a woman following or accompanying, occurs in six. The phenomena are almost equally ascribed to dreaming and to waking hallucination, but the common-sense of the eighteenth century called all ghosts "dreams". In the Westcote narrative (1780) Lyttelton explains the dream by his having lately been in a room with a lady, Mrs. Dawson, when a robin flew in. Yet, in the same narrative, Lyttelton says on Saturday morning "that he was very well, and believed he should bilk the _ghost_". He was certainly in bed at the time of the experience, and probably could not be sure whether he was awake or asleep. {130b}

Considering the remoteness of time, the story is very well recorded. It is chronicled by Mrs. Thrale before the news of Lyttelton's death reached her, and by Lady Mary Coke two days later, by Walpole on the day after the peer's decease, of which he had heard. Lord Lyttelton's health had for some time been bad; he had made his will a few weeks before, and his nights were horror-haunted. A little boy, his nephew, to whom he was kind, used to find the wicked lord sitting by his bed at night, because he dared not be alone. So Lockhart writes to his daughter, Mrs. Hope Scott. {131} He had strange dreams of being in hell with the cruel murderess, Mrs. Brownrigg, who "whipped three female 'prentices to death and hid them in the coal-hole". Such a man might have strange fancies, and a belief in approaching death might bring its own fulfilment. The hypothesis of a premeditated suicide, with the story of the ghost as a last practical joke, has no corroboration. It occurred to Horace Walpole at once, but he laid no stress on it.

Such is a plain, dry, statistical account of the most extraordinary event that happened in Dr. Johnson's day.

However, the story does not end here. On the fatal night, 27th November, 1779, Mr. Andrews, M.P., a friend of Lyttelton's was awakened by finding Lord Lyttelton drawing his curtains. Suspecting a practical joke, he hunted for his lordship both in his house and in the garden. Of course he never found him. The event was promptly recorded in the next number of the Scots Magazine, December, 1779. {132}

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