Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Henry James’ “The Ghostly Rental” deals with a young man, a newcomer in town, who loves to take walks for exercise. On one of his ramblings on a deserted rural road, this young man—our narrator—happens upon a house that immediately strikes him as “simply haunted.” When he asks one of the locals about the house on the lonely road, she tells him that people never go down that road, even though it’s the shortest route to the next town, because “it might turn out a long way.” She is just as cryptic about the house itself; it belongs, she says, to “them that are in it.”
We already know that this young man is curious, so we’re not surprised when he returns to the same desolate road. This time, however, he sees a mysterious old man in a full cloak preparing to enter the house—but bowing, seemingly to the door itself, before he does so, as one bows before the altar of a church. After the old man goes inside, our protagonist approaches the house and tries to peer in the windows; he sees a comfortable but old-fashioned parlor, lit by candlesticks (and it is significant that by Henry James’ time, electric lighting was starting to become commonplace).
Although he continues to walk down the lonely road, our narrator does not see the old man at the shuttered house. However, he does run into him at a local cemetery. The narrator seeks out the old man in conversation, and is struck by the vehemence of the old man’s belief that the dead do, in fact, walk among us.
The old man has introduced himself as Captain Diamond, and after this meeting the narrator seeks every opportunity to find out more about him. At last, an old woman who lives in the village reveals the Captain’s secret; he killed his daughter, and the daughter came back from the dead to demand that her father move out of their family dwelling—the house on the deserted road—and rent it back to her. She promised that if he would come to the house four times a year, he would be spared her hauntings on any other occasion, and she would pay him in gold coins for the use of the house.
The narrator is now completely intrigued. He has several more meetings with the old man, and during one, the old man confirms the villager’s story. The young man calculates, based on the date on which he first encountered the old man at the house, that the visits fall on the last day of the quarter, and makes a point of meeting him there. The old man happens to be on his way out of the house when the narrator approaches, and says that nothing in heaven or earth would persuade him to go back inside before his next appointed date; but the young man can go in alone if he likes. This he does, and perceives something like an animate gloom at the top of the stairs; it slowly moves to reveal two ghostly hands, and a masklike face. The young man decides to leave, quickly.
One late September day, a servant comes to the narrator’s lodgings, and informs him that Captain Diamond lies on his deathbed and has a final favor to ask. The narrator goes quickly to his side, and learns that the Captain wants him to go to the house and collect the rent, because otherwise he won’t be able to pay his funeral expenses. The young man agrees. When he gets there, however, he gets a better look at the specter, and discovers that the young woman isn’t dead at all. She has simply used this ruse to ensure that her father—and the rest of the world—will leave her alone. But it is Captain Diamond himself who has the last laugh, for when his daughter looks down the dark stairway, she sees his ghost staring up at her. It is the last day of the quarter, and dead or alive he has come to collect the rent, as he’s done so many times before.
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