The Phantom Husband: 1850s

1842 belgian mourning card woman and tomb


Anne T. Wilbur

If you should go some day to Taille, you would not fail to visit the Fontaine and Sables, where, as in the times of the patriarchs, the most beautiful women and the prettiest young girls of the neighborhood repair together at sunset, with their hands on their hips and pitchers on their heads. There, among the most alluring, and especially the most coquettish of these Burgundian Rebeccas, you will notice one whose white coif surrounds a face more alluring and more coquettish than all the others, while her short petticoat of violet stuff, and her elegant scarlet corselette, reveal a foot and a form unrivalled in the neighborhood. This is the Beautiful Vintager. She has no other name in the village, though she has already changed her name more than once; for after having been simply the daughter of the fisherman Yves, she became first Madame Pennil, and afterwards—but she is now a widow, and we must not anticipate events.

A widow at twenty-two! a rich widow! and a marriageable widow! Catherine could not fail to be courted by the handsomest young men and the wealthiest farmers of the village. So, though she sincerely regretted her poor young husband, borne to the cemetery of Taille eighteen months after their marriage, Catherine found herself obliged to forget him now, in order not to throw into despair the numerous suitors who disputed for her hand, to the detriment of all the young girls in the neighborhood. After having hesitated for several weeks between these impatient rivals, her choice was nearly fixed, according to the secret impulse of her heart, on a young widower, of the simple name of Martin, whose good mien and sincere love nobly atoned for his poverty.

“I am rich enough for two,” said the young widow gaily; “I may prefer the most tender heart to the best filled purse.”

And Martin already accompanied his future bride to church on Sundays, in the face of his disappointed rivals. But man proposes, and God disposes. This proverb applies here better than in most other cases; for Heaven opposed by a miracle the tranquil love of Martin and Catherine.

“Ah, mistress,” said one evening to the latter, her servant Marinette, returning terrified from the Fontaine-aux-Sables, “if you knew what has just happened to me!”

“What, my dear? You seem frightened.”

“With good reason, I assure you. Imagine that being left alone at the well, after the departure of the villagers, I suddenly perceived behind me, as I turned to go away—guess who?”

“O, you think only of him! But it was another, whom you have forgotten for a long time; your deceased husband, my mistress! Maitre Pennil in flesh and blood!”

Catherine uttered a cry of horror, and almost fainted.

“Are you very sure of it, Marinette?”

“I saw him as plainly as I see you, with the long beard that he had when he died, and the white shroud in which you wrapped him with your own hands. Besides, even if I had not known him, he told me who he was.”

“He spoke to you? Holy Virgin!”

“During a quarter of an hour—with a voice! a voice from another world. ‘Marinette,’ said he, ‘go and announce to Catherine that you have seen me, and that she shall soon see me in her turn!’”

“I shall see him also? Merciful Goodness!”

“Listen; it is he who speaks: ‘This evening, between eleven o’clock and midnight, I will appear to her in her chamber to inform her of my will and that of God in her approaching marriage. Let her not be terrified at this visit, it is for her interest that Heaven permits me to make it!” The phantom vanished as it finished these words; and I ran, more dead than alive, to fulfil its terrible errand.”

It will be readily imagined in what anxiety the expectation of such an event plunged poor Catherine. Convinced that her husband would return as he had said, she passed the day in prayer, and saw night arrive with terror impossible to describe. Shut up in her chamber, and with Marinette beside her, she counted the hours until morning, without seeing appear the phantom announced.

New anxieties during the day following; new precautions at the return of evening; new waiting with Marinette for the formidable hour of midnight. Suddenly at the moment the two women raised their pale faces from the bed to listen to the strokes of the midnight bell, they involuntarily drew back beneath the clothes, with a stifled cry on hearing a knock thrice repeated at the door of the chamber.

“Just Heaven!” said Catherine. “This door is shut! must we then open it for the ghost?”

“I hope not,” replied Marinette, “phantoms doubtless do not need keys to enter where they have business. But hold! hold!” added she, raising herself timidly, “it is already beside us.”

The young woman turned, not without seizing both hands of her servant, and trembled from head to foot, at sight of the spectre whose portrait Marinette had traced. It was indeed her husband, such as death had made him at his last hour, and as nearly as time and the darkness permitted her to recognize him. From the long black beard to the white shroud, nothing was wanting.

“Catherine!” said the phantom, in a voice which had nothing human, while a bony arm issuing from the winding-sheet extended solemnly towards the bed, “Catherine! thou seest that I am Jean Pennil, formerly thy husband, and now an inhabitant of the other world. I have returned to earth to announce to thee that thou mayest, without offence to my memory, replace me in thy heart by espousing another man. But, as I wish that thou shouldest be happy with my successor, I must name him who deserves the preference among thy numerous suitors. It is the good Jonas, son of the sacristan of the parish, and the most constant of our friends. He alone is worthy of thy hand and can ensure thy domestic felicity. Promise me then to choose him among all, if thou wouldst please God and thy faithful husband.”

After having listened to the commencement of these words with terror, the young woman heard the end with much more pain, and it was necessary that the summons should be repeated in an imposing manner, before she could stammer, falling back on her bed, the promise demanded.

The speaker then congratulated her on her submission, and disappeared, after having repeated that her happiness would be her reward.

“Well,” said Marinette to her mistress, as she saw her fallen back on her pillow. A sigh from Catherine was her only reply, and this sigh was followed by a thousand others until the next morning. The pious widow did not doubt the wisdom of her husband’s counsel any more than the reality of the apparition; but she could not believe that Jonas was calculated to render her happy in the bonds of a second marriage.

The son of the sacristan of Taille was indeed one of the warmest and most assiduous of her admirers; he was equal to many others in fortune and influence, and Martin himself was his inferior in these; but she did not love this Jonas; she thought him disagreeable, and believed him to be neither frank nor devout. Endowed, in fact, with a double skill in love and in business, which had acquired for him in the neighborhood the reputation of a rogue, Jonas did not possess the confidence of the young men any more than the sympathy of the young girls, and he had allowed himself to calumniate his rivals to the beautiful vintager. We may imagine, therefore, the invincible repugnance which Catherine experienced to obey the commands which her husband had returned from the other world expressly to utter in favor of Master Jonas. Unfortunately she had given her word to the phantom, who might come to remind her of it daily, or rather nightly; and in this cruel perplexity she dared neither banish the young widower nor accept the son of the sacristan. All that she could do was to gain time by telling both that she had not yet decided. But this poor resource could not last long, and a new incident took place which compelled her to decide.

“Your husband has appeared to me again,” said Marinette, on returning one evening from the fountain, “he has commissioned me to tell you that you have not obeyed the orders which God has transmitted to you by his mouth. ‘That she may no longer doubt my will and my mission,’ added he in a severe tone, “let her repair this night to my tomb at the village cemetery. I will come out of the grave before her, and will repeat again what I have already told her in her chamber.’”

Whether the widow dared not disobey this new injunction, or whether she had really some doubts on the apparition of her husband, she had the courage to be punctual, with her servant at the fearful rendezvous assigned. At eleven, while all in the village were reposing, they took together the road to the cemetery. The nigh was cold and gloomy, not a star shone in the sky, and the moon showed her timid crescent only now and then between dark clouds. Arrived at the gate of the funeral enclosure the two women paused, chilled with terror, and asked themselves, pressing closely together, whether they had courage to proceed. The spectacle which met their eyes might have terrified persons more intrepid than they. The cemetery lay extended in the obscurity, with no other, visible limits than the white grottoes excavated here and there in the dark walls. The floating foliage of the willows and cypresses veiled and uncovered by turns their fantastic spots, so that it seemed as if a multitude of ghosts were flitting in the distance. In the midst rose the charnel-house, the last place of deposit of the skulls and bones which the earth yielded to the gravedigger when there was no longer upon them food for worms. The pale gleam of a funeral lamp shone through a bronze grating, casting around sinister rays on the green turf furrowed with new graves, or the little crosses with white inscriptions, and on the sombre squares of box ornamented with emblematic flowers. No sound disturbed the silence of this fearful spot, except the sighing of the wind among the leaves, the rustling of the latter against the tombstones, the buzzing of an insect on the grass, and at a little distance, and at regular intervals, the scream of an osprey on an isolated tree.

What was most frightful for those females was that they must traverse the whole enclosure to reach the tomb of Pennil. They therefore hesitated a long time before resolving to go on, and the servant was obliged to encourage the mistress, in order to revive her resolution. Then they resumed their walk, and stumbling at every step over graves, turning at the slightest sound, supporting each other with their arms and voices, they reached, breathless, the termination of their fearful walk.

“I am here, Pennil,” said the young woman, piously kneeling before the black cross on which was traced the name of her husband.

“It is well!” replied a subterranean voice. “I am here also!”

In fact, the ground was immediately agitated, and opened to give passage to a body; and the same ghost which Catherine had already seen, rose at once before her. It shook its shroud thrice, fixed on the widow a sparkling glance, and commenced, according to its promise, to repeat the things it had said in her chamber. But scarcely had it pronounced a few words than it stopped and started, as if the terror it was imposing had suddenly reached itself. Involuntarily imitating the movements of the phantom, the two females looked around in their turn, and immediately fell, with a shrill scream, at sight of the horrible vision which froze them with terror.

Three spectres more frightful than the first, had risen from three neighboring tombs. Three others, more monstrous still, appeared at the same instant in an opposite direction, then three others followed, at the extremity of the cemetery. Nine menacing cries resounded at once, as many arms were extended from the ghosts, with a threatening gesture, and, darting at the same signal, with unanimous imprecations, ran together towards the one which still stood on the grave.

“Impious wretch!” cried a voice.

“Profaner of our tombs!” added another.

“Cowardly impostor, and sacrilegious monster!” cried a third and fourth. “Thou shalt expiate thy crime, and the dead will avenge themselves!” repeated the others in chorus.

The spectre thus attacked—strange circumstance!—began to tremble from head to foot in its shroud, and quickly forgot everything to attempt to flee. But seized and arrested at the first step, it could only roll on the ground and ask for mercy.

“O ye dead!” it cried, with clasped hands, and in a tone which was no longer sepulchral, “O ye dead! pardon me, I entreat! in pity pardon me!” “No,” replied the phantoms, “no pity! no pardon | Thou hast violated the tomb and the shroud; the tomb and the shroud shall be thy punishment!” And, without listening to the cries of the unfortunate man, they wrapped him in his own shroud, and fastened him in it so closely in every direction that his most convulsive efforts could not succeed in disengaging him from it. When this useless struggle had exhausted his last strength, and the nine spectres had finished their pitiless work, two of them went to the charnel-house to get the spade and pickaxe of the gravedigger, and began to dig the earth, while the others were preparing to deposit their victim in it. But, at the moment they were about to fill it up, the two women, who had until then remained petrified with horror, at last found in this very horror strength to flee from the sight of this frightful execution.

On the morrow, at daybreak, all the inhabitants of the village passed in terror before the great door of the church. A body was deposited there, immovable and wrapped in a white sheet.

For a long time no one dared approach, each persuading himself that it was a dead body taken from the cemetery. But at last some young people, less timid, disengaged the shroud from its fastenings, and the morning air striking on a face that had nothing cadaverous about it, restored to himself a poor fellow, in whom they immediately recognized Jonas, the son of the sacristan.

Universal hootings pursued to his dwelling the unfortunate ghost, in the simple apparel of a dead man, and the telegraphic tongue of the gossips circulating the adventure from mouth to mouth, everybody knew in less than half an hour for a league round, the fantastic receipt of Master Jonas to ensure the dowry of rich widows.

As for the phantoms who had so cruelly chastised him, the sacrilegious fellow long believed, with all the superstitious of the place, that they were genuine ghosts; but Martin, his happy rival, at length made known the truth.

Some indiscreet words of the beautiful vintager, at the first appearance of the phantom, had led Martin to watch and discover the wonderful invention of Jonas, and he secretly arranged with eight young fellows of the village the trick which was to unmask the impostor.

Six weeks afterwards, Catherine Pennil became Catherine Martin, and the adroit Marinette having proved that her accomplice had commenced by being her lover, compelled him to pay for her services by espousing her.

Ballou’s Monthly Magazine October 1855: Vol. II. No. 4 Whole No. 10. pp. 314-317

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil does so enjoy a happy ending, especially one involving ghosts, tombs, and shrouds. It was kind of the “phantoms” to let Jonas live, although one expects that his was an unhappy existence unless he relocated to try his wiles on the widows of some other village. The text is ambiguous about Marinette’s role in this little farce. If Jonas was her lover, why would she agree to help him marry her mistress?

Mrs Daffodil has written before of a jealous husband who decided to “return from the grave” to trap his “widow” with a lover. It had a much grimmer outcome.


Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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