Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 810
Lord Claverton’s daughter’s fiancé, Charles, is protesting that, should he stay for tea in the Claverton town house, he will not be able to have any private conversation with Monica because of her father’s presence. Monica worships her father, who was a famous man in the political and financial worlds of England but who is currently, on his doctor’s orders, retired from public life. Lord Claverton is preparing for a rest cure at Badgley Court, a nursing home in the country. Lord Claverton enters. He becomes querulous over the emptiness of his future. Like most men of affairs who are compelled to give up their former activities, he realizes the hollowness of his past eminence, yet he cannot endure the prospect of a life devoid of his former important activities. Life becomes a mere waiting for death for him. He recognizes himself as a ghost and, with dramatic irony, remarks that he smiles when he thinks people are frightened of ghosts.
Hardly is this remark uttered when the first ghost from his own past arrives in the form of one Señor Gomez, from the Latin American Republic of San Marco. Almost immediately Gomez is revealed as Fred Culverwell, a friend of Lord Claverton’s Oxford days. The unbearably suave expatriate is in possession of a damaging secret. Years before, the two university students were driving at night with two young women when Claverton—then plain Dick Ferry—ran over a man and did not stop because he feared the possible scandal. Culverwell also accuses Claverton of being the cause of Culverwell’s ruin in England. By taking Culverwell up at Oxford and teaching him expensive tastes that he, a poor boy, lacked the means to gratify, Claverton forced him to resort to theft and finally to forgery, which led to a prison sentence and flight from England. In San Marco, with its peculiar political situation, he did well. Culverwell is no crude blackmailer and wants only Claverton’s friendship, something to give him reality after thirty-five years of homesick exile under an assumed name. He is a realist; he knows that, although a worldly success, he failed, although not so badly as Claverton, who keeps on pretending to himself that he succeeded. To his credit, Claverton stands the attack well, maintains his dignity, and shows no fear of the moral blackmail that Culverwell is so subtly exercising.
Claverton’s doctor orders him to Badgley Court, a nursing home run in a grimly cheerful fashion, for a complete rest. Hardly does he arrive when another ghost from his past appears, this time in the form of Mrs. Carghill. A generation before she was Maisie Montjoy, a star of the music halls. She is currently a prosperous widow. The Dick Ferry of those far-off days was in love with her and she with him—or so she claims. She settled her breach-of-promise suit out of court, and now she retains only sentimental memories and all of his letters. Again Claverton, in spite of her sarcastic comments, maintains his unruffled dignity, even when she points out that there is only a negligible difference between being an elder statesman and posing as one. Twice the ghosts bring home to him his essential emptiness.
The ultimate trial comes in the form of his son Michael, a spendthrift and ne’er-do-well who, even in his effort to see his father, becomes involved in a motor accident, although not a serious one. In a sense, Michael is also a ghost, the ghost of the boy Claverton might have been were he not possessed by a devil who was prudent as well as wayward. The son, although obviously a weakling, has his side of the story. He is desperately eager to get out of England into some country where he can have a life of his own, free from the oppressive shadow of his father’s great name. It is clear that the father dominated the son too much. The situation between the two seemed to reach an impasse, but a solution is provided by the two ghosts. Mrs. Carghill suggests to Gomez that he take Michael back with him to the mysterious business in San Marco. The price to be paid for this solution is that Claverton must have all his past errors laid bare before his daughter and her fiancé. This is his act of contrition, after which he receives absolution in the form of Monica’s forgiveness and understanding. The ghosts from his past are at last exorcised, to return into the darkness whence they came. Claverton goes out into the grounds of the nursing home to await death, much as Oedipus left the grove at Colonus to find his appointed end. The mask of the “elder statesman” is dropped forever. Claverton is himself, the real man under the mask.
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