“The Inn Kitchen”: While traveling in the Netherlands, Crayon stops at the principal inn in a small Flemish village. After dinner, bored with the poor choice of things to read, he goes back to the kitchen, where he has heard laughter. He finds many of the travelers as well as local frequenters of the inn gathered round, telling slightly bawdy stories. With no better way to pass the evening, Crayon takes a seat by the stove and listens to a collection of travelers’ tales, only one of which he remembers, which is related in the following chapter.
“The Spectre Bridegroom”: A long time ago in upper Germany there stood the Castle of the Baron Von Landshort. His ancestors’ tendency to fight had used up most of the family money, but the Baron tried to keep up as much of a face of their former prosperity as he could. While most of the German nobles had abandoned their castles for more wieldy and convenient homes, the Baron insisted on staying in his.
The Baron had only one child, a daughter, who was accomplished at all the completely useless arts taught to her by her spinster aunts. These aunts were flirts in their day, so they were very protective of their niece, who became quite reserved. She would barely look at men. Although she was the only child, the Baron’s household was always full, for he had many poor relatives who were greatly attached to him, and they loved to visit.
The Baron betroths his daughter to Count Von Altenburg, the son of an old nobleman of Bavaria, whom she has never met. The Count is recalled home from the army for the wedding ceremony, and the castle is in a tumult of preparation to give him a suitable welcome. The time comes when he is supposed to arrive, and everything has been set, but there is no sign of him.
Count Van Altenburg, meanwhile, was on his way to the castle when he ran into a former companion in the army, Herman Von Starkenfaust, who was just returning from the army to his father’s castle. The Von Starkenfaust castle was not far from Baron Von Landshort’s. The two families had been in a hereditary feud, however, so they did not know or recognize each other. Count Van Altenburg decided to travel the rest of the way with Von Starkenfaust.
On their way, the two young men were attacked by a gang of robbers, and they were about to be overpowered when the Count’s retinue arrived and scared off the robbers. They were too late, however, to prevent a fatal wound to the Count. About to die, the Count made Von Starkenfaust promise to go to the castle and tell his betrothed what happened. Von Starkenfaust agreed but felt a little awkward about going into a hostile castle to deliver bad news.
At the castle, the Baron is about to give up on the arrival of the bridegroom and start the feast without him. Finally, a horn announces the arrival of a stranger. The Baron watches a young man ride up on solitary horseback, and he is a little dismayed that the man has no retinue. He presumes it is because the Count was too impatient to meet his bride to wait for the others.
Von Starkenfaust tries to deliver the message about the dead groom-to-be, but he is taken as the groom himself and is quickly interrupted by the Baron. At another opportunity to speak, Von Starkenfaust is about to try again, but the female relatives lead the Baron’s daughter in, and he becomes so entranced when he sees her that he cannot speak. For the rest of the night he plays the role of the groom and pays attention to nothing but her. She seems delighted by him, and the family is convinced that they are in love.
As the merry banquet continues, the guest becomes more melancholy and insists on leaving. As the Baron walks him out, the man tells the Baron the truth—he cannot stay because he has an engagement the next morning at his own funeral, since he was killed that day. Von Starkenfaust then rides off, and the Baron goes back into the castle and relates the strange news.
The next day messengers arrive with the news of the Count’s murder, and everyone is convinced that they dined with a ghost. That night, however, the sad daughter hears music coming from the garden below her room, and she looks out to see her so-called dead fiancé standing there. In a flash he is gone. A week later, however, she is nowhere to be found—she seems to have been carried away by the ghost.
She soon returns with the ghost, and the whole story is related. Although the Baron usually takes feuds seriously, he is so relieved that his daughter is alive and not actually married to a ghost that he accepts their marriage happily.
“Westminster Abbey”: Crayon spends a day wandering through Westminster Abbey. At the Poets’ Corner he notices that, although their monuments are generally much less grand than those of history’s heroes, the visitors seem to spend more time there. The intercourse between an author and a reader is closer and more direct than that between storied political figures and their admirers.
Crayon wanders around, observing and studying many tombs and chapels. He spends the whole day there, and finally at dusk he exits the Abbey and reenters the world of the living. As soon as he leaves he starts to forget the individual things he has seen. This circumstance gives him an overwhelming sense of the futility of human pursuits; it all ends in death.
Crayon next gives a short history of the Abbey. It was built on the site of an old church for Saint Peter, which had been consecrated by Saint Peter himself (as witnessed by a fisherman). King Edward the Confessor chose the site for that reason, building the first version of Westminster Abbey there in 1045.
“The Inn Kitchen” serves primarily as a prelude to “The Spectre Bridegroom,” but it also demonstrates sthe attractive power of storytelling. Crayon, alone in a foreign inn with nothing in his language or of interest to read, wanders back to the kitchen because he has heard laughter. He is attracted by people who are enjoying themselves and, rather than read worthless things alone, he realizes that this is a time to share in human companionship. He at first presents the scene with a bit of condescension, being fairly judgmental of the kinds of people who would populate an inn’s kitchen. Recall the poor quality of conversation at Rip Van Winkle’s hangouts—but also recall the reasonabl good quality of the companionship.
Crayon is drawn to the warmth and conviviality of the gathering, and it turns out that this group is not sharing vapid political commentary but something much better: captivating stories, just like a number of the tales he has been telling in his own book. The stories provide a window into the interests and happenings of rural life, perfectly meeting Crayon’s interests. These stories captivate him enough to stop judging the gathering and to start enjoying it. Storytelling provides a common experience for Crayon and the others.
“The Spectre Bridegroom” is one of the few longer, folktale-style stories in Crayon’s collection that is not set in America. The non-American setting is important, for the main characters, especially Baron Von Landshort, are defined by their status as decayed nobility. The Baron’s economic problems come largely from his pride in maintaining his former class, for he feels that he must keep up his castle and entertain or house his poorer relatives, all in his ancestors’ name. Similarly, his daughter is almost prevented from meeting and marrying the love of her life because of an old feud, which was based solely on a history unrelated to the present generation.
Thus, the setting and plot of “The Spectre Bridegroom” show how history and tradition can be constraining instead of ennobling. A traditional enmity is no better, and is actually worse, because it is traditional. In this case, history constrains the characters’ freedom to act fully in the way that they would choose without it. The Von Landshorts live in an inconvenient, unmanageable old castle, they must marry appropriately, they obey (for a long time) the unwritten laws of feuds, and they are constrained by what is considered appropriate behavior for a family of German nobility. A similar story in an American setting would have no such constraints, and the plot would change accordingly.
Irving and Crayon tell a fair number of ghost stories, feeding into the American public’s interest in such stories and expressing what, in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” is said to be a kind of Old World interest in ghosts that is easier to come by in old, rural, isolated communities. Just as in the story of the Headless Horseman, however, where the “head” turns out to be a pumpkin, in “The Spectre Bridegroom” there is no ghost at all. Irving enjoys telling a ghost story because it engages the imagination, but in both cases he encourages readers to take some critical distance from the stories they hear in order to remember the difference between fiction and reality.
It is important to remember that Irving does not write in his own name in this collection; we are reading Crayon’s tales. This narrative strategy reminds us to keep up the critical distance at some level. Thus, we are instructed not to be like Ichabod Crane, who reads ghost stories and believes them. Instead, we are instructed to enjoy a good story but realize that it is a story and not reality. At the same time, we can use a good story to really learn something, despite the idea that fiction is more for pleasure than for instruction. Crayon’s reflections provide a certain amount of philosophizing and literary theory that we can import into our own reflections on the real world.
“Westminster Abbey” is one such tale that engages us in reflections about reality. This tale deals with another implication of being confronted with a country’s long history. Seeing the tombs of all the great figures who have come before him, seeing the signs of their great accomplishments, reminds Crayon that these people have actually passed away. Their deaths and all the deaths of all the generations thus far have become essentially meaningless in most ways to most people. These reflections lead Crayon to look at his own mortality. Not only will Crayon die, but his world will come to an end, and his life and works will likely be forgotten.
The significant exception, however, is the way that Crayon views Poets’ Corner. Here Crayon focuses on the close ties between author and reader even after the author has been dead for many generations. While historical figures fade further and further into the past, as long as an author’s works are still read his voice, and thus in some way his being, persists in the present. Crayon suggests that some level of immortality is available to authors, at least, if their work is good enough to be remembered and if it touches readers’ hearts and minds.