“Now I must confess my heart began to ache a little, as fear left me and the man’s words sank their sad meaning into me. Still, the whole affair was so incredible, and so touched with unholy quality, and the story of a woman’s murder I had come to investigate had so obviously nothing to do with this thing, that I felt myself in a kind of wild dream that seemed likely to stop at any moment and leave me somewhere in bed after a nightmare.
“Moreover, his words possessed me to such an extent that I found it impossible to reflect upon anything else at all, or to consider adequately any ways or means of action or escape.
“I moved a little nearer to him in the gloom, horribly frightened, of course, but with the beginnings of a strange determination in my heart.
“‘You women,’ he continued, his voice plainly thrilling at my approach, ‘you wonderful women, to whom life often brings no opportunity of spending your great love, oh, if you only could know how many of _us_ simply yearn for it! It would save our souls, if but you knew. Few might find the chance that you now have, but if you only spent your love freely, without definite object, just letting it flow openly for all who need, you would reach hundreds and thousands of souls like me, and _release us_! Oh, madam, I ask you again to feel with me, to be kind and gentle–and if you can to love me a little!’
“My heart did leap within me and this time the tears did come, for I could not restrain them. I laughed too, for the way he called me ‘madam’ sounded so odd, here in this empty room at midnight in a London street, but my laughter stopped dead and merged in a flood of weeping when I saw how my change of feeling affected him. He had left his place by the window and was kneeling on the floor at my feet, his hands stretched out towards me, and the first signs of a kind of glory about his head.
“‘Put your arms round me and kiss me, for the love of God!’ he cried. ‘Kiss me, oh, kiss me, and I shall be freed! You have done so much already–now do this!’
“I stuck there, hesitating, shaking, my determination on the verge of action, yet not quite able to compass it. But the terror had almost gone.
“‘Forget that I’m a man and you’re a woman,’ he continued in the most beseeching voice I ever heard. ‘Forget that I’m a ghost, and come out boldly and press me to you with a great kiss, and let your love flow into me. Forget yourself just for one minute and do a brave thing! Oh, love me, _love me_, LOVE ME! and I shall be free!’
“The words, or the deep force they somehow released in the center of my being, stirred me profoundly, and an emotion infinitely greater than fear surged up over me and carried me with it across the edge of action. Without hesitation I took two steps forward towards him where he knelt, and held out my arms. Pity and love were in my heart at that moment, genuine pity, I swear, and genuine love. I forgot myself and my little tremblings in a great desire to help another soul.
“‘I love you! poor, aching, unhappy thing! I love you,’ I cried through hot tears; ‘and I am not the least bit afraid in the world.’
“The man uttered a curious sound, like laughter, yet not laughter, and turned his face up to me. The light from the street below fell on it, but there was another light, too, shining all round it that seemed to come from the eyes and skin. He rose to his feet and met me, and in that second I folded him to my breast and kissed him full on the lips again and again.”
All our pipes had gone out, and not even a skirt rustled in that dark studio as the story-teller paused a moment to steady her voice, and put a hand softly up to her eyes before going on again.
“Now, what can I say, and how can I describe to you, all you skeptical men sitting there with pipes in your mouths, the amazing sensation I experienced of holding an intangible, impalpable thing so closely to my heart that it touched my body with equal pressure all the way down, and then melted away somewhere into my very being? For it was like seizing a rush of cool wind and feeling a touch of burning fire the moment it had struck its swift blow and passed on. A series of shocks ran all over and all through me; a momentary ecstasy of flaming sweetness and wonder thrilled down into me; my heart gave another great leap–and then I was alone.
“The room was empty. I turned on the gas and struck a match to prove it. All fear had left me, and something was singing round me in the air and in my heart like the joy of a spring morning in youth. Not all the devils or shadows or hauntings in the world could then have caused me a single tremor.
“I unlocked the door and went all over the dark house, even into kitchen and cellar and up among the ghostly attics. But the house was empty. Something had left it. I lingered a short hour, analyzing, thinking, wondering–you can guess what and how, perhaps, but I won’t detail, for I promised only essentials, remember–and then went out to sleep the remainder of the night in my own flat, locking the door behind me upon a house no longer haunted.
“But my uncle, Sir Henry, the owner of the house, required an account of my adventure, and of course I was in duty bound to give him some kind of a true story. Before I could begin, however, he held up his hand to stop me.
“‘First,’ he said, ‘I wish to tell you a little deception I ventured to practice on you. So many people have been to that house and seen the ghost that I came to think the story acted on their imaginations, and I wished to make a better test. So I invented for their benefit another story, with the idea that if you did see anything I could be sure it was not due merely to an excited imagination.’
“‘Then what you told me about a woman having been murdered, and all that, was not the true story of the haunting?’
“‘It was not. The true story is that a cousin of mine went mad in that house, and killed himself in a fit of morbid terror following upon years of miserable hypochondriasis. It is his figure that investigators see.’
“‘That explains, then,’ I gasped—-
“I thought of that poor struggling soul, longing all these years for escape, and determined to keep my story for the present to myself.
“‘Explains, I mean, why I did not see the ghost of the murdered woman,’ I concluded.
“‘Precisely,’ said Sir Henry, ‘and why, if you had seen anything, it would have had value, inasmuch as it could not have been caused by the imagination working upon a story you already knew.'”
Footnote: Taken by permission from “The Listener and Other Stories,”–E.P. Dutton & Co.
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