It was that pleasant hour of brandies following dinner, when conversation flows in the small groups of close friends and the value of membership in one’s club is felt most deeply. My own glass was just coming up to the right temperature and my cigar just drawing properly when someone at one of the other tables asked rather more loudly than was quite right, “Who believes in ghosts, anyway?”
As is his way, that damned Bertie took it for a hare and bolted after it. He sat up from his habitual slouch, an avid look on his face, and repeated the question. Then he expanded on it: “Say, have you chaps ever seen a ghost? I ain’t!”
Brisbane, Runciman, and Clayton all began drawing in air in the way of one about to launch upon a tale. Each noticed the others, and each slightly deflated as they began a polite untangling of precedence. I retired as far as decency allowed, sheltering behind the smoke I blew out and trying to keep emotion from my face. Bertie was goggling about in that good-natured, attentive and sadly ill-bred way of his. Next to him, Sir William looked about as disinclined to the topic as I felt. I wondered, as I put my nose into my glass, if his reasons were like mine.
To be sure, I could have joined in the story-telling, but even if I had wished to, I doubted the others would enjoy it. The only response to Bertie’s question I could really articulate would be, “Yes, I have.”
I have seen a ghost. What a bland declaration! How devoid it is of the sense of the event. I looked at Brisbane, to whom the first turn had fallen, gesticulating and booming away in his mid-Atlantic accent, and I felt serious doubt that he had ever seen his spook. All that nonsense about grappling with a spectre, it’s just so much self-promotion!
When I saw my ghost I was, in honesty, prepared to see one. Earlier in the evening, sitting by the fire and looking at a portrait of one of my host’s less appealing ancestors, I had listened as he apologized for any folderol I might have heard about “The Grey Lady” and begged that I not let such talk trouble me. I had actually heard nothing, but any self-respecting manor house of that age and location must have a ghost, and the odds must be about even that it would come with a thoroughly unimaginative name like that. It was hardly surprise, then, that gave it such an influence over me.
It was that very night, not three hours later. I saw it only for a moment, standing just outside the door between the bedroom and dressing room. It did not threaten me, nor moan, nor wail. It, or really she, just stood in the next room and looked at me. And yet, from the instant I looked in that direction, I knew that I would be able to say ever after with full conviction that I had seen a ghost.
Brisbane receded, his story done, and it was all I could do not to fling the ashtray at Bertie when he chortled and congratulated him. Runciman and Clayton deserved the same, for all that they were more restrained. Sir William made a non-committal noise, and his pointed engagement with the clinkers in his pipe made me more certain that we were in the same boat.
I have seen a ghost, and the ghost also saw me. I suppose this has some role in my feelings. Standing there, outside the pool of light from the bed-side lamp, she was clearly looking right at me. She may have been grey, but perhaps that was only the effect of the poor light. Pale, certainly. She was dressed in something dark, but more than that I could not say, as there was not enough clarity to tell what sort of garment it was, or from which era it may have come.
Clayton had taken the floor now, actually up on his trotters, wiggling his fingers for effect, the theatrical jackass, and making out as if one could have a discourse with such a thing. Sir William was keeping countenance well, but was clearly uncomfortable, looking as if he was supporting a headache with fortitude. I imagine I looked much the same.
I have seen a ghost.
I saw her, but the mere image, as terrible as it was with its great dark eyes and the expression of utter indifference, as concerned for me as would be the moon, was not truly where the horror lay. There was a feeling in my own eyes; they knew there was not anything there, not really, nothing to cast an image upon the retina. That conviction, so at odds with the fact that there was something being seen, ran down my spine like an icy fire, stealing away the power of movement and stifling the breath. People speak with such freedom about paradoxes, as if they were entertainments, but to be scrutinized by one, to be in a presence that was so manifestly also an absence is something I could articulate no more than I could describe a smell to someone who had not breathed it. It is a sensation for which no language exists.
When she went, the paradox was confirmed. No show of fading, no movement of any sort. Just gone, without a thing to prove she had ever been, not even an after-image. I do not know how long I sat there on the edge of the bed, thinking that I should go into the dressing room and see if there were actually someone there, while my body declined the action. The final effort to rise, to walk across the creaking floorboards which had lain silent under her, to throw on the switch, and to go all the way to the firmly-bolted hall door and rattle it in its frame, was one more of spirit than of body, and it seemed to cost me some lasting element of courage.
There was no further question that Sir William is a sufferer of my own disability, I decided after another look at him. He did not return the look, there was no little nod or other signification, but I caught him doing what I do myself now with some regularity. We were both still haunted by our ghosts, it seems, and this is another element I could never have conveyed to the others.
I have seen a ghost, and though I have not seen her again, not once since that night, from that night I have been haunted all the same. She could not have been in the room with me that night. She was not, more than half my reason insists. And yet, she was. If she was there, then… why not anywhere else at any time?
I turned my head toward Runciman, who sat spell-bound by Clayton’s yarn, but my eyes did not light upon him. I looked past him, into the far corner of our dark, comfortable smoking room, where the panelling and wall-paper were rendered the same colour by the dimness of the distant sconces and the flickers from the fireplace.
I have seen a ghost. I did not see one there in the corner. Again. Whenever I look, I do not see her, and yet I cannot stop from looking.
Reticence ©2015 Dirck de Lint