In the drawing-room after dinner, some of the ladies gathered about him, and begged the story of his own adventure. He smiled queerly.
"Very well, you shall have it!" he answered.
They seated themselves, and the company came from all parts of the room--among the rest, Lufa and Walter.
"It was three days, if I remember," began Sefton, "after my military friend left, when one night I found myself alone in the drawing-room, just waked from a brown study. No one had said good-night to me. I looked at my watch; it was half past eleven. I rose and went. My bedroom was on the first-floor.
"The stairs were peculiar--a construction later than much of the house, but by no means modern. When you reached the landing of the first-floor and looked up, you could see above you the second-floor, descended by a balustrade between arches. There were no carpets on stairs or landings, which were all of oak.
"I can not certainly say what made me look up; but I think, indeed I am almost sure, I had heard a noise like that the ghost was said to make, as of one walking in shoes too large: I saw a lady looking down over the balusters on the second-floor. I thought some one was playing me a trick, and imitating the ghost, for the ladies had been chaffing me a good deal that night; they often do. She wore an old-fashioned, browny, silky looking dress. I rushed up to see who was taking the rise out of me. I looked up at her as I ran, and she kept looking down, but apparently not at me. Her face was that of a middle-aged woman, beginning, indeed, to be old, and had an intent, rather troubled look, I should say; but I did not consider it closely.
"I was at the top in a moment, on the level where she stood leaning over the handrail. Turning, I approached her. Apparently, she neither saw nor heard me. 'Well acted!' I said to myself--but even then I was beginning to be afraid, without knowing why. Every man's impulse, I fancy, is to go right up to anything that frightens him--at least, I have always found it so. I walked close up to the woman. She moved her head and turned in my direction, but only as if about to go away. Whether she looked at me I can not tell, but I saw her eyes plain enough. By this time, I suppose, the idea of a ghost must have been uppermost, for, being now quite close to her, I put out my hand as if to touch her. My hand went through her--through her head and body! I am not joking in the least; I mean you to believe, if you can, exactly what I say. What then she did, or whether she took any notice of my movement, I can not tell; I only know what I did, or rather what I did not do. For, had I been capable, I should have uttered a shriek that would have filled the house with ghastliest terror; but there was a load of iron on my chest, and the hand of a giant at my throat. I could not help opening my mouth, for something drew all the muscles of my jaws and throat, but I could not utter a sound. The horror I was in, was entirely new to me, and no more under my control than a fever. I only wonder it did not paralyze me, that I was able to turn and run down the stair! I ran as if all the cardinal sins were at my heels. I flew, never seeming to touch the stairs as I went. I darted along the passage, burst into my room, shut and locked the door, lighted my candles, fell into a chair, shuddered, and began to breathe again."
He ceased, not without present signs of the agitation he described.
"But that's not all!"
"And what else?"
"Did anything happen?"
"Do tell us more."
"I have nothing more to tell," answered Sefton. "But I haven't done wondering what could have put me in such an awful funk! You can't have a notion what it was like!"
"I know I should have been in a worse!"
"Perhaps--but why? Why should any one have been terrified? The poor thing had lost her body, it is true, but there she was notwithstanding--all the same! It might be nicer or not so nice to her, but why should it so affect me? that's what I want to know! Am I not, as Hamlet says, 'a thing immortal as itself?' I don't see the sense of it! Sure I am that one meets constantly--sits down with, eats and drinks with, hears sing, and play, and remark on the weather, and the fate of the nation--"
He paused, his eyes fixed on Walter.
"What are you driving at?" said Lufa.
"I was thinking of a much more fearful kind of creature," he answered.
"What kind of a creature?" she asked.
"A creature," he said, slowly, "that has a body, but no soul to it. All body, with brain enough for its affairs, it has no soul. Such will never wander about after they are dead! there will be nothing to wander! Good-night, ladies! Were I to tell you the history of a woman whose acquaintance I made some years ago at Baden, you would understand the sort Good-night!"
There was silence for a moment or two. Had his sister not been present, something other than complimentary to Sefton might have crept about the drawing-room--to judge from the expression of two or three faces. Walter felt the man worth knowing, but felt also something about him that repelled him.