In his room, Walter threw himself in a chair, and sat without thinking, for the mental presence of Lufa was hardly thought Gradually Sefton's story revived, and for a time displaced the image of Lufa. It was the first immediately authenticated ghost-narration he had ever heard. His fancy alone had hitherto been attracted by such tales; but this brought him close to things of import as profound as marvelous. He began to wonder how he was likely to carry himself in such an interview. Courage such as Mr. Sefton's he dared not claim--any more than hope for the distinction of ever putting his hand through a ghost! To be sure, the question philosophically considered, Sefton could have done no such thing; but where no relations existed, he reasoned, or rather assumed, the one could not be materially present to the other; a fortiori there could be no passing of the one through the other! Where the ghost was, the hand was; both existed in the same space at the same time; therefore the one did not penetrate the other! The ghost, he held, never saw Sefton, knew or thought of his presence, or was aware of any intrusive outrage from his hand! He shrunk none the less, however, from such phantasmic presence as Sefton had described; a man's philosophy made but a fool of him when it came to the pinch! He would indeed like to see a ghost, but not to be alone with one!
Here came back to him a certain look in Lufa's face, which he had not understood: was it possible she knew something about the thing? Could this be the house where it took place, where the ghost appeared? The room in which he sat was very old! the pictures in it none but for their age would hang up on any wall! And the bed was huger and gloomier than he had ever elsewhere seen! It was on the second-floor too! What if this was the very room the officer slept in!
He must run into port, find shelter from the terrors of the shoreless sea of the unknown! But all the harbor he could seek, was bed and closed eyes! The dark is a strange refuge from the darkness--yet that which most men seek. It is so dark! let us go further from the light! Thus deeper they go, and come upon greater terrors! He undressed hurriedly, blew out his candles, and by the light of the fire, glowing rather than blazing, plunged into the expanse which glimmered before him like a lake of sleep in the moonshine of dreams.
The moment he laid down his head, he became aware of what seemed unnatural stillness. Throughout the evening a strong wind had been blowing about the house; it had ceased, and without having noted the tumult, he was now aware of the calm. But what made him so cold? The surface of the linen was like a film of ice! He rolled himself round, and like a hedge-hog sought shelter within the circumference of his own person. But he could not get warm, lie close as he might to his own door; there was no admittance! Had the room turned suddenly cold? Could it be that the ghost was near, making the air like that of the sepulcher from which she had issued? for such ghosts as walk the world at night, what refuge so fit as their tombs in the day-time! The thought was a worse horror than he had known himself capable of feeling. He shivered with the cold. It seemed to pierce to his very bones. A strange and hideous constriction seized the muscles of his neck and throat; had not Sefton described the sensation? Was it not a sure sign of ghostly presence?
How much longer he could have endured, or what would have been the result of the prolongation of his suffering, I can not tell. Molly would have found immediate refuge with Him to whom belong all the ghosts wherever they roam or rest--with Him who can deliver from the terrors of the night as well as from the perplexities of the day; but Walter felt his lonely being exposed on all sides.
The handle of the door moved. I am not sure whether ghosts always enter and leave a room in silence, but the sound horribly shook Walter's nerves, and nearly made an end of him for a time. But a voice said, "May I come in?" What he answered or whether he answered, Walter could not have told, but his terror subsided. The door opened wider, some one entered, closed it softly, and approached the bed through the dull fire-light. "I did not think you would be in bed!" said the voice, which Walter now knew for Sefton's; "but at the risk of waking you, even of giving you a sleepless night, I must have a little talk with you!"
"I shall be glad," answered Walter.
Sefton little thought how welcome was his visit!
But he was come to do him a service for which he could hardly at once be grateful. The best things done for any are generally those for which they are at the moment least grateful; it needs the result of the service to make them able to prize it.
Walter thought he had more of the story to tell--something he had not chosen to talk of to the ladies.
Sefton stood, and for a few moments there was silence. He seemed to be meditating, yet looked like one who wanted to light his cigar.
"Won't you take a seat?" said Walter.
"Thank you!" returned Sefton, and sat on the bed.
"I am twenty-seven," he said at length. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-three," answered Walter.
"When I was twenty-three, I knew ever so much more than I do now! I'm not half so sure about things as I was. I wonder if you will find it so!"
"I hope I shall--otherwise I sha'n't have got on."
"Well, now, couldn't you just--why not?--forestall your experience by making use of mine? I'm talking like a fool, I know, but never mind; it is the more genuine. Look here, Mr. Colman! I like you, and believe you will one day be something more than a gentleman. There, that won't do! What's my opinion, good or bad, to you? Listen to me anyhow: you're on the wrong tack here, old boy!"
"I'm sorry I don't understand you," said Walter.
"Naturally not; how could you? I will explain."
"Please. Don't mind me. I shall do my best not to be offended."
"That is more than I should have presumed to ask." Again a brief silence followed.
"You heard my story about the ghost?" said Sefton.
"I was on the point of asking you if I might tell it in print!"
"You may do what you like with it, except the other fellow's part."
"Thank you. But I wish you would tell me what you meant by that other more fearful--apparition--or what did you call it? Were you alluding to the vampire?"
"No. There are live women worse than vampires. Scared as I confess I was, I would rather meet ten such ghosts as I told you of, than another woman such as I mean. I know one, and she's enough. By the time you had seen ten ghosts you would have got used to them, and found there was no danger from them; but a woman without a soul will devour any number of men. You see she's all room inside! Look here! I must be open with you: tell me you are not in love with my cousin Lufa, and I will bid you good-night"
"I am so much in love with her, that I dare not think what may come of it," replied Walter.
"Then for God's sake tell her, and have done with it! Anything will be better than going on like this. I will not say what Lufa is; indeed I don't know what name would at all fit her! You think me a queer, dry, odd sort of a customer: I was different when I fell in love with Lufa. She is older than you think her, though not so old as I am. I kept saying to myself she was hardly a woman yet; I must give her time. I was better brought up than she; I thought things of consequence that she thought of none. I hadn't a stupid ordinary mother like hers. She's my second cousin. She took my love-making, never drew me on, never pushed me back; never refused my love, never returned it. Whatever I did or said, she seemed content. She was always writing poetry. 'But where's her own poetry?' I would say to myself. I was always trying to get nearer to what I admired; she never seemed to suspect the least relation between the ideal and life, between thought and action. To have an ideal implied no aspiration after it! She has not a thought of the smallest obligation to carry out one of the fine things she writes of, any more than people that go to church think they have anything to do with what they hear there. Most people's nature seems all in pieces. They wear and change their moods as they wear and change their dresses. Their moods make them, and not they their moods. They are different with every different mood. But Lufa seems never to change, and yet never to be in one and the same mood. She is always in two moods, and the one mood has nothing to do with the other. The one mood never influences, never modifies the other. They run side by side and do not mingle. The one mood is enthusiasm for what is not, the other indifference to what is. She has not the faintest desire to make what is not into what is. For love, I believe all she knows about it is, that it is a fine thing to be loved. She loves nobody but her mother, and her only after a fashion. I had my leg broken in the hunting-field once; my horse got up and galloped off; I lay still. She saw what had happened, and went after the hounds. She said she could do no good; Doctor Black was in the field, and she went to find him. She didn't find him, and he didn't come. I believe she forgot. But it's worth telling you, though it has nothing to do with her, that I wasn't forgot. Old Truefoot went straight home, and kept wheeling and tearing up and down before the windows, but, till his own groom came, would let no one touch him. Then when he would have led him to the stable, he set his forefeet out in front of him, and wouldn't budge. The groom got on his back, but was scarce in the saddle when Truefoot was oft in a bee-line over everything to where I was lying. There's a horse for you! And there's a woman! I'm telling you all this, mind, not to blame her, but to warn you. Whether she is to blame or not, I don't know; I don't understand her.
"I was free to come and go, and say what I pleased, for both families favored the match. She never objected; never said she would not have me; said she liked me as well as any other. In a word she would have married me, if I would have taken her. There are men, I believe, who would make the best of such a consent, saying they were so in love with the woman they would rejoice to take her on any terms: I don't understand that sort of love! I would as soon think of marrying a woman I hated as a woman that did not love me. I know no reason why any woman should love me, and if no woman can find any, I most go alone. Lufa has found none yet, and life and love too seem to have gone out of me waiting. If you ask me why I do not give it all up, I have no answer. You will say for Lufa, it is only that the right man is not come! It may be so; but I believe there is more than that in it. I fear she is all outside. It is true her poetry is even passionate sometimes; but I suspect all her inspiration comes of the poetry she reads, not of the nature or human nature around her; it comes of ambition, not of love. I don't know much about verse, but to me there is an air of artificiality about all hers. I can not understand how you could praise her long poem so much--if you were in love with her. She has grown to me like the ghost I told you of. I put out my hand to her, and it goes through her. It makes me feel dead myself to be with her. I wonder sometimes how it would be if suddenly she said she loved me. Should I love her, or should we have changed parts? She is very dainty--very lady-like--but womanly! At one time--and for this I am now punished--the ambition to wake love in her had no small part in my feeling toward her--ambition to be the first and only man so to move her: despair has long cured me of that; but not before I had come to love her in a way I can not now understand. Why I should love her I can not tell; and were it not that I scorn to marry her without love, I should despise my very love. You are thinking, 'Well then, the way is clear for me!' It is; I only want to prepare you for what I am confident will follow: you will have the heart taken out of you! That you are poor will be little obstacle if she loves you. She is the heiress, and can do much as she pleases. If she were in love, she would be obstinate. It must be in her somewhere, you will say, else how could she write as she does? But, I say again, look at the multitudes that go to church, and communicate, with whose being religion has no more to do than with that of Satan! I've said my say. Good-night!"
He rose, and stood.
He had not uttered the depth of what he feared concerning Lufa--that she was simply, unobtrusively, unconsciously, absolutely selfish.
Walter had listened with a beating heart, now full of hope that he was to be Hildebrand to this Undine, now sick with the conviction that he was destined to fare no better than Sefton.
"Let me have my say before you go," he protested. "It will sound as presumptuous in your ears as it does in mine--but what is to be done except put the thing to the question?"
"There is nothing else. That is all I want. You must not go on like this. It is sucking the life out of you. I can't bear to see it. Pray do not misunderstand me."
"That is impossible," returned Walter.
Not a wink did he sleep that night. But ever and again across his anxiety, throughout the dark hours, came the flattering thought that she had never loved man yet, and he was teaching her to love. He did not doubt Sefton, but Sefton might be right only for himself.