When Walter arrived, he found the paradise under snow. But the summer had only run in-doors, and there was blooming. Lufa was kinder than ever, but, he fancied, a little embarrassed, which he interpreted to his advantage. He was shown to the room he had before occupied.
It did not take him long to learn the winter ways of the house. Mr. and Miss Sefton were there; and all seemed glad of his help against consciousness; for there could be no riding so long as the frost lasted and the snow kept falling, and the ladies did not care to go out; and in, some country-houses Time has as many lives as a cat, and wants a great deal of killing--a butchery to be one day bitterly repented, perhaps; but as a savage can not be a citizen, so can not people of fashion belong to the kingdom of heaven.
The third morning came a thaw, with a storm of wind and rain; and after lunch they gathered in the glooming library, and began to tell ghost stories. Walter happened to know a few of the rarer sort, and found himself in his element. His art came to help him, and the eyes of the ladies, and he rose to his best. As he was working one of his tales to its climax, Mr. Sefton entered the room, where Walter had been the only gentleman, and took a chair beside Lufa. She rose, saying,
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Colman, but would you mind stopping a minute while I get a little more red silk for my imperial dragon? Mr. Sefton has already taken the sting out of the snake!"
"What snake?" asked Sefton.
"The snake of terror," she answered. "Did you not see him as you came in--erect on his coiled tail, drawing his head back for his darting spring?"
"I am very sorry," said Sefton. "I have injured everybody, and I hope everybody will pardon me!"
When Lufa had found her silk, she took a seat nearer to Walter, who resumed and finished his narrative.
"I wonder she lived to tell it!" said one of the ladies.
"For my part," rejoined their hostess, "I do not see why every one should be so terrified at the thought of meeting a ghost! It seems to me cowardly."
"I don't think it cowardly," said Sefton, "to be frightened at a ghost, or at anything else."
"Now don't say you would run away!" remonstrated his sister.
"I couldn't very well, don't you know, if I was in bed! But I might--I don't know--hide my head under the blankets!"
"I don't believe it a bit!"
"To be sure," continued Sefton, reflectively, "there does seem a difference! To hide is one thing, and to run is another--quite another thing! If you are frightened, you are frightened and you can't help it; but if you run away, then you are a coward. Yes; quite true! And yet there are things some men, whom other men would be afraid to call cowards, would run from fast enough! Your story, Mr. Colman," he went on, "reminds me of an adventure I had--if that be an adventure where was no danger--except, indeed, of losing my wits, which Lufa would say was no great loss. I don't often tell the story, for I have an odd weakness for being believed; and nobody ever does believe that story, though it is as true as I live; and when a thing is true, the blame lies with those that don't believe it. Ain't you of my mind, Mr. Colman?"
"You had better not appeal to him!" said Lufa. "Mr. Colman does not believe a word of the stories he has been telling. He regards them entirely from the artistic point of view, and cares only for their effect. He is writing a novel, and wants to study people under a ghost story."
"I don't indorse your judgment of me, Lady Lufa," said Walter, who did not quite like what she said. "I am ready to believe anything in which I can see reason. I should like much to hear Mr. Sefton's story. I never saw the man that saw a ghost, except Mr. Sefton be that man."
"You shall say what you will when you have heard. I shall offer no explanation, only tell you what I saw, or, if you prefer it, experienced; you must then fall back on your own metaphysics. I don't care what anybody thinks about it."
"You are not very polite!" said Lufa.
"Only truthful," replied Sefton.
"Please go on?"
"We are dying to hear!"
"A real ghost story!"
"Is it your best, George?"
"It is my only one," Sefton answered, and was silent a few moments, as if arranging his thoughts.
"Well, here goes!" he began. "I was staying at a country house--"
"Not here, I hope!" said Lufa.
"I have reasons for not saying where it was, or where it wasn't. It may have been in Ireland, it may have been in Scotland, it may have been in England; it was in one of the three--an old house, parts very old. One morning I happened to be late, and found the breakfast-table deserted. I was not the last, however; for presently another man appeared, whom I had met at dinner the day before for the first time. We both happened to be in the army, and had drawn a little together. The moment I saw him, I knew he had passed an uncomfortable night. His face was like dough, with livid spots under the eyes. He sat down and poured himself out a cup of tea. 'Game-pie?' I said, but he did not heed me. There was nobody in the room but ourselves, and I thought it best to leave him alone. 'Are you an old friend of the family?' he said at length. 'About the age of most friends,' I answered. He was silent again, for a bit, then said, 'I'm going to cut!' 'Ha, ha!' thought I, and something more. 'No, it's not that!' he said, reading my thought, which had been about a lady in the house with us. 'Pray don't imagine I want to know,' I replied. 'Neither do I want to tell,' he rejoined. 'I don't care to have fellows laugh at me!' 'That's just what I don't care to do. Nothing hurts me less than being laughed at, so I take no pleasure in it,' I said. 'What I do want,' said he, 'is to have you tell Mrs. ---' There! I was on the very edge of saying her name! and you would have known who she was, all of you! I am glad I caught myself in time!--'tell Mrs. Blank,' said he, 'why I went.' 'Very well! I will. Why are you going?' 'Can't you help a fellow to an excuse? I'm not going to give her the reason.' 'Tell me what you want me to say, and I will tell her you told me to say so.' 'I will tell you the truth.' 'Fire away, then.' 'I was in a beastly funk last night. I dare say you think as I did, that a man ought never to be a hair off the cool?' 'That depends,' I replied; 'there are some things, and there may be more, at which any but an idiot might well be scared; but some fools are such fools they can't shiver! What's the matter? I give you my word I'll not make game of it.' The fellow looked so seedy, don't you know, I couldn't but be brotherly, or, at least, cousinly to him!--that don't go for much, does it, Lufa? 'Well,' he said, 'I will tell you. Last night, I had been in bed about five minutes, and hadn't even had time to grow sleepy, when I heard a curious shuffling in the passage outside my door, and an indescribable terror came over me. To be perfectly open with you, however, I had heard that was the sign she was coming!' '_Who_ coming?' said I. 'The ghost, of course!' he answered. 'The ghost!' 'You don't mean to say you never heard of the ghost?' 'Never heard a word of it.' 'Well, they don't like to speak of it, but everybody knows it!' 'Go on,' said I; and he did, but plainly with a tearing effort. 'The shuffling was like feet in slippers much too big. As if I had been five instead of five-and-thirty, I dived under the blankets, and lay so for minutes after the shuffling had ceased. But at length I persuaded myself it was but a foolish fancy, and I had never really heard anything. What with fear and heat I was much in want of breath too, I can tell you! So I came to the surface, and looked out.' Here he paused a moment, and turned almost livid. 'There stood a horrible old woman, staring at me, as if she had been seeing me all the time, and the blankets made no difference!' 'Was she really ugly?' I asked. 'Well, I don't know what you call ugly,' he answered, 'but if you had seen her stare, you would have thought her ugly enough! Had she been as beautiful as a houri, though, I don't imagine I should have been less frightened!' 'Well,' said I, for he had come to a pause, 'and what came next?' 'I can not tell. I came to myself all trembling, and as cold and as wet as if I had been dipped in a well' 'You are sure you were not dreaming?' I said. '_I was not._ But I do not expect you believe me!' 'You must not be offended,' I said, 'if I find the thing stiff to stow! I believe you all the same.' 'What?' he said, not quite understanding me. 'An honest man and a gentleman,' I answered. 'And a coward to boot!' 'God forbid!' I returned: 'what man can answer for himself at every moment! If I remember, Hector turned at last and ran from Achilles!' He said nothing, and I went on. 'I once heard a preaching fellow say, "When a wise man is always wise, then is the kingdom of heaven!" and I thought he knew something!' I talked, don't you know, to quiet him. 'I once saw,' I said, 'the best-tempered man I ever knew, in the worst rage I ever saw man in--though I must allow he had good reason!' He drank his cup of tea, got up, and said, 'I'm off. Good-bye--and thank you! A million of money wouldn't make me stay in the house another hour! There is that in it I fear ten times worse than the ghost?' 'Gracious! what is that?' I said. 'This horrible cowardice oozing from her like a mist. The house is full of it!' 'But what shall I say to Mrs. Blank?' 'Anything you like.' 'I will say then, that you are very sorry, but were compelled to go.' 'Say what you please, only let me go! Tell them to send my traps after me. Good-bye! I'm in a sepulcher! I shall have to throw up my commission!' So he went."
"And what became of him?"
"I've neither seen nor heard of him to this day!"
He ceased with the cadence of an ended story.
"Is that all?"
"You spoke of an adventure of your own!"
"I was flattering myself," said Lufa, "that in our house Mr. Colman was at last to hear a ghost story from the man's own lips!"
"The sun is coming out!" said Sefton. "I will have a cigar at the stables."
The company protested, but he turned a deaf ear to expostulation, and went.