Verrian remained to finish his cigar, but at the end he was not yet sleepy, and he thought he would get a book from the library, if that part of the house were still lighted, and he looked out to see. Apparently it was as brilliantly illuminated as when the company had separated there for the night, and he pushed across the foyer hall that separated the billiard-room from the drawing-zoom and library. He entered the drawing-room, and in the depths of the library, relieved against the rows of books in their glass cases, he startled Miss Shirley from a pose which she seemed to be taking there alone.
At the instant of their mutual recognition she gave a little muted shriek, and then gasped out, "I beg your pardon," while he was saying, too, "I beg your pardon."
After a tacit exchange of forgiveness, he said, "I am afraid I startled you. I was just coming for a book to read myself asleep with. I—"
"Not at all," she returned. "I was just—" Then she did not say what, and he asked:
"Making some studies?"
"Yes," she owned, with reluctant promptness.
"I mustn't ask what," he suggested, and he made an effort to smile away what seemed a painful perturbation in her as he went forward to look at the book-shelves, from which, till then, she had not slipped aside.
"I'm in your way," she said, and he answered, "Not at all." He added to the other sentence he had spoken, "If it's going to be as good as what you gave us today—"
"You are very kind." She hesitated, and then she said, abruptly: "What I did to-day owed everything to you, Mr. Verrian," and while he desisted from searching the book-shelves, she stood looking anxiously at him, with the pulse in her neck visibly throbbing. Her agitation was really painful, but Verrian did not attribute it to her finding herself there alone with him at midnight; for though the other guests had all gone to bed, the house was awake in some of the servants, and an elderly woman came in presently bringing a breadth of silvery gauze, which she held up, asking if it was that.
"Not exactly, but it will do nicely, Mrs. Stager. Would you mind getting me the very pale-blue piece that electric blue?"
"I'm looking for something good and dull," Verrian said, when the woman was gone.
"Travels are good, or narratives, for sleeping on," she said, with a breathless effort for calm. "I found," she panted, "in my own insomnia, that merely the broken-up look of a page of dialogue in a novel racked my nerves so that I couldn't sleep. But narratives were beautifully soothing."
"Thank you," he responded; "that's a good idea." And stooping, with his hands on his knees, he ranged back and forth along the shelves. "But Mrs. Westangle's library doesn't seem to be very rich in narrative."
He had not his mind on the search perhaps, and perhaps she knew it. She presently said, "I wish I dared ask you a favor—I mean your advice, Mr. Verrian."
He lifted himself from his stooping posture and looked at her, smiling. "Would that take much courage?" His smile was a little mocking; he was thinking that a girl who would hurry that note to him, and would personally see that it did not fail to reach him, would have the courage for much more.
She did not reply directly. "I should have to explain, but I know you won't tell. This is going to be my piece de resistance, my grand stunt. I'm going to bring it off the last night." She stopped long enough for Verrian to revise his resolution of going away with the fellows who were leaving the middle of the week, and to decide on staying to the end. "I am going to call it Seeing Ghosts."
"That's good," Verrian said, provisionally.
"Yes, I might say I was surprised at my thinking it up."
"That would be one form of modesty."
"Yes," she said, with a wan smile she had, "and then again it mightn't be another." She went on, abruptly, "As many as like can take part in the performance. It's to be given out, and distinctly understood beforehand, that the ghost isn't a veridical phantom, but just an honest, made-up, every-day spook. It may change its pose from time to time, or its drapery, but the setting is to be always the same, and the people who take their turns in seeing it are to be explicitly reassured, one after another, that there's nothing in it, you know. The fun will be in seeing how each one takes it, after they know what it really is."
"Then you're going to give us a study of temperaments."
"Yes," she assented. And after a moment, given to letting the notion get quite home with her, she asked, vividly, "Would you let me use it?"
"The phrase? Why, certainly. But wouldn't it be rather too psychological? I think just Seeing Ghosts would be better."
"Better than Seeing Ghosts: A Study of Temperaments? Perhaps it would. It would be simpler."
"And in this house you need all the simplicity you can get," he suggested.
She smiled, intelligently but reticently. "My idea is that every one somehow really believes in ghosts—I know I do—and so fully expects to see one that any sort of make-up will affect them for the moment just as if they did see one. I thought—that perhaps—I don't know how to say it without seeming to make use of you—"
"Oh, do make use of me, Miss Shirley!"
"That you could give me some hints about the setting, with your knowledge of the stage—" She stopped, having rushed forward to that point, while he continued to look steadily at her without answering her. She faced him courageously, but not convincingly.
"Did you think that I was an actor?" he asked, finally.
"Mrs. Westangle seemed to think you were."
"But did you?"
"I'm sure I didn't mean—I beg your pardon—"
"It's all right. If I were an actor I shouldn't be ashamed of it. But I was merely curious to know whether you shared the prevalent superstition. I'm afraid I can't help you from a knowledge of the stage, but if I can be of use, from a sort of amateur interest in psychology, with an affair like this I shall be only too glad."
"Thank you," she said, somewhat faintly, with an effect of dismay disproportionate to the occasion.
She sank into a chair before which she had been standing, and she looked as if she were going to swoon.
He started towards her with an alarmed "Miss Shirley."
She put out a hand weakly to stay him. "Don't!" she entreated. "I'm a little—I shall be all right in a moment."
"Can't I get you something—call some one?"
"Not for the world!" she commanded, and she pulled herself together and stood up. "But I think I'll stop for to-night. I'm glad my idea strikes you favorably. It's merely—Oh, you found it, Mrs. Stager!" She broke off to address the woman who had now come back and was holding up the trailing breadths of the electric-blue gauze. "Isn't it lovely?" She gave herself time to adore the drapery, with its changes of meteoric lucence, before she rose and took it. She went with it to the background in the library, where, against the glass door of the cases, she involved herself in it and stood shimmering. A thrill pierced to Verrian's heart; she was indeed wraithlike, so that he hated to have her call, "How will that do?"
Mrs. Stager modestly referred the question to him by her silence. "I will answer for its doing, if it does for the others as it's done for me."
She laughed. "And you doubly knew what it was. Yes, I think it will go." She took another pose, and then another. "What do you think of it, Mrs. Stager?" she called to the woman standing respectfully abeyant at one side.
"It's awful. I don't know but I'll be afraid to go to my room."
"Sit down, and I'll go to your room with you when I'm through. I won't be long, now."
She tried different gauzes, which she had lying on one of the chairs, and crowned herself with triumph in the applauses of her two spectators, rejoicing with a glee that Verrian found childlike and winning. "If they're all like you, it will be the greatest success!"
"They'll all be like me, and more," he said, "I'm really very severe."
"Are you a severe person?" she asked, coming forward to him. "Ought people to be afraid of you?"
"Yes, people with bad consciences. I'm rattier afraid of myself for that reason."
"Have you got a bad conscience?" she asked, letting her eyes rest on his.
"Yes. I can't make my conduct square with my ideal of conduct."
"I know what that is!" she sighed. "Do you expect to be punished for it?"
"I expect to be got even with."
"Yes, one is. I've noticed that myself. But I didn't suppose that actors—Oh, I forgot! I beg your pardon again, Mr. Verrian. Oh—Goodnight!" She faced him evanescently in going out, with the woman after her, but, whether she did so more in fear or more in defiance, she left him standing motionless in his doubt, and she did nothing to solve his doubt when she came quickly back alone, before he was aware of having moved, to say, "Mr. Verrian, I want to—I have to—tell you that—I didn't think you were the actor." Then she was finally gone, and Verrian had nothing for it but to go up to his room with the book he found he had in his hand and must have had there all the time.
If he had read it, the book would not have eased him off to sleep, but he did not even try, to read it. He had no wish to sleep. The waking dream in which he lost himself was more interesting than any vision of slumber could have been, and he had no desire to end it. In that he could still be talking with the girl whose mystery appealed to him so pleasingly. It was none the less pleasing because, at what might be called her first blushes, she did not strike him as altogether ingenuous, but only able to discipline herself into a final sincerity from a consciousness which had been taught wisdom by experience.
She was still a scarcely recovered invalid, and it was pathetic that she should be commencing the struggle of life with strength so little proportioned to the demand upon it; and the calling she had taken up was of a fantasticality in some aspects which was equally pathetic. But all the undertakings of women, he mused, were piteous, not only because women were unequal to the struggle at the best, but because they were hampered always with themselves, with their sex, their femininity, and the necessity of getting it out of the way before they could really begin to fight. Whatever they attempted it must be in relation to the man's world in which livings were made; but the immemorial conditions were almost wholly unchanged. A woman approached this world as a woman, with the inborn instinct of tempting it as a woman, to win it to love her and make her a wife and mother; and although she might stoically overcome the temptation at last, it might recur at any moment and overcome her. This was perpetually weakening and imperilling her, and she must feel it at the encounter with each man she met. She must feel the tacit and even unconscious irony of his attitude towards her in her enterprise, and the finer her make the crueller and the more humiliating and disheartening this must be.
Of course, this Miss Shirley felt Verrian's irony, which he had guarded from any expression with genuine compassion for her. She must feel that to his knowledge of life she and her experiment had an absurdity which would not pass, whatever their success might be. If she meant business, and business only, they ought to have met as two men would have met, but he knew that they had not done so, and she must have known it. All that was plain sailing enough, but beyond this lay a sea of conjecture in which he found himself without helm or compass. Why, should she have acted a fib about his being an actor, and why, after the end, should she have added an end, in which she returned to own that she had been fibbing? For that was what it came to; and though Verrian tasted a delicious pleasure in the womanish feat by which she overcame her womanishness, he could not puzzle out her motive. He was not sure that he wished to puzzle it out. To remain with illimitable guesses at his choice was more agreeable, for the present at least, and he was not aware of having lapsed from them when he woke so late as to be one of the breakfasters whose plates were kept for them after the others were gone.