The men who had talked of going away on Thursday seemed to have found it practicable to stay. At any rate, they were all there on the Saturday night for the ghost-seeing, and, of course, none of the women had gone. What was more remarkable, in a house rather full of girls, nobody was sick; or, at least, everybody was well enough to be at dinner, and, after dinner, at the dance, which impatiently, if a little ironically, preceded the supernatural part of the evening's amusement. It was the decorum of a woman who might have been expected not to have it that Mrs. Westangle had arranged that the evening's amusement should not pass the bound between Saturday night and Sunday morning. The supper was to be later, but that was like other eating and drinking on the Sabbath; and it was to be a cold supper.
At half-past ten the dancing stopped in the foyer and the drawing-room, and by eleven the guests were all seated fronting the closed doors of the library. There were not so many of them but that in the handsome space there was interval enough to lend a desired distance to the apparitions; and when the doors were slid aside it was applausively found that there was a veil of gauze falling from the roof to the floor, which promised its aid in heightening the coming mystery. This was again heightened by the universal ignorance as to how the apparitions were to make their advents and on what terms.
It was with an access of a certain nervous anxiety that Verrian found himself next Miss Macroyd, whose frank good-fellowship first expressed itself in a pleasure at the chance which he did not share, and then extended to a confidential sympathy for the success of the enterprise which he did not believe she felt. She laughed, but 'sotto voce', in bending her head close to his and whispering, "I hope she'll be equal to her 'mise en scene'. It's really very nice. So simple." Besides the gauze veil, there was no preparation except in the stretch of black drapery which hid the book-shelves at the farther wall of the library.
"Mrs. Westangle's note is always simplicity," Verrian returned.
"Oh yes, indeed! And you wish to keep up the Westangle convention?"
"I don't see any reason for dropping it."
"Oh, none in the world," she mocked.
He determined to push her, since she had tried to push him, and he asked, "What reason could there be?"
"Now, Mr. Verrian, asking a woman for a reason! I shall begin to think some one else wrote your book, too! Perhaps she'll take up supplying ideas to authors as well as hostesses. Of course, I mean Mrs. Westangle."
Verrian wished he had not tried to push Miss Macroyd, and he was still grinding his teeth in a vain endeavor to get out some fit retort between them, when he saw Bushwick shuffling to his feet, in the front row of the spectators, and heard him beginning a sort of speech.
"Ladies and gentlemen: Mrs. Westangle has chosen me, because a real-estate broker is sometimes an auctioneer, and may be supposed to have the gift of oratory, to make known the conditions on which you may interview the ghosts which you are going to see. Anybody may do it who will comply with the conditions. In the first place, you have got to be serious, and to think up something that you would really like to know about your past, present, or future. Remember, this is no joking matter, and the only difference between the ghost that you will see here and a real materialization under professional auspices is that the ghost won't charge you anything. Of course, if any lady or gentleman—especially lady—wishes to contribute to any charitable object, after a satisfactory interview with the ghost, a hat will be found at the hall-door for the purpose, and Mrs. Westangle will choose the object: I have put in a special plea for my own firm, at a season when the real-estate business is not at its best." By this time Bushwick had his audience laughing, perhaps the more easily because they were all more or less in a hysterical mood, which, whether we own it or not, is always induced by an approximation to the supernatural. He frowned and said, "NO laughing!" and then they laughed the more. When he had waited for them to be quiet he went on gravely, "The conditions are simply these: Each person who chooses may interview the ghost, keeping a respectful distance, but not so far off but that the ghost can distinctly hear a stage whisper. The question put must be seriously meant, and it must be the question which the questioner would prefer to have answered above everything else at the time being. Certain questions will be absolutely ruled out, such as, 'Does Maria love me?' or, 'Has Reuben ever been engaged before?' The laughter interrupted the speaker again, and Verrian hung his head in rage and shame; this stupid ass was spoiling the hope of anything beautiful in the spectacle and turning it into a gross burlesque. Somehow he felt that the girl who had invented it had meant, in the last analysis, something serious, and it was in her behalf that he would have liked to choke Bushwick. All the time he believed that Miss Macroyd, whose laugh sounded above the others, was somehow enjoying his indignation and divining its reason.
"Other questions, touching intemperance or divorce, the questioner will feel must not be asked; though it isn't necessary to more than suggest this, I hope; it will be left entirely to the good taste and good feeling of the—party. We all know what the temptations of South Dakota and the rum fiend are, and that to err is human, and forgive divine." He paused, having failed to get a laugh, but got it by asking, confidentially, "Where was I? Oh!"—he caught himself up—"I remember. Those of you who are in the habit of seeing ghosts need not be told that a ghost never speaks first; and those who have never met an apparition before, but are in the habit of going to the theatre, will recall the fact that in W. Shakespeare's beautiful play of 'Hamlet' the play could not have gone on after the first scene if Horatio had not spoken to the ghost of Hamlet's father and taken the chances of being snubbed. Here there are no chances of that kind; the chances are that you'll wish the ghost had not been entreated: I think that is the phrase."
In the laugh that followed a girl on Miss Macroyd's other hand audibly asked her, "Oh, isn't he too funny?"
"Delicious!" Miss Macroyd agreed. Verrian felt she said it to vex him.
"Now, there's just one other point," Bushwick resumed, "and then I have done. Only one question can be allowed to each person, but if the questioner is a lady she can ask a question and a half, provided she is not satisfied with the answer. In this case, however, she will only get half an answer. Now I have done, and if my arguments have convinced any one within the sound of my voice that our ghost really means business, I shall feel fully repaid for the pains and expense of getting up these few impromptu remarks, to which I have endeavored to give a humorous character, in order that you may all laugh your laugh out, and no unseemly mirth may interrupt the subsequent proceedings. We will now have a little music, and those who can recall my words will be allowed to sing them."
In the giggling and chatter which ensued the chords softly played passed into ears that might as well have been deaf; but at last there was a general quiescence of expectation, in which every one's eyes were strained to pierce through the gauze curtain to the sombre drapery beyond. The wait was so long that the tension relaxed and a whispering began, and Verrian felt a sickness of pity for the girl who was probably going to make a failure of it. He asked himself what could have happened to her. Had she lost courage? Or had her physical strength, not yet fully renewed, given way under the stress? Or had she, in sheer disgust for the turn the affair had been given by that brute Bushwick, thrown up the whole business? He looked round for Mrs. Westangle; she was not there; he conjectured—he could only conjecture—that she was absent conferring with Miss Shirley and trying to save the day.
A long, deeply sighed "Oh-h-h-h!" shuddering from many lips made him turn abruptly, and he saw, glimmering against the pall at the bottom of the darkened library, a figure vaguely white, in which he recognized a pose, a gesture familiar to him. For the others the figure was It, but for him it was preciously She. It was she, and she was going to carry it through; she was going to triumph, and not fail. A lump came into his 96 throat, and a mist blurred his eyes, which, when it cleared again, left him staring at nothing.
A girl's young voice uttered the common feeling, "Why, is that all?"
"It is, till some one asks the ghost a question; then it will reappear," Bushwick rose to say. "Will Miss Andrews kindly step forward and ask the question nearest her heart?"
"Oh no!" the girl answered, with a sincerity that left no one quite free to laugh.
"Some other lady, then?" Bushwick suggested. No one moved, and he added, "This is a difficulty which had been foreseen. Some gentleman will step forward and put the question next his heart." Again no one offered to go forward, and there was some muted laughter, which Bushwick checked. "This difficulty had been foreseen, too. I see that I shall have to make the first move, and all that I shall require of the audience is that I shall not be supposed to be in collusion with the illusion. I hope that after my experience, whatever it is, some young woman of courage will follow."
He passed into the foyer, and from that came into the library, where he showed against the dark background in an attitude of entreaty slightly burlesqued. The ghost reappeared.
"Shall I marry the woman I am thinking of?" he asked.
The phantom seemed to hesitate; it wavered like a pale reflection cast against the pall. Then, in the tones which Verrian knew, the answer came:
"Ask her. She will tell you."
The phantom had scored a hit, and the applause was silenced with difficulty; but Verrian felt that Miss Shirley had lost ground. It could not have been for the easy cleverness of such a retort that she had planned the affair. Yet, why not? He was taking it too seriously. It was merely business with her.
"And I haven't even the right to half a question more!" Bushwick lamented, in a dramatized dejection, and crossed slowly back from the library to his place.
"Why, haven't you got enough?" one of the men asked, amidst the gay clamor of the women.
The ghost was gone again, and its evanescence was discussed with ready wonder. Another of the men went round to tempt his fate, and the phantom suddenly reappeared so near him that he got a laugh by his start of dismay. "I forgot what I was going to ask, he faltered.
"I know what it was," the apparition answered. "You had better sell."
"But they say it will go to a hundred!" the man protested.
"No back—talk, Rogers!" Bushwick interposed. "That was the understanding.
"But we didn't understand," one of the girls said, coming to the rescue, "that the ghost was going to answer questions that were not asked. That would give us all away."
"Then the only thing is for you to go and ask before it gets a chance to answer," Bushwick said.
"Well, I will," the girl returned. And she swept round into the library, where she encountered the phantom with a little whoop as it started into sight before her. "I'm not going to be scared out of it!" she said, defiantly. "It's simply this: Did the person I suspect really take the ring."
The answer came, "Look on the floor under your dressing-table!"
"Well, if I find it there," the girl addressed the company, "I'm a spiritualist from this time forth." And she came back to her place, where she remained for some time explaining to those near how she had lately lost her ring and suspected her maid, whom she had dismissed.
Upon the whole, the effect was serious. The women, having once started, needed no more urging. One after another they confronted and questioned the oracle with increasing sincerity.
Miss Macroyd asked Verrian, "Hadn't you better take your chance and stop this flow of fatuity, Mr. Verrian?"
"I'm afraid I should be fatuous, too," he said. "But you?"
"Oh, thank you, I don't believe in ghosts, though this seems to be a very pretty one—very graceful, I mean. I suppose a graceful woman would be graceful even when a disembodied spirit. I should think she would be getting a little tried with all this questioning; but perhaps we're only reading the fatigue into her. The ghost may be merely overdone."
"It might easily be that," Verrian assented.
"Oh, may I ask it something now?" a girl's voice appealed to Bushwick. It was the voice of that Miss Andrews who had spoken first, and first refused to question the ghost. She was the youngest of Mrs. Westangle's guests, and Verrian had liked her, with a sense of something precious in the prolongation of a child's unconsciousness into the consciousness of girlhood which he found in her. She was always likelier than not to say the thing she thought and felt, whether it was silly and absurd, or whether, as also happened, there was a touch of inspired significance in it, as there is apt to be in the talk of children. She was laughed at, but she was liked, and the freshness of her soul was pleasant to the girls who were putting on the world as hard as they could. She could be trusted to do and say the unexpected. But she was considered a little morbid, and certainly she had an exaltation of the nerves that was at times almost beyond her control.
"Oh, dear!" Miss Macroyd whispered. "What is that strange simpleton going to do, I wonder?"
Verrian did not feel obliged to answer a question not addressed to him, but he, too, wondered and doubted.
The girl, having got her courage together, fluttered with it from her place round to the ghost's in a haste that expressed a fear that it might escape her if she delayed to put it to the test. The phantom was already there, as if it had waited her in the curiosity that followed her. They were taking each other seriously, the girl and the ghost, and if the ghost had been a veridical phantom, in which she could have believed with her whole soul, the girl could not have entreated it more earnestly, more simply.
She bent forward, in her slim, tall figure, with her hands outstretched, and with her tender voice breaking at times in her entreaty. "Oh, I don't know how to begin," she said, quite as if she and the phantom were alone together, and she had forgotten its supernatural awfulness in a sense of its human quality. "But you will understand, won't you! You'll think it very strange, and it is very unlike the others; but if I'm going to be serious—"
The white figure stood motionless; but Verrian interpreted its quiet as a kindly intelligence, and the girl made a fresh start in a note a little more piteous than before. "It's about the—the truth. Do you think if sometimes we don't tell it exactly, but we wish we had very, very much, it will come round somehow the same as if we had told it?"
"I don't understand," the phantom answered. "Say it again—or differently."
"Can our repentance undo it, or make the falsehood over into the truth?"
"Never!" the ghost answered, with a passion that thrilled to Verrian's heart.
"Oh, dear!" the girl said; and then, as if she had been going to continue, she stopped.
"You've still got your half-question, Miss Andrews," Bushwick interposed.
"Even if we didn't mean it to deceive harmfully?" the girl pursued. "If it was just on impulse, something we couldn't seem to help, and we didn't see it in its true light at the time—"
The ghost made no answer. It stood motionless.
"It is offended," Bushwick said, without knowing the Shakespearian words. "You've asked it three times half a question, Miss Andrews. Now, Mr. Verrian, it's your turn. You can ask it just one-quarter of a question. Miss Andrews has used up the rest of your share."
Verrian rose awkwardly and stood a long moment before his chair. Then he dropped back again, saying, dryly, "I don't think I want to ask it anything."
The phantom sank straight down as if sinking through the floor, but lay there like a white shawl trailed along the bottom of the dark curtain.
"And is that all?" Miss Macroyd asked Verrian. "I was just getting up my courage to go forward. But now, I suppose—"
"Oh, dear!" Miss Andrews called out. "Perhaps it's fainted. Hadn't we better—"
There were formless cries from the women, and the men made a crooked rush forward, in which Verrian did not join. He remained where he had risen, with Miss Macroyd beside him.
"Perhaps it's only a coup de theatre!" she said, with her laugh. "Better wait."
Bushwick was gathering the prostrate figure up. "She has fainted!" he called. "Get some water, somebody!"