It was rather a large dinner, but not so large that a striking phrase, launched in a momentary lull, could not fuse all the wandering attentions in a sole regard. The man who spoke was the psychologist Wanhope, and he was saying with a melancholy that mocked itself a little in his smile: "I shouldn't be particular about seeing a ghost myself. I have seen plenty of men who had seen men who had seen ghosts; but I never yet saw a man who had seen a ghost. If I had it would go a long way to persuade me of ghosts."
Hewson felt his heart thump in his throat. There was a pause, and it was as if all eyes but the eyes of the psychologist turned upon him; these rested upon the ice which the servant had just then silently slipped under them. Hewson had no reason to think that any of the people present were acquainted with his experience, but he thought it safest to take them upon the supposition that they had, and after he had said to the psychologist, "Will you allow me to present him to you?" he added, "I'm afraid every one else knows him too well already."
"You!" said his vis-Ă -vis, arching her eyebrows; and others up and down the table, looked round or over at Hewson where he sat midway of it with Miss Hernshaw drooping beside him. She alone seemed indifferent to his pretension; she seemed even insensible of it, as she broke off little corners of her ice with her fork.
The psychologist fixed his eyes on him with scientific challenge as well as scientific interest. "Do you mean that you have seen a ghost?"
"Yesâ€”ghost. Genericallyâ€”provisionally. We always consider them ghosts, don't we, till they prove themselves something else? I once saw an apparition."
Several people who were near-sighted or far-placed put on their eye-glasses, to make out whether Hewson were serious; a lady who had a handsome forearm put up a lorgnette and inspected him through it; she had the air of questioning his taste, and the subtle aura of her censure penetrated to him, though she preserved a face of rigid impassivity. He returned her stare defiantly, though he was aware of not reaching her through the lenses as effectively as she reached him. Most of those who prepared themselves to listen seemed to be putting him on trial, and they apparently justified themselves in this from the cross-questioning method the psychologist necessarily took in his wish to clarify the situation.
"How long ago was it?" he asked, coldly.
"Was it after dark?"
"Very much after. It was at day-break."
"Oh! You were alone?"
"You made sure you were not dreaming?"
"I made sure of that, instantly. I was not awakened by the apparition. I was already fully awake."
"Had your mind been running on anything of the kind?"
"Nothing could have been farther from it. I was thinking what a very long while it would be till breakfast." This was not true as to the order of the fact; but Hewson could not keep himself from saying it, and it made a laugh and created a diversion in his favor.
"How long did it seem to last?"
"The vision? That was very curious. The whole affair was quite achronic, as I may say. The figure was there and it was not there."
"It vanished suddenly?"
"I can't say it vanished at all. It ought still to be there. Have you ever returned to a place where you had always been wrong as to the points of the compass, and found yourself right up to a certain moment as you approached, and then without any apparent change, found yourself perfectly wrong again? The figure was not there, and it was there, and then it was not there."
"I think I see what you mean," said the psychologist, warily. "The evanescence was subjective."
"Altogether. But so was the apparescence."
"Ah!" said Wanhope. "You hadn't any headache?"
"Not the least."
"Ah!" The psychologist desisted with the effect of letting the defence take the witness.
A general dissatisfaction diffused itself, and Hewson felt it; but he disdained to do anything to appease it. He remained silent for that appreciable time which elapsed before his host said, almost compassionately, "Won't you tell us all about it, Mr. Hewson."
The guests, all but Miss Hernshaw, seemed to return to their impartial frame, with a leaning in Hewson's favor, such as the court-room feels when the accused is about to testify in his own behalf; the listeners cannot help wishing him well, though they may have their own opinions of his guilt.
"Why, there isn't any 'all-about-it,'" said Hewson. "The whole thing has been stated as to the circumstances and conditions." He could see the baffled greed in the eyes of those who were hungering for a morsel of the marvellous, and he made it as meagre as he could. He had now no temptation to exaggerate the simple fact, and he hurried it out in the fewest possible words.
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