The Woman's Ghost Story





"Yes," she said, from her seat in the dark corner, "I'll tell you an

experience if you care to listen. And, what's more, I'll tell it

briefly, without trimmings--I mean without unessentials. That's a thing

story-tellers never do, you know," she laughed. "They drag in all the

unessentials and leave their listeners to disentangle; but I'll give you

just the essentials, and you can make of it what you please. But on one

condition: that at the end you ask no questions, because I can't explain

it and have no wish to."



We agreed. We were all serious. After listening to a dozen prolix

stories from people who merely wished to "talk" but had nothing to tell,

we wanted "essentials."



"In those days," she began, feeling from the quality of our silence that

we were with her, "in those days I was interested in psychic things, and

had arranged to sit up alone in a haunted house in the middle of London.

It was a cheap and dingy lodging-house in a mean street, unfurnished.

I had already made a preliminary examination in daylight that afternoon,

and the keys from the caretaker, who lived next door, were in my pocket.

The story was a good one--satisfied me, at any rate, that it was worth

investigating; and I won't weary you with details as to the woman's

murder and all the tiresome elaboration as to _why_ the place was

_alive_. Enough that it was.



"I was a good deal bored, therefore, to see a man, whom I took to be the

talkative old caretaker, waiting for me on the steps when I went in at

11 P.M., for I had sufficiently explained that I wished to be there

alone for the night.



"'I wished to show you _the_ room,' he mumbled, and of course I couldn't

exactly refuse, having tipped him for the temporary loan of a chair and

table.



"'Come in, then, and let's be quick,' I said.



"We went in, he shuffling after me through the unlighted hall up to the

first floor where the murder had taken place, and I prepared myself to

hear his inevitable account before turning him out with the half-crown

his persistence had earned. After lighting the gas I sat down in the

arm-chair he had provided--a faded, brown plush arm-chair--and turned

for the first time to face him and get through with the performance as

quickly as possible. And it was in that instant I got my first shock.

The man was _not_ the caretaker. It was not the old fool, Carey, I had

interviewed earlier in the day and made my plans with. My heart gave a

horrid jump.



"'Now who are _you_, pray?' I said. 'You're not Carey, the man I

arranged with this afternoon. Who are you?'



"I felt uncomfortable, as you may imagine. I was a 'psychical

researcher,' and a young woman of new tendencies, and proud of my

liberty, but I did not care to find myself in an empty house with a

stranger. Something of my confidence left me. Confidence with women, you

know, is all humbug after a certain point. Or perhaps you don't know,

for most of you are men. But anyhow my pluck ebbed in a quick rush, and

I felt afraid.



"'Who are you?' I repeated quickly and nervously. The fellow was well

dressed, youngish and good-looking, but with a face of great sadness.

I myself was barely thirty. I am giving you essentials, or I would not

mention it. Out of quite ordinary things comes this story. I think

that's why it has value.



"'No,' he said; 'I'm the man who was frightened to death.'



"His voice and his words ran through me like a knife, and I felt ready

to drop. In my pocket was the book I had bought to make notes in. I felt

the pencil sticking in the socket. I felt, too, the extra warm things

I had put on to sit up in, as no bed or sofa was available--a hundred

things dashed through my mind, foolishly and without sequence or

meaning, as the way is when one is really frightened. Unessentials

leaped up and puzzled me, and I thought of what the papers might say if

it came out, and what my 'smart' brother-in-law would think, and whether

it would be told that I had cigarettes in my pocket, and was a

free-thinker.



"'The man who was frightened to death!' I repeated aghast.



"'That's me,' he said stupidly.



"I stared at him just as you would have done--any one of you men now

listening to me--and felt my life ebbing and flowing like a sort of hot

fluid. You needn't laugh! That's how I felt. Small things, you know,

touch the mind with great earnestness when terror is there--_real

terror_. But I might have been at a middle-class tea-party, for all the

ideas I had: they were so ordinary!



"'But I thought you were the caretaker I tipped this afternoon to let me

sleep here!' I gasped. 'Did--did Carey send you to meet me?'



"'No,' he replied in a voice that touched my boots somehow. 'I am the

man who was frightened to death. And what is more, I am frightened

_now_!'



"'So am I!' I managed to utter, speaking instinctively. 'I'm simply

terrified.'



"'Yes,' he replied in that same odd voice that seemed to sound within

me. 'But you are still in the flesh, and I--_am not_!'



"I felt the need for vigorous self-assertion. I stood up in that empty,

unfurnished room, digging the nails into my palms and clenching my

teeth. I was determined to assert my individuality and my courage as a

new woman and a free soul.



"'You mean to say you are not in the flesh!' I gasped. 'What in the

world are you talking about?'



"The silence of the night swallowed up my voice. For the first time I

realized that darkness was over the city; that dust lay upon the stairs;

that the floor above was untenanted and the floor below empty. I was

alone in an unoccupied and haunted house, unprotected, and a woman.

I chilled. I heard the wind round the house, and knew the stars were

hidden. My thoughts rushed to policemen and omnibuses, and everything

that was useful and comforting. I suddenly realized what a fool I was to

come to such a house alone. I was icily afraid. I thought the end of my

life had come. I was an utter fool to go in for psychical research when

I had not the necessary nerve.



"'Good God!' I gasped. 'If you're not Carey, the man I arranged with,

who are you?'



"I was really stiff with terror. The man moved slowly towards me across

the empty room. I held out my arm to stop him, getting up out of my

chair at the same moment, and he came to halt just opposite to me, a

smile on his worn, sad face.



"'I told you who I am,' he repeated quietly with a sigh, looking at me

with the saddest eyes I have ever seen, 'and I am frightened _still_.'



"By this time I was convinced that I was entertaining either a rogue or

a madman, and I cursed my stupidity in bringing the man in without

having seen his face. My mind was quickly made up, and I knew what to

do. Ghosts and psychic phenomena flew to the winds. If I angered the

creature my life might pay the price. I must humor him till I got to the

door, and then race for the street. I stood bolt upright and faced him.

We were about of a height, and I was a strong, athletic woman who played

hockey in winter and climbed Alps in summer. My hand itched for a stick,

but I had none.



"'Now, of course, I remember,' I said with a sort of stiff smile that

was very hard to force. 'Now I remember your case and the wonderful way

you behaved . . . .'



"The man stared at me stupidly, turning his head to watch me as I backed

more and more quickly to the door. But when his face broke into a smile

I could control myself no longer. I reached the door in a run, and shot

out on to the landing. Like a fool, I turned the wrong way, and stumbled

over the stairs leading to the next story. But it was too late to

change. The man was after me, I was sure, though no sound of footsteps

came; and I dashed up the next flight, tearing my skirt and banging my

ribs in the darkness, and rushed headlong into the first room I came

to. Luckily the door stood ajar, and, still more fortunate, there was a

key in the lock. In a second I had slammed the door, flung my whole

weight against it, and turned the key.



"I was safe, but my heart was beating like a drum. A second later it

seemed to stop altogether, for I saw that there was some one else in the

room besides myself. A man's figure stood between me and the windows,

where the street lamps gave just enough light to outline his shape

against the glass. I'm a plucky woman, you know, for even then I didn't

give up hope, but I may tell you that I have never felt so vilely

frightened in all my born days. I had locked myself in with him!



"The man leaned against the window, watching me where I lay in a

collapsed heap upon the floor. So there were two men in the house with

me, I reflected. Perhaps other rooms were occupied too! What could it

all mean? But, as I stared something changed in the room, or in me--hard

to say which--and I realized my mistake, so that my fear, which had so

far been physical, at once altered its character and became _psychical_.

I became afraid in my soul instead of in my heart, and I knew

immediately who this man was.



"'How in the world did you get up here?' I stammered to him across the

empty room, amazement momentarily stemming my fear.



"'Now, let me tell you,' he began, in that odd faraway voice of his that

went down my spine like a knife. 'I'm in different space, for one thing,

and you'd find me in any room you went into; for according to your way

of measuring, I'm _all over the house_. Space is a bodily condition, but

I am out of the body, and am not affected by space. It's my condition

that keeps me here. I want something to change my condition for me, for

then I could get away. What I want is sympathy. Or, really, more than

sympathy; I want affection--I want _love_!'



"While he was speaking I gathered myself slowly upon my feet. I wanted

to scream and cry and laugh all at once, but I only succeeded in

sighing, for my emotion was exhausted and a numbness was coming over me.

I felt for the matches in my pocket and made a movement towards the gas

jet.



"'I should be much happier if you didn't light the gas,' he said at

once, 'for the vibrations of your light hurt me a good deal. You need

not be afraid that I shall injure you. I can't touch your body to begin

with, for there's a great gulf fixed, you know; and really this

half-light suits me best. Now, let me continue what I was trying to say

before. You know, so many people have come to this house to see me, and

most of them have seen me, and one and all have been terrified. If only,

oh, if only some one would be _not_ terrified, but kind and loving to

me! Then, you see, I might be able to change my condition and get away.'



"His voice was so sad that I felt tears start somewhere at the back of

my eyes; but fear kept all else in check, and I stood shaking and cold

as I listened to him.



"'Who are you then? Of course Carey didn't send you, I know now,' I

managed to utter. My thoughts scattered dreadfully and I could think of

nothing to say. I was afraid of a stroke.



"'I know nothing about Carey, or who he is,' continued the man quietly,

'and the name my body had I have forgotten, thank God; but I am the man

who was frightened to death in this house ten years ago, and I have been

frightened ever since, and am frightened still; for the succession of

cruel and curious people who come to this house to see the ghost, and

thus keep alive its atmosphere of terror, only helps to render my

condition worse. If only some one would be kind to me--_laugh_, speak

gently and rationally with me, cry if they like, pity, comfort, soothe

me--anything but come here in curiosity and tremble as you are now doing

in that corner. Now, madam, won't you take pity on me?' His voice rose

to a dreadful cry. 'Won't you step out into the middle of the room and

try to love me a little?'



"A horrible laughter came gurgling up in my throat as I heard him, but

the sense of pity was stronger than the laughter, and I found myself

actually leaving the support of the wall and approaching the center of

the floor.



"'By God!' he cried, at once straightening up against the window, 'you

have done a kind act. That's the first attempt at sympathy that has

been shown me since I died, and I feel better already. In life, you

know, I was a misanthrope. Everything went wrong with me, and I came to

hate my fellow men so much that I couldn't bear to see them even. Of

course, like begets like, and this hate was returned. Finally I suffered

from horrible delusions, and my room became haunted with demons that

laughed and grimaced, and one night I ran into a whole cluster of them

near the bed--and the fright stopped my heart and killed me. It's hate

and remorse, as much as terror, that clogs me so thickly and keeps me

here. If only some one could feel pity, and sympathy, and perhaps a

little love for me, I could get away and be happy. When you came this

afternoon to see over the house I watched you, and a little hope came to

me for the first time. I saw you had courage, originality,

resource--_love_. If only I could touch your heart, without frightening

you, I knew I could perhaps tap that love you have stored up in your

being there, and thus borrow the wings for my escape!'



"Now I must confess my heart began to ache a little, as fear left me and

the man's words sank their sad meaning into me. Still, the whole affair

was so incredible, and so touched with unholy quality, and the story of

a woman's murder I had come to investigate had so obviously nothing to

do with this thing, that I felt myself in a kind of wild dream that

seemed likely to stop at any moment and leave me somewhere in bed after

a nightmare.



"Moreover, his words possessed me to such an extent that I found it

impossible to reflect upon anything else at all, or to consider

adequately any ways or means of action or escape.



"I moved a little nearer to him in the gloom, horribly frightened, of

course, but with the beginnings of a strange determination in my heart.



"'You women,' he continued, his voice plainly thrilling at my approach,

'you wonderful women, to whom life often brings no opportunity of

spending your great love, oh, if you only could know how many of _us_

simply yearn for it! It would save our souls, if but you knew. Few might

find the chance that you now have, but if you only spent your love

freely, without definite object, just letting it flow openly for all who

need, you would reach hundreds and thousands of souls like me, and

_release us_! Oh, madam, I ask you again to feel with me, to be kind and

gentle--and if you can to love me a little!'



"My heart did leap within me and this time the tears did come, for I

could not restrain them. I laughed too, for the way he called me 'madam'

sounded so odd, here in this empty room at midnight in a London street,

but my laughter stopped dead and merged in a flood of weeping when I saw

how my change of feeling affected him. He had left his place by the

window and was kneeling on the floor at my feet, his hands stretched out

towards me, and the first signs of a kind of glory about his head.



"'Put your arms round me and kiss me, for the love of God!' he cried.

'Kiss me, oh, kiss me, and I shall be freed! You have done so much

already--now do this!'



"I stuck there, hesitating, shaking, my determination on the verge of

action, yet not quite able to compass it. But the terror had almost

gone.



"'Forget that I'm a man and you're a woman,' he continued in the most

beseeching voice I ever heard. 'Forget that I'm a ghost, and come out

boldly and press me to you with a great kiss, and let your love flow

into me. Forget yourself just for one minute and do a brave thing! Oh,

love me, _love me_, LOVE ME! and I shall be free!'



"The words, or the deep force they somehow released in the center of my

being, stirred me profoundly, and an emotion infinitely greater than

fear surged up over me and carried me with it across the edge of action.

Without hesitation I took two steps forward towards him where he knelt,

and held out my arms. Pity and love were in my heart at that moment,

genuine pity, I swear, and genuine love. I forgot myself and my little

tremblings in a great desire to help another soul.



"'I love you! poor, aching, unhappy thing! I love you,' I cried through

hot tears; 'and I am not the least bit afraid in the world.'



"The man uttered a curious sound, like laughter, yet not laughter, and

turned his face up to me. The light from the street below fell on it,

but there was another light, too, shining all round it that seemed to

come from the eyes and skin. He rose to his feet and met me, and in that

second I folded him to my breast and kissed him full on the lips again

and again."



All our pipes had gone out, and not even a skirt rustled in that dark

studio as the story-teller paused a moment to steady her voice, and put

a hand softly up to her eyes before going on again.



"Now, what can I say, and how can I describe to you, all you skeptical

men sitting there with pipes in your mouths, the amazing sensation I

experienced of holding an intangible, impalpable thing so closely to my

heart that it touched my body with equal pressure all the way down, and

then melted away somewhere into my very being? For it was like seizing a

rush of cool wind and feeling a touch of burning fire the moment it had

struck its swift blow and passed on. A series of shocks ran all over and

all through me; a momentary ecstasy of flaming sweetness and wonder

thrilled down into me; my heart gave another great leap--and then I was

alone.



"The room was empty. I turned on the gas and struck a match to prove it.

All fear had left me, and something was singing round me in the air and

in my heart like the joy of a spring morning in youth. Not all the

devils or shadows or hauntings in the world could then have caused me a

single tremor.



"I unlocked the door and went all over the dark house, even into kitchen

and cellar and up among the ghostly attics. But the house was empty.

Something had left it. I lingered a short hour, analyzing, thinking,

wondering--you can guess what and how, perhaps, but I won't detail, for

I promised only essentials, remember--and then went out to sleep the

remainder of the night in my own flat, locking the door behind me upon a

house no longer haunted.



"But my uncle, Sir Henry, the owner of the house, required an account of

my adventure, and of course I was in duty bound to give him some kind of

a true story. Before I could begin, however, he held up his hand to stop

me.



"'First,' he said, 'I wish to tell you a little deception I ventured to

practice on you. So many people have been to that house and seen the

ghost that I came to think the story acted on their imaginations, and

I wished to make a better test. So I invented for their benefit another

story, with the idea that if you did see anything I could be sure it was

not due merely to an excited imagination.'



"'Then what you told me about a woman having been murdered, and all

that, was not the true story of the haunting?'



"'It was not. The true story is that a cousin of mine went mad in that

house, and killed himself in a fit of morbid terror following upon years

of miserable hypochondriasis. It is his figure that investigators see.'



"'That explains, then,' I gasped----



"'Explains what?'



"I thought of that poor struggling soul, longing all these years for

escape, and determined to keep my story for the present to myself.



"'Explains, I mean, why I did not see the ghost of the murdered woman,'

I concluded.



"'Precisely,' said Sir Henry, 'and why, if you had seen anything, it

would have had value, inasmuch as it could not have been caused by the

imagination working upon a story you already knew.'"





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