The Ghost: A Modern Fantasy (Chapter 7)

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Chapter 7

We looked at each other, Rosa and I, across the couch of Alresca.

All the vague and terrible apprehensions, disquietudes, misgivings,
which the gradual improvement in Alresca's condition had lulled to
sleep, aroused themselves again in my mind, coming, as it were, boldly
out into the open from the dark, unexplored grottos wherein they had
crouched and hidden. And I went back in memory to those sinister days
in London before I had brought Alresca to Bruges, days over which a
mysterious horror had seemed to brood.

I felt myself adrift in a sea of frightful suspicions. I remembered
Alresca's delirium on the night of his accident, and his final
hallucination concerning the blank wall in the dressing-room (if
hallucination it was), also on that night. I remembered his outburst
against Rosetta Rosa. I remembered Emmeline Smith's outburst against
Rosetta Rosa. I remembered the vision in the crystal, and Rosa's
sudden and astoundingly apt breaking in upon that vision. I remembered
the scene between Rosa and Sir Cyril Smart, and her almost hysterical
impulse to pierce her own arm with the little jewelled dagger. I
remembered the glint of the dagger which drew my attention to it on
the curb of an Oxford Street pavement afterwards. I remembered the
disappearance of Sir Cyril Smart. I remembered all the inexplicable
circumstances of Alresca's strange decay, and his equally strange
recovery. I remembered that his recovery had coincided with an entire
absence of communication between himself and Rosa.... And then she
comes! And within an hour he is dead! "I love her. He has come again.
This time it is--" How had Alresca meant to finish that sentence? "He
has come again." Who had come again? Was there, then, another man
involved in the enigma of this tragedy? Was it the man I had seen
opposite the Devonshire Mansion on the night when I had found the
dagger? Or was "he" merely an error for "she"? "I love her. She has
come again." That would surely make better sense than what Alresca
had actually written? And he must have been mentally perturbed. Such a
slip was possible. No, no! When a man, even a dying man, is writing a
message which he has torn out of his heart, he does not put "he" for
"she" ... "I love her...." Then, had he misjudged her heart when he
confided in me during the early part of the evening? Or had the sudden
apparition of Rosa created his love anew? Why had she once refused
him? She seemed to be sufficiently fond of him. But she had killed
him. Directly or indirectly she had been the cause of his death.

And as I looked at her, my profound grief for Alresca made me her
judge. I forgot for the instant the feelings with which she had once
inspired me, and which, indeed, had never died in my soul.

"How do you explain this?" I demanded of her in a calm and judicial
and yet slightly hostile tone.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "How sad it is! How terribly sad!"

And her voice was so pure and kind, and her glance so innocent, and
her grief so pitiful, that I dismissed forever any shade of a
suspicion that I might have cherished against her. Although she had
avoided my question, although she had ignored its tone, I knew with
the certainty of absolute knowledge that she had no more concern in
Alresca's death than I had.

She came forward, and regarded the corpse steadily, and took the
lifeless hand in her hand. But she did not cry. Then she went abruptly
out of the room and out of the house. And for several days I did not
see her. A superb wreath arrived with her card, and that was all.

But the positive assurance that she was entirely unconnected with the
riddle did nothing to help me to solve it. I had, however, to solve it
for the Belgian authorities, and I did so by giving a certificate that
Alresca had died of "failure of the heart's action." A convenient
phrase, whose convenience imposes perhaps oftener than may be imagined
on persons of an unsuspecting turn of mind! And having accounted for
Alresca's death to the Belgian authorities, I had no leisure (save
during the night) to cogitate much upon the mystery. For I was made
immediately to realize, to an extent to which I had not realized
before, how great a man Alresca was, and how large he bulked in the
world's eye.

The first announcement of his demise appeared in the "Etoile Belgi,"
the well-known Brussels daily, and from the moment of its appearance
letters, telegrams, and callers descended upon Alresca's house in an
unending stream. As his companion I naturally gave the whole of my
attention to his affairs, especially as he seemed to have no relatives
whatever. Correspondents of English, French, and German newspapers
flung themselves upon me in the race for information. They seemed to
scent a mystery, but I made it my business to discourage such an idea.
Nay, I went further, and deliberately stated to them, with a false air
of perfect candor, that there was no foundation of any sort for such
an idea. Had not Alresca been indisposed for months? Had he not died
from failure of the heart's action? There was no reason why I should
have misled these excellent journalists in their search for the
sensational truth, except that I preferred to keep the mystery wholly
to myself.

Those days after the death recur to me now as a sort of breathless
nightmare, in which, aided by the admirable Alexis, I was forever
despatching messages and uttering polite phrases to people I had never
seen before.

I had two surprises, one greater and one less. In the first place, the
Anglo-Belgian lawyer whom I had summoned informed me, after Alresca's
papers had been examined and certain effects sealed in the presence of
an official, that my friend had made a will, bearing a date
immediately before our arrival in Bruges, leaving the whole of his
property to me, and appointing me sole executor. I have never
understood why Alresca did this, and I have always thought that it was
a mere kind caprice on his part.

The second surprise was a visit from the Burgomaster of the city. He
came clothed in his official robes. It was a call of the most rigid
ceremony. Having condoled with me and also complimented me upon my
succession to the dead man's estate, he intimated that the city
desired a public funeral. For a moment I was averse to this, but as I
could advance no argument against it I concurred in the proposal.

There was a lying-in-state of the body at the cathedral, and the whole
city seemed to go in mourning. On the second day a priest called at
the house on the Quai des Augustins, and said that he had been sent by
the Bishop to ask if I cared to witness the lying-in-state from some
private vantage-ground. I went to the cathedral, and the Bishop
himself escorted me to the organ-loft, whence I could see the silent
crowds move slowly in pairs past Alresca's bier, which lay in the
chancel. It was an impressive sight, and one which I shall not forget.

On the afternoon of the day preceding the funeral the same priest came
to me again, and I received him in the drawing-room, where I was
writing a letter to Totnes. He was an old man, a very old man, with a
quavering voice, but he would not sit down.

"It has occurred to the Lord Bishop," he piped, "that monsieur has not
been offered the privilege of watching by the bier."

The idea startled me, and I was at a loss what to say.

"The Lord Bishop presents his profound regrets, and will monsieur care
to watch?"

I saw at once that a refusal would have horrified the ecclesiastic.

"I shall regard it as an honor," I said. "When?"

"From midnight to two o'clock," answered the priest. "The later
watches are arranged."

"It is understood," I said, after a pause.

And the priest departed, charged with my compliments to the Lord

I had a horror of the duty which had been thrust upon me. It went
against not merely my inclinations but my instincts. However, there
was only one thing to do, and of course I did it.

At five minutes to twelve I was knocking at the north door of the
cathedral. A sacristan, who carried in his hand a long lighted taper,
admitted me at once. Save for this taper and four candles which stood
at the four corners of the bier, the vast interior was in darkness.

The sacristan silently pointed to the chancel, and I walked
hesitatingly across the gloomy intervening space, my footsteps echoing
formidably in the silence. Two young priests stood, one at either side
of the lofty bier. One of them bowed to me, and I took his place. He
disappeared into the ambulatory. The other priest was praying for the
dead, a slight frown on his narrow white brow. His back was
half-turned towards the corpse, and he did not seem to notice me in
any way.

I folded my arms, and as some relief from the uncanny and troublous
thoughts which ran in my head I looked about me. I could not bring
myself to gaze on the purple cloth which covered the remains of
Alresca. We were alone--the priest, Alresca, and I--and I felt afraid.
In vain I glanced round, in order to reassure myself, at the
stained-glass windows, now illumined by September starlight, at the
beautiful carving of the choir-stalls, at the ugly rococo screen. I
was afraid, and there was no disguising my fear.

Suddenly the clock chimes of the belfry rang forth with startling
resonance, and twelve o'clock struck upon the stillness. Then followed
upon the bells a solemn and funereal melody.

"How comes that?" I asked the priest, without stopping to consider
whether I had the right to speak during my vigil.

"It is the carilloneur," my fellow watcher said, interrupting his
whispered and sibilant devotions, and turning to me, as it seemed,
unwillingly. "Have you not heard it before? Every evening since the
death he has played it at midnight in memory of Alresca." Then he
resumed his office.

The minutes passed, or rather crawled by, and, if anything, my
uneasiness increased. I suffered all the anxieties and tremors which
those suffer who pass wakeful nights, imagining every conceivable ill,
and victimized by the most dreadful forebodings. Through it all I was
conscious of the cold of the stone floor penetrating my boots and
chilling my feet....

The third quarter after one struck, and I began to congratulate myself
that the ordeal by the bier was coming to an end. I looked with a sort
of bravado into the dark, shadowed distances of the fane, and smiled
at my nameless trepidations. And then, as my glance sought to
penetrate the gloom of the great western porch, I grew aware that a
man stood there. I wished to call the attention of the priest to this
man, but I could not--I could not.

He came very quietly out of the porch, and walked with hushed
footfall up the nave; he mounted the five steps to the chancel; he
approached us; he stood at the foot of the bier; he was within a yard
of me. The priest had his back to him. The man seemed to ignore me; he
looked fixedly at the bier. But I knew him. I knew that fine, hard,
haughty face, that stiff bearing, that implacable eye. It was the man
whom I had seen standing under the trees opposite the Devonshire
Mansion in London.

For a few moments his countenance showed no emotion. Then the features
broke into an expression of indescribable malice. With gestures of
demoniac triumph he mocked the solemnity of the bier, and showered
upon it every scornful indignity that the human face can convey.

I admit that I was spellbound with astonishment and horror. I ought to
have seized the author of the infamous sacrilege--I ought, at any
rate, to have called to the priest--but I could do neither. I trembled
before this mysterious man. My frame literally shook. I knew what fear
was. I was a coward.

At length he turned away, casting at me as he did so one indefinable
look, and with slow dignity passed again down the length of the nave
and disappeared. Then, and not till then, I found my voice and my
courage. I pulled the priest by the sleeve of his cassock.

"Some one has just been in the cathedral," I said huskily. And I told
him what I had seen.

"Impossible! Retro me, Sathanas! It was imagination."

His tone was dry, harsh.

"No, no," I said eagerly. "I assure you...."

He smiled incredulously, and repeated the word "Imagination!"

But I well knew that it was not imagination, that I had actually seen
this man enter and go forth.

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