Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts , by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

The room of Mirrors

A late hansom came swinging round the corner into Lennox Gardens, cutting it so fine that the near wheel ground against the kerb and jolted the driver in his little seat. The jingle of bells might have warned me; but the horse’s hoofs came noiselessly on the half-frozen snow, which lay just deep enough to hide where the pavement ended and the road began; and, moreover, I was listening to the violins behind the first-floor windows of the house opposite. They were playing the “Wiener Blut.”

As it was, I had time enough and no more to skip back and get my toes out of the way. The cabby cursed me. I cursed him back so promptly and effectively that he had to turn in his seat for another shot. The windows of the house opposite let fall their light across his red and astonished face. I laughed, and gave him another volley. My head was hot, though my feet and hands were cold; and I felt equal to cursing down any cabman within the four-mile radius. That second volley finished him. He turned to his reins again and was borne away defeated; the red eyes of his lamps peering back at me like an angry ferret’s.

Up in the lighted room shadows of men and women crossed the blinds, and still the “Wiener Blut” went forward.

The devil was in that waltz. He had hold of the violins and was weaving the air with scents and visions — visions of Ascot and Henley; green lawns, gay sunshades, midsummer heat, cool rivers flowing, muslins rippled by light breezes; running horses and silken jackets; white tables heaped with roses and set with silver and crystal, jewelled fingers moving in the soft candle-light, bare necks bending, diamonds, odours, bubbles in the wine; blue water and white foam beneath the leaning shadow of sails; hot air flickering over stretches of moorland; blue again — Mediterranean blue — long facades, the din of bands and King Carnival parading beneath showers of blossom:— and all this noise and warmth and scent and dazzle flung out into the frozen street for a beggar’s portion. I had gone under.

The door of the house opposite had been free to me once — and not six months ago; freer to me perhaps than to any other. Did I long to pass behind it again? I thrust both hands into my pockets for warmth, and my right hand knocked against something hard. Yes . . . just once . . . .

Suddenly the door opened. A man stood on the threshold for a moment while the butler behind him arranged the collar of his fur overcoat. The high light in the portico flung the shadows of both down the crimson carpet laid on the entrance-steps. Snow had fallen and covered the edges of the carpet, which divided it like a cascade of blood pouring from the hall into the street. And still overhead the “Wiener Blut” went forward.

The man paused in the bright portico, his patent-leather boots twinkling under the lamp’s rays on that comfortable carpet. I waited, expecting him to whistle for a hansom. But he turned, gave an order to the butler, and stepping briskly down into the street, made off eastwards. The door closed behind him. He was the man I most hated in the world. If I had longed to cross the threshold a while back it was to seek him, and for no other reason.

I started to follow him, my hands still in my pockets. The snow muffled our footfalls completely, for as yet the slight north-east wind had frozen but the thinnest crust of it. He was walking briskly, as men do in such weather, but with no appearance of hurry. At the corner of Sloane Street he halted under a lamp, pulled out his watch, consulted it, and lit a cigarette; then set off again up the street towards Knightsbridge.

This halt of his had let me up within twenty paces of him. He never turned his head; but went on presenting me his back, a target not to be missed. Why not do it now? Better now and here than in a crowded thoroughfare. My right hand gripped the revolver more tightly. No, there was plenty of time: and I was curious to know what had brought Gervase out at this hour: why he had left his guests, or his wife’s guests, to take care of themselves: why he chose to be trudging afoot through this infernally unpleasant snow.

The roadway in Sloane Street was churned into a brown mass like chocolate, but the last ‘bus had rolled home and left it to freeze in peace. Half-way up the street I saw Gervase meet and pass a policeman, and altered my own pace to a lagging walk. Even so, the fellow eyed me suspiciously as I went by — or so I thought: and guessing that he kept a watch on me, I dropped still further behind my man. But the lamps were bright at the end of the street, and I saw him turn to the right by the great drapery shop at the corner.

Once past this corner I was able to put on a spurt. He crossed the roadway by the Albert Gate, and by the time he reached the Park railings the old distance separated us once more. Half-way up the slope he came to a halt, by the stone drinking-trough: and flattening myself against the railings, I saw him try the thin ice in the trough with his finger-tips, but in a hesitating way, as if his thoughts ran on something else and he scarcely knew what he did or why he did it. It must have been half a minute before he recovered himself with a shrug of his shoulders, and plunging both hands deep in his pockets, resumed his pace.

As we passed Hyde Park Corner I glanced up at the clock there: the time was between a quarter and ten minutes to one. At the entrance of Down Street he turned aside again, and began to lead me a zigzag dance through the quiet thoroughfare: and I followed, still to the tune of the “Wiener Blut.”

But now, at the corner of Charles Street, I blundered against another policeman, who flashed his lantern in my face, stared after Gervase, and asked me what my game was. I demanded innocently enough to be shown the nearest way to Oxford Street, and the fellow, after pausing a moment to chew his suspicions, walked with me slowly to the south-west corner of Berkeley Square, and pointed northwards.

“That’s your road,” he growled, “straight on. And don’t you forget it!”

He stood and watched me on my way. Nor did I dare to turn aside until well clear of the square. At the crossing of Davies and Grosvenor Streets, however, I supposed myself safe, and halted for a moment.

From the shadow of a porch at my elbow a thin voice accosted me.

“Kind gentleman —”

“Heh?” I spun round on her sharply: for it was a woman, stretching out one skinny hand and gathering her rags together with the other.

“Kind gentleman, spare a copper. I’ve known better days — I have indeed.”

“Well,” said I, “as it happens, I’m in the same case. And they couldn’t be much worse, could they?”

She drew a shuddering breath back through her teeth, but still held out her hand. I felt for my last coin, and her fingers closed on it so sharply that their long nails scraped the back of mine.

“Kind gentleman —”

“Ay, they are kind, are they not?”

She stared at me, and in a nerveless tone let one horrible oath escape her.

“There’ll be one less before morning,” said I, “if that’s any consolation to you. Good night!” Setting off at a shuffling run, I doubled back along Grosvenor Street and Bond Street to the point where I hoped to pick up the trail again. And just there, at the issue of Bruton Street, two constables stood ready for me.

“I thought as much,” said the one who set me on my way. “Hi, you! Wait a moment, please;” then to the other, “Best turn his pockets out, Jim.”

“If you dare to try —” I began, with my hand in my pocket: the next moment I found myself sprawling face downward on the sharp crust of snow.

“Hullo, constables!” said a voice. “What’s the row?” It was Gervase. He had turned leisurely back from the slope of Conduit Street, and came strolling down the road with his hands in his pockets.

“This fellow, Sir — we have reason to think he was followin’ you.”

“Quite right,” Gervase answered cheerfully, “of course he was.”

“Oh, if you knew it, Sir —”

“Certainly I knew it. In fact, he was following at my invitation.”

“What for did he tell me a lie, then?” grumbled the constable, chapfallen.

I had picked myself up by this time and was wiping my face. “Look here,” I put in, “I asked you the way to Oxford Street, that and nothing else.” And I went on to summarise my opinion of him.

“Oh! it’s you can swear a bit,” he growled. “I heard you just now.”

“Yes,” Gervase interposed suavely, drawing the glove from his right hand and letting flash a diamond finger-ring in the lamp-light. “He is a bit of a beast, policeman, and it’s not for the pleasure of it that I want his company.”

A sovereign passed from hand to hand. The other constable had discreetly drawn off a pace or two.

“All the same, it’s a rum go.”

“Yes, isn’t it?” Gervase assented in his heartiest tone. “Here is my card, in case you’re not satisfied.”

“If you’re satisfied, Sir —”

“Quite so. Good night!” Gervase thrust both hands into his pockets again and strode off. I followed him, with a heart hotter than ever — followed him like a whipped cur, as they say. Yes, that was just it. He who had already robbed me of everything else had now kicked even the pedestal from under me as a figure of tragedy. Five minutes ago I had been the implacable avenger tracking my unconscious victim across the city. Heaven knows how small an excuse it was for self-respect; but one who has lost character may yet chance to catch a dignity from circumstances; and to tell the truth, for all my desperate earnestness I had allowed my vanity to take some artistic satisfaction in the sinister chase. It had struck me — shall I say? — as an effective ending, nor had I failed to note that the snow lent it a romantic touch.

And behold, the unconscious victim knew all about it, and had politely interfered when a couple of unromantic “Bobbies” threatened the performance by tumbling the stalking avenger into the gutter! They had knocked my tragedy into harlequinade as easily as you might bash in a hat; and my enemy had refined the cruelty of it by coming to the rescue and ironically restarting the poor play on lines of comedy. I saw too late that I ought to have refused his help, to have assaulted the constable and been hauled to the police-station. Not an impressive wind-up, to be sure; but less humiliating than this! Even so, Gervase might have trumped the poor card by following with a gracious offer to bail me out!

As it was, I had put the whip into his hand, and must follow him like a cur. The distance he kept assured me that the similitude had not escaped him. He strode on without deigning a single glance behind, still in cold derision presenting me his broad back and silently challenging me to shoot. And I followed, hating him worse than ever, swearing that the last five minutes should not be forgotten, but charged for royally when the reckoning came to be paid.

I followed thus up Conduit Street, up Regent Street, and across the Circus. The frost had deepened and the mud in the roadway crackled under our feet. At the Circus I began to guess, and when Gervase struck off into Great Portland Street, and thence by half-a-dozen turnings northward by east, I knew to what house he was leading me.

At the entrance of the side street in which it stood he halted and motioned me to come close.

“I forget,” he said with a jerk of his thumb, “if you still have the entry. These people are not particular, to be sure.”

“I have not,” I answered, and felt my cheeks burning. He could not see this, nor could I see the lift of his eyebrows as he answered —

“Ah? I hadn’t heard of it. . . . You’d better step round by the mews, then. You know the window, the one which opens into the passage leading to Pollox Street. Wait there. It may be ten minutes before I can open.”

I nodded. The house was a corner one, between the street and a by-lane tenanted mostly by cabmen; and at the back of it ran the mews where they stabled their horses. Half-way down this mews a narrow alley cut across it at right angles: a passage unfrequented by traffic, known only to the stablemen, and in the daytime used only by their children, who played hop-scotch on the flagged pavement, where no one interrupted them. You wondered at its survival — from end to end it must have measured a good fifty yards — in a district where every square foot of ground fetched money; until you learned that the house had belonged, in the ‘twenties, to a nobleman who left a name for eccentric profligacy, and who, as owner of the land, could afford to indulge his humours. The estate since his death was in no position to afford money for alterations, and the present tenants of the house found the passage convenient enough.

My footsteps disturbed no one in the sleeping mews; and doubling back noiselessly through the passage, I took up my station beside the one low window which opened upon it from the blank back premises of the house. Even with the glimmer of snow to help me, I had to grope for the window-sill to make sure of my bearings. The minutes crawled by, and the only sound came from a stall where one of the horses had kicked through his thin straw bedding and was shuffling an uneasy hoof upon the cobbles. Then just as I too had begun to shuffle my frozen feet, I heard a scratching sound, the unbolting of a shutter, and Gervase drew up the sash softly.

“Nip inside!” he whispered. “No more noise than you can help. I have sent off the night porter. He tells me the bank is still going in the front of the house — half-a-dozen playing, perhaps.”

I hoisted myself over the sill, and dropped inside. The wall of this annexe — which had no upper floor, and invited you to mistake it for a harmless studio — was merely a sheath, so to speak. Within, a corridor divided it from the true wall of the room: and this room had no window or top-light, though a handsome one in the roof — a dummy — beguiled the eyes of its neighbours.

There was but one room: an apartment of really fine proportions, never used by the tenants of the house, and known but to a few curious ones among its frequenters.

The story went that the late owner, Earl C — had reason to believe himself persistently cheated at cards by his best friends, and in particular by a Duke of the Blood Royal, who could hardly be accused to his face. The Earl’s sense of honour forbade him to accuse any meaner man while the big culprit went unrebuked. Therefore he continued to lose magnificently while he devised a new room for play: the room in which I now followed Gervase.

I had stood in it once before and admired the courtly and costly thoroughness of the Earl’s rebuke. I had imagined him conducting his expectant guests to the door, ushering them in with a wave of the hand, and taking his seat tranquilly amid the dead, embarrassed silence: had imagined him facing the Royal Duke and asking, “Shall we cut?” with a voice of the politest inflection.

For the room was a sheet of mirrors. Mirrors panelled the walls, the doors, the very backs of the shutters. The tables had mirrors for tops: the whole ceiling was one vast mirror. From it depended three great candelabra of cut-glass, set with reflectors here, there, and everywhere.

I had heard that even the floor was originally of polished brass. If so, later owners must have ripped up the plates and sold them: for now a few cheap Oriental rugs carpeted the unpolished boards. The place was abominably dusty: the striped yellow curtains had lost half their rings and drooped askew from their soiled vallances. Across one of the wall-panels ran an ugly scar. A smell of rat pervaded the air. The present occupiers had no use for a room so obviously unsuitable to games of chance, as they understood chance: and I doubt if a servant entered it once a month. Gervase had ordered candles and a fire: but the chimney was out of practice, and the smoke wreathed itself slowly about us as we stood surrounded by the ghostly company of our reflected selves.

“We shall not be disturbed,” said Gervase. “I told the man I was expecting a friend, that our business was private, and that until he called I wished to be alone. I did not explain by what entrance I expected him. The people in the front cannot hear us. Have a cigar?” He pushed the open case towards me. Then, as I drew back, “You’ve no need to be scrupulous,” he added, “seeing that they were bought with your money.”

“If that’s so, I will,” said I; and having chosen one, struck a match. Glancing round, I saw a hundred small flames spurt up, and a hundred men hold them to a hundred glowing cigar-tips.

“After you with the match.” Gervase took it from me with a steady hand. He, too, glanced about him while he puffed. “Ugh!” He blew a long cloud, and shivered within his furred overcoat. “What a gang!”

“It takes all sorts to make a world,” said I fatuously, for lack of anything better.

“Don’t be an infernal idiot!” he answered, flicking the dust off one of the gilt chairs, and afterwards cleaning a space for his elbow on the looking-glass table. “It takes only two sorts to make the world we’ve lived in, and that’s you and I.” He gazed slowly round the walls. “You and I, and a few fellows like us — not to mention the women, who don’t count.”

“Well,” said I, “as far as the world goes — if you must discuss it — I always found it a good enough place.”

“Because you started as an unconsidering fool: and because, afterwards, when we came to grips, you were the under-dog, and I gave you no time. My word — how I have hustled you!”

I yawned. “All right: I can wait. Only if you suppose I came here to listen to your moral reflections —”

He pulled the cigar from between his teeth and looked at me along it.

“I know perfectly well why you came here,” he said slowly, and paused. “Hadn’t we better have it out — with the cards on the table?” He drew a small revolver from his pocket and laid it with a light clink on the table before him. I hesitated for a moment, then followed his example, and the silent men around us did the same.

A smile curled his thin lips as he observed this multiplied gesture. “Yes,” he said, as if to himself, “that is what it all comes to.”

“And now,” said I, “since you know my purpose here, perhaps you will tell me yours.”

“That is just what I am trying to explain. Only you are so impatient, and it — well, it’s a trifle complicated.” He puffed for a moment in silence. “Roughly, it might be enough to say that I saw you standing outside my house a while ago; that I needed a talk with you alone, in some private place; that I guessed, if you saw me, you would follow with no more invitation; and that, so reasoning, I led you here, where no one is likely to interrupt us.”

“Well,” I admitted, “all that seems plain sailing.”

“Quite so; but it’s at this point the thing grows complicated.” He rose, and walking to the fireplace, turned his back on me and spread his palms to the blaze. “Well,” he asked, after a moment, gazing into the mirror before him, “why don’t you shoot?”

I thrust my hands into my trouser-pockets and leaned back staring — I daresay sulkily enough — at the two revolvers within grasp. “I’ve got my code,” I muttered.

“The code of — these mirrors. You won’t do the thing because it’s not the thing to do; because these fellows”— he waved a hand and the ghosts waved back at him —“don’t do such things, and you haven’t the nerve to sin off your own bat. Come”— he strolled back to his seat and leaned towards me across the table —“it’s not much to boast of, but at this eleventh hour we must snatch what poor credit we can. You are, I suppose, a more decent fellow for not having fired: and I— By the way, you did feel the temptation?”

I nodded. “You may put your money on that. I never see you without wanting to kill you. What’s more, I’m going to do it.”

“And I,” he said, “knew the temptation and risked it. No: let’s be honest about it. There was no risk: because, my good Sir, I know you to a hair.”

“There was,” I growled.

“Pardon me, there was none. I came here having a word to say to you, and these mirrors have taught me how to say it. Take a look at them — the world we are leaving — that’s it: and a cursed second-hand, second-class one at that.”

He paced slowly round on it, slewing his body in the chair.

“I say a second-class one,” he resumed, “because, my dear Reggie, when all’s said and done, we are second-class, the pair of us, and pretty bad second-class. I met you first at Harrow. Our fathers had money: they wished us to be gentlemen without well understanding what it meant: and with unlimited pocket-money and his wits about him any boy can make himself a power in a big school. That is what we did: towards the end we even set the fashion for a certain set; and a rank bad fashion it was. But, in truth, we had no business there: on every point of breeding we were outsiders. I suspect it was a glimmering consciousness of this that made us hate each other from the first. We understood one another too well. Oh, there’s no mistake about it! Whatever we’ve missed in life, you and I have hated.”

He paused, eyeing me queerly. I kept my hands in my pockets. “Go on,” I said.

“From Harrow we went to College — the same business over again. We drifted, of course, into the same set; for already we had become necessary to each other. We set the pace of that set — were its apparent leaders. But in truth we were alone — you and I— as utterly alone as two shipwrecked men on a raft. The others were shadows to us: we followed their code because we had to be gentlemen, but we did not understand it in the least. For, after all, the roots of that code lay in the breeding and tradition of honour, with which we had no concern. To each other you and I were intelligible and real; but as concerned that code and the men who followed it by right of birth and nature, we were looking-glass men imitating — imitating — imitating.”

“We set the pace,” said I. “You’ve allowed that.”

“To be sure we did. We even modified the code a bit — to its hurt; though as conscious outsiders we could dare very little. For instance, the talk of our associates about women — and no doubt their thoughts, too — grew sensibly baser. The sanctity of gambling debts, on the other hand, we did nothing to impair: because we had money. I recall your virtuous indignation at the amount of paper floated by poor W—— towards the end of the great baccarat term. Poor devil! He paid up — or his father did — and took his name off the books. He’s in Ceylon now, I believe. At length you have earned a partial right to sympathise: or. would have if only you had paid up.”

“Take care, Gervase.”

“My good Sir, don’t miss my point. Wasn’t I just as indignant with W—? If I’d been warned off Newmarket Heath, if I’d been shown the door of the hell we’re sitting in, shouldn’t I feel just as you are feeling? Try to understand!”

“You forget Elaine, I think.”

“No: I do not forget Elaine. We left College: I to add money to money in my father’s office; you to display your accomplishments in spending what your father had earned. That was the extent of the difference. To both of us, money and the indulgence it buys meant everything in life. All I can boast of is the longer sight. The office-hours were a nuisance, I admit: but I was clever enough to keep my hold on the old set; and then, after office-hours, I met you constantly, and studied and hated you — studied you because I hated you. Elaine came between us. You fell in love with her. That I, too, should fall in love with her was no coincidence, but the severest of logic. Given such a woman and two such men, no other course of fate is conceivable. She made it necessary for me to put hate into practice. If she had not offered herself, why, then it would have been somebody else: that’s all. Good Lord!” he rapped the table, and his voice rose for the first time above its level tone of exposition, “you don’t suppose all my study — all my years of education — were to be wasted!”

He checked himself, eyed me again, and resumed in his old voice —

“You wanted money by this time. I was a solicitor — your old college friend — and you came to me. I knew you would come, as surely as I knew you would not fire that pistol just now. For years I had trained myself to look into your mind and anticipate its working. Don’t I tell you that from the first you were the only real creature this world held for me? You were my only book, and I had to learn you: at first without fixed purpose, then deliberately. And when the time came I put into practice what I knew: just that and no more. My dear Reggie, you never had a chance.”

“Elaine?” I muttered again.

“Elaine was the girl for you — or for me: just that again and no more.”

“By George!” said I, letting out a laugh. “If I thought that!”

“What?”

“Why, that after ruining me, you have missed being happy!”

He sighed impatiently, and his eyes, though he kept them fastened on mine, seemed to be tiring. “I thought,” he said, “I could time your intelligence over any fence. But to-night there’s something wrong. Either I’m out of practice or your brain has been going to the deuce. What, man! You’re shying at every bank! Is it drink, hey? Or hunger?”

“It might be a little of both,” I answered. “But stay a moment and let me get things straight. I stood between you and Elaine — no, give me time — between you and your aims, whatever they were. Very well. You trod over me; or, rather, you pulled me up by the roots and pitched me into outer darkness to rot. And now it seems that, after all, you are not content. In the devil’s name, why?”

“Why? Oh, cannot you see? . . . Take a look at these mirrors again — our world, I tell you. See — you and I— you and I— always you and I! Man, I pitched you into darkness as you say, and then I woke and knew the truth — that you were necessary to me.”

“Hey?”

I can’t do without you!” It broke from him in a cry. “So help me God, Reggie, it is the truth!”

I stared in his face for half a minute maybe, and broke out laughing. “Jeshurun waxed fat and — turned sentimental! A nice copy-book job you make of it, too!”

Oh, send my brother back to me —

I cannot play alone!

“Perhaps you’d like me to buy a broom and hire the crossing in Lennox Gardens? Then you’d be able to contemplate me all day long, and nourish your fine fat soul with delicate eating. Pah! You make me sick.”

“It’s the truth,” said he quietly.

“It may be. To me it looks a sight more like foie gras. Can’t do without me, can’t you? Well, I can jolly well do without you, and I’m going to.”

“I warn you,” he said: “I have done you an injury or two in my time, but by George if I stand up and let you shoot me — well, I hate you badly enough, but I won’t let you do it without fair warning.”

“I’ll risk it anyway,” said I.

“Very well.” He stood up, and folded his arms. “Shoot, then, and be hanged!”

I put out my hand to the revolver, hesitated, and withdrew it.

“That’s not the way,” I said. “I’ve got my code, as I told you before.”

“Does the code forbid suicide?” he asked.

“That’s a different thing.”

“Not at all. The man who commits suicide kills an unarmed man.”

“But the unarmed man happens to be himself.”

“Suppose that in this instance your distinction won’t work? Look here,” he went on, as I pushed back my chair impatiently, “I have one truth more for you. I swear I believe that what we have hated, we two, is not each other, but ourselves or our own likeness. I swear I believe we two have so shared natures in hate that no power can untwist and separate them to render each his own. But I swear also I believe that if you lift that revolver to kill, you will take aim, not at me, but by instinct at a worse enemy — yourself, vital in my heart.”

“You have some pretty theories to-night,” I sneered. “Perhaps you’ll go on to tell me which of us two has been Elaine’s husband, feeding daintily in Lennox Gardens, clothed in purple and fine linen, while the other —”

He interrupted me by picking up his revolver and striding to the fireplace again.

“So be it, since you will have it so. Kill me,” he added, with a queer look, “and perhaps you may go back to Lennox Gardens and enjoy all these things in my place.”

I took my station. Both revolvers were levelled now. I took sight along mine at his detested face. It was white but curiously eager — hopeful even. I lowered my arm, scanning his face still; and still scanning it, set my weapon down on the table.

“I believe you are mad,” said I slowly. “But one thing I see — that, mad or not, you’re in earnest. For some reason you want me to kill you; therefore that shall wait. For some reason it is torture to you to live and do without me: well, I’ll try you with that. It will do me good to hurt you a bit.” I slipped the revolver into my pocket and tapped it. “Though I don’t understand them, I won’t quarrel with your sentiments so long as you suffer from them. When that fails, I’ll find another opportunity for this. Good night.” I stepped to the door. “Reggie!”

I shut the door on his cry: crossed the corridor, and climbing out through the window, let myself drop into the lane.

As my feet touched the snow a revolver-shot rang out in the room behind me.

I caught at the frozen sill to steady myself: and crouching there, listened. Surely the report must have alarmed the house! I waited for the sound of footsteps: waited for three minutes — perhaps longer. None came. To be sure, the room stood well apart from the house: but it was incredible that the report should have awakened no one! My own ears still rang with it.

Still no footsteps came. The horse in the stable close by was still shuffling his hoof on the cobbles. No other sound . . .

Very stealthily I hoisted myself up on the sill again, listened, dropped inside, and tip-toed my way to the door. The candles were still burning in the Room of Mirrors. And by the light of them, as I entered, Gervase stepped to meet me.

“Ah, it’s you,” I stammered. “I heard — that is, I thought —”

And with that I saw — recognised with a catch of the breath — that the figure I spoke to was not Gervase, but my own reflected image, stepping forward with pale face and ghastly from a mirror. Yet a moment before I could have sworn it was Gervase.

Gervase lay stretched on the hearthrug with his hand towards the fire. I caught up a candle, and bent over him. His features were not to be recognised.

As I straightened myself up, with the candle in my hand, for an instant those features, obliterated in the flesh, gazed at me in a ring, a hundred times repeated behind a hundred candles. And again, at a second glance, I saw that the face was not Gervase’s but my own.

I set down the candle and made off, closing the door behind me. The horror of it held me by the hair, but I flung it off and pelted down the lane and through the mews. Once in the street I breathed again, pulled myself together, and set off at a rapid walk, southwards, but not clearly knowing whither.

As a matter of fact, I took the line by which I had come: with the single difference that I made straight into Berkeley Square through Bruton Street. I had, I say, no clear purpose in following this line rather than another. I had none for taking Lennox Gardens on the way to my squalid lodgings in Chelsea. I had a purpose, no doubt; but will swear it only grew definite as I came in sight of the lamp still burning beneath Gervase’s portico.

There was a figure, too, under the lamp — the butler — bending there and rolling up the strip of red carpet. As he pulled its edges from the frozen snow I came on him suddenly.

“Oh, it’s you, Sir!” He stood erect, and with the air of a man infinitely relieved.

“Gervase!”

The door opened wide and there stood Elaine in her ball-gown, a-glitter with diamonds.

“Gervase, dear, where have you been? We have been terribly anxious —”

She said it, looking straight down on me — on me — who stood in my tattered clothes in the full glare of the lamp. And then I heard the butler catch his breath, and suddenly her voice trailed off in wonder and pitiful disappointment.

“It’s not Gervase! It’s Reg — Mr. Travers. I beg your pardon. I thought —”

But I passed up the steps and stood before her: and said, as she drew back —

“There has been an accident. Gervase has shot himself.” I turned to the butler. “You had better run to the police station. Stay: take this revolver. It won’t count anything as evidence: but I ask you to examine it and make sure all the chambers are loaded.”

A thud in the hall interrupted me. I ran in and knelt beside Elaine, and as I stooped to lift her — as my hand touched her hair — this was the jealous question on my lips —

“What has she to do with it. It is I who cannot do without him — who must miss him always!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/q/quiller-couch/arthur_thomas/old-fires-and-profitable-ghosts/chapter3.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:15