This is not an artistically rounded-off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it, and there seems to be no reason why any of it should have happened. But that is no reason why it should not be told. You must have noticed that all the real ghost stories you have ever come close to, are like this in these respects --no explanation, no logical coherence. Here is the story.
There were three of us and another, but she had fainted suddenly at the second extra of the Christmas dance, and had been put to bed in the dressing room next to the room which we three shared. It had been one of those jolly, old-fashioned dances where nearly everybody stays the night, and the big country house is stretched to its utmost containing --guests harbouring on sofas, couches, settles and even mattresses on floors. Some of the young men actually, I believe, slept on the great dining table.
We had talked of our partners, as girls will, and then the stillness of the manor house, broken only by the whisper of the wind in the cedar branches, and the scraping of their harsh fingers against our windowpanes, had pricked us to such luxurious confidence in our surroundings of bright chintz and candle-flame and firelight, that we had dared to talk of ghosts – in which, we all said, we did not believe one bit. We had told the story of the phantom coach, and the horribly strange bed, and the lady in the sacque, and the house in Berkeley Square.
We none of us believed in ghosts, but my heart, at least, seemed to leap to my throat and choke me there when a tap came to our door --a tap faint, not to be mistaken.
‘Who’s there?’ said the youngest of us, craning a lean neck towards the door. It opened slowly, and I give you my word the instant of suspense that followed is still reckoned among my life’s least confident moments. Almost at once the door opened fully, and Miss Eastwich, my aunt’s housekeeper, companion and general stand-by, looked in on us.
We all said, ‘Come in,’ but she stood there. She was, at all normal hours, the most silent woman I have ever known. She stood and looked at us, and shivered a little. So did we --for in those days corridors were not warmed by hot-water pipes and the air from the door was keen.
‘I saw your light,’ she said at last, ‘and I thought it was late for you to be up --after all this gaiety. I thought perhaps—’ her glance turned towards the door of the dressing room.
‘No,’ I said, ‘she’s fast asleep.’ I should have added a goodnight, but the youngest of us forestalled my speech. She did not know Miss Eastwich as we others did; did not know how her persistent silence had built a wall round her --a wall that no one dared to break down with the commonplaces of talk, or the littlenesses of mere human relationship. Miss Eastwich’s silence had taught us to treat her as a machine; and as other than a machine we never dreamed of treating her. But the youngest of us had seen Miss Eastwich for the first time that day. She was young, crude, ill-balanced, subject to blind, calf-like impulses. She was also the heiress of a rich tallow-chandler, but that has nothing to do with this part of the story. She jumped up from the hearth rug, her unsuitably rich silk lace-trimmed dressing gown falling back from her thin collarbones, and ran to the door and put an arm round Miss Eastwich’s prim, lisse-encircled neck. I gasped. I should as soon have dared to embrace Cleopatra’s Needle. ‘Come in,’ said the youngest of us --’come in and get warm. There’s lots of cocoa left.’ She drew Miss Eastwich in and shut the door.
The vivid light of pleasure in the housekeeper’s pale eyes went through my heart like a knife. It would have been so easy to put an arm round her neck, if one had only thought she wanted an arm there. But it was not I who had thought that --and indeed, my arm might not have brought the light evoked by the thin arm of the youngest of us.
‘Now,’ the youngest went on eagerly, ‘you shall have the very biggest, nicest chair, and the cocoa pot’s here on the hob as hot as hot --and we’ve all been telling ghost stories, only we don’t believe in them a bit; and when you get warm you ought to tell one too.’
Miss Eastwich --that model of decorum and decently done duties --tell a ghost story!
‘You’re sure I’m not in your way,’ Miss Eastwich said, stretching her hands to the blaze. I wondered whether housekeepers have fires in their rooms even at Christmas time.
‘Not a bit,’ I said it, and I hope I said it as warmly as I felt it. ‘I --Miss Eastwich --I’d have asked you to come in other times --only I didn’t think you’d care for girls’ chatter.’
The third girl, who was really of no account, and that’s why I have not said anything about her before, poured cocoa for our guest. I put my fleecy Madeira shawl round her shoulders. I could not think of anything else to do for her and I found myself wishing desperately to do something. The smiles she gave us were quite pretty. People can smile prettily at forty or fifty, or even later, though girls don’t realise this. It occurred to me, and this was another knife thrust, that I had never seen Miss Eastwich smile --a real smile --before. The pale smiles of dutiful acquiescence were not of the same blood as this dimpling, happy, transfiguring look.
‘This is very pleasant,’ she said, and it seemed to me that I had never before heard her real voice. It did not please me to think that at the cost of cocoa, a fire, and my arm round her neck, I might have heard this new voice any time these six years.
‘We’ve been telling ghost stories,’ I said. ‘The worst of it is, we don’t believe in ghosts. No one we know has ever seen one.’
‘It’s always what somebody told somebody, who told somebody you know,’ said the youngest of us, ‘and you can’t believe that, can you?’
‘What the soldier said is not evidence,’ said Miss Eastwich. Will it be believed that the little Dickens quotation pierced one more keenly than the new smile or the new voice?
‘And all the ghost stories are so beautifully rounded off -- a murder committed on the spot --or a hidden treasure, or a warning -- I think that makes them harder to believe. The most horrid ghost story I ever heard was one that was quite silly.’
‘I can’t --it doesn’t sound anything to tell. Miss Eastwich ought to tell one.’
‘Oh, do,’ said the youngest of us, and her salt cellars loomed dark, as she stretched her neck eagerly and laid an entreating arm on our guest’s knee.
‘The only thing that I ever knew of was --was hearsay,’ she said slowly, ‘till just the end.’
I knew she would tell her story, and I knew she had never before told it, and I knew she was only telling it now because she was proud, and this seemed the only way to pay for the fire and the cocoa and the laying of that arm round her neck.
‘Don’t tell it,’ I said suddenly. ‘I know you’d rather not.’
‘I dare say it would bore you,’ she said meekly, and the youngest of us, who, after all, did not understand everything, glared resentfully at me.
‘We should just love it,’ she said. ‘Do tell us. Never mind if it isn’t a real, proper, fixed-up story. I’m certain anything you think ghostly would be quite too beautifully horrid for anything.’
Miss Eastwich finished her cocoa and reached up to set the cup on the mantelpiece.
‘I can’t do any harm,’ she said half to herself, ‘they don’t believe in ghosts, and it wasn’t exactly a ghost either. And they’re all over twenty --they’re not babies.’
There was a breathing time of hush and expectancy. The fire crackled and the gas suddenly glared higher because the billiard lights had been put out. We heard the steps and voices of the men going along the corridors.
‘It is really hardly worth telling,’ Miss Eastwich said doubtfully, shading her faded face from the fire with her thin hand.
We all said, ‘Go on --oh, go on --do!’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘twenty years ago --and more than that --I had two friends, and I loved them more than anything in the world. And they married each other—’
She paused, and I knew just in what way she had loved each of them. The youngest of us said, ‘How awfully nice for you. Do go on.’
She patted the youngest’s shoulder, and I was glad that I had understood, and that the youngest of all hadn’t. She went on.
‘Well, after they were married, I did not see much of them for a year or two; and then he wrote and asked me to come and stay, because his wife was ill, and I should cheer her up, and cheer him up as well; for it was a gloomy house, and he himself was growing gloomy too.’
I knew, as she spoke, that she had every line of that letter by heart.
‘Well, I went. The address was in Lee, near London; in those days there were streets and streets of new villa houses growing up round old brick mansions standing in their own grounds, with red walls round, you know, and a sort of flavour of coaching days, and post-chaises, and Blackheath highwaymen about them. He had said the house was gloomy, and it was called The Firs, and I imagined my cab going through a dark, winding shrubbery, and drawing up in front of one of these sedate, old, square houses. Instead, we drew up in front of a large, smart villa, with iron railings, gay encaustic tiles leading from the iron gate to the stained-gl