“Then, of course,” said our hostess of the evening, “there is the matter of ghosts.”
“What is the matter of ghosts?” said the young man in the green brocade, and proceeded to pull a ghoulish face and moan softly into the ear of the young lady beside him.
The young lady put two glove-covered fingers to his face and turned it away. “What is the matter with ghosts, would be more accurate, I suspect,” she said disdainfully. “They are insubstantial, uncommunicative, and frequently disappear when sought directly.” She turned a pale blue stare to the young man and paused a moment. “Two out of three,” she murmured pointedly. “Hm. Pity.”
The room chuckled appreciation while the young man ducked his head. “You would be a difficult woman to haunt, I think,” he said. “But back to the question: what matter of ghosts?”
I settled into the leather-backed armchair and waited for the hostess to respond. Around me the other party-goers made motions of the same, refilling their brandy snifters and easing into the comfortable old furniture. Whatever the elderly woman who’d invited us here had to say, I for one was perfectly happy to listen, so long as the brandy remained good, the cushions remained soft, and – I was forced to admit, stealing a glance at the bickering young couple and lingering immodestly on the lady in particular – the company remained interesting.
“As Alina had it,” said our hostess, nodding to the young lady, “the matter of and the matter with are one and the same. Why do these poor spirits take such pains to appear in front of us, only to leave without so much as a good-bye?”
“I saw a ghost once,” a woman spoke up. She was thin and brown, a twig in a scrap of wind-blown cotton. “My family has never been – precisely – well-to-do, and there were times in my childhood that I would do things – nothing vulgar,” she added with a sudden flush, “merely somewhat distasteful, such as taking in laundry or scrubbing a few floors. An old lady had died, a friend of my aunt’s, and I was washing her linens for burial – eggshell-white by then, old but still good, still good I assure you – when the water turned a peculiarpink, then red, and the texture… I looked up and in front of me stood that old woman, wearing the very linens I was washing, and she had no eyes and she said–“
The thin woman stopped talking abruptly. The young man said, “Go on, what did she say?”
“I can’t remember,” she said stiffly. “It was many years ago.”
But the texture remains, I thought, and asked, “And then what happened?”
The thin woman folded her hands primly on her knees. “I took my hands out of the water. The old lady disappeared. The water turned clear. That was all.” Right hand over left, then left over right. “All.”
Our hostess broke the ensuing silence with her own tale, one rather longer involving an overnight visit to a relative’s house where a murder was rumoured to have taken place. After that our hostess implored the men to take our cigars in the parlour while she gave the ladies a tour of the rest of the house. I took the opportunity to pull the young man aside and inquire lightly of the lady Alina.
He must have seen no threat in me, for he said, quite candidly, “She’s colder than the dark half of the moon and considerably more distant. She’s a friend of a friend – I brought her as a favour and I find it far more delightful to get on her bad side, which is easy and rewarding, than her good side, which I fear would crack under the strain. What do you think of this brandy, eh?” – and so on.
After a time our hostess came back with the ladies, and, filled with brandy and the knowledge that no tact was likely to prove viable, I unhesitatingly cupped Alina’s elbow and drew her to a love-seat. She pulled her arm away immediately, but I crowed at my partial victory: she was still here, beside me.
“What have you got against ghosts?” was my clever start. (It was the brandy. Forgive me.)
“They are useless creatures,” she said. “They delight in their small functions and rail against anyone interfering with them.”
“Kindred spirits, eh?” I said. (The brandy was excellent, that is my only excuse.)
I expected some sort of outburst – I wasn’t drunk enough to expect anything more gracious – and instead she stared at me with those pale blue eyes and excused herself to stand by the small clot of women who had taken up stations by the piano. I cursed myself, forbore more brandy, and shamelessly watched her the rest of the evening.
At last, after the singing and the parlour games (I was the champion, I may say, of “Are you there, Moriarty?”, though my charades were rather poor), our hostess accepted the various pleas for the late night and the need to depart. I kissed her cheek and made the proper compliments upon her house, and turned to Alina who waiting on the young man to help her into her coat.
“A pleasure,” I said, and wished to say more, but being filled with spirits found myself woefully uncommunicative. Heedless of propriety, I threw my arms about her.
She did not speak. She did not move. When I released her she merely snatched up her coat and left without a word.
No one seemed to notice the incident, and if they did, I had no response. My mind was dwelling on other things. For when I caught Alina up in that embrace and held her tight in my arms, I felt no heartbeat under her breast – none at all.
Laura DeHaan is a health care practitioner in Toronto, ON. She’ll wish you a good night, but she won’t say good-bye.
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