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What's in a name?' laughed Herbert. 'But it really is a queer show-up of human oddity. A fellow comes in here, searching; that's all.' His back was turned, as he stood staring absently out, sipping his tea between his sentences. 'He comes in--oh, it's a positive fact, for I've seen him myself, just sitting back in my chair here, you know, watching him as one would a tramp in one's orchard.' He cast a candid glance over his shoulder. 'First he looks round, like a prying servant. Then he comes cautiously on--a kind of grizzled, fawn-coloured face, middle-size, with big hands; and then just like some quiet, groping, nocturnal creature, he begins his precious search--shelves, drawers that are not here, cupboards gone years ago, questing and nosing no end, and quite methodically too, until he reaches the window. Then he stops, looks back, narrows his foxy lids, listens--quite perceptibly, you know, a kind of gingerish blur; then he seems to open this corner bookcase here, as if it were a door and goes out along what I suppose might at some time have been an outside gallery or balcony, unless, as I rather fancy, the house extended once beyond these windows. Anyhow, out he goes quite deliberately, treading the air as lightly as Botticelli's angels, until, however far you lean out of the window, you can't follow him any further. And then--and this is the bit that takes one's fancy--when you have contentedly noddled down again to whatever you may have been doing when the wretch appeared, or are sitting in a cold sweat, with bolting eyes awaiting developments, just according to your school of thought, or of nerves, the creature comes back--comes back; and with what looks uncommonly like a lighted candle in his hand. That really is a thrill, I assure you.'
'But you've seen this--you've really seen this yourself?'
'Oh yes, twice,' replied Herbert cheerfully. 'And my sister, quite by haphazard, once saw him from the garden. She was shelling peas one evening for Sallie, and she distinctly saw him shamble out of the window here, and go shuffling along, mid-air, across the roaring washpot down below, turn sharp round the high corner of the house, sheer against the stars, in a kind of frightened hurry. And then, after five minutes' concentrated watching over the shucks, she saw him come shuffling back again-- the same distraction, the same nebulous snuff colour, and a candle trailing its smoke behind him as he whisked in home.'
'Ah, then,' said Herbert, lagging along the bookshelves, and scanning the book-backs with eyes partially closed: he turned with lifted teapot, and refilled his visitor's cup; 'then, wherever you are--I mean,' he added, cutting up a little cake into six neat slices, 'wherever the chance inmate of the room happens to be, he comes straight for you, at a quite alarming velocity, and fades, vanishes, melts, or, as it were, silts inside.'
Lawford listened in a curious hush that had suddenly fallen over his mind. '"Fades inside? silts?"--I'm awfully stupid, but what on earth do you mean?' The room had slowly emptied itself of daylight; its own darkness, it seemed, had met that of the narrowing night, and Herbert deliberately lit a cigarette before replying. His clear pale face, with its smooth outline and thin mouth and rather long dark eyes, turned with a kind of serene good-humour towards his questioner.
'Why,' he said, 'I mean frankly just that. Besides, it's Grisel's own phrase; and an old nurse we used to have said much the same. He comes, or IT comes towards you, first just walking, then with a kind of gradually accelerated slide or glide, and sweeps straight into you,' he tapped his chest, 'me, whoever it may be is here. In a kind of panic, I suppose, to hide, or perhaps simply to get back again.'
'Get back where?'
'Be resumed, as it were, via you. You see, I suppose he is compelled to regain his circle, or Purgatory, or Styx, whatever you like to call it, via consciousness. No one present, then no revenant or spook, or astral body, or hallucination: what's in a name? And of course even an hallucination is mind-stuff, and on its own, as it were. What I mean is that the poor devil must have some kind of human personality to get back through in order to make his exit from our sphere of consciousness into his. And naturally, of course to make his entrance too. If like a tenuous smoke he can get in, the probability is that he gets out in precisely the same fashion. For really, if you weren't consciously expecting the customary impact (you actually jerk forward in the act of resistance unresisted), you would not notice his going. I am afraid I must be horribly boring you with all these tangled theories. All I mean is, that if you were really absorbed in what you happened to be doing at the time, the thing might come and go, with your mind for entrance and exit, as it were, without your being conscious of it at all.' There was a longish pause, in which Herbert slowly inhaled and softly breathed out his smoke.
'And what--what is the poor wretch searching FOR? And what--why, what becomes of him when he does go?'
'Ah, there you have me! One merely surmises just as one's temperament or convictions lean. Grisel says it's some poor derelict soul in search of peace--that the poor beggar wants finally to die, in fact, and can't. Sallie smells crime. After all, what is every man?' he talked on; 'a horde of ghosts--like a Chinese nest of boxes--oaks that were acorns that were oaks. Death lies behind us, not in front--in our ancestors, back and back, until--'
'"Until?"' Lawford managed to remark.
'Ah, that settles me again. Don't they call it an amoeba? But really I am abjectly ignorant of all that kind of stuff. We are ALL we are, and all in a sense we care to dream we are. And for that matter, anything outlandish, bizarre, is a godsend in this rather stodgy life. It is after all just what the old boy said--it's only the impossible that's credible; whatever credible may mean....'
It seemed to Lawford as if the last remark had wafted him bodily into the presence of his kind, blinking, intensely anxious old friend, Mr Bethany. And what leagues asunder the two men were who had happened on much the same words to express their convictions.
He drew his hand gropingly over his face, half rose, and again seated himself. 'Whatever it may be,' he said, 'the whole thing reminds me, you know--it is in a way so curiously like my own--my own case.'
Herbert sat on, a little drawn up in his chair, quietly smoking. The crash of the falling water, after seeming to increase in volume with the fading of evening, had again died down in the darkness to a low multitudinous tumult as of countless inarticulate, echoing voices.
'"Bizarre," you said; God knows I am.' But Herbert still remained obdurately silent. 'You remember, perhaps,' Lawford faintly began again, 'our talk the other night?'
'Oh, rather,' replied the cordial voice out of the dusk.
'I suppose you thought I was insane?'
'Insane!' There was a genuinely amused astonishment in the echo. 'You were lucidity itself. Besides--well, honestly, if I may venture, I don't put very much truck in what one calls one's sanity: except, of course, as a bond of respectability and a means of livelihood.'
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The Return -by- Walter de la Mare