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by Wilkie Collins
Category: Classic Literature
Description: A collection of stories by Wilkie Collins.
eBook Publisher: Fictionwise.com/Fictionwise Classic, 1887
eBookwise Release Date: November 2003
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [624 KB]
Reading time: 424-594 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
MRS. ZANT AND THE GHOST.
THE course of this narrative describes the return of a disembodied spirit to earth, and leads the reader on new and strange ground.
Not in the obscurity of midnight, but in the searching light of day, did the supernatural influence assert itself. Neither revealed by a vision, nor announced by a voice, it reached mortal knowledge through the sense which is least easily self-deceived: the sense that feels.
The record of this event will of necessity produce conflicting impressions. It will raise, in some minds, the doubt which reason asserts; it will invigorate, in other minds, the hope which faith justifies; and it will leave the terrible question of the destinies of man, where centuries of vain investigation have left it--in the dark.
Having only undertaken in the present narrative to lead the way along a succession of events, the writer declines to follow modern examples by thrusting himself and his opinions on the public view. He returns to the shadow from which he has emerged, and leaves the opposing forces of incredulity and belief to fight the old battle over again, on the old ground.
THE events happened soon after the first thirty years of the present century had come to an end.
On a fine morning, early in the month of April, a gentleman of middle age (named Rayburn) took his little daughter Lucy out for a walk in the woodland pleasure-ground of Western London, called Kensington Gardens.
The few friends whom he possessed reported of Mr. Rayburn (not unkindly) that he was a reserved and solitary man. He might have been more accurately described as a widower devoted to his only surviving child. Although he was not more than forty years of age, the one pleasure which made life enjoyable to Lucy's father was offered by Lucy herself.
Playing with her ball, the child ran on to the southern limit of the Gardens, at that part of it which still remains nearest to the old Palace of Kensington. Observing close at hand one of those spacious covered seats, called in England "alcoves," Mr. Rayburn was reminded that he had the morning's newspaper in his pocket, and that he might do well to rest and read. At that early hour the place was a solitude.
"Go on playing, my dear," he said; "but take care to keep where I can see you."
Lucy tossed up her ball; and Lucy's father opened his newspaper. He had not been reading for more than ten minutes, when he felt a familiar little hand laid on his knee.
"Tired of playing?" he inquired--with his eyes still on the newspaper.
"I'm frightened, papa."
He looked up directly. The child's pale face startled him. He took her on his knee and kissed her.
"You oughtn't to be frightened, Lucy, when I am with you," he said, gently. "What is it?" He looked out of the alcove as he spoke, and saw a little dog among the trees. "Is it the dog?" he asked.
"It's not the dog--it's the lady."
The lady was not visible from the alcove.
"Has she said anything to you?" Mr. Rayburn inquired.
"What has she done to frighten you?"
The child put her arms round her father's neck.
"Whisper, papa," she said; "I'm afraid of her hearing us. I think she's mad."
"Why do you think so, Lucy?"
"She came near to me. I thought she was going to say something. She seemed to be ill."
"Well? And what then?"
"She looked at me."
There, Lucy found herself at a loss how to express what she had to say next--and took refuge in silence.
"Nothing very wonderful, so far," her father suggested.
"Yes, papa--but she didn't seem to see me when she looked."
"Well, and what happened then?"
"The lady was frightened--and that frightened me. I think," the child repeated positively, "she's mad."
It occurred to Mr. Rayburn that the lady might be blind. He rose at once to set the doubt at rest.
"Wait here," he said, "and I'll come back to you."
But Lucy clung to him with both hands; Lucy declared that she was afraid to be by herself. They left the alcove together.
The new point of view at once revealed the stranger, leaning against the trunk of a tree. She was dressed in the deep mourning of a widow. The pallor of her face, the glassy stare in her eyes, more than accounted for the child's terror--it excused the alarming conclusion at which she had arrived.
"Go nearer to her," Lucy whispered.
They advanced a few steps. It was now easy to see that the lady was young, and wasted by illness--but (arriving at a doubtful conclusion perhaps under the present circumstances) apparently possessed of rare personal attractions in happier days. As the father and daughter advanced a little, she discovered them. After some hesitation, she left the tree; approached with an evident intention of speaking; and suddenly paused. A change to astonishment and fear animated her vacant eyes. If it had not been plain before, it was now beyond all doubt that she was not a poor blind creature, deserted and helpless. At the same time, the expression of her face was not easy to understand. She could hardly have looked more amazed and bewildered, if the two strangers who were observing her had suddenly vanished from the place in which they stood.
Mr. Rayburn spoke to her with the utmost kindness of voice and manner.
"I am afraid you are not well," he said. "Is there anything that I can do--"
The next words were suspended on his lips. It was impossible to realize such a state of things; but the strange impression that she had already produced on him was now confirmed. If he could believe his senses, her face did certainly tell him that he was invisible and inaudible to the woman whom he had just addressed! She moved slowly away with a heavy sigh, like a person disappointed and distressed. Following her with his eyes, he saw the dog once more--a little smooth-coated terrier of the ordinary English breed. The dog showed none of the restless activity of his race. With his head down and his tail depressed, he crouched like a creature paralyzed by fear. His mistress roused him by a call. He followed her listlessly as she turned away.
After walking a few paces only, she suddenly stood still.
Mr. Rayburn heard her talking to herself.
"Did I feel it again?" she said, as if perplexed by some doubt that awed or grieved her. After a while her arms rose slowly, and opened with a gentle caressing action--an embrace strangely offered to the empty air! "No," she said to herself, sadly, after waiting a moment. "More perhaps when to-morrow comes--no more to-day." She looked up at the clear blue sky. "The beautiful sunlight! the merciful sunlight!" she murmured. "I should have died if it had happened in the dark."
Once more she called to the dog; and once more she walked slowly away.
"Is she going home, papa?' the child asked.
"We will try and find out," the father answered.
He was by this time convinced that the poor creature was in no condition to be permitted to go out without some one to take care of her. From motives of humanity, he was resolved on making the attempt to communicate with her friends.