Thursday, 20 December 2012

Fiction post: The Worser Part

Man the alarms! I am about to take this blog to places it has never been before.

By now, you're probably used to me using this URL to criticise other people's writing. You may even be one of the people I have criticised. If so, I am sorry. My heart is a lump of coal. But today, in a unique December miracle, I am turning everything on its head and posting my own short story for you to criticise at your leisure. Think of it as this blog's very own Christmas present to the internet.

Said story is a ghost story, because apparently nothing says 'Christmas' to my brain like posh Edwardian men getting haunted in Oxford. It came about because my friend Boadicea sent me an email asking for some M. R. James-style ghost story recommendations. I read this email immediately on waking up one morning, and in an intense pre-dawn, pre-coffee brain-wave I understood that what she was REALLY asking was for me to write her MY OWN M. R. James-style ghost story (she wasn't). But I sat down to write it anyway and since the whole thing came blurting out in less than 36 hours, it must have been in there somewhere already. It was obviously meant to be.

One final thing before I begin: although my characters are quite rude about Pembroke College, I do not share their distain. In fact, I grew up there, and it is one of my favourite places.



The Worser Part

“And that,” said Carmichael, “was when my haunting began.”

I believe, at first, that I thought I had misheard him. The wind was yelping and howling outside and making the catch on Carmichael’s window rattle like a train. The fire popped weakly, and I said, “Sorry, old man. I missed that. Say it again?”

“That,” repeated Carmichael, sticking out his jaw at me defiantly, “was when the hauntings began.”

Perhaps that is an unlikely beginning. But then what I have to tell is an unlikely tale!

To elucidate. It was late on a December evening, and we were sitting in Carmichael’s second-rate little rooms in front of a pale and distinctly second-rate little fire. The only consoling thing about the situation – Carmichael’s digs were jammed in halfway up a shoddy little back staircase in one of the shoddiest of the Oxford colleges – was the entirely excellent glasses of port we were both clutching in our chilly hands. That was Carmichael all over – a shoddy little back-stairs bounder, but he could still confound you by playing a trump card like that port. I believe everyone has a friend like Carmichael, by one name or another. 

That rather makes it sound as though Carmichael and I had been friends of the bosom since our Prep. school days. Not so. In fact, my friendship with this particular Carmichael was not one of a long standing, and indeed, on the evening when this account begins, we had only been acquainted for a matter of weeks.

Our first meeting came about in the following manner. After dinner in Hall I am accustomed to play a few rounds of bridge with other Christ Church men in the JCR. I am a keen bridge-player, and thus tend not to pay a great deal of attention to the goings-on around me – the atmosphere quickly becomes murky with smoke and hot with chatter – and of course, we play for stakes. That evening I remember I was doing rather well – I was up by a tidy sum, and one half of the opposing partnership, Tommy Macilhay, was cracking badly. He’d taken rather too much wine with dinner – rather too much wine altogether – and there were rumours that this was because he was in hock to a certain pub landlord in Blue Boar Street. I am not a man to listen to gossip, but at any rate, from the wine or from the landlord, his hands were shaking as he bet another guinea. We were declaring, and I won, and won again. I was just about to make the contract with a masterful bid in clubs when from behind me I felt a hand laid on my shoulder and a voice in my ear said, “No, no. Hearts, old man. You must play the hearts.”

I started. I believe I swore. At any rate, I lost the thread of the game, funked it badly and ended up throwing down some juvenile bid. Spades, I believe. Tommy Macilhay gave a sob of excitement, counter-bid wildly but unpleasantly well, and the other partnership took the rubber – and my winnings along with it. 

I spun about in a rage. The man who had done it – a man who I had never seen in our JCR before – was still behind me. He had a bounderish little moustache and beneath his gown his dinner-jacket had a nasty velvet collar to it. “What do you mean by that?” I asked the bounder furiously. “I’ve gone and lost!”

“Ah yes,” said the bounder, smiling behind his shrub of a moustache, “But I had a bet with my chum Brownrigg over there that you’d funk it, and, you see, I won.”

I was simply too angry to do anything but pant impotently. This fellow had come into my JCR and disrupted my bridge game – who did he think he was? 

“I’m a Pembroke man,” he said laconically, as if I had asked my question out loud. “Carmichael. Benjy Brownrigg introduced me to your delightful common room this evening. Oh, come now, old chap. You can’t have been hit too hard by it. I tell you what. I’ll make it up to you. What say I take you for a slap-up lunch at the Mitre tomorrow? Noon. You can’t refuse.”

I never thought Carmichael would be the sort of man who would honour his promises. But when I arrived at the Mitre the next day, there he was, a rather offensive cravat around his neck and a very large bottle of sherry on the table in front of him. He greeted me as though we had been friends for years – and thus it began!

I believe, despite all his side, that Carmichael was lonely. Certainly, after that lunch, he attached himself to me and refused to let go. On a more practical level, I suppose he wanted another ‘in’ to the Christ Church JCR – and I had my own reasons for tolerating him. That he was a bounder was certain, but he had a kind of style – a flair – for doing a thing, no matter the trouble or expense – and that, I admit, was rather fascinating to me.

Which brings us rather neatly around to the state of things on the evening when Carmichael opened his mouth and made his incredible pronouncement that he was being haunted!

I admit that when I first heard him, I laughed. Here, I thought, was Carmichael playing another one of his tricks! “Of course they did,” I said, humouring him. “Go on, tell the whole story.”

Carmichael, to my surprise, did not laugh along with me. He looked troubled, and clutched his port more tightly. “Seton, I – no. It’s no good trying to explain it now. I shall tell you the whole story, and we’ll see if you’re still laughing by the end.”

Then, as a thicker gust thumped against the window panes and the rotting old floorboards groaned under Carmichael’s chair, he took a deep swig of his excellent port (I considered that quite criminal!) and began.

“It was the same day old Foxy Turnbull played his trick with the stuffed tiger. You remember? Yes, well, I was off up the Turl to pick up my new suit from Walters’ – my scout ought to have done it, but of course, confound the man, he’d forgotten. This poxy little tinpot college, I tell you –”

This was a grievance that I had heard many times before. I said, “Come now, it isn’t so bad…”

“Even the immortal Doctor Johnson couldn’t hack it,” said Carmichael bitterly. “Which says rather a lot. And yet, here I am, buried in these rooms for the forseeable. I say! This story of mine has already got away from me. Well – yes – so – there I was, rushing up the Turl to Walters’, and that’s when I saw myself coming the other way.”

Again, I was sure that I had misheard him.

“No, you didn’t misunderstand,” said Carmichael, as though I had spoken. “I tell you, I saw myself coming the other way. There was no mistaking it. He – I – had on that old coat I used to wear – you wouldn’t remember it, I traded it in a month or so ago – and my hat with the green trim. He even had my leather gloves!”

There was no doubt as to which hat and gloves he meant. Until very recently Carmichael had been in the habit of affecting a rather ridiculous dark grey Homburg with a bottle-green trim, and gloves to match. The gloves, especially, were downright offensive, and I believe most of Oxford had been offended by them, at one time or another.
“I was knocked dead,” Carmichael went on. “Absolutely dead. Confound it, you don’t expect to see – that sort of thing - on the street!”

I could not quite understand his distress. A man wearing Carmichael’s old coat and a pair of green gloves? It sounded to me like a coincidence, an admiring copycat (unlikely, but still!), or, more probably, a silly student prank. I asked, “Did you see his face?”

Carmichael blustered and took another drink of port, from which I gathered that he had not. I was less than impressed, and I told him so. “Why, man, it could have been anyone! It could have been a prank! Most likely that was what it was. All Oxford knows those gloves of yours.”

“I haven’t told you the half of it yet,” said Carmichael, grim-faced. “That was merely the beginning. Of course, I was upset, but I thought – I thought things very much along the lines of what you have just said. Somehow I finished my errand, and then I went back to these rooms and had several stiff ones, and by the evening I was telling myself that I must have been mistaken. After all – well, you know. This is the dawn of the twentieth century! And that’s what I thought – that I had been mistaken – until the next time.”

I sat up in my chair. “The next time?”

“I was on Cornmarket one afternoon, just after the lamps had been lit. I looked to the right, and there I was, just coming out of the Golden Cross. This time I couldn’t mistake it. It was myself. The hat and the gloves, yes, they were mine, but the face – he turned his face up to the street light as he passed it and I saw my own face. My nose, and my jaw, and even – even this scar on my cheek. I tell you, I saw myself.”

I couldn’t help it. A cold shiver ran down my spine. But it was followed, a moment later, by the colder hand of reality. The mind, as we all know, is a strange organ. It plays tricks on us. What might we not see, if we believed! But unlike Carmichael, I am a rationalist. Tricks will not work on me!

“I still call prank,” I said obstinately.

Carmichael waved me away. “I’ve barely begun, old man. Over the next week I saw myself wherever I went. If I went into a pub, he would be coming out of it. If I went into a shop, he would have been there first. I caught sight of that green trim in every café and on every godforsaken winding street. After a few days of it I couldn’t face wearing my own.”

“Ah!” I said, laughing. “I wondered –”

“The greatest shock,” Carmichael went on, ignoring me, “was when he changed his coat. Didn’t I say that when I first caught sight of him he was wearing my old one? Well, a week after it started I turned the corner and nearly ran into him – in my brand new dark-blue frock. That was a truly nasty moment, for it proved that he was watching me as much as I was him. He could alter his appearance, and he would, just for the sake of aping me more closely! I went about in a dream of terror. 

“But I have still not told you everything. At first, I had only been able to see – me. He drew my eye – he seemed to shut up my brain. And yet, despite all that, I began to notice that he was not alone. He rushed about town like a many-headed demon, but whenever I saw him dashing past there would always be another figure in the crowd nearby. This one did not rush – it hardly moved – but like a slow, dark foul thing, like a leech on the hide of a great animal, it seem to accompany him wherever he went. It was the figure of a woman.

“She was small – almost as slight as a child – and she was dressed all in dusty black. A black veil covered her face completely, so that in the evenings she appeared to me like a piece of the darkness itself, something human-shaped but barely human. And while he – I – never seemed to notice me, she never seemed to stop watching. I believe that I became more afraid of her than I was of him!

“As I said, I began to live in a dream of horror, a private nightmare that went on and on. It was almost like being drugged, or blinded. I never said any of this to you, of course, or to anyone else. I kept it strictly to myself – in case I was going mad!

“At last I came to a crisis. It was the day after the party in Hendricks’ rooms, and I had woken up that morning feeling almost my usual self again. I saw that the whole thing was ridiculous, and I determined to have it out immediately. So when I saw him coming up the lane at Brewer Street, I checked and blocked his way. I felt in that moment as though I might really do something.

"But then –  oh, horrid! –  I felt my arm seized from behind. It was a grip like a bar of iron! 

"I shouted out loud, and turned – and there was that infernal black-clad woman. Both of her claw-like gloved hands were around my wrist. Up close, my impression of her as something dark was even stronger. Her little form was lost in the folds of her dusty old gown, and her face – I had the mad feeling that she hadn’t a face, just a blank surface beneath that veil which she tilted emptily at me. Back in my nightmare again, I saw the veil move – I saw it gape low down – and out of it came a voice like cold steel. 

“‘You have made the wrong decision.'

“I couldn’t speak. My tongue had dried to the roof of my mouth and my eyes were dim. I could only see that foul gaping veil and hear that voice. 

'You have made the wrong decision.'

“And then – reason this out, Seton, you infernal rationalist! – and then, she was gone. Vanished! And he gone along with her. I was alone in Brewer’s Lane.

“After that I felt a strange sort of fatalism coming over me. I walked around town and I saw – confound it, I tell you that I am not mad! – I saw him everywhere. And everywhere he was, she was as well. Her voice seemed to follow me down cobbled streets and along narrow alleyways – you have made the wrong decision. But what wrong decision had I made? I drew up a catalogue of  shortcomings, even to my most minor peccadilloes, but still I could not fathom it out.

“And then I began to notice something else. This man, in his green trimmed hat and gloves, was me, absolutely and undoubtedly – and yet, he was not. In little things – in the smallest, most trivial details – he was differing. He was becoming a mockery of me. One day I came upon him in the High Street, leaving a gentleman’s outfitters and wearing a bright red scarf. Not two weeks before, I had been into that outfitters, and I had toyed with buying that scarf – but I had not done it! Was this what that woman had meant by making the wrong decision? And yet! Something as worthless as the choice of a scarf? It could not be.

“That scarf followed me around town like an insult, and her words went with it. In every deserted lane, and at every abandoned doorway I seemed to hear her speak again. She was with me in my sleep, her veil moving before my eyes. I began to fear the dark – oh, irrationally, for I knew that there was no escape from her in the light. 

“You must have noticed how I kept you up in the evenings?” Carmichael asked me suddenly.

I had. But I had thought it was merely a quirk of his. After all, how was I to know what the man was really like from our short acquaintance?

I shrugged helplessly, and Carmichael carried on. He was growing more agitated, the hand that held his port jerking about violently.

“I had dreams – such dreams! I was tormented by that one thought – that of a decision. What decision had I made? What could it be? 

I had a terrible feeling that it was all leading up to something vile, something that I could not stop. That red scarf! Oh, foul! And her veil!”

At that moment I was really concerned about Carmichael. His eyes were bulging and he looked quite lunatic. I said,

“Old man! Hold hard. You’ll do yourself an injury. Will you let me reason with you?”

“No!” gasped Carmichael. “Not yet! I must come to the point. I am nearly at it and I must hold on to the story! 

“I told you I felt that something was coming. The sensation had become so strong that I was almost sinking under it. I began to feel – well – that I only wanted to be done with whatever it was. I wanted to face the worst, to know it, rather than be stuck with this endless unmanly dread. So, this very afternoon past, I went searching for myself.

“He was on the High Street. On the High Street, in broad daylight, under a sunny sky! I saw him there, and it overwhelmed me. How such a thing could be! I stopped him. I cannot recall what words I used, but I believe they were insolent. I was at the end of my tether. He looked at me – through me –  and it was like my mirror had taken on a life of its own. I saw that scarf, and it seemed to mock me.

“Then she was beside him. Her veil moved, although there was no breeze. I babbled at them both, saying frenzied things – to leave me alone, to go away. They merely stood there and looked at me. At least, she did! If he did I could not tell. 

“At last I gathered all my strength – it felt as though I was on the last lap of a thousand metre dash – and cried out, ‘What is it? What do you want? What have I done?’ I seemed to feel all of Oxford rising up around me, all its yellow stones and spires spinning about my head. 

He was silent. She spoke. ‘We want nothing. You have merely made the wrong decision.’

“In that moment, I must have had a brain-wave. I could not see, I could not think – I staggered away like an invalid. I do not know how I made my way back to my rooms, only that I found myself there some hours later. I really thought – I really thought that that was the end for me. What wrong decision had I made? Some gambling, perhaps, but that never did anyone any harm. I have never been much of a one for girls, and I am not, really, as much of a rake as I seem. My life has been neither good nor bad, so – what truly wrong decision could I have made

“And that, you see, was when I decided to come to you.”

I really thought, then, that I had to stop him. “Old fellow,” I said, “you have worked yourself up into a passion for long enough. For heavens’ sake! This is clearly all just a student prank - although, I admit, an unusually protracted one – that you have taken in the wrong way. You are not well!”

Carmichael’s hand trembled piteously. “But it – it’s real!” he cried. “I’d stake my life on it!”

“Real in your own mind, perhaps. But your mind is clearly disordered. It is diseased! Faceless women, doubles walking about in broad daylight? I’ve never heard such a thing. You are ill. Your weak mind caught on some trifling error you committed, some trivial debt or bad hand at cards, and magnified it into a cardinal sin. Depend upon it, someone (Foxy, perhaps, I wouldn’t put it past him) decided to tease you by dressing in a hat and gloves like yours, and you have made mountains out of it.”

Carmichael let out a sob. “Do you think so?” he gasped. “Do you really?”

“I know it, old thing,” I said reassuringly. “I know it. What you need is rest, and a break from this infernally busy city! You can’t think here. You should get away, to the Cotswolds, perhaps, as soon as Michaelmas term is over. In fact, you ought not to go walking around the streets any more. Come out with me on one of my early-morning rambles on the Meadow and you’ll soon feel better.”

“I shall,” said Carmichael fervently. “I shall! Oh, you can’t think what a relief it is to hear you say these things!”

I laughed. “Rationality,” I said. “Rationality’s the thing. You must just take a leaf out of my book. You know, you must know, that there are no such things as ghosts.”

Looking sheepish, Carmichael said that, of course, I was right. He drunk the rest of his port at a gulp – again, I was wounded by the sight – and slumped back in his old arm-chair. The wind buffeted away outside and a door slammed somewhere below. The floorboards were groaning quietly to themselves as they settled and the nasty little fire was almost embers in the grate.

“Well,” I said abruptly, after a short silence. “I must go. Sleep well, old man. No more silly dreaming! Remember, the Meadow gates tomorrow at eight o’clock sharp!”

Carmichael nodded gratefully and I left his poky little chambers, with the same shudder of relief that always overcomes me. I crossed St Aldates at a fair trot and was soon back in more salubrious surroundings. It was good to be back in my own warm, well-appointed rooms, with washing water and fresh pyjamas laid down in readiness by my faultless scout Peters! I went to bed with a sigh, and slept sweetly.

The next morning the wind had dropped, putting down in its place a chilly and all-enveloping winter mist. I got up with a spring in my step and dressed carefully, in a sober suit and dark woollen great-coat. I looked at my reflection in the mirror before I went out and was satisfied by what I saw. There was nothing bounderish about me.

Carmichael, of course, was wearing an exceedingly loud tie and his hat, re-trimmed with a purple band. It was really indecent, I thought to myself. But he looked more cheerful than he had done the night before. His moustache was impeccably waxed.

“Jolly good morning!” said Carmichael to me. “What a difference a night makes! I say, this was a good idea of yours. I haven’t been here since – goodness, it must be nearly a month!” He faded away into meditative silence. I did not ask him what he meant, but began to stride out along the path with my stick swinging.

The mist lay thick across the whole Meadow, hanging about us in a heavy white cloud as we strolled along the arcade of beeches towards the river. It was very cold and darkish within it, and Carmichael, in his frock coat, shivered. 

“Queer, isn’t it,” he said, “with no other people about? Almost like we’re in a dream!”

I looked at him sharply. 

“Not a dream,” I said. “Remember, we’re having no more talk of dreams!”

We were coming to the end of the straight. Before us the river hung, low and whitish under the white mist. It seemed barely to be moving. The sun was just dragging itself over the horizon, bringing with it a halo of cold, milky colour. Truly, there was not another soul about.

Again, Carmichael shivered. He dawdled at the river-side.

“Buck up, old man!” I said. “Fresh air and exercise, that’s the thing for you.”

“I know,” said Carmichael wretchedly. His waxed moustache was drooping under fine droplets of mist and his face was pale. Indeed, he looked rather ill! “It’s only – it’s only that forgetting this whole affair is easier said than done, Seton.”

“Come now!” I cried. “You’re with me. You know as well as I do that ghosts have an aversion to company.”
Carmichael gave a sort of barking laugh at that witticism of mine – but it tailed off into a whimper of fear. He was staring ahead of us, at the path along the river bank, and I have never seen such an expression of terror on a human face.

“Seton!” he whispered. “Seton! Look! Here he is!”

Coming through the white mist towards us was a figure, and around its neck blazed a bright red scarf.

I admit, I was shaken! But it took me only a moment to remember that red scarves, for all their  uncomfortable connection to Carmichael’s ridiculous tale, were two-a-penny, and could be commonly found around the necks of perfectly ordinary, perfectly earthly human beings. I pointed this out to Carmichael. I might as well have been speaking to a stone. He gripped my arm and stood stock still, trembling like a mouse. 

“Carmichael!” I said. “This is really foolishness! Be a man! That is simply another early-morning walker!”
But then the mist cleared a little in front of us, and I, too, was struck into silence.

For it was Carmichael. It was the very man! Carmichael’s slightly hooded eyes, his narrow jaw, his scar and his asinine little moustache – all were there on the face of the man who approached us. He was staring ahead of himself – he seemed not to see us trembling before him – and yet on he came. What could it mean? 

“This is nonsense!” I said. “Simply nonsense!”

“This is the truth,” Carmichael replied quietly. “Will you believe me now?”

“But it is fantastic!”

“Nevertheless,” said Carmichael, “here it is.”

Meanwhile, the man – Carmichael, for truly it was he – had stopped a few feet from where we stood. He looked to his left – like his double beside me, he dawdled and stared down at the river, just as though he was on some pleasure walk. The scarf around his neck burned like a flame.

“Hi!” I called out to him. “Hi, you!” 

But the other Carmichael did not turn.

And then, as though my voice has been its cue, another figure swam out of the thick mist towards us. This one was not a man. It was a low, slight, creeping figure, and it was draped head to toe in the deepest black. Beside me, Carmichael shrieked aloud, and at the sound – oh, horrid to behold – it turned its veiled head and looked at him.

I understood then what Carmichael had meant about her face. There was no sense of humanity in her. I felt somehow that were that veil removed, no countenance would be discovered beneath it. Or no human countenance! And yet, I felt the force of her empty gaze. 

Then the veil moved, low down, its lace sucked in as into a vacuum, and out of it a voice came. Such a voice!

You have made the wrong decision.”

“No!” cried Carmichael, next to me, in an agony of fear. “No! Tell me what I have done!”

But the figure only fell silent again, and turned its terrible head to look at Carmichael’s double. 

He was still dawdling along the river bank, seemingly ignorant of the drama around him. He bent – he picked a stalk of winter grass – he stripped it and cast it into the water to watch it float. Then he seemed to hear something behind him. He turned, with a glad expression on his face, and out of that infernal mist came a third – shall I call it a ghost? There seems to be no better term.

Both Carmichael and I exclaimed at the sight, for we both knew the figure well. It was the spitting image of Benjy Brownrigg, a Christ Church man like myself – the very man, in fact, who had brought Carmichael into the JCR on the night of our meeting. And yet Benjy, I knew, had been sent down two weeks before for cheating at cards, and was currently atoning for his sins on the Brownriggs’ family estate in Norfolk. 

As we watched, Benjy and Carmichael greeted each other enthusiastically and then appeared to fall into cheerful discussion, although in no language my ear could perceive. There was something utterly grotesque in the sheer normality of the thing. This might have been any casual meeting, between any two high-spirited young men – and yet! 

“Yes,” said the veiled figure beside us. “Yes, you have made the wrong decision,” – and she lifted her shrivelled little paw of a hand in its dark glove and pointed, like the image of Fate, at the two shades.

Again, Carmichael cried out. I turned to look at him, and saw his pale face working frantically. He was struggling with some terrible understanding, something that was purely his. “But –” he gasped out, at last. “But – I remember this. This was the morning – why, this was the morning Brownrigg met me in the Meadow and invited me to dinner in Hall with him. This – this was the morning of the day I first met you, Seton.”

Still the woman’s dark finger was pointing. And now Carmichael – the other Carmichael – was shaking his head regretfully, and patting Brownrigg on the back. They were taking their leave of each other. They were moving away. The red scarf dimmed and then died away in the distance, and we three were alone on the bank of the river.

The woman lowered her arm. 

“But,” whispered Carmichael, “that isn’t how it went at all. I accepted Brownrigg's invitation. We went to dinner. I – I met you.”

“Yes,” I said. “By playing that filthy card-trick upon me!”

We were very close to the edge of the water. I could hear it sighing and lapping against the path’s edge. It sounded so patient – and so hungry! Carmichael was looking at me with something dawning in his face. There was a confusion, but across that, and bleeding into it, there was also – fear. Of me!

I saw then that there was nothing to be gained from further delay. So I raised my cane and brought it sharply down across Carmichael’s leg, and then, as he was still reeling from the blow, I stretched out my hands as hard as I could and I pushed him into the water.

There was not even a splash! I am sure there was not. The Isis merely opened up its mouth for him, as pearly and neat as you like, and swallowed him whole. He rose up again, of course. I have heard that they always do. 

The first time he said, “But I can’t swim!”

“Exactly,” I said. I felt very smooth and slow, just like the river. “You bounders never can swim. Your lack of a good public school education!”

The second time he said, “Help me!”

“Certainly not,” I said. “I should think that was the point.”

The third time he came up he said merely, “Why?”

“A good card game is life’s primary pleasure,” I said. “I don’t take kindly to those who do me out of it.”
Then he went down, and he did not come up again. In that spot, as I know well, the Isis is unexpectedly deep.

I reflected that I had not been entirely truthful with Carmichael. After all, it had not been merely pleasure that he had done me out of! That term I had been finding the allowance from my father sadly inadequate to keep up with the demands of bridge evenings in the JCR. The evening we met I had been on the verge of reclaiming the money that was mine – the money that I needed! For, to be truthful with you, it was not only Tommy Macilhay who was in hock to a landlord in Blue Boar Street. And then Carmichael had taken it away from me. For what? For a bet, and an unsporting one at that!

Well, I had made him pay. I had made both of them pay, although for Brownrigg I judged that a word in the ear of the Dean, leading to a little premature rustication, would be enough. After all, Brownrigg was a gentleman! But for a bounder like Carmichael – who could tell where he had come from, after all, and what he might do in future if left unchecked? This was really the only way. 

How those infernal – whatever they were – shades? Ghosts? – had known about my plan, I could not judge. How they could even exist was beyond me, but as a rationalist I had to believe in the evidence of my own eyes! 

That thought brought me back to myself, and the river bank, and I turned my head lazily to see that the black-clad woman was still huddled beside me.

“Haven’t you done your work?” I asked. “Get yourself back to Hell, or wherever it is you came from!”

Her sightless blank aspect turned itself to me. I could feel her rage – really feel it, like I was beginning to feel the morning sun on my cheek!

“You,” she hissed, her veil moving foully, “you have made the wrong decision.”

We were suddenly face to face, and her iron claw of a hand was around my wrist like a vice.

I drew myself up, and when I spoke I put the full force of my true English breeding into my voice. “You,” I said, “are nothing but air and imagination, neither of which I have any truck with, and you mean nothing but the fear of death, which is a fear that I do not possess. Therefore, you are nothing to do with me, and I must ask you to unhand me immediately.” 

And with that I reached out with my free hand and made a snatch at that filthy veil.

She shrieked. If I ever heard a noise that was rage, pure and simple, anger personified and made sound, it was at that moment. 

I closed my eyes against it, and when I opened them again I was alone on the banks of the river, with the rising sun cutting through the mist and making the buttons on my great-coat glow.

As I said, I am a rationalist! I know that there is nothing a ghost can do to hurt me. And that is why, when  – as I have recently – I see a man who looks like me in town, with a veiled lady beside him as he rushes from place to place, I do not worry about it at all.

After all, I have never yet made a decision I was not proud of.