I walked northward with Edmund toward his house, which was situated opposite my favorite park. It was reassuring to have an old friend at my side, a friend whom I had cherished since we were quite young, a comrade who had befriended me when I was a scrappy newsboy and he was the sprightly, amiable, and bossy son of a newspaper publisher.
The grown Edmund who strolled at my side, cane in hand, bowler on head, looked, despite those gentlemanly accoutrements, much the same as the boyish Edmund: He had the same mass of thick, sandy hair; the same bright, sharp, and alert green eyes; the same playful smile of one who enjoyed pleasant banter; and the same partiality toward brown-checked tweed frock coats.
I could tell by the way my friend cleared his throat that he was about to assume the older-brother hat he often wore with me, which he had employed since we were boys. It was the hat of an elder gentleman, one who took pleasure in advising a younger man on how best to proceed through the world.
Edmund was only a few months my senior, but he had instantly taken—when we met—and had always maintained—since then—an attitude of protecting concern because I was an orphan and because I had no money, other than what I earned, at my disposal. Thus I required direction, and fraternal care.
Edmund enjoyed looking after others. I always thought he would have made an excellent physician, for he was compassionate and selfless and doctrinaire. He would do anything for anyone in need, and he often looked for people to shower help upon—it fed a hunger in him that was roused by a rightful belief that all people deserved the quality of life that he had been born into. Nary was a time I sauntered with him when he did not dispense bread or money to someone in need, which is precisely what he had done for me, for I would not have been reared under a comfortable roof or with nourishing vittles, or indeed, had the benefit of a fine education, if it were not for the grace of Edmund and the generosity of his father.
Presently, having cleared his throat a number of times in the manner that signaled the imminence of sober discourse, Edmund began, as we strolled through fallen leaves, our conference with a pleasant declaration: “Helen would love to see you, Henry. You must join us for dinner.”
“Oh, thank you, Mundy, but Mrs. Jameson will have prepared something, and I do not want to disappoint her by not showing appreciation for her efforts.”
“Ah. Another time, then. But you must reenter society sometime, Henry. We have seen so little of you since Miss Bellefey rescinded her hand.”
“I have felt so little up to anything since then. Only the house has stirred me from the hopelessness I’ve felt since losing the affections of Miss Bellefey.”
“Indeed. I imagine. My own anguish, were I to lose Helen’s love, would be as profound. But how can a dreary house stir you from hopelessness? It sounds like such a strange house, Henry. Rumble—?”
“Lumble, yes, and Mrs. —Jameson?”
“The two sound so odd, Henry. Not to mention the weather. And the isolation. And the decay! That alone is depressing enough. The tales you tell, and the more I consider them—”
“I admit that the house has its strangeness. Certainly the woman in white is quite curious—”
“Curious, certainly, but not inexplicable, as you intimate. Consider: If she is not a servant—as Jameson and Lumble insist (if indeed their accounts are reliable, though I must say that I do not, judging by your accounts of their actions, hold the word of either party in great esteem)—indeed, assuming those queer persons are telling the truth when they say that there are no other servants—then the woman must be a vagrant who, on that first night, did not know that the house was no longer unoccupied. You saw her only once, is that correct?”
“Only once in plain sight. But, as I have said, I have had glimmers of her each evening—and the feeling, as I sleep, that she stands again at my bedside—”
“At your bedside, Henry? Are you quite sure? Have you mentioned this before? I fear not. Indeed, my concern grows as we speak, old friend. What if this woman means you harm, Henry? You are too isolated, Henry. Too far from your friends. Your landlord is an invalid; your servants are peculiar; I am concerned about your safety.”
“Nonsense, Mundy. I am perfectly safe. Besides, if I were in danger, I could defend myself with ease. You forget my size. It can be viewed as quite intimidating.”
“So you are tall, Henry. But you have lost weight as well as Miss Bellefey. There is nothing intimidating about your girth, unless one is intimidated by emaciation, which, come to think of it, I believe I am. Reconsider, Henry—please do have dinner with us. You require nourishment. Heaven knows what scraps Mrs. Jameson is feeding you.”
“As a matter of fact, my dear friend, the good woman is fattening me up on roast beef, potatoes, and cakes. I am getting plumper by the day, though you cannot tell because, admittedly, I did lose a considerable amount of weight. But I feel that the vittles are beginning to make me meaty, and I assure you that, though slowly, I am progressing better than you fear.”
“Perhaps. I will concede that for the moment, as I trust your optimism. But let us return to our larger concern: That of your safety. What if there are others in cahoots with your vagrant visitor, and they mean to rob you, or maim you?”
“I suspect that the woman is alone and she means no harm.”
“You suspect? That does not set me at ease, Henry. A mere suspicion that she means no harm. Indeed, you should be alarmed. It should alarm you very much indeed. I say—Inspector Morris and I will make vigil at your bedside. Tonight. We will sit up and take action if the woman appears.”
“That is not necessary, Mundy, but thank you. For your concern. I suspect that the woman in white is not the kind of vision one could take action against.”
This was an allusion to my suspicion about the woman—a suspicion I had not indicated previously per se, for I had not wanted to alarm my friend. But, in the context of our parley, it seemed appropriate now to refer to said suspicion.
But Mundy, being scientifically minded, and blind to the numinous, missed the hint. Rather, he said: “That is what the Inspector will be there for, Henry. He will arrest her for trespassing.”
I said: “You cannot arrest a spirit, Mundy.”
“Ah!” Mundy said.
His eyes flashed with animation.
“I knew it would come to this. An old abandoned mansion . . . it could go no other way with an imagination as gifted as yours. A spirit, Henry! Indeed! I do not believe it for an instant.”
“I did not ask you to believe it, Mundy. I am merely telling you what I suspect.”
“And what if this woman—this vision—this spirit—what if she—or, as you would have it, it—what if it means you harm?”
“Again, dear friend, I suspect that she means no harm. The Admiral and Emma would react differently toward her presence.”
“Ah. Two stray animals are capable of judging the character of a mysterious ‘spirit.’”
“The Admiral was not a stray—”
“Come, now, Henry. We are not talking about your pets. I know you cherish them, and I am glad you found them. But you must admit that this depression has led you to make unsound decisions. To draw illogical conclusions. To overlook the obvious. And, Henry, more importantly, regardless of the living state of your strange visitor, who will know if you are hurt? I do wish you would just take up residence with Helen and me.”
“I will not be a bachelor burden to you, old friend.”
I said this with the wry tone and the half smile that I knew Mundy appreciated. It was an allusion to one of our jokes—that if either of us were unfortunate enough to remain a bachelor, he would not burden the other with his bachelordom.
When very young, laughingly, we had vowed to marry beautiful, charming, and loving women at any cost; we vowed that our children would play together; that our wives would be close friends. All this had seemed so bright and possible in the spring, but during the summer, Miss Bellefey’s feelings had changed, and as Mundy had married Helen in July, I was now, I could see, as our chuckles fell to the earth with the gravity of sober seriousness, in danger of actually burdening my friend with worry.
“Please do not be concerned, Mundy,” I said. “You and Helen will have children soon. That fact must occupy your thoughts (not to mention your actions) with all the joy that is natural to it. Besides, I take heart in the fact that if I cannot savor Miss Bellefey’s love, I can at least take a daily account of the beauty of the house on the lake.”
“That is hardly the same thing, Henry.”
“Believe me, Mundy, I know. I am merely taking pleasure in what I can. Give Helen a kiss for me, dear friend, and I will report on tonight’s events tomorrow.”
We shook hands at the entrance to the park, and as I turned to enter the world of trees, Edmund’s parting words resounded in the hush: “Take heed, old chap.”