tagErotic HorrorThe Ghost in the Looking-Glass

The Ghost in the Looking-Glass

byROBERTODAVO©

Eight o'clock on a July evening - and you had been walking all day, stopping at pubs on the way, drinking heavily. And now you were on the Strand passing the ivy-grown church. In the distance across the waters the great red sinking sun flashed its rays.

And there before you rose an old-style Methodist chapel. You thought at once of those early preachers threatening a worse hell than any pit of fire and brimstone. Your father had been Lay Preacher, you recalled, and your mind drifted to the man possessed by many devils; the one who ran mad among the tombs and cried out.

It was now growing darker suddenly, moonless, with the wind blowing icily through the streets, driving a thin drizzle of rain before it.

And you were dog tired, bone weary. The salty taste of the wind in your mouth. You felt as though some Nemesis were following you. A close observer would have noticed the look of terror in your eyes. The quintessence of madness, you reflected. For a moment, you felt like a man standing on the brink of a precipice, while beneath you yawned unfathomable darkness. You felt you were stymied at every turn, like a swimmer floundering in a merciless current.

And so you decided to turn into a hotel where you would spend time drinking double scotches.

The sharp edges of the bar were becoming nicely rounded. A faint mist was obscuring the far end of the room. This was not the first bar you had visited that day.

Presently, two or three working-men came in, and the atmosphere of the room seemed to grow warmer and more cheerful.

You suddenly had a sense of Eleanor's presence there. Then you realized that this was the pub that you had often visited with her. You hadn't intended to come in here. You hadn't intended to reopen the past.

At the bar a girl perched on a stool. Large bright blue eyes that suggested an unknown world. Perhaps this was what you needed, a girl to help you forget.

She must have felt your gaze. Her eyes flashed into yours.

Then she winked, and without so much as by your leave, came and sat at your table.

'What's a nice-looking fellow like you doing on your own?' You gave a start like a man aroused from a dream. 'Aren't you going to invite me a drink?'

'Oh, uh – sure.' You mutter.

But you could not focus your attention on the girl. Memory after memory crowded into your brain, and made the past live again.

The girl made a few more attempts at desultory conversation, saying she had a room upstairs if you were interested. You made a non-commital remark and she turned away.

And at that moment there was a sudden influx of people into the room, chattering, and in less than no time the place was crowded.

Your mind drifted to that Indian summer you had first met Eleanor.

Then had come into your mind the knowledge which made the night black, made your world seem a charnel-house. It was queer, you thought, how you could go on behaving just as usual on the surface, while all the time you knew inside that you were really dead. You had that dreadful feeling of moving apart in a nightmare world of your own, spiritually cut off from the people around you.

But you had lost what was dearest to you in life. Your wife, Eleanor was dead. And you were plunged into the blackest hell. No hope of ever seeing her again. You had known the utter desolation of loss.

The girl at your table was getting impatient. 'Well, are you coming?' she demanded. But so deep were you in your memory you made no answer.

More people came into the room and others left.

The girl with a toss of her head went off looking for a more promising client.

Eventually you were to leave the hotel and to make your way through the suburb to another pub. Outside the wind was rising and the night was dark and moonless. A light rain continued to fall.

Inside the Morning Star Hotel you booked a room for the night after collecting a fresh bottle of whiskey from the bottle shop and then made your way upstairs.

Alone in your room you are in a state of delirium as you continue drinking. You are confronted by a vast oval looking-glass filling the greater part of one wall, with the brightest and clearest glass you've ever seen, throwing back the flickering reflections from the neon light outside your window.

You walked across the room to the mirror to look at yourself. And in the mirror you saw, behind yourself, behind your own reflection a man standing well back in the glass. Quickly, you turned around but there is no one in the room behind you. Then you turned back to the looking-glass.

And as you look once more into the glass, it is not quite your own face you see. A much older man looks back at you. At first you thought this older man might be your father, but the features were different as your father was nearly bald whereas this man has a large shock of grey hair.

Soon you realized that the man in the glass was an older version of yourself, you as you will most probably be in about twenty or thirty years' time. The white face gleamed with the look of a dipsomaniac.

You looked into the mirror and it is as though your self had split, splintered might be the better word. Your reflection seems to take on a life of its own. It was yourself and yet you were separate and distant from your self. Your shadow-self, as it were.

'It's myself! But as a much older man!' And you gasp aloud your own name in a strangled voice.

A dead white face.A face as white as wax.A pair of red-rimmed eyes. Eyes filled with a terrible hunger. A mop of coarse hair. The vague sense of apprehension which gripped you was quickening into a sharp fear.

And then the man in the reflection moved to a position towards the table in front of the glass. A gleam of speculative interest filled his dreadful eyes. His mouth was open, his throat muscles were working, but no sound issued forth.

This amused you and you addressed the figure in the looking-glass by your own name, talking to it quite familiarly.

'Well, Arnold Robartes, they got you off. You're a free man. The jury brought in a verdict of 'Not Guilty'. They couldn't link you directly to Eleanor's death. And so you've escaped a murder rap! Dad got Owen Galbally, the best defence lawyer, and he got you off. So you're free.'

The man in the looking-glass again attempted to talk but although his lips were moving you could not hear what he said. His lips kept on moving. And you were trying to guess what he was saying.

But were you free? You began to wonder. Inside yourself it was as though your shadow-self was always tormenting you, saying, of course there was not enough solid evidence to convince a jury.

You were now wishing you could just forget everything, wipe it all from your mind, fall into a deep sleep, and then wake up and start your life afresh. But there could be no new beginning, you thought, you could never start a new life. You could never get back to where you once were.

For in your own mind you knew that you had been the one to kill your own wife, Eleanor Robartes, in a fit of savage jealousy.

You stared into the looking-glass as the figure in the glass seems to nod in agreement.

With shadows shifting, dancing in the room and the light outside flickering, it is easy to imagine movement.

The tall figure before you held a repellent fascination for you and you felt like Hamlet confronting the ghost of his father. You suddenly felt an urge to touch him. But when you looked again he had changed position. His mouth was opening and closing. And then he was moving backwards, seemingly deeper into the glass, his eyes blazing with a strange unholy light. His right arm was raised!

You felt that this man's personality was more and more dominating you, and that, in spite of yourself, you were thinking with this man's mind, seeing with this man's eyes. It was as though you were looking into your own conscience.

And then as this man stood there, his eyes became fixed on a woman standing beside him in the looking-glass. And you saw that the woman was Eleanor! And you felt an unexplainable dread. Eleanor was turned slightly away and was looking back over one deathly white shoulder and seemed to be pleading with you; her eyes raking your face with a burning intensity. A mute appeal.

Although no sound came from the mirror her lips moved and she appeared to be beseeching you as though she were pleading with you against yourself, saying, 'Don't do it, Arnold.'

There was something inexorable about her gesture - a strange, frozen significance. You wanted to comfort her in some way, but you could not make her hear.

And then the faces in the looking-glass began to dissolve and you were alone in the room. You felt as if a nail had been driven into your head. And you knew there was no way you could remain in that room for the rest of the night and so you left and found yourself walking in the streets once more. Outside the wind was steadily rising, but the rain had stopped.

You glanced over your shoulder often, like a man who fears a horrible presence at his elbow. Pools of light broken by shadows filled the streets. It was a cold wintry night and you were going about in a heavy overcoat that felt like a shroud.

You kept on walking in the suburb which was by now very strange to you. You were losing yourself a maze of streets. All along Electra Street the plane trees were shedding their leaves. Douglas Parade was all in shadow. You kept walking. You wanted badly to distract yourself in some way.

You turned into a narrow street, attracted by the light of a curio shop. A pool of light cast by a high window flooded the cobble-stoned road. Out of the shadows came a woman. You stood for a moment, your heart seemed to stand still – so still! You could scarcely breathe. The woman faded back into the shadows for a moment and you cried out.

'Ah!'you exclaimed. 'I see you.'

'Of course you do,' the woman replied. 'I'm standing right in front of you.'

'Who... who ... are you? you croaked. You could see her clearly for the first time.'

'You know only too well who I am, Arnold.' Her voice was almost matter-of fact as she said it.

You were astounded at seeing what appeared to be Eleanor standing outside a bookshop, as if she had just risen from her coffin. Her striking high-boned face, glittering dark eyes that seemed to float beneath their lids in overly large sockets. The streetlight picked up the burnished light in her hair.

'Hello Arnold,' she said almost conversationally.

The phantasm was perfect and vivid, as if it had been flesh and blood. The eyes, dark and piercing as shards of obsidian.

'Eleanor! It can't be!' your voice stopped in your throat.

Of course it wasn't Eleanor. Eleanor was dead. It must be a trick of the light, you reasoned as well as the quantity of alcohol you had consumed that night. But the vision in your head was so real. The oval face, those eyes, the full pointing breasts.

And then you were aware of a movement as a ghostly hand came to rest upon your own. The queer thing was that you were neither frightened nor surprised. It seemed to be the most natural thing in the world that you should be walking in the street with Eleanor on a night of ghost-touched mist. You walked companionably, you shortening your stride to accommodate hers.

You walked like that for a long moment, side by side, without uttering a word. And as you walked towards the beach, her thoughts seemed to become yours and yours hers. It was as though you had stepped into each other's minds and dwelled there a while. She seeming to read your most intimate feelings with a subtle intelligence.

'You wanted me dead, Arnold.' she said meeting your eyes with a look of stone.

'The jury found me not guilty,' you said defensively.

'But you know that you wanted me dead. You have the killer instinct of a barracuda. You punched me and then you pushed me against the sharp marble edge of the mantelpiece.'

And then she spoke as if she were an angel condemning Lucifer to the fiery furnace.'You never really loved me, Arnold.'

'I found you in bed with Neville Thurston.'

The outline of her mouth hardened. Scorn. 'That was because of you and Ruth Parker. You could never love me: you never got over your obsession for that woman.. You married me but still loved her.'

This was true enough, you thought, though you had done everything possible to forget your first love. In your despair you had wanted to break the charm your old love had wound around you.

You had tried desperately to rip from your heart you passion for Ruth Parker, to renounce your love, to tear her from your mind, tear her from your flesh.

'You harboured another woman in your heart - and never me, of that I was certain.' Eleanor said most bitterly.

You had loved your first love with such passion that it was impossible for you to believe that underneath she did not love you back. You did not realise then that love is never returned in kind and sometimes not at all.

'I had no contact with Ruth once I married you,' you said defensively.

'No, but Ruth was never out of your mind. Not even when you were making love to me. A woman can sense these things!'

It was true, you knew. Your world had revolved around Ruth Parker for several years, but flighty Ruth had married Erwin Jones in the end. Erwin! The protruding ears, the matted red hair. And you had married Eleanor on the rebound.

The terrible gnawing guilt you had always felt in Eleanor's presence. You knew that you had not loved her enough, had not loved her deeply, but you could not help that.

No man can control his love, you knew. This was the saddest realisation of all. A man had no control over the most important emotion of his life. You cannot command love. Love goes of its own volition.

'You never really opened up to me, Arnold. It always seemed to be out of a sense of duty. There was never any kind of real union in our love-making,' she was saying. Her womanly pride had bled at of tolerating a love unvalued.

'I was lonely for a man's affections. Neville courted me as you never did, he worshipped me and I was weak with longing for a man who could love me. I was tempted and I burned.'

'You were always holding back, always inhibited, unable to let go. For three years, Arnold, I was faithful only to you. I wanted to give you my whole heart, to be content to love you simply without reason. But I could never get close enough. There was always an inhibiting barrier, like an invisible wall between us.'

Yes, this was true. You were never certain in the honest part of yourself that you had ever really loved Eleanor. You were always conscious of a guilt because although you had married her, you could not love her as you should.

But you had wanted marriage. To marry meant respectability, family, children. You were not suited for casual relations. You were a husband by nature, you felt. You wanted a family, a home and children. You were thirty-nine, settled in your father's business. You had to find yourself a wife.

And Eleanor had wanted children! And you had proposed.

At first things seemed to go well, and on your wedding night your new bride had teased you, saying 'I'll probably have twins, Arnold, seeing that we've done it twice.'

But as those early married years went on, there was no child. The doctors said that your sperm count was too low. And there was no child. No child that you and Eleanor had both wanted. And it hurt deeply, it cut the very heart out of the marriage, you felt.

But her unresponsiveness had been your own fault, you knew. You recalled making love to her when you didn't feel like it. You had indeed been a duty for her.

And then you had caught her in bed with Neville Thurston and you had gone berserk. They were making love fiercely without shame. Neville was a big handsome man, vital and young. You saw yourself as puny and old in comparison.

Eleanor now looked at you and said, 'I was lonely for a man's affections. Neville courted me as you never did. He worshipped me and I was weak with longing for a man who could love me. I felt my life was petering out. I was so lonely without love, without tenderness, without warmth. I felt my youth slipping away. I felt I had a right to build my life without you.'

You then gave way to the savage impulse which possessed you. You struck her across the face and she fell back hitting her head against the table edge. And you kept on pushing her. Desperate jealousy gnawed at you. The wound to your ego. When one lets go the reins - allows blind fury to possess one utterly. You could not bear the idea that anyone else should have her. Suddenly realizing you loved her the moment you had lost her. And you ended her life! Did the devil drive all people who loved, you wondered.

And now her ghost was standing before you in a suburban street.

And you suddenly saw her as she had been. A lonely warm-blooded woman tied to a semi-impotent husband. She was pulsing with life and the yearning for love, and you had turned your back on her and she had gone to another man. Your coldness had frozen her heart. And for the first time you began to pity her.

You were crossing over the road and had come out onto the embankment that ran beside the river that led into the sea. On the ground before you was a muddy footpath dotted with ice-covered puddles. And in one deeper puddle was a face with accusing eyes.

You stopped dead suddenly. Realisng how Eleanor must have wept in the dark desperate hours of night. She had taken your silence, your reserve for coldness. And you had given her death in recompense.

Your eyes met hers in the puddle. Her eyes burning, reducing you to ashes.

'Murderer!' she suddenly burst out in a loud voice.

The white face was staring at you, her eyes black pools of darkness.

'You are a murderer, Arnold Robartes.' She pronounced the word coldly and deliberately. 'I was only twenty-eight. You took my life away.' With large sorrowful eyes she looked at you. You felt her shrinking from you.

Your mind was now dwelling with the demons of conscience. You had committed the ultimate sin, you had taken the life of another human being. You felt it darkly.

'I did care for you, Eleanor. My jealousy showed that.'

'Some men must always hurt the things they care for.'

You then asked through stiffened lips. 'What should I do now?'

'Only you can answer that, Arnold. You cannot escape from yourself.' She said in a hard, toneless voice. 'You know in your heart that you are guilty, Arnold.'

But you didn't have the words to admit how guilty you felt. Maybe there were no such words. You knew you were walking on a precipice and you began to feel a great dread coming into your soul. Out of respect for her tragedy you kept silent. It was a silence that felt like a wall..

'You will always be alone now, Arnold, set apart from humanity in a dreadful solitude.'

Suddenly, you realized you were red-branded like Cain. And you knew that you could never rise above your crime. It had isolated you from the warmth of human contact. Your nights were filled with hideous dreams and your days with wandering and drinking. You knew what it was to be utterly, utterly alone.

You were now walking by the sea as you made your way up the Strand towards the open parkland to the river's estuary. Eleanor was becoming all dim and shadowy as the false dawn lit the eastern sky. You turned away from her for a moment looking out across the estuary to the sea and when you turned back she had vanished from your sight.

In the sobering light of a grey morning your true nature awoke in a coercion of conscience. You were drinking hard all day every day and by night bad dreams were a constant rat-run in your mind. Like Macbeth, you had murdered sleep and could never know rest.

Where had you been all your life, you wondered. You realized that you now need to act decisively. Deliberately. To make the ultimate act of free-will.

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