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There was little doubt that he was in a haunted house, but this did
not particularly disturb him. Indeed, he found himself wondering
if it could be logically called a haunted house--unless he himself
was haunting it, for there seemed to be no other there. Perhaps
the apparitions would come later, when he was dressed. Clearly it
was not his uncle's house--and yet, as he had never been inside his
uncle's house, he reflected that he ought not to be positive.

He finished dressing and sat down in an armchair with a kind of
thoughtful expectancy. But presently his curiosity became
impatient of the silence and mystery, and he ventured once more to
explore the house. Opening his bedroom door, he found himself
again upon the deserted corridor, but this time he could distinctly
hear a buzz of voices from the drawing-room below. Assured that he
was near a solution of the mystery, he rapidly descended the broad
staircase and made his way to the open door of the drawing-room.
But although the sound of voices increased as he advanced, when he
entered the room, to his utter astonishment, it was as empty as
before.

Yet, in spite of his bewilderment and confusion, he was able to
follow one of the voices, which, in its peculiar distinctness and
half-perfunctory tone, he concluded must belong to the host of the
invisible assembly.

"Ah," said the voice, greeting some unseen visitor, "so glad you
have come. Afraid your engagements just now would keep you away."
Then the voice dropped to a lower and more confidential tone. "You
must take down Lady Dartman, but you will have Miss Morecamp--a
clever girl--on the other side of you. Ah, Sir George! So good of
you to come. All well at the Priory? So glad to hear it." (Lower
and more confidentially.) "You know Mrs. Monkston. You'll sit by
her. A little cut up by her husband losing his seat. Try to amuse
her."

Emboldened by desperation, Paul turned in the direction of the
voice. "I am Paul Bunker," he said hesitatingly. "I'm afraid
you'll think me intrusive, but I was looking for my uncle, and"--

"Intrusive, my dear boy! The son of my near neighbor in the
country intrusive? Really, now, I like that! Grace!" (the voice
turned in another direction) "here is the American nephew of our
neighbor Bunker at Widdlestone, who thinks he is 'a stranger.'"

"We all knew of your expected arrival at Widdlestone--it was so
good of you to waive ceremony and join us," said a well-bred
feminine voice, which Paul at once assumed to belong to the
hostess. "But I must find some one for your dinner partner. Mary"
(here her voice was likewise turned away), "this is Mr. Bunker, the
nephew of an old friend and neighbor in Upshire;" (the voice again
turned to him), "you will take Miss Morecamp in. My dear" (once
again averted), "I must find some one else to console poor dear
Lord Billingtree with." Here the hostess's voice was drowned by
fresh arrivals.

Bewildered and confused as he was, standing in this empty desert of
a drawing-room, yet encompassed on every side by human voices, so
marvelous was the power of suggestion, he seemed to almost feel the
impact of the invisible crowd. He was trying desperately to
realize his situation when a singularly fascinating voice at his
elbow unexpectedly assisted him. It was evidently his dinner
partner.

"I suppose you must be tired after your journey. When did you
arrive?"

"Only a few hours ago," said Paul.

"And I dare say you haven't slept since you arrived. One doesn't
on the passage, you know; the twenty hours pass so quickly, and the
experience is so exciting--to US at least. But I suppose as an
American you are used to it."

Paul gasped. He had passively accepted the bodiless conversation,
because it was at least intelligible! But NOW! Was he going mad?

She evidently noticed his silence. "Never mind," she continued,
"you can tell me all about it at dinner. Do you know I always
think that this sort of thing--what we're doing now,--this
ridiculous formality of reception,--which I suppose is after all
only a concession to our English force of habit,--is absurd! We
ought to pass, as it were, directly from our houses to the dinner-
table. It saves time."

"Yes--no--that is--I'm afraid I don't follow you," stammered Paul.

There was a slight pout in her voice as she replied: "No matter
now--we must follow them--for our host is moving off with Lady
Billingtree, and it's our turn now."

So great was the illusion that he found himself mechanically
offering his arm as he moved through the empty room towards the
door. Then he descended the staircase without another word,
preceded, however, by the sound of his host's voice. Following
this as a blind man might, he entered the dining-room, which to his
discomfiture was as empty as the salon above. Still following the
host's voice, he dropped into a chair before the empty table,
wondering what variation of the Barmecide feast was in store for
him. Yet the hum of voices from the vacant chairs around the board
so strongly impressed him that he could almost believe that he was
actually at dinner.

"Are you seated?" asked the charming voice at his side.

"Yes," a little wonderingly, as his was the only seat visibly
occupied.

"I am so glad that this silly ceremony is over. By the way, where
are you?"

Paul would have liked to answer, "Lord only knows!" but he
reflected that it might not sound polite. "Where am I?" he feebly
repeated.

"Yes; where are you dining?"

It seemed a cool question under the circumstances, but he answered
promptly,--

"With you."

"Of course," said the charming voice; "but where are you eating
your dinner?"

Considering that he was not eating anything, Paul thought this
cooler still. But he answered briefly, "In Upshire."

"Oh! At your uncle's?"

"No," said Paul bluntly; "in the next house."

"Why, that's Sir William's--our host's--and he and his family are
here in London. You are joking."

"Listen!" said Paul desperately. Then in a voice unconsciously
lowered he hurriedly told her where he was--how he came there--the
empty house--the viewless company! To his surprise the only
response was a musical little laugh. But the next moment her voice
rose higher with an unmistakable concern in it, apparently
addressing their invisible host.

"Oh, Sir William, only think how dreadful. Here's poor Mr. Bunker,
alone in an empty house, which he has mistaken for his uncle's--and
without any dinner!"

"Really; dear, dear! How provoking! But how does he happen to be
WITH US? James, how is this?"

"If you please, Sir William," said a servant's respectful voice,
"Widdlestone is in the circuit and is switched on with the others.
We heard that a gentleman's luggage had arrived at Widdlestone, and
we telegraphed for the rooms to be made ready, thinking we'd have
her ladyship's orders later."

A single gleam of intelligence flashed upon Paul. His luggage--
yes, had been sent from the station to the wrong house, and he had
unwittingly followed. But these voices! whence did they come? And
where was the actual dinner at which his host was presiding? It
clearly was not at this empty table.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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