'Yes,' answered Kate, thoughtfully. 'The worst we said was that you could not tell a story without -- well, we did say tacking a moral to it.'
'Well, well! I mustn't push it. A man has no right to know what people say about him. It unfits him for occupying his real position amongst them. He, least of all, has anything to do with it. If his friends won't defend him, he can't defend himself. Besides, what people say is so often untrue! -- I don't mean to others, but to themselves. Their hearts are more honest than their mouths. But Janet doesn't want a strange story, I am sure.'
Janet certainly was not one to have chosen for a listener to such a tale. Her eyes were so small that no satisfaction could possibly come of it. 'Oh! I don't mind, uncle,' she said, with half-affected indifference, as she searched in her box for silk to mend her gloves.
'You are not very encouraging, I must say,' returned her uncle, making another cow-face.'
'I will go away, if you like,' said Janet, pretending to rise.
'No, never mind,' said her uncle hastily. 'If you don't want me to tell it, I want you to hear it; and, before I have done, that may have come to the same thing perhaps.'
'Then you really are going to tell us a ghost story!' said Kate, drawing her chair nearer to her uncle's; and then, finding this did not satisfy her sense of propinquity to the source of the expected pleasure, drawing a stool from the corner, and seating herself almost on the hearth-rug at his knee.
'I did not say so,' returned Cornelius, once more. 'I said I would tell you a strange story. You may call it a ghost story if you like; I do not pretend to determine what it is. I confess it will look like one, though.'
After so many delays, Uncle Cornelius now plunged almost hurriedly into his narration.
'In the year 1820,' he said, 'in the month of August, I fell in love.' Here the girls glanced at each other. The idea of Uncle Cornie in love, and in the very same century in which they were now listening to the confession, was too astonishing to pass without ocular remark; but, if he observed it, he took no notice of it; he did not even pause. 'In the month of September, I was refused. Consequently, in the month of October, I was ready to fall in love again. Take particular care of yourself, Harry, for a whole month, at least, after your first disappointment; for you will never be more likely to do a foolish thing. Please yourself after the second. If you are silly then, you may take what you get, for you will deserve it -- except it be good fortune.'
'Did you do a foolish thing then, uncle?' asked Harry, demurely.
'I did, as you will see; for I fell in love again.'
'I don't see anything so very foolish in that.'
'I have repented it since, though. Don't interrupt me again, please. In the middle of October, then, in the year I820, in the evening, I was walking across Russell Square, on my way home from the British Museum, where I had been reading all day. You see I have a full intention of being precise, Janet.'
'I'm sure I don't know why you make the remark to me, uncle,' said Janet, with an involuntary toss of her head. Her uncle only went on with his narrative.
'I begin at the very beginning of my story,' he said; 'for I want to be particular as to everything that can appear to have had anything to do with what came afterwards. I had been reading, I say, all the morning in the British Museum; and, as I walked, I took off my spectacles to ease my eyes. I need not tell you that I am short-sighted now, for that you know well enough. But I must tell you that I was short-sighted then, and helpless enough without my spectacles, although I was not quite so much so as I am now; -- for I find it all nonsense about short-sighted eyes improving with age. Well, I was walking along the south side of Russell Square, with my spectacles in my hand, and feeling a little bewildered in consequence -- for it was quite the dusk of the evening, and short-sighted people require more light than others. I was feeling, in fact, almost blind. I had got more than half-way to the other side, when, from the crossing that cuts off the corner in the direction of Montagu Place, just as I was about to turn towards it, an old lady stepped upon the kerbstone of the pavement, looked at me for a moment, and passed -- an occurrence not very remarkable, certainly. But the lady was remarkable, and so was her dress. I am not good at observing, and I am still worse at describing dress, therefore I can only say that hers reminded me of an old picture -- that is, I had never seen anything like it, except in old pictures. She had no bonnet, and looked as if she had walked straight out of an ancient drawing-room in her evening attire. Of her face I shall say nothing now. The next instant I met a man on the crossing, who stopped and addressed me. So short-sighted was I that, although I recognised his voice as one I ought to know, I could not identify him until I had put on my spectacles, which I did instinctively in the act of returning his greeting. At the same moment I glanced over my shoulder after the old lady. She was nowhere to be seen.
' 'What are you looking at?' asked James Hetheridge.
' 'I was looking after that old lady,' I answered, 'but I can't see her.'
' 'What old lady?' said Hetheridge, with just a touch of impatience.
' 'You must have seen her,' I returned. 'You were not more than three yards behind her.'
' 'Where is she then?'