“Believing in ghosts prevents one from becoming bored to death,” Herbert replied, placing his meaty palms flat on each side of the china plate to brace himself for the repudiation.
After masticating and swallowing a lump of under-cooked potato, George grinned impertinently across the oval table. “Personally I prefer the presence of a flesh-and-blood woman to waylay boredom.”
Herbert’s hairless upper lip twitched. “Precisely the difficulty I have with your literary jottings—too much attention to surfaces.”
As the squabble expanded between the authors, the soft night air of London acquired an edge, and the mellow light from the gas lamps on the street below transformed into a ghostly phosphorescence, bands of which were reflecting onto the walls of the flat.
Eyeing the last stalk of asparagus in the serving dish, George said wryly, “It seems to me if you’ve seen one ghost, you’ve seen them all, and that hardly sounds like an antidote to boredom.”
“Au contraire. All of us have long-dead relatives who have a tendency to appear at the most inopportune times, and what about those sorrowful souls who drift about the corridors of country inns or wander beside the Thames in the moonlight?—you can hardly call them boring.”
Spearing a single pea on the end prong of his fork as if to fashion an exclamation point, George made no attempt to disguise the condescension in his voice: “Mr. Jarvis, you are confusing commonplace mythology with extra-sensory perceptions,” concluding in a lower voice, “rather the way you confuse fiction with life.”
“A milieu in which a tragic human incident has occurred stands quite apart from the commonplace.”
“Gibberish!” George spat, using a pincer-like clamping of his thumb and forefinger to pluck the asparagus onto his plate.
Herbert’s left eyebrow jumped toward his high hairline: He had waited a moment too long to seize and devour the buttered savoriness of that last stalk.
The wood-and-brass clock struck the hour with a dull gong, a reverberation which launched Herbert into this explication: “The most violent of these tragic events is capable of releasing protoplasmic energy into the atmosphere, and this is what enables victims to be seen and heard by living individuals in another time.”
“My period of unwilling suspension of belief is at an end,” George announced, savagely biting off the end of the asparagus impaled on his fork.
Herbert avoided his companion’s eyes: “Under the proper circumstances, Mr. Putnam, every last one of us may come to believe in the supernatural.”
“On this point,” George stated unequivocally, “I would debate you unto death.”
Allowing his fingers to settle lightly on the foot-long carving knife beside the platter of mutton, Herbert claimed: “Such beliefs are common to every culture, in every epoch, the only differences being the form taken by the spirits and the significance ascribed to them within a particular society.”
A flutter of wings caused both men to angle their eyes toward the multi-paned French doors, and through the chintz curtains, out on the wrought-iron balcony, they saw a pure white pigeon perched at the rail. In the blink of an eye it alighted, disappearing like a momentary recollection of the distant past.
As if calmed by the bird’s visitation, George Putnam said in a faintly conciliatory tone, “As a romanticist you are naturally predisposed to this sort of abstraction; as a scientist I am beholden to keep my feet firmly rooted on terra firma.”
“Ghosts are abstractions only because their bodies have been violently separated from their souls,” Herbert insisted.
Brushing the white damask napkin over his mouth with a flourish that suggested a spectre in flight, George observed, “Your fascination with the non-physical is the pastime of a mind in hiding.”
Herbert felt his fingers wrap themselves around the ivory handle of the knife. “Better than being fixated on certain unmentionable regions of the female anatomy!”
“There you go again—why should bodily parts be unmentionable?”