THE HAUNTED RESTAURANT
Were one to tell the proprietors of the very prosperous and flamboyant restaurant of which I am thinking that it is haunted—yea, that ghosts sit at its well appointed tables, and lost voices laugh and wail and sing low to themselves through its halls—they would probably take one for a lunatic—a servant of the moon.
Certainly, to all appearance, few places would seem less to suggest the word “haunted” than that restaurant, as one comes upon it, in one of the busiest of London thoroughfares, spreading as it does for blocks around, like a conflagration, the festive glare of its electrically emblazoned facade. Yet no ruined mansion, with the moon shining in through its shattered roof, the owl nesting in its banqueting hall, and the snake gliding through its bed chambers, was ever more peopled with phantoms than this radiant palace of prandial gaiety, apparently filled with the festive murmur of happy diners, the jocund strains of its vigorous orchestra, the subdued clash of knives and forks and delicate dishes, the rustle of women’s gowns and the fairy music of women’s voices. For me its portico, flaming like a vortex of dizzy engulfing light, upon which, as upon a swift current, gay men and women, alighting from motor and hansom, are swept inward to glittering tables of snow-white napery, fair with flowers—for me the mouth of the grave is not less dread, and the walls of a sepulchre are not so painted with dead faces or so inscribed with elegiac memories. I could spend a night in Pere-la-Chaise, and still be less aware of the presence of the dead than I was a short time ago, when, greatly daring, I crossed with a shudder that once so familiar threshold.
It was twelve years since I had been in London, so I felt no little of a ghost myself, and I knew too well that it would be vain to look for the old faces. Yes, gone was the huge good-natured commissionaire, who so often in the past, on my arrival in company with some human flower, had flung open the apron of our cab with such reverential alacrity, and on our departure had so gently tucked in the petals of her skirts, smiling the while a respectfully knowing benediction on the prospective continuance of our evening’s adventure. Another stood in his place, and watched my lonely arrival with careless indifference. Glancing through the window of the treasurer’s office to the right of the hall, I could see that an unfamiliar figure sat at the desk, where in the past so many a cheque had been cashed for me with eager bonhomie. Now I reflected that considerable identification would be necessary for that once light-hearted transaction. It is true that I was welcomed with courtesy by a bowing majordomo, but alas, my welcome was that of a stranger; and when I mounted the ornate, marble-walled staircase leading to the gallery where I had always preferred to sit, I realized that my hat and cane must pass into alien keeping, and that no waiter’s face would light up as he saw me threading my way to the sacred table, withdrawn in a nook of the balcony, where one could see and hear all, participate in the general human stir and atmosphere, and yet remain apart.