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THE THREE TIERS OF FANTASY
The town of Winchingham, pronounced by its inhabitants Wincham, lies in one of the southern counties of England. It is inclined to look upon itself as an industrial town, but for all that it is a pleasant, peaceful spot with an old-world, unhurried atmosphere. It gives you the impression that, untouched by war or plague, untouched by fire, flood or famine, it has led a placid, orderly existence through the centuries. Some of its streets are still cobbled. Its people are industrious, unassuming and law-abiding. As a town it has no vices.
Yet queer things happen in Winchingham. There was that strange and terrible affair of the Voice in the Gardens, a story that has already been told. And there was that weird business that came to be known in the end as the Stolen Street case; a triple mystery that stirred up half the spiritualists and ghost-hunters in Great Britain and set the Society for Psychic Research by the ears before it was finally solved by a prosaic police officer named Smith.
The case still has repercussions. The cosmic calm of esoteric circles is still disturbed by heated debate on the “astral projection” of Wych Street; séances are still being held in vain attempts to communicate with the spirit of Philip Strong; and certain of those peculiar but praise-worthy people, whose self-appointed mission in life is the exorcising of ghosts and other psychic phenomena that haunt various otherwise desirable residences, still appear and pursue abortive investigations at the now empty and deserted Welcome Inn, where three people ascended to and entered a bedroom on an upper floor that wasn’t there. . . .
This is the story of that eerie, fantastic case: the story of the Man Who Had No Existence, the Phantom Room, and the Stolen Street.
THE FIRST TIER
THE MAN WHO HAD NO EXISTENCE
Miss Janet Soames lived with her bachelor brother in a small but comfortable bungalow in the hamlet of Fleeting, which is some fifteen miles from Winchingham and is a great place for golf. Janet was a tremulous, fluttering sort of woman, negatively pretty but no longer young; in fact she had arrived at that age when it rather rankled to know herself invariably described as “that nice woman, the doctor’s sister.” For it is open to question whether even the most angelic of women relish being constantly dubbed “nice” by potential suitors who unaccountably pass them by: there are times when they would prefer to be considered desirable. Janet came into contact with a number of men on the links at Fleeting who, coming ostensibly to play golf, brought their wives or girl friends with them; and she could see with feminine clarity that some of these wives and girl friends were not at all “nice.” But it was evident that they were eminently desirable. . . .
Janet’s brother was that Dr. Edward J. Soames whose books, of the “Doctor’s Casebook” variety, were to be found in every library and book club in the country. And he was a living proof of the fallacy of the widely accepted theory that as a man writes so is he. For whereas, in his books, the doctor was chatty and confidential, giving his readers the impression that he was a fatherly old gentleman passionately concerned with the well-being of each and every patient who came to him for succour, in actual life he was a selfish, domineering old humbug. Dr. Soames no longer practised. He sat at home in his comfortable bungalow and wrote, drawing his material from casebooks that existed largely in his own imagination. And Janet, not unhappily, lived with him and ministered to his comfort and played golf when she could escape from the house.
Apart from his own particular cronies Dr. Soames discouraged visitors and flatly refused to allow Janet to bring any of her friends to his house to disturb his literary labours with their idle, frivolous chatter. Consequently people met her in the village shops, or at the library, or at an occasional “evening;” but mostly they met her on the golf-links where, it must be admitted, “that nice woman” was apt to be more than a little irritating. For she played golf as she did everything else, in a fluttering, self-depreciatory fashion that aroused feminine contempt and scorn and was inclined to put the serious-minded male off his game. Janet, however, serenely ignored the occasionally outspoken indignation of the women and, used to her brother’s behaviour at home, accepted the sometimes ill-concealed impatience of the men as a matter of course for the privilege of being in the company of these strong, hearty, gloriously free and uninhibited masculine creatures. . . . It would not be quite fair to describe her as a middle-aged spinster, but she was certainly on the verge of becoming one. And just as certainly, and perhaps because of it, she was ripe for conquest by some predatory, unscrupulous Don Juan.
Deep down in her nice little soul was a yearning that one day one of these casually masterful, frank and unfettered males would think her not merely nice, but desirable. There were times—and these moments occur to all women—when the picture in her mind’s eye of the set of a man’s back and shoulders, and the smell of tweed and tobacco smoke hanging on the air, made her ache for the feel of strong arms about her, caressing and protective. It was only a silly dream, of course, but— But if that dream were ever to materialize it would have to be soon. She realized that very clearly. It would have to be soon, or it would be too late even to dream.
The fulfilment of that shy and secret yearning is the beginning of a case that balanced on the edge of unbelief. For the miracle was wrought and Janet Soames was given her day. It came, as it does so often, in a way altogether undreamt of, almost unrecognized; and all that can be said now in extenuation by a mortal chronicler of events is that, if it be true that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, then the High Gods gave her that day.
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