The man had a Victorian face - pale and somewhat waxy. His small moustache and grey sideburns were clipped in the style of a gentleman. Veronica had been nanny to Lady Carlisle’s small son for some time before she first saw him. When she was taking her small charge for his usual walk through the gardens, he was suddenly there, sitting straight and still on the seat facing theThames.
“V’ronica, who’s that man?”
It was as if he’d come in with the hovering mist. Soon he was there every afternoon, gazing across the river, never once turning his head to look at the autumn flowers or the coloured leaves on the trees. The child’s questioning became more insistent:
“V’ronica, who is that man?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, not for the first time. Why should she know? But Ben was only five and young children think you know everything. Veronica made up her mind to ask Lady Carlisle about the man.
This was easier said than done. Lady Elizabeth Carlisle, pretty and vivacious, was always out at parties and functions. Lord Carlisle was constantly away, too. Hence Ben, an only child, was rather a forlorn little boy.
Veronica – who saw herself as plain and quiet – slightly envied Lady Carlisle, while disapproving of her selfishness. Veronica was slim and dark; not as plain as she thought; a little quiet, but good with children, being at seventeen the eldest of five.
“I know what it is!” joked Cookie when next morning, at breakfast in the kitchen, Veronica asked her about the man. “It’s the season – the season when the ghost appears!”
“Cookie” was Lady Carlisle’s cook-cum-housekeeper. She, too, remembered that there had been tales, some years ago, about a man answering Veronica’s description, who appeared to people preceding the death of someone close to them - a child. It was said that he himself had lost a child in a boating accident. For the rest of his life – or at least in the autumn, the season when it had happened – he would sit gazing out over theThamesat the place where it had occurred - for the rest of his life and, so they said, after his death.
“It’s nonsense, of course!” laughed Cookie. “Coincidence is the name of your man!”
But the maid chimed in with a story. It had been in the newspapers a few autumns ago. A mother had been in the habit of walking with her little daughter in the gardens. One day she had stopped to gossip with a friend, and while her attention was distracted, the child had run off on her own to feed the ducks, coots and moorhen on the lake, had fallen into the river and drowned. When asked where it had happened, the distraught mother had sobbed:
“Where the man sits – the Victorian-looking man!”
No one else had seen such a man, and it was wondered if the tragedy had turned her mind, but the mother insisted that the child, too, had prattled about him.
At Lady Carlisle’s establishment the cleaning woman arrived and corroborated the maid’s story. The old retainer thought there had been other cases, but he was becoming forgetful.
Veronica was not usually a fanciful girl – or not too much so. That afternoon she took Ben again to the gardens, but she kept a careful eye on him. Partly to test something out, she asked a passer-by:
“Excuse me, do you know who that old gentleman is?”
“What old gentleman?” replied the woman, puzzled, following Veronica’s gaze to the seat facing the lake. Veronica’s heart missed a beat. The seat was suddenly empty.
“V’ronica,” piped up Ben, “where - ?”
“I don’t know,” said Veronica.
But the next day he was there again, and for the first time she summoned up the courage to speak to the man himself:
“Hi!” she said. “I mean, good afternoon.”
He turned his eyes as if towards her. If he was a sentient being, he must have noticed, perhaps not for the first time, the bright-eyed girl, quite neatly dressed, but in a style alien to him – the dark, bobbed hair, the jeans (which he would have called trousers). She was clutching the hand of the equally bright-eyed little boy with the fair, curly hair, who was warmly clad because of the cold autumn day, but again in an alien style.
The man’s piercing grey gaze seemed to pass right through them, and he did not speak. But Veronica shivered in the rising mist, feeling that he must have been watching them obliquely for days.
The next afternoon they did not go out. Ben was tossing and turning in bed with a fever. Overnight he’d complained of cold and a headache. Cookie, serious for once, feared it was meningitis. The doctor “pooh-poohed” the idea, but no one felt reassured. Ben’s brow was burning hot, and Veronica was in the grip of a more nameless fear.
Ben’s parents – away on one of their many holidays – had been telephoned. They sounded quite anxious and were coming home on the next flight. Ben had never been seriously ill before.
After a brief attempt to eat some supper in the kitchen, Veronica hurried upstairs again to the small patient.
She did not know who had let the man in. None of the servants had said anything about him. For a moment she thought the doctor had come back. But then he turned – and she recognized the face. He moved swiftly towards her, as if to grasp her hand.
“In fact, I was a doctor.” He spoke at last, mysteriously reading her thoughts. “But I couldn’t save my own child. If it had been an illness, not a drowning, I could have saved him. The accident was my fault. I shouldn’t have taken so young a child on the water.” His eyes were less piercing now, more sad. “Now I get told when things are going to happen, especially in the gardens in the autumn season. But I couldn’t get to the little girl in the water … and the others … You see, I’ve had to walk the earth until I could save a child. Look, you’re little friend – he’s sleeping peacefully now.”
“Not … ?”
“No, not dead. Just sleeping peacefully. There’ll be no complications. And now I, too, can be at peace.” With this, the man departed as silently as he had arrived.
In mingled hope and trepidation, not quite sure of his meaning, or even if his visit had been a figment of her imagination, Veronica approached the little bed. Ben’s brow was cool and he was breathing softly – the fever gone.
The man was never seen in the gardens again.