Here came the man again, I already knew he would be there, under the big tree and with his back turning towards me who silently observed him from the east wing window. He was always exactly on time, at two o'clock on the last day of October every year, regardless of the weather conditions. I had barely noticed that he kept coming in this fashion for the first few years of my youth. I simply thought that he must have been one of papa's guests who dreaded his company like I did, or perhaps a random stranger from London who was interested in our country estate. He dressed too well to be a mere villager, even a clerk or a lawyer. Although I might not see him clearly, he and his posture in tailored suit gave certain impressions that belonged to a gentleman. It took me about nine years to detect his appearance and a very fixed schedule. But once I did, the man himself gradually became my subject of anticipation each year. In the afternoon I would peer through the window, seeing him standstill for hours until the night rolled in gently. Then he would disappear, leaving no traces, and coming back again next year.
I never told this to anyone, because I felt an unspoken obligation not to disturb his privacy. I suspected nothing of him, but papa and mama might get worried and drive the poor man away. Poor man — since his presence radiated a kind of inexplicable sadness as well as mystery. Moreover, my nannies never mentioned anything about him. They asked, "what are you looking at, my young master?", but they did not wait for the answer and later walk away to attend other business. So I was pleased to spend half of the day like this, in a complete silence and serenity. There were times when it was raining hard and I feared that he could have been cold and soak and sick. But he stood firm and I could not bring my feet to walk to him and offer an umbrella or invite him inside. He never turned his face and still, I was drawn to his lean back and slim shape nonetheless. Many years had passed and I would like to think we were somehow friends from afar, through the flow of time and the changes of space.
When I grew up, he stayed the same. His red, copper hair got caught in the bright sunlight, his leg not swayed by the ages that should have weighed upon his body, his determination not wavered. He stood tall and proud, both hands in the pockets, like he had been for the past twenty years. Undoubtedly, it was a bit apprehensive. But I was actually in awe and wonder rather than feared. When my mother said she wanted to cut the tree and built a small pavilion where the man usually, or in fact, annually stood — I, who was now the master of the house, strongly protested her for the first time. She was dumbfounded but did not press further. I secretly referred to him as my ghost, literally and figuratively, for he could not be anything else and he felt like this to me.
So, when my wife, my lovely little wife, happened to love strolling along the bank and sitting under the same tree, I was quite surprised at first. Normally, none of the family members liked to be near this place for no reason. She would arrange a little picnic almost every week, invite her new friends from the village to have fun as if the whole activity was more like a staged play or a role play than an ordinary leisure. Their laughs and giggles could be faintly heard when I was reading and glancing at them from time to time. As the end of October drew near, I asked her to postpone her weekly recreation for a day. I did not inform her my reason, that the spot she frequently occupied had been reserved before she was born. My dear Mary frowned, but complied as a good wife did. Three years went by without any difficulties, until one day she came to me and said, "If I die, please bury me under that tree." like she knew that I knew where exactly and which tree she meant. I was not aware then that she spent most of her time alone there more often. A year later she did die from pneumonia when the autumn graced the earth and because she enjoyed too much swimming in the pond. I buried her as promised, on October 31st when it rained.
The man was there, of course. He did not care in the least when her coffin was laid beneath the ground near him. I had to force myself not to catch a glimpse of his face which embodied the deep, dark, precious memories of my life. Not that I feared his face would look horrendous or completely battered, but just because there was too much temptation. No, not yet. I stayed at the newly-made grave after everyone else had gone, holding an umbrella to shield my eyes from his sight for a while. They would think I was in deep sorrow, mourning for my young wife silently. Well, they were both right and wrong.
"It takes you so long," a deep, rich voice began and I instinctively lowered the umbrella at once as if I was waiting for the right cue. "I thought you'll never come."
I was perplexed, astounded, and also on the verge of being euphoric. Not only was his face normal but looking almost gentle and sensitive. I stepped closer and found his eye colour was mesmerizing green, a perfect complement to his hair. "You never looked back at me," my voice became hoarse and foreign. "You never talked to me."
He chuckled softly. "I am, right now," he said plainly, but it was accompanied by a smile. "I didn't waste her death on nothing, did I?"
A soft "oh" escaped my mouth as he gently took the umbrella from my hand. His long fingers brushed mine and gave me chills. Or perhaps it was the freezing rain. "Thank you for keeping the secret. It is a very lovely spot, indeed," he said, then turned his back to me. This time, he walked away before my eyes — not fading slowly into the darkness like he used to at the end of the day. This time, it was me who stood and stared at where he had left, until the twilight fell and the night decided to take me in.