It should not be difficult to overcome it; but Ewbert had not yet succeeded in arraying his reasons satisfactorily against it when his wife returned from her work in the kitchen, and sat down beside the library table. Her coming operated a total diversion, in which Hilbrook lapsed into his apathy, and was not to be roused from it by the overtures to conversation which she made. He presently got to his feet and said he mast be going, against all her protests that it was very early. Ewbert wished to walk home with him; but Hilbrook would not suffer this, and the minister had to come back from following him to the gate, and watching his figure lose itself in the dark, with a pang in his heart for the solitude which awaited the old man under his own roof. He ran swiftly over their argument in his mind, and questioned himself whether he had used him with unfailing tenderness, whether he had let him think that he regarded him as at all reprobate and culpable. He gave up the quest as he rejoined his wife with a long, unconscious sigh that made her lift her head.
"What is it, Clarence?"
"You look perfectly exhausted. You look worried. Was it something you were talking about?"
Then he told her, and he had trouble to keep her resentment in bounds. She held that, as a minister, he ought to have rebuked the wretched creature; that it was nothing short of offensive to him for Hilbrook to take such a position. She said his face was all flushed, and that she knew he would not sleep, and she should get him a glass of warm milk; the fire was out in the stove, but she could heat it over the lamp in a tin cup.
Hilbrook did not come again till Ewbert had been to see him; and in the meantime the minister suffered from the fear that the old man was staying away because of some hurt which he had received in their controversy. Hilbrook came to church as before, and blinked at him through the two sermons which Ewbert preached on significant texts, and the minister hoped he was listening with a sense of personal appeal in them. He had not only sought to make them convincing as to the doctrine of another life, but he had dealt in terms of loving entreaty with those who had not the precious faith of this in their hearts, and he had wished to convey to Hilbrook an assurance of peculiar sympathy.
The day following the last of his sermons, Ewbert had to officiate at the funeral of a little child whose mother had been stricken to the earth by her bereavement. The hapless creature had sent for him again and again, and had clung about his very soul, beseeching him for assurance that she should see her child hereafter, and have it hers, just as it was, forever, he had not had the heart to refuse her this consolation, and he had pushed himself, in giving it, beyond the bounds of imagination. When she confessed her own inability to see how it could be, and yet demanded of him that it should be, he answered her that our inability to realize the fact had nothing to do with its reality. In the few words he said over the little one, at the last, he recurred to this position, and urged it upon all his hearers; but in the moment of doing so a point that old Hilbrook had made in their talk suddenly presented itself. He experienced inwardly such a collapse that he could not be sure he had spoken, and he repeated his declaration in a voice of such harsh defiance that he could scarcely afterwards bring himself down to the meek level of the closing prayer.
As they walked home together, his wife asked, "Why did you repeat yourself in that passage, Clarence, and why did you lift your voice so? It sounded like contradicting some one. I hope you were not thinking of anything that wretched old man said?"
With the mystical sympathy by which the wife divines what is in her husband's mind she had touched the truth, and he could not deny it. "Yes, yes, I was," he owned in a sort of anguish, and she said:—
"Well, then, I wish he wouldn't come about any more. He has perfectly obsessed you. I could see that the last two Sundays you were preaching right at him." He had vainly hoped she had not noticed this, though he had not concealed from her that his talk with Hilbrook had suggested his theme. "What are you going to do about him?" she pursued relentlessly.
"I don't know,—I don't know, indeed," said Ewbert; and perhaps because he did not know, he felt that he must do something, that he must at least not leave him to himself. He hoped that Hilbrook would come to him, and so put him under the necessity of doing something; but Hilbrook did not come, and after waiting a fortnight Ewbert went to him, as was his duty.
The spring had advanced so far that there were now days when it was pleasant to be out in the soft warmth of the afternoons. The day when Ewbert climbed to the Hilbrook homestead it was even a little hot, and he came up to the dooryard mopping his forehead with his handkerchief, and glad of the southwestern breeze which he caught at this point over the shoulder of the hill. He had expected to go round to the side door of the house, where he had parted with Hilbrook on his former visit; but he stopped on seeing the old man at his front door, where he was looking vaguely at a mass of Spanish willow fallen dishevelled beside it, as if he had some thought of lifting its tangled spray. The sun shone on his bare head, and struck silvery gleams from his close-cropped white hair; there was something uncommon in his air, though his dress was plain and old-fashioned; and Ewbert wished that his wife were there to share his impression of distinction in Hilbrook's presence.
He turned at Ewbert's cheerful hail, and after a moment of apparent uncertainty as to who he was, he came down the walk of broken brick and opened the gate to his visitor.
"I was just out, looking round at the old things," he said, with an effort of apology. "This sort of weather is apt to make fools of us. It gets into our heads, and before we know we feel as if we had something to do with the season."
"Perhaps we have," said the minister. "The spring is in us, too."
The old man shook his head. "It was once, when we were children; now there's what we remember of it. We like to make believe about it,—that's natural; and it's natural we should make believe that there is going to be a spring for us somewhere else like what we see for the grass and bushes, here, every year; but I guess not. A tree puts out its leaves every spring; but by and by the tree dies, and then it doesn't put out its leaves any more."
"I see what you mean," said Ewbert, "and I allow that there is no real analogy between our life and that of the grass and bushes; yet somehow I feel strengthened in my belief in the hereafter by each renewal of the earth's life. It isn't a proof, it isn't a promise; but it's a suggestion, an intimation."
They were in the midst of a great question, and they sat down on the decaying doorstep to have it out; Hilbrook having gone in for his hat and come out again, with its soft wide brim shading his thin face, frosted with half a week's beard.
"But character," the minister urged at a certain point,—"what becomes of character? You may suppose that life can be lavished by its Origin in the immeasurable superabundance which we see in nature. But character,—that is a different thing; that cannot die."
"The beasts that perish have character; my old dog had. Some are good and some bad; they're kind and they're ugly."
"Ah, excuse me! That isn't character; that's temperament. Men have temperament, too; but the beasts haven't character. Doesn't that fact prove something,—or no, not prove, but give us some reasonable expectation of a hereafter?"
Hilbrook did not say anything for a moment. He broke a bit of fragrant spray from the flowering currant—which guarded the doorway on his side of the steps; Ewbert sat next the Spanish willow—and softly twisted the stem between his thumb and finger.
"Ever hear how I came to leave Hilbrook,—West Mallow, as it was then?" he asked at last.
Ewbert was forced to own that he had heard a story, but he said, mainly in Hilbrook's interest, that he had not paid much attention to it.
"Thought there wa'n't much in it? Well, that's right, generally speakin'. Folks like to make up stories about a man that lives alone like me, here; and they usually get in a disappointment. I ain't goin' to go over it. I don't care any more about it now than if it had happened to somebody else; but it did happen. Josiah got the girl, and I didn't. I presume they like to make out that I've grieved over it ever since. Sho! It's forty years since I gave it a thought, that way." A certain contemptuous indignation supplanted the wonted gentleness of the old man, as if he spurned the notion of such sentimental folly. "I've read of folks mournin' all their lives through, and in their old age goin' back to a thing like that, as if it still meant somethin'. But it ain't true; I don't suppose I care any more for losin' her now than Josiah would for gettin' her if he was alive. It did make a difference for a while; I ain't goin' to deny that. It lasted me four or five years, in all, I guess; but I was married to somebody else when I went to the war,"—Ewbert controlled a start of surprise; he had always taken it for granted that Hilbrook was a bachelor,—"and we had one child. So you may say that I was well over that first thing. It wore out; and if it wa'n't that it makes me mad to have folks believin' that I'm sufferin' from it yet, I presume I shouldn't think of it from one year's end to another. My wife and I always got on well together; she was a good woman. She died when I was away at the war, and the little boy died after I got back. I was sorry to lose her, and I thought losin' him would kill me. It didn't. It appeared one while as if I couldn't live without him, and I was always contrivin' how I should meet up with him somewhere else. I couldn't figure it out."
Hilbrook stopped, and swallowed dryly. Ewbert noticed how he had dropped more and more into the vernacular, in these reminiscences; in their controversies he had used the language of books and had spoken like a cultivated man, but now he was simply and touchingly rustic.
"Well," he resumed, "that wore out, too. I went into business, and I made money and I lost it. I went through all that experience, and I got enough of it, just as I got enough of fightin'. I guess I was no worse scared than the rest of 'em, but when it came to the end I'd 'bout made up my mind that if there was another war I'd go to Canady; I was sick of it, and I was sick of business even before I lost money. I lost pretty much everything. Josiah—he was always a good enough friend of mine—wanted me to start in again, and he offered to back me, but I said no. I said if he wanted to do something for me, he could let me come home and live on the old place, here; it wouldn't cost him anything like so much, and it would be a safer investment. He agreed, and here I be, to make a long story short."
Hilbrook had stiffened more and more, as he went on, in the sort of defiance he had put on when he first began to speak of himself, and at the end of his confidence Ewbert did not venture any comment. His forbearance seemed to leave the old man freer to resume at the point where he had broken off, and he did so with something of lingering challenge.
"You asked me just now why I didn't think character, as we call it, gave us some right to expect a life after this. Well, I'll try to tell you. I consider that I've been the rounds, as you may say, and that I've got as much character as most men. I've had about everything in my life that most have, and a great deal more than some. I've seen that everything wears out, and that when a thing's worn out it's for good and all. I think it's reasonable to suppose that when I wear out it will be for good and all, too. There isn't anything of us, as I look at it, except the potentiality of experiences. The experiences come through the passions that you can tell on the fingers of one hand: love, hate, hope, grief, and you may say greed for the thumb. When you've had them, that's the end of it; you've exhausted your capacity; you're used up, and so's your character,—that often dies before the body does."
"No, no!" Ewbert protested. "Human capacity is infinite;" but even while he spoke this seemed to him a contradiction in terms. "I mean that the passions renew themselves with new occasions, new opportunities, and character grows continually. You have loved twice, you have grieved twice; in battle you hated more than once; in business you must have coveted many times. Under different conditions, the passions, the potentiality of experiences, will have a pristine strength. Can't you see it in that light? Can't you draw some hope from that?"
"Hope!" cried Ransom Hilbrook, lifting his fallen head and staring at the minister. "Why, man, you don't suppose I want to live hereafter? Do you think I'm anxious to have it all over again, or any of it? Is that why you've been trying to convince me of immortality? I know there's something in what you say,—more than what you realize. I've argued annihilation up to this point and that, and almost proved it to my own mind; but there's always some point that I can't quite get over. If I had the certainty, the absolute certainty, that this was all there was to be of it, I wouldn't want to live an hour longer, not a minute! But it's the uncertainty that keeps me. What I'm afraid of is, that if I get out of it here, I might wake up in my old identity, with the potentiality of new experiences in new conditions. That's it I'm tired. I've had enough. I want to be let alone. I don't want to do anything more, or have anything more done to me. I want to stop."
Ewbert's first impression was that he was shocked; but he was too honest to remain in this conventional assumption. He was profoundly moved, however, and intensely interested. He realized that Hilbrook was perfectly sincere, and he could put himself in the old man's place, and imagine why he should feel as he did. Ewbert blamed himself for not having conceived of such a case before; and he saw that if he were to do anything for this lonely soul, he must begin far back of the point from which he had started with him. The old man's position had a kind of dignity which did not admit of the sort of pity Ewbert had been feeling for him, and the minister had before him the difficult and delicate task of persuading Hilbrook, not that a man, if he died, should live again, but that he should live upon terms so kind and just that none of the fortuities of mortal life should be repeated in that immortality. He must show the immortal man to be a creature so happily conditioned that he would be in effect newly created, before Hilbrook would consent to accept the idea of living again. He might say to him that he would probably not be consulted in the matter, since he had not been consulted as to his existence here; but such an answer would brutally ignore the claim that such a man's developed consciousness could justly urge to some share in the counsels of omnipotence. Ewbert did not know where to begin, and in his despair he began with a laugh.
"Upon my word," he said, "you've presented a problem that would give any casuist pause, and it's beyond my powers without some further thought. Your doubt, as I now understand it, is not of immortality, but of mortality; and there I can't meet you in argument without entirely forsaking my own ground. If it will not seem harsh, I will confess that your doubt is rather consoling to me; for I have so much faith in the Love which rules the world that I am perfectly willing to accept reexistence on any terms that Love may offer. You may say that this is because I have not yet exhausted the potentialities of experience, and am still interested in my own identity; and one half of this, at least, I can't deny. But even if it were otherwise, I should trust to find among those Many Mansions which we are told of some chamber where I should be at rest without being annihilated; and I can even imagine my being glad to do any sort of work about the House, when I was tired of resting."
"I am glad you said that to him!" cried Ewbert's wife, when he told her of his interview with old Hilbrook. "That will give him something to think about. What did he say?"
Ewbert had been less and less satisfied with his reply to Hilbrook, in which it seemed to him that he had passed from mockery to reproof, with no great credit to himself; and his wife's applause now set the seal to his displeasure with it.
"Oh, he said simply that he could understand a younger person feeling differently, and that he did not wish to set himself up as a censor. But he could not pretend that he was glad to have been called out of nonentity into being, and that he could imagine nothing better than eternal unconsciousness."
"I told him that his very words implied the refusal of his being to accept nonentity again; that they expressed, or adumbrated, the conception of an eternal consciousness of the eternal unconsciousness he imagined himself longing for. I'm not so sure they did, now."
"Of course they did. And then what did he say?"
"He said nothing in direct reply; he sighed, and dropped his poor old head on his breast, and seemed very tired; so that I tried talking of other things for a while, and then I came away. Emily, I'm afraid I wasn't perfectly candid, perfectly kind, with him."
"I don't see how you could have been more so!" she retorted, in tender indignation with him against himself. "And I think what he said was terrible. It was bad enough for him to pretend to believe that he was not going to live again, but for him to tell you that he was afraid he was!" An image sufficiently monstrous to typify Hilbrook's wickedness failed to present itself to Mrs. Ewbert, and she went out to give the maid instructions for something unusually nourishing for Ewbert at their mid-day dinner. "You look fairly fagged out, Clarence," she said, when she came back; "and I insist upon your not going up to that dreadful old man's again,—at least, not till you've got over this shock."
"Oh, I don't think it has affected me seriously," he returned lightly.
"Yes, it has! yes, it has!" she declared. "It's just like your thinking you hadn't taken cold, the other day when you were caught in the rain; and the next morning you got up with a sore throat, and it was Sunday morning, too."
Ewbert could not deny this, and he had no great wish to see Hilbrook soon again. He consented to wait for Hilbrook to come to him, before trying to satisfy these scruples of conscience which he had hinted at; and he reasonably hoped that the painful points would cease to rankle with the lapse of time, if there should be a long interval before they met.
That night, before the Ewberts had finished their tea, there came a ring at the door, from which Mrs. Ewbert disconsolately foreboded a premature evening call. "And just when I was counting on a long, quiet, restful time for you, and getting you to bed early!" she lamented in undertone to her husband; to the maid who passed through the room with an inquiring glance, to the front door, she sighed, still in undertone, "Oh yes, of course we're at home."
They both listened for the voice at the door, to make out who was there; but the voice was so low that they were still in ignorance while the maid was showing the visitor into the library, and until she came back to them.
"It's that old gentleman who lives all alone by himself on the hill over the brook," she explained; and Mrs. Ewbert rose with an air of authority, waving her husband to keep his seat.
"Now, Clarence, I am simply not going to let you go in. You are sick enough as it is, and if you are going to let that awful old man spend the whole evening here, and drain the life out of you! I will see him, and tell him"—
"No, no, Emily! It won't do. I must see him. It isn't true that I'm sick. He's old, and he has a right to the best we can do for him. Think of his loneliness! I shall certainly not let you send him away." Ewbert was excitedly gulping his second cup of tea; he pushed his chair back, and flung his napkin down as he added, "You can come in, too, and see that I get off alive."
"I shall not come near you," she answered resentfully; but Ewbert had not closed the door behind him, and she felt it her duty to listen.
Mrs. Ewbert heard old Hilbrook begin at once in a high senile key without any form of response to her husband's greeting: "There was one thing you said to-day that I've been thinkin' over, and I've come down to talk with you about it."
"Yes?" Ewbert queried submissively, though he was aware of being quite as fagged as his wife accused him of being, after he spoke.
"Yes," Hilbrook returned. "I guess I ha'n't been exactly up and down with myself. I guess I've been playing fast and loose with myself. I guess you're right about my wantin' to have enough consciousness to enjoy my unconsciousness," and the old gentleman gave a laugh of rather weird enjoyment. "There are things," he resumed seriously, "that are deeper in us than anything we call ourselves. I supposed I had gone to the bottom, but I guess I hadn't. All the while there was something down there that I hadn't got at; but you reached it and touched it, and now I know it's there. I don't know but it's my Soul that's been havin' its say all the time, and me not listenin'. I guess you made your point."
Ewbert was still not so sure of that. He had thrown out that hasty suggestion without much faith in it at the time, and his faith in it had not grown since.
"I'm glad," he began, but Hilbrook pressed on as if he had not spoken.
"I guess we're built like an onion," he said, with a severity that forbade Ewbert to feel anything undignified in the homely illustration. "You can strip away layer after layer till you seem to get to nothing at all; but when you've got to that nothing you've got to the very thing that had the life in it, and that would have grown again if you had put it in the ground."
"Exactly!" said Ewbert.
"You made a point that I can't get round," Hilbrook continued, and it was here that Ewbert enjoyed a little instant of triumph. "But that ain't the point with me. I see that I can't prove that we shan't live again any more than you can prove that we shall. What I want you to do now is to convince me, or to give me the least reason to believe, that we shan't live again on exactly the same terms that we live now. I don't want to argue immortality any more; we'll take that for granted. But how is it going to be any different from mortality with the hope of death taken away?"
Hilbrook's apathy was gone, and his gentleness; he had suddenly an air and tone of fierce challenge. As he spoke he brought a clenched fist down on the arm of his chair; he pushed his face forward and fixed Ewbert with the vitreous glitter of his old eyes. Ewbert found him terrible, and he had a confused sense of responsibility for him, as if he had spiritually constituted him, in the charnel of unbelief, out of the spoil of death, like some new and fearfuler figment of Frankenstein's. But if he had fortuitously reached him, through the one insincerity of his being, and bidden him live again forever, he must not forsake him or deny him.
"I don't know how far you accept or reject the teachings of Scripture on this matter," he began rather vaguely, but Hilbrook stopped him.
"You didn't go to the Book for the point you made against me. But if you go to it now for the point I want you to make for me, what are you going to find? Are you going to find the promise of a life any different from the life we have here? I accept it all,—all that the Old Testament says, and all that the New Testament says; and what does it amount to on this point?"
"Nothing but the assurance that if we live rightly here we shall be happy in the keeping of the divine Love there. That assurance is everything to me."
"It isn't to me!" cried the old man. "We are in the keeping of the divine Love here, too, and are we happy? Are those who live rightly happy? It's because we're not conditioned for happiness here; and how are we going to be conditioned differently there? We are going to suffer to all eternity through our passions, our potentialities of experience, there just as we do here."
"There may be other passions, other potentialities of experience," Ewbert suggested, casting about in the void.
"Like what?" Hilbrook demanded. "I've been trying to figure it, and I can't. I should like you to try it. You can't imagine a new passion in the soul any more than you can imagine a new feature in the face. There they are: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, chin; love, hate, greed, hope, fear! You can't add to them or take away from them." The old man dropped from his defiance in an entreaty that was even more terrible to Ewbert. "I wish you could. I should like to have you try. Maybe I haven't been over the whole ground. Maybe there's some principle that I've missed." He hitched his chair closer to Ewbert's, and laid some tremulous fingers on the minister's sleeve. "If I've got to live forever, what have I got to live for?"
"Well," said Ewbert, meeting him fully in his humility, "let us try to make it out together. Let us try to think. Apparently, our way has brought us to a dead wall; but I believe there's light beyond it, if we can only break through. Is it really necessary that we should discover some new principle? Do we know all that love can do from our experience of it here?"
"Have you seen a mother with her child?" Hilbrook retorted.
"Yes, I know. But even that has some alloy of selfishness. Can't we imagine love in which there is no greed,—for greed, and not hate, is the true antithesis of love which is all giving, while greed is all getting,—a love that is absolutely pure?"
"I can't," said the old man. "All the love I ever felt had greed in it; I wanted to keep the thing I loved for myself."
"Yes, because you were afraid in the midst of your love. It was fear that alloyed it, not greed. And in easily imaginable conditions in which there is no fear of want, or harm, or death, love would be pure; for it is these things that greed itself wants to save us from. You can imagine conditions in which there shall be no fear, in which love casteth out fear?"
"Well," said Hilbrook provisionally.
Ewbert had not thought of these points himself before, and he was pleased with his discovery, though afterwards he was aware that it was something like an intellectual juggle. "You see," he temporized, "we have got rid of two of the passions already, fear and greed, which are the potentialities of our unhappiest experience in this life. In fact, we have got rid of three, for without fear and greed men cannot hate."
"But how can we exist without them?" Hilbrook urged. "Shall we be made up of two passions,—of love and hope alone?"
"Why not?" Ewbert returned, with what he felt a specious brightness.
"Because we should not be complete beings with these two elements alone."
"Ah, as we know ourselves here, I grant you," said the minister. "But why should we not be far more simply constituted somewhere else? Have you ever read Isaac Taylor's Physical Theory of another Life? He argues that the immortal body would be a far less complex mechanism than the mortal body. Why should not the immortal soul be simple, too? In fact, it would necessarily be so, being one with the body. I think I can put my hand on that book, and if I can I must make you take it with you."
He rose briskly from his chair, and went to the shelves, running his fingers along the books with that subtlety of touch by which the student knows a given book in the dark. He had heard Mrs. Ewbert stirring about in the rooms beyond with an activity in which he divined a menacing impatience; and he would have been glad to get rid of old Hilbrook before her impatience burst in an irruption upon them. Perhaps because of this distraction he could not find the book, but he remained on foot, talking with an implication in his tone that they were both preparing to part, and were now merely finishing off some odds and ends of discourse before they said good-night.
Old Hilbrook did not stir. He was far too sincere a nature, Ewbert saw, to conceive of such inhospitality as a hint for his departure, or he was too deeply interested to be aware of it. The minister was obliged to sit down again, and it was eleven o'clock before Hilbrook rose to go.
Ewbert went out to the gate with the old man, and when he came back to his study, he found his wife there looking strangely tall and monumental in her reproach. "I supposed you were in bed long ago, my dear," he attempted lightly.
"You don't mean that you've been out in the night air without your hat on!" she returned. "Well, this is too much!" Her long-pent-up impatience broke in tears, and he strove in vain to comfort her with caresses. "Oh, what a fatal day it was when you stirred that wretched old creature up! Why couldn't you leave him alone!"
"To his apathy? To his despair? Emily!" Ewbert dropped his arms from the embrace in which he had folded her woodenly unresponsive frame, and regarded her sadly.
"Oh yes, of course," she answered, rubbing her handkerchief into her eyes. "But you don't know that it was despair; and he was quite happy in his apathy; and as it is, you've got him on your hands; and if he's going to come here every night and stay till morning, it will kill you. You know you're not strong; and you get so excited when you sit up talking. Look how flushed your cheeks are, now, and your eyes—as big! You won't sleep a wink to-night,—I know you won't."
"Oh yes, I shall," he answered bravely. "I believe I've done some good work with poor old Hilbrook; and you mustn't think he's tired me. I feel fresher than I did when he came."
"It's because you're excited," she persisted. "I know you won't sleep."
"Yes, I shall. I shall just stay here, and read my nerves down a little. Then I'll come."
"Oh yes!" Mrs. Ewbert exulted disconsolately, and she left him to his book. She returned to say: "If you must take anything to make you sleepy, I've left some warm milk on the back of the stove. Promise me you won't take any sulphonal! You know how you feel the next day!"
"No, no, I won't," said Ewbert; and he kept his word, with the effect of remaining awake all night. Toward morning he did not know but he had drowsed; he was not aware of losing consciousness, and he started from his drowse with the word "consciousness" in his mind, as he had heard Hilbrook speaking it.
Throughout the day, under his wife's watchful eye, he failed of the naps he tried for, and he had to own himself as haggard, when night came again, as the fondest anxiety of a wife could pronounce a husband. He could not think of his talk with old Hilbrook without an anguish of brain exhaustion; and yet he could not help thinking of it. He realized what the misery of mere weakness must be, and the horror of not having the power to rest. He wished to go to bed before the hour when Hilbrook commonly appeared, but this was so early that Ewbert knew he should merely toss about and grow more and more wakeful from his premature effort to sleep. He trembled at every step outside, and at the sound of feet approaching the door on the short brick walk from the gate, he and his wife arrested themselves with their teacups poised in the air. Ewbert was aware of feebly hoping the feet might go away again; but the bell rang, and then he could not meet his wife's eye.
"If it is that old Mr. Hilbrook," she said to the maid in transit through the room, "tell him that Mr. Ewbert is not well, but I shall be glad to see him," and now Ewbert did not dare to protest. His forebodings were verified when he heard Hilbrook asking for him, but though he knew the voice, he detected a difference in the tone that puzzled him.
His wife did not give Hilbrook time to get away, if he had wished, without seeing her; she rose at once and went out to him. Ewbert heard her asking him into the library, and then he heard them in parley there; and presently they came out into the hall again, and went to the front door together. Ewbert's heart misgave him of something summary on her part, and he did not know what to make of the cheerful parting between them. "Well, I bid you good-evening, ma'am," he heard old Hilbrook say briskly, and his wife return sweetly, "Good-night, Mr. Hilbrook. You must come soon again."
"You may put your mind at rest, Clarence," she said, as she reentered the dining room and met his face of surprise. "He didn't come to make a call; he just wanted to borrow a book,—Physical Theory of another Life."
"How did you find it?" asked Ewbert, with relief.
"It was where it always was," she returned indifferently. "Mr. Hilbrook seemed to be very much interested in something you said to him about it. I do believe you have done him good, Clarence; and now, if you can only get a full night's rest, I shall forgive him. But I hope he won't come very soon again, and will never stay so late when he does come. Promise me you won't go near him till he's brought the book back!"
Hilbrook came the night after he had borrowed the book, full of talk about it, to ask if he might keep it a little longer. Ewbert had slept well the intervening night, and had been suffered to see Hilbrook upon promising his wife that he would not encourage the old man to stay; but Hilbrook stayed without encouragement. An interest had come into his apathetic life which renewed it, and gave vitality to a whole dead world of things. He wished to talk, and he wished even more to listen, that he might confirm himself from Ewbert's faith and reason in the conjectures with which his mind was filled. His eagerness as to the conditions of a future life, now that he had begun to imagine them, was insatiable, and Ewbert, who met it with glad sympathy, felt drained of his own spiritual forces by the strength which he supplied to the old man. But the case was so strange, so absorbing, so important, that he could not refuse himself to it. He could not deny Hilbrook's claim to all that he could give him in this sort; he was as helpless to withhold the succor he supplied as he was to hide from Mrs. Ewbert's censoriously anxious eye the nervous exhaustion to which it left him after each visit that Hilbrook paid him. But there was a drain from another source of which he would not speak to her till he could make sure that the effect was not some trick of his own imagination.
He had been aware, in twice urging some reason upon Hilbrook, of a certain perfunctory quality in his performance. It was as if the truth, so vital at first, had perished in its formulation, and in the repetition he was sensible, or he was fearful, of an insincerity, a hollowness in the arguments he had originally employed so earnestly against the old man's doubt. He recognized with dismay a quality of question in his own mind, and he fancied that as Hilbrook waxed in belief he himself waned. The conviction of a life hereafter was not something which he was sharing with Hilbrook; he was giving it absolutely, and with such entire unreserve that he was impoverishing his own soul of its most precious possession.
So it seemed to him in those flaccid moods to which Hilbrook's visits left him, when mind and body were both spent in the effort he had been making. In the intervals in which his strength renewed itself, he put this fear from him as a hypochondriacal fancy, and he summoned a cheerfulness which he felt less and less to meet the hopeful face of the old man. Hilbrook had renewed himself, apparently, in the measure that the minister had aged and waned. He looked, to Ewbert, younger and stronger. To the conventional question how he did, he one night answered that he never felt better in his life. "But you," he said, casting an eye over the face and figure of the minister, who lay back in his easy-chair, with his hands stretched nerveless on the arms, "you, look rather peaked. I don't know as I noticed it before, but come to think, I seemed to feel the same way about it when I saw you in the pulpit yesterday."
"It was a very close day," said Ewbert. "I don't know why I shouldn't be about as well as usual."
"Well, that's right," said Hilbrook, in willing dismissal of the trifle which had delayed him from the great matter in his mind.
Some new thoughts had occurred to him in corroboration of the notions they had agreed upon in their last meeting. But in response Ewbert found himself beset by a strange temptation,—by the wish to take up these notions and expose their fallacy. They were indeed mere toys of their common fancy which they had constructed together in mutual supposition, but Ewbert felt a sacredness in them, while he longed so strangely to break them one by one and cast them in the old man's face. Like all imaginative people, he was at times the prey of morbid self-suggestions, whose nature can scarcely be stated without excess. The more monstrous the thing appeared to his mind and conscience, the more fascinating it became. Once the mere horror of such a conception as catching a comely parishioner about the waist and kissing her, when she had come to him with a case of conscience, had so confused him in her presence as to make him answer her wildly, not because he was really tempted to the wickedness, but because he realized so vividly the hideousness of the impossible temptation. In some such sort he now trembled before old Hilbrook, thinking how dreadful it would be if he were suddenly to begin undoing the work of faith in him, and putting back in its place the doubts which he had uprooted before. In a swift series of dramatic representations he figured the old man's helpless amaze at the demoniacal gayety with which he should mock his own seriousness in the past, the cynical ease with which he should show the vanity of the hopes he had been so fervent in awakening. He had throughout recognized the claim that all the counter-doubts had upon the reason, and he saw how effective he could make these if he were now to become their advocate. He pictured the despair in which he could send his proselyte tottering home to his lonely house through the dark.
He rent himself from the spell, but the last picture remained so real with him that he went to the window and looked out, saying, "Is there a moon?"
"It ain't up yet, I guess," said old Hilbrook, and from something in his manner, rather than from anything he recollected of their talk, Ewbert fancied him to have asked a question, and to be now waiting for some answer. He had not the least notion what the question could have been, and he began to walk up and down, trying to think of something to say, but feeling his legs weak under him and the sweat cold on his forehead. All the time he was aware of Hilbrook following him with an air of cheerful interest, and patiently waiting till he should take up the thread of their discourse again.
He controlled himself at last, and sank into his chair. "Where were we?" he asked. "I had gone off on a train of associations, and I don't just recall our last point."
Hilbrook stated it, and Ewbert said, "Oh, yes," as if he recognized it, and went on from it upon the line of thought which it suggested. He was aware of talking rationally and forcibly; but in the subjective undercurrent paralleling his objective thought he was holding discourse with himself to an effect wholly different from that produced in Hilbrook.
"Well, sir," said the old man when he rose to go at last, "I guess you've settled it for me. You've made me see that there can be an immortal life that's worth living; and I was afraid there wa'n't! I shouldn't care, now, if I woke up any morning in the other world. I guess it would be all right; and that there would be new conditions every way, so that a man could go on and be himself, without feelin' that he was in any danger of bein' wasted. You've made me want to meet my boy again; and I used to dread it; I didn't think I was fit for it. I don't know whether you expect me to thank you; I presume you don't; but I"—he faltered, and his voice shook in sympathy with the old hand that he put trembling into Ewbert's—"I bless you!"
The time had come when the minister must seek refuge and counsel with his wife. He went to her as a troubled child goes to its mother, and she heard the confession of his strange experience with the motherly sympathy which performs the comforting office of perfect intelligence. If she did not grasp its whole significance, she seized what was perhaps the main point, and she put herself in antagonism to the cause of his morbid condition, while administering an inevitable chastisement for the neglect of her own prevision.
"That terrible old man," she said, "has simply been draining the life out of you, Clarence. I saw it from the beginning, and I warned you against it; but you wouldn't listen to me. Now I suppose you will listen, after the doctor tells you that you're in danger of nervous prostration, and that you've got to give up everything and rest. I think you've been in danger of losing your reason, you've overworked it so; and I sha'n't be easy till I've got you safely away at the seaside, and out of the reach of that—that vampire."
"Emily!" the minister protested. "I can't allow you to use such language. At the worst, and supposing that he has really been that drain upon me which you say (though I don't admit it), what is my life for but to give to others?"
"But my life isn't for you to give to others, and your life is mine, and I think I have some right to say what shall be done with it, and I don't choose to have it used up on old Hilbrook." It passed through Ewbert's languid thought, which it stirred to a vague amusement, that the son of an older church than the Rixonite might have found in this thoroughly terrestrial attitude of his wife a potent argument for sacerdotal celibacy; but he did not attempt to formulate it, and he listened submissively while she went on: "One thing: I am certainly not going to let you see him again till you've seen the doctor, and I hope he won't come about. If he does, I shall see him."
The menace in this declaration moved Ewbert to another protest, which he worded conciliatingly: "I shall have to let you. But I know you won't say anything to convey a sense of responsibility to him. I couldn't forgive myself if he were allowed to feel that he had been preying upon me. The fact is, I've been overdoing in every way, and nobody is to blame for my morbid fancies but myself. I should blame myself very severely if you based any sort of superstition on them, and acted from that superstition."
"Oh, you needn't be afraid!" said Mrs. Ewbert. "I shall take care of his feelings, but I shall have my own opinions, all the same, Clarence."
Whether a woman with opinions so strong as Mrs. Ewbert's, and so indistinguishable from her prejudices, could be trusted to keep them to herself, in dealing with the matter in hand, was a question which her husband felt must largely be left to her goodness of heart for its right solution.
When Hilbrook came that night, as usual, she had already had it out with him in several strenuous reveries before they met, and she was able to welcome him gently to the interview which she made very brief. His face fell in visible disappointment when she said that Mr. Ewbert would not be able to see him, and perhaps there was nothing to uplift him in the reasons she gave, though she obscurely resented his continued dejection as a kind of ingratitude. She explained that poor Mr. Ewbert was quite broken down, and that the doctor had advised his going to the seaside for the whole of August, where he promised everything from the air and the bathing. Mr. Ewbert merely needed toning up, she said; but to correct the impression she might be giving that his breakdown was a trifling matter, she added that she felt very anxious about it, and wanted to get him away as soon as possible. She said with a confidential effect, as of something in which Hilbrook could sympathize with her: "You know it isn't merely his church work proper; it's his giving himself spiritually to all sorts of people so indiscriminately. He can't deny himself to any one; and sometimes he's perfectly exhausted by it. You must come and see him as soon as he gets back, Mr. Hilbrook. He will count upon it, I know; he's so much interested in the discussions he has been having with you."
She gave the old man her hand for good-by, after she had artfully stood him up, in a double hope,—a hope that he would understand that there was some limit to her husband's nervous strength, and a hope that her closing invitation would keep him from feeling anything personal in her hints.
Hilbrook took his leave in the dreamy fashion age has with so many things, as if there were a veil between him and experience which kept him from the full realization of what had happened; and as she watched his bent shoulders down the garden walk, carrying his forward-drooping head at a slant that scarcely left the crown of his hat visible, a fear came upon her which made it impossible for her to recount all the facts of her interview to her husband. It became her duty, rather, to conceal what was painful to herself in it, and she merely told him that Mr. Hilbrook had taken it all in the right way, and she had made him promise to come and see them as soon as they got back.
Events approved the wisdom of Mrs. Ewbert's course in so many respects that she confidently trusted them for the rest. Ewbert picked up wonderfully at the seaside, and she said to him again and again that it was not merely those interviews with old Hilbrook which had drained his vitality, but it was the whole social and religious keeping of the place. Everybody, she said, had thrown themselves upon his sympathies, and he was carrying a load that nobody could bear up under. She addressed these declarations to her lingering consciousness of Ransom Hilbrook, and confirmed herself, by their repetition, in the belief that he had not taken her generalizations personally. She now extended these so as to inculpate the faculty of the university, who ought to have felt it their duty not to let a man of Ewbert's intellectual quality stagger on alone among them, with no sign of appreciation or recognition in the work he was doing, not so much for the Rixonite church as for the whole community. She took several ladies at the hotel into her confidence on this point, and upon study of the situation they said it was a shame. After that she felt more bitter about it, and attributed her husband's collapse to a concealed sense of the indifference of the university people, so galling to a sensitive nature.
She suggested this theory to Ewbert, and he denied it with blithe derision, but she said that he need not tell her, and in confirming herself in it she began to relax her belief that old Ransom Hilbrook had preyed upon him. She even went so far as to say that the only intellectual companionship he had ever had in the place was that which he found in the old man's society. When she discovered, after the fact, that Ewbert had written to him since they came away, she was not so severe with him as she might have expected herself to be in view of an act which, if not quite clandestine, was certainly without her privity. She would have considered him fitly punished by Hilbrook's failure to reply, if she had not shared his uneasiness at the old man's silence. But she did not allow this to affect her good spirits, which were essential to her husband's comfort as well as her own. She redoubled her care of him in every sort, and among all the ladies who admired her devotion to him there was none who enjoyed it as much as herself. There was none who believed more implicitly that it was owing to her foresight and oversight that his health mended so rapidly, and that at the end of the bathing season she was, as she said, taking him home quite another man. In her perfect satisfaction she suffered him his small joke about not feeling it quite right to go with her if that were so; and though a woman of little humor, she even professed to find pleasure in his joke after she fully understood it.
"All that I ask," she said, as if it followed, "is that you won't spoil everything by letting old Hilbrook come every night and drain the life out of you again."
"I won't," he retorted, "if you'll promise to make the university people come regularly to my sermons."
He treated the notion of Hilbrook's visits lightly; but with his return to the familiar environment he felt a shrinking from them in an experience which was like something physical. Yet when he sat down the first night in his study, with his lamp in its wonted place, it was with an expectation of old Hilbrook in his usual seat so vivid that its defeat was more a shock than its fulfilment upon supernatural terms would have been. In fact, the absence of the old man was spectral; and though Ewbert employed himself fully the first night in answering an accumulation of letters that required immediate reply, it was with nervous starts from time to time, which he could trace to no other cause. His wife came in and out, with what he knew to be an accusing eye, as she brought up those arrears of housekeeping which always await the housewife on the return from any vacation; and he knew that he did not conceal his guilt from her.
They both ignored the stress which had fallen back upon him, and which accumulated, as the days of the week went by, until the first Sunday came.
Ewbert dreaded to look in the direction of Hilbrook's pew, lest he should find it empty; but the old man was there, and he sat blinking at the minister, as his custom was, through the sermon, and thoughtfully passing the tip of his tongue over the inner edge of his lower lip.
Many came up to shake hands with the minister after church, and to tell him how well he was looking, but Hilbrook was not among them. Some of the university people who had made a point of being there that morning, out of a personal regard for Ewbert, were grouped about his wife, in the church vestibule, where she stood answering their questions about his health. He glimpsed between the heads and shoulders of this gratifying group the figure of Hilbrook dropping from grade to grade on the steps outside, till it ceased to be visible, and he fancied, with a pang, that the old man had lingered to speak with him, and had then given up and started home.
The cordial interest of the university people was hardly a compensation for the disappointment he shared with Hilbrook; but his wife was so happy in it that he could not say anything to damp her joy. "Now," she declared, on their way home, "I am perfectly satisfied that they will keep coming. You never preached so well, Clarence, and if they have any appreciation at all, they simply won't be able to keep away. I wish you could have heard all the nice things they said about you. I guess they've waked up to you, at last, and I do believe that the idea of losing you has had a great deal to do with it. And that is something we owe to old Ransom Hilbrook more than to anything else. I saw the poor old fellow hanging about, and I couldn't help feeling for him. I knew he wanted to speak with you, and I'm not afraid that he will be a burden again. It will be such an inspiration, the prospect of having the university people come every Sunday, now, that you can afford to give a little of it to him, and I want you to go and see him soon; he evidently isn't coming till you do."
Ewbert had learned not to inquire too critically for a logical process in his wife's changes of attitude toward any fact. In her present mood he recognized an effect of the exuberant good-will awakened by the handsome behavior of the university people, and he agreed with her that he must go to see old Hilbrook at once. In this good intention his painful feeling concerning him was soothed, and Ewbert did not get up to the Hilbrook place till well into the week. It was Thursday afternoon when he climbed through the orchard, under the yellowing leaves which dappled the green masses of the trees like intenser spots of the September sunshine. He came round by the well to the side door of the house, which stood open, and he did not hesitate to enter when he saw how freely the hens were coming and going through it. They scuttled out around him and between his legs, with guilty screeches, and left him standing alone in the middle of the wide, low kitchen. A certain discomfort of the nerves which their flight gave him was heightened by some details quite insignificant in themselves. There was no fire in the stove, and the wooden clock on the mantel behind it was stopped; the wind had carried in some red leaves from the maple near the door, and these were swept against the farther wall, where they lay palpitating in the draft.
The neglect in all was evidently too recent to suggest any supposition but that of the master's temporary absence, and Ewbert went to the threshold to look for his coming from the sheds or the barn. But these were all fast shut, and there was no sign of Hilbrook anywhere. Ewbert turned back into the room again, and saw the door of the old man's little bedroom standing slightly ajar. With a chill of apprehension he pushed it open, and he could not have experienced a more disagreeable effect if the dark fear in his mind had been realized than he did to see Hilbrook lying in his bed alive and awake. His face showed like a fine mask above the sheet, and his long, narrow hands rested on the covering across his breast. His eyes met those of Ewbert not only without surprise, but without any apparent emotion.
"Why, Mr. Hilbrook," said the minister, "are you sick?"
"No, I am first-rate," the old man answered.
It was on the point of the minister's tongue to ask him, "Then what in the world are you doing in bed?" but he substituted the less authoritative suggestion, "I am afraid I disturbed you—that I woke you out of a nap. But I found the door open and the hens inside, and I ventured to come in"—
Hilbrook replied calmly, "I heard you; I wa'n't asleep."
"Oh," said Ewbert, apologetically, and he did not know quite what to do; he had an aimless wish for his wife, as if she would have known what to do. In her absence he decided to shut the door against the hens, who were returning adventurously to the threshold, and then he asked, "Is there something I can do for you? Make a fire for you to get up by"—
"I ha'n't got any call to get up," said Hilbrook; and, after giving Ewbert time to make the best of this declaration, he asked abruptly, "What was that you said about my wantin' to be alive enough to know I was dead?"
"The consciousness of unconsciousness?"
"Ah!" the old man assented, as with satisfaction in having got the notion right; and then he added, with a certain defiance: "There ain't anything in that. I got to thinking it over, when you was gone, and the whole thing went to pieces. That idea don't prove anything at all, and all that we worked out of it had to go with it."
"Well," the minister returned, with an assumption of cosiness in his tone which he did not feel, and feigning to make himself easy in the hard kitchen chair which he pulled up to the door of Hilbrook's room, "let's see if we can't put that notion together again."
"You can, if you want to," said the old man, dryly "I got no interest in it any more; 'twa'n't nothing but a metaphysical toy, anyway." He turned his head apathetically on the pillow, and no longer faced his visitor, who found it impossible in the conditions of tacit dismissal to philosophize further.
"I was sorry," Ewbert began, "not to be able to speak with you after church, the other day. There were so many people"—
"That's all right," said Hilbrook unresentfully. "I hadn't anything to say, in particular."
"But I had," the minister persisted. "I thought a great deal about you when I was away, and I went over our talks in my own mind a great many times. The more I thought about them, the more I believed that we had felt our way to some important truth in the matter. I don't say final truth, for I don't suppose that we shall ever reach that in this life."
"Very likely," Hilbrook returned, with his face to the wall. "I don't see as it makes any difference; or if it does, I don't care for it."
Something occurred to Ewbert which seemed to him of more immediate usefulness than the psychological question. "Couldn't I get you something to eat, Mr. Hilbrook? If you haven't had any breakfast to-day, you must be hungry."
"Yes, I'm hungry," the old man assented, "but I don't want to eat anything."
Ewbert had risen hopefully in making his suggestion, but now his heart sank. Here, it seemed to him, a physician rather than a philosopher was needed, and at the sound of wheels on the wagon track to the door his imagination leaped to the miracle of the doctor's providential advent. He hurried to the threshold and met the fish-man, who was about to announce himself with the handle of his whip on the clapboarding. He grasped the situation from the minister's brief statement, and confessed that he had expected to find the old gentleman dead in his bed some day, and he volunteered to send some of the women folks from the farm up the road. When these came, concentrated in the person of the farmer's bustling wife, who had a fire kindled in the stove and the kettle on before Ewbert could get away, he went for the doctor, and returned with him to find her in possession of everything in the house except the owner's interest. Her usefulness had been arrested by an invisible but impassable barrier, though she had passed and re-passed the threshold of Hilbrook's chamber with tea and milk toast. He said simply that he saw no object in eating; and he had not been sufficiently interested to turn his head and look at her in speaking to her.
With the doctor's science he was as indifferent as with the farm-wife's service. He submitted to have his pulse felt, and he could not help being prescribed for, but he would have no agency in taking his medicine. He said, as he had said to Mrs. Stephson about eating, that he saw no object in it.
The doctor retorted, with the temper of a man not used to having his will crossed, that he had better take it, if he had any object in living, and Hilbrook answered that he had none. In his absolute apathy he did not even ask to be let alone.
"You see," the baffled doctor fumed in the conference that he had with Ewbert apart, "he doesn't really need any medicine. There's nothing the matter with him, and I only wanted to give him something to put an edge to his appetite. He's got cranky living here alone; but there is such a thing as starving to death, and that's the only thing Hilbrook's in danger of. If you're going to stay with him—he oughtn't to be left alone"—
"I can come up, yes, certainly, after supper," said Ewbert, and he fortified himself inwardly for the question this would raise with his wife.
"Then you must try to interest him in something. Get him to talking, and then let Mrs. Stephson come in with a good bowl of broth, and I guess we may trust Nature to do the rest."
When we speak of Nature, we figure her as one thing, with a fixed purpose and office in the universal economy; but she is an immense number of things, and her functions are inexpressibly varied. She includes decay as well as growth; she compasses death as well as birth. We call certain phenomena unnatural; but in a natural world how can anything be unnatural, except the supernatural? These facts gave Ewbert pause in view of the obstinate behavior of Ransom Hilbrook in dying for no obvious reason, and kept him from pronouncing it unnatural. The old man, he reflected, had really less reason to live than to die, if it came to reasons; for everything that had made the world home to him had gone out of it, and left him in exile here. The motives had ceased; the interests had perished; the strong personality that had persisted was solitary amid the familiar environment grown alien.
The wonder was that he should ever have been roused from his apathetic unfaith to inquiry concerning the world beyond this, and to a certain degree of belief in possibilities long abandoned by his imagination. Ewbert had assisted at the miracle of this resuscitation upon terms which, until he was himself much older, he could not question as to their beneficence, and in fact it never came to his being quite frank with himself concerning them. He kept his thoughts on this point in that state of solution which holds so many conjectures from precipitation in actual conviction.
But his wife had no misgivings. Her dread was that in his devotion to that miserable old man (as she called him, not always in compassion) he should again contribute to Hilbrook's vitality at the expense, if not the danger, of his own. She of course expressed her joy that Ewbert had at last prevailed upon him to eat something, when the entreaty of his nurse and the authority of his doctor availed nothing; and of course she felt the pathos of his doing it out of affection for Ewbert, and merely to please him, as Hilbrook declared. It did not surprise her that any one should do anything for the love of Ewbert, but it is doubtful if she fully recognized the beauty of this last efflorescence of the aged life; and she perceived it her duty not to sympathize entirely with Ewbert's morbid regret that it came too late. She was much more resigned than he to the will of Providence, and she urged a like submissiveness upon him.
"Don't talk so!" he burst out. "It's horrible!" It was in the first hours after Ewbert's return from Hilbrook's death-bed, and his spent nerves gave way in a gush of tears.
"I see what you mean," she said, after a pause in which he controlled his sobs. "And I suppose," she added, with a touch of bitterness, "that you blame me for taking you away from him here when he was coming every night and sapping your very life. You were very glad to have me do it at the time! And what use would there have been in your killing yourself, anyway? It wasn't as if he were a young man with a career of usefulness before him, that might have been marred by his not believing this or that. He had been a complete failure every way, and the end of the world had come for him. What did it matter whether such a man believed that there was another world or not?"
"Emily! Emily!" the minister cried out. "What are you saying?"
Mrs. Ewbert broke down in her turn. "I don't know what I'm saying!" she retorted from behind her handkerchief. "I'm trying to show you that it's your duty to yourself—and to me—and to people who can know how to profit by your teaching and your example, not to give way as you're doing, simply because a wornout old agnostic couldn't keep his hold on the truth. I don't know what your Rixonitism is for if it won't let you wait upon the divine will in such a thing, too. You're more conscientious than the worst kind of Congregationalist. And now for you to blame me"—
"Emily, I don't blame you," said her husband. "I blame myself."
"And you see that that's the same thing! You ought to thank me for saving your life; for it was just as if you were pouring your heart's blood into him, and I could see you getting more anaemic every day. Even now you're not half as well as when you got home! And yet I do believe that if you could bring old Hilbrook back into a world that he was sick and tired of, you'd give your own life to do it."
There was reason and there was justice in what she said, though they were so chaotic in form, and Ewbert could not refuse to acquiesce.
After all, he had done what he could, and he would not abandon himself to a useless remorse. He rather set himself to study the lesson of old Hilbrook's life, and in the funeral sermon that he preached he urged upon his hearers the necessity of keeping themselves alive through some relation to the undying frame of things, which they could do only by cherishing earthly ties; and when these were snapped in the removal of their objects, by attaching the broken threads through an effort of the will to yet other objects: the world could furnish these inexhaustibly. He touched delicately upon the peculiarities, the eccentricities, of the deceased, and he did cordial justice to his gentleness, his blameless, harmless life, his heroism on the battlefields of his country. He declared that he would not be the one to deny an inner piety, and certainly not a steadfast courage, in Hilbrook's acceptance of whatever his sincere doubts implied.
The sermon apparently made a strong impression on all who heard it. Mrs. Ewbert was afraid that it was rather abstruse in certain passages, but she felt sure that all the university people would appreciate these. The university people, to testify their respect for their founder, had come in a body to the obsequies of his kinsman; and Mrs. Ewbert augured the best things for her husband's future usefulness from their presence.
THE MAGIC OF A VOICE.
There was a full moon, and Langbourne walked about the town, unable to come into the hotel and go to bed. The deep yards of the houses gave out the scent of syringas and June roses; the light of lamps came through the fragrant bushes from the open doors and windows, with the sound of playing and singing and bursts of young laughter. Where the houses stood near the street, he could see people lounging on the thresholds, and their heads silhouetted against the luminous interiors. Other houses, both those which stood further back and those that stood nearer, were dark and still, and to these he attributed the happiness of love in fruition, safe from unrest and longing.
His own heart was tenderly oppressed, not with desire, but with the memory of desire. It was almost as if in his faded melancholy he were sorry for the disappointment of some one else.
At last he turned and walked back through the streets of dwellings to the business centre of the town, where a gush of light came from the veranda of his hotel, and the druggist's window cast purple and yellow blurs out upon the footway. The other stores were shut, and he alone seemed to be abroad. The church clock struck ten as he mounted the steps of his hotel and dropped the remnant of his cigar over the side.
He had slept badly on the train the night before, and he had promised himself to make up his lost sleep in the good conditions that seemed to offer themselves. But when he sat down in the hotel office he was more wakeful than he had been when he started out to walk himself drowsy.
The clerk gave him the New York paper which had come by the evening train, and he thanked him, but remained musing in his chair. At times he thought he would light another cigar, but the hand that he carried to his breast pocket dropped nervelessly to his knee again, and he did not smoke. Through his memories of disappointment pierced a self-reproach which did not permit him the perfect self-complacency of regret; and yet he could not have been sure, if he had asked himself, that this pang did not heighten the luxury of his psychological experience.
He rose and asked the clerk for a lamp, but he turned back from the stairs to inquire when there would be another New York mail. The clerk said there was a train from the south due at eleven-forty, but it seldom brought any mail; the principal mail was at seven. Langbourne thanked him, and came back again to beg the clerk to be careful and not have him called in the morning, for he wished to sleep. Then he went up to his room, where he opened his window to let in the night air. He heard a dog barking; a cow lowed; from a stable somewhere the soft thumping of the horses' feet came at intervals lullingly.
Langbourne fell asleep so quickly that he was aware of no moment of waking after his head touched the fragrant pillow. He woke so much refreshed by his first sound, soft sleep that he thought it must be nearly morning. He got his watch into a ray of the moonlight and made out that it was only a little after midnight, and he perceived that it must have been the sound of low murmuring voices and broken laughter in the next room which had wakened him. But he was rather glad to have been roused to a sense of his absolute comfort, and he turned unresentfully to sleep again. All his heaviness of heart was gone; he felt curiously glad and young; he had somehow forgiven the wrong he had suffered and the wrong he had done. The subdued murmuring went on in the next room, and he kept himself awake to enjoy it for a while. Then he let himself go, and drifted away into gulfs of slumber, where, suddenly, he seemed to strike against something, and started up in bed.
A laugh came from the next room. It was not muffled, as before, but frank and clear. It was woman's laughter, and Langbourne easily inferred girlhood as well as womanhood from it. His neighbors must have come by the late train, and they had probably begun to talk as soon as they got into their room. He imagined their having spoken low at first for fear of disturbing some one, and then, in their forgetfulness, or their belief that there was no one near, allowed themselves greater freedom. There were survivals of their earlier caution at times, when their voices sank so low as scarcely to be heard; then there was a break from it when they rose clearly distinguishable from each other. They were never so distinct that he could make out what was said; but each voice unmistakably conveyed character.
Friendship between girls is never equal; they may equally love each other, but one must worship and one must suffer worship. Langbourne read the differing temperaments necessary to this relation in the differing voices. That which bore mastery was a low, thick murmur, coming from deep in the throat, and flowing out in a steady stream of indescribable coaxing and drolling. The owner of that voice had imagination and humor which could charm with absolute control her companion's lighter nature, as it betrayed itself in a gay tinkle of amusement and a succession of nervous whispers. Langbourne did not wonder at her subjection; with the first sounds of that rich, tender voice, he had fallen under its spell too; and he listened intensely, trying to make out some phrase, some word, some syllable. But the talk kept its sub-audible flow, and he had to content himself as he could with the sound of the voice.
As he lay eavesdropping with all his might he tried to construct an image of the two girls from their voices. The one with the crystalline laugh was little and lithe, quick in movement, of a mobile face, with gray eyes and fair hair; the other was tall and pale, with full, blue eyes and a regular face, and lips that trembled with humor; very demure and yet very honest; very shy and yet very frank; there was something almost mannish in her essential honesty; there was nothing of feminine coquetry in her, though everything of feminine charm. She was a girl who looked like her father, Langbourne perceived with a flash of divination. She dressed simply in dark blue, and her hair was of a dark mahogany color. The smaller girl wore light gray checks or stripes, and the shades of silver.
The talk began to be less continuous in the next room, from which there came the sound of sighs and yawns, and then of mingled laughter at these. Then the talk ran unbrokenly on for a while, and again dropped into laughs that recognized the drowse creeping upon the talkers. Suddenly it stopped altogether, and left Langbourne, as he felt, definitively awake for the rest of the night.
He had received an impression which he could not fully analyze. With some inner sense he kept hearing that voice, low and deep, and rich with whimsical suggestion. Its owner must have a strange, complex nature, which would perpetually provoke and satisfy. Her companionship would be as easy and reasonable as a man's, while it had the charm of a woman's. At the moment it seemed to him that life without this companionship would be something poorer and thinner than he had yet known, and that he could not endure to forego it. Somehow he must manage to see the girl and make her acquaintance. He did not know how it could be contrived, but it could certainly be contrived, and he began to dramatize their meeting on these various terms. It was interesting and it was delightful, and it always came, in its safe impossibility, to his telling her that he loved her, and to her consenting to be his wife. He resolved to take no chance of losing her, but to remain awake, and somehow see her before she could leave the hotel in the morning. The resolution gave him calm; he felt that the affair so far was settled.
Suddenly he started from his pillow; and again he heard that mellow laugh, warm and rich as the cooing of doves on sunlit eaves. The sun was shining through the crevices of his window-blinds; he looked at his watch; it was half-past eight. The sound of fluttering skirts and flying feet in the corridor shook his heart. A voice, the voice of the mellow laugh, called as if to some one on the stairs, "I must have put it in my bag. It doesn't matter, anyway."
He hurried on his clothes, in the vain hope of finding his late neighbors at breakfast; but before he had finished dressing he heard wheels before the veranda below, and he saw the hotel barge drive away, as if to the station. There were two passengers in it; two women, whose faces were hidden by the fringe of the barge-roof, but whose slender figures showed themselves from their necks down. It seemed to him that one was tall and slight, and the other slight and little.
He stopped in the hall, and then, tempted by his despair, he stepped within the open door of the next room and looked vaguely over it, with shame at being there. What was it that the girl had missed, and had come back to look for? Some trifle, no doubt, which she had not cared to lose, and yet had not wished to leave behind. He failed to find anything in the search, which he could not make very thorough, and he was going guiltily out when his eye fell upon an envelope, perversely fallen beside the door and almost indiscernible against the white paint, with the addressed surface inward.
This must be the object of her search, and he could understand why she was not very anxious when he found it a circular from a nursery-man, containing nothing more valuable than a list of flowering shrubs. He satisfied himself that this was all without satisfying himself that he had quite a right to do so; and he stood abashed in the presence of the superscription on the envelope somewhat as if Miss Barbara F. Simpson, Upper Ashton Falls, N. H., were there to see him tampering with her correspondence. It was indelicate, and he felt that his whole behavior had been indelicate, from the moment her laugh had wakened him in the night till now, when he had invaded her room. He had no more doubt that she was the taller of the two girls than that this was her name on the envelope. He liked Barbara; and Simpson could be changed. He seemed to hear her soft throaty laugh in response to the suggestion, and with a leap of the heart he slipped the circular into his breast pocket.
After breakfast he went to the hotel office, and stood leaning on the long counter and talking with the clerk till he could gather courage to look at the register, where he knew the names of these girls must be written. He asked where Upper Ashton Falls was, and whether it would be a pleasant place to spend a week.
The clerk said that it was about thirty miles up the road, and was one of the nicest places in the mountains; Langbourne could not go to a nicer; and there was a very good little hotel. "Why," he said, "there were two ladies here overnight that just left for there, on the seven-forty. Odd you should ask about it."
Langbourne owned that it was odd, and then he asked if the ladies lived at Upper Ashton Falls, or were merely summer folks.
"Well, a little of both," said the clerk. "They're cousins, and they've got an aunt living there that they stay with. They used to go away winters,—teaching, I guess,—but this last year they stayed right through. Been down to Springfield, they said, and just stopped the night because the accommodation don't go any farther. Wake you up last night? I had to put 'em into the room next to yours, and girls usually talk."
Langbourne answered that it would have taken a good deal of talking to wake him the night before, and then he lounged across to the time-table hanging on the wall, and began to look up the trains for Upper Ashton Falls.
"If you want to go to the Falls," said the clerk, "there's a through train at four, with a drawing-room on it, that will get you there by five."
"Oh, I fancy I was looking up the New York trains," Langbourne returned. He did not like these evasions, but in his consciousness of Miss Simpson he seemed unable to avoid them. The clerk went out on the veranda to talk with a farmer bringing supplies, and Langbourne ran to the register, and read there the names of Barbara F. Simpson and Juliet D. Bingham. It was Miss Simpson who had registered for both, since her name came first, and the entry was in a good, simple hand, which was like a man's in its firmness and clearness. He turned from the register decided to take the four-o'clock train for Upper Ashton Falls, and met a messenger with a telegram which he knew was for himself before the boy could ask his name. His partner had fallen suddenly sick; his recall was absolute, his vacation was at an end; nothing remained for him but to take the first train back to New York. He thought how little prescient he had been in his pretence that he was looking the New York trains up; but the need of one had come already, and apparently he should never have any use for a train to Upper Ashton Falls.
All the way back to New York Langbourne was oppressed by a sense of loss such as his old disappointment in love now seemed to him never to have inflicted. He found that his whole being had set toward the unseen owner of the voice which had charmed him, and it was like a stretching and tearing of the nerves to be going from her instead of going to her. He was as much under duress as if he were bound by a hypnotic spell. The voice continually sounded, not in his ears, which were filled with the noises of the train, as usual, but in the inmost of his spirit, where it was a low, cooing, coaxing murmur. He realized now how intensely he must have listened for it in the night, how every tone of it must have pervaded him and possessed him. He was in love with it, he was as entirely fascinated by it as if it were the girl's whole presence, her looks, her qualities. The remnant of the summer passed in the fret of business, which was doubly irksome through his feeling of injury in being kept from the girl whose personality he constructed from the sound of her voice, and set over his fancy in an absolute sovereignty. The image he had created of her remained a dim and blurred vision throughout the day, but by night it became distinct and compelling. One evening, late in the fall, he could endure the stress no longer, and he yielded to the temptation which had beset him from the first moment he renounced his purpose of returning in person the circular addressed to her as a means of her acquaintance. He wrote to her, and in terms as dignified as he could contrive, and as free from any ulterior import, he told her he had found it in the hotel hallway and had meant to send it to her at once, thinking it might be of some slight use to her. He had failed to do this, and now, having come upon it among some other papers, he sent it with an explanation which he hoped she would excuse him for troubling her with.
This was not true, but he did not see how he could begin with her by saying that he had found the circular in her room, and had kept it by him ever since, looking at it every day, and leaving it where he could see it the last thing before he slept at night and the first thing after he woke in the morning. As to her reception of his story, he had to trust to his knowledge that she was, like himself, of country birth and breeding, and to his belief that she would not take alarm at his overture. He did not go much into the world and was little acquainted with its usages, yet he knew enough to suspect that a woman of the world would either ignore his letter, or would return a cold and snubbing expression of Miss Simpson's thanks for Mr. Stephen M. Langbourne's kindness.
He had not only signed his name and given his address carefully in hopes of a reply, but he had enclosed the business card of his firm as a token of his responsibility. The partner in a wholesale stationery house ought to be an impressive figure in the imagination of a village girl; but it was some weeks before any answer came to Langbourne's letter. The reply began with an apology for the delay, and Langbourne perceived that he had gained rather than lost by the writer's hesitation; clearly she believed that she had put herself in the wrong, and that she owed him a certain reparation. For the rest, her letter was discreetly confined to an acknowledgment of the trouble he had taken.
But this spare return was richly enough for Langbourne; it would have sufficed, if there had been nothing in the letter, that the handwriting proved Miss Simpson to have been the one who had made the entry of her name and her friend's in the hotel register. This was most important as one step in corroboration of the fact that he had rightly divined her; that the rest should come true was almost a logical necessity. Still, he was puzzled to contrive a pretext for writing again, and he remained without one for a fortnight. Then, in passing a seedsman's store which he used to pass every day without thinking, he one day suddenly perceived his opportunity. He went in and got a number of the catalogues and other advertisements, and addressed them then and there, in a wrapper the seedsman gave him, to Miss Barbara F. Simpson, Upper Ashton Falls, N. H.
Now the response came with a promptness which at least testified of the lingering compunction of Miss Simpson. She asked if she were right in supposing the seedsman's catalogues and folders had come to her from Langbourne, and begged to know from him whether the seedsman in question was reliable: it was so difficult to get garden seeds that one could trust.
The correspondence now established itself, and with one excuse or another it prospered throughout the winter. Langbourne was not only willing, he was most eager, to give her proof of his reliability; he spoke of stationers in Springfield and Greenfield to whom he was personally known; and he secretly hoped she would satisfy herself through friends in those places that he was an upright and trustworthy person.
Miss Simpson wrote delightful letters, with that whimsical quality which had enchanted him in her voice. The coaxing and caressing was not there, and could not be expected to impart itself, unless in those refuges of deep feeling supposed to lurk between the lines. But he hoped to provoke it from these in time, and his own letters grew the more earnest the more ironical hers became. He wrote to her about a book he was reading, and when she said she had not seen it, he sent it her; in one of her letters she casually betrayed that she sang contralto in the choir, and then he sent her some new songs, which he had heard in the theatre, and which he had informed himself from a friend were contralto. He was always tending to an expression of the feeling which swayed him; but on her part there was no sentiment. Only in the fact that she was willing to continue this exchange of letters with a man personally unknown to her did she betray that romantic tradition which underlies all our young life, and in those unused to the world tempts to things blameless in themselves, but of the sort shunned by the worldlier wise. There was no great wisdom of any kind in Miss Simpson's letters; but Langbourne did not miss it; he was content with her mere words, as they related the little events of her simple daily life. These repeated themselves from the page in the tones of her voice and filled him with a passionate intoxication.
Towards spring he had his photograph taken, for no reason that he could have given; but since it was done he sent one to his mother in Vermont, and then he wrote his name on another, and sent it to Miss Simpson in New Hampshire. He hoped, of course, that she would return a photograph of herself; but she merely acknowledged his with some dry playfulness. Then, after disappointing him so long that he ceased to expect anything, she enclosed a picture. The face was so far averted that Langbourne could get nothing but the curve of a longish cheek, the point of a nose, the segment of a crescent eyebrow. The girl said that as they should probably never meet, it was not necessary he should know her when he saw her; she explained that she was looking away because she had been attracted by something on the other side of the photograph gallery just at the moment the artist took the cap off the tube of his camera, and she could not turn back without breaking the plate.
Langbourne replied that he was going up to Springfield on business the first week in May, and that he thought he might push on as far north as Upper Ashton Falls. To this there came no rejoinder whatever, but he did not lose courage. It was now the end of April, and he could bear to wait for a further verification of his ideal; the photograph had confirmed him in its evasive fashion at every point of his conjecture concerning her. It was the face he had imagined her having, or so he now imagined, and it was just such a long oval face as would go with the figure he attributed to her. She must have the healthy palor of skin which associates itself with masses of dark, mahogany-colored hair.
It was so long since he had known a Northern spring that he had forgotten how much later the beginning of May was in New Hampshire; but as his train ran up from Springfield he realized the difference of the season from that which he had left in New York. The meadows were green only in the damp hollows; most of the trees were as bare as in midwinter; the willows in the swamplands hung out their catkins, and the white birches showed faint signs of returning life. In the woods were long drifts of snow, though he knew that in the brown leaves along their edges the pale pink flowers of the trailing arbutus were hiding their wet faces. A vernal mildness overhung the landscape. A blue haze filled the distances and veiled the hills; from the farm door-yards the smell of burning leaf-heaps and garden-stalks came through the window which he lifted to let in the dull, warm air. The sun shone down from a pale sky, in which the crows called to one another.
By the time he arrived at Upper Ashton Falls the afternoon had waned so far towards evening that the first robins were singing their vespers from the leafless choirs of the maples before the hotel. He indulged the landlord in his natural supposition that he had come up to make a timely engagement for summer board; after supper he even asked what the price of such rooms as his would be by the week in July, while he tried to lead the talk round to the fact which he wished to learn.
He did not know where Miss Simpson lived; and the courage with which he had set out on his adventure totally lapsed, leaving in its place an accusing sense of silliness. He was where he was without reason, and in defiance of the tacit unwillingness of the person he had come to see; she certainly had given him no invitation, she had given him no permission to come. For the moment, in his shame, it seemed to him that the only thing for him was to go back to New York by the first train in the morning. But what then would the girl think of him? Such an act must forever end the intercourse which had now become an essential part of his life. That voice which had haunted him so long, was he never to hear it again? Was he willing to renounce forever the hope of hearing it?
He sat at his supper so long, nervelessly turning his doubts over in his mind, that the waitress came out of the kitchen and drove him from the table with her severe, impatient stare.
He put on his hat, and with his overcoat on his arm he started out for a walk which was hopeless, but not so aimless as he feigned to himself. The air was lullingly warm still as he followed the long village street down the hill toward the river, where the lunge of rapids filled the dusk with a sort of humid uproar; then he turned and followed it back past the hotel as far as it led towards the open country. At the edge of the village he came to a large, old-fashioned house, which struck him as typical, with its outward swaying fence of the Greek border pattern, and its gate-posts topped by tilting urns of painted wood. The house itself stood rather far back from the street, and as he passed it he saw that it was approached by a pathway of brick which was bordered with box. Stalks of last year's hollyhocks and lilacs from garden beds on either hand lifted their sharp points, here and there broken and hanging down. It was curious how these details insisted through the twilight.
He walked on until the wooden village pathway ended in the country mud, and then again he returned up upon his steps. As he reapproached the house he saw lights. A brighter radiance streamed from the hall door, which was apparently open, and a softer glow flushed the windows of one of the rooms that flanked the hall.
As Langbourne came abreast of the gate the tinkle of a gay laugh rang out to him; then ensued a murmur of girls' voices in the room, and suddenly this stopped, and the voice that he knew, the voice that seemed never to have ceased to sound in his nerves and pulses, rose in singing words set to the Spanish air of La Paloma.
It was one of the songs he had sent to Miss Simpson, but he did not need this material proof that it was she whom he now heard. There was no question of what he should do. All doubt, all fear, had vanished; he had again but one impulse, one desire, one purpose. But he lingered at the gate till the song ended, and then he unlatched it and started up the walk towards the door. It seemed to him a long way; he almost reeled as he went; he fumbled tremulously for the bell-pull beside the door, while a confusion of voices in the adjoining room—the voices which had waked him from his sleep, and which now sounded like voices in a dream—came out to him.
The light from the lamp hanging in the hall shone full in his face, and the girl who came from that room beside it to answer his ring gave a sort of conscious jump at sight of him as he uncovered and stood bare-headed before her.
She must have recognized him from the photograph he had sent, and in stature and figure he recognized her as the ideal he had cherished, though her head was gilded with the light from the lamp, and he could not make out whether her hair was dark or fair; her face was, of course, a mere outline, without color or detail against the luminous interior.
He managed to ask, dry-tongued and with a heart that beat into his throat, "Is Miss Simpson at home?" and the girl answered, with a high, gay tinkle:
"Yes, she's at home. Won't you walk in?"
He obeyed, but at the sound of her silvery voice his heart dropped back into his breast. He put his hat and coat on an entry chair, and prepared to follow her into the room she had come out of. The door stood ajar, and he said, as she put out her hand to push it open, "I am Mr. Langbourne."
"Oh, yes," she answered in the same high, gay tinkle, which he fancied had now a note of laughter in it.
An elderly woman of a ladylike village type was sitting with some needlework beside a little table, and a young girl turned on the piano-stool and rose to receive him. "My aunt, Mrs. Simpson, Mr. Langbourne," said the girl who introduced him to these presences, and she added, indicating the girl at the piano, "Miss Simpson."
They all three bowed silently, and in the hush the sheet on the music frame slid from the piano with a sharp clash, and skated across the floor to Langbourne's feet. It was the song of La Paloma which she had been singing; he picked it up, and she received it from him with a drooping head, and an effect of guilty embarrassment.
She was short and of rather a full figure, though not too full. She was not plain, but she was by no means the sort of beauty who had lived in Langbourne's fancy for the year past. The oval of her face was squared; her nose was arched; she had a pretty, pouting mouth, and below it a deep dimple in her chin; her eyes were large and dark, and they had the questioning look of near-sighted eyes; her hair was brown. There was a humorous tremor in her lips, even with the prim stress she put upon them in saying, "Oh, thank you," in a thick whisper of the voice he knew.
"And I," said the other girl, "am Juliet Bingham. Won't you sit down, Mr. Langbourne!" She pushed towards him the arm-chair before her, and he dropped into it. She took her place on the hair-cloth sofa, and Miss Simpson sank back upon the piano-stool with a painful provisionality, while her eyes sought Miss Bingham's in a sort of admiring terror.