Miss Ludington's Sister/Chapter 9
The day following, Paul was downstairs before either Ida or Miss Ludington. He was sitting on the piazza, which was connected with the sitting-room by low windows opening like doors, when he heard a scream, and Ellen, the housemaid, who had been busy in the sitting-room, ran out upon the piazza with a face like a sheet.
"What's the matter?" he demanded.
"Sure I saw a ghost!" gasped Ellen. "I was on a chair dusting the picture, as I always does mornings, an' I looked up, an' there in the door stood the very same girl that's in the picture, kind of smiling like. And so I give a yell an' run."
As she spoke Ida stepped out upon the piazza, and precipitately sheltering herself behind Paul, Ellen whispered, "Sure there she is now!"
On seeing that, instead of sharing her terror, he cordially greeted the ghost, the girl's face showed such comical bewilderment that Ida smiled and Paul laughed outright.
"This is no ghost, Ellen. This lady is Miss Ida Ludington, a relative of Miss Ludington's, who came to live here last night."
"I hope ye'll not mind me takin' ye for a ghost, miss," said Ellen, confusedly; "but sure ye are the livin' image of the picture, and me not knowin' anybody was in the house more than the family;" and she disappeared to tell her story in the kitchen.
Ida's appearance was noticeably calmer than the night before. There was, indeed, no indication of excitement in her manner. Paul inquired how she had slept.
"I should think you might have had strange dreams," he said.
"I did not dream at all. I slept soundly," she replied. "But this morning when I woke up and recognized the familiar features of the room I have always slept in--the same books, the same pictures, the furniture just as ever--I had to sit down a long time to collect my thoughts and remember what had happened. I could remember it well enough, but to realize it was very hard. And then, when I went to the window and looked out and saw the meeting-house and the school-house and the neighbours' houses, just where I have seen them from that window all my life since I was a baby, I had to sit down and think it all over, again before I could believe that I was not in Hilton, and last night all a dream."
She spoke in a low, even tone, which was so evidently the result of an effort at self-control, that it impressed Paul more than any display of mental perturbation would have done.
At this moment Miss Ludington appeared on the piazza with a white, excited face, which, however, as soon as she saw Ida, became all smiles.
She had scarcely slept at all. The thought had kept her awake that Ida might vanish as mysteriously as she had come, and be gone at morning. From sheer weariness, however, she had at last fallen into a doze. On awaking she had gone to call Ida, and finding her chamber empty, had hurried downstairs full of apprehension.
Immediately after breakfast, Miss Ludington, to whom Ellen's mistake, if mistake it could be called, had been related, took Ida upstairs, and made her exchange her white dress of the fashion of half a century before for one of her own, in order that her appearance might excite less remark among the servants pending the obtaining of a suitable wardrobe from the city.
There was another consideration which made the change of costume not only desirable, but necessary.
Ida's dress, which had not seemed the night before, to casual examination, to differ from other cloth, had begun to crumble away in a very curious manner. The texture seemed strangely brittle and strengthless. It fell apart at a touch, and was reduced to a fine powder under the pressure of the fingers. She could not possibly have worn it even one day.
The dress of Miss Ludington's, for which she exchanged it, had been made for that lady when considerably stouter than at present, but was with difficulty enlarged sufficiently for the full figure of the girl. Like all but the latest of Miss Ludington's dresses, it was of deepest black, and, strikingly beautiful as Ida had been in white, the funereal hue set off the delicacy of her complexion, the pure expression of her face, and the golden lustre of her hair, like fresh revelations.
Paul was left pretty much to himself during the day. A large part of it was spent by the ladies in an upstairs chamber, which Miss Ludington had devoted to a collection of mementoes of the successive periods of her life from infancy.
"Come," she had said to Ida, "I want to introduce you to the rest of the family. I want to make you acquainted with the other Miss Ludingtons who have borne the name between your time and mine."
Having been an only child, Miss Ludington's garments, toys, school-books, and other belongings had not been handed down to younger brothers and sisters, and eventually to destruction. It had been an easy matter to preserve them, and, consequently, the collection was large and curious, including samples of the wardrobe appertaining to every epoch, from the swaddling-clothes of the infant to a black gown of the last year.
After the period of youth, however, which Ida represented, the number and interest of the mementoes rapidly decreased, and for many years had consisted of nothing more than a few dresses and a collection of photographs, one or two for each year, arranged in order. They numbered not less than fifty in all and covered thirty-seven years, from a daguerreotype of Miss Ludington at the age of twenty-five to a photograph taken the last month. Between these two pictures there was not enough resemblance to suggest to a casual observer that they were pictures of the same individual.
To trace the gradual process of change from year to year during the intervening period, was an employment which never lost its pensive fascination for Miss Ludington. For each of these faces, with their so various expressions, represented a person possessing a peculiar identity and certain incommunicable qualities--a person a little different from any one of those who came before or after her, and from any other person who ever lived on earth.
As now the grey head and the golden head bent together over one picture after another, Miss Ludington related all she could remember of the history and personal peculiarities of the original.
"There is, really, not much to say about them," she said. "They lived very quiet, uneventful lives, and to anybody but us would, doubtless, seem entirely uninteresting persons. All wore black dresses, and had sad faces, and all found in their thoughts of you the source at once of their only consolation and their keenest sorrow. For they fully believed--think of it!--fully and unquestionably believed that you were dead; more hopelessly dead than if you were in your grave, dead, with no possibility of resurrection."
"This is the one," she said, presently, as she took up the picture of a woman of thirty-five, "who had the fortune left to her, which has come down to me. I want you to like her. Next to you I think more of her than I do of any of the rest. It was she who cut loose from the old life at Hilton which had become so sour and sad, and built this new Hilton here, where life has been so much calmer, and, on the whole, happier, than it had got to be at home. It was she who had the portrait of you painted which is downstairs."
Ida took up a picture of the Miss Ludington of twenty-six or seven.
"Tell me something about her," she said. "What kind of a person was she?"
The elder woman's manner, when she saw what picture it was that Ida had taken up, betrayed a marked embarrassment, and first she made no reply.
Noticing her confusion and hesitation, Ida said, softly, "Don't tell me if it is anything you don't like to speak of. I do not care to know it."
"I will tell you," replied Miss Ludington, with determination. "You have as good a right to know as I have. She cannot blame me for telling you. She knows your secrets as I do, and you have a right to know hers. She had a little escapade. You must not be too hard on her. It was the outcome of the desperate dulness and life-weariness that came over her with the knowledge that youth and its joys were past, leaving nothing in their place. The calm and resignation to a lonely existence, empty of all that human hearts desire, which came in after-years, she could not yet command. Oh, if you could imagine, as I remember, the bitterness of that period, you would not be too hard upon her for anything she might have done! But, really, it was nothing very bad. People would not call it so, even if it had ever become known." And then, with blushing cheeks and shamed eyes, Miss Ludington poured into Ida's ears a story that would have disappointed any one expectant of a highly sensational disclosure, but which stood out in her memory as the one indiscretion of an otherwise blameless life. That she imparted it to Ida was the most striking evidence she could have given of the absolute community of interests which she recognized as existing between them. She was greatly comforted when Ida, instead of appearing shocked, declared that she sympathized with the culprit more than she blamed her, and that her misconduct was venial.
"I suppose," said Miss Ludington, "every one, in looking back upon their past selves, sees some whom they condemn, and, perhaps, despise, and others whom they admire and sympathize with. And I confess I sympathize with this poor girl. Those I don't like are some whom I remember to have lacked softness of heart, to have been sour and ungenerous; these, for instance," indicating certain pictures. "But it is hardly fair," she added, laughing, "for us two to get together and abuse the rest of the family, who, no doubt, if they were present, would have something to say for themselves, and some criticisms to offer on us--that is, on me. None of them would criticize you. You were the darling and pride of us all."
"If I do say it," Miss Ludington presently resumed, "we have been a very respectable lot on the whole. The Ida Ludingtons have been good babies, good children, good girls, good women, and, I hope, will prove to have been respectable old women. In the spirit land, when we all meet together, there will be no black sheep among us, nor even anybody that we shall need to send to Coventry: But I do not see why special affinities should not assert themselves there as here, and cliques form among us. You will belong to them all, of course, but next to you I know that I shall be fondest of that poor girl I told you about, of her and of the Ida Ludington who built this new Hilton thirty years ago."
"And now," she said, as they finished looking over the pictures and talking about them, "I have introduced you to all who have borne our name from your day to mine. As to those who came before you, the baby Ida and the child Ida, you remember them even better than I do, no doubt. I would give anything if I had their pictures, but the blessed art of photography was not then invented. These keepsakes are all I have of them." And taking Ida over to another part of the room, she showed her a cradle, several battered dolls, fragments of a child's pewter tea-set, and a miscellaneous collection of toys.
They took up and handled tenderly pairs of little shoes, socks nearly as long as one's fingers, and baby dresses scarcely bigger than a man's mittens. Lying near were the shoes, and gowns, and hoods, now grown a little larger, of the child, with the coral necklace, and first precious ornaments, the dog's-eared spelling-books, and the rewards of merit, testifying of early school-days.
"I can barely remember the baby and this little girl," said Miss Ludington, "but I fancy they will be the pets of all the rest of us up there, don't you?"
After Miss Ludington had shown Ida all the contents of the room, and they were about to leave it, she said to the girl, "And now what do you think of us other Ida Ludingtons, who have followed you, present company not excepted? Confess that you think the acquaintances I have introduced to you were scarcely worth the making. You need not hesitate to say so; it is quite my own opinion. We have amounted to very little, taken altogether."
"Oh, no!" said Ida, quietly; "I do not think that; I would not say that; but your lives have all been so different from what I have always dreamed my life as a woman would be."
"You have a right to be disappointed in us," said Miss Ludington. "We have, indeed, not turned out as you expected--as you had a right to expect." But Ida would not admit in any derogatory sense that she was disappointed.
"You are sweeter, and kinder, and gentler, than I supposed I ever could be," she said; "but you see, I thought, of course, I should be married, and have children, and that all would be so different from what it has been; but not that I should ever be better than you are, or nearly so sweet. Oh, no!"
"Thank you, my darling!" said the old lady, kissing Ida's hand, as if she were a queen who had conferred an order of merit upon her. "I think that to have to confess to their youthful selves their failures to fulfil their expectations must be the hardest part of the Day of Judgment for old folks who have wasted their lives. All will not find so gentle a judge as mine."
Her eyes were full of happy tears.
In the latter part of the afternoon they took a walk in the village, and Ida pressed her companion with a multitude of inquiries about the members of the families which had occupied the houses, forty and fifty years before, and what had since become of them; to reply to which taxed Miss Ludington's memory not a little.
As they came to the schoolhouse Ida ran on ahead, and when her companion entered, was already seated in Miss Ludington's old seat. Nothing, perhaps, could have brought home to the latter more strongly the nature of her relationship to Ida than to stand beside her as she sat in that seat.
As they fell to talking of the scholars who had sat here and there, Miss Ludington began gently to banter Ida about this and that boyish sweetheart, and divers episodes connected with such topics.
"This is unfair," said the girl, smiling. "It is a very one-sided arrangement that you should remember all my secrets while I know none of yours. It is as if you had stolen my private journal."
A subtle coyness, an air of constraint, and of shy, curious observance, which had marked Ida's manner toward Miss Ludington in the early part of the day, had noticeably given way under the influence of the latter's blithe affectionateness, and it was with arms about each other's waists that the two sauntered back to the house, in the twilight.
"I scarcely know what to call you," said Ida. "For me to call you Ida, as you call me, would be and, besides, you are so much older than I it would seem hardly fitting."
Miss Ludington laughed softly.
"On the score of respect, my darling, you need not hesitate," she said, "for it is you who are the elder Miss Ludington, and I the younger, in spite of my white hair. You are forty years older than I. It is I who owe you the respect due to years. You are right, however; it would be confusing for us to call each other by the same name, and still there is no word in human language that truly describes our relationship."
"It seems to me it is more like that of sisters than any other," suggested Ida, with a certain timidity.
Miss Ludington reflected a moment, and then exclaimed, delightedly:
"Yes, we will call each other sister, for our relation is certainly a kind of sisterhood. We are, like sisters, not connected directly, but indirectly, though our relation to our common individuality, as if we were fruit borne by the same tree in different seasons. To be sure," she added regarding her blooming companion with a smile of tender admiration, "we can scarcely be said to look as much alike as sisters commonly do, but that is because there is not often a difference of more than forty years in the ages of sisters."
And so it was agreed that they should call each other sister.
Although it was but one day that these two had been known to each other, yet so naturally had Ida seemed drawn towards Miss Ludington, and so spontaneous had been the outflow of the latter's long-stored tenderness toward the girl, that they were already like persons who have been bosom friends and confidants for years.
In this wonderfully rapid growth of a close and tender intimacy, Miss Ludington exultingly recognized the heart's testimony to the reality of the mystic tie between them.
So fit and natural had the presence of Ida under her roof already come to seem, that she found herself half-forgetting, at times, the astounding and tragic circumstances to which it was due.
Absorbed in the wonder and happiness of her own experience, Miss Ludington had barely given a thought to Paul during the day. Having been constantly with Ida she had not, indeed, seen him, save at table, and had failed to take note of his wobegone appearance. At any other time it would have aroused her solicitude; but it was not strange that on this day she should have had no thought save for herself and her other self.
It had, indeed, been a day of strangely mingled emotions for Paul.
Supposing a lover were separated from his mistress, and that the privilege of being with her, and spending his days in sight of her, were offered him by some fairy, but only on condition that all memory of him should be blotted from her mind, and that she should see in him merely a stranger--is it probable, however great might be the desire of such a lover to behold his mistress, that he would consent to gratify it on these terms?
But it was with Paul as if he had done just this. That the sight of his idol should have fallen to his lot on earth; that he should hear the sound of her voice, and breathe the same air with her, was, on the one hand, a felicity so undreamed of, a fortune so amazing, that he sometimes wondered how he could enjoy it, and still retain his senses.
But when he met her, and she returned his impassioned look with a mere smile of civil recognition; when he spoke to her, and she answered him in a tone of conventional politeness--he found it more than he could bear.
The eyes of her picture were kinder than hers. He had, at least, been able to comfort himself with the belief that, as a spirit, she had known of his love, and accepted it. Now, by her incarnation, while his eyes had gained their desire, his heart had lost its consolation.
His condition of mind rapidly became desperate. He could not bear to be in Ida's presence. Her friendly, formal accent was unendurable to him. Their blank, unrecognizing expression, as they rested on him in mere kindliness, made her lovely eyes awful to him as a Gorgon's.
In the early evening he found Miss Ludington alone, and broke out to her:
"For God's sake, can't you help me? I shall go mad if you don't!"
"Why, what do you mean?" she exclaimed, in astonishment. "Don't you see?" he cried. "She does not know me. I have lost her instead of finding her. I, who have loved her ever since I was a baby, am no more than a stranger to her. Can't you see how she looks at me? She has learned to know you, but I am a stranger to her."
"But how could she know you, Paul? She did not know me till it was explained to her."
"I know," he said. "I don't blame her, but at the same time I cannot stand it. Can't you help me with her? Can't you tell her how I have loved her, so that she may understand that at least?"
"Poor Paul!" said Miss Ludington, soothingly. "In my own happiness I had almost forgotten you. But I can see how hard it must be for you. I will help you. I will tell her all the story. Oh, Paul! is she not beautiful? She will love you, I know she will love you when she hears it, and how happy you will be--happier than any man ever was! I will go to her now."
And, leaving Paul vaguely encouraged by her confidence, she went to find Ida.
She came upon her in the sitting-room, intently pondering the picture above the fireplace.
"I want to tell you a love story, my sister," she said.
"Whose love story?" asked Ida.
"But I never had a love story or a lover. Nobody can possibly know that better than you do."
"I will show you that you are mistaken," said Miss Ludington, smiling. "No one ever had so fond or faithful a lover as yours. Sit down and I will tell you your own love story, for the strangest thing of all is that you do not know it yet."
Beginning with Paul's baby fondness for her picture, she related to Ida the whole story of his love for her, which had grown with his growth, and, from a boyish sentiment, become the ruling passion of the man, blinding him to the charms of living women, and making him a monk for her sake.
She described the effect upon him of the first suggestion that it might be possible to communicate with her spirit, and how her presence on earth was due to the enthusiasm with which he had insisted upon making the attempt.
Then she asked Ida to imagine what must be the anguish of such a lover on finding that she did not know him--that he was nothing more than a stranger to her. She told her how, in his desperation, he had appealed to her to plead his case and to relate his story, that his mistress might at least know his love, though she might not be able to return it.
Ida had listened at first in sheer wonder, but as Miss Ludington went on describing this great love, which all unseen she had inspired, to find awaiting her full-grown on her return to earth, her cheek began to flush, a soft smile played about her lips, and her eyes were fixed in tender reverie.
"Tell him to come to me," she said, gently, as Miss Ludington finished.
When Paul entered, Ida was alone, standing in the centre of the room.
He threw himself at her feet, and lifted the hem of her dress to his lips.
"Paul, my lover," she said softly.
At this he seized her hand and covered it with kisses. She gently drew him to his feet. He heard her say, "Forgive me, Paul; I did not know."
Her warm breath mingled with his, and she kissed him on the lips.