Miss Ludington's Sister/Chapter 15
It was Miss Ludington herself who, stirring unusually early, discovered Ida's flight on going to her room.
Paul opened his eyes a few minutes later to see her standing by his bedside, the picture of consternation.
"She is gone!" she exclaimed.
"Who is gone?" he asked, rubbing his eyes.
"Ida has gone. Her room is empty."
Hastily dressing, he rejoined her in Ida's chamber, and together they went over the letters she had left.
If the revelation which they contained had been made when she had been in the house a shorter time, its effect might have been very different. But it had come too late to produce the revulsion of feeling it might then have caused. True, it was under a false name that she had first won their confidence, but it was the girl herself they had learned to love. If her name proved to be Ida Slater, why it was Ida Slater whom they loved. It was the person, not the name.
"Oh, why did she leave us!" cried Miss Ludington, with streaming eyes, as she finished Ida's letter to Paul. "Why did she not come to us and tell us! We would have forgiven her. She was not so much to blame as her parents. How can we blame her when we think how happy she has made us! Oh, Paul! we must find her. We must bring her back."
He pressed her hand in silence. His darling, his heart's love, had gone away from him, out into the world, and he knew not where to find her, and yet it would be hard to say whether there was not more of exultation than of despair in the mingled emotions which just then deprived him of the power of speech.
He had comprehended perfectly well her confession of the deception which she had practised on them, but the portion of her letter which had chiefly affected him had been the impassioned avowal of her love for him. After his recent trying ordeal in striving to subject an earthly love to spiritual conditions, culminating the night before in the renunciation of the hope of ever marrying her at all, there was an intoxicating happiness in the discovery that she was every whit as earthly as he, and loved him with a passion as ardent as his own. He was a Pygmalion, whose statue had become a woman. For the first time he now realized how far his heart had travelled from the spirit-love which once had been enough for it, and how impossible it was that it should ever again find satisfaction in the dim and nebulous emotion in which it had so long rested. With a sense of recreancy that was wholly shameless, he realized that it was no longer Ida Ludington, but Ida Slater, whom he loved.
Little did the forlorn girl, in her self-imposed exile, imagine what a welcome would have met her if, moved by some intuition, she had retraced her steps that morning to the chamber which a few hours before she had deserted.
Repentance often is so fine that in the moral balance it quite outweighs the fault repented of, and so it was in her case. Such repentance is as if the black stalk of sin had blossomed and put forth a fragrant flower.
These two persons, whom she had expected to loathe her as soon as they should know the truth, had from the first reading of her story been more impressed with the chivalrous instinct which had driven her to abandon her role of fraud when it was about to be crowned with dazzling success, than with her original offence in entering upon it. The effect of her story was in this respect a curious one for a confession to produce: it had added to the affection which they had previously entertained for her, an appreciation of the nobility of her character which they had not then possessed.
Paul's heart yearned after its mistress in her self-humiliation and voluntary banishment as never before. This impassioned and most human woman, who had shown herself capable of wrong, and, also, of most generous renunciation, had struck a deeper chord in his breast than had ever vibrated to the touch of the flawless seraph he had supposed her to be.
Having canvassed all possible methods of reaching Ida in her flight, it was decided by Paul and his aunt to begin by advertising, and that same day the following notice was inserted in all the daily papers of Brooklyn and New York;--
"IDA S----R.--All is forgiven; only come back. We cannot live without you. For pity's sake at least write to us.
This advertisement was to remain in the papers till forbidden. If Ida was anywhere in the two cities or vicinity, the chances were that it would fall under the notice of herself or some of her family. Before inserting the advertisement Paul had visited Mrs. Legrand's house in East Tenth Street; but, as he had expected, he found that the family had moved away long previously, probably with a view to avoid detection, and to enable Mrs. Legrand to obtain business elsewhere.
A week passed without any response to the advertisement. Paul spent his days walking the streets of New York and Brooklyn at random, for the sake of the chance, about one in ten billions, that he might meet Ida. Anything was more endurable than sitting at home waiting, and by dint of tramping all day long he was so dead tired when he reached home at night that he could sleep, which otherwise would have been out of the question.
About the middle of the week a bundle arrived, containing the dress Ida had worn away, with her hat and cloak, but without a word of writing; Paul devoured them with kisses. A study of the express markings showed that the package must have been sent from Brooklyn, which went to show that Ida was in that city. Believing that she did not intend to respond to the advertisement, Paul had determined, if he did not hear from her within a few days, to employ a prominent New York detective firm to search for her. If he could but once see her face to face, he was sure that he could bring her back.
A week from the day on which she had fled he was starting out as usual, early in the morning, for another day of hopeless, weary tramping in the city, when the postman handed him a letter addressed in her handwriting. It was to him like a voice from the grave, and read as follows:--
"I have seen your advertisement for me. I cannot believe that you have forgiven me. You could not do it. It is impossible. Even if I could believe it, I do not think I should ever have the courage to face you after what you know of me. I should die of shame. Oh, Paul! if you could see how my cheeks burn as I write this, and know that you will see it. But I cannot deny myself the happiness of writing to you. There is no reason why we should not write sometimes, is there? though we never see each other. Does Miss Ludington really forgive me, or does she merely consent to have me return because you still care for me? If you do still care for me--Oh, Paul! I cannot believe it--do you forget what I have done? Read over again the letter I left for you when I came away. You must have forgotten it. Read it carefully. Think it all over. Oh, no, you cannot love me still!
Paul replied with the first love-letter he had ever written, and one that any woman who loved him must have found irresistible. He enclosed a note from Miss Ludington, assuring Ida of the unhappiness which her flight had caused them, the undiminished tenderness which they cherished for her; and the cruelty she would be guilty of if she refused to return.
In response to these letters there came a note saying simply, "I will come."
On the evening of the day this note was received, as Paul and Miss Ludington were together in the sitting-room talking as usual of Ida, and wondering on what day she would return, there was a light step at, the open door, and she glided into the room, and, throwing herself on her knees before Miss Ludington, hid her face in her lap.
It was an hour before she would raise her head, replying the while only with sobs to the kisses and caresses showered upon her, and the assurances of love and welcome poured into her ears.
When at last she lifted her face her embarrassment was so distressing that in pity Miss Ludington told Paul he might take her out for a walk in the dark.
When they came back her cheeks were flushed as redly as when she went out; but, despite her shame, she looked very happy.
"She is to be my wife in two weeks from to-day," said Paul, exultantly.
"I ought not to let him marry me. I know I ought not. I am not fit for him," faltered Ida; "but I cannot refuse him anything, and I love him so!"
"You are quite fit for him," said Miss Ludington, kissing her, "and I can well believe he loves you. It would be strange, indeed, if he did not. You are a noble and a tender woman, and he will be very happy."
In the days that followed, Ida was at first much puzzled to account not only for the evident genuineness of the esteem which her friends cherished for her, but for the fact that it seemed to have been enhanced rather than diminished by the recent events. Instead of regarding her repentance as at most offsetting her offence, they apparently looked upon it as a positive virtue redounding wholly to her credit. It was quite as if she had made amends for another person a sin, in contrast with whose conduct her own nobility stood out in fine relief.
And that, in fact, is exactly the way they did look at it. Their habit of distinguishing between the successive phases of an individual life as distinct persons, made it impossible for them to take any other view of the matter.
In their eyes the past was good or bad for itself, and the present good or bad for itself, and an evil past could no more shadow a virtuous present than a virtuous present could retroact to brighten or redeem an ugly past. It is the soul that repents which is ennobled by repentance. The soul that did the deed repented of is past forgiving. There was no affectation on the part of Paul or Miss Ludington of ignoring the fraud which Ida had practised, or pretending to forget it. This was not necessary out of any consideration for her feelings, for they did not hold that it was she who was guilty of that fraud, but another person.
As gradually she comprehended the way in which they looked upon her, and came to perceive that they unquestioningly held that she had no responsibility for her past self, but was a new being, she was filled with a great exhilaration, the precise like of which was, perhaps, never before known to a repentant wrong-doer. As they believed, so would she believe. With a great joy she put the shameful past behind her and took up her new life. "As a man thinketh in his heart so is he."
If she had loved Paul before, if she had before felt tenderly toward Miss Ludington, a passion of gratitude now intensified her love, her tenderness, a thousand-fold.
Miss Ludington's failing health was the only shadow on the perfect happiness of the lovers during those two weeks of courtship. Compared with the intoxicating reality of these golden days Paul looked back on his wooing of the supposed Ida Ludington as a vague and unsatisfying dream.
Now that Ida was no longer playing a part, he was really just becoming acquainted with her, and finding out what manner of maiden it was to whom he had lost his heart. Each day, almost each hour, discovered to him some new trait, some unsuspected grace of mind or heart, till, in this glowing girl, so bright, so blithe, so piquant, he had difficulty in recognizing any likeness, save of face and form, to the moody, freakish, melancholy, hysterical, and altogether eerie Ida Ludington.
"I am so glad," Miss Ludington said to her one day, "that you are Ida Slater, and not my Ida."
"Why are you glad?" Ida asked. "Would you not have been happier if you had gone on believing me to be your girlish self?"
"I should have grown very sad by this time if I had continued to think that you were she?" replied Miss Ludington. "I have not long to live, and it is far more important to me that she should be there to welcome me when I go over than that I should have her here with me for a few days before I go. If she were here on earth the thought of so soon leaving her behind would sadden me as much as the hope of meeting her now gladdens me."
Miss Ludington neither talked herself nor permitted others to talk in a melancholy tone of the probable nearness of her end. "Death may seem dreadful," she said to Ida one day, "to the foolish people who fancy that an individual dies but once, forgetting that their present selves are but the last of many selves already dead. The death which may now be near me is no sadder, no more important, than the deaths of my past selves, and no different, save in the single respect that this time no later self will follow me. This house of our individuality, which has sheltered us in turn, having become incapable of being repaired for the use of subsequent tenants, is to be pulled down. That is all."
Another time she said, "It is very strange to see people who dread death always looking for it instead of backward. In their fear of dying once they quite forget that they have died already many times. It is the most foolish of all things to imagine that by prolonging the career of the individual, death is kept at bay. The present self must die in any case by the inevitable process of time, whether the body be kept in repair for later selves or not. The death of the body is but the end of the daily dying that makes up earthly life."
They were married in the sitting-room before the picture that had exerted so strong an influence upon their lives. The servants were invited in, but there was no company. Ida wore a white satin with a low corsage, and as she stood directly below the picture, the resemblance impressed the beholders very strikingly. It was as if the girl had stepped down from the picture to be married.
Ida had demurred a little to standing just there, which had been the suggestion of Miss Ludington. She was not without a vague superstition that the spirit of the girl whose lover she had stolen away would not wish her well. But when she hinted this, Miss Ludington replied, "You must not think of it that way. What has a spirit like her to do with earthly passions? Your love has saved Paul from a dream as vain as it was beautiful, and which, had it gone on, might have gained a morbid strength and blighted his life. I like to fancy, and I know it is Paul's belief, that the spirit of my Ida influenced you to come to us just as you came, that under her form Paul might fall in love with you. In no other way but just this do I believe he could have been cured of his infatuation."
Owing to the precarious condition of Miss Ludington's health, Paul and Ida would not consent to leave home for any bridal trip.
It was but a week after the wedding that, on going into Miss Ludington's room as usual the first thing in the morning, Ida found her dead. She must have expired very quietly, if not, indeed, in her sleep, for her room adjoined that of the bridal couple, and she could have summoned Ida with the touch of a bell. Her features were relaxed in a smile of joyous recognition.
Paul took his wife to Europe directly after the funeral. One night, during their absence, a fire, probably set by tramps, broke out in one of the empty houses of the village, and, the wind being high and no help near, all the buildings on the place, including the homestead, were completely destroyed. The latter being shut up, nothing even of the furniture could be saved, and the entire contents, including the picture in the sitting-room, were consumed. The tourists were much shocked by the receipt of the intelligence, but Paul expressed the inmost conviction of both when he finally said, "Now that she is gone, perhaps it is as well. Ashes to ashes! The past has claimed its own."
They never rebuilt the village or the homestead, but on their return to this country took up their residence in New York. The site of the mimic Hilton is once more tilled as a farm.
It is scarcely necessary to add that Ida made such provision for her family as enabled them to retire from the medium business. Paul insisted that this provision should be at the most generous nature, for was he not indebted to them for the happiness of his life? He never would admit that Mrs. Legrand was a fraud, but always maintained that none but a truly great medium could have materialized the vaguest of love-dreams into the sweetest of wives.
As for Dr. Hull, or, rather, Mr. Slater, he became in time quite a crony of Paul's, and the book on which the latter is engaged, setting forth the argument for the immortality of past selves, will owe not a little to the suggestions of the old gentleman.