The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 106/What did she see with?
WHAT DID SHE SEE WITH?
I could not have been more than seven or eight years old, when it happened; but it might have been yesterday. Among all other childish memories, it stands alone. To this very day it brings with it the old, utter sinking of the heart, and the old, dull sense of mystery.
To read the story, you should have known my mother. To understand it, you should understand her. But that is quite impossible now, for there is a quiet spot over the hill, and past the church, and beside the little brook where the crimsoned mosses grow thick and wet and cool, from which I cannot call her. It is all I have left of her now. But after all, it is not of her that you will chiefly care to hear. The object of my story is simply to acquaint you with a few facts, which, though interwoven with the events of her life, are quite independent of it as objects of interest. It is, I know, only my own heart that makes these pages a memorial,—but, you see, I cannot help it.
Yet, I confess, no glamour of any earthly love has ever utterly dazzled me,—not even hers. Of imperfections, of mistakes, of sins, I knew she was guilty. I know it now,—even with the sanctity of those crimsoned mosses, and the hush of the rest beneath, so close to my heart, I cannot forget them. Yet somehow—I do not know how—the imperfections, the mistakes, the very sins, bring her nearer to me as the years slip by, and make her dearer.
The key to her life is the key to my story. That given, as I can give it, I will try to compress. It lies in the fact that my mother was what we call an aristocrat, I do not like the term, as the term is used. I am sure she does not now; but I have no other word. She was a royal-looking woman, and she had the blood of princes in her veins. Generations back—how we children used to reckon the thing over!—she was cradled in a throne. A miserable race, to be sure, they were,—the Stuarts; and the most devout genealogist might deem it dubious honor to own them for great-grandfathers by innumerable degrees removed. So she used to tell us, over and over, as a damper on our childish vanity, looking such a very queen as she spoke, in every play of feature, and every motion of her hand, that it was the old story of preachers who did not practise. The very baby was proud of her. The beauty of a face, and the elegant repose of a manner, are by no means influences more unfelt at three years than at thirty.
As insanity will hide itself away, and lie sleeping, and die out,—while old men are gathered to their fathers scathless, and young men follow in their footsteps safe and free,—and start into life, and claim its own when children's children have forgotten it; as a single trait of a single scholar in a race of clods will bury itself in day-laborers and criminals, unto the third and fourth generation, and spring then, like a creation from a chaos, into statesmen and poets and sculptors;—so, I have sometimes fancied, the better and truer nature of voluptuaries and tyrants was sifted down through the years, and purified in our little New England home, and the essential autocracy of monarchical blood refined and ennobled in my mother into royalty.
A broad and liberal culture had moulded her; she knew its worth, in every fibre of her heart; scholarly parents had blessed her with their legacies of scholarly mind and name. With the soul of an artist, she quivered under every grace and every defect; and the blessing of a beauty as rare as rich had been given to her. With every instinct of her nature recoiling from the very shadow of crimes the world winks at, as from a loathsome reptile, the family record had been stainless for a generation. God had indeed blessed her; but the very blessing was a temptation.
I knew, before she left me, what she might have been, but for the merciful and tender watch of Him who was despised and rejected of men. I know, for she told me, one still night when we were alone together, how she sometimes shuddered at herself, and what those daily and hourly struggles between her nature and her Christianity meant.
I think we were as near to one another as mother and daughter can be; but yet as utterly different. Since I have been talking in such lordly style of those miserable Jameses and Charleses, I will take the opportunity to confess that I have inherited my father's thorough-going democracy,—double measure, pressed down and running over. She not only pardoned it, but I think she loved it in me, for his sake.
It was about a year and a half, I think, after he died, that she sent for Aunt Alice to come to Creston. "Your aunt loves me," she said, when she told us in her quiet way, "and I am so lonely now."
They had been the only children, and they loved each other,—how much, I afterwards knew. And how much they love each other now, I like to think,—quite freely and fully, and without shadow or doubt between them, I dare to hope.
A picture of Aunt Alice always hung in mother's room. It was taken down years ago. I never asked her where she put it. I remember it, though, quite well; for mother's sake I am glad I do. For it was a pleasant face to look upon, and a young, pure, happy face,—beautiful too, though with none of the regal beauty crowned by my mother's massive hair, and pencilled brows. It was a timid, girlish face, with reverent eyes, and ripe, tremulous lips,—weak lips, as I remember them. From babyhood, I felt a want in the face. I had, of course, no capacity to define it; it was represented to me only by the fact that it differed from my mother's.
She was teaching school out West when mother sent for her. I saw the letter. It was just like my mother:—"Alice, I need you. You and I ought to have but one home now. Will you come?"
I saw, too, a bit of a postscript to the answer,—"I'm not fit that you should love me so, Marie."
And how mother laughed at it!
When it was all settled, and the waiting weeks became at last a single day, I hardly knew my mother. She was in her early married years; she was a girl; she was a child; she was every young thing, and merry thing, that she could have ever been. So full of fitful moods, and little fantastic jokes! such a flush on her cheeks too, as she ran to the window every five minutes, like a child! I remember how we went all over the house together, she and I, to see that everything looked neat, and bright, and welcome. And how we lingered in the guest-room, to put the little finishing touches to its stillness, and coolness, and coseyness. The best spread on the bed, and the white folds smoothed as only mother's fingers could smooth them; the curtain freshly washed, and looped with its crimson cord; the blinds drawn, cool and green; the late afternoon sunlight slanting through, in flecks upon the floor. Flowers, too, upon the table. I remember they were all white,—lilies of the valley, I think; and the vase of Parian marble, itself a solitary lily, unfolding stainless leaves. Over the mantle she had hung the finest picture in the house,—an "Ecce Homo," and an exquisite engraving. It used to hang in grandmother's room in the old house. We children wondered a little that she took it up stairs.
"I want your aunt to feel at home, and see home things," she said. "I wish I could think of something more to make it pleasant in here."
Just as we left the room she turned and looked into it. "Pleasant, isn't it? I am so glad, Sarah," her eyes dimming a little. "She's a very dear sister to me."
She stepped in again to raise a stem of the lilies that had fallen from the vase, and lay like wax upon the table, then she shut the door and came away.
That door was shut just so for years; the lonely bars of sunlight flecked the solitude of the room, and the lilies faded on the table. We children passed it with hushed footfall, and shrank from it at twilight, as from a room that held the dead. But into it we never went.
Mother was tired out that afternoon; for she had been on her feet all day, busied in her loving cares to make our simple home as pleasant and as welcome as home could be. But yet she stopped to dress us in our Sunday clothes,—and no sinecure was it to dress three persistently undressable children; Winthrop was a host in himself. "Auntie must see us look our prettiest," she said.
She was a picture herself when she came down. She had taken off her widow's cap and coiled her heavy hair low in her neck, and she always looked like a queen in that lustreless black silk. I do not know why these little things should have made such an impression on me then. They are priceless to me now. I remember how she looked, framed there in the doorway, while we were watching for the coach,—the late light ebbing in golden tides over the grass at her feet, and touching her face now and then through the branches of trees, her head bent a little, with eager, parted lips, and the girlish color on her cheeks, her hand shading her eyes as they strained for a sight of the lumbering coach. She must have been a magnificent woman when she was young,—not unlike, I have heard it said, to that far-off ancestress whose name she bore, and whose sorrowful story has made her sorrowful beauty immortal. Somewhere abroad there is a reclining statue of Queen Mary, to which, when my mother stood beside it, her resemblance was so strong that the by-standers clustered about her, whispering curiously. "Ah, mon Dieu!" said a little Frenchman, aloud, "c'est une résurrection."
We must have tried her that afternoon, Clara and Winthrop and I; for the spirit of her own excitement had made us completely wild. Winthrop's scream of delight when, stationed on the gate-post, he caught the first sight of the old yellow coach, might have been heard a quarter of a mile.
"Coming?" said mother, nervously, and stepped out to the gate, full in the sunlight that crowned her like royal gold.
The coach lumbered on, and rattled up, and passed.
"Why, she hasn't come!" All the eager color died out of her face. "I am so disappointed!" speaking like a troubled child, and turning slowly into the house.
Then, after a while, she drew me aside from the others,—I was the oldest, and she was used to make a sort of confidence between us, instinctively, as it seemed, and often quite forgetting how very few my years were. "Sarah, I don't understand. You think she might have lost the train? But Alice is so punctual, Alice never lost a train. And she said she would come." And then, a while after, "I don't understand."
It was not like my mother to worry. The next day the coach lumbered up and rattled past, and did not stop,—and the next, and the next.
"We shall have a letter," mother said, her eyes saddening every afternoon. But we had no letter. And another day went by, and another.
"She is sick," we said; and mother wrote to her, and watched for the lumbering coach, and grew silent day by day. But to the letter there was no answer.
Ten days passed. Mother came to me one afternoon to ask for her pen, which I had borrowed. Something in her face troubled me vaguely.
"What are you going to do, mother?"
"Write to your aunt's boarding-place. I can't bear this any longer," sharply. She had already grown unlike herself.
She wrote, and asked for an answer by return of mail.
It was on a Wednesday, I remember, that we looked for it. I remember everything that happened that day. I came home early from school. Mother was sewing at the parlor window, her eyes wandering from her work, up the road. It was an ugly day. It had rained drearily from eight o'clock till two, and closed in suffocating mist, creeping and dense and chill. It gave me a childish fancy of long-closed tombs and lowland graveyards, as I walked home in it.
I tried to keep the younger children quiet when we went in, mother was so nervous. As the early, uncanny twilight fell, we grouped around her timidly. A dull sense of awe and mystery clung to the night, and clung to her watching face, and clung even then to that closed room up stairs where the lilies were fading.
Mother sat leaning her head upon her hand, the outline of her face dim in the dusk against the falling curtain. She was sitting so when we heard the first rumble of the distant coach-wheels. At the sound, she folded her hands in her lap and stirred a little, rose slowly from her chair, and sat down again.
I crept up to her. At the near sight of her face, I was so frightened I could have cried.
"Sarah, you may go out and get the letter. I—I can't."
I went slowly out at the door and down the walk. At the gate I looked back. The outline of her face was there against the window-pane, white in the gathering gloom.
It seems to me that my older and less sensitive years have never known such a night. The world was stifling in a deluge of gray, cold mists, unstirred by a breath of air. A robin with feathers all ruffled, and head hidden, sat on the gate-post, and chirped a little mournful chirp, like a creature dying in a vacuum. The very daisy that nodded and drooped in the grass at my feet seemed to be gasping for breath. The neighbor's house, not forty paces across the street, was invisible. I remember the sensation it gave me, as I struggled to find its outlines, of a world washed out, like the figures I washed out on my slate. As I trudged, half frightened, into the road, and the fog closed about me, it seemed to my childish superstition like a horde of long-imprisoned ghosts let loose and angry. The distant sound of the coach, which I could not see, added to the fancy.
The coach turned the corner presently. On a clear day I could see the brass buttons on the driver's coat at that distance. There was nothing visible now of the whole dark structure but the two lamps in front, like the eyes of some evil thing, glaring and defiant, borne with swift motion down upon me by a power utterly unseen,—it had a curious effect. Even at this time, I confess I do not like to see a lighted carriage driven through a fog.
I summoned all my little courage, and piped out the driver's name, standing there in the road.
He reined up his horses with a shout,—he had nearly driven over me. After some searching, he discovered the small object cowering down in the mist, handed me a letter, with a muttered oath at being intercepted on such a night, and lumbered on and out of sight in three rods.
I went slowly into the house. Mother had lighted a lamp, and stood at the parlor door. She did not come into the hall to meet me.
She took the letter and went to the light, holding it with the seal unbroken. She might have stood so two minutes.
"Why don't you read, mamma?" spoke up Winthrop. I hushed him.
She opened it then, read it, laid it down upon the table, and went out of the room without a word. I had not seen her face. We heard her go up stairs and shut the door.
She had left the letter open there before us. After a little awed silence, Clara broke out into sobs. I went up and read the few and simple lines.
Aunt Alice had left for Creston on the appointed day.
Mother spent that night in the closed room where the lilies had drooped and died. Clara and I heard her pacing the floor till we cried ourselves to sleep. When we woke in the morning, she was pacing it still.
Well, weeks wore into months, and the months became many years. More than that we never knew. Some inquiry revealed the fact, after a while, that a slight accident had occurred upon the Erie Railroad to the train which she should have taken. There was some disabling, but no deaths, the conductor had supposed. The car had fallen into the water. She might not have been missed when the half-drowned passengers were all drawn out.
So mother added a little crape to her widow's weeds, the key of the closed room lay henceforth in her drawer, and all things went on as before. To her children my mother was never gloomy,—it was not her way. No shadow of household affliction was placed like a skeleton confronting our uncomprehending joy. Of what those weeks and months and years were to her,—a widow, and quite uncomforted in their dark places by any human love,—she gave no sign. We thought her a shade paler, perhaps. We found her often alone with her little Bible. Sometimes, on the Sabbath, we missed her, and knew that she had gone into that closed room. But she was just as tender with us in our little faults and sorrows, as merry with us in our plays, as eager in our gayest plans, as she had always been. As she had always been,—our mother.
And so the years slipped by, to her and to us. Winthrop went into business in Boston; he never took to his books, and mother was too wise to push him through college; but I think she was disappointed. He was her only boy, and she would have chosen for him the profession of his father and grandfather. Clara and I graduated in our white dresses and blue ribbons, like other girls, and came home to mother, crochet-work, and Tennyson. And then something happened, as the veriest little things—which, unnoticed and uncomprehended, hold the destinies of lives in their control—will happen.
I mean that our old and long-tried cook, Bathsheba, who had been an heirloom in the family, suddenly fell in love with the older sexton, who had rung the passing-bell for every soul who died in the village for forty years, and took it into her head to marry him, and desert our kitchen for his little brown house under the hill.
So it came about that we hunted the township for a handmaiden; and it also came about that our inquiring steps led us to the poor-house. A stout, not over-brilliant-looking girl, about twelve years of age, was to be had for her board and clothes, and such schooling as we could give her,—in country fashion, to be "bound out" till she should be eighteen. The economy of the arrangement decided in her favor; for, in spite of our grand descent and grander notions, we were poor enough, after father died, and the education of three children had made no small gap in our little principal, and she came.
Her name was a singular one,—Selphar. It always savored too nearly of brimstone to please me. I used to call her Sel, "for short." She was a good, sensible, uninteresting-looking girl, with broad face, large features, and limp, tow-colored curls. I doubt if I ever see curls like them now without a little shudder. They used to hang straight down about her eyes, and were never otherwise than perfectly smooth. She proved to be of good temper, which is worth quite as much as brains in a servant, as honest as the daylight, dull enough at her books, but a good, plodding worker, if you marked out every step of the way for her beforehand. I do not think she would ever have discovered the laws of gravitation; but she might have jumped off a precipice to prove them, if she had been bidden.
Until she was seventeen, she was precisely like any other rather stupid girl; never given to novel-reading or fancies; never frightened by the dark or ghost-stories; proving herself warmly attached to us, after a while, and rousing in us, in return, the kindly interest naturally felt for a faithful servant; but she was not in any respect uncommon,—quite far from it,—except in the circumstance that she never told a falsehood.
At seventeen she had a violent attack of diphtheria, and her life hung by a thread. Mother's aristocracy had nothing of that false pride which is afraid of contamination from kindly association with its inferiors. She was too thoroughly a lady. She was as tender and unwearying in her care of Selphar as the girl's own mother might have been. She was somehow touched by the child's orphaned life,—suffering always, in all places, appealed to her so strongly,—every sorrow found so warm a place in her heart.
From that time, I believe Sel was immovable in her faith in my mother's divinity. Under such nursing as she had, she slowly recovered, but her old, stolid strength never came back to her. Severe headaches became of frequent occurrence. Her stout, muscular arms grew weak. As weeks went on, it became evident in many ways that, though the diphtheria itself was quite out of her system, it had left her thoroughly diseased. Strange fits of silence came over her: her volubility had been the greatest objection we had to her hitherto. Her face began to wear a troubled look. She was often found in places where she had stolen away to be alone.
One morning she slept late in her little garret-chamber, and we did not call her. The girl had gone up stairs the night before crying with the pain in her temples, and mother, who was always thoughtful of her servants, said it was a pity to wake her, and, as there were only three of us, we might get our own breakfast for once. While we were at work together in the kitchen, Clara heard her kitten mewing out in the snow, and went to the door to let her in. The creature, possessed by some sudden frolic, darted away behind the well-curb. Clara was always a bit of a romp, and, with never a thought of her daintily-slippered feet, she flung her trailing dress over one arm and was off over the three-inch snow. The cat led her a brisk chase, and she came in flushed, and panting, and pretty, her little feet drenched, and the tip of a Maltese tail just visible above a great bundle she had made of her apron.
"Why!" said mother, "you have lost your ear-ring."
Clara dropped the kitten with unceremonious haste on the floor, felt of her little pink ear, shook her apron, and the corners of her mouth went down into her dimpled chin.
"They're the ones Winthrop sent, of all things in the world!"
"You'd better put on your rubbers, and have a hunt out-doors," said mother.
We hunted out-doors,—on the steps, on the well-boards, in the wood-shed, in the snow; Clara looked down the well till her nose and fingers were blue, but the ear-ring was not to be found. We hunted in-doors, under the stove, and the chairs, and the table, in every possible and impossible nook, cranny, and crevice, but gave up the search in despair. It was a pretty trinket,—a leaf of delicately wrought gold, with a pearl dew-drop on it,—very becoming to Clara, and the first present Winthrop had sent her from his earnings. If she had been a little younger she would have cried. She came very near it as it was, I suspect, for when she went after the plates she stayed in the cupboard long enough to set two tables.
When we were half through breakfast, Selphar came down, blushing, and frightened half out of her wits, her apologies tumbling over each other with such skill as to render each one unintelligible,—and evidently undecided in, her own mind whether she was to be hung or burnt at the stake.
"It's no matter at all," said mother, kindly; "I knew you felt sick last night. I should have called you if I had needed you."
Having set the girl at her ease, as only she could do, she went on with her breakfast, and we forgot all about her. She stayed, however, in the room to wait on the table. It was afterwards remembered that she had not been out of our sight since she came down the garret-stairs. Also, that her room looked out upon the opposite side of the house from that on which the well-curb stood.
"Why, look at Sel!" said Clara, suddenly, "she has her eyes shut."
The girl was just passing the toast. Mother spoke to her. "Selphar, what is the matter?"
"I don't know."
"Why don't you open your eyes?"
"Hand the salt to Miss Sarah."
She took it up and brought it around the table to me, with perfect precision.
"Sel, how you act!" said Clara, petulantly. "Of course you saw."
"Yes'm, I saw," said the girl in a puzzled way, "but my eyes are shut, Miss Clara."
Whatever this freak meant, we thought best to take no notice of it. My mother told her, somewhat gravely, that she might sit down until she was wanted, and we returned to our conversation about the ear-ring.
"Why!" said Sel, with a little jump, "I see your ear-ring, Miss Clara,—the one with a white drop on the leaf. It's out by the well."
The girl was sitting with her back to the window, her eyes, to all appearance, tightly closed.
"It's on the right-hand side, under the snow, between the well and the wood-pile. Why, don't you see?"
Clara began to look frightened, mother displeased.
"Selphar," she said, "this is nonsense. It is impossible for you to see through the walls of two rooms and a wood-shed."
"May I go and get it?" said the girl, quietly.
"Sel," said Clara, "on your word and honor, are your eyes shut perfectly tight?"
"If they ain't, Miss Clara, then they never was."
Sel never told a lie. We looked at each other, and let her go. I followed her out, and kept my eyes on her closed lids. She did not once raise them; nor did they tremble, as lids will tremble, if only partially closed.
She walked without the slightest hesitation directly to the well-curb, to the spot which she had mentioned, stooped down, and brushed away the three-inch fall of snow. The ear-ring lay there, where it had sunk in falling. She picked it up, carried it in, and gave it to Clara.
That Clara had the thing on when she started after her kitten, there could be no doubt. She and I both remembered it. That Sel, asleep on the opposite side of the house, could not have seen it drop, was also settled. That she, with her eyes closed and her back to the window, had seen through three walls, and through three inches of snow, at a distance of fifty feet, was an inference.
"I don't believe it!" said my mother, "it's some nonsensical mistake." Clara looked a little pale, and I laughed.
We watched her carefully through the day. Her eyes remained tightly closed. She understood all that was said to her, answered correctly, but did not seem inclined to talk. She went about her work as usual, and performed it without a mistake. It could not be seen that she groped at all with her hands to feel her way, as is the case with the blind. On the contrary, she touched everything with her usual decision. It was impossible to believe, without seeing them, that her eyes were closed.
We tied a handkerchief tightly over them; see through it or below it she could not, if she had tried. We then sent her into the parlor, with orders to bring from the book-case two Bibles which had been given as prizes to Clara and me at school, when we were children. The books were of precisely the same size, color, and texture. Our names in gilt letters were printed upon the binding. We followed her in, and watched her narrowly. She went directly to the book-case, laid her hands upon the books at once, and brought them to my mother. Mother changed them from, hand to hand several times, and turned them with the gilt lettering downwards upon her lap.
"Now, Selphar, which is Miss Sarah's?"
The girl quietly took mine up. The experiment was repeated and varied again and again. In every case the result was the same. She made no mistake. It was no guess-work. All this was done with the bandage tightly drawn about her eyes. She did not see those letters with them.
That evening we were sitting quietly in the dining-room. Selphar sat a little apart with her sewing, her eyes still closed. We kept her with us, and kept her in sight. The parlor, which was a long room, was between us and the front of the house. The distance was so great that we had often thought, if prowlers were to come around at night, how impossible it would be to hear them. The curtains and shutters were closely drawn. Sel was sitting by the fire. Suddenly she turned pale, dropped her sewing, and sprang from her chair.
"Robbers, robbers!" she cried. "Don't you see? they're getting in the east parlor window! There's three of 'em, and a lantern. They've just opened the window,—hurry, hurry!"
"I believe the girl is insane," said mother, decidedly. Nevertheless, she put out the light, opened the parlor door noiselessly, and went in.
The east window was open. There was a quick vision of three men and a dark lantern. Then Clara screamed, and it disappeared. We went to the window, and saw the men running down the street. The snow the next morning was found trodden down under the window, and their footprints were traced out to the road.
When we went back to the other room, Selphar was standing in the middle of it, a puzzled, frightened look on her face, her eyes wide open.
"Selphar," said my mother, a little suspiciously, "how did you know the robbers were there?"
"Robbers!" said the girl, aghast.
She knew nothing of the robbers. She knew nothing of the ear-ring. She remembered nothing that had happened since she went up the garret-stairs to bed, the night before. And, as I said, the girl was as honest as the sunlight. When we told her what had happened, she burst into terrified tears.
For some time after this there was no return of the "tantrums," as Selphar had called the condition, whatever it was. I began to get up vague theories of a trance state. But mother said, "Nonsense!" and Clara was too much frightened to reason at all about the matter.
One Sunday morning Sel complained of a headache. There was an evening service that night, and we all went to church. Mother let Sel take the empty seat in the carryall beside her.
It was very dark when we started to come home. But Creston was a safe old Orthodox town, the roads were filled with returning church-goers like ourselves, and mother drove like a man. A darker night I think I have never seen. Literally, we could not see a hand before our eyes. We met a carriage on a narrow road, and the horses' heads touched, before either driver had seen the other.
Selphar had been quite silent during the drive. I leaned forward, looked closely into her face, and could dimly see through the darkness that her eyes were closed.
"Why!" she said at last, "see those gloves!"
"Down in the ditch; we passed them before I spoke. I see them on a blackberry-bush; they've got little brass buttons on the wrist."
Three rods past now, and we could not see our horse's head.
"Selphar," said my mother, quickly, "what is the matter with you?"
"If you please, ma'am, I don't know," replied the girl, hanging her head. "May I get out and bring 'em to you?"
Prince was reined up, and Sel got out. She went so far back, that, though we strained our eyes to do it, we could not see her. In about two minutes she came up, a pair of gentleman's gloves in her hand. They were rolled together, were of cloth so black that on a bright night it would never have been seen, and had small brass buttons at the wrist.
Mother took them without a word.
The story leaked out somehow, and spread all over town. It raised a great hue and cry. Four or five antediluvian ladies declared at once that we were nothing more nor less than a family of "them spirituous mediums," and seriously proposed to expel mother from the prayer-meeting. Masculine Creston did worse. It smiled a pitying smile, and pronounced the whole thing the fancy of "scared women-folks." I could endure with calmness any slander upon earth but that. I sent by the next mail for Winthrop, and stated the case to him in a condition of suppressed fury. He very politely bit back an incredulous smile, and said he should be very happy to see her perform. The answer was somewhat dubious. I accepted it in silent suspicion.
He came on Saturday noon. That afternoon we attended en masse one of those refined inquisitions commonly known as picnics, and Winthrop lost his pocket-knife. Selphar, of course, kept house at home.
When we returned, Winthrop made some careless reference to his loss in her presence, and thought no more of it. About half an hour after, we observed that she was washing the dishes with her eyes shut. The condition had not been upon her five minutes before she dropped the spoon suddenly into the water, and asked permission to go out to walk. She "saw Mr. Winthrop's knife somewhere under a stone, and wanted to get it." It was fully two miles to the picnic grounds, and nearly dark. Winthrop followed the girl, unknown to her, and kept her in sight. She went rapidly, and without the slightest hesitation or search, to an out-of-the-way gully down by the pond, where Winthrop afterwards remembered having gone to cut some willow-twigs for the girls, parted a thick cluster of bushes, lifted a large, loose stone under which the knife had rolled, and picked it up. She returned it to Winthrop, quietly, and hurried away about her work to avoid being thanked.
I observed that, after this incident, masculine Creston became more respectful.
Of several peculiarities in this development of the girl I made at the time careful memoranda, and the exactness of these can be relied upon.
1. She herself, so far from attempting to bring on these trance states, or taking any pride therein, was intensely troubled and mortified by them,—would run out of the room, if she felt them coming on in the presence of visitors.
2. They were apt to be preceded by severe headaches, but came often without any warning.
3. She never, in any instance, recalled anything that happened during the trance, after it was passed.
4. She was powerfully and unpleasantly affected by electricity from a battery, or acting in milder forms. She was also unable at any time to put her hands and arms into hot water; the effect was to paralyze them at once.
5. Space proved to be no impediment to her vision. She has been known to follow the acts, words, and expressions of countenance of members of the family hundreds of miles away, with accuracy; as was afterwards proved by comparing notes as to time.
6. The girl's eyes, after her trances became habitual, assumed, and always retained, the most singular expression I ever saw on any face. They were oblong and narrow, and set back in her head like the eyes of a snake. They were not—smile if you will, O practical and incredulous reader!—but they were not human eyes. The eyes of Elsie Venner are the only eyes I can think of as at all like them. The most horrible circumstance about them—a circumstance that always made me shudder, familiar as I was with it—was, that, though turned fully on you, they never looked at you. Something behind them or out of them did the seeing, not they.
7. She not only saw substance, but soul. She has repeatedly told me my thoughts when they were upon subjects to which she could not by any possibility have had the slightest clew.
8. We were never able to detect a shadow of deceit about her.
9. The clairvoyance never failed in any instance to be correct, so far as we were able to trace it.
As will be readily imagined, the girl became a useful member of the family. The lost valuables restored and the warnings against mischances given by her quite balanced her incapacity for peculiar kinds of work. This incapacity, however, rather increased than diminished, and, together with her fickle health, which also grew more unsettled, caused us a great deal of care. The Creston physician—who was a keen man in his way, for a country doctor—pronounced the case altogether undreamt of before in Horatio's philosophy, and kept constant notes of it. Some of these have, I believe, found their way into the medical journals.
After a while there came, like a thief in the night, that which I suppose was poor Selphar's one unconscious, golden mission in this world. It came on a quiet summer night, that ended a long trance of a week's continuance. Mother had gone out into the kitchen to give an order for breakfast. I heard a few eager words in Selphar's voice, and then the door shut quickly, and it was an hour before it was opened.
Then my mother came to me without a particle of color in lips or cheek, and drew me away alone, and told the secret to me.
Selphar had seen Aunt Alice.
We sat down and looked at one another. There was a singular pinched look about my mother's mouth.
"She says"—and then she told me what she said. She had seen Alice Stuart in a Western town, seven hundred miles away. Among the living, she desired to be counted of the dead. And that was all.
My mother paced the room three times back and forth, her hands locked.
"Sarah." There was a chill in her voice—it had been such a gentle voice!—that froze me. "Sarah, the girl is an impostor."
She paced the room, once more, three times, back and forth. "At any rate, she is a poor, self-deluded creature. How can she see, seven hundred miles away, a dead woman who has been an angel all these years? Think! an angel, Sarah! So much better than I, and I—I loved—"
Before or since, I never heard my mother speak like that. She broke off sharply, and froze back into her chilling voice.
"We will say nothing about this, if you please. I do not believe a word of it."
We said nothing about it, but Selphar did. The delusion, if delusion it were, clung to her, haunted her, pursued her, week after week. To rid her of it, or to silence her, was impossible. She added no new facts to her first statement, but insisted that the long-lost dead was yet alive, with a quiet pertinacity that it was simply impossible to ridicule, frighten, threaten, or cross-question out of her, Clara was so thoroughly alarmed that she would not have slept alone for any mortal—perhaps not for any immortal—considerations. Winthrop and I talked the matter over often and gravely when we were alone and in quiet places. Mother's lips were sealed. From the day when Sel made the first disclosure, she was never heard once to refer to the matter. A perceptible haughtiness crept into her manner towards the girl. She even talked of dismissing her; but repented it, and melted into momentary gentleness. I could have cried over her that night. I was beginning to understand what a pitiful struggle her life had become, and how utterly alone she must be in it. She would not believe—she knew not what. She could not doubt the girl. And with the conflict even her children could not intermeddle.
To understand the crisis into which she was brought, the reader must bear in mind our long habit of belief, not only in Selphar's personal honesty, but in the infallibility of her mysterious power. Indeed, it had almost ceased to be mysterious to us, from daily familiarity. We had come to regard it as the curious working of physical disease, had taken its results as a matter of course, and had ceased, in common with converted Creston, to doubt the girl's capacity for seeing anything that she chose to, at any place.
Thus a year wore on. My mother grew sleepless and pallid. She laughed often, in a nervous, shallow way, as unlike her as a butterfly is unlike a sunset; and her face settled into an habitual sharpness and hardness unutterably painful to me.
Once only I ventured to break into the silence of the haunting thought that she knew, and we knew, was never escaped by either. "Mother, it would do no harm for Winthrop to go out West, and—"
She interrupted me sternly: "Sarah, I had not thought you capable of such childish superstition. I wish that girl and her nonsense had never come into this house!"—turning sharply away, and out of the room.
Just what that year was to my mother, I suppose only God and she have ever known, or will know.
But it ended. It ended at last, as I had prayed every night and morning of it that it should end. Mother came into my room one night, locked the door behind her, and, walking over to the window, stood with her face turned from me.
But that was all for a little while. Then,—"Sick and in suffering, Sarah,—the girl—she may be right, God Almighty knows! Sick and in suffering, you see. I am going. I think, I—"
The voice broke and melted utterly. I stole away and left her alone.
Creston put on its spectacles and looked wise on learning, the next day, that Mrs. Dugald had taken the earliest morning train for the West, on sudden and important business. It was precisely what Creston expected, and just like the Dugalds for all the world,—gone to hunt up material for that genealogical book, or map, or tree, or something, that they thought nobody knew they were going to publish. O yes, Creston understood it perfectly.
Space forbids me to relate in detail the clews which Selphar had given as to the whereabouts of the wanderer. Her trances, just at this time, were somewhat scarce and fragmentary, and the information she had professed to give had come in snatches and very imperfectly,—the trance being apt to end suddenly at the moment when some important question was pending, and then, of course, all memory of what she had said, or was about to say, was gone. The names and appearance of persons and places necessary to the search had, however, been given with sufficient distinctness to serve as a guide in my mother's rather chimerical undertaking. I suppose ninety-nine persons out of a hundred would have thought her a candidate for the State Lunatic Asylum. Exactly what she herself expected, hoped, or feared, I think it doubtful if she knew. I confess to a condition of simple bewilderment, when she was fairly gone, and Clara and I were left alone with Selphar's ghostly eyes forever on us. One night I had to lock the poor thing into her garret-room before I could sleep.
Just three weeks from the day mother started for the West, the coach rattled up to the door, and two women, arm in arm, came slowly up the walk. The one, erect, royal, with her great steadfast eyes alight; the other, bent and worn, gray-haired and sallow and dumb, crawling feebly through the golden afternoon sunshine, as the ghost of a glorious life might crawl back to its grave.
Mother threw open the door, and stood there like a queen. "Children, your aunt has come home. She is too tired to talk just now. By and by she will be glad to see you."
We took her gently up stairs, into the room where the lilies were mouldering to dust, and laid her down upon the bed. She closed her eyes wearily, turned her face over to the wall, and said no word.
What was the story of those tired eyes I never asked, and I never knew. Once, as I passed the room, a quick picture showed through the open door. The two women lying with their arms about each other's neck, as they used to do when they were children together; and above them, still and watchful, the wounded Face that had waited there so many years for this.
One was speaking with weak sobs, and very low. It was Aunt Alice. I caught but two words,—"My husband."
But what that husband was remains unknown till the day when the grave shall give up its dead, and the secrets of hearts oppressed and sinned against and sorrowful shall be revealed.
She lingered weakly there, within the restful room, for seven days, and then one morning we found her with her eyes upon the thorn-crowned face, her own quite still and smiling.
A little funeral train wound away one night behind the church, and left her down among those red-cup mosses that opened in so few months again to cradle the sister who had loved her. Two words only, by mother's orders, marked the simple headstone,—
I have given you facts. Explain them as you will. I do not attempt it, for the simple reason that I cannot.
A word must be said as to the fate of poor Sel, which was mournful enough. Her trances grew gradually more frequent and erratic, till she became so thoroughly diseased in mind and body as to be entirely unfitted for household work, and, in short, nothing but an encumbrance. We kept her, however, for the sake of charity, and should have done so, till her poor, tormented life wore itself out; but after the advent of a new servant, and my mother's death, she conceived the idea that she was a burden, cried over it a few weeks, and at last one bitter winter's night she disappeared. We did not give up all search for her for years, but nothing was ever heard from her. He, I hope, who permitted life to be such a terrible mystery to her, has cared for her somehow, and kindly, and well.