The solitude in which Miss Ludington lived had become, through habit, so endeared to her that when, a few years after she had been settled in her ghostly village, a cousin died in poverty, bequeathing to her with his last breath a motherless infant boy, it was with great reluctance that she accepted the charge. She would have willingly assumed the support of the child, but if it had been possible would have greatly preferred providing for him elsewhere to bringing him home with her. This, however, was impracticable, and so there came to be a baby in the old maid's house.
Little Paul De Riemer was two years old when he was brought to live with Miss Ludington--a beautiful child, with loving ways, and deep, dark, thoughtful eyes. When he was first taken into the sitting-room, the picture of the smiling girl over the fireplace instantly attracted his gaze, and, putting out his arms, he cooed to it. This completed the conquest of Miss Ludington, whose womanly heart had gone out to the winsome child at first sight.
As the boy grew older his first rational questions were about the pretty lady in the picture, and, he was never so happy as when Miss Ludington took him upon her knee and told him stories about her for hours together.
These stories she always related in the third person, for it would only puzzle and grieve the child to intimate to him that there was anything in common between the radiant girl he had been taught to call Ida and the withered woman whom he called Aunty. What, indeed, had they in common but their name? and it had been so long since any one had called her Ida, that Miss Ludington scarcely felt that the name belonged to her present self at all.
In their daily walks about the village she would tell the little boy endless stories about incidents which had befallen Ida at this spot or that. She was never weary of telling, or he of listening to, these tales, and it was wonderful how the artless sympathy of the child comforted the lone woman.
One day, when he was eight years old, finding himself alone in the sitting-room, the lad, after contemplating Ida's picture for a long time, piled one chair on another, and climbing upon the structure, put up his chubby lips to the painted lips of the portrait and kissed them with right good-will. Just then Miss Ludington came in, and saw what he was doing. Seizing him in her arms, she cried over him and kissed him till he was thoroughly frightened.
A year or two later, on his announcing one day his intention to marry Ida when he grew up, Miss Ludington explained to him that she was dead. He was quite overcome with grief at this intelligence, and for a long time refused to be comforted.
And so it was, that never straying beyond the confines of the eerie village, and having no companion but Miss Ludington, the boy fell scarcely less than she under the influence of the beautiful girl who was the presiding genius of the place.
As he grew older, far from losing its charm, Ida's picture laid upon him a new spell. Her violet eyes lighted his first love-dreams. She became his ideal of feminine loveliness, drawing to herself, as the sun draws mist, all the sentiment and dawning passion of the youth. In a word, he fell in love with her.
Of course he knew now who she had been. Long before as soon as he was old enough to understand it, this had been explained to him. But though he was well aware that neither on earth nor in heaven, nor anywhere in the universe, did she any more exist, that knowledge was quite without effect upon the devotion which she had inspired. The matter indeed, presented itself in a very simple way to his mind. "If I had never seen her picture," he said one day to Miss Ludington, "I should never have known that my love was dead, and I should have gone seeking her through all the world, and wondering what was the reason I could not find her."
Miss Ludington was over sixty years of age and Paul was twenty-two when he finished his course at college. She had naturally supposed that, on going out into the world, mixing with young men and meeting young women, he would outgrow his romantic fancy concerning Ida; but the event was very different. As year after year he returned home to spend his vacations, it was evident that his visionary passion was strengthening rather than losing its hold upon him.
But the strangest thing of all was the very peculiar manner in which, during the last vacation preceding his graduation, he began to allude to Ida in his conversations with Miss Ludington. It was, indeed, so peculiar that when, after his return to college, she recalled the impression left upon her mind, she was constrained to think that she had, somehow, totally misunderstood him; for he had certainly seemed to talk as if Ida, instead of being that most utterly, pathetically dead of all dead things--the past self of a living person--were possibly not dead at all: as if, in fact she might have a spiritual existence, like that ascribed to the souls of those other dead whose bodies are laid in the grave.
Decidedly, she must have misunderstood him.
Some months later, on one of the last days of June, he graduated. Miss Ludington would have attended the graduation exercises but for the fact that her long seclusion from society made the idea of going away from home and mingling with strangers intolerable. She had expected him home the morning after his graduation. When, however, she came downstairs, expecting to greet him at the breakfast-table, she found instead a letter from him, which, to her further astonishment, consisted of several closely written sheets. What could have possessed him to write her this laborious letter on the very day of his return?
The letter began by telling her that he had accepted an invitation from a class-mate, and should not be home for a couple of days. "But this is only an excuse," he went on; "the true reason that I do not at once return is that you may have a day or two to think over the contents of this letter before you see me; for what I have to say will seem very startling to you at first. I was trying to prepare you for it when I talked, as you evidently thought, so strangely, about Ida, the last time I was at home; but you were only mystified, and I was not ready to explain. A certain timidity held me back. It was so great a matter that I was afraid to broach it by word of mouth lest I might fail to put it in just the best way before your mind, and its strangeness might terrify you before you could be led to consider its reasonableness. But, now that I am coming home to stay, I should not be able to keep it from you, and it has seemed to me better to write you in this way, so that you may have time fully to debate the matter with your own heart before you see me. Do you remember the last evening that I was at home, my asking you if you did not sometimes have a sense of Ida's presence? You looked at me as if you thought I were losing my wits. What did I mean, you asked, by speaking of her as a living person? But I was not ready to speak, and I put you off.
"I am going to answer your question now. I am going to tell you how and why I believe that she is neither lost nor dead, but a living and immortal spirit. For this, nothing less than this, is my absolute assurance, the conviction which I ask you to share.
"But stop, let us go back. Let us assume nothing. Let us reason it all out carefully from the beginning. Let me forget that I am her lover. Let me be stiff; and slow, and formal as a logician, while I prove that my darling lives for ever. And you, follow me carefully, to see if I slip. Forget what ineffable thing she is to you; forget what it is to you that she lives. Do not let your eyes fill; do not let your brain swim. It would be madness to believe it if it is not true. Listen, then:-- You know that men speak of human beings, taken singly, as individuals. It is taken for granted in the common speech that the individual is the unit of humanity, not to be subdivided. That is, indeed, what the etymology of the word means. Nevertheless, the slightest reflection will cause any one to see that this assumption is a most mistaken one. The individual is no more the unit of humanity than is the tribe or family; but, like them, is a collective noun, and stands for a number of distinct persons, related one to another in a particular way, and having certain features of resemblance. The persons composing a family are related both collaterally and by succession or descent, while the persons composing an individual are related by succession only. They are called infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, maturity, age, and dotage.
"These persons are very unlike one another. Striking physical, mental, and moral differences exist between them. Infancy and childhood are incomprehensible to manhood, and manhood not less so to them. The youth looks forward with disgust to the old age which is to follow him, and the old man has far more in common with other old men, his own contemporaries, than with the youth who preceded him. How frequently do we see the youth vicious and depraved, and the man who follows him upright and virtuous, hating iniquity! How often, on the other hand, is a pure and innocent girlhood succeeded by a dissolute and shameless womanhood! In many cases age looks back upon youth with inexpressible longing and tenderness, and quite as often with shame and remorse; but in all cases with the same consciousness of profound contrast, and of a great gulf fixed between.
"If the series of persons which constitutes an individual could by any magic be brought together and these persons confronted with one another, in how many cases would the result be mutual misunderstanding, disgust, and even animosity? Suppose, for instance, that Saul, the persecutor of the disciples of Jesus, who held the garments of them that stoned Stephen, should be confronted with his later self, Paul the apostle, would there not be reason to anticipate a stormy interview? For there is no more ground to suppose that Saul would be converted to Paul's view than the reverse. Each was fully persuaded in his own mind as to what he did.
"But for the fact that each one of the persons who together constitute an individual is well off the field before his successor comes upon it, we should not infrequently see the man collaring his own youth, handing him over to the authorities, and prefering charges against him as a rascally fellow.
"Not by any means are the successive persons of an individual always thus out of harmony with one another. In many, perhaps in a majority, of cases, the same general principles and ideals are recognized by the man which were adopted by the boy, and as much sympathy exists between them as is possible in view of the different aspects which the world necessarily presents to youth and age. In such cases, no doubt, could the series of persons constituting the individual be brought together, a scene of inexpressibly tender and intimate communion would ensue.
"But, though no magic may bring back our past selves to earth, may we not hope to meet them hereafter in some other world? Nay, must we not expect so to meet them if we believe in the immortality of human souls? For if our past selves, who were dead before we were alive, had no souls, then why suppose our present selves have any? Childhood, youth, and manhood are the sweetest, the fairest, the noblest, the strongest of the persons who together constitute an individual. Are they soulless? Do they go down in darkness to oblivion while immortality is reserved for the withered soul of age? If we must believe that there is but one soul to all the persons of an individual it would be easier to believe that it belongs to youth or manhood, and that age is soulless. For if youth, strong-winged and ardent, full of fire and power, perish, leaving nothing behind save a few traces in the memory, how shall the flickering spirit of age have strength to survive the blast of death?
"The individual, in its career of seventy years, has not one body, but many, each wholly new. It is a commonplace of physiology that there is not a particle in the body to-day that was in it a few years ago. Shall we say that none of these bodies has a soul except the last, merely because the last decays more suddenly than the others?
"Or is it maintained that, although there is such utter diversity-- physical, mental, moral--between infancy and manhood, youth and age, nevertheless, there is a certain essence common to them all, and persisting unchanged through them all, and that this is the soul of the individual? But such an essence as should be the same in the babe and the man, the youth and the dotard, could be nothing more than a colourless abstraction, without distinctive qualities of any kind--a mere principle of life like the fabled jelly protoplasm. Such a fancy reduces the hope of immortality to an absurdity.
"No! no! It is not any such grotesque or fragmentary immortality that God has given us. The Creator does not administer the universe on so niggardly a plan. Either there is no immortality for us which is intelligible or satisfying, or childhood, youth, manhood, age, and all the other persons who make up an individual, live for ever, and one day will meet and be together in God's eternal present; and when the several souls of an individual are in harmony no doubt He will perfect their felicity by joining them with a tie that shall be incomparably more tender and intimate than any earthly union ever dreamed of, constituting a life one yet manifold--a harp of many strings, not struck successively as here on earth, but blending in rich accord.
"And now I beg you not to suppose that what I have tried to demonstrate is any hasty or ill-considered fancy. It was, indeed, at first but a dream with which the eyes of my sweet mistress inspired me, but from a dream it has grown into a belief, and in these last months into a conviction which I am sure nothing can shake. If you can share it the long mourning of your life will be at an end. For my own part I could never return to the old way of thinking without relapsing into unutterable despair. To do so would be virtually to give up faith in any immortality at all worth speaking of. For it is the long procession of our past selves, each with its own peculiar charm and incommunicable quality, slipping away from us as we pass on, and not the last self of all whom the grave entraps, which constitutes our chief contribution to mortality. What shall it avail for the grave to give up its handful if there be no immortality for this great multitude? God would not mock us thus. He has power not only over the grave, but over the viewless sepulchre of the past, and not one of the souls to which he has ever given life will be found wanting on the day when he makes up his jewels."