To understand the impression which Paul's letter produced upon Miss Ludington imagine, in the days before the resurrection of the dead was preached, with what effect the convincing announcement of that doctrine would have fallen on the ears of one who had devoted her life to hopeless regrets over the ashes of a friend.
And yet at no time have men been wholly without belief in some form of survival beyond the grave, and such a bereaved woman of antiquity would merely have received a more clear and positive assurance of what she had vaguely imagined before. But that there was any resurrection for her former self--that the bright youth which she had so yearned after and lamented could anywhere still exist, in a mode however shadowy, Miss Ludington had never so much as dreamed.
There might be immortality for all things else; the birds and beasts, and even the lowest forms of life, might, under some form, in some world, live again; but no priest had ever promised, nor any poet ever dreamed, that the title of a man's past selves to a life immortal is as indefeasible as that of his present self.
It did not occur to her to doubt, to quibble, or to question, concerning the grounds of this great hope. From the first moment that she comprehended the purport of Paul's argument, she had accepted its conclusion as an indubitable revelation, and only wondered that she had never thought of it herself, so natural, so inevitable, so incontrovertible did it seem.
And as a sunburst in an instant transforms the sad fields of November into a bright and cheerful landscape, so did this revelation suddenly illumine her sombre life.
All day she went about the house and the village like one in a dream, smiling and weeping, and reading Paul's letter over and over, through eyes swimming with a joy unutterable.
In the afternoon, with tender, tremulous fingers, she removed the crape from the frame of Ida's picture, which it had draped for so many years. As she was performing this symbolic act, it seemed to the old lady that the fair young face smiled upon her. "Forgive me!" she murmured. "How could I have ever thought you dead!"
It was not till evening that her servants reminded her that she had not eaten that day, and induced her to take food.
The next afternoon Paul arrived. He had not been without very serious doubt as to the manner in which his argument for the immortality of past selves might impress Miss Ludington. A mild melancholy such as hers sometimes becomes sweet by long indulgence. She might not welcome opinions which revolutionized the fixed ideas of her life, even though they should promise a more cheerful philosophy. If she did not accept his belief, but found it chimerical and visionary, the effect of its announcement upon her mind could only be unpleasantly disturbing. It was, therefore, not without some anxiety that he approached the house.
But his first glimpse of her, as she stood in the door awaiting him, dissipated his apprehensions. She wore a smiling face, and the deep black in which she always dressed was set off, for the first time since his knowledge of her, with a bit or two of bright colour.
She said not a word, but, taking him by the hand, led him into the sitting-room.
That morning she had sent into Brooklyn for immortelles, and had spent the day in festooning them about Ida's picture, so that now the sweet girlish face seemed smiling upon them out of a veritable bower of the white flowers of immortality.
In the days that followed, Miss Ludington seemed a changed woman, such blitheness did the new faith she had found bring into her life. The conviction that the past was deathless, and her bright girlhood immortal, took all the melancholy out of retrospection. Nay, more than that, it turned retrospection into anticipation. She no longer viewed her youth-time through the pensive haze of memory, but the rosy mist of hope. She should see it again, for was it not safe with God? Her pains to guard the memory of the beautiful past, to preserve it from the second death of forgetfulness, were now all needless; she could trust it with God, to be restored to her in his eternal present, its lustre undimmed, and no trait missing.
The laying aside of her mourning garb was but one indication of the change that had come over her.
The whole household, from scullion to coachman, caught the inspiration of her brighter mood. The servants laughed aloud about the house. The children of the gardener, ever before banished to other parts of the grounds, played unrebuked in the sacred street of the silent village.
As for Paul, since the revelation had come to him that the lady of his love was no mere dream of a life for ever vanished, but was herself alive for evermore, and that he should one day meet her, his love had assumed a colour and a reality it had never possessed before. To him this meant all it would have meant to the lover of a material maiden, to be admitted to her immediate society.
The sense of her presence in the village imparted to the very air a fine quality of intoxication. The place was her shrine, and he lived in it as in a sanctuary.
It was not as if he should have to wait many years, till death, before he should see her. As soon as he gave place to the later self which was to succeed him, he should be with her. Already his boyish self had no doubt greeted her, and she had taken in her arms the baby Paul who had held his little arms out to her picture twenty years before.
To be in love with the spirit of a girl, however beautiful she might have been when on earth, would doubtless seem to most young men a very chimerical sort of passion; but Paul, on the other hand, looked upon the species of attraction which they called love as scarcely more than a gross appetite. During his absence from home he had seen no woman's face that for a moment rivalled Ida's portrait. Shy and fastidious, he had found no pleasure in ladies' society, and had listened to his classmates' talk of flirtations and conquests with secret contempt. What did they know of love? What had their coarse and sensuous ideas in common with the rare and delicate passion to which his heart was dedicated--a love asking and hoping for no reward, but sufficient to itself?
He had spent but a few weeks at home when Miss Ludington began to talk quite seriously to him about studying for some profession. He was rather surprised at this, for he had supposed she would be glad to have him at home, for a while at lease, now that he had done with college. To Paul, at this time, the idea of any pursuit which would take him away from the village was extremely distasteful, and he had no difficulty in finding excuses enough for procrastinating a step for which, indeed, no sort of urgency could be pretended.
He was to be Miss Ludington's heir, and any profession which he might adopt would be purely ornamental at most.
Finding that he showed no disposition to consider a profession she dropped that point and proposed that he should take six months of foreign travel, as a sort of rounding off of his college course. To the advantages of this project he was, however, equally insensible. When she urged it on him, he said, "Why, aunty, one would say you were anxious to get rid of me. Don't we get on well together? Have you taken a dislike to me? I'm sure I'm very comfortable here. I don't want to do anything different, or to go off anywhere. Why won't you let me stay with you?"
And so she had to let the matter drop.
The truth was she had become anxious to get him away; but it was on his account, not hers.
In putting his room to rights one day since his return from college she had come upon a scrap of paper containing some verses addressed "To Ida." Paul had rather a pretty knack at turning rhymes, and the tears came to Miss Ludington's eyes as she read these lines. They were an attempt at a love sonnet, throbbing with passion, and yet so mystical in some of the allusions that nothing but her knowledge of Paul's devotion to Ida would have given her a clue to his meaning. She was filled with apprehension as she considered the effect which this infatuation, if it should continue to gain strength, might have upon one of Paul's dreamy temperament and excessive ideality. That she had devoted her own lonely and useless life to the cult of the past did not greatly matter, although in the light of her present happier faith she saw and regretted her mistake; but as for permitting Paul's life to be overshadowed by the same influence she could not consent to it. Something must be done to get him away from home, or at least to divert the current of his thought. The failure of her efforts to induce him to consider any scheme that involved his leaving the village threw her into a state of great uneasiness.