At about this time it chanced that Miss Ludington drove into Brooklyn one morning to do some shopping. She was standing at a counter in a large store, examining goods, when she became aware that a lady standing at another counter was attentively regarding her. The lady in question was of about her own height and age, her hair being nearly white, like Miss Ludington's; but it was evident from the hard lines of her face and her almost shabby dress that life had by no means gone so easily with her as with the lady she was regarding so curiously.
As Miss Ludington looked up she smiled, and, crossing the store, held out her hand. "Ida Ludington! don't you know me?" Miss Ludington scanned her face a moment, and then, clasping her outstretched hand, exclaimed, delightedly, "Why, Sarah Cobb, where did you come from?" and for the next quarter of an hour the two ladies, quite oblivious of the clerks who were waiting on them, and the customers who were jostling them, stood absorbed in the most animated conversation. They had been school-girls together in Hilton forty-five years before, and, not having met since Miss Ludington's removal from the village, had naturally a great deal to say.
"It is thirty years since I have seen any one from Hilton," said Miss Ludington at last, "and I'm not going to let you escape me. You must come out with me to my house and stay overnight, and we will talk old times over. I would not have missed you for anything."
Sarah Cobb, who had said that her name was now Mrs. Slater, and that she lived in New York, having removed there from Hilton only a few years previous, seemed nothing loth to accept her friend's invitation, and it was arranged that Miss Ludington should send her carriage to meet her at one of the Brooklyn ferries the day following. Miss Ludington wanted to send the carriage to Mrs. Slater's residence in New York, but the latter said that it would be quite as convenient for her to take it at the ferry.
After repeated injunctions not to fail of her appointment, Miss Ludington finally bade her old school-mate good-by and drove home in a state of pleased expectancy.
She entertained Paul at the tea-table with an account of her adventure, and gave him an animated history of the Cobb family in general and Sarah in particular. She had known Sarah ever since they both could walk, and during the latter part of their school life they had been inseparable. The scholars had even christened them "The Twins," because they were so much together and looked so much alike. Their secrets were always joint property.
The next afternoon Miss Ludington went herself in the carriage to fetch her friend from the ferry. She wanted to be with her and enjoy her surprise when she first saw the restored Hilton on entering the grounds. In this respect her anticipations were fully justified.
The arrangement of the grounds was such that a high board fence protected the interior from inquisitive passers-by on the highway, and the gate was set in a corner, so that no considerable part of the enclosure was visible from it. The gravelled driveway, immediately after entering the grounds, took a sharp turn round the corner of the gardener's cottage, which answered for a gatekeeper's lodge. The moment, however, it was out of sight from the highway it became transformed into a country road, with wide, grassy borders and footpaths close to the rail fences, while just ahead lay the silent village, with the small, brown, one-storey, one-roomed school-house on one side of the green, and the little white box of a meeting-house, with its gilt weathercock, on the other.
As this scene burst upon Mrs. Slater's view, her bewilderment was amusing to witness. Her appearance for a moment was really as if she believed herself the victim of some sort of magic, and suspected her friend of being a sorceress. Reassured on this point by Miss Ludington's smiling explanation, her astonishment gave place to the liveliest interest and curiosity. The carriage was forthwith stopped and sent around to the stables, while the two friends went on foot through the village. Every house, every fence-corner, every lilac-bush or clump of hollyhocks, or row of currant-bushes in the gardens, suggested some reminiscence, and the two old ladies were presently laughing and crying at once. At every dwelling they lingered long, and went on reluctantly with many backward glances, and all their speech was but a repetition of, "Don't you remember this?" and "Do you remember that?"
Mrs Slater, having left Hilton but recently, was able to explain just what had been removed, replaced, or altered subsequent to Miss Ludington's flight. The general appearance of the old street, Mrs. Slater said, remained much the same, despite the changes which had driven Miss Ludington away; but new streets had been opened up, and the population of the village had trebled, and become largely foreign.
In their slow progress they came at last to the school-house.
The door was ajar, and they entered on tiptoe, like tardy scholars. With a glance of mutual intelligence they hung their hats, each on the one of the row of wooden pegs in the entry, which had been hers as a school-girl, and through the open door entered the silent school-room and sat down in the self-same seats in which two maidens, so unlike them, yet linked to them by so strangely tender a tie, had reigned as school-room belles nearly half a century before. In hushed voices, with moist eyes; and faces shining with the light of other days, those grey-haired women talked together of the scenes which that homely old room had witnessed, the long-silent laughter, and the voices, no more heard on earth, with which it had once echoed.
There in the corner stood a great wrought-iron stove, the counterpart of the one around whose red-hot sides they had shivered, in their short dresses, on cold winter mornings. On the walls hung the quaint maps of that period whence they had received geographical impressions, strangely antiquated now. Along one side of the room ran a black-board, on which they had been wont to demonstrate their ignorance of algebra and geometry to the complete satisfaction of the master, while behind them as they sat was a row of recitation benches, associated with so many a trying ordeal of school-girl existence.
"Do you ever think where the girls are in whose seats we are sitting?" said Mrs. Slater, musingly. "I can remember myself as a girl, more or less distinctly, and can even be sentimental about her; but it doesn't seem to me that I am the same person at all; I can't realize it."
"Of course you can't realize it. Why should you expect to realize what is not true?" replied Miss Ludington.
"But I am the same person," responded Mrs. Slater.
Miss Ludington regarded her with a smile.
"You have kept your looks remarkably, my dear," she said. "You did not lose them all at once, as I did; but isn't it a little audacious to try to pass yourself off as a school-girl of seventeen?"
Mrs. Slater laughed. "But I once was she, if I am not now," she said. "You won't deny that."
"I certainly shall deny it, with your permission," replied Ludington. "I remember her very well, and she was no more an old woman like you than you are a young girl like her."
Mrs. Slater laughed again. "How sharp you are getting, my dear!" she said. "Since you are so close after me, I shall have to admit that I have changed slightly in appearance in the forty odd years since we went to school at Hilton, and I'll admit that my heart is even less like a girl's than my face; but, though I have changed so much, I am still the same person, I suppose."
"Which do you mean?" inquired Miss Ludington. "You say in one breath that you are a changed person, and that you are the same person. If you are a changed person you can't be the same, and if you are the same you can't have changed."
"I should really like to know what you are driving at," said Mrs. Slater, calmly. "It seems to me that we are disputing about words."
"Oh, no, not about words! It is a great deal more than a question of words," exclaimed Miss Ludington. "You say that we old women and the girls who sat here forty years and more ago are the same persons, notwithstanding we are so completely transformed without and within. I say we are not the same, and thank God, for their sweet sakes, that we are not. Surely that is not a mere dispute about words."
"But, if we are not those girls, then what has become of them?" asked Mrs. Slater.
"You might better ask what had become of them if you had to seek them in us; but I will tell you what has become of them, Sarah. It is what will become of us when we, in our turn, vanish from earth, and the places that know us now shall know us no more. They are immortal with God, and we shall one day meet them over there."
"What a very odd idea!" exclaimed Mrs. Slater, regarding her friend with astonishment.
Miss Ludington flushed slightly as she replied, "I don't think it half so odd, and not nearly so repulsive, as your notion, that we old women are the mummies of the girls who came before us. It is easier, as well as far sweeter, for me to believe that our youth is somewhere immortal, than that it has been withered, shrivelled, desiccated into our old age. Oh, no, my dear, Paradise is not merely a garden of withered flowers! We shall find the rose and lily of our life blooming there."
The hours had slipped away unnoticed as the friends talked together, and now the lengthening shadows on the school-room floor recalled Miss Ludington to the present, and to the duties of a hostess.
As they walked slowly across the green toward the homestead, she told her friend more fully of this belief in the immortality of past selves which had so recently come to her, and especially how it had quite taken away the melancholy with which she had all her life before looked back upon her youth. Mrs. Slater listened in silence.
"Where on earth did you get that portrait?" she exclaimed, as Miss Ludington, after taking her on a tour through the house before tea, brought her into the sitting-room.
"Whom does it remind you of?" asked Miss Ludington.
"I know whom it reminds me of," replied Mrs. Slater; "but how it ever got here is what puzzles me."
"I thought you would recognize it," said Miss Ludington, with a pleased smile. "I suppose you think it odd you should never have seen it, considering whom it is of?"
"I do, certainly," replied Mrs. Slater.
"You see," explained Miss Ludington, "I did not have it painted till after I left Hilton. You remember that little ivory portrait of myself at seventeen, which I thought so much of after I lost my looks? Well, this portrait I had enlarged from that. I have always believed that it was very like, but you don't know what a reassurance it is to me to have you recognize it so instantly."
At the tea-table Paul appeared, and was introduced to Mrs. Slater, who regarded him with considerable interest. Miss Ludington had informed her that he was her cousin and heir, and had told her something of his romantic devotion to the Ida of the picture. Paul, who from Miss Ludington had learned all there was to be known about the persons and places of old Hilton, entered with much interest into the conversation of the ladies on the subject, and after tea accompanied them in their stroll through that part of the village which they had not inspected before.
When they returned to the house it was quite dark, and they had lights in the sitting-room, and refreshments were served. Mrs. Slater's eyes were frequently drawn toward the picture over the fireplace, and some reference of hers to the immortelles in which it was framed, turned the conversation upon the subject that Miss Ludington and she had been discussing in the school-house.
Mrs. Slater, whose conversation showed her to be a woman of no great culture, but unusual force of character and intelligence, expressed herself as interested in the idea of the immortality of past selves, but decidedly sceptical. Paul grew eloquent in maintaining its truth and reasonableness, and, indeed, that it was the only intelligible theory of immortality that was possible. The idea that the same soul successively animated infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, and maturity, was, he argued, but a modification of the curious East Indian dream of metempsychosis, according to which every soul is supposed to inhabit in turn innumerable bodies.
"You almost persuade me," said Mrs. Slater, at last. "But I never heard of the spirit of anybody's past self appearing to them. If there are such spirits, why have they never manifested themselves? Nobody every heard of the spirit of one's past self appearing at a spiritualist seance, for instance."
"There is one evidence among others," replied Paul. "that spiritualism is a fraud. The mediums merely follow the vulgar superstition in the kind of spirits that they claim to produce."
"Very likely you are right," said Mrs. Slater. "In fact, I presume you are quite right. And yet, if I really believed as you do, do you know what I would do? I would go to some of the spirit mediums over in New York, of whom the papers are giving such wonderful accounts, and let them try to materialize for me the spirit of my youth. Probably they couldn't do it, but possibly they might; and a mighty little sight, Mr. De Riemer, is more convincing than all the belief in the world. If I could see the spirit of my youth face to face, I should believe that it had a separate existence from my own. Otherwise, I don't believe I ever could."
"But the mediums are a set of humbugs!" exclaimed Paul; and then he added, "I beg your pardon. Perhaps you are a spiritualist?"
"You need not beg my pardon," said Mrs. Slater, good-humouredly. "I am not a spiritualist beyond thinking--and that is only lately--that there may possibly be something in it, after all. Perhaps there may be, for example, one part of truth to a hundred parts of fraud. I really don't believe there is more. Now, as you think the mediums humbugs, and I am sure most of them are, their failure to accomplish anything would not shake your faith in your theory, and you would only have lost an evening and the fee you paid the medium. On the other hand, there is a bare possibility--mind you, I think it is no more than that--a bare possibility, say the smallest possible chance, but a chance--that you would see--her," and Mrs. Slater glanced at the portrait.
Paul turned pale.
Miss Ludington, with much agitation, exclaimed, "If I thought there was any possibility of that, do you suppose, Sarah, that I would consider time or money?"
"I don't suppose you would," replied Mrs. Slater. "You would not need to; but the money is something which I should have to consider, if it were my case. The best materializing mediums charge pretty well. Mrs. Legrand, who I believe is considered the leading light just now, charges fifty dollars for a private seance. Now, fifty dollars, I suppose, does not seem a large sum to you, but it would be a great deal for a poor woman like me to spend. And yet if I believed this wonderful thing that you believe, and I thought there was one chance in a million that this woman could demonstrate it to me by the assurance of sight, I would live on crusts from the gutter till I had earned the money to go to her."
Paul rose from his chair, and, after walking across the floor once or twice, stood leaning his arm on the mantelpiece. He cleared his throat, and said:
"Have you ever seen this Mrs. Legrand yourself? I mean, have you ever been present at one of her seances?"
"Not on my own account," replied Mrs. Slater. "It was a mere accident my chancing to know anything about her. I have a friend, a Mrs. Rhinehart, who has recently lost her husband, and she got in a way of going to this Mrs. Legrand's seances to see him, and once she took me with her."
Miss Ludington and Paul waited a moment, and then, perceiving that she was not going to say anything more, exclaimed in the same breath, "Did you see anything?"
"We saw the figure of a fine-looking man," replied Mrs. Slater. "We could distinguish his features and expression very plainly, and he seemed to recognize my friend. She said that it was her husband. Of course I know nothing about that. I had never seen him alive. It may all have been a humbug, as I was prepared to believe it; but I assure you it was a curious business, and I haven't got over the impression which it made on me, yet. I'm not given to believing in things that claim to be supernatural, but I will admit that what I saw that night was very strange. Humbug or no humbug, what she saw seemed to comfort my poor friend more than all the religions or philosophies ever revealed or invented could have done. You see, these are so vague, even when we try to believe them, and that was so plain."
A silence followed Mrs. Slater's words, during which she sat with an absent expression of countenance and a faraway look, as if recalling in fancy the scene which she had described. Miss Ludington's hands trembled as they lay together in her lap, and she was regarding the picture of the girl over the fireplace with a fixed and intense gaze, apparently oblivious of all else.
Paul broke the silence. "I am going to see this woman," he said, quietly. "You need not think of going with me, aunty, unless you care to. I will go alone."
"Do you think I shall let you go alone?" replied Miss Ludington, in a voice which she steadied with difficulty. "Am I not as much concerned as you are, Paul?"
"Where does this Mrs. Legrand live?" Paul asked Mrs. Slater.
"I really can't tell you that, Mr. De Riemer," she said. "It was sometime ago that I attended the seance I spoke of, and all I recall is that it was somewhere in the lower part of the city, on the east side of the Broadway, if I am not mistaken."
"Perhaps you could ascertain her address from the friend of whom you spoke, if it would not be too much trouble?" suggested Miss Ludington.
"I might do that," assented Mrs. Slater. "If she still goes to the seances she would know it. But these mediums don't generally stay long in one place, and it is quite possible that this Mrs. Legrand may not be in the city now, But if I can get her address for you I will. And now, my dear, as I am rather tired after our walk about the village, and probably you are too, will I go to my room."