As the drive over to East Tenth Street was a long one, the carriage had been ordered at seven o'clock, and soon after tea, of which neither Miss Ludington nor Paul had been able to take a mouthful, they set out.
"I am afraid we are doing something very wrong and foolish," said Miss Ludington, feebly, as the carriage rolled down the village street.
During the drive of nearly two hours not another word was said.
The carriage at length drew up before the house in Tenth Street. It stood in a brick block, and there was no sign of the business pursued within, except a small white card on the door bearing the words, "Mrs. Legrand. Materializing, Business, and Test Medium. Clairvoyant."
An old-looking little girl of ten or twelve years of age opened the door. The child's big black eyes, and long snaky locks falling about a pale face, gave her an elfish look quite in keeping with the character of the house. She at once ushered the callers into the front parlour, where a lady and gentleman were sitting, who proved to be Mrs. Legrand and her manager and man of business, Dr. Hull.
The latter was a tall person, of highly respectable and even imposing appearance, to which a high forehead, a pair of gold-bowed spectacles, and a long white beard considerably added. He looked like a scholar, and his speech was that of a man of education.
Mrs. Legrand was a large woman, with black hair sprinkled with grey and worn short like a man's. She had a swarthy complexion, and her eyes were surrounded by noticeably large dark rings, giving an appearance of wretched ill-health. Her manner was extremely languid, as of a person suffering from nervous exhaustion. She kept her eyes half shut, and spoke as if with an effort.
"Did Mrs. Rhinehart tell you," she said to Miss Ludington, "of the interest which I feel in your theory, that the souls of our past selves exist in spirit-land? If my seance to-night realizes your expectations, spirit science will have taken a great step forward."
"My conviction will remain the same whatever the result may be to night," said Miss Ludington.
"I am glad to hear you say so," replied Mrs. Legrand languidly; "but I feel that we shall be successful, and my intuitions rarely deceive me."
A trembling came over Paul at these words.
There was a little more general conversation, and the silence which followed was interrupted by Dr. Hull.
"I suppose there is no reason why the seance should not proceed, Mrs. Legrand?"
"I know of none," assented that lady in lifeless tones. "Please show our friends the cabinet."
Dr. Hull rose. "It is usual," he said, "for those who attend our seances to be asked to satisfy themselves that deception is impossible by an examination of the apartment which Mrs. Legrand occupies during her trance, and from which the materialized spirit appears. Will you kindly step this way?"
The room in which they sat was a long apartment, divided by double sliding-doors into a front and back parlour, the former of which had been the scene of the preceding conversation.
Dr. Hull now conducted the two visitors into the back parlour, which proved to be of similar size and appearance to the front parlour, except that it contained no furniture whatever. There was only one window in the back parlour, and this was firmly closed by inside blinds.
It was also uncurtained, and in plain view from the front parlour. Besides the connection with the front parlour, there was but one door in the back parlour. This opened into a small apartment, about six feet by five, which had been taken out of the right-hand rear corner of the back parlour, and was separated from it by a partition reaching to the ceiling. This was the cabinet. It had neither window nor door, except the one into the back parlour. A sofa was its only article of furniture, and this was of wicker-work, so that nothing could be concealed beneath it.
"Mrs. Legrand lies upon this sofa while in a state of trance, during which the spirit is materialized, and appears to us," explained Dr. Hull.
A rug lay on the floor of the cabinet, the walls were of hard-finished white plaster, quite bare, and the ceiling, like that of the parlours, was plain white, without ornament.
There seemed no possibility of introducing any person into the cabinet or the back parlour without the knowledge of those in the front parlour. But Dr. Hull insisted upon making assurance doubly sure by pounding upon the walls and pulling up the rug in the cabinet, to prove that no sliding panel or trap-door trick was possible. There was something calculated to make an unbeliever very uneasy in the quiet confidence of these people, and the business-like way in which they went to work to make it impossible to account for any phenomenon that might appear, on any other but a supernatural theory. No doubt whatever now remained in the mind of Miss Ludington or Paul that the wonderful mystery which they had hardly dared to dream of was about to be enacted before them. They followed Dr. Hull on his tour of inspection as if they were in a dream, mechanically observing what he pointed out, but replying at random to his remarks, and, indeed, barely aware of what they were doing. The sense of the unspeakably awful and tender scene so soon to pass before their eyes absorbed every susceptibility of their minds.
Nor indeed would this detective work have had any interest for them in any case. They would have been willing to concede the medium all the machinery she desired. There was no danger that they could be deceived as to the reality of the face and form that for so many years had been enshrined in their memories.
There might be as many side entrances to the cabinet as desired, but she whom they looked for could come only from the spirit-land.
The front parlour, too, having been investigated, to show the impossibility of any person's being concealed there, Dr. Hull proceeded to close and lock the hall-door, that being the only exit connecting this suite of rooms with the rest of the house. Having placed a heavy chair against the locked door for further security, he gave the key to Paul.
Mrs. Legrand now rose, and without a word to any one passed through the back parlour and disappeared in the cabinet.
As she did so a wild desire to fly from the room and the house came over Miss Ludington. Not that she did not long inexpressibly to see the vision that was drawing near, whose beautiful feet might even now be on the threshold, but the sense of its awfulness overcame her. She felt that she was not fit, not ready, for it now. If she could only have more time to prepare herself, and then could come again. But it was too late to draw back.
Dr. Hull had arranged three chairs across the broad doorway between the back and front parlours, and facing the former. He asked Miss Ludington to occupy the middle chair, and, trembling in every limb, she did so. Paul took the chair by her side, the other being apparently for Dr. Hull.
The elfish little girl, whom they called Alta, and who appeared to be the daughter of Mrs. Legrand, meanwhile took her place at a piano standing in the front parlour.
All being now ready, Dr. Hull proceeded to turn the gas in the two parlours very low. The jets in both rooms were controlled by a stop-cock in the wall by the side of the doorway between them. There were two jets in the back parlour, fastened to the wall dividing it from the front parlour, one on each side of the door, so as to throw light on any figure coming out of the cabinet. The light they diffused, after being turned down; was enough to render forms and faces sufficiently visible for the recognition of acquaintances, though a close study of features would have been difficult.
It now appeared that the glass shades of the jets in the back parlour were of a bluish tint, which lent a peculiarly weird effect to the illumination.
Dr. Hull now took the remaining chair by Miss Ludington's side, and a perfect silence of some moments ensued, during which she could perfectly hear the beating of Paul's heart. Then Alta began, with a wonderfully soft touch, to play a succession of low, dreamy chords, rather than any set composition--music that thrilled the listeners with vague suggestions of the unfathomable mystery and unutterable sadness of human life. She played on and on. It seemed to two of the hearers that she played for hours, although it was probably but a few minutes.
At last the music flowed slower, trickled, fell in drops, and ceased.
They had a sensation of being breathed upon by a faint, cool draught of air, and then appeared in the door-way of the cabinet the figure of a beautiful girl, which, after standing still a moment, glided forth, by an imperceptible motion, into the room.
The light, which had before seemed so faint, now proved sufficient to bring out every line of her face and form. Or was it that the figure itself was luminous by some light from within?
Paul heard Miss Ludington gasp; but if he had known that she was dying he could not have taken his eyes from the apparition.
For it was Ida who stood before him; no counterfeit of the painter now, but radiant with life.
Her costume was exactly that of her picture, white, with a low bodice; but how utterly had the artist failed to reproduce the ravishing contours of her young form, the enchanting sweetness of her expression. The golden hair fell in luxuriant tresses about the face and down the dazzling shoulders. The lips were parted in a pleased smile as, with a gliding motion, she approached the rapt watchers.
Her eyes rested on Miss Ludington with a look full of recognition and a tenderness that seemed beyond the power of mortal eyes to express.
Then she looked at Paul. Her smile was no longer the smile of an angel, but of a woman. The light of her violet eyes burned like delicious flame to the marrow of his bones.
She was so near him that he could have touched her. Her beauty overcame his senses. Forgetting all else, in an agony of love, he was about to clasp her in his arms, but she drew back with a gentle gesture of denial.
Then a sudden and indescribable wavering passed over her face, like the passing of the wind over a field of rye, and slowly, as if reluctantly obeying an unseen attraction, she retreated, still facing them, across the room, and disappeared within the cabinet.
Instantly Alta touched the piano, playing the same slow, heavy chords as before. But this time she played but a few moments, and when she ceased, Mrs. Legrand's voice was heard faintly calling her. She glided between the chairs in the door-way and entered the cabinet, drawing a portiere across its door behind her.
As she did so, Dr. Hull touched the stopcock in the wall by his side, turning on the gas in both parlours, and proceeded to unlock and open the hall-door.
"It was the most successful seance I have ever witnessed," he said. "The conditions must have been unusually favourable. How were you pleased, Miss Ludington?"
The abrupt transition from the shadows of the between-world to the glare of gas-light, from the communion of spirits to the brisk business-like tones of Dr. Hull, was quite too much for the poor lady, and with a piteous gesture, she buried her face in her hands. Alta now came out of the cabinet, and said that her mother would like them to examine it once more.
Miss Ludington took no notice of the request, but Paul, who had continued to sit staring into vacancy, as if for him the seance were still going on, sprang up at Alta's invitation and accepted it with alacrity. The eagerness with which he peered into the corner of the cabinet, and the disappointment which his face showed when he perceived no trace of any person there save Mrs. Legrand and Alta, might naturally have suggested to them that he suspected fraud; but the fact was very different. His conduct was merely the result of a confused hope that he might gain another glimpse of Ida by following her to the place within which she had vanished.
When Paul looked into the cabinet, Mrs. Legrand was lying upon the lounge, and Alta was administering smelling salts to her. As he turned away disappointed, the medium rose, and leaning on her daughter, returned to the front parlour. She looked completely overcome. Her face was deathly pale, and the dark rings around her eyes were larger and darker than ever. She leaned back in her chair, which had a special rest for her head, and closed her eyes.
As neither Dr. Hull nor Alta showed any surprise at her condition, it was apparently the ordinary result of a seance.
To her faint inquiry whether the materialization had been satisfactory to Miss Ludington, the latter replied that it had been all, and more than all, she had dared dream of. Dr. Hull, in a very enthusiastic manner, went on to describe the manifestation more particularly. He declared that the present evening a new world of spirit-life had been revealed, and a new era in spiritualism had opened.
"I have been devoted to the study of spiritualism for thirty years," he exclaimed; "but I have never been present at so wonderful a seance as this. I grow dizzy when I think of the field of speculation which it opens up. The spirits of our past selves--? And yet why not, why not? Like all great discoveries it seems most simple when once brought to light. It accounts, no doubt, for the throng of unknown spirits of which mediums are so often conscious, and for the many materializations and communications which no one recognizes."
Meanwhile the wretched appearance of the medium aroused Miss Ludington's sympathies, in spite of the distracted condition of her mind.
"Is Mrs. Legrand always prostrated in this manner after a seance?" she asked.
Dr. Hull answered for the medium. "Not generally quite so much so," he said; "the strain on her vitality is always very trying, but it is especially so when a new spirit materializes, as to-night. Out of her being, somehow, and just how, I know no better than you, is woven the veil of seeming flesh, yes, and even the clothing which the spirit assumes in order to appear. The fact that Mrs. Legrand suffers from heart disease makes seances not only more exhausting for her than for other mediums, but really dangerous. I have told her, as a physician, and other physicians have told her, that she is liable at any time to die in a trance."
Paul now spoke for the first time since the conclusion of the seance. "What do you fancy would be the effect on the spirit if a medium should die during a materialization, as you have supposed?" he inquired.
"That can only be a matter of theory," replied Dr. Hull; "the accident has never happened."
"But it might happen."
"Yes, it might happen."
"Is not the spirit as much dependent on the medium for dematerializing and resuming the spirit-form, as for materializing?" asked Paul.
"I see what you mean," said Dr. Hull. "You think that in case the medium should die during a materialization, the spirit might be left in a materialized state. How does it strike you, Mrs. Legrand?"
"I don't know," replied that lady, with her eyes closed. "Spirits require our aid as much to lay aside their bodies as to assume them. If the medium died meantime, I should think that the spirit might find some trouble in dematerializing."
"Is it not possible," said Paul, "that it might be unable to dematerialize at all? Would not the medium's death close against it the only door by which it could return to the spirit-world, shutting it out in this life with us henceforth? More than that: would not the already materialized spirit be in a position to succeed to the physical life which the medium relinquished? Already possessed of a part of the medium's vitality, would not the remainder naturally flow to it when given up in death, and thus complete its materialization?"
"And give it an earthly body like ours?" exclaimed Miss Ludington.
"Yes, like ours," replied Paul. "I suppose it would simply take up its former life on earth where it had been left off, ceasing to possess a spirit's powers, and knowing only what and whom it knew at the point when its first life on earth had ceased."
"After what I have seen to-night, nothing will ever seem impossible to me again," said Miss Ludington.
"As Miss Ludington suggests," observed Dr. Hull, "in spiritualism one soon ceases to consider whether a thing be wonderful or not, but only if it be true. And so as to this matter. Now, if the death of a medium should be absolutely instantaneous, the spirit might, indeed, be unable to dematerialize, and might even succeed to the medium's earth life, as you suggest. The trouble with the theory--and it seems to me a fatal one--is, that death is almost never, if indeed it is ever, absolutely instantaneous but only comparatively so; and it seems to me that the least possible interval of time would be sufficient to enable the spirit to dematerialize. Consequently, it strikes me, that while the result you suppose is theoretically possible, it could, practically, never occur. Still, the subject is one of mere conjecture at most, and one opinion is, perhaps, as good as another."
"I think you are probably right," said Paul; "it was only a fancy I had."
"Why does Mrs. Legrand persist in giving seances if she is not in a fit condition?" said Miss Ludington.
"Well," replied Dr. Hull, "you see we spiritualists do not regard death as so serious a matter as do many others. Our mediums, especially, who stand with one hand clasped by spirits and the other by mortals, are almost indifferent which way they are drawn; besides, you see, she is recognized as the most fully developed medium in the United States to-day, and many spirits, which cannot materialize through other mediums, are dependent upon her; she feels that she has a duty to discharge towards the spirit-world, at whatever risk to herself. I doubt if to-night's seance, for example, would have been successful with any other medium."
Immediately after this conversation Miss Ludington and Paul took their departure. Dr. Hull went, out with them to the carriage, and was obliged to remind them of the little matter of Mrs. Legrand's fee, which they had entirely forgotten.