Now, before she ever had heard of Mrs. Legrand, Miss Ludington had fully believed that her former self had an immortal existence, apart and distinct from her present self, and Paul, to whom she was indebted for this belief, held it even more firmly than she.
But there is a great difference between the strongest form of faith and the absolute assurance of sight. The effect of the vision which they had witnessed in Mrs. Legrand's parlours was almost as startling as if they had not expected to see it.
Very little was said in the carriage going home, but, as they were crossing the ferry, Miss Ludington exclaimed, in an awestruck voice,
"O Paul! was it not strange!"
"Strange? Strange?" he echoed, in strong, exultant tones. "How oddly you use the word, aunty! You might well say how strange, if we mortals were isolated here on this little island of time, with no communication with the mainland of eternity; but how can you call it strange when you find out that we are not isolated? Surely it is not strange, but supremely reasonable, right, and natural."
"I suppose it is so," said Miss Ludington, "but if I had let you go alone to-night, and stayed at home, I could never have fully believed you when you told me what you had seen any more than I shall ever expect any one to believe me. Think, Paul, if I had not gone, if I had not seen her, if she had not given me that look! I knew, of course, if she appeared that I should recognize her, but I did not dare to be sure that she would recognize me. I remember her, but she never saw me on earth."
"It was as a spirit that she knew you, and that is the way she knew me, and knew that I loved her," said Paul, with a sudden huskiness in his voice.
"Surely that makes it clear," said Miss Ludington, "that the spirits of our past selves love us who follow them, as we, in looking back, yearn after them, and not merely await us at the end, but are permitted to watch over us as we complete the journey which they began. I am sure that if people knew this they would never feel lonely or forlorn again."
It was a relief to Paul when they reached home and he could be alone.
In an ecstasy of happiness that was like a delicious pain, he sat till morning in his unlighted chamber, gazing into the darkness with a set smile, motionless, and breathing only by deep, infrequent inhalations. What were the joys of mortal love to the transports that were his? What were the smoky fires of earthly passion to his pure, keen flame, almost too strong for a heart of flesh to bear?
As he strove to realize what it was to be beloved by an immortal, the veil between time and eternity was melted by the hot breath of his passion, and the confines of the natural and the supernatural were confounded.
As the east grew light he began to feel the weariness of the intense mental strain which had led up to, and culminated in, the transcendent experience of the previous evening. A tranquil happiness succeeded his exalted mood, and, lying down, he slept soundly till noon, when he went downstairs to find Miss Ludington anxiously waiting for him to reassure her that her recollection of the last night was not altogether a dream, as she had half convinced herself since waking.
Paul had to go into Brooklyn to do some business for Miss Ludington that day, but the men he dealt with seemed to him shadows.
After finishing with them he went over to New York, and presently found himself on East Tenth Street. He had not intended to go there. His feet had borne him involuntarily to the spot. He could not resist the temptation of drawing near to the place where she had been only a few hours before. He walked to and fro before Mrs. Legrand's house for an hour, and then stood a long time on the opposite side, looking at the closed windows of the front parlour, quite unconscious that he had become an object of curiosity to numerous persons in adjoining houses, and of marked suspicion to the policeman at the corner.
Finally he crossed the street, mounted the steps, and rang the bell. The door was opened, after a considerable interval, by Alta, the elfish little girl. Paul asked for Mrs. Legrand. Alta said that her mother was ill to-day, and not able to see any one. Paul then asked for Dr. Hull. He was not in.
"I wanted to arrange for another seance," he said.
"Will you write, or will you call to-morrow?" asked Alta, in a business-like manner.
Paul said he would call. Then he hesitated.
"Excuse me," he said, "but may I ask you if there is any one now in the parlour where we were last night?"
"No one is there," replied the little girl.
"Could you let me just go in and see where she was?" asked Paul, humbly. "I would not keep you a moment."
Alta, in her character of door-keeper to this house of mystery, was, doubtless, in the habit of seeing queer people, bent on queer errands. She merely asked him to step within the hall, saying that she would speak to her mother. Presently she returned with the desired permission, and, producing a key, unlocked the parlour door, and ushered Paul in.
It was late in the afternoon, and the heavy curtains and blinds left the rooms almost dark. There was barely light enough to see that all was just as it had been the night before. The sounds of the street penetrated the closed apartments but faintly. With the step of one on holy ground, Paul advanced to the spot where he had been seated when the vision appeared to him the night before.
Aided by the darkness, the silence, and by the identity of the surroundings, the memory of that vision returned to him as he stood there with a vividness which, in the overwrought condition of his nerves, it was impossible for him to distinguish from reality. Once more a radiant figure glided noiselessly from the cabinet, which was darkly outlined in the corner of the room, and stood before him. Once more her eyes burned on his, until, forgetting all but her beauty, he put forth his arms to clasp her. A startled exclamation from Alta banished the vision, and he perceived that he was smiling upon the empty air.
He went away from the house ecstatically happy. He believed that he had really seen her. He had no doubt that, aided by the mediumship of love, she had actually appeared to him a second time in a form only a little less material than the night before.
Of this experience he did not tell Miss Ludington. This interview, which Ida had granted to him alone, he kept as a precious secret.
The next day, as he had promised, Paul called at Mrs. Legrand's and saw Dr. Hull. That gentleman was unable to promise him anything definite about a seance, on account of Mrs. Legrand's continued illness.
"Is she seriously sick?" asked Paul, with a new terror.
"I think not," said Dr. Hull; "but her trouble is of the heart, the result of the nervous crises which a trance medium is necessarily subject to, and a disease of the heart may at any time take an unexpected turn."
"Has she the best advice?" asked Paul. "Excuse me; but if she has not, and if her pecuniary means do not enable her to afford it, I beg you will let me secure it for her."
Dr. Hull thanked him, but said that he was a physician himself, and that, on account of his acquaintance with her constitutional peculiarities, Mrs. Legrand considered him, and he considered himself, better able to treat her than any strange physician. "You seem to be very much interested in her case," added the doctor, with a slight intonation of surprise.
"Can you wonder?" replied Paul. "Is she not door-keeper between this world and the world of spirits where my love is? Don't think me brutal if I confess to you that what I think of most is that her death might close that door."
"I do not think you brutal," replied Dr. Hull; "what you feel is very natural."
"Is it not strange--is it not hard to bear," cried Paul, giving way to his feelings, "that the key of the gate between the world of spirits and of men should be intrusted to a weak and sickly woman?"
"It is hard to bear, no doubt," replied Dr. Hull; "but it is not strange. It is in accordance with the laws by which this world has always been conducted. From the beginning has not the power of calling spirits out of the unknown into this earth life been intrusted to weak and sickly women? What the world loosely calls spiritualism is no isolated phenomenon or set of phenomena. The universe is spiritual. Much as we claim for our mediums, the mediumship of motherhood is far more marvellous. Our mediums can enable spirits already alive, and able by their own wills to cooperate, to pass before our eyes for a moment. To hold them longer in our view exceeds their power. But these other women, these mothers, call souls out of nothingness, and clothe them with bodies, so that they speak, walk, work, love, and hate, some forty, some fifty, some seventy years."
"You are right," said Paul bowing his head. "It is not strange though it is hard to bear."
The effect of the seance at Mrs. Legrand's upon Miss Ludington had been far less disturbing than upon Paul. To her it had been a lofty spiritual consolation, setting the seal of absolute assurance upon a faith that had been before too great, too strange, too beautiful for her to fully realize.
When Paul brought word that Mrs. Legrand was sick and might die, and that if she died that first vision of Ida might also prove the last to be vouchsafed them on earth, although she was deeply grieved, yet the thought did not seem so intolerable to her as to him. She had, indeed, hoped that from time to time she should see Ida again; still, her life was mostly past, and it was chiefly upon the communion they would enjoy in heaven, not momentary and imperfect as here, but perennial and complete, that her heart was set.
Very different was it with Paul. He was young; heaven was very far off, and the way thither, unless cheered by occasional visitations of his radiant mistress, seemed inexpressibly long and dreary. The nature of his sentiment for Ida had changed since he had seen her clothed in a living form, from the worship of a sweet but dim ideal to the passion which a living woman inspires. He thought of her no more as a spirit, lofty and serene, but as a beautiful maiden with the love-light in her eyes.
He was not able to find his former inspiration in the picture above the fireplace. Its still enchantment was gone. The set smile, that had ever before seemed so sweet, palled upon him. The eyes, that had always been so tender, now lacked expression. The lips that the boy had climbed up to kiss, how had the artist failed to intimate their exquisite curves! The whole picture had suffered a subtle deterioration, and looked hard, wooden, lifeless, and almost, unlike. The living woman had eclipsed the portrait. Fortunate it is for the fame of painters that their originals do not oftener return to earth.
If Mrs. Legrand had been his own mother Paul could not have been more assiduous in his calls and inquiries as to her condition, nor could his relief have been greater when, a few days later, Dr. Hull told him that the case had taken a favourable turn, and according to her previous experience with such attacks, she would probably be as well as usual by the following day. Dr. Hull said that she had heard of Paul's frequent inquiries for her, and while she did not flatter herself that his interest in her was wholly on her own account, she was, nevertheless, so far grateful that she would give him the first seance which she was able to hold, and that would be, if she continued to improve, on the following evening.