If Miss Ludington's desire for another glimpse of Ida had lacked the passionate intensity of Paul's, she had, notwithstanding, longed for it very ardently, and when at nine o'clock the next night the carriage drew up before Mrs. Legrand's door, she was in a transport of sweet anticipation.
As for Paul he had dressed himself with extreme care for the occasion, and looked to his best advantage. He had said to himself, "Shall I not show her as much observance as I would pay to a living woman?" And who can say--for very odd, sometimes, are the inarticulate processes of the mind--that there was not at the bottom of his thoughts something of the universal lover's willingness to let his mistress see him at his best?
They found the front parlour occupied as before by Mrs. Legrand and Dr. Hull, when Alta showed them in. The medium was, as previously, the picture of ill-health, and if she did not look noticeably worse than before her sickness, it was merely because she had looked as badly as possible then. In response to inquiries about her health she admitted that she did not really feel equal to resuming her seances quite so soon, and but for disliking to disappoint them would have postponed this evening's appointment. Dr. Hull had, indeed, urged her to do so.
"You must not think of giving a seance if there is any risk of injury to your health," said Miss Ludington, though not without being sensible of a pang of disappointment. "We could not think of letting you do that, could we, Paul?"
Paul's reply to this humane suggestion was not so prompt as it should have been. In his heart he felt at that moment that he was as bad as a murderer. He knew that he was willing this woman should risk not only her health, but even her life, rather than that he should fail to see Ida. He was striving to repress this feeling, so far at least as to say that he would not insist upon going on with the seance, when Mrs. Legrand, with a glance through her half-shut eyelids, intimating that she perfectly understood his thoughts, said, in a tone which put an end to the discussion, "Excuse me, but I shall certainly give the seance. I am much obliged for your interest in me; but I am rather notional about keeping my promises, and it is a peculiarity in which my friends have to indulge in. I daresay I shall be none the worse for the exertion."
"Doctor," she added, "will you allow our friends to inspect the cabinet?"
"That is quite needless," said Paul.
"Our friends are often willing to waive an inspection," replied Dr. Hull. "We are grateful for the confidence shown, but, in justice to ourselves, as well as for their own more absolute assurance, we always insist upon it. Otherwise, suspicions of fraud not entertained, perhaps, at the time, might afterwards occur to the mind, or be suggested by others, to which they would have no conclusive answer."
Upon this Miss Ludington and Paul permitted themselves to be conducted upon the same tour of inspection that they had made the former evening. They found everything precisely as it had been on that occasion. There was no possibility of concealing any person in the cabinet or the back parlour, and no apparent or conceivable means by which any person could reach those apartments, except through the front parlour.
On their return to the latter apartment the proceedings followed the order observed at the previous seance. Mrs. Legrand rose from her chair and walked feebly through the back parlour into the cabinet. Dr. Hull then locked and braced a chair against the door opening into the hall, giving the key to Paul. Then, having arranged the three chairs as before, across the double door between the parlours, he seated Miss Ludington and Paul, and, having turned the gas down, took the third chair.
All being ready, Alta, who was at the piano, struck the opening chords of the same soft, low music that she had played at the previous seance.
It seemed to Miss Ludington that she played much longer than before, and she began to think that either there was to be some failure in the seance, or that something had happened to Mrs. Legrand.
Perhaps she was dead. This horrible thought, added to the strain of expectancy, affected her nerves so that in another moment she must have screamed out, when, as before, she felt a faint, cool air fan her forehead, and a few seconds later Ida appeared at the door of the cabinet and glided into the room.
She was dressed as at her former appearance, in white, with her shoulders bare, and the wealth of her golden hair falling to her waist behind.
From the moment that she emerged from the shadows of the cabinet Paul's eyes were glued to her face with an intensity quite beyond any ordinary terms of description.
Fancy having not over a minute in which to photograph upon the mind a form the recollection of which is to furnish the consolation of a lifetime. The difficulties of securing this second seance, and the doubt that involved the obtaining of another, had deeply impressed him. He might never again see Ida on earth, and upon the fidelity with which his memory retained every feature of her face, every line of her figure, his thoughts by day, and his dreams by night, might have to depend for their texture until he should meet her in another world.
The lingering looks that are the lover's luxury were not for these fleeting seconds. His gaze burned upon her face and played around her form like lightning. He grudged the instantaneous muscles of the eye the time they took to make the circuit of her figure.
But when, as on that other night, she came close up to him and smiled upon him, time and circumstance were instantly forgotten, and he fell into a state of enchantment in which will and thought were inert.
He was aroused from it by an extraordinary change that came over her. She started and shivered slightly in every limb. The recognition faded out of her eyes and gave place to a blank bewilderment.
Then came a turning of her head from side to side, while, with dilated eyes, she explored the dim recesses of the room with the startled expression of an awakened sleep-walker. She half turned toward the cabinet and made an undecided movement in that direction, and then, as if the invisible cord that drew her thither had broken, she wavered, stopped, and seemed to drift toward the opposite corner of the room.
At that moment there was a gasp from the cabinet.
Dr. Hull leaped to his feet and sprang toward it, at the same time, by a turn of the stopcock by his side, setting the gas in both rooms at full blaze.
Alta, with a loud scream, rushed after him, and Miss Ludington and Paul followed them.
The pupils of their eyes had been dilated to the utmost in order to follow the movements of the apparition in the nearly complete darkness, and the first effect of the sudden blaze of gaslight was to dazzle them so completely that they had actually to grope their way to the cabinet.
The scene in the little apartment of the medium was a heartrending one.
Mrs. Legrand's body and lower limbs lay on the sofa, which was the only article of furniture, and Dr. Hull was in the act of lifting her head from the floor to which it had fallen. Her eyes were half open, and the black rings around them showed with ghastly plainness against the awful pallor which the rest of her face had taken on. One hand was clenched. The other was clutching her bodice, as if in the act of tearing it open. A little foam flecked the blue lips.
Alta threw herself upon her mother's body, sobbing, "Oh, mamma, wake up! do! do!"
"Is she dead?" asked Miss Ludington, in horrified accents.
"I don't know; I fear so. I warned her; I told her it would come. But she would do it," cried the doctor incoherently, as he tried to feel her pulse with one hand while he tore at the fastenings of her dress with the other. He set Paul at work chafing the hands of the unconscious woman, while Miss Ludington sprinkled her face and chest with ice-water from a small pitcher that stood in a corner of the cabinet, and the doctor himself endeavoured in vain to force some of the contents of a vial through her clenched teeth. "It is of no use," he said, finally; "she is past help--she is dead!"
At this Miss Ludington and Paul stood aside, and Alta, throwing herself upon her mother's form, burst into an agony of tears. "She was all I had," she sobbed.
"Had Mrs. Legrand friends?" asked Miss Ludington, conscience-stricken with the thought that she had indirectly been in part responsible for this terrible event.
"She had friends who will look after Alta," said Dr. Hull.
Their assistance being no longer needed, Miss Ludington and Paul turned from the sad scene and stepped forth from the cabinet into the back parlour.
The tragedy which they had just witnessed had to a great extent driven from their thoughts the events of the seance which it had broken off so abruptly. The impression left on their minds was that the spirit-form of Ida had vanished in the blinding flood of gas-light through which they had groped their way to the cabinet on hearing the death-rattle of the medium.
But now in the remotest corner of the room, towards which they had last seen the form of the spirit drifting, there stood a young girl. She was bending forward, shielding her eyes with her right hand from the flaring gas, as she peered curiously about the room, her whole attitude expressive of complete bewilderment.
It was Ida; but what a change had passed upon her! This was no pale spirit, counterfeiting for a few brief moments, with the aid of darkness, the semblance of mortal flesh, but an unmistakable daughter of earth. Her bosom was palpitating with agitation, and, instead of the lofty serenity of a spirit, her eyes expressed the trouble of a perplexed girl who is fast becoming frightened.
As Paul and Miss Ludington stepped forth from the cabinet she fixed upon them a pair of questioning eyes. There was not a particle of recognition in their expression. Presently she spoke. Her voice was a mezzo-soprano, low and sweet, but just now sharpened by an accent of apprehension.
"Where am I?" she asked.
After a moment, during which their brains reeled with an amazement so utter that they doubted the evidence of their senses--doubted even their own existence and identities, there had simultaneously flashed over the minds of Paul and Miss Ludington the explanation of what they beheld.
The prodigy, the theoretical possibility of which they had discussed after the seance of the week before, and scarcely thought of since, had come to pass. Dr. Hull had proved wrong, and Paul had proved right. A medium had died during a materialization, and the materialized spirit had succeeded to her vitality, and was alive as one of them.
It was no longer the spirit of Ida, knowing them by a spirit's intuition, which was before them, but the girl Ida Ludington, whose curious, unrecognizing glance testified to her ignorance of aught which the Hilton school-girl of forty years ago had not known.
It was with an inexpressible throb of exultation, after the stupor of their first momentary astonishment, that they comprehended the miracle by which in the moment when the hope of ever beholding Ida again had seemed taken from them, had restored her not only to their eyes, but to life. But how should they accost her, how make themselves known to her, how go about even to answer the question she had asked without terrifying her with new and deeper mysteries?
While they stood dumb, with hearts yearning toward her, but powerless to think of words with which to address her, Dr. Hull, hearing the sound of her voice, stepped out from the cabinet. At the sight of Ida he started back astounded, and Paul heard him exclaim under his breath, "I never thought of this"
Then he laid his hand on Paul's arm and said, in an agitated whisper, "You were right. It has happened as you said. My God, what can we say to her?"
Meanwhile, Ida was evidently becoming much alarmed at the strange looks bent upon her. "Perhaps, sir," she said, addressing Dr. Hull, with an appealing accent, "you will tell me how I came in this place?"
Then ensued an extraordinary scene of explanation, in which, seconding one another's efforts, striving to hit upon simpler analogies, plainer terms, Paul the doctor, and Miss Ludington sought to make clear to this waif from eternity, so strangely stranded on the shores of Time, the conditions and circumstances under which she had resumed an earthly existence.
For a while she only grew more terrified at their explanations, appearing to find them totally unintelligible, and, though her fears were gradually dissipated by the tenderness of their demeanour, her bewilderment seemed to increase. For a long time she continued to turn her face, with a pathetic expression of mental endeavour, from one to another, as they addressed her, only to shake her head slowly and sadly at last.
"I seem to have lost myself," she said, pressing her hand to her forehead. "I do not understand anything you say."
"It is a hard matter to understand," replied Dr. Hull. "Understanding will come later. Meanwhile, look in at the door of this room and you will see the body of the woman to whose life you have succeeded. Then you will believe us though you do not understand us."
As he spoke he indicated the door of the cabinet.
Ida stepped thither and looked in, recoiling with a sharp cry of horror. The terror in her face was piteous, and in a moment Miss Ludington was at her side, supporting and soothing her. Sobbing and trembling Ida submitted unresistingly to her ministrations, and even rested her head on Miss Ludington's shoulder.
The golden hair brushed the grey locks; the full bosom heaved against the shrunken breast of age; the wrinkled, scarred, and sallow face of the old woman touched the rounded cheek of the girl.
Fully as Paul believed that he had realized the essential and eternal distinction between the successive persons who constitute an individuality, he grew dizzy with the sheer wonder of the spectacle as he saw age thus consoling youth, and reflected upon the relation of these two persons to each other.
Presently Ida raised her head and said, "It may be as you say. My mind is all confused. I cannot think now. Perhaps I shall understand it better after a while."
"If you will come home with me now," said Miss Ludington, "before you sleep I will convince you what we are to each other. Will you come with me?"
"Oh, yes!" exclaimed the girl. "Let us go. Let us leave this awful place;" and she glanced with a shudder at the door of the cabinet.
A few moments later the house of death had been left behind, and Miss Ludington's carriage, with its three passengers was rolling homewards.
Before leaving, Miss Ludington had told Dr. Hull that he might command her so far as any pecuniary assistance should be needed either with reference to the funeral or in connection with providing for Alta. She said that it would be a relief to her to be allowed to do anything she could. Dr. Hull thanked her and said that, as Mrs. Legrand had friends in the city, it would probably be unnecessary to trouble her. If for no other purpose, however, he said that he should possibly communicate with her hereafter with a view to informing himself as to the future of the young lady who had that night assumed the earth-life which his dear friend, Mrs. Legrand, had laid aside.
It was an incident of this extraordinary situation that Miss Ludington found herself at disadvantage even in expressing the formal condolence she proffered. With Ida before her eyes it was impossible that she should honestly profess to deplore the event, however tragical, which had brought her back to earth. As for Paul he said nothing at all.
The rattling of the wheels on the stony pavement was enough of itself to make conversation difficult in the carriage; even if it would otherwise have flowed easily in a company so strangely assorted. As the light of the street lamps from time to time flashed in at the windows Paul saw that Ida's face continued to wear the look of helpless daze which it had assumed from the moment that the sight of the dead woman in the cabinet had convinced her that she could not trust her own knowledge as to the relations of those about her.
But when at last the carriage rolled through the gates of Miss Ludington's estate, and the houses of the mimic village began to glance by, her manner instantly changed. With an exclamation of joyful surprise, she put her head out at the window, and then looking back at them, cried, delightedly, "Why it's Hilton! You have brought me home! There's our house!" No sooner had she alighted than she ran up the walk to the door, and tried to open it. Paul, hurrying after, unlocked it, and she burst in, while he and Miss Ludington followed her, wondering.
The servants had gone to bed, leaving the lower part of the house dimly lighted. Ida hurried on ahead from room to room with the confident step of one whose feet knew every turning. It was evident that she needed no one to introduce her there.
When Miss Ludington and Paul followed her into the sitting-room, she was standing before her own picture in an attitude of utter astonishment.
"Where did they get that picture of me?" she demanded. "I never had a picture painted."
For a few moments there was no reply. Those she addressed were engrossed in comparing the portrait with its original. The resemblance was striking enough, but it was no wonder that after once seeing the living Ida, Paul had found the canvas stiff and hard and lifeless.
"No," said Miss Ludington, "you never had a picture painted. It was not till many years after you had left the world that this picture was painted. It was enlarged from this portrait of you. Do you remember it?" and taking the locket containing the ivory portrait of Ida from her neck where she had worn it so many years, she opened and gave it to the girl.
"Why, it is my ivory portrait!" exclaimed Ida. "How did you come by it? What do you mean about my leaving the world? Something strange has happened to me, I know, but did I die? I don't remember dying. Oh, can't somebody explain what has happened to me?"
The dazed look which had disappeared from her face since her recognition of the village and the homestead had come back, and her last words were a bitter cry that went to the hearts of the listeners.
Now, all the time they had been in the carriage, Paul had been trying to think of some mode of setting her relationship to Miss Ludington in a light so clear that she must comprehend it, for it was evident that the confused explanations at Mrs. Legrand's had availed little, if anything, to that end. Unless this could be done she seemed likely to remain indefinitely in this dazed mental state, which must be so exquisitely painful to her, and was scarcely less so to them.
"If you will listen to me patiently," he said, "I will try to explain. You know that some strange thing has happened to you, and you must expect to find the explanation as strange as the thing itself; but it is not hard to understand."
Ida's eyes were fixed on him with the expression of one listening for her life.
"Do you remember being a little girl of nine or ten years old?" he asked.
"Oh, yes!" she answered. "I remember that perfectly well."
"You are now a young woman," he went on. "Where is that little girl whom you remember? What has become of her?"
"Why, I don't know," replied Ida. "I suppose she is somewhere in me."
"But you don't look like a little girl, or think or act or feel like one. How can she be in you?"
"Where else could she be?" replied Ida.
"Oh, there is no lack of room for her," said Paul; "the universe is big enough for all the souls that ever lived in it. Suppose, now, you believed her to be still alive as a spirit, just as she was, still alive somewhere in the land of spirits, not transformed into the young lady that you are at all, you understand, for that would only be another way of saying that she was dead, but just as she was, a child, with a child's loves, a child's thoughts, a child's feelings, and a child's face--can you suppose such a thing, just as an effort of imagination?"
"Oh, yes!" said Ida; "I can suppose that."
"Well, then," said Paul, "suppose also that you remembered this little girl very tenderly, and longed to look on her face again, although knowing that she was a spirit now. Suppose that you went to a woman having a mysterious power to call up the spirits of the departed, and suppose that she called up the spirit of this child-self of yours, and that you recognized it, and suppose that just at that moment the woman died, and her earthly life was transferred to the spirit of the child, so that instead of being a spirit, she became again a living child, but unable to recognize you who loved her so well, because when she lived on earth, you, of course, had not yet come into existence. Suppose you brought this child home with you----"
"What do you mean?" interrupted Ida, with dilating eyes. "Am I----"
"You are to that woman," broke in Paul, indicating Miss Ludington, "what the child would have been to you. You are bound to her by the same tie by which that little girl would have been bound to you. She remembers and loves you as you would remember and love that child; but you do not know her any more than that child would know you. You both share the name of Ida Ludington, according to the usage of men as to names; but I think there is no danger of your being confounded with each other, either in your own eyes or those of lookers-on."
Ida had at last comprehended. The piercing look, expressive of mingled attraction and repulsion, which she fixed upon Miss Ludington, left no doubt of that. It implied alarm, mistrust, and something that was almost defiance, yet with hints of a possible tenderness.
It was such a look as a daughter, stolen from her cradle and grown to maidenhood among strangers, might fix upon the woman claiming to be her mother, except that not only was Miss Ludington a stranger to Ida, but the relation which she claimed to sustain to her was one that had never before been realized between living persons on earth, however it might be, in heaven.
"Do you understand?" said Paul.
"I--think--I--do. But how--strange--it is!" she replied, in lingering tones, her gaze continuing to rest, as if fascinated, upon Miss Ludington.
The latter's face expressed a great elation, an impassioned tenderness held in check through fear of terrifying its object.
"I do not wonder it seems strange," she said, very softly. "You have yet no evidence as to who I am. I remember you--oh, how well!--but you cannot remember me, nor is there any instinct answering to memory by which you can recognize me. You have a right to require that I should prove that I am what I claim to be; that I am also Ida Ludington; that I am your later self. Do not fear, my darling. I shall be able to convince you very soon."
She made Ida sit down, and then went to an ancient secretary, that stood in a corner of the room, and unlocked a drawer, the key to which she always carried on her person.
Paul remembered from the time he was a little boy seeing her open this drawer on Sunday afternoons and cry over the keepsakes which it contained.
She took out now a bundle of letters, a piece of ribbon, a locket, a bunch of faded flowers, and a few other trifles, and brought them to Ida.
Paul left the room on tiptoe. This was a scene where a third person, one might almost say a second person, would be an interloper.
When, a long time after, he returned, Miss Ludington was sitting in the chair where Ida had been sitting, smiling and crying, and the girl, with eyes that shone like stars, was bending over her, and kissing the tears away.
The night was now almost spent, and the early dawn of midsummer, peering through the windows, and already dimming the lights, warned them that the day would soon be at hand.
"You shall have your own bedroom," said Miss Ludington. The face of the old lady was flushed, and her high-pitched and tremulous voice betrayed an exhilaration like that of intoxication. "You will excuse me for having cluttered it up with my things; to-morrow I will take them away. You see I had not dared hope you would come back to me. I had expected to go to you."
"I and you--you and I." The girl repeated the words after her, slowly, as if trying to grasp their full meaning as she uttered them. Then a sudden terror leaped into her eyes, and she cried shudderingly: "Oh, how strange it is!"
"You do not doubt it? You do not doubt it still?" exclaimed Miss Ludington, in anguished tones.
"No, no!" said the girl, recovering herself with an evident effort. "I cannot doubt it. I do not," and she threw her aims about Miss Ludington's neck in an embrace in which, nevertheless, a subtle shrinking still mingled with the impulse of tenderness which had overcome it.
When presently Miss Ludington and Ida went upstairs together, the latter, with eager, unhesitating step, led the way through a complexity of roundabout passages, and past many other doors, to that of the chamber which had been the common possession of the girl and the woman. Miss Ludington followed her, wondering, yet not wondering.
"It seems so strange to see you so familiar with this house," she said, with a little hysterical laugh, "and yet, of course, I know it is not strange."
"No," replied the girl, looking at her with a certain astonishment, "I should think not. It would be strange, indeed, if I were not familiar here. The only strange thing is to feel that I am not at home here, that I am a guest in this house."
"You are not a guest," exclaimed Miss Ludington, hurriedly, for she saw the dazed look coming again into the girl's eyes. "You shall be mistress here. Paul and I ask nothing better than to be your servants."
To pass from the waking to the dreaming state is in general to exchange a prosaic and matter-of-fact world for one of fantastic improbabilities; but it is safe to assume that the three persons who fell asleep beneath Miss Ludington's roof that morning, just as the birds began to twitter, encountered in dreamland no experiences so strange as those which they had passed through with their eyes open the previous evening.