In the days that followed, Ida was the object of a devotion on the part of Miss Ludington and Paul which it would be inadequate to describe as anything less than sheer idolatry. Her experience was such as a goddess's might be who should descend from heaven and take up her abode in bodily form among her worshippers, accepting in person the devotion previously lavished on her effigy.
With Miss Ludington this devotion was the more intense as it was but a sublimed form of selfishness, like that of the mother's to her child, whom she feels to be a part, and the choicest part, of her own life. The instinct of maternity, never gratified in her by the possession of children, asserted itself toward this radiant girl, whose being was so much closer to hers than even a child's could be, whose life was so wonderfully her own and yet not her own, that, in loving her, self-love became transfigured and adorable. She could not have told whether the sense of their identity or their difference were the sweeter.
Her delight in the girl's loveliness was a transcendent blending of a woman's pleasure in her own beauty and a lover's admiration of it. She had transferred to Ida all sense of personal identity excepting just enough to taste the joy of loving, admiring, and serving her.
To wait upon her was her greatest happiness. There was no service so menial that she would not have been glad to perform it for her, and which she did not grudge the servants the privilege of rendering. The happiness which flooded her heart at this time was beyond description. It was not such a happiness as enabled her to imagine what that of heaven might be, but it was the happiness of heaven itself.
As might be expected, the semi-sacredness attaching to Ida, as a being something more than earthly in the circumstances of her advent, lent a rare strain to Paul's passion.
There is nothing sweeter to a lover than to feel that his mistress is of a higher nature and a finer quality than himself. With many lovers, no doubt, this feeling is but the delusion of a fond fancy, having no basis in any real superiority on the part of the loved one. But the mystery surrounding Ida would have tinged the devotion of the most prosaic lover with an unusual sentiment of awe.
Paul compared himself with those fortunate youths of antiquity who were beloved by the goddesses of Olympus, and in whose hearts religious adoration and the passion of love blended in one emotion.
Ever since that night when her heart had been melted by the story of his love, Ida had treated him with the graciousness which a maiden accords to an accepted lover. But far from claiming the privileges which he might apparently have enjoyed, it seemed to him presumption enough and happiness enough to kiss her dress, her sleeve, a tress of her hair, or, at most, her hand, and to dream of her lips.
The dazed appearance, as of one doubtful of herself and all about her, which Ida had worn the night when she was brought home, had now wholly passed away. But a certain pensiveness remained. Her smiles were the smiles of affection not of gaiety, and there was always a shadow in her eyes. It was as if the recollection of the mystery from which her life had emerged were never absent from her mind.
Still she took so much pleasure in her daily drives with Miss Ludington that the latter ordered a pony chaise for her special use, and when Paul arranged a croquet set on the village green, she permitted him to teach her the game, and even showed some interest in it.
When the first dresses which had been ordered for her came home, she was delighted as any girl must have been, for they were the richest and most beautiful fabrics that money could buy; but Miss Ludington seemed, of the two, far the more pleased.
For herself she had cared nothing for dress. In forty years she had not given a thought to personal adornment, but Ida's toilet became her most absorbing preoccupation. On her account she became a close student of the fashion-papers, and but for the girl's protests would have bought her a new dress at least every day.
She would have liked Ida to change her costume a dozen times between morning and evening, and asked no better than to serve as her dressing-maid. To brush and braid her shining hair, stealthily kissing it the while; to array her in sheeny satins and airy muslins; to hang jewels upon her neck, and clasp bracelets upon her wrists, and to admire and caress the completed work of her hands, constituted an occupation which she would have liked to make perpetual.
When Miss Ludington's mother had died she had left to her daughter, then a young girl, all her jewels, including a rather flue set of diamonds. When one day Miss Ludington took the gems from the box in which they had been hidden away for half a lifetime, and hung them upon Ida, saying, "These are yours, my sister," the girl protested, albeit with scintillating eyes, against the greatness of the gift.
"Why, my darling, they are yours," replied Miss Ludington. "I am not making you a gift. It was to you that mother gave them. I only return you your own. When you left the world I inherited them from you, and now that you have come back I return them to you."
And so the girl was fain to keep them.
Thus it had come about that before Ida had been in the house a week it was no longer as a mystery, or, at least, as an awe-inspiring mystery, but as an ineffably dear and precious reality, that her presence was felt. Had a stranger chanced to come there on a visit, at that time, he would doubtless have been struck with the fact that a young girl was the central figure of the household, around whom its other members revolved; but it is probable that this fact, in itself not unparalleled in American households, would have seemed to such an observer sufficiently explained by the unusual gentleness and beauty of the girl herself. The necessity of a supernatural explanation certainly would not have occurred to him.
The servants had been merely informed that Ida was a relative of Miss Ludington's, and though they were very curious as to what connection she might be, their speculations did not extend beyond the commonly recognized modes of relationship. The housekeeper, indeed, who had been in Miss Ludington's employ many years, and supposed she knew all about the family, thought it strange that she could recall no young lady relative answering to Ida's description. But as she found that her most ingenious efforts entirely failed to extract any information on the subject from Miss Ludington, Paul, or Ida herself, she was obliged, like the rest, to accept the bare fact that the new-comer was Miss Ida Ludington, and that she was somehow related to Miss Ludington; a fact speedily supplemented by the discovery that to please Miss Ida was the surest way to the favour of Miss Ludington and Mr. Paul.
On that score, however, there was no need of any special inducement, Ida's sweet face, and gracious, considerate ways, having already made her a favourite with all who were attached to the household.
It was ten days or a fortnight after Ida had been in the house that Miss Ludington received a letter from Dr. Hull, in which that gentleman said that he should do himself the honour of calling on her the following day.
He said she might be interested to know that he had already received several communications from Mrs. Legrand, through mediums, in which she had declared herself well content to have died in demonstrating so great a truth as that immortality is not individual, but personal. She considered herself to be most fortunate in that her death had not been a barren one, as most deaths are; but that in dying, she had been permitted to become the second mother of another, and far brighter life than hers had been. She felt that she had made a grand barter for her own earthly existence, which had been so sick and weary.
The bulk of Dr. Hull's letter, which was quite a long one, consisted of further quotations from Mrs. Legrand's communications.
She said that she had been welcomed by a great multitude of spirits, who to her had owed the beginning of their recognition on earth, and that their joy over this discovery, which should bring consolation to many mournful mortals, as well as to themselves, was only equalled by their wonder that it had not been made years before. It appeared that, since intercourse between the two worlds had first begun, it had been the constant effort of the spirits to teach this truth to men; but the stupid refusal of the latter to comprehend had till now baffled every attempt. How it had been possible that men who had reached the point of believing in immortality at all should be content to rest in the inadequate and preposterous conception that it only attached to the latest phase of the individual, was the standing wonder of the spirit world.
It was as if one should throw away the contents of a cup of wine, and carefully preserve the dregs in the bottom.
That so loose an association of personalities as the individual, and those personalities so utterly diverse, no two of them even alive at the same time, should have impressed even the most casual observer as a unit of being--a single person--was accounted a marvel by the angels. If men had believed all the members of a family to have but one soul among them, their mistake would have been more excusable, for the members of a family are, at least, alive at the same time, while the persons of an individual are not even that.
Dr. Hull said that he had gathered from Mrs. Legrand's communications that she had seen many things which would teach mortals not to grieve for their departed friends, as for shades exiled to a world of strangers. To such mourners she sent word that their own past selves, who have likewise vanished from the earth, are keeping their dear dead company in heaven. And far more congenial company to them are these past selves than their present selves would be, who, through years and changes since their separation, have often grown out of sympathy with the departed, as they will find when they shall meet them. The aged husband, who has mourned all his life the bride taken from him in girlhood, will find himself well-nigh a stranger to her, and his mourning to have been superfluous; for all these years his own former self, the husband of her youth, has borne her company.
Dr. Hull said, in closing, that, as probably Miss Ludington would presume, his particular motive in making bold to break in upon her privacy was a desire, which he was sure she would not confound with vulgar curiosity, to see again the young lady who had succeeded to his friend's earthly life in so wonderful a manner, and to learn, what, if any, were the later developments in her case. He was preparing a book upon the subject, in which, of course without giving the true names, he intended to make the facts of the case known in the world. Its publication, he felt assured, would mark a new departure in spiritualism.
Miss Ludington read the letter aloud to Ida and Paul, as all three sat together in the gloaming on the piazza. As Paul from time to time, during the reading, glanced at Ida he noticed that she kept her face averted.
"I am glad," said Miss Ludington, as she finished the letter, "that Mrs. Legrand is happy. It is so hard to realize that about the dead. The feeling that, our happiness was purchased by her death has been the only cloud upon it. And yet it would be strange indeed if she were not happy. As she says, she did not die a barren death, but in giving birth. And it was no tiny infant's existence, of doubtful value, that she exchanged her life for, but a woman's in the fulness of her youth and beauty. Such a destiny as hers never fell to a mother before."
"Never before," echoed Paul, rising to his feet in an access of enthusiasm; "but who shall say that it may not often fall to the lot of women in the ages to come, as the relations between the worlds of men and of spirits, become more fully known? The dark and unknown path that Ida trod that night back to our world will, doubtless, in future times, become a beaten and lighted way. This woman through whom she lives again did not die of her own choice; but I do not find it incredible that many women will hereafter be found willing and eager to die as she did, to bring back to earth the good, the wise, the heroic, and beloved. The world will never need to lose its heroes then, for there will never lack ardent and devoted women to contend for such crowns of motherhood."
He stopped abruptly, for he had observed that Ida's face betrayed acute distress.
"Forgive me," he said. "You do not like us to talk of this."
"I think I do not," she replied, in a low voice, without looking up. "It affects me very strangely to think about it much. I would like to forget it if I could and feel that I am like other people."
She had, in fact, shown a marked and increasing indisposition almost from the first to discuss the events of that wonderful night at Mrs. Legrand's. After having had the circumstances once fully explained to her, she had never since referred to them of her own accord.
She apparently had the shrinking which any person, and especially a woman, would naturally have from the idea of being regarded as something abnormal and uncanny, and mingled with this was, perhaps, a certain sacred shamefacedness, at the thought that this most intimate and vital mystery of her second birth had been witnessed and was the subject of curious speculations.