Paul's courtship of Ida really began the night when he took her in his arms as his promised wife, for although she had called him her lover before, his devotion, while impassioned enough, had been too distant and wholly reverential to be called a wooing. But the night of their betrothal his love had caught from her lips a fire that was of earth, and it was no longer as a semi-spiritual being that he worshipped her, but as a woman whom it was no sacrilege to kiss a thousand times a day, not upon her hand, her sleeve, or the hem of her dress, but full upon the soft warm mouth.
This transformation of the devotee into the lover on his part was attended by a corresponding change in Ida's manner toward him. A model relieved from a strained pose could not show more evident relief than she did in stepping down from the pedestal of a tutelary saint, where he had placed her, to be loved and caressed like an ordinary woman, for if the love had at first been all on his side, it certainly was not now.
"I'm so glad," she said one day, "that you have done with worshipping me. Think of your humbling yourself before me, you who are a hundred thousand times better, and wiser, and greater than I. Oh, Paul it is I who ought to worship you, and who am not good enough to kiss you," and before he could prevent her she had caught his hand, and, bowing her face over it, had kissed it. As he drew it away he felt that there were tears upon it. It was evening, and he could not see her face distinctly.
"Darling," he exclaimed, "what is the trouble?"
"Oh, nothing at all!" she replied. "It is because I am in love, I suppose."
Whether it was because she was in love or not it is certain that she took to crying very often during these days. Her manner with her lover, too, was often strangely moody. Sometimes she would display a gaiety that was almost feverish, and shortly after, perhaps, he would surprise her in tears. But she always declared that she was not unhappy; and, unable to conceive of any reason why she should be, Paul was fain to conceive that she was merely nervous.
The absorption of the lovers in each other's society naturally left Miss Ludington more often alone than before; but Ida was very far from neglecting her for her lover. Her care for her since her sickness was such as a daughter might give to a beloved and invalid mother. It was an attention such as the lonely old lady had never enjoyed in her life, or looked for, and would have been most grateful to have had from any one, but how much more from Ida!
The village street was a rarely romantic promenade on moonlight evenings, and the twanging of Paul's guitar was often heard till after midnight from the meeting-house steps, which were a favourite resort with the lovers. Those steps, in the Hilton of Miss Ludington's girlhood, had been a very popular locality with sentimental couples, and she well remembered certain short-lived romances of Ida's first life on earth with which they had been associated. One night, when the young people had lingered there later than usual, Miss Ludington put on her shawl and stepped across the green to warn them that it was time for even lovers to be abed.
As she approached, Paul was seated on the lower step, touching his guitar, and facing Ida, who sat on the step above leaning back against a pillar. A blotch of moonlight fell upon her dreamy, upturned face. One hand lay in her lap, and the fingers of the other were idly playing with a tress of hair that had fallen over her bosom. How well Miss Ludington remembered that attitude, and even the habit of playing with her hair which Ida had in the days so long gone by.
She stood in the shadow watching her till Paul ceased playing. Then she advanced and spoke to them.
"I have been standing here looking at you, my sister," she said. "I have been trying to imagine how strangely it must come over you that forty years ago you sat here as you sit here now, just as young and beautiful then as now, and Paul not then born, even his parents children at that time."
Ida bent down her head and replied, in scarcely audible tones, "I do not like to think of those days."
"And I don't like to think of them," echoed Paul, with a curious sensation of jealousy, not the first of the kind that he had experienced in imagining the former life of his darling. "I do not like to think who may have sat at her feet then. I, too, would like to forget these days."
Ida bent her head still lower and said nothing. It was Miss Ludington who spoke.
"You have no ground to feel so," she said. "I can bear her witness--and what better witness could you have?--that till now she never knew what it is to love. It is true she sat here then as now, and there were others at her feet, drawn by the same beauty that has drawn you, but their voices never touched her heart. She had to come back again to earth to learn what love is."
Paul bent contritely, and kissed Ida's feet as she sat above him, murmuring, "Forgive me!" Her hand sought his and pressed it with convulsive strength.
They walked home in silence, gentle Miss Ludington inwardly reproaching herself for the embarrassment her words had seemed to cause Ida. She examined her memory afresh. It was very long ago; she was growing old, and it was natural to suppose that her memory might be losing in distinctness. Perhaps some, of the sweethearts of that far away time had been a little nearer, a little dearer, to Ida than to her own fading memory they seemed to have been. Perhaps she had done a stupid thing in referring to those days.
Meanwhile, despite of circumstances that would seem peculiarly favourable to a young girl's happiness, Ida's tendency to melancholy was increasing upon her at a rate which began to cause Miss Ludington as well as Paul serious anxiety. She had indeed been pensive from the first, but the expression of her face, when in repose, had of late become one of profound dejection. The shadow which they had never been able to banish from her eyes had deepened into a look of habitual sadness. Coming upon her unexpectedly, both Miss Ludington and Paul had several times found her in tears, which she would not or could not explain. Not infrequently, when she was alone with her lover, and they had been silent awhile, he had looked up to find her eyes fixed upon him and brimming with tears, and at other times, when he was in the very act of caressing her, she would burst out crying, and sob in his arms.
But her unaccountable reluctance to consent to any definite arrangement for her marriage with the man she tenderly loved, and had promised to wed, was the most marked symptom of something hysterical in her condition.
Some three weeks had elapsed since she had given her word to be Paul's wife, but though he had repeatedly begged her to name a day for their wedding, he had entirely failed to obtain any satisfactory reply. When he grew importunate, the only effect was to set her to crying, as if her heart would break. He was completely perplexed. If she did not love him her conduct would be readily explainable; but that she was in love with him, and very much in love with him, he had increasing evidence every day.
She gave nothing that could be called a reason for refusing to say when she would marry him, though she talked feebly of its being so soon, and of not being ready; but when he reminded her of the special considerations that made delay inexpedient, of her own peculiarly unprotected condition, and of Miss Ludington's uncertain health, and desire to see them married as soon as possible, she attempted no reply, but took refuge in tears, leaving him no choice but to relinquish the question, and devote himself to soothing her.
When, finally, Miss Ludington asked Paul what were their plans, and he told her of Ida's strange behaviour, they took troubled counsel together concerning her.
It was evident that she was in a state of high nervous tension, and her conduct must be attributed to that. Nor was it strange that the experiences through which she had passed in the last month or two, supplemented by the agitations of so extraordinary a love affair, should have left her in a condition of abnormal excitability.
"She must not be hurried," said Miss Ludington. "She has promised to be your wife, and you know that she loves you; that ought to be enough to give you patience to wait. Why, Paul, you loved her all your life up to the last month without even seeing her, and did not think the time long."
"You forget," he replied, "that it is seeing her which makes it so hard to wait."
A day or two later, when she chanced to be sitting alone with her in the afternoon, Miss Ludington said: "When are you and Paul to be married?"
"It is not decided yet," Ida replied, falteringly.
"Has not Paul spoken to you about it?"
"I had hoped that you would have been married before this," said Miss Ludington, after a pause. "You know why I am so anxious that there should be no delay in assuring your position. The time is short I know, but the reasons against postponement are strong, and if you love him I cannot see why you should hesitate. Perhaps you are not quite sure that you do love him. A girl ought to be sure of that."
"Oh, I am quite sure of that! I love him with all my heart," exclaimed Ida, and began to cry.
Miss Ludington sat down beside her, and, drawing the girl's head to her shoulder, tried to soothe her; but her gentleness only made Ida sob more vehemently.
Presently the elder lady said, "You are nervous, my little sister, don't cry, now. We won't talk about it any more. I did not intend to say a word to urge you against your wishes, but only to find out what they were. You shall wait as long as you please before marrying him, and he shall not tease you. Meanwhile I will see to it that, if I should die, you will be left secure and well provided for, even if you never marry any one."
"What do you mean?" asked Ida, raising her head and manifesting a sudden interest.
"I will adopt you as my daughter," said Miss Ludington, cheerily. "Won't it be odd, pretending that you are my daughter, and that instead of coming into the world before me you came in after me? But it is the only way by which I can give you a legal title to the name of Ida Ludington, although it is yours already by a claim prior to mine. I would rather see you Paul's wife, and under his protection, but this arrangement will secure your safety. You see, until you have a legal name I cannot make you my heir, or even leave you a dollar."
"Do you mean that you want to make me your heir?" exclaimed Ida.
"Of course," said Miss Ludington. "What else could I think of doing? Even if you had married Paul, do you suppose I would have wished to have you dependent on him? I should then have left you a fortune under the name of Mrs. De Riemer. As it is, I shall leave it to my adopted daughter, Ida Ludington. That is the only difference."
"Don't fret about Paul," replied Miss Ludington. "I shall not neglect him. I have a great deal of money, and am able to provide abundantly for you both."
"Oh, do not do this thing! I beg you will not," cried Ida, seizing Miss Ludington's hands, and looking into her face with an almost frenzied expression of appeal. "I do not want your money. Don't give it to me. I can't bear to have you. You have given me so much, and you are so good to me!--and that I should rob Paul, too! Oh, no I you must not do it; I will never let you."
"But, my darling," said Miss Ludington, soothingly, "think what you are to me, and what I am to you. Of course you cannot be conscious of our relation, in the absolute way I am; through the memory I have of you. I can only prove what I am to you by argument and evidence, but surely I have fully proved it, and you must not let yourself doubt it; that would be most cruel. To whom should I leave my money if not to you? Are we not nearer kin than two persons ever were on earth before? What have been the claims of all other heirs since property was inherited compared with yours? Have I not inherited from you all I am--my very personality--and should not you be my heir?
"And remember," she went on, "it is not only as my heir that you have a claim on me; your claim would be almost as great if you were neither near nor dear to me. It was through my action that you were called back, without any will of your own, to resume the life which you had once finished on earth. I did not intend or anticipate that result, to be sure, but I am not the less responsible for it and being thus responsible, though you had been a stranger to me instead of my other self, I should be under the most solemn obligation to guard and protect the life I had imposed on you."
While Miss Ludington was speaking Ida's tears had ceased to flow, and she had become quite calm. She seemed to have been impressed by what Miss Ludington had said. At least she offered no further opposition to the plan proposed.
"I am very anxious to lose no time," said Miss Ludington, presently, "and I think we had better drive into Brooklyn the first thing to-morrow morning, and see my lawyer about the necessary legal proceedings."
"Just as you please," said Ida, and presently, pleading a nervous headache, she went to her room and remained there the rest of the afternoon.
Meanwhile Paul had seen Miss Ludington, and she had told him of her talk with Ida, and its result. The young man was beside himself with chagrin, humiliation, and baffled love. The fact that Ida had consented to the plan of adoption showed beyond doubt that she had given up all idea of being his wife, at least for the present, and possibly of ever marrying him at all.
Why had she dealt with him so strangely? Why had she used him with such cruel caprice? Was ever a man treated so perversely by a woman who loved him? Miss Ludington could only shake her head as he poured out his complaints to her. Ida's contradictory behaviour was as much a puzzle to her as to him, and she deplored it scarcely less. But she insisted that he should not trouble the girl by demanding explanations of her, as that, by vexing her, would only make matters worse.
If, indeed, Paul had any disposition to take the attitude of an aggrieved person, it vanished when he met Ida at the tea-table. The sight of her swollen eyes and red lids, and the piteous looks, of deprecating tenderness which from time to time she bent on him, left room for nothing in his heart but a great love and compassion. Whatever might be the secret of this strange caprice it was evidently no mere piece of wantonness. She was suffering from it as much as he.
He tried to get a chance to talk with her; but Miss Ludington, feeling slightly ill, went to her room directly after tea, and Ida accompanied her to see that she was properly cared for, and got comfortably to bed. After waiting a long while for her to come downstairs, Paul concluded that she did not intend to appear again, and went off for a walk, in the hope thereby of regaining something of his equanimity.
It was about ten o'clock when he returned home. As he came in sight of the house he saw by the light reflected from the sitting-room windows that there was some one upon the piazza. As he came nearer he perceived that it was Ida. She was sitting sidewise upon a long, cane-bottomed settee, and her arms were thrown upon the back of it to form a sort of pillow on which her head rested. His tread upon the turf was inaudible, and she neither saw nor heard him as he approached, nor when, softly mounting the steps, he stood over her.
She was indeed sobbing with such violence that she could not have been easily sensible of anything external. Paul had never heard such piteous weeping. He had never seen much of women's crying, and he did not know what abandonment of grief their tender frames can sustain--grief that seemingly would kill a man if he could feel it. Long, gurgling sobs followed one another as the waves of the sea sweep over the head of a straggling swimmer. Every now and then they were interrupted by sharp cries of exquisite anguish, such as might be wrung out by the sudden twist of a rack, and then would come a low, shrill crooning sound, almost musical, beyond which it seemed grief could not go.
The violence of the paroxysm would pass, and she would grow calmer, drawing long, shuddering breaths as she struggled back to self-control. Then a quick panting would begin and grow faster and faster, till another burst of sobs shook her like a leaf in the storm.
In very awe of such great grief Paul stood awhile silently over her, the tears filling his own eyes and running down his cheeks unheeded. She had wept something like this, though nothing like so long or so bitterly, on former occasions, when he had urged her with special vehemence to fix a day when she would fulfil her promise to be his wife.
Now, as he pondered the piteous spectacle before him, the thought came over him that his first reverential instinct concerning her, that despite her resumption of a mortal form she was something more than mortal, was true, and that he had done wrong in so far forgetting it as to urge her to be his wife as if she were merely a woman like others. She herself did not know it, but surely this exceeding cruel crying was nothing else but the conflict between the love of the woman which went out to her earthly lover, and would fain make him happy, and the nature of the inhabitant of heaven, where there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. This was the key to her inexplicable sorrow during the past weeks. This explained why, though she loved him so tenderly, the thought of becoming his wife was so intolerable to her.
So be it. Her nature could not sink to his, but his should rise to hers. This brief dream of earthly passion must pass. Better a thousand times that he should be disappointed in all that is dear to the heart of a man, than that he should grieve her thus. In that moment it did not seem hard to him to sacrifice the hopes of the man to the devotion of the lover. By one great effort he rose again to the level of the ascetic passion that had glorified his life up to these last delirious weeks. She had brought heaven to earth for him, but it should still be heaven, since her happiness demanded it.
And having reasoned thus, at last, for there seemed no end of her weeping, or any diminution of its bitterness, he touched her. She started, and turned her streaming eyes to him, then, seeing who it was, threw her arms around his neck, and, as he sat beside her, laid her head on his shoulder clinging to him convulsively.
"You don't believe I love you, Paul; and I can't blame you for it, I can't blame you," she sobbed; "but I do, oh, I do!"
"I do believe it. I know it," he said. "Don't think that I doubt it, and don't cry now, for after this your love shall be enough for me. I will not trouble you any more with importunings to be my wife. I have been very cruel to you."
"It is because I love you that I will not marry you," she sobbed. "Promise me you will never doubt that. Don't ask me to explain to you why it is; only believe me."
"I think I understand why it is already," he replied, gently. "I was very dull not to know before. If I had known, I should not have caused you so much grief."
She raised her head from his shoulder.
"What is it that you know?" she asked, quickly.
He thereupon proceeded to tell her, in tenderest words of reverence, what, in his opinion, was the mystical cause, unsuspected, perhaps, even by herself, of her unconquerable repugnance to the idea of being his wife, truly as he knew she loved him. He blamed himself that he had not recognized the sacred instinct which had held her back, but in his selfish blindness had gone on urging her to do violence to her nature. Now that his eyes were opened he would not grieve her any more. Her love alone should satisfy and bless him. Earthly passion should no more vex her serenity.
When he first began to speak she had regarded him with evident astonishment. As the meaning of his words became clear to her she had turned her face away from him and covered it with both her hands, as a person does under an overpowering sense of shame. She did not remove them until he had finished, when she rose abruptly.
Light enough came from the windows behind them for him to see that her cheeks and forehead were crimson.
"I think I may as well go now," she said. "Good-bye." And in another moment he found himself alone, not a little astonished at the suddenness of her departure.