Ida passed with a quick step through the sitting-room and upstairs to her bedroom, where she locked the door and threw herself upon the bed in a paroxysm of tearless sobbing.
"I believe I have no more tears left," she whispered, as at last she raised herself and arranged her dishevelled hair.
She sat awhile in woful reverie upon the edge of the bed, and then crossed the room to a beautiful writing-desk which Miss Ludington had given her. She opened it, and, taking out several sheets of paper, prepared to write. "If I had not run upstairs that moment," she murmured, "I must have told him the whole horrible story. But it is better this way. I believe it would have killed me to see the look on his face. Oh, my darling, my darling! what will you think of me when you know?" and then she sat down to write.
She stopped so many times to cry over it that it was midnight when the writing was finished. It was a letter, and the superscription read as follows:--
"To my lover, Paul, who will never love me any mere after he reads this, but whom I shall love for ever:--
"This letter will explain to you why my room is empty this morning. I could stand it no longer: to be loved and almost worshipped, by those whom I was basely deceiving. And so I have fled. You will never see me or hear from me again, and you will never want to after you have read this letter. All the jewellery and dresses, and everything that Miss Ludington has given me, I have left behind, except the clothes I had to have to go away in, and these I will return as soon as I get where I am going. Oh, my poor Paul! I am no more Ida Ludington than you are. How could you ever believe such a thing? But let me tell my shameful story in order. Perhaps it was not so strange that you were deceived. I think any one might have been who held the belief you did at the outset.
"I am Ida Slater, Mrs. Slater's daughter, whom she named after Miss Ludington, because she thought her name so pretty when they went to school together as children in Hilton. I was born in Hilton twenty-three years ago, several years after Miss Ludington left the village. My father is Mr. Slater, of course, but he is the person you know as Dr. Hull, which is an assumed name. Mrs. Legrand, who is no more dead than you are, is a sister of my father. Her husband is dead, and father acts as her manager, and mother helps about the seances, and does what she can in any way to bring a little money. We have always been very poor, and it has been very, very hard for us to get a living. Father is a man of education, and had tried many things before we came to this, but nothing succeeded. We grew poorer and poorer, and when this business came in our way he had to take up with it or send us to the almshouse. It is not an honest business, at least as we conducted it; but, oh, Paul! none of you that are rich understand that to a very poor man the duty of supporting his family seems sometimes as if it were the only duty in the world.
"Well, when mother came to visit Miss Ludington, and saw that picture which is so much like me, and so little, mother says, like what Miss Ludington ever was, and when she found out about your belief in the immortality of past selves, the idea first came to her of deceiving you.
"That story of mother's going to Cincinnati was a lie, to prevent your suspecting that she had anything to do with the business. Mrs. Rhinehart is an imaginary person. At first, the idea was only to get you interested in the seances, for the profit of the fees; but when they saw how entirely deceived you were by my resemblance to the picture, the scheme of getting me into this house occurred to them.
"Or rather it did not occur to them at all. It was you, Paul, yourself, who suggested it, when you said that night after the first seance, that if a medium died in a trance, you believed the materialized spirit could not dematerialize but would return to earth. But for that the idea would never have occurred to them.
"It seemed a daring plot, but many things favoured it. I had lived in Hilton up to within a few years, and knew every stick and stone of the old as well as the new part of the village. I had wandered all over the old Ludington homestead time and again. Mother knew as much about Miss Ludington's early life as she did herself, and could post me on the subject, and there was my wonderful resemblance to the picture, which, of itself, would be almost enough to carry me through.
"It was for my sake entirely that they proposed this scheme. My father and mother may be looked down upon by the world as a very poor kind of people, but they have always been very good to me. I will not have you blame them except as you blame me with them. They thought that in this way I could be rescued from the hard and questionable life which they were living, and in which they did not wish me to grow up. If the plan succeeded, and you were deceived and took me here, thinking me the true Ida, they believed that I would be secured a life of happiness and luxury. They had seen, too, how you were in love with the true Ida, and made no question that you would love me and marry me.
"It was that more than all, Paul, that decided me to do it. I had fallen in love with you that night of the first seance when I stood before you and you looked at me with such boundless, adoring love. I think it would have turned almost any girl's head to be looked at in that way. And then, Paul, you are very handsome.
"I always had a taste for acting. They used to say I would have done well on the stage, and the idea of playing a role so fine and so bold as this took my fancy from the start. It was that, Paul, that, and the notion of your making love to me, more than any thought of the wealth and luxury I might get a share in, which made me consent to the plan.
"That sickness of Mrs. Legrand's between the seances--I am telling you all, Paul--was only a sham, so that we might see how much in earnest you were, and to get time for me to learn by heart all mother could teach me about the Hilton of forty years ago and Miss Ludington's girlhood. There were so many lists of names to be kept in mind, and school-room incidents, picnics, and flirtations; but it was as interesting as a romance, and being a Hilton girl, it did not take me long to make myself as much at home with the last generation as with my own. Sometimes mother would say to me, 'Ida, if I did not know that you are a good girl, and would be good to Miss Ludington, I would not betray my old friend this way. I would not do it for any one but you, and if I did not believe that in deceiving her you would make her very happy--far happier than now.'
"I think, in spite of all, she was very fond of Miss Ludington, for she made me promise, again and again, that I would be very good to her, as if I could have helped being good to such a gentle, tender-hearted person as she.
"You see, in our business, we had shown to so many sad people what they believed to be the forms and faces of their dead friends, and had sent them away comforted, that we had come to feel our frauds condoned by the happiness they caused, and that we were, after all, doing good.
"As for you, Paul, mother had no scruples. She said that I was a good girl, and any man was lucky to get me. I was not sure of that, but I knew that any girl would be fortunate whom you loved. She had a dress cut for me in the exact pattern of that in the picture--a very old-fashioned pattern, but very becoming to me--and all was ready. You know the rest.
"I forgot to say that the reason the dress all fell to pieces the day after I came here was that it had been treated with a chemical preparation, which had completely rotted the texture of the cloth. Indeed I had trouble to keep it together that first night. Father saw to this part. He understands chemistry, and indeed, everything else except how to make a living.
"There was no trap-door in the floor in Tenth Street, but the whole ceiling of the cabinet was a trap-door, the edges hidden by the breadth of the boards forming the partition which enclosed it. It rose on oiled hinges, with a pulley and a counter-weight, at a touch of a finger, and the person who was to appear, unless it was a part that the medium herself could take, descended in an instant by letting down a short light ladder, wrapped in cloth, so as to make no sound. The draught of air just before the appearance, which Miss Ludington had spoken of in her talks with me, was something that we never thought of, and was caused, I suppose, by the drawing of the air up through the raised ceiling.
"It was all so easy, so easy; we need not have taken half the precautions we did; you were so absolutely convinced from the first moment that I was the Ida of the picture. From the time I came home with you that night till now there has been no question of my proving who I was, but only of Miss Ludington's proving, and of your proving, to me, that you were the persons you claimed to be. It was not whether I was related to her, but only that she was related to me, which Miss Ludington thought in any need of demonstration.
"And as for you, Paul, it is not your fault that I was not your wife weeks ago.
"And so I should have been, and Miss Ludington's heir besides, but for two particulars in which our plot was fatally defective. It provided for all contingencies, but made no allowance for the possibilities that I might prove capable of gratitude towards Miss Ludington, and that I might fall in love with you. Both these things have happened to me, and there is no choice left me but to fly in the night. Of course I had expected you to fall in love with me, and had fancied you so much, after seeing you the first time, as to feel that it would be very fine to have you for a lover, and even for a husband. But that was not really love at all. I think if you could understand even a little what dismay came over me when I first realized that my heart was yours, you would almost pity me. After that, to deceive you was torture to me, and yet, to tell you the truth would have been to make you loathe me like a snake. Oh, Paul! think of what I have suffered these past weeks, and pity me a little!
"You will understand now why it was that I could not bear to have the circumstances of the fraud we had practised on you alluded to in my presence, and why, after the first few days, I never spoke of them myself.
"When father, whom you know as Dr. Hull, came that day to see how the plot was succeeding, I thought I should die with shame. He tried to catch my eye, and to get a chance to speak with me, but I avoided him. He must have gone away very much puzzled by my conduct, for it had been arranged between us that he should come. By that time, you see, I had become heart-sick of the part I was playing.
"But, Paul, you must not think that it was mere sham, father's drawing you out so much to talk at the table that night, and pretending to be so much taken up with what you said. He is great for being taken up with new ideas, and I think his interest was quite genuine. I knew before I left home that he half believed you to be right about the immortality of past selves. For my part, I believe it wholly, and that I have abused not only Miss Ludington and you, but the spirit of her whom I have personated.
"If Miss Ludington had not so loaded me with kindness I could have borne it, better, but to have that sweet old lady fairly worshipping the ground one trod on, and covering one with gifts, and dresses, and jewels, would have been too much, I think, for the conscience of the worst person in the world.
"I should have fled from the house before I had been here a week but for you, Paul. I could not bear to leave you. If I had only gone then I should have saved myself much; for what would it have been to leave you then to what it is now!
"It was very wrong in me to promise to marry you that night when you came to me; for I knew then as well as now that I never could. But I loved you so, I had no strength. Oh, these last happy weeks! I wonder if you have been so happy as I--so happy or so miserable, I don't know which to say; for all the time there was a deadly sickness at my heart, and every night I cried myself to sleep, and woke up crying; and yet I loved you so I could not but be happy in being where you were. Remember always, Paul, that if I had not loved you so, I should have let you marry an adventuress; for that is what I suppose you will call me now--you, who could not find words tender enough for me. Yes, if I had loved you less, I would have been your wife, and I would have made you very happy, just as we made so many poor people happy at our seances--by deceiving them. But I could not deceive you.
"It is true that I have been meanwhile deceiving you, but it has only been from day to day. I knew it was not to last, and I lacked strength to end it sooner. Think how dear your kisses must have been to me, that I could endure them with the knowledge all the while that if you knew whom you were kissing, you would spurn me with your foot.
"As soon as you began to urge me to name a day for our marriage I knew that the end was near. You wondered why I cried so whenever you spoke of it. You know now. To-day Miss Ludington told me that she intended to adopt me and leave me her fortune, so that I need feel under no necessity to marry you if I did not wish to. Think of that, Paul! Can you conceive of any one so low, so base, as to be capable of taking advantage of such a heart? As she was talking to me, I made up my mind that I must go to-night.
"This evening, when I was helping her to bed (I have been so glad to do all I could for her; it took away a little of my shame to see how happy I made her) she seemed so troubled because I could not keep my tears from falling. When you read her this she will think her sympathy wasted. And yet she will not think hard of me. She could not think hard of any one, and I am sure I love her dearly, and always shall.
"Oh, Paul, my darling, do not despise me utterly! My love was pure; it was as pure as any one's could be, though I have been so bad. I think my heart was breaking when you found me crying on the piazza to-night. It was not only that I must leave you, and never look on your face again, but that I must give over my memory to your scorn and loathing. When you took me in your arms and comforted me, my resolution all gave way, and I felt that I would not, could not, go. I think I was on the point of throwing myself at your feet and confessing all, and begging to be taken as the lowest servant in the house, so that I might be near you.
"And then it was that you began to explain to me that, although I might not be aware of it, the reason that I would not be your wife was that, having come from heaven, my nature was purer than that of earthly women, and shrank from marriage as a sacrilege.
"Think of your saying that to me!
"When I comprehended you, and saw that you actually believed what you said, I realized the folly of imagining that you could ever pardon me for what I had done, or that the gulf between what I was and what you thought me to be could ever be bridged. So it was that you yourself gave me back the resolution and the strength to leave you, which went from me when I was in your arms. I was overcome with such shame and self-contempt that I could not even kiss you as I left you for ever.
"I have told you my whole story, Paul, that you may know not alone how black my deception was, but how bitterly I have expiated it. I came into this house a frivolous girl; I leave it a broken-hearted woman. Do not blame me too harshly. It is myself that I have injured most. I leave you as well off as before you saw me; free to return to your spirit-love. She will forgive you. It is my only consolation that she is but a spirit-love. If she were a woman I could never have given you up to her. Never! Oh, Paul! If I could only hope that you would not wholly despise me, that you, would think sometimes a little pitifully of
She next wrote a note to Miss Ludington, full of contrition and tenderness, and referring her to Paul's letter for the whole story. It was after two o'clock in the morning when she finished the second letter, and laid it in plain view beside the other. She next removed her jewels and exchanged her rich costume for the simplest in her wardrobe, and having donned cloak and hat, extinguished the light, and softly unlocking the door, stepped into the hall.
Perfect silence reigned in the house. As she stood listening the clock in the sitting-room struck three. There was no time to lose. The early summer dawn would soon arrive, and, before the first servants of neighbours were stirring she must be outside the grounds and well on her way.
There was a late risen moon, and enough light penetrated the house to enable her to make her way without difficulty. As she passed Paul's door she stopped and stood leaning her forehead against the casement for some minutes. At last she knelt and pressed her lips to the threshold, and, choking down a sob, went on downstairs. As she passed through the sitting-room she paused a moment before the picture. "Forgive me," she whispered, looking up at the dimly visible face of Ida Ludington, and passed on. Unfastening a window that opened upon the piazza, she stepped forth and closed it behind her.
At the first light sound of her feet upon the walk, the mastiff that guarded the house bounded up to her, and seeing who it was, licked her hand. The big beast had fallen in love with her on her first arrival, and been her devoted attendant ever since. She sat down on the edge of the walk and put her arms around his neck, wetting his shaggy coat with her tears. Here was a friend who would know no difference between Ida Slater and Ida Ludington. Here was one who loved her for herself.
Presently she rose, dried her eyes, and went on down the street, the dog trotting contentedly behind her. As she came to a point beyond which the trees cut off the view of the house, she stood still, gazing back at it for a long time. Finally, with a gesture of renunciation, she turned and passed swiftly out of sight.