The incident was of a dignity which the supernatural has by no means always had, and which has been more than ever lacking in it since the manifestations of professional spiritualism began to vulgarize it. Hewson appreciated this as soon as he realized that he had been confronted with an apparition. He had been very little agitated at the moment, and it was not till later, when the conflict between sense and reason concerning the fact itself arose, that he was aware of any perturbation. Even then, amidst the tumult of his whirling emotions he had a sort of central calm, in which he noted the particulars of the occurrence with distinctness and precision. He had always supposed that if anything of the sort happened to him he would be greatly frightened, but he had not been at all frightened, so far as he could make out. His hair had not risen, or his cheek felt a chill; his heart had not lost or gained a beat in its pulsation; and his prime conclusion was that if the Mysteries had chosen him an agent in approaching the material world they had not made a mistake. This becomes grotesque in being put into words, but the words do not misrepresent, except by their inevitable excess, the mind in which Hewson rose, and flung open his shutters to let in the dawn upon the scene of the apparition, which he now perceived must have been, as it were, self-lighted. The robins were yelling from the trees and the sparrows bickering under them; catbirds were calling from the thickets of syringa, and in the nearest woods a hermit-thrush was ringing its crystal bells. The clear day was penetrating the east with the subtle light which precedes the sun, and a summer sweetness rose cool from the garden below, gray with dew.
In the solitude of the hour there was an intimation of privity to the event which had taken place, an implication of the unity of the natural and the supernatural, strangely different from that robust gayety of the plain day which later seemed to disown the affair, and leave the burden of proof altogether to the human witness. By this time Hewson had already set about to putting it in such phrases as should carry conviction to the hearer, and yet should convey to him no suspicion of the pride which Hewson felt in the incident as a sort of tribute to himself. He dramatized the scene at breakfast when he should describe it in plain, matter-of-fact terms, and hold every one spellbound, as he or she leaned forward over the table to listen, while he related the fact with studied unconcern for his own part in it, but with a serious regard for the integrity of the fact itself, which he had no wish to exaggerate as to its immediate meaning or remoter implications. It did not yet occur to him that it had none; they were simply to be matters of future observation in a second ordeal; for the first emotion which the incident imparted was the feeling that it would happen again, and in this return would interpret itself. Hewson was so strongly persuaded of something of the kind, that after standing for an indefinite period at the window in his pajamas, he got hardily back into bed, and waited for the repetition. He was agreeably aware of waiting without a tremor, and rather eagerly than otherwise; then he began to feel drowsy, and this at first flattered him, as a proof of his strange courage in circumstances which would have rendered sleep impossible to most men; but in another moment he started from it. If he slept every one would say he had dreamt the whole thing; and he could never himself be quite sure that he had not.
He got up, and began to dress, thinking all the time, in a dim way, how very long it would be till breakfast, and wondering what he should do till then with his appetite and his apparition. It was now only a little after four o'clock of the June morning, and nobody would be down till after eight; most people at that very movable feast, which St. John had in the English fashion, did not show themselves before nine. It was impossible to get a book and read for five hours; he would be dropping with hunger if he walked so long. Yet he must not sleep; and he must do something to keep from sleeping. He remembered a little interloping hotel, which had lately forced its way into precincts sacred to cottage life, and had impudently called itself the St. Johnswort Inn, after St. John's place, by a name which he prided himself on having poetically invented from his own and that of a prevalent wild flower. Upon the chance of getting an early cup of coffee at this hotel, Hewson finished dressing, and crept down stairs to let himself out of the house.
He not only found the door locked, as he had expected, but the key taken out; and after some misgiving he decided to lift one of the long library windows, from which he could get into the garden, closing the window after him, and so make his escape. No one was stirring outside the house any more than within; he knocked down a trellis by which a clematis was trying to climb over the window he emerged from, and found his way out of the grounds without alarming any one. He was not so successful at the hotel, where a lank boy, sweeping the long piazzas, recognized one of the St. Johnswort guests in the figure approaching the steps, and apparently had his worst fears roused for Hewson's sanity when Hewson called to him and wondered if he could get a cup of coffee at that hour; he openly owned it was an unnatural hour, and he had a fine inward sense that it was supernatural. The boy dropped his broom without a word, and vanished through the office door, reappearing after a blank interval to pick up his broom and say, "I guess so," as he began sweeping again. It was well, for one reason that he did not state his belief too confidently, Hewson thought; but after another interval of unknown length a rude, sad girl came to tell him his coffee was waiting for him. He followed her back into the still dishevelled dining room, and sat down at a long table to a cup of lukewarm drink that in color and quality recalled terrible mornings of Atlantic travel when he haplessly rose and descended to the dining-saloon of the steamer, and had a marine version of British coffee brought him by an alien table-steward.
He remembered the pock-marked nose of one alien steward, and how he had questioned whether he should give the fellow six-pence or a shilling, seeing that apart from this tribute he should have to fee his own steward for the voyage; at the same time his fancy played with the question whether that uncouth, melancholy waitress had found a moment to wash her face before hurrying to fetch his coffee. He amused himself by contrasting her sloven dejection with the brisk neatness of the service at St. Johnswort; but through all he never lost the awe, the sense of responsibility which he bore to the vision vouchsafed him, doubtless for some reason and to some end that it behooved him to divine.
He found a yesterday's paper in the office of the hotel, and read it till he began to drowse over it, when he pulled himself up with a sharp jerk. He discovered that it was now six o'clock, and he thought if he could walk about for an hour he might return to St. Johnswort, and worry through the remaining hour till breakfast somehow. He was still framing in his thoughts some sort of statement concerning the apparition which he should make when the largest number of guests had got together at the table, with a fine question whether he should take them between the cantaloupe and the broiled chicken, or wait till they had come to the corn griddle-cakes, which St. John's cook served of a filigree perfection in homage to the good old American breakfast ideal. There would be more women, if he waited, and he should need the sympathy and countenance of women; his story would be wanting in something of its supreme effect without the electrical response of their keener nerves.
When Hewson came up to the cottage he was sensible of a certain agitation in the air, which was intensified to him by the sight of St. John, in his bare, bald head and the neglige of a flannel housecoat, inspecting, with the gardener and one of the grooms, the fallen trellis under the library window, which from time to time they looked up at, as they talked. Hewson made haste to join them, through the garden gate, and to say shamefacedly enough, "Oh, I'm afraid I'm responsible for that," and he told how he must have thrown down the trellis in getting out of the window.
"Oh!" said St. John, while the two men walked away with dissatisfied grins at being foiled of their sensation. "We thought it was burglars. I'm so glad it was only you." But in spite of his profession, St. John did not give Hewson any very lively proof of his enjoyment. "Deuced uncomfortable to have had one's guests murdered in their beds. Don't say anything about it, please, Hewson. The women would all fly the premises, if there'd been even a suspicion of burglars."
"Oh, no; I won't," Hewson willingly assented; but he perceived a disappointment in St. John's tone and manner, and he suspected him, however unjustly, of having meant to give himself importance with his guests by the rumor of a burglary in the house.
He was a man quite capable of that, Hewson believed, and failing it, capable of pretending that he wanted the matter hushed up in the interest of others.
In any case he saw that it was not to St. John primarily, or secondarily to St. John's guests, that he could celebrate the fact of his apparition. In the presence of St. John's potential vulgarity he keenly felt his own, and he recoiled from what he had imagined doing. He even realized that he would have been working St. John an injury by betraying his house to his guests as the scene of a supernatural incident.
Nobody believes in ghosts, but there is not one in a thousand of us who would not be uncomfortable in a haunted house, or a house so reputed. If Hewson told what he had seen, he would not only scatter St. John's house-party to the four winds, but he would cast such a blight upon St. Johnswort that it would never sell for a tenth of its cost.
From that instant Hewson renounced his purpose, and he remained true to this renunciation in spite of the behavior of St. John, which might well have tempted him to a revenge in kind. No one seemed to have slept late that morning; several of the ladies complained that they had not slept a wink the whole night, and two or three of the men owned to having waked early and not been able to hit it off again in a morning nap, though it appeared that they were adepts in that sort of thing. The hour of their vigils corresponded so nearly with that of Hewson's apparition that he wondered if a mystical influence from it had not penetrated the whole house. The adventitious facts were of such a nature that he controlled with the greater difficulty the wish to explode upon an audience so aptly prepared for it the prodigious incident which he was keeping in reserve; but he did not yield even when St. John carefully led up to the point through the sensation of his guests, by recounting the evidences of the supposed visit of a burglar, and then made his effect by suddenly turning upon Hewson, and saying with his broad guffaw: "And here you have the burglar in person. He has owned his crime to me, and I've let him off the penalty on condition that he tells you all about it." The humor was not too rank for the horsey people whom St. John had mainly about him, but some of the women said, "Poor Mr. Hewson!" when the host, failing Hewson's confession, went on to betray that he had risen at that unearthly hour to go down to the St. Johnswort Inn for a cup of its famous coffee. The coffee turned out to be the greatest kind of joke; one of the men asked Hewson if he could say on his honor that it was really any better than St. John's coffee there before them, and another professed to be in a secret more recondite than had yet been divined: it was that long grim girl, who served it; she had lured Hewson from his rest at five o'clock in the morning; and this humorist proposed a Welsh rarebit some night at the inn, where they could all see for themselves why Hewson broke out of the house and smashed a trellis before sunrise.
Hewson sat silent, not even attempting a defensive sally. In fact it was only his surface mind which was employed with what was going on; as before, his deeper thought was again absorbed with his great experience. He could not, if his conscience had otherwise suffered him, have spoken of it in that company, and the laughter died away from his silence as if it had been his offence. He was not offended, but he was ashamed, and not ashamed so much for St. John as for himself, that he could have ever imagined acquiring merit in such company by exploiting an experience which should have been sacred to him. How could he have been so shabby? He was justly punished in the humiliating contrast between being the butt of these poor wits, and the hero of an incident which, whatever its real quality was, had an august character of mystery. He had recognized this from the first instant; he had perceived that the occurrence was for him, and for him alone, until he had reasoned some probable meaning into it or from it; and yet he had been willing, he saw it, he owned it! to win the applause of that crowd as a man who had just seen a ghost.
He thought of them as that crowd, but after all, they were good-natured people, and when they fancied that he was somehow vexed with the turn the talk had taken, they began to speak of other things; St. John himself led the way, and when he got Hewson alone after breakfast, he made him a sort of amend. "I didn't mean to annoy you, old fellow," he said, "with my story about the burglary."
"Oh, that's all right," Hewson brisked up in response, as he took the cigar St. John offered him. "I'm afraid I must have seemed rather stupid. I had got to thinking about something else, and I couldn't pull myself away from it. I wasn't annoyed at all."
Whether St. John thought this sufficient gratitude for his reparation did not appear. As Hewson did not offer to break the silence in which they went on smoking, his host made a pretext, toward the end of their cigars, after bearing the burden of the conversation apparently as long as he could, of being reminded of something by the group of women descending into the garden from the terraced walk beyond it and then slowly, with little pauses, trailing their summer draperies among the flower-beds and bushes toward the house.
"Oh, by-the-way," he said, "I should like to introduce you to Miss Hernshaw; she came last night with Mrs. Rock: that tall girl, there, lagging behind a little. She's an original."
"I noticed her at breakfast," Hewson answered, now first aware of having been struck with the strange beauty and strange behavior of the slim girl, who drooped in her chair, with her little head fallen forward, and played with her bread, ignoring her food otherwise, while she listened with a bored air to the talk which made Hewson its prey. She had an effect of being both shy and indifferent, in this retrospect; and when St. John put up the window, and led the way out to the women in the garden, and presented Hewson, she had still this effect. She did not smile or speak in acknowledgement of Hewson's bow; she merely looked at him with a sort of swift intensity, and then, when one of the women said, "We were coming to view the scene of your burglarious exploit, Mr. Hewson. Was that the very window?" the girl looked impatiently away.
"The very window," Hewson owned. "You wouldn't know it. St. John has had the trellis put up and the spot fresh turfed," and he detached the interlocutory widow in the direction of their bachelor host, as she perhaps intended he should, and dropped back to the side of Miss Hernshaw.
She was almost spiritually slender. In common with all of us, he had heard that shape of girl called willowy, but he made up his mind that sweetbriery would be the word for Miss Hernshaw, in whose face a virginal youth suggested the tender innocence and surprise of the flower, while the droop of her figure, at once delicate and self-reliant, arrested the fancy with a sense of the pendulous thorny spray. She looked not above sixteen in age, but as she was obviously out, in the society sense of the word, this must have been a moral effect; and Hewson was casting about in his mind for some appropriate form of thought and language to make talk in when she abruptly addressed him.
"I don't see," she said, with her face still away, "why people make fun of those poor girls who have to work in that sort of public way."
Hewson silently picked his steps back through the intervening events to the drolling at breakfast, and with some misgiving took his stand in the declaration, "You mean the waitress at the inn?"
"Yes!" cried the girl, with a gentle indignation, which was so dear to the young man that he would have given anything to believe that it veiled a measure of sympathy for himself as well as for the waitress. "We went in there last night when we arrived, for some pins--Mrs. Rock had had her dress stepped on, getting out of the car--and that girl brought them. I never saw such a sad face. And she was very nice; she had no more manners than a cow."
Miss Hernshaw added the last sentence as if it followed, and in his poor masculine pride of sequence Hewson wanted to ask if that were why she was so nice; but he obeyed a better instinct in saying, "Yes, there's a whole tragedy in it. I wonder if it's potential or actual." He somehow felt safe in being so metaphysical.
"Does it make any difference?" Miss Hernshaw demanded, whirling her face round, and fixing him with eyes of beautiful fierceness. "Tragedy is tragedy, whether you have lived it or not, isn't it? And sometimes it's all the more tragical if you have it still to live: you've got it before you! I don't see how any one can look at that girl's face and laugh at her. I should never forgive any one who did."
"Then I'm glad I didn't do any of the laughing," said Hewson, willing to relieve himself from the strain of this high mood, and yet anxious not to fall too far below it. "Perhaps I should, though, if I hadn't been the victim of it in some degree."
"It was the vulgarest thing I ever heard!" said the girl.
Hewson looked at her, but she had averted her face again. He had a longing to tell her of his apparition which quelled every other interest in him, and, as it were, blurred his whole consciousness. She would understand, with her childlike truth, and with her unconventionality she would not find it strange that he should speak to her of such a thing for no apparent reason or no immediate cause. He walked silent at her side, revolving his longing in his thought, and hating the circumstance which forbade him to speak at once. He did not know how long he was lost in this, when he was suddenly recalled to fearful question of the fact by her saying, with another flash of her face toward him, "You _have_ lost sleep Mr. Hewson!" and she whipped forward, and joined the other women, who were following the lead of St. John and the widow.
Mrs. Rock, to whom Hewson had been presented at the same time as to Miss Hernshaw, looked vaguely back at him over her shoulder, but made no attempt to include him in her group, and he thought, for no reason, that she was kept from doing so on account of Miss Hernshaw. He thought he could be no more mistaken in this than in the resentment of Miss Hernshaw, which he was aware of meriting, however unintentionally. Later, after lunch, he made sure of this fact when Mrs. Rock got him into a corner, and cozily began, "I always feel like explaining Rosalie a little," and then her vague, friendly eye wandered toward Miss Hernshaw across the room, and stopped, as if waiting for the girl to look away. But Miss Hernshaw did not look away, and that afternoon, Hewson's week being up, he left St. Johnswort before dinner.
The time came, before the following winter, when Hewson was tempted beyond his strength, and told the story of his apparition. He told it more than once, and kept himself with increasing difficulty from lying about it. He always wished to add something, to amplify the fact, to heighten the mystery of the circumstances, to divine the occult significance of the incident. In itself the incident, when stated, was rather bare and insufficient; but he held himself rigidly to the actual details, and he felt that in this at least he was offering the powers which had vouchsafed him the experience a species of atonement for breaking faith with them. It seemed like breaking faith with Miss Hernshaw, too, though this impression would have been harder to reason than the other. Both impressions began to wear off after the first tellings of the story; the wound that Hewson gave his sensibility in the very first cicatrized before the second, and at the fourth or fifth it had quite calloused over; so that he did not mind anything so much as what always seemed to him the inadequate effect of his experience with his hearers. Some listened carelessly; some nervously; some incredulously, as if he were trying to put up a job on them; some compassionately, as if he were not quite right, and ought to be looked after. There was a consensus of opinion, among those who offered any sort of comment, that he ought to give it to the Psychical Research, and at the bottom of Hewson's heart, there was a dread that the spiritualists would somehow get hold of him. This remained to stay him, when the shame of breaking faith with Miss Hernshaw and with Mystery no longer restrained him from exploiting the fact. He was aware of lying in wait for opportunities of telling it, and he swore himself to tell it only upon direct provocation, or when the occasion seemed imperatively to demand it. He commonly brought it out to match some experience of another; but he could never deny a friendly appeal when he sat with some good fellows over their five-o'clock cocktails at the club, and one of them would say in behalf of a newcomer, "Hewson, tell Wilkins that odd thing that happened to you up country, in the summer." In complying he tried to save his self-respect by affecting a contemptuous indifference in the matter, and beginning reluctantly and pooh-poohingly. He had pangs afterwards as he walked home to dress for dinner, but his self-reproach was less afflicting as time passed. His suffering from it was never so great as from the slight passed upon his apparition, when Wilkins or what other it might be, would meet the suggestion that he should tell him about it, with the hurried interposition, "Yes, I have heard that; good story." This would make Hewson think that he was beginning to tell his story too often, and that perhaps the friend who suggested his doing so, was playing upon his forgetfulness. He wondered if he were really something of a bore with it, and whether men were shying off from him at the club on account of it. He fancied that might be the reason why the circle at the five-o'clock cocktails gradually diminished as the winter passed. He continued to join it till the chance offered of squarely refusing to tell Wilkins, or whoever, about the odd thing that had happened to him up country in the summer. Then he felt that he had in a manner retrieved himself, and could retire from the five-o'clock cocktails with honor.
That it was a veridical phantom which had appeared to him he did not in his inmost at all doubt, though in his superficial consciousness he questioned it, not indeed so disrespectfully as he pooh-poohed it to others, but still questioned it. This he thought somehow his due as a man of intelligence who ought not to suffer himself to fall into superstition even upon evidence granted to few. Superficially, however, as well as interiorly, he was aware of always expecting its repetition; and now, six months after the occurrence this expectation was as vivid with him as it was the first moment after the vision had vanished, while his tongue was yet in act to stay it with speech. He would not have been surprised at any time in walking into his room to find It there; or waking at night to confront It in the electric flash which he kindled by a touch of the button at his bedside. Rather, he was surprised that nothing of the sort happened, to confirm him in his belief that he had been all but in touch with the other life, or to give him some hint, the slightest, the dimmest, why this vision had been shown him, and then instantly broken and withdrawn. In that inmost of his where he recognized its validity, he could not deny that it had a meaning, and that it had been sent him for some good reason special to himself; though at the times when he had prefaced his story of it with terms of slighting scepticism, he had professed neither to know nor to care why the thing had happened. He always said that he had never been particularly interested in the supernatural, and then was ashamed of a lie that was false to universal human experience; but he could truthfully add that he had never in his life felt less like seeing a ghost than that morning. It was not full day, but it was perfectly light, and there the thing was, as palpable to vision as any of the men that moment confronting him with cocktails in their hands. Asked if he did not think he had dreamed it, he answered scornfully that he did not think, he _knew_, he had not dreamed it; he did not value the experience, it was and had always been perfectly meaningless, but he would stake his life upon its reality. Asked if it had not perhaps been the final office of a nightcap, he disdained to answer at all, though he did not openly object to the laugh which the suggestion raised.
Secretly, within his inmost, Hewson felt justly punished by the laughter. He had been unworthy of his apparition in lightly exposing it to such a chance; he had fallen below the dignity of his experience. He might never hope to fathom its meaning while he lived; but he grieved for the wrong he had done it, as if at the instant of the apparition he had offered that majestic, silent figure some grotesque indignity: thrown a pillow at it, or hailed it in tones of mocking offence. He was profoundly and exquisitely ashamed even before he ceased to tell the story for his listeners' idle amusement. When he stopped doing so, and snubbed solicitation with the curt answer that everybody had heard that story, he was retrospectively ashamed; and mixed with the expectation of seeing the vision again was the formless wish to offer it some sort of reparation, of apology.
He longed to prove himself not wholly unworthy of the advance that had been made him from the other world upon grounds which he had done his worst to prove untenable. He could not imagine what the grounds were, though he had to admit their probable existence; such an event might have no obvious or present significance, but it had not happened for nothing; it could not have happened for nothing. Hewson might not have been in what he thought any stressful need of ghostly comfort or reassurance in matters of faith. He was not inordinately agnostic, or in the way of becoming so. He was simply an average skeptical American, who denied no more than he affirmed, and who really concerned himself so little about his soul, though he tried to keep his conscience decently clean, that he had not lately asked whether other people had such a thing or not. He had not lost friends, and he was so much alone in this world that it seemed improbable the fate of any uncle or cousin, in the absence of more immediate kindred, should be mystically forecast to him. He was perfectly well at the time of the apparition, and it could not have been the figment of a disordered digestion, as the lusty hunger which willingly appeased itself with the coffee of the St. Johnswort Inn sufficiently testified. Yet, in spite of all this, an occurrence so out of the course of events must have had some message for him, and it must have been his fault that he could not divine it. A sense of culpability grew upon him with the sense of his ignominy in cheapening it by making it subservient to what he knew was, in the last analysis, a wretched vanity. At least he could refuse himself that miserable gratification hereafter, and he got back some measure of self-respect in forbidding himself the pleasure he might have taken in being noted for a strange experience he could never be got to speak of.
The implication of any such study as this is that the subject of it is continuously if not exclusively occupied with the matter which is supposed to make him interesting. But of course it was not so with Hewson, who perhaps did not think of his apparition once in a fortnight, or oftener, say, than he thought of the odd girl with whom for no reason, except contemporaneity in his acquaintance, he associated with it. If he never thought of the apparition without subconsciously expecting its return, he equally expected when he thought of Miss Hernshaw that the chances of society would bring them together again, and it was with no more surprise than if the vision had intimated its second approach that he one night found her name in the minute envelope which the footman presented him at a house where he was going to dine, and realized that he was appointed to take her out. It was a house where he rather liked to go, for in that New York of his where so few houses had any distinctive character, this one had a temperament of its own in so far that you might expect to meet people of temperament there, if anywhere. They were indeed held in a social solution where many other people of no temperament at all floated largely and loosely about, but they were there, all the same, and it was worth coming on the chance of meeting them, though the indiscriminate hospitality of the hostess might let the evening pass without promoting the chance. Now, however, she had unwittingly put into Hewson's keeping, for two hours at least, the very temperament that had kept his fancy for the last half-year and more. He fairly laughed at sight of the name on the little card, and hurried into the drawing-room, where the first thing after greeting his hostess, he caught the wandering look and vague smile of Mrs. Rock. The look and the smile became personal to him, and she welcomed him with a curious resumption of the confidential terms in which they had seemed to part that afternoon at St. Johnswort. He thought that she was going to begin talking to him where she had left off, about Rosalie, as she had called her, and he was disappointed in the commonplaces that actually ensued. At the end of these, however, she did say: "Miss Hernshaw is here with me. Have you seen her?"
"Oh, yes," Hewson returned, for he had caught sight of the girl in a distant group, on his way up to Mrs. Rock, but in view of the affluent opportunity before him had richly forborne trying even to make her bow to him, though he believed she had seen him. "I am to have the happiness of going out with her."
"Oh, indeed," said Mrs. Rock, "that is nice," and then the people began assorting themselves, and the man who was appointed to take Mrs. Rock out, came and bowed Hewson away.
He hastened to that corner of the room where Miss Hernshaw was waiting, and if he had been suddenly confronted with his apparition he could not have experienced a deeper and stranger satisfaction than he felt as the girl lifted up her innocent fierce face upon him.
It brought back that whole day at St. Johnswort, of which she, with his vision, formed the supreme interest and equally the mystery; and it went warmly to his heart to have her peremptorily abolish all banalities by saying, "I was wondering if they were going to give me you, as soon as you came in."
She put her slim hand on his arm as she spoke, and he thought she must have felt him quiver at her touch. "Then you were not afraid they were going to give you me?" he bantered.
"No," she said, "I wanted to talk with you. I wanted you to tell me what Mrs. Rock said about me!"
"Just now? She said you were here."
"No, I mean that day at St. Johnswort."
Hewson laughed out for pleasure in her frankness, and then he felt a gathering up of his coat-sleeve under her nervous fingers, as if (such a thing being imaginable) she were going unwittingly to pinch him for his teasing. "She said she wanted to explain you a little."
"And then what!"
"And then nothing. She seemed to catch your eye, and she stopped."
The fingers relaxed their hold upon that gathering up of his coat-sleeve. "I won't _be_ explained, and I have told her so. If I choose to act myself, and show out my real thoughts and feelings, how is it any worse than if I acted somebody else!"
"I should think it was very much better," said Hewson, inwardly warned to keep his face straight.
They had time for no more talk between the drawing-room and the dinner table, and when Miss Hernshaw's chair had been pushed in behind her, and she sat down, she turned instantly to the man on her right and began speaking to him, and left Hewson to make conversation with any one he liked or could.
He did not get on very well, not because there were not enough amusing people beside him and over against him, but because he was all the time trying to eavesdrop what was saying between Miss Hernshaw and the man on her right. It seemed to be absolute trivialities they were talking; so far as Hewson made out they got no deeper than the new play which was then commanding the public favor apparently for the reason that it was altogether surface, with no measure upwards or downwards. Upon this surface the comment of the man on Miss Hernshaw's right wandered indefatigably.
Hewson could not imagine of her sincerity a deliberate purpose of letting the poor fellow show all the shallowness that was in him, and of amusing itself with his satisfaction in turning his empty mind inside out for her inspection. She seemed, if not genuinely interested, to be paying him an unaffected attention; but when the lady across the table addressed a word to him, Miss Hernshaw, as if she had been watching for some such chance, instantly turned to Hewson.
"What do you think of 'Ghosts'?" she asked, with imperative suddenness.
"Ghosts?" he echoed.
"Or perhaps you didn't go?" she suggested, and he perceived that she meant Ibsen's tragedy. But he did not answer at once. He had had a shock, and for a timeless space he had been back in his room at St. Johnswort, with that weird figure seated at his table. It seemed to vanish again when he gave a second glance, as it had vanished before, and he drew a long sigh, and looked a little haggardly at Miss Hernshaw. "Ah, I see you did! Wasn't it tremendous? I think the girl who did Regina was simply awful, don't you?"
"I don't know," said Hewson, still so trammeled in his own involuntary associations with the word as not fully to realize the strangeness of discussing "Ghosts" with a young lady. But he pulled himself together, and nimbly making his reflection that the latitude of the stage gave room for the meeting of cultivated intelligences in regions otherwise tabooed, if they were of opposite sexes, he responded in kind. "I think that the greatest miracle of the play--and to me it was altogether miraculous"--
"Oh, I'm glad to hear you say that!" cried the girl. "It was the greatest experience of my life. I can't bear to have people undervalue it. I want to hit them. But go on!"
Hewson went on as gravely as he could in view of her potential violence: he pictured Miss Hernshaw beating down the inadequate witnesses of "Ghosts" with her fan, which lay in her lap, with her cobwebby handkerchief, drawn through its ring, and her long limp gloves looking curiously like her pretty young arms in their slenderness. "I was merely going to say that the most prodigious effect of the play was among the actors--I won't venture on the spectators--"
"No, don't! It isn't speakable."
"It's astonishing the effect a play of Ibsen's has with the actors. They can't play false. It turns the merest theatrical sticks into men and women, and it does it through the perfect honesty of the dramatist. He deals so squarely with himself that they have to deal squarely with themselves. They have to be, and not just _seem_."
Miss Hernshaw sighed deeply. "I'm glad you think that," she said, and Hewson felt very glad too that he thought that.
"Why?" he asked.
"Why? Because that is what I always want to do; and it's what I always shall do, I don't care what they say."
"But I don't know whether I understand exactly."
"Deal squarely with everybody. Say what I really feel. Then they say what they really feel."
There was an obscure resentment unworthily struggling at the bottom of Hewson's heart for her long neglect of him in behalf of the man on her left. "Yes," he said, "if they are capable of really feeling anything."
"What do you mean? Everybody really feels."
"Well, then, thinking anything."
She drew herself up a little with an air of question. "I believe everybody really thinks, too, and it's your duty to let them find out what they're thinking, by truly saying what you think."
"Then _she_ isn't dealing quite honestly with him," said Hewson, with a malicious smile.
The man at Miss Hernshaw's left was still talking about the play, and he was at that moment getting off a piece of pure parrotry about it to the lady across the table: just what everybody had been saying about it from the first.
"No, I should think she was not," said the girl, gravely. She looked hurt, as if she had been unfairly forced to the logic of her postulate, and Hewson was not altogether pleased with himself; but at least he had had his revenge in making her realize the man's vacuity.
He tried to get her back to talk about "Ghosts," again, but she answered with indifference, and just then he was arrested by something a man was saying near the head of the table.
It was rather a large dinner, but not so large that a striking phrase, launched in a momentary lull, could not fuse all the wandering attentions in a sole regard. The man who spoke was the psychologist Wanhope, and he was saying with a melancholy that mocked itself a little in his smile: "I shouldn't be particular about seeing a ghost myself. I have seen plenty of men who had seen men who had seen ghosts; but I never yet saw a man who had seen a ghost. If I had it would go a long way to persuade me of ghosts."
Hewson felt his heart thump in his throat. There was a pause, and it was as if all eyes but the eyes of the psychologist turned upon him; these rested upon the ice which the servant had just then silently slipped under them. Hewson had no reason to think that any of the people present were acquainted with his experience, but he thought it safest to take them upon the supposition that they had, and after he had said to the psychologist, "Will you allow me to present him to you?" he added, "I'm afraid every one else knows him too well already."
"You!" said his _vis-a-vis_, arching her eyebrows; and others up and down the table, looked round or over at Hewson where he sat midway of it with Miss Hernshaw drooping beside him. She alone seemed indifferent to his pretension; she seemed even insensible of it, as she broke off little corners of her ice with her fork.
The psychologist fixed his eyes on him with scientific challenge as well as scientific interest. "Do you mean that _you_ have seen a ghost?"
"Yes--ghost. Generically--provisionally. We always consider them ghosts, don't we, till they prove themselves something else? I once saw an apparition."
Several people who were near-sighted or far-placed put on their eye-glasses, to make out whether Hewson were serious; a lady who had a handsome forearm put up a lorgnette and inspected him through it; she had the air of questioning his taste, and the subtle aura of her censure penetrated to him, though she preserved a face of rigid impassivity. He returned her stare defiantly, though he was aware of not reaching her through the lenses as effectively as she reached him. Most of those who prepared themselves to listen seemed to be putting him on trial, and they apparently justified themselves in this from the cross-questioning method the psychologist necessarily took in his wish to clarify the situation.
"How long ago was it?" he asked, coldly.
"Was it after dark?"
"Very much after. It was at day-break."
"Oh! You were alone?"
"You made sure you were not dreaming?"
"I made sure of that, instantly. I was not awakened by the apparition. I was already fully awake."
"Had your mind been running on anything of the kind?"
"Nothing could have been farther from it. I was thinking what a very long while it would be till breakfast." This was not true as to the order of the fact; but Hewson could not keep himself from saying it, and it made a laugh and created a diversion in his favor.
"How long did it seem to last?"
"The vision? That was very curious. The whole affair was quite achronic, as I may say. The figure was there and it was not there."
"It vanished suddenly?"
"I can't say it vanished at all. It ought still to be there. Have you ever returned to a place where you had always been wrong as to the points of the compass, and found yourself right up to a certain moment as you approached, and then without any apparent change, found yourself perfectly wrong again? The figure was not there, and it was there, and then it was not there."
"I think I see what you mean," said the psychologist, warily. "The evanescence was subjective."
"Altogether. But so was the apparescence."
"Ah!" said Wanhope. "You hadn't any headache?"
"Not the least."
"Ah!" The psychologist desisted with the effect of letting the defence take the witness.
A general dissatisfaction diffused itself, and Hewson felt it; but he disdained to do anything to appease it. He remained silent for that appreciable time which elapsed before his host said, almost compassionately, "Won't you tell us all about it, Mr. Hewson."
The guests, all but Miss Hernshaw, seemed to return to their impartial frame, with a leaning in Hewson's favor, such as the court-room feels when the accused is about to testify in his own behalf; the listeners cannot help wishing him well, though they may have their own opinions of his guilt.
"Why, there _isn't_ any 'all-about-it,'" said Hewson. "The whole thing has been stated as to the circumstances and conditions." He could see the baffled greed in the eyes of those who were hungering for a morsel of the marvellous, and he made it as meagre as he could. He had now no temptation to exaggerate the simple fact, and he hurried it out in the fewest possible words.
The general disappointment was evident in the moment of waiting which followed upon his almost contemptuous ending. His audience some of them took their cue from his own ironical manner, and joked; others looked as if they had been trifled with. The psychologist said, "Curious." He did not go back to his position that belief in ghosts should follow from seeing a man who had seen one; he seemed rather annoyed by the encounter. The talk took another turn and distributed itself again between contiguous persons for the brief time that elapsed before the women were to leave the men to their coffee and cigars.
When their hostess rose Hewson offered his arm to Miss Hernshaw. She had not spoken to him since he had told the story of his apparition. Now she said in an undertone so impassioned that every vibration from her voice shook his heart, "If I were you, I would never tell that story again!" and she pressed his arm with unconscious intensity, while she looked away from him.
"You don't believe it happened?" he returned.
"Of course it happened! Why shouldn't I believe that? But that's the very reason why I wouldn't have told it. If it happened, it was something sacred--awful! Oh, I don't see how you could bear to speak of it at a dinner, when people were all torpid with--"
She stopped breathlessly, with a break in her voice that sounded just short of a sob.
"Well, I'm sufficiently ashamed of doing it, and not for the first time," he said, in sullen discontent with himself. "And I've been properly punished. You can't think how sick it makes me to realize what a detestable sensation I was seeking."
She did not heed what he was saying. "Was it that morning at St. Johnswort when you got up so early, and went for a cup of coffee at the inn?"
"I thought so! I could follow every instant of it; I could see just how it was. If such a thing had happened to me, I would have died before I spoke of it at such a time as this. Oh, _why_ do you suppose it happened to you?" the girl grieved.
"Me, of all men?" said Hewson, with a self-contemptuous smile.
"I thought you were different," she said absently; then abruptly: "What are you standing here talking to me so long for? You must go back! All the men have gone back," and Hewson perceived that they had arrived in the drawing-room, and were conspicuously parleying in the face of a dozen interested women witnesses.
In the dining-room he took his way toward a vacant place at the table near his host, who was saying behind his cigar to another old fellow: "I used to know her mother; she was rather original too; but nothing to this girl. I don't envy Mrs. Rock her job."
"I don't know what the pay of a chaperon is, but I suppose Hernshaw can make it worth her while, if he's like the rest out there," said the other old fellow. "I imagine he's somewhere in his millions."
The host held up one of his fingers. "Is that all? I thought more. Mines?"
"Cattle. Ah, Mr. Hewson," said the host, turning to welcome him to the chair on his other side. "Have a cigar. That was a strong story you gave us. It had a good fault, though. It was too short."
Hewson had begun now to feel a keen, persistent, painful sympathy for the apparition itself as for some one whose confidence had been abused; and this feeling was none the less, but all the more, poignant because it was he himself who was guilty towards it. He pitied it in a sort as if it had been the victim of a wrong more shocking perhaps for the want of taste in it than for any real turpitude. This was a quality of the event not without a strange consolation. In arraying him on the side of the apparition, it antagonized him with what he had done, and enabled him to renounce and disown it.
From the night of that dinner, Hewson did not again tell the story of his apparition, though the opportunities to do so now sought him as constantly as he had formerly sought them. They offered him a fresh temptation through the different perversions of the fact that had got commonly abroad, but he resisted this temptation, and let the perversions, sometimes annoyingly, sometimes amusingly, but always more and more wildly, wide of the reality, take their course. In his reticence he had the sense of atoning not only to the apparition but to Miss Hernshaw too.
[Illustration: "'I'M AFRAID I'M RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT'"]
Before he met her again, Miss Hernshaw had been carried off to Europe by Mrs. Rock, perhaps with the purpose of trying the veteran duplicities of that continent in breaking down the insurgent sincerity of her ward. Hewson heard that she was not to be gone a great while; it was well into the winter when they started, and he understood that they were merely going to Rome for the end of the season, and were then going to work northward, and after June in London were coming home. He did not fail to see her again before she left for any want of wishing, but he did not happen to meet her at other houses, and at the house of Mrs. Rock, if she had one, he had not been asked to call, or invited to any function. In thinking the point over it occurred to Hewson that this was so because he was not wanted there, and not wanted by Miss Hernshaw herself; for it had been in his brief experience of her that she let people know what she wanted, and that with Mrs. Rock, whose character seemed to answer to her name but poorly, she had ways of getting what she wanted. If Miss Hernshaw had wished to meet him again, he could not doubt that she would have asked him, or at the least had him asked to come and see her, and not have left it to the social fortutities to bring them together. Towards the end of the term which rumor had fixed to her stay abroad Hewson's folly was embittered to him in a way that he had never expected in his deepest shame and darkest forboding. But evil, like good, does not cease till it has fulfilled itself in every possible consequence. It seeing even more active and persistent. Good seems to satisfy itself sometimes in the direct effect, but evil winds sinuously in and out, and reaches round and over and under its wretched author, and strikes him in every tender and fatal place, with an ingenuity in finding the places out that seems truly of hell. Hewson thought he had paid the principal of his debt in full through the hurt to his vanity in failing to gain any sort of consequence from his apparition, but the interest of his debt had accumulated, and the sorest pinch was in paying the interest. His penalty took the form that was most of all distasteful to him: the form of publicity in the Sunday edition of a newspaper. A young lady attached to the staff of this journal had got hold of his story, and had made her reporter's Story of it, which she imaginatively cast in the shape of an interview with Hewson. But worse than this, and really beyond the vagary of the wildest nightmare, she gave St. Johnswort as the scene of the apparition, with all the circumstances of the supposed burglary, while tastefully disguising Hewson's identity in the figure of A Well-Known Society-man.
When Hewson read this Story (and it seemed to him that no means of bringing it to his notice at the club, and on the street, and by mail was left unemployed), he had two thoughts: one was of St. John, and one was of Miss Hernshaw. In all his exploitations of his experience he had carefully, he thought religiously, concealed the scene, except that one only time when Miss Hernshaw suddenly got it out of him by that demand of hers, "Was it that morning at St. Johnswort when you got up so early and went for a cup of coffee at the inn?" He had confided so absolutely in her that his admission had not troubled him at the time, and it had not troubled him since, till now when he found the fact given this hideous publicity, and knew that it could have become known only through her: through her who had seemed to make herself the protectress of his apparition and to guard it with indignation even against his own slight!
He could not tell himself what to think of her, and in this disability he had at least the sad comfort of literally thinking nothing of her; but he could not keep his thoughts away from St. John. It appeared to him that he thought and lived nothing else till his dread concreted itself in the letter which came from St. John as soon as that fatal newspaper could reach him, and his demand for an explanation could come back to Hewson. He wrote from St. Johnswort, where he had already gone for the season, and he assumed, as no doubt he had a right to do, that the whole thing was a fake, and that if Hewson was hesitating about denying it for fear of giving it further prominence, or out of contempt for it, he wished that he would not hesitate. There were reasons, which would suggest themselves to Hewson, why the thing, if merely and entirely a fake, should be very annoying, and he thought that it would be best to make the denial immediate and imperative. To this end he advised Hewson's sending the newspaper people a lawyer's letter; with the ulterior trouble which this would intimate they would move in the matter with a quickened conscience.
Apparently St. John was very much in earnest, and Hewson would eagerly have lied out of it, he felt in sudden depravity, from a just regard for St. John's right to privacy in his own premises, but no lying, not the boldest, not the most ingenious, could now avail. Scores of people could witness that they had heard Hewson tell the story at first hand; at second hand hundreds could still more confidently affirm its truth. But if he admitted the truth of the fact and denied merely that it had happened at St. Johnswort, he would have Miss Hernshaw to deal with and what could he hope from truth so relentless as hers? She was of a moral make so awful that if he ventured to deny it without appeal for her support (which was impossible), she was quite capable of denying his denial.
He did the only thing he could. He wrote to St. John declaring that the newspaper story, though utterly false in its pretensions to be an interview with him, was true in its essentials. The thing _had_ really happened, he _had_ seen an apparition, and he had seen it at St. Johnswort that morning when St. John supposed his house to have been invaded by burglars. He vainly turned over a thousand deprecatory expressions in his mind, with which to soften the blow but he let his letter go without including one.
A week of silence passed, and then one night St. John himself appeared at Hewson's apartment. Hewson almost knew that it was his ring at the door, and in the tremulous note of his voice asking the man if he were at home, he recognized the great blubbery fellow's most plaintive mood.
"Well, Hewson," he whimpered, without staying for any form of greeting when they stood face to face, "this has been a terrible business for me. You can't imagine how it's broken me up in every direction."
"I--I'm afraid I can, St. John," Hewson began, but St. John cut him off.
"Oh, no, you can't. Look here!" He showed a handful of letters. "All from people who had promised to stay with me, taking it back, since that infernal interview of yours, or from people who hadn't answered before, saying they can't come. Of course they make all sorts of civil excuses. I shouldn't know what to do with these people if any of them came. There isn't a servant left on the place, except the gardener who lives in his own house, and the groom who sleeps in the stable. For the last three days I've had to take my meals at that infernal inn where you got your coffee."
"Is it so bad as that?" Hewson gasped.
"Yes, it is. It's so bad that sometimes I can't realize it. Do you actually mean to tell me, Hewson that you saw a ghost in my house?"
"I never said a ghost. I said an apparition. I don't know what it was. It may have been an optical delusion. I call it an apparition, because that's the shortest way out. You know I'm not a spiritualist."
"Yes, that's the devil of it," said St. John. "That's the very thing that makes people believe it _is_ a ghost. There isn't one of them that don't say to himself and the other fellows that if a cool, clear-headed chap like you saw something queer, it _must_ have been a ghost; and so they go on knocking my house down in price till I don't believe it would fetch fifteen hundred under the hammer to-morrow. It's simply ruin to me."
"Ruin?" Hewson echoed.
"Yes, ruin," St. John repeated. "Before this thing came out I refused twenty-five thousand for the place, because I knew I could get twenty-eight thousand. Now I couldn't get twenty-eight hundred. Couldn't you understand that the reputation of being haunted simply plays the devil with a piece of property?" "Yes; yes, I did understand that, and for that very reason I was always careful--"
"Careful! To tell people that you had seen a ghost in my house?"
"No! _Not_ to tell them where I had seen a ghost. I never--"
"How did it get out then?"
"I," Hewson began, and then he stood with his mouth open, unable to close it for the articulation of the next word, which he at last huskily whispered forth, "can't tell you."
"Can't tell me?" wailed St. John. "Well, I call that pretty rough!"
"It is rough," Hewson admitted; "and Heaven knows that I would make it smooth if I could. I never once--except once only--mentioned your place in connection with the matter. I was scrupulously careful not to do so, for I did imagine something like what has happened. I would do anything--anything--in reparation. But I can't even tell you how the name of your place got out in the connection, though certainly you have a right to ask and to know. The circumstances were--peculiar. The person-- was one that I wouldn't have dreamt was capable of repeating it. It was as if I had said the words over to myself."
"Well, I can't understand all that," said St. John, with rueful sulkiness, from which he brisked up to ask, as if by a sudden inspiration, "If it was only to one person, why couldn't you deny it, and throw the onus on the other fellow?" He looked up at Hewson, standing nerveless before him, from where he lay mournfully wallowing in an easy-chair, as if now for the first time, there might be a gleam of hope for them both in some such notion.
Hewson slowly shook his head. "It wouldn't work. The person--isn't that kind of person."
"Why, but see here," St. John urged. "There must be something in the fellow that you can appeal to. If you went and told him how it was playing the very deuce with me pecuniarily, he would see the necessity of letting you deny it, and taking the consequences, if he was anything of a man at all."
"He isn't anything of a man at all," said Hewson, in mechanical and melancholy parody.
"Then in Heaven's name what is he?" demanded St. John, savagely.
"A woman." "Oh!" St. John fell back in his chair. But he pulled himself up again with a sudden renewal of hope. "Why, see here! If she's the right kind of woman, she'll enjoy denying the story, and putting the people in the wrong that have circulated it!"
Hewson shook his head in rejection of the general principle, while, as to the particular instance, he could only say: "She isn't that kind. She's the kind that would rather die herself, and let everybody else die, than be party to any sort of deception."
"She must be a queer woman," St. John bewailed himself, looking at the point of his cigar, and discovering to his surprise that it was out. He did not attempt to light it. "Of course, I can't ask you _who_ she is; but why shouldn't I see her, and try what _I_ can do with her? I'm the one that's the principal sufferer in this matter," he added, perhaps seeing refusal in Hewson's troubled eye.
"Because--for one reason--she's in London."
"Oh Lord!" St. John lamented.
"But if she were here in New York, I couldn't allow it," he continued. "It was in confidence between us."
"She doesn't seem to have thought so," said St. John, with sarcasm which Hewson could not resent.
"There's only one thing for me to do," said Hewson, who had been thinking the point over, and saw no other way out for him as a gentleman, or even merely as a just man. He was not rich, and in the face of the mounting accumulations of other men he had grown comparatively poor, without actually losing money, since he had begun to lead the life which had long been his ideal. After carefully ascertaining at the time in question that he had sufficient income from inherited means to live without his profession, he had closed his law-office without shutting many clients out, and had contributed himself to the formation of a leisure class, which he conceived was regrettably lacking in our conditions. He had taste, he had reading, he had a pretty knowledge of the world from travel, he had observed manners, and it seemed to him that he might not immodestly pretend to supply, as far as one man went, a well-recognized want.
Hitherto he had been able to live up to his ideal with, sufficient satisfaction, and in proposing to himself never to marry, but to grow old gradually and gracefully as a bachelor of adequate income, he saw no difficulties in his way for the future, until this affair of the apparition. If now he incurred the chances of an open change in his way of living- He would have been glad of any interposition of Providence that would have availed him against his obvious duty. He would have liked to recall the words saying that there was only one thing for him to do, but he could not recall them and he was forced to go on. "Will you sell me your place?" he said to St. John, colorlessly.
"Sell you my place? What do you mean?"
"Simply that if you will, I shall be glad to buy it at your own valuation."
"Oh, look here, now, Hewson! I can't let you do this," St. John began, trying to feel a magnanimity which proved impossible to him. "What do you want with my place? You couldn't get anybody to live there with you."
"I couldn't afford to live there in any case," said Hewson; "but I am entirely willing to risk the purchase."
Was it possible that Hewson knew something of the neighborhood or its future, which encouraged him to take the chances of the property appreciating in value? This thought passed through St. John's mind, and he was not the man to let himself be overreached in a deal. "The place ought to be worth thirty thousand," he said, for a bluff.
It was a relief for Hewson to feel ashamed of St. John instead of himself, for a moment. "Very well, I'll give you thirty thousand."
St. John examined himself for a responsive generosity. The most he could say was, "You're doing this because of what I'd said."
"What does it matter? I make you a bonafide offer. I will give you thirty thousand dollars for St. Johnswort," said Hewson, haughtily. "I ask you to sell me that place. I cannot see that it will ever be any good to me, but I can assure you that it would be a far worse burden for me to carry round the sense of having injured you, however unwillingly--God knows I never meant you harm!--than to shoulder the chance of your place remaining worthless on my hands."
St. John caught at the hope which the form of words suggested. "If anything can bring it up, it will be the fact that you have bought it. Such a thing would give the lie to that ridiculous story, as nothing else could. Every one will see that a house can't be very badly haunted, if the man that the ghost appeared to is willing to buy it."
"Perhaps," said Hewson sadly.
"No perhaps about it," St. John retorted, all the more cheerfully because he would have been glad before this incident to take twenty thousand for his place. "It's just on the borders of Lenox, and it's bound to come up when this blows over." He talked on for a time in an encouraging strain, while Hewson, standing with his back against the mantel, looked absently down upon him. St. John was inwardly struggling through all to say that Hewson might have the property for twenty-eight thousand, but he could not. Possibly he made himself believe that he was letting it go a great bargain at thirty; at any rate he ended by saying, "Well, it's yours--if you really mean it."
"I mean it," said Hewson.
St. John floundered up out of his chair with seal-like struggles. "Do you want the furniture?" he panted.
"The furniture? Yes, why not?" said Hewson. He did not seem to know what he was saying, or to care.
"I will put that in for a mere nominal consideration--the rugs alone are worth the money--say a thousand more."
Hewson's man came in with a note. "The messenger is waiting, sir," he said.
Hewson was aware of wondering that he had not heard any ring. "Will you excuse me?" he said, toward St. John.
"By all means," said St. John.
Hewson opened the note, and read it with an expression which can only be described as a radiant frown. He sat down at his desk, and wrote an answer to the note, and gave it to his man, who was still waiting. Then he said to St. John, "What did you say the rugs were worth?"
"I'll take them. And what do you want for the rest of the furniture?"
Clearly he had not understood that the furniture, rugs, and all, had been offered to him for a thousand dollars. But what was a man in St. John's place to do? As it was he was turning himself out of house and home for Hewson, and that was sacrifice enough. He hesitated, sighed deeply, and then said, "Well, I will throw all that in for a couple of thousand more."
"All right," said Hewson, "I will give it. Have the papers made out and I will have the money ready at once."
"Oh, there's no hurry about that, my dear fellow," said St. John, handsomely.
Hewson's note was from Mrs. Rock, asking him to breakfast with her at the Walholland the next morning. She said that they were just off the steamer, which had got in late, and they had started so suddenly from London that she had not had time to write and have her apartment opened. She came to business in the last sentence where she said that Miss Hernshaw joined her in kind remembrances, and wished her to say that he must not fail them, or if he could not come to breakfast, to let them know at what hour during the day he would be kind enough to call; it was very important they should see him at the earliest possible moment.
Hewson instantly decided that this summons was related to the affair of his apparition, without imagining how or why, and when Miss Hernshaw met him, and almost before she could say that Mrs. Rock would be down in a moment, began with it, he made no feint of having come for anything else.
As he entered the door of Mrs. Rock's parlor, where the breakfast table was laid, the girl came swiftly toward him, with the air of having turned from watching for him at the window. "Well, what do you think of me?" she demanded as soon as she had got over Mrs. Rock's excuses for having her receive him. He had of course to repeat, "What do I think of you?" but he knew perfectly what she meant.
She disdained to help him pretend that he did not know. "It was I who told that horrible woman about your experience at St. Johnswort. I didn't dream that she was an interviewer, but that doesn't excuse me, and I am willing to take any punishment for my--I don't know what to call it--mischief."
She was so intensely ready, so magnificently prepared for the stake, if that should be her sentence, that Hewson could not help laughing. "Why there isn't any punishment severe enough for a crime like that," he began, but she would not allow him to trifle with the matter.
"Oh, I didn't think you would be so uncandid! The instant I read that interview I made Mrs. Rock get ready to come. And we started the first steamer. It seemed to me that I could not eat or sleep, till I had seen you and told you what I had done and taken the consequences. And now do you think it right to turn it off as a joke?"
"I don't wish to make a joke of it," said Hewson, gravely, in compliance with her mood. "But I don't understand, quite, how you could have got the story over there in time for you--"
"It was cabled to their London edition--that's what it said in the paper; and by this time they must have it in Australia," said Miss Hernshaw, with unrelieved severity.
"Oh!" said Hewson, giving himself time to realize that he was the psychical hero of two hemispheres. "Well," he resumed "what do you expect me to say?"
"I don't know what I expect. I expected you to say something without my prompting you. You know that it was outrageous for me to talk about your apparition without your leave, and to be the means of its getting into the newspapers."
"I'm not sure you were the means. I have told the story a hundred times, myself."
"But that doesn't excuse me. You knew the kind of people to tell it to, and I didn't."
"Oh, I am afraid I was willing to tell it to all kinds of people--to any kind that would listen."
"You are trying to evade me, Mr. Hewson," she said, with a severity he found charming. "I didn't expect that of you."
The appeal was not lost upon Hewson. "What do you want me to say?"
"I want you," said Miss Hernshaw, with an effect of giving him another trial, "to say--to acknowledge that you were terribly annoyed by that interview."
"If you will excuse me from attaching the slightest blame to you for it, I will acknowledge that I was annoyed."
Miss Hernshaw drew a deep breath as of relief. "I will arrange about the blame," she said loftily. "And now I wish to tell you how I never supposed that girl was an interviewer. We were all together at an artist's house in Rome, and after dinner, we got to telling ghost-stories, the way people do, around the fire, and I told mine--yours I mean. And before we broke up, this girl came to me--it was while we were putting on our wraps--and introduced herself, and said how much she had been impressed by my story--of course, I mean your story--and she said she supposed it was made up. I said I should not dream of making up a thing of that kind, and that it was every word true, and I had heard the person it happened to tell it himself. I don't know! I was vain of having heard it, so, at first hand."
"I can understand," said Hewson, sadly.
"And then I told her who the person was, and where it happened--and about the burglary. You can't imagine how silly people get when they begin going in that direction."
"I am afraid I can," said Hewson.
"She seemed very grateful somehow; I couldn't see why, but I didn't ask; and then I didn't think about it again till I saw it in that awful newspaper. She sent it to me herself; she was such a simpleton; she thought I would actually like to see it. She must have written it down, and sent it to the paper, and they printed it when they got ready to; she needed the money, I suppose. Then I began to wonder what you would say, when you remembered how I blamed you for telling the same story--only not half so bad--at that dinner."
"I always felt you were quite right," said Hewson. "I have always thanked you in my own mind for being so frank with me."
"Well, and what do you think now, when you know that I was ten times as bad as you--ten times as foolish and vulgar!"
"I haven't had time to formulate my ideas yet," Hewson urged.
"You know perfectly well that you despise me. Can you say that I had any right to give your name?"
"It must have got out sooner or later. I never asked any one not to mention my name when I told the story--"
"I see that you think I took a liberty, and I did. But that's nothing. That isn't the point. How I do keep beating about the bush! Mrs. Rock says it was a great deal worse to tell where it happened, for that would give the place the reputation of being haunted and nobody could ever live there afterwards, for they couldn't keep servants, even if they didn't have the creeps themselves, and it would ruin the property."
Hewson had not been able, when she touched upon this point, to elude the keen eye with which she read his silent thought.
"Is that true?" she demanded.
"Oh, no; oh, no," he began, but he could not frame in plausible terms the lies he would have uttered. He only succeeded in saying, "Those things soon blow over."
"Then how," she said, sternly, "does it happen that in every town and village, almost, there are houses that you can hardly hire anybody to live in, because people say they are haunted? No, Mr. Hewson, it's very kind of you, and I appreciate it, but you can't make me believe that it will ever blow over, about St. Johnswort. Have you heard from Mr. St. John since?"
"Yes," Hewson was obliged to own.
"And was he very much troubled about it? I should think he was a man that would be, from the way he behaved about the burglary. Was he?" she persisted, seeing that Hewson hesitated.
"Yes, I must say he was."
There was a sound of walking to and fro in the adjoining room, a quick shutting as of trunk-lids, a noise as of a skirt shaken out, and steps advanced to the door. Miss Hernshaw ran to it and turned the key in the lock. "Not yet, Mrs. Rock," she called to the unseen presence within, and she explained to Hewson, as she faced him again, "She promised that I should have it all out with you myself, and now I'm not going to have her in here, interrupting. Well, did he write to you?"
"Yes, he wrote to me. He wanted me to deny the story."
"And did you?"
"Of course not!" said Hewson, with a note of indignation. "It was true. Besides it wouldn't have been of any use."
"No, it would have been wicked and it would have been useless. And then what did he say?"
"Nothing? And you have never heard another word from him?"
"Yes, he came to see me last night."
"Here in New York? Is he here yet?"
"I suppose so."
"I believe at the Overpark."
Miss Hernshaw caught her breath, as if she were going to speak, but she did not say anything.
"Why do you insist upon all this, Miss Hernshaw?" he entreated. "It can do you no good to follow the matter up!"
"Do you think I want to do myself _good?_" she returned. "I want to do myself _harm!_ What did he say when he came to see you?"
"Well, you can imagine," said Hewson, not able to keep out of his tone the lingering disgust he felt for St. John.
"He all but shed tears," said Hewson, recalled to a humorous sense of St. John's behavior. "I felt sorry for him; though," he added, darkly, "I can't say that I do now."
Miss Hernshaw didn't seek to fathom the mystery of his closing words. "Had he been actually inconvenienced by that thing in the paper?"
"Oh," Hewson groaned. "If you must know--"
"I must! The worst!"
"It had fairly turned him out of house and home. His servants had all left him, and he had been reduced to taking his meals at the inn. He showed me a handful of letters from people whom he had asked to visit him, withdrawing their acceptances, or making excuses for not accepting."
"Ah!" said Miss Hernshaw, with a deep, inward breath, as if this now were indeed something like the punishment she had expected. "And will it--did he think--did he say anything about the pecuniary effect--the--whether it would hurt the property?"
"He seemed to think it would," answered Hewson, reluctantly, and he added, unfortunately for his generous purpose, "I really can't enter upon that part."
She arched her eyebrows in grieved surprise. "But that is the very part that I want you to enter upon Mr. Hewson. You _must_ tell me, now! Did he say that it had injured the property very much?"
"He did, but--"
"I think St. John is a man to put the worst face on that matter."
"You are saying that to keep me from feeling badly. But I ought to feel badly--I _wish_ to feel badly. I suppose he said that it wasn't worth anything now."
"Something of that sort," Hewson helplessly admitted.
"Very well, then, I will buy it for whatever he chooses to ask!" With the precipitation which characterized all her actions, Miss Hernshaw rose from the chair in which she had been provisionally sitting, pushed an electric button in the wall, swirled away to the other side of the room, unlocked the door behind which those sounds had subsided, and flinging it open, said, "You can come out, Mrs. Hock; I've rung for breakfast."
Mrs. Rock came smoothly forth, with her vague eyes wandering over every other object in the room, till they rested upon Hewson, directly before her. Then she gave him her hand, and asked, with a smile, as if taking him into the joke. "Well, has Rosalie had it out with you?"
"I have had it out with him, Mrs. Rock," Miss Hernshaw answered, "and I will tell you all about it later. Now I want my breakfast."
Hewson ate the meal before him, and it was a very good one, as from time to time he noted, in a daze which was as strange a confusion of the two consciousnesses as he had ever experienced. Whatever the convention was between Miss Hernshaw and Mrs. Rock with regard to the matter in hand, or lately in hand, it dropped, after a few uninterested inquiries from Mrs. Rock, who was satisfied, or seemed so, to know that Miss Hernshaw had got at the worst. She led the talk to other things, like the comparative comforts and discomforts of the line to Genoa and the line to Liverpool; and Hewson met her upon these polite topics with an apparent fulness of interest that would have deceived a much more attentive listener.
All the time he was arguing with Miss Hernshaw in his nether consciousness, pleading with her to keep her away from the fact that he had himself bought St. Johnswort, until he could frame some fitting form in which to tell her that he had bought it. With his outward eyes, he saw her drooping on the opposite side of the table, and in spite of her declaration that she wanted her breakfast, making nothing of it, after the preliminary melon, while to his inward vision she was passionately refusing, by every charming perversity, to be tempted away from the subject.
As the Cunard boats always get in on Saturday, this morrow of their arrival was naturally Sunday; and after a while Hewson fancied symptoms of going to church in Mrs. Rock. She could not have become more vague than she ordinarily was, but her wanderings were of a kind of devotional character. She spoke of the American church in Rome, and asked Hewson if he knew the rector. Then, when he said he was afraid he was keeping her from going to church, she said she did not know whether Rosalie intended going. At the same time she rose from the table, and Hewson found that he should not be allowed to sit down again, unless by violence. He had to go away, and he went, as little at ease in his mind as he very well could be.
He was no sooner out of the house than he felt the necessity of returning. He did not know how or when Miss Hernshaw would write to St. John, but that she would do so, he did not at all doubt, and then, when the truth came out, what would she think of him? He did not think her a very wise person; she seemed to him rather a wild and whirling person in her ideals of conduct, an unbridled and undisciplined person; and yet he was aware of profoundly and tenderly respecting her as a creature of the most inexpugnable innocence and final goodness. He could not bear to have her feel that he had trifled with her. There had not been many meetings between them, but each meeting had been of such event that it had advanced their acquaintance far beyond the point that it could have reached through weeks of ordinary association. From the first there had been that sort of intimacy which exists between spirits which encounter in the region of absolute sincerity. She had never used the least of those arts which women use in concealing the candor of their natures from men unworthy of it; she had not only practiced her rule of instant and constant veracity, but had avowed it, and as it were, invited his judgment of it. Hitherto, he had met her half-way at least, but now he was in the coil of a disingenuousness which must more and more trammel him from her, unless he found some way to declare the fact to her.
This ought to have been an easy matter, but it was not easy; upon reflection it grew rather more difficult. Hewson did not see how he could avow the fact, which he wished to avow, without intolerable awkwardness; without the effect of boasting, without putting upon her a burden which he had no right to put. To be sure, she had got herself in for it all by her divine imprudence, but she had owned her error in that as promptly as if it had been the blame of some one else. Still Hewson doubted whether her magnanimity was large enough to go round in the case of a man who tried to let his magnanimity come upon her with any sort of dramatic surprise. This was what he must seem to be doing if he now left her to learn from another how he had kept St. John from loss by himself assuming the chance of depreciation in his property. But if he went and told her that he had done it, how much better for him would that be?
He took a long, unhappy walk up into the Park, and then he walked back to the Walholland. By this time he thought Mrs. Rock and Miss Hernshaw must have been to church, but he had not the courage to send up his name to them. He waited about in the region of the dining-room, in the senseless hope that it would be better for him to surprise them on their way to luncheon, and trust to some chance for introducing his confession, than to seek a direct interview with Miss Hernshaw. But they did not come to luncheon, and then Hewson had the clerk send up his card. Word came back that the ladies would see him, and he followed the messenger to Mrs. Rock's apartment, where if he was surprised, he was not disappointed to be received by Miss Hernshaw alone.
"Mrs. Rock is lying down," she explained, "but I thought that it might be something important, and you would not mind seeing me."
"Not at all," said Hewson, with what seemed to him afterwards superfluous politeness, and then they both waited until he could formulate his business, Miss Hernshaw drooping forward, and looking down in a way that he had found was most characteristic of her. "It _is_ something important--at least it is important to me. Miss Hernshaw, may I ask whether you have done anything--it seems a very unwarrantable question--about St. Johnswort?"
"About buying it?"
"Yes. It will be useless to make any offer for it."
"Why will it be useless to do that?"
"Because--because I have bought it myself."
"You have bought it?"
"Yes; when he came to me last night, and made those representations--Well, in short, I have bought the place."
"To save him from losing money by that--story?"
"Well--yes. I ought to have told you the fact this morning, as soon as you said you would buy the place. I know that you like people to be perfectly truthful. But--I couldn't--without seeming to--brag."
"I understand," said Miss Hernshaw.
"I took the risk of your writing to St. John; but then I realized that if he answered and told you what I ought to have told you myself, it would make it worse, and I came back."
"I don't know whether it would have made it worse; but you have come too late," said Miss Hernshaw. "I've just written to Mr. St. John."
They were both silent for what Hewson thought a long time. At the end of it, he asked, "Did you--you must excuse me--refer to me at all?"
"No, certainly not. Why should I?"
"I don't know. I don't know that it would have mattered." He was silent again, with bowed head; when he looked up he saw tears in the girl's eyes.
"I suppose you know where this leaves me?" she said gently.
"I can't pretend that I don't," answered Hewson. "What can I do?"
"You can sell me the place for what it cost you."
"Oh, no, I can't do that," said Hewson.
"Why do you say that? It isn't as if I were poor; but even then you wouldn't have the right to refuse me if I insisted. It was my fault that it ever came out about St. Johnswort. It might have come out about you, but the harm to Mr. St. John--I did that, and why should you take it upon yourself?"
"Because I was really to blame from the beginning to the end. If it had not been for my pitiful wish to shine as the confidant of mystery, nothing would have been known of the affair. Even when you asked me that night if it had not happened at St. Johnswort, I know now that I had a wretched triumph in saying that it had, and I was so full of this that I did not think to caution you against repeating what I had owned."
"Yes," said the girl, with her unsparing honesty, "if you had given me any hint, I would not have told for the world. Of course I did not think--a girl wouldn't--of the effect it would have on the property."
"No, you wouldn't think of that," said Hewson. Though he agreed with her, he would have preferred that she should continue to blame herself; but he took himself severely in hand again. "So, you see, the fault was altogether mine, and if there is to be any penalty it ought to fall upon me."
"Yes," said Miss Hernshaw, "and if there has been a fault there ought to be a penalty, don't you think? It would have been no penalty for me to buy St. Johnswort. My father wouldn't have minded it." She blushed suddenly, and added, "I don't mean that--You may be so rich that--I think I had better stop."
"No, no!" said Hewson, amused, and glad of the relief. "Go on. I will tell you anything you wish to know."
"I don't wish, to know anything," said Miss Hernshaw, haughtily.
Her words seemed to put an end to an interview for which there was no longer any excuse.
Hewson rose. "Good-by," he said, and he was rather surprised at her putting out her hand, but he took it gratefully. "Will you make my adieux to Mrs. Rock? And excuse my coming a second time to trouble you!"
"I don't see how you could have helped coming," said Miss Hernshaw, "when you thought I might write to Mr. St. John at once."
Whether this implied excuse or greater blame, Hewson had to go away with it as her final response, and he went away certainly in as great discomfort as he had come. He did not feel quite well used; it seemed to him that hard measure had been dealt him on all sides, but especially by Miss Hernshaw. After her futile effort at reparation to St. John she had apparently withdrawn from all responsibility in the matter. He did not know when he was to see her again, if ever, and he did not know what he was to wait for, if anything.
Still he had the sense of waiting for something, or for some one, and he went home to wait. There he perceived that it was for St. John, who did not keep him waiting long. His nervous ring roused Hewson half an hour after his return, and St. John came in with a look in his greedy eyes which Hewson rightly interpreted at the first glance.
"See here, Hewson," St. John said, with his habitual lack of manners. "I don't want to get you in for this thing at St. Johnswort. I know why you offered to buy the place, and though of course you are the original cause of the trouble, I don't feel that it's quite fair to let you shoulder the consequences altogether."
"Have I been complaining?" Hewson asked, dryly.
"No, and that's just it. You've behaved like a little man through it all, and I don't like to take advantage of you. If you want to rue your bargain, I'll call it off. I've had some fresh light on the matter, and I believe I can let you off without loss to myself. So that if it's me you're considering--"
"What's your fresh light?" asked Hewson.
"Well," said St. John, and he swallowed rather hard, as if it were a pill, "the fact is, I've had another offer for the place."
"A better one?"
"Well, I don't know that I can say that it is," answered St. John, saving his conscience in the form of the words.
Hewson knew that he was lying, and he had no mercy on him. "Then I believe I'll stick to my bargain. You say that the other party hasn't bettered my offer, and so I needn't withdraw on your account. I'm not bound to withdraw for any other reason."
"No, of course not." St. John rubbed his chin, as if hesitating to eat his words, however unpalatable; but in the end he seemed not to find it possible. "Well," he said, disgustedly, as he floundered up to take his leave, "I thought I ought to come and give you the chance."
"It's very nice of you," said Hewson, with a smile that made itself a derisive grin in spite of him, and a laugh of triumph when the door had closed upon St. John.
After the first flush of Hewson's triumph had passed he began to enjoy it less, and by-and-by he did not enjoy it at all. He had done right not only in keeping St. John from plundering Miss Hernshaw, but in standing firm and taking the punishment which ought to fall upon him and not on her. But the sense of having done right sufficed him no more than the sense of having got the better of St. John. What was lacking to him? In the casuistry of the moment, which was perhaps rather emotional than rational, it appeared to Hewson that he had again a duty toward Miss Hernshaw, and that his feeling of dissatisfaction was the first effect of its non-fulfilment. But it was clearly impossible that he should go again to see her, and tell her what had passed between him and St. John, and it was clearly impossible that he should write and tell her what it was quite as clearly her right to know from him. If he went to her, or wrote to her, he felt himself in danger of wanting to shine in the affair, as her protector against the rapacity of St. John, and as the man of superior quality who had outwitted a greedy fellow. The fear that she might not admire his splendor in either sort caused him to fall somewhat nervelessly back upon Providence; but if the moral government of the universe finally favored him it was not by traversing any of its own laws. By the time he had determined to achieve both the impossibilities which formed his dilemma--had decided to write to Miss Hernshaw and call upon her, and leave his letter in the event of failing to find her--his problem was as far solved as it might be, by the arrival of a note from Miss Hernshaw herself, hoping that he would come to see her on business of pressing importance.
She received him without any pretence of Mrs. Rock's intermediary presence, and put before him a letter which she had received, before writing him, from St. John, and which she could not answer without first submitting it to him. It was a sufficiently straightforward expression of his regret that he could not accept her very generous offer for St. Johnswort because the place was already sold. He had the taste to forbear any allusion to the motives which (she told Hewson) she had said prompted her offer; but then he became very darkling and sinuous in a suggestion that if Miss Hernshaw wished to have her offer known as hers to the purchaser of St. Johnswort he would be happy to notify him of it.
"You see," she eagerly commented to Hewson, "he does not give your name; but I know who it is, though I did not know when I made him my offer. I must answer his letter now, and what shall I say? Shall I tell him I know who it is? I should like to; I hate all concealments! Will it do any harm to tell him I know?"
Hewson reflected. "I don't see how it can. I was trying to come to you, when I got your note, to say that St. John had been to see me, and offered to release me from my offer, because, as I thought, you had made him a better one. He's amusingly rapacious, St. John is."
"And what did you--I beg your pardon!"
"Oh, not at all. I said I would stand to my offer."
She repressed, apparently, some form of protest, and presently asked, "And what shall I say?"
"Oh, if you like, that you have learned who the purchaser of St. Johnswort is, and that you know he will not give way."
"Well!" she said, with a quick sigh, as of disappointment. After an indefinite pause, she asked, "Shall you be going to St. Johnswort?"
"Why, I don't know," Hewson answered. "I had thought of going to Europe. But, yes, I think I shall go to St. Johnswort, first, at any rate. One can't simply turn one's back on a piece of real estate in that way," he said, recognizing a fact that would doubtless have presented itself in due order for his consideration. "My one notion was to forget it as quickly as possible."
"I should not think you would want to do that," said the girl, seriously.
"No, one oughtn't to neglect an investment."
"I don't mean that. But if such a thing had happened to me, there, I should want to go again and again."
"You mean the apparition? Did I tell you how I had always had the expectation that I should see it again, and perhaps understand it? But when I had behaved so shabbily about it, I began to feel that it would not come again."
"If I were in your place," said the girl, "I should never give up; I should spend my whole life trying to find out what it meant."
"Ah!" he sighed. "I wish you could put yourself in my place."
"I wish I could," she returned, intensely.
They looked into each other's faces.
"Miss Hernshaw," he demanded, solemnly, "do you really like people to say what they think?"
"Of course I do!"
"Then I wish you would come to St. Johnswort with me!"
"Would that do?" she asked. "If Mrs. Rock--"
He saw how far she was from taking his meaning, but he pushed on. "I don't want Mrs. Rock. I want you--you alone. Don't you understand me? I love you. I--of course it's ridiculous! We've only met three or four times in our lives, but I knew this as well the first moment as I do now. I knew it when you came walking across the garden that morning, and I haven't known it any better since, and I couldn't in a thousand years. But of course--"
"Sit down," she said, wafting herself into a chair, and he obeyed her. "I should have to tell my father," she began.
"Why, certainly," and he sprang to his feet again.
She commanded him to his chair with an imperative gesture. "I have got to find out what I think, first, myself. If I were sure that I loved you--but I don't know. I believe you are good. I believed that when they were all joking you there at breakfast, and you took it so nicely; I have _always_ believed that you were good."
She seemed to be appealing to him for confirmation, but he could not very well say that she was right, and he kept silent. "I didn't like your telling that story at the dinner, and I said so; and then I went and did the same thing, or worse; so that I have nothing to say about that. And I think you have behaved very nobly to Mr. St. John." As if at some sign of protest in Hewson, she insisted, "Yes, I do! But all this doesn't prove that I love you." Again she seemed to appeal to him, and this time he thought he might answer her appeal.
"I couldn't prove that _I_ love _you_, but I feel sure of it."
"And do you believe that we ought to take our feelings for a guide?"
"That's what people do," he ventured, with the glimmer of a smile in his eyes, which she was fixing so earnestly with her own.
"I am not satisfied that it is the right way," she answered. "If there is really such a thing as love there ought to be some way of finding it out besides our feelings. Don't you think it's a thing we ought to talk sensibly about?"
"Of all things in the world; though it isn't the custom."
Miss Hernshaw was silent for a moment. Then she said, "I believe I should like a little time."
"Oh, I didn't expect you to answer me at once,--I"
"But if you are going to Europe?"
"I needn't go to Europe at all. I can go to St. Johnswort, and wait for your answer there."
"It might be a good while," she urged. "I should want to tell my father that I was thinking about it, and he would want to see you before he approved."
"Why, of course!"
"Not," she added, "that it would make any difference, if I was sure of it myself. He has always said that he would not try to control me in such a matter, and I think he would like you. I do like you very much myself, Mr. Hewson, but I don't think it would be right to say I loved you unless I could prove it."
Hewson was tempted to say that she could prove it by marrying him, but he had not the heart to mock a scruple which he felt to be sacred. What he did say was: "Then I will wait till you can prove it. Do you wish me not to see you again, before you have made up your mind?"
"I don't know. I can't see what harm there would be in our meeting." "No, I can't, either," said Hewson, as she seemed to refer the point to him. "Should you mind my coming again, say, this evening?"
"To-night?" She reflected a moment. "Yes, come to-night."
When he came after dinner, Hewson was sensible from the perfect unconsciousness of Mrs. Rock's manner that Miss Hernshaw had been telling her. Her habit of a wandering eye, contributed to the effect she wished to produce, if this were the effect, and her success was such that it might easily have deceived herself. But when Mrs. Rock, in a supreme exercise of her unconsciousness, left him with the girl for a brief interval before it was time for him to go, Miss Hernshaw said, "Mrs. Rock knows about it, and she says that the best way for me to find out will be to try whether I can live without you."
"Was that Mrs. Rock's idea?" asked Hewson, as gravely as he could.
"No it was mine; I suggested it to her; but she approves of it. Don't you like it?"
"Yes. I hope I sha'n't die while you are trying to live without me. Shall you be very long?" She frowned, and he hastened to say, "I do like your idea; it's the best way, and I thank you for giving me a chance."
"We are going out to my father's ranch in Colorado, at once," she explained. "We shall start to-morrow morning."
"Oh! May I come to see you off?"
"No, I would rather begin at once."
"May I write to you?"
"I will write to you--when I've decided."
She gave him her hand, but she would not allow him to keep it for more than farewell, and then she made him stay till Mrs. Rock came back, and take leave of her too; he had frankly forgotten Mrs. Rock, who bade him adieu with averted eyes, and many civilities about seeing him again. She could hardly have been said to be seeing him then.
The difficulties of domestication at St. Johnswort had not been misrepresented by the late proprietor, Hewson found, when he went to take possession of his estate. He thought it right in engaging servants to say openly that the place had the reputation of being haunted, and if he had not thought it right he would have thought it expedient, for he knew that if he had concealed the fact it would have been discovered to them within twenty-four hours of their arrival. His declaration was sufficient at once with most, who recoiled from his service as if he had himself been a ghost; with one or two sceptics who seemed willing to take the risks (probably in a guilty consciousness of records that would have kept them out of other employ) his confession that he had himself seen the spectre which haunted St. Johnswort, was equally effective. He prevailed at last against the fact and his own testimony with a Japanese, who could not be made to understand the objection to the place, and who willingly went with Hewson as his valet and general house-workman. With the wife of the gardener coming in to cook for them during the long daylight, he got on in as much comfort as he could have expected, and by night he suffered no sort of disturbance from the apparition. He had expected to be annoyed by believers in spiritualism, and other psychical inquirers, but it sufficed with them to learn from him that he had come to regard his experience, of which he had no more question now than ever, as purely subjective.
It seemed to Hewson, in the six weeks' time which he spent at St. Johnswort, waiting to hear from Rosalie (he had come already to think of her as Rosalie), that all his life was subjective, it passed so like a dream. He had some outward cares as to the place; he kept a horse in the stable, where St. John had kept half a dozen, and he had the gardener look after that as well as the shrubs and vegetables; but all went on in a suspensive and provisional sort. In the mean time Rosalie's charm grew upon him; everything that she had said or looked, was hourly and daily sweeter and dearer; her truth was intoxicating, beyond the lures of other women, in which the quality of deceit had once fascinated him. Now, so late in his youthful life, he realized that there was no beauty but that of truth, and he pledged himself a thousand times that if she should say she could not live without him he would henceforward live for truth alone, and not for the truth merely as it was in her, but as it was in everything. In those day's he learned to know himself, as he never had before, and to put off a certain shell of worldliness that had grown upon him. In his remoteness from it, New York became very distasteful to him; he thought with reluctance of going back to it; his club, which had been his home, now appeared a joyless exile; the life of a leisure class, which he had made his ideal, looked pitifully mean and little in the retrospect; he wondered how he could have valued the things that he had once thought worthy. He did not know what he should replace it all with, but Rosalie would know, in the event of not being able to live without him. In that event there was hardly any use of which he could not be capable. In any other event--he surprised himself by realizing that in any other event--still the universe had somehow more meaning than it once had. Somehow, he felt himself an emancipated man.
He began many letters to Rosalie, and some he finished and some not, but he sent none; and when her letter came at last, he was glad that he had waited for it in implicit trust of its coming, though he believed she would have forgiven him if he had not had the patience. The letter was quite what he could have imagined of her. She said that she had put herself thoroughly to the test, and she could not live without him. But if he had found out that he could live without her, then she should know that she had been to blame, and would take her punishment. Apparently in her philosophy, which now seemed to him so divine, without punishment there must be perdition; it was the penalty that redeemed; that was the token of forgiveness.
Hewson hurried out to Colorado, where he found Hernshaw a stout, silent, impersonal man, whose notion of the paternal office seemed to be a ready acquiescence in a daughter's choice of a husband; he appeared to think this could be best expressed to Hewson in a good cigar He perceptibly enjoyed the business details of the affair, but he enjoyed despatching them in the least possible time and the fewest words, and then he settled down to the pleasure of a superficial passivity. Hewson could not make out that he regarded his daughter as at all an unusual girl, and from this he argued that her mother must have been a very unusual woman. His only reason for doubting that Rosalie must have got all her originality from her mother was something that fell from Hernshaw when they were near the end of their cigars. He said irrelevantly to their talk at that point, "I suppose you know Rosalie believes in that ghost of yours?"
"Was it a ghost?--I've never been sure, myself," said Hewson.
"How do you explain it?" asked his prospective father-in-law.
"I don't explain it. I have always left it just as it was. I know that it was a real experience."
"I think I should have left it so, too," said Hernshaw. "That always gives it a chance to explain itself. If such a thing had happened to me I should give it all the time it wanted."
"Well, I haven't hurried it," Hewson suggested.
"What I mean," and Hernshaw stepped to the edge of the porch and threw the butt of his cigar into the darkness, where it described a glimmering arc, "is that if anything came to me that would help shore up my professed faith in what most of us want to believe in, I would take the common-law view of it. I would believe it was innocent till it proved itself guilty. I wouldn't try to make it out a fraud myself."
"I'm afraid that's what I've really done," said Hewson. "But before people I've put up a bluff of despising it." "Oh, yes, I understand that," said Hernshaw. "A man thinks that if he can have an experience like that he must be something out of the common, and if he can despise it--"
"You've hit my case exactly," said Hewson, and the two men laughed.
After his marriage, which took place without needless delay, Hewson returned with his wife to spend their honey-moon at St. Johnswort. The honey-moon prolonged itself during an entire year, and in this time they contrived so far to live down its reputation of being a haunted house that they were able to conduct their _menage_ on the ordinary terms. They themselves never wished to lose the sense of something supernatural in the place, and were never quite able to accept the actual conditions as final. That is to say, Rosalie was not, for she had taken Hewson's apparition under her peculiar care, and defended it against even his question. She had a feeling (it was scarcely a conviction) that if he believed more strenuously in the validity of his apparition as an authorized messenger from the unseen world it would yet come again and declare its errand. She could not accept the theory that if such a thing actually happened it could happen for nothing at all, or that the reason of its occurrence could be indefinitely postponed. She was impatient of that, as often as he urged the possibility, and she wished him to use a seriousness of mind in speaking of his apparition which should form some sort of atonement to it for his past levity, though since she had taken his apparition into her keeping he had scarcely hazarded any suggestion concerning it; in fact it had become so much her apparition that he had a fantastic reluctance from meddling with it.
"You are always requiring a great occasion for it," he said, at last. "What greater event could it have foreshadowed or foreshown, than that which actually came to pass?"
"I don't understand you, Arthur," she said, letting her hand creep into his, where it trembled provisionally as they sat together in the twilight.
"Why, that was the day I first saw you."
"Now, you are laughing!" she said, pulling her hand away.
"Indeed, I'm not! I couldn't imagine anything more important than the union of our lives. And if that was what the apparition meant to portend it could not have intimated it by a more noble and impressive behavior. Simply to be there, and then to be gone, and leave the rest to us! It was majestic, it was--delicate!"
"Yes, it was. But it was too much, for it was out of proportion. A mere earthly love-affair--" "Is it merely for earth?"
"Oh, husband, I hope you don't think so! I wanted you to say you didn't. And if you don't think so, yes, I'll believe it came for that!"
"You may be sure I don't think so."
"Then I know it will come again."