I should like to give the story of Alford's experiences just as Wanhope told it, sitting with us before the glowing hearth in the Turkish room, one night after the other diners at our club had gone away to digest their dinners at the theatre, or in their bachelor apartments up-town, or on the late trains which they were taking north, south, and west; or had hurried back to their offices to spend the time stolen from rest in overwork for which their famished nerves would duly revenge themselves. It was undoubtedly overwork which preceded Alford's experiences if it did not cause them, for he was pretty well broken from it when he took himself off in the early summer, to put the pieces together as best he could by the seaside. But this was a fact which Wanhope was not obliged to note to us, and there were certain other commonplaces of our knowledge of Alford which he could omit without omitting anything essential to our understanding of the facts which he dealt with so delicately, so electly, almost affectionately, coaxing each point into the fittest light, and then lifting his phrase from it, and letting it stand alone in our consciousness. I remember particularly how he touched upon the love-affair which was supposed to have so much to do with Alford's break-up, and how he dismissed it to its proper place in the story. As he talked on, with scarcely an interruption either from the eager credulity of Rulledge or the doubt of Minver, I heard with a sensuous comfort--I can use no other word--the far-off click of the dishes in the club kitchen, putting away till next day, with the musical murmur of a smitten glass or the jingle of a dropped spoon. But if I should try to render his words, I should spoil their impression in the vain attempt, and I feel that it is best to give the story as best I can in words of my own, so far from responsive to the requisitions of the occult incident.
The first intimation Alford had of the strange effect, which from first to last was rather an obsession than a possession of his, was after a morning of idle satisfaction spent in watching the target practice from the fort in the neighborhood of the little fishing-village where he was spending the summer. The target was two or three miles out in the open water beyond the harbor, and he found his pleasure in watching the smoke of the gun for that discrete interval before the report reached him, and then for that somewhat longer interval before he saw the magnificent splash of the shot which, as it plunged into the sea, sent a fan-shaped fountain thirty or forty feet into the air. He did not know and he did not care whether the target was ever hit or not. That fact was no part of his concern. His affair was to watch the burst of smoke from the fort and then to watch the upward gush of water, almost as light and vaporous to the eye, where the ball struck. He did not miss one of the shots fired during the forenoon, and when he met the other people who sat down with him at the midday dinner in the hotel, his talk with them was naturally of the morning's practice. They one and all declared it a great nuisance, and said that it had shattered their nerves terribly, which was not perhaps so strange, since they were all women. But when they asked him in his quality of nervous wreck whether he had not suffered from the prolonged and repeated explosions, too, he found himself able to say no, that he had enjoyed every moment of the firing. He added that he did not believe he had even noticed the noise after the first shot, he was so wholly taken with the beauty of the fountain-burst from the sea which followed; and as he spoke the fan-like spray rose and expanded itself before his eyes, quite blotting out the visage of a young widow across the table. In his swift recognition of the fact and his reflection upon it, he realized that the effect was quite as if he had been looking at some intense light, almost as if he had been looking at the sun, and that the illusion which had blotted out the agreeable reality opposite was of the quality of those flying shapes which repeat themselves here, there, and everywhere that one looks, after lifting the gaze from a dazzling object. When his consciousness had duly registered this perception, there instantly followed a recognition of the fact that the eidolon now filling his vision was not the effect of the dazzled eyes, but of a mental process, of thinking how the thing which it reported had looked.
By the time Alford had co-ordinated this reflection with the other, the eidolon had faded from the lady's face, which again presented itself in uninterrupted loveliness with the added attraction of a distinct pout.
"Well, Mr. Alford!" she bantered him.
"Oh, I beg your pardon! I was thinking--"
"Not of what I was saying," she broke in, laughingly, forgivingly.
"No, I certainly wasn't," he assented, with such a sense of approaching creepiness in his experience that when she challenged him to say what he _was_ thinking of, he could not, or would not; she professed to believe that he would not.
In the joking that followed he soon lost the sense of approaching creepiness, and began to be proud of what had happened to him as out of the ordinary, as a species of psychological ecstasy almost of spiritual value. From time to time he tried, by thinking of the splash and upward gush from the cannon-shot's plunge in the sea, to recall the vision, but it would not come again, and at the end of an afternoon somewhat distraughtly spent he decided to put the matter away, as one of the odd things of no significance which happen in life and must be dealt with as mysteries none the less trifling because they are inexplicable.
"Well, you've got over it?" the widow joked him as he drew up towards her, smiling from her rocker on the veranda after supper. At first, all the women in the hotel had petted him; but with their own cares and ailments to reclaim them they let the invalid fall to the peculiar charge of the childless widow who had nothing else to do, and was so well and strong that she could look after the invalid Professor of Archaeology (at the Champlain University) without the fatigues they must feel.
"Yes, I've got over it," he said.
"And what was it?" she boldly pursued.
He was about to say, and then he could not.
"You won't tell?"
"Not yet," he answered. He added, after a moment, "I don't believe I can."
"Because it's confidential?"
"No; not exactly that. Because it's impossible."
"Oh, that's simple enough. I understand exactly what you mean. Well, if ever it becomes less difficult, remember that I should always like to know. It seemed a little--personal."
"How in the world?"
"Well, when one is stared at in that way--"
"Did I stare?"
"Don't you _always_ stare? But in this case you stared as if there was something wrong with my hair."
"There wasn't," Alford protested, simple-heartedly. Then he recollected his sophistication to say: "Unless its being of that particular shade between brown and red was wrong."
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Alford! After that I _must_ believe you."
They talked on the veranda till the night fell, and then they came in among the lamps, in the parlor, and she sat down with a certain provisionality, putting herself sideways on a light chair by a window, and as she chatted and laughed with one cheek towards him she now and then beat the back of her chair with her open hand. The other people were reading or severely playing cards, and they, too, kept their tones down to a respectful level, while she lingered, and when she rose and said good-night he went out and took some turns on the veranda before going up to bed. She was certainly, he realized, a very pretty woman, and very graceful and very amusing, and though she probably knew all about it, she was the franker and honester for her knowledge.
He had arrived at this conclusion just as he turned the switch of the electric light inside his door, and in the first flash of the carbon film he saw her sitting beside the window in such a chair as she had taken and in the very pose which she had kept in the parlor. Her half-averted face was lit as from laughing, and she had her hand lifted as if to beat the back of her chair.
"Good Heavens, Mrs. Yarrow!" he said, in a sort of whispered shout, while he mechanically closed the door behind him as if to keep the fact to himself. "What in the world are you doing here?"
Then she was not there. Nothing was there; not even a chair beside the window.
Alford dropped weakly into the only chair in the room, which stood next the door by the head of his bed, and abandoned himself a helpless prey to the logic of the events.
It was at this point, which I have been able to give in Wanhope's exact words, that, in the ensuing pause, Rulledge asked, as if he thought some detail might be denied him: "And what was the logic of the events?"
Minver gave a fleering laugh. "Don't be premature, Rulledge. If you have the logic now, you will spoil everything. You can't have the moral until you've had the whole story. Go on, Wanhope. You're so much more interesting than usual that I won't ask how you got hold of all these compromising minutiae."
"Of course," Wanhope returned, "they're not for the general ear. I go rather further, for the sake of the curious fact, than I should be warranted in doing if I did not know my audience so well."
We joined in a murmur of gratification, and he went on to say that Alford's first coherent thought was that he was dreaming one of those unwarranted dreams in which we make our acquaintance privy to all sorts of strange incidents. Then he knew that he was not dreaming, and that his eye had merely externated a mental vision, as in the case of the cannon-shot splash of which he had seen the phantom as soon as it was mentioned. He remembered afterwards asking himself in a sort of terror how far it was going to go with him; how far his thought was going to report itself objectively hereafter, and what were the reasonable implications of his abnormal experiences. He did not know just how long he sat by his bedside trying to think, only to have his conclusions whir away like a flock of startled birds when he approached them. He went to bed because he was exhausted rather than because he was sleepy, but he could not recall a moment of wakefulness after his head touched the pillow.
He woke surprisingly refreshed, but at the belated breakfast where he found Mrs. Yarrow still lingering he thought her looking not well. She confessed, listlessly, that she had not rested well. She was not sure, she said, whether the sea air agreed with her; she might try the mountains a little later. She was not inclined to talk, and that day he scarcely spoke with her except in commonplaces at the table. They had no return to the little mystery they had mocked together the day before.
More days passed, and Alford had no recurrence of his visions. His acquaintance with Mrs. Yarrow made no further advance; there was no one else in the hotel who interested him, and he bored himself. At the same time his recovery seemed retarded; he lost tone, and after a fortnight he ran up to talk himself over with his doctor in Boston. He rather thought he would mention his eidolons, and ask if they were at all related to the condition of his nerves. It was a keen disappointment, but it ought not to have been a surprise, for him to find that his doctor was off on his summer vacation. The caretaker who opened the door to Alford named a young physician in the same block of Marlborough Street who had his doctor's practice for the summer, but Alford had not the heart to go to this alternate.
He started down to his hotel on a late afternoon train that would bring him to the station after dusk, and before he reached it the lamps had been lighted in his car. Alford sat in a sparsely peopled smoker, where he had found a place away from the crowd in the other coaches, and looked out of the window into the reflected interior of his car, which now and then thinned away and let him see the weeds and gravel of the railroad banks, with the bushes that topped them and the woods that backed them. The train at one point stopped rather suddenly and then went on, for no reason that he ever cared to inquire; but as it slowly moved forward again he was reminded of something he had seen one night in going to New York just before the train drew into Springfield. It had then made such another apparently reasonless stop; but before it resumed its course Alford saw from his window a group of trainmen, and his own Pullman conductor with his lantern on his arm, bending over the figure of a man defined in his dark clothing against the snow of the bank where he lay propped. His face was waxen white, and Alford noted how particularly black the mustache looked traversing the pallid visage. He never knew whether the man was killed or merely stunned; you learn nothing with certainty of such things on trains; but now, as he thought of the incident, its eidolon showed itself outside of his mind, and followed him in every detail, even to a snowy stretch of the embankment, until the increasing speed of the train seemed to sweep it back out of sight.
Alford turned his eyes to the interior of the smoker, which, except for two or three dozing commuters and a noisy euchre-party, had been empty of everything but the fumes and stale odors of tobacco, and found it swarming with visions, the eidolons of everything he remembered from his past life. Whatever had once strongly impressed itself upon his nerves was reported there again as instantly as he thought of it. It was largely a whirling chaos, a kaleidoscopic jumble of facts; but from time to time some more memorable and important experience visualized itself alone. Such was the death-bed of the little sister whom he had been wakened, a child, to see going to heaven, as they told him. Such was the pathetic, foolish face of the girl whom long ago he had made believe he cared for, and then had abruptly broken with: he saw again, with heartache, her silly, tender amaze when he said he was going away. Such was the look of mute astonishment, of gentle reproach, in the eyes of the friend, now long dead, whom in a moment of insensate fury he had struck on the mouth, and who put his hand to his bleeding lips as he bent that gaze of wonder and bewilderment upon him. But it was not alone the dreadful impressions that reported themselves. There were others, as vivid, which came back in the original joyousness: the face of his mother looking up at him from the crowd on a day of college triumph when he was delivering the valedictory of his class; the collective gayety of the whole table on a particularly delightful evening at his dining-club; his own image in the glass as he caught sight of it on coming home accepted by the woman who afterwards jilted him; the transport which lighted up his father's visage when he stepped ashore from the vessel which had been rumored lost, and he could be verified by the senses as still alive; the comical, bashful ecstasy of the good fellow, his ancient chum, in telling him he had had a son born the night before, and the mother was doing well, and how he laughed and danced, and skipped into the air.
The smoker was full of these eidolons and of others which came and went with constant vicissitude. But what was of a greater weirdness than seeing them within it was seeing them without in that reflection of the interior which travelled with it through the summer night, and repeated it, now dimly, now brilliantly, in every detail. Alford sat in a daze, with a smile which he was aware of, fixed and stiff as if in plaster, on his face, and with his gaze bent on this or that eidolon, and then on all of them together. He was not so much afraid of them as of being noticed by the other passengers in the smoker, to whom he knew he might look very queer. He said to himself that he was making the whole thing, but the very subjectivity was what filled him with a deep and hopeless dread. At last the train ceased its long leaping through the dark, and with its coming to a stand the whole illusion vanished. He heard a gay voice which he knew bidding some one good-bye who was getting into the car just back of the smoker, and as he descended to the platform he almost walked into the arms of Mrs. Yarrow.
"Why, Mr. Alford! We had given you up. We thought you wouldn't come back till to-morrow--or perhaps ever. What in the world will you do for supper? The kitchen fires were out ages ago!"
In the light of the station electrics she beamed upon him, and he felt glad at heart, as if he had been saved from something, a mortal danger or a threatened shame. But he could not speak at once; his teeth closed with tetanic force upon each other. Later, as they walked to the hotel, through the warm, soft night in which the south wind was roaming the starless heavens for rain, he found his voice, and although he felt that he was speaking unnaturally, he made out to answer the lively questions with which she pelted him too thickly to expect them to be answered severally. She told him all the news of the day, and when she began on yesterday's news she checked herself with a laugh and said she had forgotten that he had only been gone since morning. "But now," she said, "you see how you've been missed--how _any_ man must be missed in a hotel full of women."
She took charge of him when they got to the house, and said if he would go boldly into the dining-room, where they detected, as they approached, one lamp scantly shining from the else darkened windows, she would beard the lioness in her den, by which she meant the cook in the kitchen, and see what she could get him for supper. Apparently she could get nothing warm, for when a reluctant waitress appeared it was with such a chilly refection on her tray that Alford, though he was not very hungry, returned from interrogating the obscurity for eidolons, and shivered at it. At the same time the swing-door of the long, dim room opened to admit a gush of the outer radiance on which Mrs. Yarrow drifted in with a chafing-dish in one hand and a tea-basket in the other. She floated tiltingly towards him like, he thought, a pretty little ship, and sent a cheery hail before.
"I've been trying to get somebody to join you at a premature Welsh-rarebit and a belated cup of tea, but I can't tear one of the tabbies from their cards or the kittens from their gambols in the amusement-hall in the basement. Do you mind so very much having it alone? Because you'll have to, whether you do or not. Unless you call me company, when I'm merely cook."
She put her utensils on the table beside the forbidding tray the waitress had left, and helped lift herself by pressing one hand on the top of a chair towards the electric, which she flashed up to keep the dismal lamp in countenance. Alford let her do it. He durst not, he felt, stir from his place, lest any movement should summon back the eidolons; and now in the sudden glare of light he shyly, slyly searched the room for them. Not one, fair or foul, showed itself, and slowly he felt a great weight lifting from his heart. In its place there sprang up a joyous gratitude towards Mrs. Yarrow, who had saved him from them, from himself. An inexpressible tenderness filled his breast; the tears rose to his eyes; a soft glow enveloped his whole being, a warmth of hope, a freshness of life renewed, encompassed him. He wished to take her in his arms, to tell her how he loved her; and as she bustled about, lighting the lamp of her chafing-dish, and kindling the little spirit-stove she had brought with her to make tea, he let his gaze dwell upon every pose, every motion of her with a glad hunger in which no smallest detail was lost. He now believed that without her he must die, without her he could not wish to live.
"Jove," Rulledge broke in at this point of Wanhope's story, which I am telling again so badly, "I think Alford was in luck."
Minver gave a harsh cackle. "The only thing Rulledge finds fault with in this club is 'the lack of woman's nursing and the lack of woman's tears.' Nothing is wanting to his enjoyment of his victuals but the fact that they are not served by a neat-handed Phyllis, like Alford's."
Rulledge glanced towards Wanhope, and innocently inquired, "Was that her first name?"
Minver burst into a scream, and Rulledge looked red and silly for having given himself away; but he made an excursion to the buffet outside, and returned with a sandwich with which he supported himself stolidly under Minver's derision, until Wanhope came to his relief by resuming his story, or rather his study, of Alford's strange experience.
Mrs. Yarrow first gave Alford his tea, as being of a prompter brew than the rarebit, but she was very quick and apt with that, too; and pretty soon she leaned forward, and in the glow from the lamp under the chafing-dish, which spiritualized her charming face with its thin radiance, puffed the flame out with her pouted lips, and drew back with a long-sighed "There! That will make you see your grandmother, if anything will."
"My grandmother?" Alford repeated.
"Yes. Wouldn't you like to?" Mrs.. Yarrow asked, pouring the thick composition over the toast (rescued stone-cold from the frigid tray) on Alford's plate. "I'm sure I should like to see mine--dear old gran! Not that I ever saw her--either of her--or should know how she looked. Did you ever see yours--either of her?" she pursued, impulsively.
"Oh yes," Alford answered, looking intently at her, but with so little speculation in the eyes he glared so with that he knew her to be uneasy under them.
She laughed a little, and stayed her hand on the bail of the teapot. "Which of her?"
"And--and--did she look so much like _me_?" she said, with an added laugh, that he perceived had an hysterical note in it. "You're letting your rarebit get cold!"
He laughed himself, now, a great laugh of relaxation, of relief. "Not the least in the world! She was not exactly a phantom of delight."
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Alford. Now, it's your tea's getting cold."
They laughed together, and he gave himself to his victual with a relish that she visibly enjoyed. When that question of his grandmother had been pushed he thought of an awful experience of his childhood, which left on his infant mind an indelible impression, a scar, to remain from the original wound forever. He had been caught in a lie, the first he could remember, but by no means the last, by many immemorable thousands. His poor little wickedness had impugned the veracity of both these terrible old ladies, who, habitually at odds with each other, now united, for once, against him. He could always see himself, a mean little blubbering-faced rascal, stealing guilty looks of imploring at their faces, set unmercifully against him, one in sorrow and one in anger, requiring his mother to whip him, and insisting till he was led, loudly roaring, into the parlor, and there made a liar of for all time, so far as fear could do it.
When Mrs. Yarrow asked if he had ever seen his grandmother he expected instantly to see her, in duplicate, and as a sole refuge, but with little hope that it would save him, he kept his eyes fast on hers, and to his unspeakable joy it did avail. No other face, of sorrow or of anger, rose between them. For the time his thought was quit of its consequence; no eidolon outwardly repeated his inward vision. A warm gush of gratitude seemed to burst from his heart, and to bathe his whole being, and then to flow in a tide of ineffable tenderness towards Mrs. Yarrow, and involve her and bear them together heavenward. It was not passion, it was not love, he perceived well enough; it was the utterance of a vital conviction that she had saved him from an overwhelming subjective horror, and that in her sweet objectivity there was a security and peace to be found nowhere else.
He greedily ate every atom of his rarebit, he absorbed every drop of the moisture in the teapot, so that when she shook it and shook it, and then tried to pour something from it, there was no slightest dribble at the spout. But they lingered, talking and laughing, and perhaps they might never have left the place if the hard handmaiden who had brought the tea-tray had not first tried putting her head in at the swing-door from the kitchen, and then, later, come boldly in and taken the tray away.
Mrs. Yarrow waited self-respectfully for her disappearance, and then she said, "I'm afraid that was a hint, Mr. Alford."
"It seemed like one," he owned.
They went out together, gayly chatting, but she would not encourage the movement he made towards the veranda. She remained firmly attached to the newel-post of the stairs, and at the first chance he gave her she said good-night and bounded lightly upward. At the turn of the stairs she stopped and looked laughing down at him over the rail. "I hope you won't see your grandmother."
"Oh, not a bit of it," he called back. He felt that he failed to give his reply the quality of epigram, but he was not unhappy in his failure.
Many light-hearted days followed this joyous evening. No eidolons haunted Alford's horizon, perhaps because Mrs. Yarrow filled his whole heaven. She was very constantly with him, guiding his wavering steps up the hill of recovery, which he climbed with more and more activity, and keeping him company in those valleys of relapse into which he now and then fell back from the difficult steeps. It came to be tacitly, or at least passively, conceded by the other ladies that she had somehow earned the exclusive right to what had once been the common charge; or that if one of their number had a claim to keep Mr. Alford from killing himself by all sorts of imprudences, which in his case amounted to impieties, it was certainly Mrs. Yarrow. They did not put this in terms, but they felt it and acted it.
She was all the safer guardian for a delicate invalid because she loathed manly sports so entirely that she did not even pretend to like them, as most women, poor things, think themselves obliged to do. In her hands there was no danger that he would be tempted to excesses in golf. She was really afraid of all boats, but she was willing to go out with him in the sail-boat of a superannuated skipper, because to sit talking in the stern and stoop for the vagaries of the boom in tacking was such good exercise. She would join him in fishing from the rotting pier, but with no certainty which was a cunner and which was a sculpin, when she caught it, and with an equal horror of both the nasty, wriggling things. When they went a walk together, her notion of a healthful tramp was to find a nice place among the sweet-fern or the pine-needles, and sit down in it and talk, or make a lap, to which he could bring the berries he gathered for her to arrange in the shallow leaf-trays she pinned together with twigs. She really preferred a rocking-chair on the veranda to anything else; but if he wished to go to those other excesses, she would go with him, to keep him out of mischief.
There could be only one credible reading of the situation, but Alford let the summer pass in this pleasant dreaming without waking up till too late to the pleasanter reality. It will seem strange enough, but it is true, that it was no part of his dream to fancy that Mrs. Yarrow was in love with him. He knew very well, long before the end, that he was in love with her; but, remaining in the dark otherwise, he considered only himself in forbearing verbally to make love to her.
"Well!" Rulledge snarled at this point, "he _was_ a chump."
Wanhope at the moment opposed nothing directly to the censure, but said that something pathetically reproachful in Mrs. Yarrow's smiling looks penetrated to Alford as she nodded gayly from the car window to him in the little group which had assembled to see her off at the station when she left, by no means the first of their happy hotel circle to go.
"Somebody," Rulledge burst out again, "ought to have kicked him."
"What's become," Minver asked, "of all the dear maids and widows that you've failed to marry at the end of each summer, Rulledge?"
The satire involved flattery so sweet that Rulledge could not perhaps wish to make any retort. He frowned sternly, and said, with a face averted from Minver: "Go on, Wanhope!"
Wanhope here permitted himself a philosophical excursion in which I will not accompany him. It was apparently to prepare us for the dramatic fact which followed, and which I suppose he was trying rather to work away from than work up to. It included some facts which he had failed to touch on before, and which led to a discussion very interesting in itself, but of a range too great for the limits I am trying to keep here. It seems that Alford had been stayed from declaring his love not only because he doubted of its nature, but also because he questioned whether a man in his broken health had any right to offer himself to a woman, and because from a yet finer scruple he hesitated in his poverty to ask the hand of a rich woman. On the first point, we were pretty well agreed, but on the second we divided again, especially Rulledge and Minver, who held, the one, that his hesitation did Alford honor, and quite relieved him from the imputation of being a chump; and the other that he was an ass to keep quiet for any such silly reason. Minver contended that every woman had a right, whether rich or poor, to the man who loved her; and, moreover, there were now so many rich women that, if they were not allowed to marry poor men, their chances of marriage were indefinitely reduced. What better could a widow do with the money she had inherited from a husband she probably did not love than give it to a man like Alford--or to an ass like Alford, Minver corrected himself.
His _reductio ad absurdum_ allowed Wanhope to resume with a laugh, and say that Alford waited at the station in the singleness to which the tactful dispersion of the others had left him, and watched the train rapidly dwindle in the perspective, till an abrupt turn of the road carried it out of sight. Then he lifted his eyes with a long sigh, and looked round. Everywhere he saw Mrs. Yarrow's smiling face with that inner pathos. It swarmed upon him from all points; and wherever he turned it repeated itself in the distances like that succession of faces you see when you stand between two mirrors.
It was not merely a lapse from his lately hopeful state with Alford, it was a collapse. The man withered and dwindled away, till he felt that he must audibly rattle in his clothes as he walked by people. He did not walk much. Mostly he remained shrunken in the arm-chair where he used to sit beside Mrs. Yarrow's rocker, and the ladies, the older and the older-fashioned, who were "sticking it out" at the hotel till it should close on the 15th of September, observed him, some compassionately, some censoriously, but all in the same conviction.
"It's plain to be seen what ails Mr. Alford, _now_."
"Well, I guess it _is_."
"_I_ guess so."
"I _guess_ it is."
"Seems kind of heartless, her going and leaving him so."
"Like a sick kitten!"
"Well, I should say as _much_."
"Your eyes bother you, Mr. Alford?" one of them chanted, breaking from their discussion of him to appeal directly to him. He was rubbing his eyes, to relieve himself for the moment from the intolerable affliction of those swarming eidolons, which, whenever he thought of this thing or that, thickened about him. They now no longer displaced one another, but those which came first remained fadedly beside or behind the fresher appearances, like the earlier rainbow which loses depth and color when a later arch defines itself.
"Yes," he said, glad of the subterfuge. "They annoy me a good deal of late."
"You want to get fitted for a good pair of glasses. I kept letting it go, when I first began to get old-sighted."
Another lady came to Alford's rescue. "I guess Mr. Alford has no need to get fitted for old sight yet a while. You got little spidery things--specks and dots--in your eyes?"
"Yes--multitudes," he said, hopelessly.
"Well, I'll tell you what: you want to build up. That was the way with me, and the oculist said it was from getting all run down. I built up, and the first thing I knew my sight was as clear as a bell. You want to build up."
"You want to go to the mountains," a third interposed. "That's where Mrs. Yarrow's gone, and I guess it'll do her more good than sticking it out here would ever have done."
Alford would have been glad enough to go to the mountains, but with those illusions hovering closer and closer about him, he had no longer the courage, the strength. He had barely enough of either to get away to Boston. He found his doctor this time, after winning and losing the wager he made himself that he would not have returned to town yet, and the good-fortune was almost too much for his shaken nerves. The cordial of his friend's greeting--they had been chums at Harvard--completed his overthrow. As he sank upon the professional sofa, where so many other cases had been diagnosticated, he broke into tears. "Hello, old fellow!" the doctor said, encouragingly, and more tenderly than he would have dealt with some women. "What's up?"
"Jim," Alford found voice to say, "I'm afraid I'm losing my mind."
The doctor smiled provisionally. "Well, that's _one_ of the signs you're not. Can you say how?"
"Oh yes. In a minute," Alford sobbed, and when he had got the better of himself he told his friend the whole story. In the direct examination he suppressed Mrs. Yarrow's part, but when the doctor, who had listened with smiling seriousness, began to cross-examine him with the question, "And you don't remember that any outside influence affected the recurrence of the illusions, or did anything to prevent it?" Alford answered promptly: "Oh yes. There was a woman who did."
"A woman? What sort of a woman?"
"That is very curious," the doctor said. "I know a man who used to have a distressing dream. He broke it up by telling his wife about it every morning after he had dreamt it."
"Unluckily, she isn't my wife," Alford said, gloomily.
"But when she was with you, you got rid of the illusions?"
"At first, I used to see hers; then I stopped seeing any."
"Did you ever tell her of them?"
"No; I didn't."
"Never tell anybody?"
"No one but you."
"And do you see them now?"
"Do you think, because you've told me of them?"
"It seems so."
The doctor was silent for a marked space. Then he asked, smiling: "Well, why not?"
"Why not what?"
"Tell your wife."
"How, my wife?"
Alford looked dazed. "Do you mean Mrs. Yarrow?"
"If that's her name, and she's a widow."
"And do you think it would be the fair thing for a man on the verge of insanity--a physical and mental wreck--to ask a woman to marry him?"
"In your case, yes. In the first place, you're not so bad as all that. You need nothing but rest for your body and change for your mind. I believe you'll get rid of your illusions as soon as you form the habit of speaking of them promptly when they begin to trouble you. You ought to speak of them to some one. You can't always have me around, and Mrs. Yarrow would be the next best thing."
"She's rich, and you know what I am. I'll have to borrow the money to rest on, I'm so poor."
"Not if you marry it."
Alford rose, somewhat more vigorously than he had sat down. But that day he did not go beyond ascertaining that Mrs. Yarrow was in town. He found out the fact from the maid at her door, who said that she was nearly always at home after dinner, and, without waiting for the evening of another day, Alford went to call upon her.
She said, coming down to him in a rather old-fashioned, impersonal drawing-room which looked distinctly as if it had been left to her: "I was so glad to get your card. When did you leave Woodbeach?"
"Mrs. Yarrow," he returned, as if that were the answer, "I think I owe you an explanation."
"Pay it!" she bantered, putting out her hand.
"I'm so poverty-stricken that I don't know whether I can. Did you ever notice anything odd about me?"
His directness seemed to have a right to directness from her. "I noticed that you stared a good deal--or used to. But people _do_ stare."
"I stared because I saw things."
"I saw whatever I thought of. Whatever came into my mind was externated in a vision."
She smiled, he could not make out whether uneasily or not. "It sounds rather creepy, doesn't it? But it's very interesting."
"That's what the doctor said; I've been to see him this morning. May I tell you about my visions? They're not so creepy as they sound, I believe, and I don't think they'll keep you awake."
"Yes, do," she said. "I should like of all things to hear about them. Perhaps I've been one of them."
"Oh! Isn't that rather personal?"
"I hope not offensively."
He went on to tell her, with even greater fulness than he had told the doctor. She listened with the interest women take in anything weird, and with a compassion for him which she did not conceal so perfectly but that he saw it. At the end he said: "You may wonder that I come to you with all this, which must sound like the ravings of a madman."
"No--no," she hesitated.
"I came because I wished you to know everything about me before--before--I wouldn't have come, you'll believe me, if I hadn't had the doctor's assurance that my trouble was merely a part of my being physically out of kilter, and had nothing to do with my sanity--Good Heavens! What am I saying? But the thought has tormented me so! And in the midst of it I've allowed myself to--Mrs. Yarrow, I love you. Don't you know that?"
Alford may have had a divided mind in this declaration, but after that one word Mrs. Yarrow had no mind for anything else. He went on.
"I'm not only sick--so sick that I sha'n't be able to do any work for a year at least--but I'm poor, so poor that I can't afford to be sick."
She lifted her eyes and looked at him, where she sat oddly aloof from those possessions of hers, to which she seemed so little related, and said, with a smile quivering at the corners of her pretty mouth, "I don't see what that has to do with it."
"What do you mean?" He stared at her hard.
"Am I in duplicate or triplicate, this time?"
"No, you're only one, and there's none like you! I could never see any one else while I looked at you!" he cried, only half aware of his poetry, and meaning what he said very literally.
But she took only the poetry. "I shouldn't wish you to," she said, and she laughed.
He could not believe yet in his good-fortune. His countenance fell. "I'm afraid I don't understand, or that you don't. It doesn't seem as if I could get to the end of my unworthiness, which isn't voluntary. It seems altogether too base. I can't let you say what you do, if you mean it, till you know that I come to you in despair as well as in love. You saved me from the fear I was in, again and again, and I believe that without you I shall--Ah, it seems very base! But the doctor--If I could always tell some one--if I could tell _you_ when these things were obsessing me--haunting me--they would cease--"
Mrs. Yarrow rose, with rather a piteous smile. "Then, I am a prescription!" She hoped, woman-like, that she was solely a passion; but is any woman worth having, ever solely a passion?
"Don't!" Alford implored, rising too. "Don't, in mercy, take it that way! It's only that I wish you to know everything that's in me; to know how utterly helpless and worthless I am. You needn't have a pang in throwing such a thing away."
She put out her hand to him, but at arm's-length. "I sha'n't throw you away--at least, not to-night. I want to think." It was a way of saying she wished him to go, and he had no desire to stay. He asked if he might come again, and she said, "Oh yes."
"Not to-morrow, perhaps. When I send. Was it _young_ Doctor Enderby?"
They had rather a sad, dry parting; and when her door closed upon him he felt that it had shut him out forever. His shame and his defeat were so great that he did not think of his eidolons, and they did not come to trouble him. He woke in the morning, asking himself, bitterly, if he were cured already. His humiliation was such that he closed his eyes to the light, and wished he might never again open them to it.
The question that Mrs. Yarrow had to ask Dr. Enderby was not the question he had instantly forecast for her when she put aside her veil in his office and told him who she was. She did not seem anxious to be assured of Alford's mental condition, or as to any risks in marrying him. Her inquiry was much more psychological; it was almost impersonal, and yet Dr. Enderby thought she looked as if she had been crying.
She had a difficulty in formulating her question, and when it came it was almost a speculation.
"Women," she said, a little hoarsely, "have no right, I suppose, to expect the ideal in life. The best they can do seems to be to make the real look like it."
Dr. Enderby reflected. "Well, yes. But I don't know that I ever put it to myself in just those terms."
Then she remarked, as if that were the next thing: "You've known Mr. Alford a long time."
"We were at school together, and we shared the same rooms in Harvard."
"He is very sincere," she added, as if this were relevant.
"He's a man who likes to have a little worse than the worst known about him. One might say he was excessively sincere." Enderby divined that Alford had been bungling the matter, and he was willing to help him out if he could.
Mrs. Yarrow fixed dimly beautiful eyes upon him. "I don't know," she said, "why it wouldn't be ideal--as much ideal as anything--to give one's self absolutely to--to--a duty--or not duty, exactly; I don't mean that. Especially," she added, showing a light through the mist, "if one wanted to do it."
Then he knew she had made up her mind, and though on some accounts he would have liked to laugh with her, on other accounts he felt that he owed it to her to be serious.
"If women could not fulfil the ideal in that way--if they did not constantly do it--there would be no marriages for love."
"Do you think so?" she asked, with a shaking voice. "But men--men are ideal, too."
"Not as women are--except now and then some fool like Alford." Now, indeed, he laughed, and he began to praise Alford from his heart, so delicately, so tenderly, so reverently, that Mrs. Yarrow laughed too before he was done, and cried a little, and when she rose to leave she could not speak; but clung to his hand, on turning away, and so flung it from behind her with a gesture that Enderby thought pretty.
At this point, Wanhope stopped as if that were the end.
"And did she let Alford come to see her again?" Rulledge, at once romantic and literal, demanded.
"Oh yes. At any rate, they were married that fall. They are--I believe he's pursuing his archaeological studies there--living in Athens."
"Together?" Minver smoothly inquired.
At this expression of cynicism Rulledge gave him a look that would have incinerated another. Wanhope went out with Minver, and then, after a moment's daze, Rulledge exclaimed: "Jove! I forgot to ask him whether it's stopped Alford's illusions!"
Return to the William Dean Howells library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Escapade Of A Grandfather