Story type: Literature
Dear Helen,–What do you say to our going to housekeeping together? I’m a very old bachelor, with many whims; but I’m your brother, and I don’t know that there was ever an act of Parliament that we should spend our lives on opposite shores of the Atlantic. The Athertons’ lease of our house is out next month, and I have a fancy for taking it myself. We will call it merely an experiment, if you like; but I’m tired of the way I live now. I’m growing gray, and I shall be dreadfully glad to see you. We will make a real home of it, and see something of each other; you must not ask for any more pathos than this. Pick up whatever you can to make the house look fine, but don’t feel in the least obliged to come, or put it off until the spring. Do just as you like. I hear the Duncans are coming home in October; perhaps you could take passage on the same steamer. I can’t believe it is three years since I went over last. Do you think we shall know each other?
“L’absence diminue les petits amours et augmente les grandes, comme le vent qui eteint les bougies et rallume la feu.”
I met that sentiment in a story I was reading to-day, and I thought it would seem very gallant and alluring if I put it into my letter. I think you will not be homesick here: you will find more friends than seems possible at first thought. I’m in a hurry to-day; but I’m none the less
Your very affectionate brother,
Boston, Aug. 2, 1877.
This was a letter which came to me one morning a year or two ago from my only brother. We had been separated most of the time since our childhood; for my father and mother both died then, and our home was broken up, as Jack was to be away at school and college. During the war he was fired with a love of his country and a longing for military glory, and entered the army with many of his fellow-students at Harvard. I was at school for a time, but afterwards went to live with an aunt, whose winter home was in Florence; and when Jack left the army he came to Europe to go on with his professional studies. He was most of the time in Dublin and London and Paris at the medical schools; but we were together a good deal, and he went off for several long journeys with my aunt and me before he went back to America. I always hoped that we might some day live together: but my aunt wished me never to leave her; for she was somewhat of an invalid, and had grown to depend on me more or less in many ways. She could not live in Boston, for the climate did not suit her. If Jack and I had not written each other so often, we should have drifted far apart; but, as it was, I think our love and friendship grew closer year by year. I should have begged him to come to live with me; but he was always in a hurry to get back to his own city and his own friends when he sometimes came over to pay us a visit in my aunt’s lifetime, and I knew he would not be contented in Florence.
At Aunt Alice’s death I went on with the same old life for a time from force of habit; and it was just then, when I was with some friends in the Tyrol, and had been wondering what plans I should make for the winter,–whether to go to Egypt again, or to have some English friends come to me in Florence,–that Jack’s letter came. I was only too glad that he made the proposal, and I could not resist sending him a cable despatch to say, “Hurrah!” I had not realized before how lonely and adrift I had felt since Aunt Alice died. I had a host of kind friends; but there is nothing like being with one’s own kindred, and having one’s own home. It was very hard work to say so many good-byes; and my heart had almost failed me when I saw some of my friends for, it might be, the last time, as some of them were old people. And, though I said over and over again that I should come back in a year or two, who could be certain that I should take up the dear familiar life again? But, though I had been so many long years away from dear old Boston, I never had been so glad in my life to catch sight of any city as I was that chilly, late October morning, when I came on deck, and somebody pointed out to me a dull glitter of something that looked higher and brighter than the land, and said it was the dome of the State House.
I felt more sure than ever that I was going home when I saw my brother standing on the wharf, and I remembered so clearly many of the streets we drove through; and when we came to the house itself, and the carriage had gone, and we stood in the library together where the very same books were in the cases, and the same dim old Turkey carpet on the floor, the years seemed suddenly to vanish, and it was like the dear old childish days again: only where were my mother and my father? And Jack was growing gray, as he had written me, and so much had happened to me since I had been in that room last! I sat down before the wood-fire; and the queer brass dragons on the andirons made me smile, just as they always used. Jack stood at the window, looking out; and neither of us had a word to say, though we had chattered at each other every minute as we drove over from the steamer.
That first evening at dinner I looked across the table at my brother: and our eyes met, and we both laughed heartily for very contentment and delight.
“I’m sure Aunt Marion ought to be here to matronize you,” said Jack. Neither of us like Aunt Marion very well; and this was a great joke, especially as she was ushered in directly to welcome me home.
Jack had been living at the house for a few weeks already; but it was great fun, this beginning our housekeeping together, and we were busy enough for some time. I had brought over a good many things that my aunt had had in Florence, and to which I had become attached; and in the course of many journeys both Jack and I had accumulated a great many large and small treasures, some of which had not been unpacked for years. I very soon knew my brother’s best friends; and we both tried to make our home not only cheerful and bright and pleasant in every way, but we wished also to make it a home-like place, where people might be sure of finding at least some sympathy and true friendliness and help as well as pleasure. Mamma’s old friends were charmingly kind and polite to me; and, as Jack had foretold, I found more acquaintances of my own than I had the least idea I should. I had met abroad a great many of the people who came to see me; but the strangest thing was to meet those whom I remembered as my playmates and schoolmates, and to find them so entirely grown up, most of them married, and with homes and children of their own instead of the playhouses and dolls which I remembered.
We soon fell into a most comfortable fashion of living, we were both very fond of giving quiet little dinners, my brother often brought home a friend or two, and we were charmingly independent; life never went better with two people than it did with Jack and me. We often had some old friends of the family come to stay with us, and I sent hither and yon for my own old cronies, with some of whom I had kept up our friendship since school-days; and, while it was not a little sad to meet some of them again, with others I felt as if we had only parted yesterday.
I had been curious to know many things about Jack, and I found I had been right in supposing that his profession was by no means a burden to him. I was told again and again that he was a wonderfully successful and daring surgeon; but he confessed to me that his dislike to such work continually increased, and could only be overcome in the excitement of some desperate emergency. It seemed to me at first that he ought not to let his skill lie useless and idle; but he insisted that the other doctors did as well as he, that they sent for him if they wanted him, and he did not care for a practice of his own. So he had grown into a way of helping his friends with their business; and he was a microscopist of some renown, and a scientific man, instead of the practical man he ought to have been,–though his was, after all, by no means an idle nor a useless life, dear old Jack! He did a great deal of good shyly and quietly; he was often at the hospitals, and his friends seemed very fond of him, and said he had too little confidence in himself. I have often wondered why he did not marry; but I doubt if he ever tells me, though he knows well enough my own story, and that there is a quiet grave in Florence which is always in sight, no matter how far away from it I go, while sometimes I think I know every ivy-leaf that falls on it from the wall near by.
As I have said, my brother was constantly meeting some one of his old classmates or army comrades or school friends during that first winter; and, while sometimes he would ask them to dine at his club, he oftener brought them home to dine or to lunch; for we were both possessed with an amazing spirit of hospitality. I wish I could remember half the stories I have heard, or could keep track of the lives in which I often grew much interested. There is one curious story which I knew, and which seems very well worth telling,–an instance of the curious entanglement of two lives, and of those strange experiences which some people call supernatural, and others think simple enough and perfectly reasonable and explainable.
One short, snowy December day, just as it was growing dark, I was sitting alone in the library, and was surprised to hear my brother’s latch-key click in the hall-door; for he had told me, when he went out after our very late breakfast, that he should not be in before six, and perhaps dinner had better wait until seven. He threw off his wet ulster, and was talking for some time to the man, and at last came in to me.
“What brings you home so early?” said I.
“I’m going to have two or three friends to dine. I suppose it’ll be all right about the dinner? That was not why I came home, though: I had some letters to write which must go by the steamer, and I didn’t go to Cambridge after all. The snow-storm was too much for me, I wanted a good light there.”
“Sit down a while,” said I. “You have time enough for your letters; it’s only a little after four.” Jack hated to write at the library-table, and always went to the desk in his own book-room if he had any thing to do. He seemed a little tired, and threw me some letters the postman had given him as he came in at the door; then he sat down in his great chair near me, and seemed to be lost in thought. He was immensely interesting to me then; for we had only been together a few weeks, and I was often curious about his moods, and was apt to be much pained myself if any thing seemed to trouble him. I was always wishing we had not been separated so much, and I was afraid I might be wanting in insight and sympathy; but I think the truth has been that we are much more intimate, and are far better friends, and have less restraint, because we had seen so little of one another in the years that had passed. But we were terribly afraid of interfering with each other at first, and were so distractingly polite that we bored each other not a little; though that did not last long, happily, after we had convinced each other that we could behave well.
“You say it’ll be all right about dinner?” repeated my brother.
“Oh, yes!” said I, “unless you wish for something very grand. Would you like to have me put on my crown and sceptre?”
“There has never been a day yet when I should have been sorry to have brought a friend home,” said Jack, with a good deal of enthusiasm, and I was at once puffed up with pride; for Jack, though an uncomplaining soul, was also fastidious, and his praise was not given often enough to be unnoticed.
“I met an old classmate just now,” said he presently, rousing himself from his reverie. “I haven’t seen him for years before. He went out to South America just after the war, and I supposed he was there still. He used to be one of the best fellows in the class; and he enlisted when I did, though we did not belong to the same company. I heard once he was rather a failure; but something has broken him down horribly. He doesn’t look as if he drank,” said my brother, half to himself. “I met him over on Tremont Street, and I think he meant to avoid me; but I made him walk across the Common with me, for he was coming this way. He promised to come to dinner this evening; and I stopped at the club a few minutes as I came down the street, and luckily found George Sheffield, and he is coming round too. I told him seven o’clock, but I told Whiston we dined at six, without thinking; so he will be here early. Never mind: I’ll be ready, and we will take care of ourselves. I must finish my letters, though,” and he rose from his chair to go upstairs. “It is dreadful to see a man change so,” said Jack, still lingering. “He used to be one of the friskiest fellows in college. I hope he’ll come. I didn’t exactly like to ask where I could find him.”
Then he went away: and I waited awhile, looking out at the snow, and thinking idly enough, until Patrick came silently in, and surprised me with a sudden blaze of gas; when I went upstairs to dress for dinner, as there didn’t seem to be any thing else to do. I was a little sorry that any one was coming. Jack and I had arranged for a quiet evening together, and he was reading some new book aloud in which I was much interested. His reading was a perfect delight to me. He did not force you to think how well he read, but rather how charming the story or the poem was; and I always liked Jack’s voice.
I found something to be busy about in my room, and did not come down again until some time after six. When I entered the parlor, Jack arose with a satisfied smile, and presented Mr. Whiston; and I was pleasantly surprised, for I had half expected to see a most forlorn-looking man, perhaps even out at elbows, from what Jack had said. He was very pale indeed, and looked like an invalid; and he certainly looked frightened and miserable. He had a hunted look. It was the face I should imagine one would have who was haunted by the memory of some awful crime; but I both pitied him and liked him very much.
He said he remembered seeing me one day out at Cambridge with my brother when I was hardly more than a child; and we talked about those old days until my cousin George Sheffield came, Jack’s best friend, who had also been Mr. Whiston’s classmate.
I fancied, as we went out to dinner, that our guest would enjoy the evening, his friends were giving him so hearty and cordial a welcome; and I was glad the table looked so bright with its roses and fruit, and its glittering glass. I somehow looked at it through his eyes. His face lighted a little, as if he thought he should dine to his liking. He looked as if he were poor; but he was most carefully dressed, and I grew more and more curious about him, while I liked him better and better for the grace of his good manners, and for his charmingly bright and clever way of talking. He spoke freely of his South-American life, and of being in Europe; but there was something about him which made neither of his friends dare to ask him many questions. I could see that my cousin George was in a great hurry to know more of his history, for they had been very good friends, and he had lost sight of Mr. Whiston years before, and had been amazed when he was asked to meet him that evening. They talked a great deal about their Harvard days, and grew more and more merry with each other; but, when Mr. Whiston’s face was quiet, the look of fear and melancholy was always noticeable.
When dinner was over, I went away to see one of my friends who came in just then. I could hear the gentlemen laughing together, and I stood talking in the hall some time with my friend before she went away; but at last I went back to the dining-room, for I always liked my tea there with Jack better than in the parlor. I took my chair again; and I was glad to find I did not interrupt them, of which I had a sudden fear as I entered the door.
They were talking over their army life; and my brother said, “That was the same day poor Fred Hathaway was killed, wasn’t it? I never shall forget seeing his dead face. We had thrown a dozen or more men in a pile, and meant to bury them; but there was an alarm, and we had to hurry forward again, what there was left of us. I caught sight of Fred, and I remember now just how he looked. You know what yellow hair he had, and we used to call him The Pretty Saxon. I know there were one or two men in that pile still alive, and moving a little. I hardly thought of the horror of it as I went by. How used we were to such sights in those days! and now sometimes they come to me like horrid nightmares. Dunster was killed that day too. Somebody saw him fall, and I suppose he was thrown in a hurry into one of the trenches; but he was put down as missing in the reports. You know they drove us back toward night, and held that piece of cleared land and the pine-woods for two days.”
“It all seems like a dream to me now,” said George Sheffield. “What boys we were too! But I believe I never shall feel so old again.”
“You are such comfortable people in these days,” said I, “that I can’t imagine you as soldiers living such a rough and cruel life as that must have been.”
I happened to look up at Mr. Whiston; and to my dismay he looked paler than ever, and was uneasy. He looked over his shoulder as if he knew a ghost was standing there, and he followed something with his eyes for a moment or two in a way that gave me a little chill of fear. I looked over at Jack to know if he was watching also, and I was rejoiced when he suddenly nodded to me, and asked George Sheffield something about the cigars; and George, who had also noticed, answered him, and began to talk to me about an opera which we had both heard the evening before. I did not know whether they had chanced upon an unlucky subject, or whether Mr. Whiston was crazy; but at any rate he seemed ill at ease, and was not inclined to talk any more. He looked gloomier and more frightened than ever. I went into the library, and presently they followed me; and Mr. Whiston came to say goodnight, though, when Jack insisted that he should not go away so early,–for it was only half-past nine,–he sat down again with a half-sigh, as if it made little difference to him where he was.
“You’re not well, I’m afraid, Whiston,” said my brother in his most professional tone. “I think I shall have to look after you a little. By the way, are you at a hotel? I wish you would come to us for a few days. I’ll drive you to Cambridge, and you know there are a good many of your old friends here in town.” And I seconded this invitation, though I most devoutly hoped it would not be accepted. I had a suspicion that he would be a most uncomfortable guest.
“Thank you, Miss Ainslie,” said he, with a quick, pleasant smile, that brought back my first liking for him. “You’re very good, but I’m not exactly in trim for paying visits. I will come to you for to-morrow night, Ainslie, if you like. I should be glad to see you and Sheffield again–to say good-by. I am going out in the Marathon on Saturday.”
Later, when he had gone, Jack and my cousin and I had a talk about this strange guest of ours. “Is he crazy?” said I to begin with; “and did you see him look at a ghost at dinner? I’m sure it was a ghost.” And George Sheffield laughed; but one of us was as much puzzled as the other. “I thought at first he was melodramatic,” said he; “but there’s something wrong about him. Is he crazy, do you think, Jack? You’re lucky in having a doctor in the house, Helen, if he does come back.”
“He’s not crazy,” said Jack; “at least I think not. I have been watching him. But he is no doubt shattered; he may have some monomania, and I’m afraid he takes opium.”
“I should urge him to spend the winter,” said George serenely, “and what’s the difference between having a monomania and being crazy? Couldn’t he take a new fancy, and do some mischief or other some day?” But Jack only laughed, and went to a book-case; while I thought he had been very inconsiderate, and yet I wished Mr. Whiston to come again. I hoped he would tell us what it was he saw.
“Here’s Bucknill and Tuke,” said my brother, coming close to the drop-light, and turning over the pages; “and now you’ll always know what I mean when I say ‘monomania.’ ‘Characterized by some particular illusion impressed on the understanding, and giving rise to a partial aberration of judgment: the individual affected is rendered incapable of thinking correctly on subjects connected by the particular illusion, while in other respects he betrays no palpable disorder of the mind.’ That’s quoted from Prichard.” And he shut the book again, and went back to put it in its place; but my cousin asked for it, and turned to another page with an air of triumph. “‘An object may appear to be present before his eyes which has no existence whatever there…. If unable to correct or recognize it when an appeal is made to reason, he is insane.’ What do you think of that?” said he. “You had better be on your guard, Jack. I’m very wise just now. I have been studying up on insanity for a case of mine that’s to be tried next month,–at least I devoutly hope it is.”
“But tell me something about Mr. Whiston,” said I. “Do you suppose he has no friends? He seems to have been wandering about the world for years.”
“I remember his telling me, when we were in college, that he had no relatives except an old aunt, and a cousin, Henry Dunster, whom we spoke of to-night, who was killed in the war. Whiston was very fond of him; but I always thought Dunster was entirely unworthy his friendship. Whiston was thought to be rich. His father left him a very good property at any rate, and he was always a generous fellow. Dunster made away with a good deal, I imagine; they roomed together, and Whiston paid most of the bills. There was something weak and out-of-the-way about him then, I remember thinking, but he was a fairly good scholar, and he made a fine soldier. He was promoted fast; but you know he resigned long before the rest of us were mustered out. Had a fever, didn’t he?”
“I believe so,” said the judge, as his friends always called my cousin. “The snow will reach my ears by this time. I must go home. What a storm it is! No, I can’t stay later. All night! no, indeed. I’ll come round late to-morrow evening if I can; but it will not be likely. Now, if you had only been sensible and studied law, Jack, you wouldn’t have missed the festivities: it’s too bad. To tell the truth, I wish I could make some excuse, and come here instead. I’m very much excited about Whiston.” And with a “good-night” to us, and a fresh cigar which he was sure the snow-storm would put out, he went away,–my lucky, easy-going cousin George Sheffield, whose cigars never did go out at inopportune times, and who never was excited about any thing. It always seemed refreshing to find in this age of hurry and dash and anxiety so calm and comfortable and satisfied a soul.
I was in doubt whether we should see any more of our sorrowful guest: but he appeared late the next afternoon; and, when I came in from my walk, I saw a much-used portmanteau being taken upstairs by Patrick, who told me that there were some flowers in the parlor that Mr. Whiston had brought. So I went in to see them, and my heart went out to the giver at once; for had he not chosen the most exquisite roses,–my favorite roses,–and more like Italy than any thing I had seen in a long day? Patrick had crammed them into exactly the wrong vase; but I thanked him for that, since it gave me a chance of handling all the beautiful heavy flowers, and making them comfortable myself, which was certainly a pleasure.
I found Mr. Whiston evidently in better spirits than he had been the night before, and I was not sorry when I found we were to be by ourselves at dinner. I had not asked any one myself, you may be sure. My brother and I have a fashion of lingering long at the table, unless I am going out for the evening; and that night he and his friend lit their cigars, and went on with their talk of old times, while I listened and read the Transcript by turns. Presently there were a few minutes of silence, and then Jack said,–
“There was a strange case brought into the city hospital to-day,–a poor young fellow who had been literally almost frightened to death. One of his fellow-clerks, who boarded with him, went into his room the night before in a horrible mask, and wrapped in a sheet, and stood near him in the moonlight, watching him until he woke. He did it for a joke, of course, and is said to be in agonies of penitence; but I’m afraid the poor victim will lose his wits entirely, if he doesn’t die, which I think he will. I don’t know what they can do with him. He had one fit after another. He may rally; but he looked to me as if he wouldn’t hold out till morning. A nervous, slight fellow, it was a cruel thing to do. Somebody told me he belonged somewhere up in New Hampshire, and that his mother was almost entirely dependent upon him.”
Mr. Whiston listened eagerly. “Poor fellow! I hope he will die,” said he sadly; and then, hesitating a moment: “Do you believe in ghosts, Ainslie?”
“No,” said Jack, with the least flicker of a smile as I caught his eye; “that is, I’ve never seen one myself. But there are very strange things that one can’t explain to one’s satisfaction.”
“I know that the dead come back,” said Mr. Whiston, speaking very low, and not looking at either of us. “John Ainslie,” said he suddenly, “I never shall see you again. I’m not going to live long at any rate, and you and your sister have given me more of the old-time feeling than I have had for many a day before. It seems as if I were at home with you. I suppose you will say I am a monomaniac at the very least; but I’m going to tell you what it is that has been slowly killing me. You’re a doctor, and you may put any name to it you like, and call it a disease of the brain; but Henry Dunster follows me.”
Jack and I stole a glance at each other, and I felt the strongest temptation to look over my shoulder. Jack reached over, and filled Mr. Whiston’s glass; and the Transcript startled me by sliding to the floor.
“I don’t often speak of it now: people only laugh at the idea,” said our guest, with a faint smile. “But it is most horribly real to me. It sometimes seems the only thing that is real.” And this is the story he told:–
“When I was in college, you know, Henry roomed with me; and at one time we were greatly interested in what we called then superstition and foolishness. We thought ourselves very wise, and thought we could explain every thing. There was a craze among some of the students about spirit-rappings, and that sort of thing; and we went through with a good deal of nonsense, and wasted a good deal of time, in trying to ravel out mysteries, and to explain things that no mortal man has ever yet understood. One night very late we were talking, and grew much excited; and we promised each other solemnly that the one who died first would appear to the other, if such a thing were possible, and would at least warn him in a way that should be unmistakable of his death. We were half in fun and half in earnest, God forgive us! and we made that awful promise to each other. Then we went into the army, and I don’t remember thinking of it once until the very night before he was killed. We were sitting together under a tree, after a hard day’s fight, and Dunster said to me, laughing, ‘Do you remember we promised each other, that whoever died first would appear to the other, and follow him?’ I laughed,–you know how reckless we were in those days when death and dying were so horribly familiar,–and I said the same shell might kill us both, which would be a great pity. We were very merry and foolish; and I should have said Henry had been drinking, but there had been nothing to drink and hardly any thing to eat: you remember we were cut off from our supplies, and the men had very little in their haversacks. Next day the fight was hotter than ever, and we were being driven back, when I saw him toss up his hands, and fall. He must have been trodden to death at any rate. When we regained that little field beyond the woods some days afterward, they had dragged off the wounded, and buried the dead in shallow trenches. I knew Dunster was dead; and I stood on picket near a trench which was just about where he fell, and I cried in the dark like a girl. I loved Dunster. You know he was the only near relative I had in the world whom I cared any thing for, and ours wasn’t a bonfire friendship. He had his faults, I know he wasn’t liked in the class. He was a brilliant fellow; but I used to be afraid he might go to the bad. Do you remember that night, Ainslie? The men were so tired that they had dropped down anywhere in the mud to sleep, and there was some kind of a bird in the woods that gave a lonely, awful cry once in a while.”
“I remember it,” said my brother, moving uneasily in his chair, and this time I had to look behind me, there was no help for it.
“I went to the hospital soon after that,” Mr. Whiston said next. “I was not badly wounded at all, but the exposure in that rainy weather played the mischief with me, and I was discharged, and, before you were mustered out, I went to South America, where a friend of mine wished me to go into business with him. I did capitally well, and I grew very strong. The climate suited me, and I used to go on those long horseback rides into the interior among the plantations that I told you about last night. My partner disliked that branch of the business far more than I did; so he left it almost wholly to me. I did not think often about Henry, though I mourned so much over his death at first, and I never was less nervous in my life.
“One evening I had just returned to Rio after an absence of several weeks, and I went to dine with some friends of mine. It was a terribly hot night, and after dinner we went out in the harbor for a sail, as the moon would be up later. There was not much wind, however; and the two boatmen took the oars, and we struck out farther, hoping to catch a breeze beyond the shipping. It was very dark, and suddenly there came by a large, heavy boat which nearly ran us down. Our men shouted angrily, and the other sailors swore; but there was no accident after all. They seemed to be drunk, and we were all in the shadow of a brig that was lying at anchor; but, Ainslie! as that boat slid by–I was half lying in the stern of ours, and so close that I could have touched it–I saw Henry Dunster’s face as plainly as I see yours now. It turned me cold for a minute, and gave me an awful shock. I told the men to give chase; and they, thinking I was angry at the carelessness, bent to their oars with a will, and overhauled them. There were two men on board,–one a negro, and the other an old gray-haired sailor,–not in the least like Henry. And I said I had been half asleep, and dreamed it was his face. But there was no mistaking him; it was the most vivid thing; it was the man himself I saw for that one horrible minute. And late the next night I was sitting in my own sleeping-room. I had reasoned myself out of the thing as well as I could, and said I was tired, and not as well as usual, and all that; and I had thought of it as calmly as possible. I sat with my back toward the window; but I was facing a mirror, and suddenly I had a strange feeling, and looked up to see in the mirror Dunster’s face at the window looking in. It was staring straight at me; and I met the eyes, and that was the last I knew: I lost my senses. Only a monkey could have climbed there. There was a frail vine that clung to the stone, and in the morning there was no trace of any creature.
“And since then he follows me. I saw that haggard, wretched face of his last night when I sat here at the table; and I see him watching me if I look among a crowd of people, and, if I look back along a street, he is always coming towards me; but, when he gets near, he vanishes, and sometimes at the theatre he will be among the actors all the evening. Nobody sees him but me, but every month I see him oftener, and his face grows out of the darkness at night; and sometimes, when I talk with any one, the face will fade out, and Dunster’s comes in its place. It is killing me, Ainslie. I have fought against it; I have wandered half over the world trying to get rid of it, but it is no use. For a few days in a strange place, sometimes for weeks, I did not see him at first; but I know he is always watching me now, and I see him every day.”
I can give you no idea how thrilling it was to listen to this unhappy man, who seemed so pitifully cowed and broken, so helpless and hopeless. Whether there had been any thing supernatural, or whether it was merely the workings of a diseased brain, it was horribly real to him; and his life had been spoiled.
“Whiston, my dear fellow,” said my brother, “I’m not going to believe in ghosts if I can possibly help it. Could you be perfectly sure that you did not see Dunster himself at first? You know he was counted among the missing only, there is no positive proof that he died, though I admit there was only a chance he was not killed outright. We never saw him buried,” said Jack, with unsympathetic persistence. “I’m sorry for you; but you mustn’t give way to this thing. You have thought about it until you can’t forget it at all. Such cases are not uncommon: it’s simply a hallucination. I’ll give you proofs enough tomorrow. Have some more claret, won’t you?” Jack spoke eagerly, with the kindest tone; and his guest could not help responding by a faint, dreary little smile. “Do you like music as much as ever? Suppose we go over into the parlor, and my sister will play for us; won’t you, Helen?” which was asking a great deal of me just then.
And we apparently forgot all about Mr. Dunster for the rest of the evening. And, when Jack asked Mr. Whiston if he remembered a song he used to sing in college, to my delight he went at once to the piano, and sang it with a very pleasant tenor voice; and when he ended, and my brother applauded, he struck some new chords, and began to sing a little Florentine street-song, which was always a great favorite of mine. It is a sweet, piteous little song; and it bewitched me then as much as it did the very first time I had heard some boys sing it, as they went under our windows at night, when I was first in Florence years ago.
He said no more about the ghost; but later that night, when I happened to wake, I wondered if the poor man was keeping his anxious watch, and listening in a strange house to hear the hours struck one by one. He went away soon after breakfast; and, though he promised to come in again to say good-by, that was the last we saw of him, and we did not see his name on the steamer list either, so we were much puzzled, and we talked about him a great deal, and told George Sheffield the story, which he wished he had heard himself.
“Of course it is a hallucination,” said Jack: “they are by no means uncommon. I can read you accounts of any number of such cases. There is a good deal about them in Griesinger’s book,–the chapter called ‘Elementary Disorders in Mental Disease,’ Helen, if you care to look at it, or any of those books on insanity. Didn’t you have Dr. Elam’s ‘A Physician’s Problems’ a while ago? He has an essay there which is very good.”
“I was reading his essay on ‘Moral and Criminal Epidemics,’” said I, “that was all. It’s a cheerful thing too!”
“Isn’t there such a thing as these visions coming before slight attacks of epilepsy?” said George. And my brother said yes; but Mr. Whiston had nothing of that kind, he had taken pains to find out. There was no hope of a cure, he feared; he was not wise in such cases. But the trouble had gone too far, there were bad symptoms, and he confesses he has hurt himself with opium during the last year or two. “He will not live long at any rate,” said Jack; “and I think the sooner the end comes the better. He has a predisposition to mental disease, and he was always a frail, curious make-up. But I don’t know–‘There are more things in heaven and earth,’ George Sheffield; and I wish you had heard him tell his story.”
And we talked over some strange, unaccountable things; and each told stories which could neither be doubted nor explained. I had been readier to believe in such things since I was warned myself before the greatest sorrow I had ever known. I was by the sea; and one of my friends and I were walking slowly toward home one dark and windy evening, when suddenly we both heard a terrible low cry of fear and horror close beside us. It was hardly a cry, it was no noise that either of us had ever heard before; and we stopped for an instant, because we were too frightened to move. And the noise came again. We were in an open place, and there was nothing to be seen; but we both felt there was something there, and that the cry had some awful meaning. And it was not many days before I had reason to remember that cry; for the trouble came. I do not know what it might have been that I heard; but I knew it had the saddest meaning.
Two or three weeks after we saw Mr. Whiston, my brother came in one afternoon; and I saw he could hardly wait for some friends to go away, who were paying me a call.
“I have found poor Whiston,” said he, when I joined him in the library at last: “he is at the Carney Hospital. It seems he was ill for a few days at his hotel, and the servant, who was very kind to him, advised him to go there. He insists that he is very comfortable, and that he has money enough. I wished to bring him over here at first; but I saw that it was no use, and I asked him why he didn’t let me know, but he is completely wrecked; I doubt if he lives more than a day or two, he was wandering half the time I was there. He said he should be very glad if you would come to see him, and I told him I was sure you would.”
I went to see him with my brother the next day, and I saw that Jack was shocked at the change that had come already. There was that peculiar, worried, anxious look in his face, that one only sees in people who are very near death, and his fingers were picking at the blanket. I do not believe he knew me; but he smiled,–he had a most beautiful smile,–and I gave him some grapes, and wished I could make him a little more comfortable. The sister came just afterward on her round, and gave him his medicine, and raised him with a strong arm, while she turned his pillow in a business-like way, and I thought what a lonely place it was to be ill and die in; and I was more glad than ever that Jack and I had a home, and were always to be together. I left Jack to stay the night, and, as I came away, I had more and more compassion for the man who was dying; yet I was glad to think so sad a life was almost over with. His days had been all winter days in this world, it seemed to me, and I hoped some wonderful, blessed spring was waiting for him in the next.
When I went over in the morning, it was cheerless enough. The rain was falling fast and the snow melting in the streets. My brother was watching for me, and came out at once. “Poor Whiston is dead,” said he, as he shut the carriage-door. “He wished me to thank you for your kindness to him,” and I saw the tears in Jack’s eyes. “There’s another star for the catalogue,–how small the class is growing! Poor fellow! I didn’t know he had gone, I thought he was asleep, for we were talking together only a few minutes before. He was not at all bewildered, as you saw him yesterday.”
I heard this case talked over more than once by my brother, and one or two professional friends of his who came often to the house. Nobody was ready to believe that Mr. Whiston had seen an apparition; but the truth always remained that the man’s nerves were so shocked by what he believed to be the appearance of a ghost, that he had become the prey of a monomania, and had by little and little grown incapable of distinguishing between real things and the creations and projections of his own unsteady brain. Il s’ecoutait vivre, as the French phrase has it; and, having nothing to live for but this, it was well that life was over for him. I suppose the acute disease of which he died met with little resistance, for he looked so ill when we first saw him; but it would have been sadder if he had lingered a few more years, so miserable as he was,–hardly fit either for the inside of an asylum or the outside,–to die at last without money or friends to give him the last of this world’s comforts, perhaps without mind enough left to miss them.
Strangely enough, some months after this, when it was spring, my brother found Dunster at the Marine Hospital in Chelsea, where he had gone with another surgeon to see a curious operation in which he felt a great interest. He was walking through the accident ward when somebody called him from one of the cots,–a wretched-looking vagabond, whom at first he did not recognize. But it was Dunster, and he tried to put on something of his old manner, which made him seem like a wretched copy of his former self.
Jack made him give an account of himself. It seemed that he had been thrown among the dead in that battle when he was supposed to have been killed; but he had recovered his senses, and crawled from the place where he had fallen farther into the enemy’s lines, and he had been sent to the rear. He had nearly died from the effects of his wounds, and it was evident that he had been very intemperate. He had drifted to New Orleans, and lead a most wretched life there; and at times he had gone to sea. My brother asked him if he was ever in Rio; and at first he denied it, and afterward confessed that he was there once, and had seen Whiston in a boat, and had dropped over the side in the dark to evade him, but when Jack questioned him about being at the window, he denied it utterly. He said his ship sailed that day. It might have been that he meant to commit a robbery, or that he really told the truth, and that it was the first of poor Whiston’s illusions. Of course it was possible that Dunster might have swung himself down from the flat roof by a rope, and they might have really met at other times, it was not unlikely. But one can hardly conceive of Mr. Whiston’s perfect certainty, in such a case, that the glimpse he had of his cousin’s face was a supernatural vision.
My brother said, “I did not tell him what wreck and ruin he had made unconsciously of Whiston’s life,–at least the part he had played in it; it would do no good, and indeed he is hardly sane, I think. It would be curious if they had both inherited from their common ancestry the mental weakness which shows itself so differently in the two lives,–Whiston’s, so cowardly and shrinking and weak; and Dunster’s, so horribly low and brutal. There is not much the matter with him, he had a fall on board ship. The nurse told me he was very troublesome, and had fairly insulted the chaplain, who had said a kind word to him. It is a pity that shot had not killed him; and I suppose most of the class who ever think of him will say he was a hero, and died on the field of honor.”
And my brother and I talked gravely about the two men. God help us! what sin and crime may be charged to any of us who take the wrong way in life! The possibilities of wickedness and goodness in us are both unlimited. I said, how many lives must be like these which seemed such wretched failures and imperfections! One cannot help having a great pity for such men, in whom common courage, and the power of resistance, and the ordinary amount of will seem to have been wanting. Warped and incapable, or brutal and shameful, one cannot pity them enough. It is like the gnarled and worthless fruit that grows among the fair and well-rounded,–the useless growth that is despised and thrown away scornfully.
But God must always know what blighted and hindered any life or growth of His; and let us believe that He sometimes saves and pities what we have scorned and blamed.