Story type: Literature
“All that sort of personification,” said Wanhope, “is far less remarkable than the depersonification which has now taken place so thoroughly that we no longer think in the old terms at all. It was natural that the primitive peoples should figure the passions, conditions, virtues, vices, forces, qualities, in some sort of corporal shape, with each a propensity or impulse of its own, but it does not seem to me so natural that the derivative peoples should cease to do so. It is rational that they should do so, and I don’t know that any stronger proof of our intellectual advance could be alleged than the fact that the old personifications survive in the parlance while they are quite extinct in the consciousness. We still talk of death at times as if it were an embodied force of some kind, and of love in the same way; but I don’t believe that any man of the commonest common-school education thinks of them so. If you try to do it yourself, you are rather ashamed of the puerility, and when a painter or a sculptor puts them in an objective shape, you follow him with impatience, almost with contempt.”
“How about the poets?” asked Minver, less with the notion, perhaps, of refuting the psychologist than of bringing the literary member of our little group under the disgrace that had fallen upon him as an artist.
“The poets,” said I, “are as extinct as the personifications.”
“That’s very handsome of you, Acton,” said the artist. “But go on, Wanhope.”
“Yes, get down to business,” said Rulledge. Being of no employ whatever, and spending his whole life at the club in an extraordinary idleness, Rulledge was always using the most strenuous expressions, and requiring everybody to be practical. He leaned directly forward with the difficulty that a man of his girth has in such a movement, and vigorously broke off the ash of his cigar against the edge of his saucer. We had been dining together, and had been served with coffee in the Turkish room, as it was called from its cushions and hangings of Indian and Egyptian stuffs. “What is the instance you’ve got up your sleeve?” He smoked with great energy, and cast his eyes alertly about as if to make sure that there was no chance of Wanhope’s physically escaping him, from the corner of the divan, where he sat pretty well hemmed in by the rest of us, spreading in an irregular circle before him.
“You unscientific people are always wanting an instance, as if an instance were convincing. An instance is only suggestive; a thousand instances, if you please, are convincing,” said the psychologist. “But I don’t know that I wish to be convincing. I would rather be enquiring. That is much more interesting, and, perhaps, profitable.”
“All the same,” Minver persisted, apparently in behalf of Rulledge, but with an after-grudge of his own, “you’ll allow that you were thinking of something in particular when you began with that generalization about the lost art of personifying?”
“Oh, that is very curious,” said the psychologist. “We talk of generalizing, but is there any such thing? Aren’t we always striving from one concrete to another, and isn’t what we call generalizing merely a process of finding our way?”
“I see what you mean,” said the artist, expressing in that familiar formula the state of the man who hopes to know what the other man means.
“That’s what I say,” Rulledge put in. “You’ve got something up your sleeve. What is it?”
Wanhope struck the little bell on the table before him, but, without waiting for a response, he intercepted a waiter who was passing with a coffee-pot, and asked, “Oh, couldn’t you give me some of that?”
The man filled his cup for him, and after Wanhope put in the sugar and lifted it to his lips, Rulledge said, with his impetuous business air, “It’s easy to see what Wanhope does his high thinking on.”
“Yes,” the psychologist admitted, “coffee is an inspiration. But you can overdo an inspiration. It would be interesting to know whether there hasn’t been a change in the quality of thought since the use of such stimulants came in–whether it hasn’t been subtilized–“
“Was that what you were going to say?” demanded Rulledge, relentlessly. “Come, we’ve got no time to throw away!”
“You haven’t, anyway,” said I.
“Well, none of his own,” Minver admitted for the idler.
“I suppose you mean I have thrown it all away. Well, I don’t want to throw away other peoples’. Go on, Wanhope.”
The psychologist set his cup down and resumed his cigar, which he had to pull at pretty strongly before it revived. “I should not be surprised,” he began, “if a good deal of the fear of death had arisen, and perpetuated itself in the race, from the early personification of dissolution as an enemy of a certain dreadful aspect, armed and threatening. That conception wouldn’t have been found in men’s minds at first; it would have been the result of later crude meditation upon the fact. But it would have remained through all the imaginative ages, and the notion might have been intensified in the more delicate temperaments as time went on, and by the play of heredity it might come down to our own day in certain instances with a force scarcely impaired by the lapse of incalculable time.”
“You said just now,” said Rulledge, in rueful reproach, “that personification had gone out.”
“Yes, it has. I did say that, and yet I suppose that though such a notion of death, say, no longer survives in the consciousness, it does survive in the unconsciousness, and that any vivid accident or illusory suggestion would have force to bring it to the surface.”
“I wish I knew what you were driving at,” said Rulledge.
“You remember Ormond, don’t you?” asked Wanhope, turning suddenly to me.
“Perfectly,” I said. “I–he isn’t living, is he?”
“No; he died two years ago.”
“I thought so,” I said, with the relief that one feels in not having put a fellow-creature out of life, even conditionally.
“You knew Mrs. Ormond, too, I believe,” the psychologist pursued.
I owned that I used to go to the Ormonds’ house.
“Then you know what a type she was, I suppose,” he turned to the others, “and as they’re both dead it’s no contravention of the club etiquette against talking of women, to speak of her. I can’t very well give the instance–the sign–that Rulledge is seeking without speaking of her, unless I use a great deal of circumlocution.” We all urged him to go on, and he went on. “I had the facts I’m going to give, from Mrs. Ormond. You know that the Ormonds left New York a couple of years ago?”
He happened to look at Minver as he spoke, and Minver answered: “No; I must confess that I didn’t even know they had left the planet.”
Wanhope ignored his irrelevant ignorance. “They went to live provisionally at a place up the Housatonic road, somewhere–perhaps Canaan; but it doesn’t matter. Ormond had been suffering some time with an obscure affection of the heart–“
“Oh, come now!” said Rulledge. “You’re not going to spring anything so pat as heart-disease on us?”
“Acton is all ears,” said Minver, nodding toward me. “He hears the weird note afar.”
The psychologist smiled. “I’m afraid you’re not interested. I’m not much interested myself in these unrelated instances.”
“Oh, no!” “Don’t!” “Do go on!” the different entreaties came, and after a little time taken to recover his lost equanimity, Wanhope went on: “I don’t know whether you knew that Ormond had rather a peculiar dread of death.” We none of us could affirm that we did, and again Wanhope resumed: “I shouldn’t say that he was a coward above other men I believe he was rather below the average in cowardice. But the thought of death weighed upon him. You find this much more commonly among the Russians, if we are to believe their novelists, than among Americans. He might have been a character out of one of Tourguenief’s books, the idea of death was so constantly present with him. He once told me that the fear of it was a part of his earliest consciousness, before the time when he could have had any intellectual conception of it. It seemed to be something like the projection of an alien horror into his life–a prenatal influence–“
“Jove!” Rulledge broke in. “I don’t see how the women stand it. To look forward nearly a whole year to death as the possible end of all they’re hoping for and suffering for! Talk of men’s courage after that! I wonder we’re not all marked.’
“I never heard of anything of the kind in Ormond’s history,” said Wanhope, tolerant of the incursion.
Minver took his cigar out to ask, the more impressively, perhaps, “What do you fellows make of the terror that a two months’ babe starts in its sleep with before it can have any notion of what fear is on its own hook?”
“We don’t make anything of it,” the psychologist answered. “Perhaps the pathologists do.”
“Oh, it’s easy enough to say wind,” Rulledge indignantly protested.
“Too easy, I agree with you,” Wanhope consented. “We cannot tell what influences reach us from our environment, or what our environment really is, or how much or little we mean by the word. The sense of danger seems to be inborn, and possibly it is a survival of our race life when it was wholly animal and took care of itself through what we used to call the instincts. But, as I was saying, it was not danger that Ormond seemed to be afraid of, if it came short of death. He was almost abnormally indifferent to pain. I knew of his undergoing an operation that most people would take ether for, and not wincing, because it was not supposed to involve a fatal result.
“Perhaps he carried his own anodyne with him,” said Minver, “like the Chinese.”
“You mean a sort of self-anaesthesia?” Wanhope asked. “That is very interesting. How far such a principle, if there is one, can be carried in practice. The hypnotists–“
“I’m afraid I didn’t mean anything so serious or scientific,” said the painter.
“Then don’t switch Wanhope off on a side track,” Rulledge implored. “You know how hard it is to keep him on the main line. He’s got a mind that splays all over the place if you give him the least chance. Now, Wanhope, come down to business.”
Wanhope laughed amiably. “Why, there’s so very little of the business. I’m not sure that it wasn’t Mrs. Ormond’s attitude toward the fact that interested me most. It was nothing short of devout. She was a convert. She believed he really saw–I suppose,” he turned to me, “there’s no harm in our recognizing now that they didn’t always get on smoothly together?”
“Did they ever?” I asked.
“Oh, yes–oh, yes,” said the psychologist, kindly. “They were very fond of each other, and often very peaceful.”
“I never happened to be by,” I said.
“Used to fight like cats and dogs,” said Minver. “And they didn’t seem to mind people. It was very swell, in a way, their indifference, and it did help to take away a fellow’s embarrassment.”
“That seemed to come mostly to an end that summer,” said Wanhope, “if you could believe Mrs. Ormond.”
“You probably couldn’t,” the painter put in.
“At any rate she seemed to worship his memory.”
“Oh, yes; she hadn’t him there to claw.”
“Well, she was quite frank about it with me,” the psychologist pursued. “She admitted that they had always quarreled a good deal. She seemed to think it was a token of their perfect unity. It was as if they were each quarreling with themselves, she said. I’m not sure that there wasn’t something in the notion. There is no doubt but that they were tremendously in love with each other, and there is something curious in the bickerings of married people if they are in love. It’s one way of having no concealments; it’s perfect confidence of a kind–“
“Or unkind,” Minver suggested.
“What has all that got to do with it!” Rulledge demanded.
“Nothing directly,” Wanhope confessed, “and I’m not sure that it has much to do indirectly. Still, it has a certain atmospheric relation. It is very remarkable how thoughts connect themselves with one another. It’s a sort of wireless telegraphy. They do not touch at all; there is apparently no manner of tie between them, but they communicate–“
“Oh, Lord!” Rulledge fumed.
Wanhope looked at him with a smiling concern, such as a physician might feel in the symptoms of a peculiar case. “I wonder,” he said absently, “how much of our impatience with a fact delayed is a survival of the childhood of the race, and how far it is the effect of conditions in which possession is the ideal!”
Rulledge pushed back his chair, and walked away in dudgeon. “I’m a busy man myself. When you’ve got anything to say you can send for me.”
Minver ran after him, as no doubt he meant some one should. “Oh, come back! He’s just going to begin;” and when Rulledge, after some pouting, had been pushed down into his chair again, Wanhope went on, with a glance of scientific pleasure at him.
“The house they had taken was rather a lonely place, out of sight of neighbors, which they had got cheap because it was so isolated and inconvenient, I fancy. Of course Mrs. Ormond, with her exaggeration, represented it as a sort of solitude which nobody but tramps of the most dangerous description ever visited. As she said, she never went to sleep without expecting to wake up murdered in her bed.”
“Like her,” said Minver, with a glance at me full of relish for the touch of character which I would feel with him.
“She said,” Wanhope went on, “that she was anxious from the first for the effect upon Ormond. In the stress of any danger, she gave me to understand, he always behaved very well, but out of its immediate presence he was full of all sorts of gloomy apprehensions, unless the surroundings were cheerful. She could not imagine how he came to take the place, but when she told him so–“
“I’ve no doubt she told him so pretty promptly,” the painter grinned.
“–he explained that he had seen it on a brilliant day in spring, when all the trees were in bloom, and the bees humming in the blossoms, and the orioles singing, and the outlook from the lawn down over the river valley was at its best. He had fallen in love with the place, that was the truth, and he was so wildly in love with it all through that he could not feel the defect she did in it. He used to go gaily about the wide, harking old house at night, shutting it up, and singing or whistling while she sat quaking at the notion of their loneliness and their absolute helplessness–an invalid and a little woman–in case anything happened. She wanted him to get the man who did the odd jobs about the house, to sleep there, but he laughed at her, and they kept on with their usual town equipment of two serving-women. She could not account for his spirits, which were usually so low when they were alone–“
“And not fighting,” Minver suggested to me.
“–and when she asked him what the matter was he could not account for them, either. But he said, one day, that the fear of death seemed to be lifted from his soul, and that made her shudder.”
Rulledge fetched a long sigh, and Minver interpreted, “Beginning to feel that it’s something like now.”
“He said that for the first time within his memory he was rid of that nether consciousness of mortality which had haunted his whole life, and poisoned, more or less, all his pleasure in living. He had got a reprieve, or a respite, and he felt like a boy–another kind of boy from what he had ever been. He was full of all sorts of brilliant hopes and plans. He had visions of success in business beyond anything he had known, and talked of buying the place he had taken, and getting a summer colony of friends about them. He meant to cut the property up, and make the right kind of people inducements. His world seemed to have been emptied of all trouble as well as all mortal danger.”
“Haven’t you psychologists some message about a condition like that!” I asked.
“Perhaps it’s only the pathologists again,” said Minver.
“The alienists, rather more specifically,” said Wanhope. “They recognize it as one of the beginnings of insanit–folie des grandeurs as the French call the stage.”
“Is it necessarily that?” Rulledge demanded, with a resentment which we felt so droll in him that we laughed.
“I don’t know that it is,” said Wanhope. “I don’t know why we shouldn’t sometimes, in the absence of proofs to the contrary, give such a fact the chance to evince a spiritual import. Of course it had no other import to poor Mrs. Ormond, and of course I didn’t dream of suggesting a scientific significance.”
“I should think not!” Rulledge puffed.
Wanhope went on: “I don’t think I should have dared to do so to a woman in her exaltation concerning it. I could see that however his state had affected her with dread or discomfort in the first place, it had since come to be her supreme hope and consolation. In view of what afterward happened, she regarded it as the effect of a mystical intimation from another world that was sacred, and could not he considered like an ordinary fact without sacrilege. There was something very pathetic in her absolute conviction that Ormond’s happiness was an emanation from the source of all happiness, such as sometimes, where the consciousness persists, comes to a death-bed. That the dying are not afraid of dying is a fact of such common, such almost invariable observation–“
“You mean,” I interposed, “when the vital forces are beaten so low that the natural dread of ceasing to be, has no play? It has less play, I’ve noticed, in age than in youth, but for the same reason that it has when people are weakened by sickness.”
“Ah,” said Wanhope, “that comparative indifference to death in the old, to whom it is so much nearer than it is to the young, is very suggestive. There may be something in what you say; they may not care so much because they have no longer the strength–the muscular strength–for caring. They are too tired to care as they used. There is a whole region of most important inquiry in that direction–“
“Did you mean to have him take that direction?” Rulledge asked, sulkily.
“He can take any direction for me,” I said. “He is always delightful.”
“Ah, thank you!” said Wanhope.
“But I confess,” I went on, “that I was wondering whether the fact that the dying are indifferent to death could be established in the case of those who die in the flush of health and strength, like, for instance, people who are put to death.”
Wanhope smiled. “I think it can–measurably. Most murderers make a good end, as the saying used to be, when they end on the scaffold, though they are not supported by religious fervor of any kind, or the exaltation of a high ideal. They go meekly and even cheerfully to their death, without rebellion or even objection. It is most exceptional that they make a fight for their lives, as that woman did a few years ago at Dannemora, and disgusted all refined people with capital punishment.”
“I wish they would make a fight always,” said Rulledge, with unexpected feeling. “It would do more than anything to put an end to that barbarity.”
“It would be very interesting, as Wanhope says,” Minver remarked. “But aren’t we getting rather far away? From the Ormonds, I mean.”
“We are, rather,” said Wanhope. “Though I agree that it would be interesting. I should rather like to have it tried. You know Frederick Douglass acted upon some such principle when his master attempted to whip him. He fought, and he had a theory that if the slave had always fought there would soon have been an end of whipping, and so an end of slavery. But probably it will be a good while before criminals are–“
“Educated up to the idea,” Minver proposed.
“Yes,” Wanhope absently acquiesced. “There seems to be a resignation intimated to the parting soul, whether in sickness or in health, by the mere proximity of death. In Ormond’s case there seems to have been something more positive. His wife says that in the beginning of those days he used to come to her and wonder what could be the matter with him. He had a joy he could not account for by anything in their lives, and it made her tremble.”
“Probably it didn’t. I don’t think there was anything that could make Mrs. Ormond tremble, unless it was the chance that Ormond would get the last word,” said Minver.
No one minded him, and Wanhope continued: “Of course she thought he must be going to have a fit of sickness, as the people say in the country, or used to say. Those expressions often survive in the common parlance long after the peculiar mental and moral conditions in which they originated have passed away. They must once have been more accurate than they are now. When one said ‘fit of sickness’ one must have meant something specific; it would be interesting to know what. Women use those expressions longer than men; they seem to be inveterate in their nerves; and women apparently do their thinking in their nerves rather than their brains.”
Wanhope had that distant look in his eyes which warned his familiars of a possible excursion, and I said, in the hope of keeping him from it, “Then isn’t there a turn of phrase somewhat analogous to that in a personification?”
“Ah, yes–a personification,” he repeated with a freshness of interest, which he presently accounted for. “The place they had taken was very completely furnished. They got it fully equipped, even to linen and silver; but what was more important to poor Ormond was the library, very rich in the English classics, which appeared to go with the house. The owner was a girl who married and lived abroad, and these were her father’s books. Mrs. Ormond said that her husband had the greatest pleasure in them: their print, which was good and black, and their paper, which was thin and yellowish, and their binding, which was tree calf in the poets, he specially liked. They were English editions as well as English classics, and she said he caressed the books, as he read them, with that touch which the book-lover has; he put his face into them, and inhaled their odor as if it were the bouquet of wine; he wanted her to like it, too.”
“Then she hated it,” Minver said, unrelentingly.
“Perhaps not, if there was nobody else there,” I urged.
For once Wanhope was not to be tempted off on another scent. “There was a good deal of old-fashioned fiction of the suspiratory and exclamatory sort, like Mackenzie’s, and Sterne’s and his followers, full of feeling, as people understood feeling a hundred years ago. But what Ormond rejoiced in most were the poets, good and bad, like Gray and Collins and Young, and their contemporaries, who personified nearly everything from Contemplation to Indigestion, through the whole range of the Vices, Virtues, Passions, Propensities, Attributes, and Qualities, and gave them each a dignified capital letter to wear. She said he used to come roaring to her with the passages in which these personifications flourished, and read them off with mock admiration, and then shriek and sputter with laughter. You know the way he had when a thing pleased him, especially a thing that had some relish of the quaint or rococo. As nearly as she would admit, in view of his loss, he bored her with these things. He was always hunting down some new personification, and when he had got it, adding it to the list he kept. She said he had thousands of them, but I suppose he had not so many. He had enough, though, to keep him amused, and she said he talked of writing something for the magazines about them, but probably he never would have done it. He never wrote anything, did he?” Wanhope asked of me.
“Oh, no. He was far too literary for that,” I answered. “He had a reputation to lose.”
“Pretty good,” said Minver, “even if Ormond is dead.”
Wanhope ignored us both. “After awhile, his wife said, she began to notice a certain change in his attitude toward the personifications. She noticed this, always expecting that fit of sickness for him; but she was not so much troubled by his returning seriousness. Oh, I ought to tell you that when she first began to be anxious for him she privately wrote home to their family doctor, telling him how strangely happy Ormond was, and asking him if he could advise anything. He wrote back that if Ormond was so very happy they had better not do anything to cure him; that the disease was not infectious, and was seldom fatal.”
“What an ass!” said Rulledge.
“Yes, I think he was, in this instance. But probably he had been consulted a good deal by Mrs. Ormond,” said Wanhope. “The change that began to set her mind at rest about Ormond was his taking the personifications more seriously. Why, he began to ask, but always with a certain measure of joke in it, why shouldn’t there be something in the personifications? Why shouldn’t Morn and Eve come corporeally walking up their lawn, with little or no clothes on, or Despair be sitting in their woods with her hair over her face, or Famine coming gauntly up to their back door for a hand-out? Why shouldn’t they any day see pop-eyed Rapture passing on the trolley, or Meditation letting the car she intended to take go by without stepping lively enough to get on board? He pretended that we could have the personifications back again, if we were not so conventional in our conceptions of them. He wanted to know what reason there was for representing Life as a very radiant and bounding party, when Life usually neither shone nor bounded; and why Death should be figured as an enemy with a dart, when it was so often the only friend a man had left, and had the habit of binding up wounds rather than inflicting them. The personifications were all right, he said, but the poets and painters did not know how they really looked. By the way,” Wanhope broke off, “did you happen to see Hauptmann’s ‘Hannele’ when it was here?”
None of us had, and we waited rather restively for the passing of the musing fit which he fell into. After a while he resumed at a point whose relation to the matter in hand we could trace:
“It was extremely interesting for all reasons, by its absolute fearlessness and freshness in regions where there has been nothing but timid convention for a long time; but what I was thinking of was the personification of Death as it appears there. The poor little dying pauper, lying in her dream at the almshouse, sees the figure of Death. It is not the skeleton with the dart, or the phantom with the shrouded face, but a tall, beautiful young man,–as beautiful as they could get into the cast, at any rate,–clothed in simple black, and standing with his back against the mantlepiece, with his hands resting on the hilt of a long, two-handed sword. He is so quiet that you do not see him until some time after the child has seen him. When she begins to question him whether she may not somehow get to heaven without dying, he answers with a sort of sorrowful tenderness, a very sweet and noble compassion, but unsparingly as to his mission. It is a singular moment of pure poetry that makes the heart ache, but does not crush or terrify the spirit.”
“And what has it got to do with Ormond?” asked Rulledge, but with less impatience than usual.
“Why, nothing, I’m afraid, that I can make out very clearly. And yet there is an obscure connection with Ormond, or his vision, if it was a vision. Mrs. Ormond could not be very definite about what he saw, perhaps because even at the last moment he was not definite himself. What she was clear about, was the fact that his mood, though it became more serious, by no means became sadder. It became a sort of solemn joy instead of the light gaiety it had begun by being. She was no sort of scientific observer, and yet the keenness of her affection made her as closely observant of Ormond as if she had been studying him psychologically. Sometimes the light in his room would wake her at night, and she would go to him, and find him lying with a book faced down on his breast, as if he had been reading, and his fingers interlaced under his head, and a kind of radiant peace in his face. The poor thing said that when she would ask him what the matter was, he would say, ‘Nothing; just happiness,’ and when she would ask him if he did not think he ought to do something, he would laugh, and say perhaps it would go off of itself. But it did not go off; the unnatural buoyancy continued after he became perfectly tranquil. ‘I don’t know,’ he would say. ‘I seem to have got to the end of my troubles. I haven’t a care in the world, Jenny. I don’t believe you could get a rise out of me if you said the nastiest thing you could think of. It sounds like nonsense, of course, but it seems to me that I have found out the reason of things, though I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’ve only found out that there is a reason of things. That would be enough, wouldn’t it?’”
At this point Wanhope hesitated with a kind of diffidence that was rather charming in him. “I don’t see,” he said, “just how I can keep the facts from this on out of the line of facts which we are not in the habit of respecting very much, or that we relegate to the company of things that are not facts at all. I suppose that in stating them I shall somehow make myself responsible for them, but that is just what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to do anything more than give them as they were given to me.”
“You won’t be able to give them half as fully,” said Minver, “if Mrs. Ormond gave them to you.”
“No,” Wanhope said gravely, “and that’s the pity of it; for they ought to be given as fully as possible.”
“Go ahead,” Rulledge commanded, “and do the best you can.” “I’m not sure,” the psychologist thoughtfully said, “that I am quite satisfied to call Ormond’s experiences hallucinations. There ought to be some other word that doesn’t accuse his sanity in that degree. For he apparently didn’t show any other signs of an unsound mind.”
“None that Mrs. Ormond would call so,” Minver suggested.
“Well, in his case, I don’t think she was such a bad judge,” Wanhope returned. “She was a tolerably unbalanced person herself, but she wasn’t altogether disqualified for observing him, as I’ve said before. They had a pretty hot summer, as the summer is apt to be in the Housatonic valley, but when it got along into September the weather was divine, and they spent nearly the whole time out of doors, driving over the hills. They got an old horse from a native, and they hunted out a rickety buggy from the carriage-house, and they went wherever the road led. They went mostly at a walk, and that suited the horse exactly, as well as Mrs. Ormond, who had no faith in Ormond’s driving, and wanted to go at a pace that would give her a chance to jump out safely if anything happened. They put their hats in the front of the buggy, and went about in their bare heads. The country people got used to them, and were not scandalized by their appearance, though they were both getting a little gray, and must have looked as if they were old enough to know better.
“They were not really old, as age goes nowadays: he was not more than forty-two or -three, and she was still in the late thirties. In fact, they were
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita–
“in that hour when life, and the conceit of life, is strongest, and when it feels as if it might go on forever. Women are not very articulate about such things, and it was probably Ormond who put their feeling into words, though she recognized at once that it was her feeling, and shrank from it as if it were something wicked, that they would be punished for; so that one day, when he said suddenly, ‘Jenny, I don’t feel as if I could ever die,’ she scolded him for it. Poor women!” said Wanhope, musingly, “they are not always cross when they scold. It is often the expression of their anxieties, their forebodings, their sex-timidities. They are always in double the danger that men are, and their nerves double that danger again. Who was that famous salonniere–Mme. Geoffrin, was it?–that Marmontel says always scolded her friends when they were in trouble, and came and scolded him when he was put into the Bastille? I suppose Mrs. Ormond was never so tender of Ormond as she was when she took it out of him for suggesting what she wildly felt herself, and felt she should pay for feeling.”
Wanhope had the effect of appealing to Minver, but the painter would not relent. “I don’t know. I’ve seen her–or heard her–in very devoted moments.”
“At any rate,” Wanhope resumed, “she says she scolded him, and it did not do the least good. She could not scold him out of that feeling, which was all mixed up in her retrospect with the sense of the weather and the season, the leaves just beginning to show the autumn, the wild asters coming to crowd the goldenrod, the crickets shrill in the grass, and the birds silent in the trees, the smell of the rowan in the meadows, and the odor of the old logs and fresh chips in the woods. She was not a woman to notice such things much, but he talked of them all and made her notice them. His nature took hold upon what we call nature, and clung fondly to the lowly and familiar aspects of it. Once she said to him, trembling for him, ‘I should think you would be afraid to take such a pleasure in those things,’ and when he asked her why, she couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him; but he understood, and he said: ‘I’ve never realized before that I was so much a part of them. Either I am going to have them forever, or they are going to have me. We shall not part, for we are all members of the same body. If it is the body of death, we are members of that. If it is the body of life, we are members of that. Either I have never lived, or else I am never going to die.’ She said: ‘Of course you are never going to die; a spirit can’t die.’ But he told her he didn’t mean that. He was just as radiantly happy when they would get home from one of their drives, and sit down to their supper, which they had country-fashion instead of dinner, and then when they would turn into their big, lamplit parlor, and sit down for a long evening with his books. Sometimes he read to her as she sewed, but he read mostly to himself, and he said he hadn’t had such a bath of poetry since he was a boy. Sometimes in the splendid nights, which were so clear that you could catch the silver glint of the gossamers in the thin air, he would go out and walk up and down the long veranda. Once, when he coaxed her out with him, he took her under the arm and walked her up and down, and he said: ‘Isn’t it like a ship? The earth is like a ship, and we’re sailing, sailing! Oh, I wonder where!’ Then he stopped with a sob, and she was startled, and asked him what the matter was, but he couldn’t tell her. She was more frightened than ever at what seemed a break in his happiness. She was troubled about his reading the Bible so much, especially the Old Testament; but he told her he had never known before what majestic literature it was. There were some turns or phrases in it that peculiarly took his fancy and seemed to feed it with inexhaustible suggestion. ‘The Angel of the Lord’ was one of these. The idea of a divine messenger, embodied and commissioned to intimate the creative will to the creature: it was sublime, it was ineffable. He wondered that men had ever come to think in any other terms of the living law that we were under, and that could much less conceivably operate like an insensate mechanism than it could reveal itself as a constant purpose. He said he believed that in every great moral crisis, in every ordeal of conscience, a man was aware of standing in the presence of something sent to try him and test him, and that this something was the Angel of the Lord.
“He went off that night, saying to himself, ‘The Angel of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord!’ and when she lay a long time awake, waiting for him to go to sleep, she heard him saying it again in his room. She thought he might be dreaming, but when she went to him, he had his lamp lighted, and was lying with that rapt smile on his face which she was so afraid of. She told him she was afraid and she wished he would not say such things; and that made him laugh, and he put his arms round her, and laughed and laughed, and said it was only a kind of swearing, and she must cheer up. He let her give him some trional to make him sleep, and then she went off to her bed again. But when they both woke late, she heard him, as he dressed, repeating fragments of verse, quoting quite without order, as the poem drifted through his memory. He told her at breakfast that it was a poem which Longfellow had written to Lowell upon the occasion of his wife’s death, and he wanted to get it and read it to her. She said she did not see how he could let his mind run on such gloomy things. But he protested he was not the least gloomy, and that he supposed his recollection of the poem was a continuation of his thinking about the Angel of the Lord.
“While they were at table a tramp came up the drive under the window, and looked in at them hungrily. He was a very offensive tramp, and quite took Mrs. Ormond’s appetite away: but Ormond would not send him round to the kitchen, as she wanted; he insisted upon taking him a plate and a cup of coffee out on the veranda himself. When she expostulated with him, he answered fantastically that the fellow might be an angel of the Lord, and he asked her if she remembered Parnell’s poem of ‘The Hermit.’ Of course she didn’t, but he needn’t get it, for she didn’t want to hear it, and if he kept making her so nervous, she should be sick herself. He insisted upon telling her what the poem was, and how the angel in it had made himself abhorrent to the hermit by throttling the babe of the good man who had housed and fed them, and committing other atrocities, till the hermit couldn’t stand it any longer, and the angel explained that he had done it all to prevent the greater harm that would have come if he had not killed and stolen in season. Ormond laughed at her disgust, and said he was curious to see what a tramp would do that was treated with real hospitality. He thought they had made a mistake in not asking this tramp in to breakfast with them; then they might have stood a chance of being murdered in their beds to save them from mischief.”
“Mrs. Ormond really lost her patience with him, and felt better than she had for a long time by scolding him in good earnest. She told him he was talking very blasphemously, and when he urged that his morality was directly in line with Parnell’s, and Parnell was an archbishop, she was so vexed that she would not go to drive with him that morning, though he apologized and humbled himself in every way. He pleaded that it was such a beautiful day, it must be the last they were going to have; it was getting near the equinox, and this must be a weather-breeder. She let him go off alone, for he would not lose the drive, and she watched him out of sight from her upper window with a heavy heart. As soon as he was fairly gone, she wanted to go after him, and she was wild all the forenoon. She could not stay indoors, but kept walking up and down the piazza and looking for him, and at times she went a bit up the road he had taken, to meet him. She had got to thinking of the tramp, though the man had gone directly off down another road after he had his breakfast. At last she heard the old creaking, rattling buggy, and as soon as she saw Ormond’s bare head, and knew he was all right, she ran up to her room and shut herself in. But she couldn’t hold out against him when he came to her door with an armful of wild flowers that he had gathered for her, and boughs from some young maples that he had found all red in a swamp. She showed herself so interested that he asked her to come with him after their midday dinner and see them, and she said perhaps she would, if he would promise not to keep talking about the things that made her so miserable. He asked her, ‘What things?’ and she answered that he knew well enough, and he laughed and promised.
“She didn’t believe he would keep his word, but he did at first, and he tried not to tease her in any way. He tried to please her in the whims and fancies she had about going this way or that, and when she decided not to look up his young maples with him, because the first autumn leaves made her melancholy, he submitted. He put his arm across her shoulder as they drove through the woods, and pulled her to him, and called her ‘poor old thing,’ and accused her of being morbid. He wanted her to tell him all there was in her mind, but she could not; she could only cry on his arm. He asked her if it was something about him that troubled her, and she could only say that she hated to see people so cheerful without reason. That made him laugh, and they were very gay after she had got her cry out; but he grew serious again. Then her temper rose, and she asked, ‘Well, what is it?’ and he said at first, ‘Oh, nothing,’ as people do when there is really something, and presently he confessed that he was thinking about what she had said of his being cheerful without reason. Then, as she said, he talked so beautifully that she had to keep her patience with him, though he was not keeping his word to her. His talk, as far as she was able to report it, didn’t amount to much more than this: that in a world where death was, people never could be cheerful with reason unless death was something altogether different from what people imagined. After people came to their intellectual consciousness, death was never wholly out of it, and if they could be joyful with that black drop at the bottom of every cup, it was proof positive that death was not what it seemed. Otherwise there was no logic in the scheme of being, but it was a cruel fraud by the Creator upon the creature; a poor practical joke, with the laugh all on one side. He had got rid of his fear of it in that light, which seemed to have come to him before the fear left him, and he wanted her to see it in the same light, and if he died before her–But there she stopped him and protested that it would kill her if she did not die first, with no apparent sense, even when she told me, of her fatuity, which must have amused poor Ormond. He said what he wanted to ask was that she would believe he had not been the least afraid to die, and he wished her to remember this always, because she knew how he always used to be afraid of dying. Then he really began to talk of other things, and he led the way back to the times of their courtship and their early married days, and their first journeys together, and all their young-people friends, and the simple-hearted pleasure they used to take in society, in teas and dinners, and going to the theater. He did not like to think how that pleasure had dropped out of their life, and he did not know why they had let it, and he was going to have it again when they went to town.
“They had thought of staying a long time in the country, perhaps till after Thanksgiving, for they had become attached to their place; but now they suddenly agreed to go back to New York at once. She told me that as soon as they agreed she felt a tremendous longing to be gone that instant, as if she must go to escape from something, some calamity, and she felt, looking back, that there was a prophetic quality in her eagerness.”
“Oh, she was always so,” said Minver. “When a thing was to be done, she wanted it done like lightning, no matter what the thing was.”
“Well, very likely,” Wanhope consented. “I never make much account of those retroactive forebodings. At any rate, she says she wanted him to turn about and drive home so that they could begin packing, and when he demurred, and began to tease, as she called it, she felt as if she should scream, till he turned the old horse and took the back track. She was wild to get home, and kept hurrying him, and wanting him to whip the horse; but the old horse merely wagged his tail, and declined to go faster than a walk, and this was the only thing that enabled her to forgive herself afterward.”
“Why, what had she done?” Rulledge asked. “She would have been responsible for what happened, according to her notion, if she had had her way with the horse; she would have felt that she had driven Ormond to his doom.”
“Of course!” said Minver. “She always found a hole to creep out of. Why couldn’t she go back a little further, and hold herself responsible through having made him turn round?”
“Poor woman!” said Rulledge, with a tenderness that made Minver smile. “What was it that did happen?”
Wanhope examined his cup for some dregs of coffee, and then put it down with an air of resignation. I offered to touch the bell, but, “No, don’t,” he said. “I’m better without it.” And he went on: “There was a lonely piece of woods that they had to drive through before they struck the avenue leading to their house, which was on a cheerful upland overlooking the river, and when they had got about half-way through this woods, the tramp whom Ormond had fed in the morning, slipped out of a thicket on the hillside above them, and crossed the road in front of them, and slipped out of sight among the trees on the slope below. Ormond stopped the horse, and turned to his wife with a strange kind of whisper. ‘Did you see it?’ he asked, and she answered yes, and bade him drive on. He did so, slowly looking back round the side of the buggy till a turn of the road hid the place where the tramp had crossed their track. She could not speak, she says, till they came in sight of their house. Then her heart gave a great bound, and she broke out on him, blaming him for having encouraged the tramp to lurk about, as he must have done, all day, by his foolish sentimentality in taking his breakfast out to him. ‘He saw that you were a delicate person, and now to-night he will be coming round, and–‘ She says Ormond kept looking at her, while she talked, as if he did not know what she was saying, and all at once she glanced down at their feet, and discovered that her hat was gone.
“That, she owned, made her frantic, and she blazed out at him again, and accused him of having lost her hat by stopping to look at that worthless fellow, and then starting up the horse so suddenly that it had rolled out. He usually gave her as good as she sent when she let herself go in that way, and she told me she would have been glad if he had done it now, but he only looked at her in a kind of daze, and when he understood, at last, he bade her get out and go into the house–they were almost at the door,–and he would go back and find her hat himself. ‘Indeed, you’ll do nothing of the kind,’ she said she told him. ‘I shall go back with you, or you’ll be hunting up that precious vagabond and bringing him home to supper.’ Ormond said, ‘All right,’ with a kind of dreamy passivity, and he turned the old horse again, and they drove slowly back, looking for the hat in the road, right and left. She had not noticed before that it was getting late, and perhaps it was not so late as it seemed when they got into that lonely piece of woods again, and the veils of shadow began to drop round them, as if they were something falling from the trees, she said. They found the hat easily enough at the point where it must have rolled out of the buggy, and he got down and picked it up. She kept scolding him, but he did not seem to hear her. He stood dangling the hat by its ribbons from his right hand, while he rested his left on the dashboard, and looking–looking down into the wooded slope where the tramp had disappeared. A cold chill went over her, and she stopped her scolding. ‘Oh, Jim,’ she said, ‘do you see something? What do you see?’ He flung the hat from him, and ran plunging down the hillside–she covered up her face when she told me, and said she should always see him running–till the dusk among the trees hid him. She ran after him, and she heard him calling, calling joyfully, ‘Yes, I’m coming!’ and she thought he was calling back to her, but the rush of his feet kept getting farther, and then he seemed to stop with a sound like falling. He couldn’t have been much ahead of her, for it was only a moment till she stood on the edge of a boulder in the woods, looking over, and there at the bottom Ormond was lying with his face turned under him, as she expressed it; and the tramp, with a heavy stick in his hand, was standing by him, stooping over him, and staring at him. She began to scream, and it seemed to her that she flew down from the brink of the rock, and caught the tramp and clung to him, while she kept screaming ‘Murder!’ The man didn’t try to get away; he only said, over and over, ‘I didn’t touch him, lady; I didn’t touch him.’ It all happened simultaneously, like events in a dream, and while there was nobody there but herself and the tramp, and Ormond lying between them, there were some people that must have heard her from the road and come down to her. They were neighbor-folk that knew her and Ormond, and they naturally laid hold of the tramp; but he didn’t try to escape. He helped them gather poor Ormond up, and he went back to the house with them, and staid while one of them ran for the doctor. The doctor could only tell them that Ormond was dead, and that his neck must have been broken by his fall over the rock. One of the neighbors went to look at the place the next morning, and found one of the roots of a young tree growing on the rock, torn out, as if Ormond had caught his foot in it; and that had probably made his fall a headlong dive. The tramp knew nothing but that he heard shouting and running, and got up from the foot of the rock, where he was going to pass the night, when something came flying through the air, and struck at his feet. Then it scarcely stirred, and the next thing, he said, the lady was onto him, screeching and tearing. He piteously protested his innocence, which was apparent enough, at the inquest, and before, for that matter. He said Ormond was about the only man that ever treated him white, and Mrs. Ormond was remorseful for having let him get away before she could tell him that she didn’t blame him, and ask him to forgive her.”
Wanhope desisted with a provisional air, and Rulledge went and got Himself a sandwich from the lunch-table.
“Well, upon my word!” said Minver. “I thought you had dined, Rulledge.”
Rulledge came back munching, and said to Wanhope, as he settled himself in his chair again: “Well, go on.”
“Why, that’s all.”
The psychologist was silent, with Rulledge staring indignantly at him.
“I suppose Mrs. Ormond had her theory?” I ventured.
“Oh, yes–such as it was,” said Wanhope. “It was her belief–her religion–that Ormond had seen Death, in person or personified, or the angel of it; and that the sight was something beautiful, and not terrible. She thought that she should see Death, too in the same way, as a messenger. I don’t know that it was such a bad theory,” he added impartially.
“Not,” said Minver, “if you suppose that Ormond was off his nut. But, in regard to the whole matter, there is always a question of how much truth there was in what she said about it.”
“Of course,” the psychologist admitted, “that is a question which must be considered. The question of testimony in such matters is the difficult thing. You might often believe in supernatural occurrences if it were not for the witnesses. It is very interesting,” he pursued, with his scientific smile, “to note how corrupting anything supernatural or mystical is. Such things seem mostly to happen either in the privity of people who are born liars, or else they deprave the spectator so, through his spiritual vanity or his love of the marvelous, that you can’t believe a word he says.
“They are as bad as horses on human morals,” said Minver. “Not that I think it ever needed the coming of a ghost to invalidate any statement of Mrs. Ormond’s.” Rulledge rose and went away growling something, partially audible, to the disadvantage of Minver’s wit, and the painter laughed after him: “He really believes it.”
Wanhope’s mind seemed to be shifted from Mrs. Ormond to her convert, whom he followed with his tolerant eyes. “Nothing in all this sort of inquiry is so impossible to predicate as the effect of any given instance upon a given mind. It would be very interesting–“
“Excuse me!” said Minver. “There’s Whitley. I must speak to him.”
He went away, leaving me alone with the psychologist.
“And what is your own conclusion in this instance?” I asked.
“Why, I haven’t formulated it yet.”
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