The Professor's Story
THE NEWS REACHES THE DUDLEY MANSION.
EARLY the next morning Abel Stebbins made his appearance at Dudley Venner’s, and requested to see the maän o’ the haouse abaout somethin’ o’ consequence. Mr. Venner sent word that the messenger should wait below, and presently appeared in the study, where Abel was making himself at home, as is the wont of the republican citizen, when he hides the purple of empire beneath the apron of domestic service.
“Good mornin’, Squire!” said Abel, as Mr. Venner entered. “My name ’s Stebbins, ‘n’ I ’m stoppin’ f'r a spell ’ith ol’ Doctor Kittredge.”
“ Well, Stebbins,” said Mr. Dudley Venner, “ have you brought any special message from the Doctor ? ”
“ Y’ ha’n’t heerd nothin’ abaout it, Squire, d’ ye mean t’ say ? ” said Abel,
— beginning to suspect that he was the first to bring the news of last evening’s events.
“ About what ? ” asked Mr. Venner, with some interest.
“ Dew tell, naow ! Waäl, that beats all! Why, that ’ere Portagee relation o’ yourn ’z been tryin’ t’ ketch a fellah ’n a slippernoose, ’n’ got ketehed himself,
— that ’s all. Y’ ha’n’t heerd noth’n’ abaout it ? ”
“ Sit down,” said Mr. Dudley Venner, calmly, “ and tell me all you have to say.”
So Abel sat down and gave hint an account of the events of the last evening. It was a strange and terrible surprise to Dudley Venner to find that his nephew, who had been an inmate of his house and the companion of his daughter, was to all intents and purposes guilty of the gravest of crimes. But the first shock was no sooner over than he began to think what effect the news would have on Elsie. He imagined that there was a kind of friendly feeling between them, and he feared some crisis would be provoked in his daughter’s mental condition by the discovery. He would wait, however, until she came from her chamber, before disturbing her with the evil tidings.
Abel did not forget his message with reference to the equipments of the dead mustang.
“ The’ was some things on the hoss, Squire, that the man he ketehed said he didn’ care no gre’t abaout; but perhaps you ’d like to have ’em fetched to the mansion-haouse. Ef y’ didn’ care abaout ’em, though, I shouldn’ min’ keepin’ on ’em; they might come handy some time or ’nother: they say, holt on t’ anything for ten year ‘n’ there ’ll be some kin* o’ use for’t.”
“Keep everything,” said Dudley Venner. “ I don’t want to see anything belonging to that young man.”
So Abel nodded to Mr. Venner, and left the study to find some of the men about the stable to tell and talk over with them the events of the last evening. He presently came upon Elhridge, chief of the equine department, and driver of the family-coach.
“Good mornin’, Abe,” said Elbridge. “ What ’s fetched y’ daown here so allfired airly?”
“ You ’re a darned pooty lot daown here, you be ! ” Abel answered. “ Better keep your Portagees t’ home nex’ time, ketchin’ folks ’ith slippernooses raoun’ their necks, ’n’ kerryin’ knives ’n their boots ! ”
“ What ‘r’ you jawin’ abaout ? ” Elbridge said, looking up to see if he was in earnest, and what be meant.
“ Jawin’ abaout? You ’ll find aout’z soon ’z y’ go into that ’ere stable o’ yourn ! Y’ won’t curry that ’ere long-tailed black hoss no more ; ’n’ y’ won’t set y’r eyes on the fellah that rid him, ag’in, in a hurry ! ”
Elbridge walked straight to the stable, without saying a word, found the door unlocked, and went in.
“ Th critter ’s gone, sure enough ! ” he said, “ Glad on ’t! The darndest, kickin’est, bitin’est beast th’t ever I see, ‘r ever wan’t’ see ag’in ! Good reddance ! Don’ wan’ no snappin’-turkles in my stable ! Whar’s the man gone th’t brought the critter ? ”
“ Whar he ’s gone ? Guess y’ better go ’n’ aäsk my of’ man; he kerried him off laäs’ night; ‘n’ when he comes back, mebbe he ’ll tell ye whar he’s gone tew! ”
By this time Elbridge had found out that Abel was in earnest, and had something to tell. He looked at the litter in the mustang’s stall, then at the crib.
“ Ha’n’t ēat b’t haälf his feed. Ha’n’t been daown on his straw. Must ha’ been took aout somewhere abaout ten ‘r ’leven o’clock. I know that ’ere critter’s ways. The fellah ‘s had him aout nights afore; b’t I never thought nothin’ o’ no mischief, He ’s a kin’ o’ haälf Injin. What is ’t the chap’s been a-doin’ on ? Tell ’s all abaout it.”
Abel sat down on a meal-chest, picked up a straw and put it into his mouth. Elbridge sat down at the other end, pulled out his jackknife, opened the penknifeblade, and began sticking it into the lid of the meal-chest. The Doctor’s man had a story to tell, and he meant to get all the enjoyment out of it. So he told it with every luxury of circumstance. Mr. Venners man heard it all with open mouth. No listener in the gardens of Stamboul could have found more rapture in a tale heard amidst the perfume of roses and the voices of birds and tinkling of fountains than Elbridge in following Abel’s narrative, as they sat there in the aromatic ammoniaeal atmosphere of the stable, the grinding of the horses’ jaws keeping evenly on through it all, with now and then the interruption of a stamping hoof, and at intervals a ringing crow from the barnyard.
Elbridge stopped a minute to think, after Abel had finished.
“ Who ‘s took care o’ them things that was on the hoss?” he said, gravely.
“ Waäl, Langden, he seemed to kin’ o’ think I ’d ought to have ’em, — ’ff the Squire, he didn’ seem to have no Ejection ; ’n’ so,—waäl, I cal’late I sh'll jes’ holt on to ’em myself; they a’n’t good f’r much, but they ’re cur’ous t’ keep t’ look at.”
Mr. Venner’s man did not appear much gratified by this arrangement, especially as he had a shrewd suspicion that some of the ornaments of the bridle were of precious metal, having made occasional examinations of them with the edge of a file. But he did not see exactly what to do about it, except to get them from Abel in the way of bargain.
“ Waäl, no, — they a’n’t good for much ’xeep’ to look at. ’F y’ ever rid on that geddle once, y’ wouldn’ try it ag’in, very spry,— not ’fy’c’d haälp y’rsaälf. I tried it, — darned ‘f I sot daown f’r th’ nex’ week,—ēat all my victuals stan'in'. I sh’d like t’ hev them things wal enough to heng up ’n the stable ; ’f y’ want t’ trade some day, fetch ’em along daown.”
Abel rather expected that Elbridge would have laid claim to the saddle and bridle on the strength of some promise or other presumptive title, and thought himself lucky to get off with only promising that he would think abaout tradin’.
When Elbridge returned to the house, he found the family in a state of great excitement. Mr. Venner had told Old Sophy, and she had informed the other servants. Everybody knew what had happened, excepting Elsie. Her father had charged them all to say nothing about it to her; he would tell her, when she came down.
He heard her step at last, — a light, gliding step, —so light that her coming was often unheard, except by those who perceived the faint rustle that went with it. She was paler than common this morning, as she came into her father’s study.
After a few words of salutation, he said, quietly, —
“ Elsie, my dear, your cousin Richard has left us.”
She grew still paler, as she asked,—
“ Is he dead ? ”
Dudley Venner started to see the expression with which Elsie put this question.
“He is living, — but dead to us from this day forward,” said her father.
He proceeded to tell her, in a general way, the story he had just heard from Abel. There could be no doubting it;—he remembered him as the Doctor’s man ; and as Abel had seen all with his own eyes, — as Dick’s chamber, when unlocked with a spare key, was found empty, and his bed had not been slept in, he accepted the whole account as true.
When he told of Dick’s attempt on the young schoolmaster, (“ You know Mr. Langdon very well, Elsie,—a perfectly inoffensive young man, as I understand,”) Elsie turned her face away and slid alone; by the wall to the window which looked out on the little grass-plot with the white stone standing in it. Her father could not see her face, but he knew by her movements that her dangerous mood was on her. When she heard the sequel of the story, the discomfiture and capture of Dick, she turned round for an instant, with a look of contempt and of something like triumph upon her face. Her father saw that her cousin had become odious to her. He knew well, by every change of her countenance, by her movements, by every varying curve of her graceful figure, the transitions from passion to repose, from fierce excitement to the dull languor which often succeeded her threatening paroxysms.
She remained looking out at the window. A group ot white fan-tailed pigeons had lighted on the green plot before it and clustered about one of their companions who lay on his back, fluttering in a strange way, with outspread wings and twitching feet. Elsie uttered a faint cry; these were her special favorites, and often fed from her hand. She threw open the long window, sprang out, caught up the white fan-tail, and held it to her bosom. The bird stretched himself out, and then lay still, with open eyes, lifeless. She looked at him a moment, and, sliding in through the open window and through the study, sought her own apartment, where she locked herself in, and began to sob and moan like those that weep. But the gracious solace of tears seemed to be denied her, and her grief, like her anger, was a dull ache, longing, like that, to finish itself with a fierce paroxysm, but wanting its natural outlet.
This seemingly trifling incident of the death oi her favorite appeared to change all the current of her thought. Whether it were the sight of the dying bird, or the thought that her own agency might have been concerned in it, or some deeper grief, which took this occasion to declare itseli, — some dark remorse or hopeless longing, —whatever it might be, there was an unwonted tumult in her soul. To whom should she go in her vague misery ? Only to Him who knows all His creatures’ sorrows, and listens to the faintest human cry. She knelt, as she had been taught to kneel from her childhood, and tried to pray. But her thoughts refused to flow in the language of supplication. She could not plead for herself as other women plead in their hours of anguish. She rose like one who should stoop to drink, and find dust in the place of water. Partly from restlessness, partly from an attraction she hardly avowed to herself, she followed her usual habit and strolled listlessly along to the school.
Of course everybody at the Institute was full of the terrible adventure of the preceding evening. Mr. Bernard felt poorly enough ; but he had made it a point to show himself the next morning, as it nothing had happened. Helen Darley knew nothing of it all until she had risen, when the gossipy matron of the establishment made her acquainted with all its details, embellished with such additional ornamental appendages as it had caught up in transmission from lip to lip. She did not love to betray her sensibilities, but she was pale and tremulous and very nearly tearful when Mr. Bernard entered the sitting-room, showing on his features traces of the violent shock he had received and the heavy slumber from which he had risen with throbbing brows. What the poor girl’s impulse was, on seeing him, we need not inquire too curiously. If he had been her own brother, she would have kissed him and cried on his neck ; but something held her back. There is no galvanism in kiss-your-brother; it is copper against copper : but alien bloods develop strange currents, when they flow close to each other, with only the films that cover lip and cheek between them. Mr. Bernard, as some of us may remember, violated the proprieties and laid himself open to reproach by his enterprise with a bouncing villagegirl, to whose rosy cheek an honest smack was not probably an absolute novelty. He made it all up by his discretion and good behavior now. He saw by Helen’s moist eye and trembling lip that her woman’s heart was off its guard, and he knew, by the infallible instinct of sex, that he should be forgiven, if he thanked her for her sisterly sympathies in the most natural way, — expressive, and at the same time economical of breath and utterance. He would not give a false look to their friendship by any such demonstration. Helen was a little older than he was, but the aureole of young womanhood had not yet begun to fade from around her. She was surrounded by that enchanted atmosphere into which the girl walks with dreamy eyes, and out of which the woman passes with a story written on her forehead. Some people think very little of these refinements; they have not studied magnetism and the law of the square of the distance.
So Mr. Bernard thanked Helen for her interest without the aid of the twentyseventh letter of the alphabet,—the love labial,—the limping consonant which it takes two to speak plain. Indeed, he scarcely let her say a word, at first; for he saw that it was hard for her to conceal her emotion. No wonder; he had come within a hair’s-breadth of losing his life, and he had been a very kind friend and a very dear companion to her.
There were some curious spiritual experiences connected with his last evening’s adventure, which were working very strongly in his mind. It was borne in upon him irresistibly that he had been dead since he had seen Helen, — as dead as the son of the Widow of Nain before the bier was touched and he sat up and began to speak. There was an interval between two conscious moments which appeared to him like a temporary annihilation, and the thoughts it suggested were worrying him with strange perplexities.
He remembered seeing the dark figure on horseback rise in the saddle and something leap from its hand. He remembered the thrill he felt as the coil settled on his shoulders, and the sudden impulse which led him to fire as he did. With the report of the pistol all became blank, until he found himself in a strange, bewildered state, groping about for the weapon, which he had a vague consciousness of having dropped. But, according to Abel’s account, there must have been an interval of some minutes between these recollections, and he could not help asking, Where was the mind, the soul, the thinking principle, all this time ?
A man is stunned by a blow with a stick on the head. He becomes unconscious. Another man gets a harder blow on the head from a bigger stick, and it kills him. Does he become unconscious, too ? If so, when does he come to his consciousness ? The man who has had a slight or moderate blow comes to himself when the immediate shock passes off and the organs begin to work again, or when a bit of the skull is pried up, if that happens to be broken. Suppose the blow is hard enough to spoil the brain and stop the play of the organs, what happens then ?
A British captain was struck by a cannon-ball on the head, just as he was giving an order, at the Battle of the Nile. Fifteen months afterwards he was trephined at Greenwich Hospital, having been insensible all that time. Immediately after the operation his consciousness returned, and he at once began carrying out the order he was giving when the shot struck him. Suppose he had never been trephined, when would his intelligence have returned ? When his breath ceased and his heart stopped beating ?
When Mr. Bernard said to Helen, “I have been dead since I saw you,” it startled her not a little ; for his expression was that of perfect good faith, and she feared that his mind was disordered. When he explained, not as has been done just now, at length, but in a hurried, imperfect way, the meaning of his strange assertion, and the fearful Sadduceeisms which it had suggested to his mind, she looked troubled at first, and then thoughtful. She did not feel able to answer all the difficulties he raised, but she met them with that faith which is the strength as well as the weakness of women,—which makes them weak in the hands of man, but strong in the presence of the Unseen.
“ It is a strange experience,” she said ; “ but I once had something like it. I fainted, and lost some five or ten minutes out of my life, as much as if I had been dead. But when I came to myself, I was the same person every way, in my recollections and character. So I suppose that loss of consciousness is not death. And if 1 was born out of unconsciousness into infancy with many family-traits of mind and body, I can believe, from my own reason, even without help from Revelation, that I shall be born again out of the unconsciousness of death with my individual trails of mind and body. If death is, as it should seem to be, a loss of consciousness, that does not shake my faith ; for I have been put into a body once already to fit me for living here, and I hope to be in some way fitted after this life to enjoy a better one. But it is all trust in God and in his Word. These are enough for me ; I hope they are for you.”
Helen was a minister’s daughter, and familiar from her childhood with this class of questions, especially with all the doubts and perplexities which are sure to assail every thinking child bred in any inorganic or not thoroughly vitalized faith,— as is too often the case with the children of professional theologians. The kind of discipline they are subjected to is like that of the Flat-Head Indian pappooses. At five or ten or fifteen years old they put their hands up to their foreheads and ask, What are they strapping down my brains in this way for ? So they tear off the sacred bandages of the great FlatHead tribe, and there follows a mighty rush of blood to the long-compressed region. This accounts, in the most lucid manner, for those sudden freaks with which certain children of this class astonish their worthy parents at the period of life when they are growing fast, and, the frontal pressure beginning to be felt as something intolerable, they tear off the holy compresses.
The hour for school came, and they went to the great hall for study. It would not have occurred to Mr. Silas Peckham to ask his assistant whether he felt well enough to attend to his duties; and Mr. Bernard chose to he at his post. A little headache and confusion were all that remained of his symptoms.
Later, in the course of the forenoon, Elsie Venner came and took her place. The girls all stared at her, — naturally enough ; for it was hardly to have been expected that she would show herself, after such an event in the household to which she belonged. Her expression was somewhat peculiar, and, of course, was attributed to the shock her feelings had undergone on hearing of the crime attempted by her cousin and daily companion. When she was looking on her book, or on any indifferent object, her countenance betrayed some inward disturbance, which knitted her dark brows, and seemed to throw a deeper shadow over her features. But, from time to time, she, would lift her eyes toward Mr. Bernard, and let them rest upon him, without a thought, seemingly, that she herself was the subject of observation or remark. Then they seemed to lose their cold glitter, and soften into a strange, dreamy tenderness. The deep instincts of womanhood were striving to grope their way to the surface of her being through all the alien influences which overlaid them, She could be secret and cunning in working out any of her dangerous impulses, but she did not know how to mask the unwonted feeling which fixed her eyes and her thoughts upon the only person who had ever reached the spring of her hidden sympathies.
The girls all looked at Elsie, whenever they could steal a glance unperceived, and many of them were struck with this singular expression her features wore. They had lone; whispered it around among each other that she had a liking for the master; but there were too many of them of whom something like this could he said, to make it very remarkable. Now, however, when so many little hearts were fluttering at the thought of the peril through which the handsome young master had so recently passed, they were more alive than ever to the supposed relation between him and the dark school-girl. Some had supposed there was a mutual attachment between them; there was a story that they were secretly betrothed, in accordance with the rumor which had been current in the village. At any rate, some conflict was going on in that still, remote, clouded soul, and all the girls who looked upon her face were impressed and awed as they had never been before by the shadows that passed over it.
One of these girls was more strongly arrested by Elsie’s look than the others. This was a delicate, pallid creature, with a high forehead, and wide-open pupils, which looked as if they could take in all the shapes that flit in what, to common eyes, is darkness,—a girl said to be clairvoyant under certain influences. In the recess, as it was called, or interval of suspended studies in the middle of the forenoon, this girl carried her autograph-book, — for she had one of those indispensable appendages of the boarding-school miss of every degree,—and asked Elsie to write her name in it. She had an irresistible feeling, that, sooner or later, and perhaps very soon, there would attach an unusual interest to this autograph. Elsie took the pen and wrote, in her sharp Italian hand,
Elsie Vennier, Infelix.
It was a remembrance, doubtless, of the forlorn queen of the “ Æneid "; but its coming to her thought in this way confirmed the sensitive schqol-girl in her fears for Elsie, and she let fall a tear upon the page before she closed it.
Of course, the keen and practised observation of Helen Darley could not fail to notice the change of Elsie’s manner and expression. She had long seen that she was attracted to the young master, and had thought, as the old Doctor did, that any impression which acted upon her affections might be the means of awakening a new life in her singularly isolated nature. Now, however, the concentration of the poor girl’s thoughts upon the one object which had had power to reach her deeper sensibilities was so painfully revealed in her features, that Helen began to fear once more, lest Mr. Bernard, in escaping the treacherous violence of an assassin, had been left to the equally dangerous consequences of a violent, engrossing passion in the breast of a young creature whose love it would be ruin to admit and might be deadly to reject. She knew her own heart too well to fear that any jealousy might mingle with her new apprehensions. It was understood between Bernard and Helen that they were too good friends to tamper with the silences and edging proximities of love-making. She knew, too, the simply human, not masculine, interest which Mr. Bernard took in Elsie; he had been frank with Helen, and more than satisfied her that with all the pity and sympathy which overflowed his soul, when he thought of the stricken girl, there mingled not one drop of such love as a youth may feel for a maiden.
It may help the reader to gain some understanding of the anomalous nature of Elsie Venner, if we look with Helen into Mr. Bernard’s opinions and feelings with reference to her, as they had shaped themselves in his consciousness at the period of which we are speaking.
At first he had been impressed by her wild beauty, and the contrast of all her looks and ways with those of the girls around her Presently a sense of some ill-defined personal element, which half attracted and half repelled those who looked upon her, and especially those on whom she looked, began to make itself obvious to him, as he soon found it was painfully sensible to his more susceptible companion, the lady-teacher. It was not merely in the cold light of her diamond eyes, but in all her movements, in her graceful postures as she sat, in her costume, and, he sometimes thought, even in her speech, that this obscure and exceptional character betrayed itself. When Helen had said, that, if they were living in times when human beings were subject to possession, she should have thought there was something not human about Elsie, it struck an unsuspected vein of thought iu his own mind, which he hated to put in words, but which was continually trying to articulate itself among the dumb thoughts which lie under the perpetual stream of mental whispers.
Mr. Bernard’s professional training had made him slow to accept marvellous stories and many forms of superstition. Yet, as a man of science, he well knew that just on the verge of the demonstrable facts of physics and physiology there is a nebulous border-land which what is called “ common sense ” perhaps does wisely not to enter, but which uncommon sense, or the fine apprehension of privileged intelligences, may cautiously explore, and in so doing find itself behind the scenes which make up for the gazing world the show which is called Nature.
It was with something of this finer perception, perhaps with some degree of imaginative exaltation, that he set himself to solving the problem of Elsie’s influence to attract and repel those around her. His letter already submitted to the reader hints in what direction his thoughts were disposed to turn. Here was a magnificent organization, superb in vigorous womanhood, with a beauty such as never comes but after generations of culture; yet through all this rich nature there ran some alien current of influence, sinuous and dark, as when a clouded streak seams the white marble of a perfect statue.
It would be needless to repeat the particular suggestions which had come into his mind, as they must probably have come into those of the reader who has noted the singularities of Elsie’s tastes and personal traits. The images which certain poets had dreamed of seemed to have become a reality before his own eyes. Then came that unexplained adventure of The Mountain,—almost like a dream in recollection, yet assuredly real in some of its main incidents, —with all that it revealed or hinted. This girl did not fear to visit the dreaded region, where danger lurked in every nook and beneath every tuft of leaves. Did the tenants of the fatal ledge recognize some mysterious affinity which made them tributary to the cold glitter of her diamond eyes? Was she from her birth one of those frightful children, such as he had read about, and the Professor had told him of, who form unnatural friendships with cold, writhing ophidians ? There was no need of so unwelcome a thought as this; she had drawn him away from the dark opening in the rock at the moment when he seemed to be threatened by one of its malignant denizens ; that was all he could be sure of; the counterfascination might have been a dream, a fancy, a coincidence. All wonderful things soon grow doubtful in our own minds, as do even common events, if great interests prove suddenly to attach to their truth or falsehood.
—I, who am telling of these occurrences, saw a friend in the great city, on the morning of a most memorable disaster, hours after the time when the train which carried its victims to their doom had left. I talked with him, and was for some minutes, at least, in his company. When I reached home, I found that the story had gone before that he was among the lost, and I alone could contradict it to his weeping friends and relatives. I did contradict it; but, alas ! I began soon to doubt myself, penetrated by the contagion of their solicitude ; my recollection began to question itself; the order of events became dislocated; and when I heard that he had reached home in safety, the relief was almost as great to me as to those who had expected to sec their own brother’s face no more.
Mr. Bernard was disposed, then, not to accept the thought of any odious personal relationship of the kind which had suggested itself to him when he wrote the letter referred to. That the girl had something of the feral nature, her wild, lawless rambles in forbidden and blasted regions of The Mountain at all hours, her familiarity with the lonely haunts where any other human foot was so rarely seen, proved clearly enough. But the more he thought of all her strange instincts and modes of being, the more lie became convinced that whatever alien impulse swayed her will and modulated or diverted or displaced her affections came from some impression that reached far back into the past, before the days when the faithful Old Sophy had rocked her in the cradle. He believed that she had brought her ruling tendency, whatever it was, into the world with her.
When the school was over and the girls had all gone, Helen lingered in the school-room to speak with Mr. Bernard.
“ Did vou remark Elsie's ways this forenoon ? ” she said.
“ No, not particularly ; I have not noticed anything as sharply as I commonly do; my head has been a little queer, and I have been thinking over what we were talking about, and how near I came to solving the great problem which every day makes clear to such multitudes of people. What about Elsie?”
“ Bernard, her liking for you is growing into a passion. I have studied girls tor a long while, and I know the differencc between their passing fancies and their real emotions. I told you, you remember, that Rosa would have to leave us: we barely missed a scene, I think, it not a whole tragedy, by her going at the right moment. But Elsie is infinitely more dangerous to herself and others. Women's love is fierce enough, it it once gets the mastery of them, always; but this poor girl does not know what to do with a passion.”
Mr. Bernard had never told Helen the story of the flower in his Virgil, or that other adventure which he would have felt awkwardly to refer to; but it had been perfectly understood between them that Elsie showed in her own singular way a well-marked partiality for the young master.
“ Why don’t they take her away from the school, if she is in such a strange, excitable state ? ” said Mr. Bernard.
“ I believe they are afraid of her,” Helen answered. “ It is just one of those cases that are ten thousand thousand times worse than insanity. I don’t think, from what I hear, that her father has ever given up hoping that she will outgrow her peculiarities. Oh, these peculiar children for whom parents go on hoping every morning and despairing every night! If I could tell yon half that mothers have told me, you would feel that the worst of all diseases of the moral sense and the will are those which all the Bedlams turn away from their doors as not being the subjects ot insanity !
“ Do you think her father has treated her judiciously ? ” said Mr. Bernard.
“ I think,” said Helen, with a little hesitation, which Mr. Bernard did not happen to notice, — “ I think he has been very kind and indulgent, and I do not know that he could have treated her otherwise with a better chance of success.
“ He must of course be fond of her,” Mr. Bernard said ; “ there is nothing else in the world for him to love.”
Helen dropped a book she held in her hand, and, stooping to pick it up, the blood rushed into her cheeks.
“ It is getting late,” she said ; “ you must not stay any longer in this close school-room. Pray, go and get a little fresh air before dinner-time.”
A SOUL IN DISTRESS.
THE events told in the last two chapters had taken place toward the close of the week. On Saturday evening the Reverend Chauney Fairweather received a note which was left at his door by an unknown person who departed without saying a word. Its words were these : —
“ One who is in distress of mind requests the prayers of this congregation that God would be pleased to look in mercy upon the soul that he has afflicted.”
There was nothing to show from whom the note came, or the sex or age or special source of spiritual discomfort or anxiety of the writer. The handwriting was delicate and might well be a woman’s. The clergyman was not aware of any particular affliction among his parishioners which was likely to be made the subject of a request of this kind. Surely neither of the Venners would advertise the attempted crime of their relative in this way. Rut who else was there ? The more he thought about it, the more it puzzled him; and as he did not like to pray in the dark, without knowing for whom he was praying, he could think of nothing better than to step into old Doctor Kittredge’s and see what he had to say about it.
The old Doctor was sitting alone in his study when the Reverend Mr. Fainwather was ushered in. He received his visitor very pleasantly, expecting, as a matter of course, that he would begin with some new grievance, dyspeptic, neuralgic, bronchitic, or other. The minister, however, began with questioning the old Doctor about the sequel of the other night’s adventure; for he was already getting a little Jesuitical, and kept back the object of his visit until it should come up as if accidentally in the course of conversation.
“ It was a pretty bold thing to go off alone with that reprobate, as you did,” said the minister.
“ I don't know what there was bold about it,” the Doctor answered. “ All he wanted was to get away. He was not quite a reprobate, you see ; he didn’t like the thought of disgracing his family or facing his uncle. I think he was ashamed to see his cousin, too, after what he had done.”
“ Did he talk with you on the way ? ”
“ Not much. For half an hour or so he didn’t speak a word. Then he asked where I was driving him. I told him, and he seemed to be surprised into a sort of grateful feeling. Bad enough, no doubt,—but might be worse. Has some humanity left in him yet. Let him go. God can judge him, — I can’t.”
“ You are too charitable, Doctor,” the minister said. “ I condemn him just as if he had carried out his project, which, they say, was to make it appear as if the schoolmaster had committed suicide. That’s what people think the rope found by him was for. He has saved his neck, — but his soul is a lost one, I am afraid, beyond question.”
“ I can’t judge men’s souls,” the Doctor said. “ I can judge their acts, and hold them responsible for those,—but I don’t know much about their souls. If you or I had found our soul in a half-breed body, and been turned loose to run among the Indians, we might have been playing just such tricks as this fellow has been trying, What if you or I bad inherited all the tendencies that were born with his cousin Elsie?”
“ Oh, that reminds me,”—the minister said, in a sudden way, — “ I have received a note, which I am requested to read from the pulpit to-morrow. I wish you would just have the kindness to look at it and see where you think it came from.”
The Doctor examined it carefully. It was a woman’s or girl’s note, he thought. Might come from one of the school-girls who was anxious about her spiritual condition. Handwriting was disguised; looked a little like Elsie Yenner’s, but not characteristic enough to make it Certain. It would be a new thing, if she had asked public prayers for berself, and a very favorable indication of a, change in her singular moral nature. It was just possible Elsie might have sent that note. Nobody could foretell her actions. It would be well to see the girl and find out whether any unusual impression had been produced on her mind by the recent occurrence or by any other cause.
The Reverend Mr. Fairweather folded the note and put it into his pocket.
“ I have been a good deal exercised in mind lately, myself,” he said.
The old Doctor looked at him through his spectacles, and said, in his usual professional tone,—
“ Put out your tongue.”
The minister obeyed him in that feeble way common with persons of weak character,—for people differ as much in their mode of performing this trifling act as Gideon’s soldiers in their way ot drinking at the brook. The Doctor took his hand and placed a linger mechanically on his wrist.
“ It is more spiritual, I think, than bodily,” said the Reverend Mr. Fairweather.
“ Is your appetite as good as usual ?" the Doctor asked.
“ Pretty good,” the minister answered ;
“ but my sleep, my sleep, Doctor,—I am greatly troubled at night with lying awake and thinking of my future,—I am not at ease in mind.”
He looked round at all the doors, to be sure they were shut, and moved his chair up close to the Doctor’s.
“ You do not know the mental trials I have been going through for the last few months.”
“ I think I do,” the old Doctor said. “ You want to get out of the new church into the old one, don't you ? ”
The minister blushed deeply; he thought he had been going on in a very quiet way, and that nobody suspected his secret. As the old Doctor was his counsellor in sickness, and almost, everybody’s confidant in trouble, he had intended to impart cautiously to him some hints of the change of sentiments through which he had been passing. He was too late with his information, it appeared, and there was nothing to be done but to throw himself on the Doctor’s good sense and kindness, which everybody knew, and get what hints he could from him as to the practical course he should pursue. He began, alter an awkward pause,—
“ You would not have me stay in a communion which I feel to be alien to the true church, would you ? ”
“ Have you stay, my friend ?” said the Doctor, with a pleasant, friendly look,—
“ have you stay ? Not a month, nor a week, nor a day, if I could help it. You have got into the wrong pulpit, and I have known it from the first. The sooner you go whore you belong, the better. And I ’m very glad you don’t mean to stop half-way. Don’t, you know you’ve always come to me when you ‘ve been dyspeptic or sick anyhow, and wanted to put yourself wholly into my hands, so that I might order you like a child just what to do and what to take? That ’s exactly what you want in religion. I don’t blame you for it. You never liked to take the responsibility of your own body; I don t see why you should want to have the charge of your own soul. But I ’m glad you ’re going to the Old Mother of all. You wouldn’t have been contented short of that.”
The Reverend Mr. Fairweather breathed with more freedom. The Doctor saw into his soul through those awful spectacles of his,—into it and beyond it, as one sees through a thin fog. But it was with a real human kindness, after all. He felt like a child before a strong man; but the strong man looked on him with a fathers indulgence. Many and many a time, when he had come desponding and bemoaning himself on account of some contemptible bodily infirmity, the old Doctor had looked at him through his spectacles, listened patiently while he told his ailments, and then, in his large parental way. given him a few words of wholesome advice, and cheered him up so that he went off with a light heart, thinking that the heaven he was so much afraid of was not so very near, after all. It was the same thing now. He felt, as feeble natures always do in the presence of strong ones, overmastered, circumscribed, shut in, humbled ; but yet it seemed as if the old Doctor did not despise him any more tor what he considered weakness of mind than he used to despise him when ho complained of his nerves or his digestion.
Men who see into their neighbors are very apt to be contemptuous; but men who see through them find something lying behind every human soul which it is not for them to sit in judgment on, or to attempt to sneer out of the order of God’s manifold universe.
Little as the Doctor had said out of which comfort could be extracted, his genial manner had something grateful in it. A film of gratitude came over the poor man’s cloudy, uncertain eye, and a look of tremulous relief and satisfaction played about his weak mouth. He was gravitating to the majority, where he hoped to find “rest”; but he was dreadfully sensitive to the opinions of the minority he was on the point of leaving.
The old Doctor saw plainly enough what was going on in his mind.
“ I sha’n't quarrel with you,” he said,— " you know that very well; but you mustn't quarrel with me, if I talk honestly with you ; it isn’t everybody that will take the trouble. You flatter yourself that you will make a good many enemies by leaving your old communion. Not so many as you think. This is the way the common sort of people will talk:—'You have got your ticket to the feast of life, as much as any other man that ever lived. Protestantism says,—“Help yourself; here ’s a clean plate, and a knife and fork of your own, and plenty of fresh dishes to choose from.” The Old Mother says,—
“ Give me your ticket, my dear, and I ‘II feed you with my gold spoon off these beautiful old wooden trenchers. Such nice bits as those good old gentlemen have left for you ! ” There is no quarrelling with a man who prefers broken victuals.’ That ‘s what the rougher sort will say; and then, where one scolds, ten will laugh. But, mind you, I don’t either scold or laugh. I don’t feel sure that you could very well have helped doing what you will soon do. You know you were never easy without some medicine to take when you felt ill in body. I’m afraid I ’ve given you trashy stuff sometimes, just to keep you quiet. Now, let me tell you, there is just the same difference in spiritual patients that there is in bodily ones. One set believes in wholesome ways of living, and another must have a great list of specifics for all the soul’s complaints. You belong with the last, and got accidentally shuttled in with the others.”
The minister smiled faintly, but did not reply. Of course, he considered that wav of talking as the result of the Doctor’s professional training. It would not have been worth while to take offence at his plain speech, if he had been .so disposed ; for he might wish fo consult him the next day as to “ what he should take ” for his dyspepsia or his neuralgia.
He left the Doctor with a hollow feeling at the bottom of his soul, as if a good piece of his manhood had been scooped out of him. His hollow aching did not explain itself in words, but it grumbled and worried down among the unshaped thoughts which he beneath them. He knew that he had been trying to reason himself out of his birthright of reason. He knew that the inspiration which gave him understanding was losing its throne in his intelligence, and the almighty Majority - Vote was proclaiming itself in its stead. He knew that the great primal truths, which each successive revelation only confirmed, were fast becoming hidden beneath the mechanical forms of thought, which, as with all new converts, engrossed so large a share of his attention. The “peace,” the “rest,” which he had purchased, were dearly bought to one who had been trained to the arms of thought, and whose noble privilege it might have been fo live in perpetual warfare for the advancing truth which the next generation will claim as the legacy of the present.
The Reverend Mr. Fairweather was getting careless about his sermons. He must wait the fitting moment to declare himself; and in the mean time he was preaching to heretics. It did not matter much what he preached, under such circumstances. He pulled out two old yellow sermons from a heap of such, and began looking over that for the forenoon. Naturally enough, he fell asleep over it, and, sleeping, he began to dream.
He dreamed that he was under the high arches of an old cathedral amidst a throng of worshippers. The light streamed in through vast windows, dark with the purple robes of royal saints, or blazing with yellow glories around the heads of earthly martyrs and heavenly messengers. The billows of the great organ roared among the clustered columns, as the sea breaks amidst the basaltic pillars which crowd the great cavern of the Hebrides. The voice of the alternate choirs of singing boys swung back and forward, as the silver censer swung in the hands of the white-robed children. The sweet cloud of incense rose in soft, fleecy mists, full of penetrating suggestions of the East and its perfumed altars. The knees of twenty generations had worn the pavement ; their feet had hollowed the steps; their shoulders had smoothed the columns. Dead bishops and abbots lay under the marble of the floor in their crumbled vestments ; dead warriors, in their rusted armor, were stretched beneath their sculptured effigies. And all at once all the buried multitudes who had ever worshipped there came thronging in through the aisles. They choked every space, they swarmed into all the chapels, they hung in clusters over the parapets of the galleries, they clung to the images in every niche, and still the vast throng kept flowing and flowing in, until the living were lost in the rush of the returning dead who had reclaimed their own. Then, as his dream became more fantastic, the huge cathedral itself seemed to change into the wreck of some mighty antediluvian vertebrate ; its flying-buttresses arched round like ribs, its piers shaped themselves into limbs, and the sound of the organ-blast changed to the wind whistling through its thousand-jointed skeleton.
And presently the sound lulled, and softened and softened, until it was as the murmur of a distant swarm of bees. A procession of monks wound along through an old street, chanting, as they walked. In his dream he glided in among them and bore his part in the burden of their song. He entered with the long train under a low arch, and presently he was kneeling in a narrow cell before an image of the Blessed Maiden holding the Divine Child in her arms, and his lips seemed to whisper,—
Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis !
He turned to the crucifix, and, prostrating himself before the spare, agonizing shape of the Holy Sufferer, fell into a long passion of tears and broken prayers. He rose and flung himself, worn-out, upon his hard pallet, and, seeming to slumber, dreamed again within his dream. Once more in the vast cathedral, with throngs of the living choking its aisles, amidst jubilant peals from the cavernous depths of the great organ, and choral melodies ringing from the fluty throats of the singing boys. A day of great rejoicings, — for a prelate was to be consecrated, and the bones of the mighty skeleton-minster were shaking with anthems, as if there were life of its own within its buttressed ribs. He looked down at his feet; the folds of the sacred robe were flowing about them: he put his hand to his head; it Was crowned with the holy mitre. A long sigh, as of perfect content in the consummation of all his earthly hopes, breathed through the dreamers lips, and shaped itself, as it escaped, into the blissful murmur, —
Ego sum Episcopus !
One grinning gargoyle looked in from beneath the roof through an opening in a stained window. It was the face of a mocking fiend, such as the old builders loved to place under the eaves to spout the rain through their open mouths. It looked at him, as he sat in his mitred chair, with its hideous grin growing broader and broader, until it laughed out aloud, — such a hard, stony, mocking laugh, that he awoke out of his second dream through his first into his common consciousness, and shivered, as he turned to the two yellow sermons which he was to pick over and weed of the little thought they might contain, for the next day’s service.
The Reverend Chauncy Fairweather was too much taken up with his own bodily and spiritual condition to be deeply mindful of others. He carried the note requesting the prayers of the congregation in his pocket all day; and the soul in distress, which a single tender petition might have soothed, and perhaps have saved from despair or fatal error, found no voice in the temple to plead for it before the Throne of Mercy !