SOME years ago, at a time when the rapid growth of the city was changing the character of many localities, two young men were sitting, one afternoon early in April, in the parlor of a house on one of those streets which, without having yet accomplished their destiny as business thoroughfares, were no longer the homes of the decorous ease that once inhabited them. The young men held their hats and canes in their hands, and they had that air of having just been admitted and of waiting to be received by the people of the house which rests gracefully only on persons of the other sex. One was tall and spare, and he sat stiffly expectant; the other, who was much shorter and stouter, with the mature bloom which comes of good living and a cherished digestion, was more restless. As he rose from his chair, after a few moments, and went to examine some detail of the dim room, he moved with a quick, eager step, and with a stoop such as might have come from a connoisseur’s habit of bending over and peering at things. He returned to his seat, and glanced round the parlor, as if to seize the whole effect more accurately.
“ So this is the home of the Pythoness, is it ? ” he said.
“ If you like to call her a Pythoness,” answered the other.
“ Oh, I don’t know that I prefer it: I’m quite willing to call her a testmedium. I thought perhaps Pythoness would respectfully idealize the business. What a queer, melancholy house, what a queer, melancholy street! I don’t think I was ever in a street before where quite so many professional ladies, with English surnames, preferred Madam to Mrs. on their door-plates. And the poor old place has such a desperately conscious air of going to the deuce. Every house seems to wince as you go by, and button itself up to the chin for fear you should find out it had no shirt on, — so to speak. I don’t know what’s the reason, but these material tokens of a social decay afflict me terribly : a tipsy woman is n’t dreadfuller than a haggard old house, that’s once been a home, in a street like this.”
“ The street’s going the usual way,” said the other. “ It will be all business in a few years.”
“ But in the mean time it causes me inexpressible anguish, and it will keep doing it. If I know where there’s a thorn, I can’t help going up and pressing my waistcoat against it. I foresee that I shall keep coming. This parlor alone is poignant enough to afford me the most rapturous pain ; it pierces my soul. This teeth-setting-on-edge, tawdry red velvet wall-paper ; the faded green reps of that sofa; those family photographs in their oval papier-maché frames; that round table there in the corner, with its subscription literature and its tin-type albums ; and this frantic tapestry carpet! I know now why the ghost-seers affect this sort of street and this sort of parlor: the spirits can’t resist the deadly fascination ! No ghost, with any strength of character, could keep away. I suppose that this apartment is swarming, now, with disembodied ladies and gentlemen of the first distinction.”
“You don’t think you could leave that off for a little while?” asked the other, quietly.
“ Why, my dear fellow, I did n’t suppose ” —
“ Suppose what ? ”
“ That you had any feeling about the matter. I like to respect everybody’s superstition — except my own; I can’t respect that, you know.”
“ Do you think I believe in these people’s rubbish ? ”
“ Well, I did n’t know. A man must believe in something. I could n’t think of anything else you believed in. I ’m not sure I don’t believe in it a trifle, myself : my nerves do. May I ask why you come here, if you refuse the particular rubbish afforded by the establishment? You ’re not a curious man.”
“ Why did you come ? ”
“ You asked me. Besides, I have no occasion for a reason. I am an emotional, not a rational being, as I. ’ve often told you.”
The taller man laughed dryly. “ Very well, then, you don’t need a reason from me. You can wait and see why I came.”
The short man gave a shrug. “ I hope I shan’t have to wait long. An emotional being has a right to be unreasonably impatient.”
A light sound of hesitating steps made itself heard in the next room; the two men remained silent, and presently one of the partition doors was rolled back, and a tall young girl in a somewhat theatrical robe of white serge, with a pale green scarf on her shoulders, appeared at the threshold. Her beautiful, serious face had a pallid quiet, broken by what seemed the unnatural alertness of her blue eyes, which glanced quickly, like those of a child too early obliged to suspect and avert; her blonde hair, which had a pastic massiveness, was drawn smoothly back from her temples, and lay heaped in a heavy coil on her neck, where its rich abundance showed when she turned her profile away, as if to make sure that some one was following in the room behind her. A door opened and closed there, and she came on towards the two men, who had risen. At sight of the taller of the two, she halted, while an elderly gentleman hurried forward, with a bustling graciousness, and offered him his small, short hand. He had the same fair complexion as the girl, but his face was bright and eager ; his thin, light hair was wavy and lustreless ; he looked hardly so tall as she. He had a mouth of delicacy aud refinement, and a smile of infantine sweetness.
“ Ah, you’ve really come,” he said, shaking the young man’s hand cordially. “ So many people manifest an interest in our public séances, and then let the matter drop without going any further. I don’t know whether I presented you to my daughter, the other day, Mr. Ford? ”
Ford bowed gravely to the girl, who slightly returned his obeisance. “Let me introduce Mr. Phillips, Dr. Boynton, — a friend whom I ventured to bring with me.”
“ Very glad to see you, Mr. Phillips. I was about to say — Oh ! my daughter, Mr. Phillips, Miss Egeria Boynton. Take seats, gentlemen — I was about to say that one of the most curious facts connected with the phenomena is the ardor with which people take the matter up on first acquaintance, and the entire indifference with which they let it drop. In our line of life, Mr. Phillips, as public exhibitors, we often have occasion to note this. It seldom happens but Half a dozen persons come to me at the close of a séance, and ask earnestly for the privilege of pursuing their investigations With the aid of my daughter’s mediumship. But these persons rarely call ; I rarely see them at a second public séance, even. If I had not such abiding hopes of the phenomena myself, I should sometimes feel discouraged by the apathy and worse than apathy with which they are received, not the first, but the second time. You must excuse my expression of surprise at first greeting you, Mr. Ford, — you must indeed. It was but too natural under the circumstances.”
“ By all means,” answered Ford. “ I never thought of not coming. But I can’t promise that you ’ll find me a ready believer.”
“ Precisely,” returned the other. “ That is the very mood in which I could have wished you to come. I am myself, as I think I told you. merely an inquirer. In fact ” — Dr. Boynton leaned forward, with his small, plump hands extended, as if the more conveniently to round his periods, but arrested himself, in the explanation he was about to make, at something Mr. Phillips was saying to his daughter.
“ I could n’t help being interested in the character of your parlor, before you came in, Miss Boynton. These old Boston houses all have so much character. It’s surprising what good taste people had fifty or sixty years ago, — the taste of the First Empire. That cornice is very pretty, — very simple and very refined, neither glutted nor starved in design ; and that mantel, — how refreshing those sane and decent straight lines are after the squirms and wriggles of subsequent marble ! I don’t know that I should have chosen urns for an ornament to the corners ; but we must not forget that we are mortal; and there are cinerary associations with fire-places.”
Miss Boynton had said nothing in return for this speech, the full sense of which had perhaps not quite reached her. She stared blankly at Phillips, to whom her father turned with his most winning smile.
“ An artist?” asked Dr. Boynton.
“ A sufferer in the cause of art,” returned Phillips with ironical pathos.
“ All! A connoisseur,” said the doctor.
“ The fact is,” said Phillips, “ I was finding the modern equipment, of your old-fashioned parlor intolerable, as you came in. You won’t mind my not liking your landlady’s taste. Miss Boynton ? ” he demanded with suave ingratiation.
Miss Boynton looked about the room, as if she had not seen it before. “ It is ugly,” she answered quietly. “ But it does as well as any.”
“ Yes,” her father eagerly interposed, “ better than any other room in any other house in any other quarter of the city. We are still, as I may say, gentlemen, feeling our way towards what we believe a sublime truth. My daughter’s development is yet so recent, so incomplete, that we must not reject any furthering influences, however humble, however disagreeable. It is not by our own preference that we are here. I know, as well as you do, that this is a street inhabited by fortune-tellers and charlatans of low degree. For that very reason I have taken our lodgings here. The element, the atmosphere, of simple, unquestioning faith brought into this vicinity by the dupes of these people is, unknown to them, of the highest use, the most vital advantage, to us in our present attempt. At the same time, I should not, I could not in candor, deny to these pretenders themselves a beneficial, a highly — I may call it — evolutionary, influence upon my daughter. We desire no personal acquaintance with them. But they are of the old tradition of supernaturalism, — a tradition as old as nature, —and we cannot afford to reject the favor of the tradition which they represent. You will understand that, gentlemen. We cannot say, We hold — or we trust we hold — communion with spirits, and yet deny that there is something in second-sight, divination, or whatever mysteries these people pretend to. In some sort, we must psychologically ally ourselves with them. They are, no doubt, for the most part and in most cases, shameless swindlers ; but it seems to be a condition of our success that we shall not deny—I don’t say that we shall believe — the fact of an occult power in some of them. Their neighborhood was very repulsive at first, and still is measurably so; but we accept it, and have found it of advantage. We are mere experimenters, as yet, and claim nothing except that my daughter is the medium, the instrument, of certain phenomena which we can explain only in one way; we do not dispute the different explanations of others. In the course of our investigations, we neglect no theory, however slight, that may assist us. Now, in so simple a matter as dress, even : we have found by repeated experiment that the manifestations have a greater affinity for white than any other color. This may point to some hidden truth — I don’t say — in the old-fashioned ghoststories, where the spectre always appears in white. At any rate, we think it worth while that my daughter should wear white, in both her public and her private séances, for the present. And green, — just now we seem to find a good effect in pale green, Mr. Phillips, pale green.”
“If I may say it without impertinence to Miss Boynton’s father, in my character of connoisseur,” said Phillips, with a bow for the young girl, which he delivered to the doctor, “ I think the effect is very good indeed.”
“Ah! yes, yes!” cried the doctor. “ In that sense. I see. Very good. However, I meant ” — Dr. Boynton paused, bending on either visitor an exquisite smile of child-like triumph. A series of light taps, beginning with a sound like a straining of the wood, and then separating into a sharper staccato, was heard at different points in the room, chiefly on the table, and on the valves of the sliding doors. Phillips gave a little nervous start. Ford remained indifferent, but for the slow movement of his eyes in the direction of the young girl, who bent an appealing look on her father. The doctor lifted a hand to invoke attention ; the raps died away. “ Giorgione, I presume. Will you ask, Egeria ? ”
The girl hesitated. Then, in a somewhat tremulous voice, she demanded, “ Is it you, Giorgione ? ” A light shower of raps instantly responded. A thrill of strong excitement visibly passed over the girl, who clutched one hand with the other, and seemed to stay herself by a strong effort of will in her place on the sofa.
“ Calmly, my daughter, calmly ! ” said Dr. Boynton, making a certain restraining gesture towards her. “ Yes, it is Giorgione. He can never keep away when color is mentioned. Very celebrated for his coloring, I am told, when alive. A Viennese painter, I believe, Mr. Phillips.”
“Venetian,” answered Phillips, abstractedly. He recalled himself, and added with a forced lightness, “ But I don’t know that I can advise you to trust the professions of our rapping and tapping friend ; there are so few genuine Giorgiones.” A brisk volley of taps discharged upon the wall directly behind Phillips’s head caused him to turn abruptly and stare hard at the place.
“ Oh, you can’t see it, Phillips,” said Ford, with a spare laugh of derision.
“ No,” said Dr. Boynton, sweetly, “ you can’t see it. At least, not yet. But if our experiments progress as favorably as they have for the last six months, we may hope before a great while to render the invisible agencies of these sounds as sensible to sight as to hearing. Don’t disturb yourself, Mr. Phillips. Mere playfulness, I assure you. They never inflict any real injury.” While he spoke the raps renewed themselves here and there upon the woodwork, into the fibre of which they seemed at last to reënter, and died away in the sort of straining with which they began. “ Egeria,” said the doctor, turning impressively toward his daughter, “ it seems to me the conditions are uncommonly propitious, this afternoon. I think we may look for something of a very remarkable character.” He glanced at the clock on the mantel, and confronted his visitors with a smiling face of apology. “ Gentlemen, I suppose you came for a séance. My interest in the matter has betrayed me into remarks that have taken up too much of your time.”
“ I came with the hope of seeing some further proofs of your skill,” said Ford ; “ but if there is anything ” —
“ Oh, no, no, no ! Not at all, not at all! ” hastily interrupted the doctor, with a deprecatory wave of his hand. “ But — ah — I hardly know how to put it. The fact is, I am anxious for investigation by gentlemen of your intelligence, and I should very much dislike to postpone you — Our landlady, who is a medium of note in her way, — she has lately come to Boston from the West, — had arranged this afternoon for a seance with a number of persons rather more grounded in the belief than yourselves, and ” —
The young men rose. “We won’t detain you,” said Ford. “ We can come another time.”
“ No, no ! Wait! ” Dr. Boynton waved them to their seats again, which they provisionally resumed, and turned to his daughter. “ Egeria, I think I may venture to ask these gentlemen to join our friends ? ”
“ There’s no reason why they should n’t stay, if they like,” said the girl, impassively.
“ We should be delighted,” exclaimed Phillips, “ if you ’ll let us ! I’m so little used to ghosts,” he said, glancing round at the walls and tables with an apprehensiveness which was perhaps not altogether affected, “ that, for my part, I should rather like plenty of company, Miss Boynton, — if Messer Giorgione won’t take it amiss.”
“ Ah, very good ! ” interposed her father. “ Very good, indeed. Ha ! Why I hesitated was that the sort of experiment to be tried this afternoon requires conditions, concessions, that I thought you might not care to offer, gentlemen. I wish to be perfectly frank with you : what you will see might be produced by trickery, especially in a company of ten or a dozen persons, some of whom could be in collusion with the medium. I pass no judgment upon a certain order of phenomena in their present stage of development, but I make it a rule, myself, measurably to distrust all manifestations occurring in the presence of more than three persons besides the medium. Still, if you will do us the honor to remain, I can promise you something very curious and interesting, — something novel in the present phase of supernaturalism ; nothing less than apparitions, gentlemen, or, as we call them, materializations. You have heard, perhaps, of these materializations ? ”
“Yes,” said Ford indifferently, “I have heard of them.”
“ Mrs. Le Roy — our landlady — has made an eclectic study of the materializations of several other mediums, and she has succeeded, or claims to have succeeded, not only in reproducing them, but in calling about her many of the principal apparitions who visit the original séances. If you are not familiar with apparitions you may find it interesting.”
“ Really, Dr. Boynton,” said Phillips, “ do you mean that I shall see my friend Giorgione performing that sort of tattoo on your wall paper ? ”
“ Not exactly,” urbanely responded the doctor. “No. It’s a curious feature of the manifestations that the audible spirits are never seen, and that those rendered visible by the new development of materialization are invariably mute. But in a dark séance to follow the materializations, my daughter ” —
Egeria rose from her place on the sofa and moved toward her father, who, alarmed at some expression of her face, started to his feet to encounter her. She laid her arms with a passionate gesture on his shoulder. “ Father, father ! Give it up for to-day, do ! I can’t go through with it. I am weak — sick ; I have no strength left. Everything is gone.”
“ Why, Egeria ! My poor girl! Excuse me, gentlemen : I will be with you in a moment.” He cast a sustaining arm about her slim shape, and with the other hand pushed open one of the sliding doors, and disappeared with her from the room beyond.
The men remained in a silence which Ford had apparently no intention of breaking. “ Upon the whole,” said Phillips, at last, “ this is rather painful. Miss Boynton is very much like some other young ladies — for a Pythoness. I should like to see the dark séance, — if I may express myself so inconsequent ly,—but really I hope the old gentleman will give it up, as she suggested.”
“ Don’t flatter yourself,” said Ford. “ The thing’s just beginning.”
“ Ford,” observed Phillips, looking curiously at his friend, “has n’t your little vice of brutality grown upon you ? ”
“ Your vice has n’t grown upon you, my dear fellow,” returned Ford. “ It came into the world fully developed, like Wisdom, — which it does n’t otherwise resemble.”
“ I confess it,” said Phillips. “ Folly is my foible. But I don’t see how you have the heart to take your attitude towards these people. It was shocking to stand on the defensive against the girl, as if she were an impostor. She’s a person you might help to escalloped oysters or ice-cream at an evening party, and not expect to talk half so magnificently as she looked. I wonder what’s the matter with her; I suppose some
hysterical mystery. The old gentleman ” —
“ Old quack,” interrupted Ford.
“ Oh, I ’m not so sure of that,” said Phillips, with sprightly generosity.
“ You were always disputatious,” returned his friend. “ Especially about a perfectly plain case. You feel that it gives you an air of impartiality.”
“ I feel that refusing to let appearances account for motives gives one an advantage over you in your snap-judgments of people. I get twice the good out of life that you do. The man believes in himself, and it is your ironical attitude which annuls the honesty in him. That sort of thing kills any amount of genuineness in people.”
“ Very likely,” assented Ford. “ He’s coming back presently to say that our sphere — attitude, you call it; his quackery has a different nomenclature — has annulled his daughter’s power over the spirits.”
Phillips went up again to examine the mantel-piece. “ Well, why not ? ”
“ Certainly, why not ? If you grant the one, there’s no trouble about granting the other.”
“ What do you make of what we heard ?”
11 You heard it ? ”
“ I hear clatter any time I wake in the night. But I don’t attribute it to disembodied spirits on that account.”
“ Why not ? ”
“ Because there are no disembodied spirits, for one thing.”
“ Ah, I’m not so sure of that,” said Phillips, with a return to his sprightly generosity.
“ Again ? You doubt everything.”
“ That’s very well, — better than what you said before. I prefer to keep an open mind. I don’t snub ghosts, for I think I may be one myself, some day.”
As he spoke the door-bell rang, and in the interval between the ringing of the bell and the slow response of the servant, Dr. Boynton reëntered, rubbing his hands and smiling. “ Sorry to have been obliged to leave you, gentlemen,”he said. “ You have witnessed, however, one of the most interesting phases of this mystery: mystery, I call it, for I’m as much in the dark about it as yourselves. My daughter felt so deeply the dissenting, the perhaps incredulous, mood —sphere — of one of you that she quite succumbed to it. Don’t be alarmed ! In an ordinary medium it would be an end of everything for the time being, but she will take part in the séance, all the same, to-day. I have been able to reinforce my daughter’s powers by a gift — we will call it a gift — of my own. In former years I looked quite deeply into mesmerism, and I have never quite disused the practice of it, as a branch of my profession, — I am a physician. My wife, who has been dead my daughter’s whole life,” — an expression of pain, curious with reference to the eager brightness of the man’s wonted aspect, passed over the speaker’s face, — “ was a very impressible subject of mine, and in her childhood Egeria was so. Since we have discovered what seems her power as a medium, I have found the mesmeric force — the application of exterior will — of the greatest use in sustaining her against the exhaustion she would otherwise incur from the many conflicting influences she is subject to. I can’t regret — I rejoice, in fact — that this phenomenon has occurred as it has occurred. It will enable me to present in her to-day the united action of those strange forces, equally occult, the mesmeric and the spiritistic. I have just left my daughter in a complete mesmeric trance, and you will see — you will see ” —
He broke off abruptly, and went forward to meet a gentleman and lady, apparently two of the expected guests of Mrs. Le Roy. He greeted them with gay warmth as Mr. and Mrs. Merrifield, and was about to share their acquaintance with Ford and Phillips, when a tall man, with pale blue eyes and a thin growth of faded hair, of a like harshness on crown and chin, interrupted him with a solemnly proffered hand. “ Why. Weatherby,” said the doctor, shaking his hand, “ I did n’t hear you ring.”
“ I found the girl still at the door, and had no occasion to ring,” said Mr. Weatherby.
“ Right, right, — quite right! ” returned Dr. Boynton. “ Glad to see you. Mr. Weatherby, Mr. Ford and Mr. Phillips, — inquirers. Mr. Weatherby is known among us, gentlemen, for powers which he is developing in the direction of levitation.” Mr. Weatherby silently shook hands, regarding Phillips and Ford meantime with a remote keenness of glance, and then took a seat in a corner, with an air of established weariness, as if he had found levitation heavy work.
Dr. Boynton continued to receive his guests, and next introduced to the strangers a large, watery-eyed man with a mottled face and reddish hair: “ Mr. Eccles, — an inquirer like yourselves, gentlemen, but in a different spirit. Mr. Eccles has no doubt of the nature of the manifestations, but he is investigating the subject with a view — with a view ” — Dr. Boynton looked for help to the gentleman whose position he was trying to state, and the latter came to his aid with a vigorous alacrity which was accented by the lavish display of an upper and lower set of artificial teeth.
“ With a view to determine whether something cannot be done to protect us against the assumption by inferior spirits of the identity of the better class of essences. There are doubtless laws of the spirit-life, could we invoke them aright, which would hold these unruly masqueraders in check. I am endeavoring to study the police system — if I may use the expression — of the other world. For I am satisfied that until we have learned to appeal to the proper authorities against these pretenders, we shall get nothing of value from the manifestations. At present it seems to me that in most cases the phenomena are held in contempt by all respectable spirits. This deplorable state of things has resulted, I have no doubt, in great degree from the hostile manner in which investigation of the phenomena has been pursued in the material world.”
“ Ah,” said Ford, “ that ’s an interesting point. My friend, here, was just speaking of some things of the sort before you came in. He mentioned the disadvantage to the medium of what he called the ironical attitude ; he contends that it makes them cheat.”
“ No doubt, no doubt,” replied Mr. Eccles. “ But its effect upon the approximating spiritual sphere is still worse. It drives from that sphere all candid and sober-minded spirits, and none but frivolous trifiers remain. Are you a believer in the phenomena, Mr. — ah — Phillips ? ”
“ I am scarcely even a witness of them yet,” said Phillips. “ But as a mere speculative observer, I don’t see why one should n’t come as worshipfully minded to a séance as to a church.”
“ Precisely, precisely, sir,” assented Mr. Eccles. “And yet I cannot say that a séance is exactly a religious service. No, it partakes rather of a dual nature. It will doubtless be elevated in character, as the retroand inter-acting influences improve. But at present it is a sort of informal reception at which friends from both worlds meet and commingle in social intercourse; in short, a kind of bi-mundane — bi-mundane ” —
“ Kettle-drum,” suggested Ford.
“ Ah ! ” breathed Mr. Eccles. He folded his arms, and set his artificial teeth to smile displeasure upon Ford’s impassible face. Anything that he may have been going to say farther was cut short by the approach of a gentleman, at sight of whom his smile relaxed nothing of its displeasure.
“ Hello ! How do, Eccles ? ” said the new-comer, gayly. He was a short and slight man, and he planted himself in front of Mr. Eccles upon his very small, squarely stepping feet. Whatever may have been the temperament of the invisible presences, those in the flesh were, with the exception of this gentleman, not at all lively: they were, in fact, of serious countenance and low spirits ; and they were evidently glad of this co-religionist who could take their common belief so cheerfully. He had come in the last, and he had been passing a light word with this one and that, before saluting Mr. Eccles, who alone seemed not glad to see him. He was dressed in a smart business suit, whose fashionableness was as much at variance with the prevailing dress of the company as his gayety with its prevailing solemnity.
“ How are you ? ” he said, looking up into Mr. Eccles’s dental smile. “Going to get after those scamps again? Well, I’m glad of it. Behaved shamefully at Mrs. Merrifleld’s, the other night; knocked the chairs over and flung the flowers about, — ridiculous! If they can’t manage better than that, a man might as well go to a democratic ward meeting when he dies. Ah, doctor ! ”
Dr. Boynton approached from the other room, which had been closed, and on which he again shut the rolling doors. “ Mr. Hatch ! ” said the doctor radiantly, while he pressed the other’s hand in both his own, and made a rose-bud of his mouth. “ You just complete our list. Glad to see you.”
“ Thanks, much,” said Mr. Hatch. “ Where’s Miss Egeria ? ”
“ In a moment,” replied the doctor mysteriously. Then he turned to the company, and said in a formal tone, “ As we are all here, now, friends, we won’t delay any farther.” He advanced and flung open the doors to the back parlor, discovering, in the middle of the room, a common extension dining-table, draped merely with so much of a striped turkey-red supper cloth as would fall over the edge and partly conceal the legs. The top of the table was pierced by a hole some ten or twelve inches square, and over this hole was set a box, open on one side, and lined with black velvet; a single gas jet burned at a half light overhead.
“ Now, if you will take seats, ladies and gentlemen,” said Dr. Boynton. " Mrs. Merrifield, will you sit on my right, so as to be next my daughter ? And Mr. Phillips on my left, here ? And you, Mr. Ford, on Miss Smiley’s left, next to Mr. Eccles ? Mr. Hatch, take your place between those two ladies ” —
“ I’m there, doctor, every time,” said Mr. Hatch, promptly obeying.
“ I must protest at the outset, Dr. Boynton,” began Mr. Eccles, “ against this sort of ” —
“ Beg pardon. You ’re right, Eccles,” said Hatch, “ I won’t do it any more. But when I get down at a table like this, I feel gay, and I can’t help running over a little. But no spilling’s the word, now. Do we join hands, doctor, comme á l’ordinaire ? ”
“ Yes, all join hands, please,” answered the doctor.
“ Well, I want these ladies to promise not to squeeze my hands, either of them,” said Hatch. The ladies laughed, and Mr. Eccles, relinquishing the hands of the persons next him, made a movement to rise, in which he was met by an imploring downward wave of Dr. Boynton’s hand.
“ Please, Mr. Eccles, remain. Mr. Hatch, I may trust your kindness ? Miss Merrill, will you sing — ah — something ? ”
A small, cheerful lady, on the sunny side of thirty, with a pair of spectacles gleaming on her amiable nose, responded to this last appeal. “ I think we had better all sing, doctor.”
“ I have a theory in wishing you to sing alone,” said the doctor.
“ Oh, very well! ” Miss Merrill acquiesced. “ Have you any preference ? ”
“ No. Anything devotional.”
“ Maiden’s Prayer, Miss Merrill,” suggested Hatch.
This overcast Mr. Eccles again, but Miss Merrill took the fun in good part, and laughed.
“ I don’t believe you know anything about devotional music, Mr. Hatch,” she said.
“ That’s so. My répertoire is out already,” owned Hatch.
Miss Merrill raised her spectacles thoughtfully to the ceiling, and after a moment began to sing Flee as a Bird to your Mountain, in a sweet contralto. As the thrilling tones filled the room all other sounds were quelled ; the circle at the table became motionlessly silent, and the long, sighing breath of the listeners alone made itself heard in the pauses of the singing. Before the words died away, a draught of cold air struck across the room, and through the door at the head of the table, which unclosed mysteriously, as if blown open by the wind, a figure in white was seen in the passage without. It drifted nearer, and with a pale green scarf tied over her golden hair Egeria softly and waveringly entered the room. Her face was white, and her eyes had the still, sightless look of those who walk in their sleep. She advanced, and sank into the chair between her father and Mrs. Merrifield, and at the same moment that groaning and straining sound was heard, as if in the fibres of the wood; and then the sounds grew sharper and more distinct, and a continuous rapping seemed to cover the whole surface of the table, with a noise like that of heavy clots of snow driving against a window pane.
As Egeria took the chair left vacant for her, it could be seen that another had also found a place in the circle. This was a very large, dark woman of some fifty years, who silently Saluted some of the company, half withdrawing from their sight as she sat down next to Mrs. Merrifield behind the box.
Egeria remained staring blankly before her for a moment. Then she said in a weary voice, “ They are here.”
“ Who, my daughter ? ” demanded her father.
In a long sigh, “ Legion,” she responded.
“We may thank Mr. Hatch for the company we are in,” Mr. Eceles broke out resentfully. “ I have protested ” —
“ Patience, — a little patience, Mr. Eceles ! ” implored Dr. Boynton. Then, without changing his polite tone “ Look again, Egeria,” he said. “ Are they all evil ? ”
“ Their name is legion,” wearily answered the girl, as before.
“ Yes, yes, Egeria. They always come at first. But is there no hope of help against them? Look again, — look carefully.”
“ The innumerable host ” —
“ I knew it, — I knew it! ” exulted the doctor.
“ Disperses them,” said the girl, and lapsed into a silence which she did not break again.
At a sign from the large woman, who proved to be Mrs. Le Roy, Dr. Boynton said, “ Will you sing again, Miss Merrill ? ”
Miss Merrill repeated the closing stanza of the hymn she had already sung.
While she sang, flitting gleams of white began to relieve themselves against the black interior of the box. They seemed to gather shape and substance ; as the singing ceased, the little hand of a child moved slowly back and forth in the gloom.
A moan broke from one of the women. “ Oh, I hope it’s for me ! ” she quavered.
They began, one after another, to ask, “ Is it for me ? ” the hand continuing to wave softly to and fro. When it came the turn of this woman, the hand was violently agitated ; she burst into tears. “ It’s my Lily, my darling little Lily.”
The apparition beckoned to the speaker.
“ You can touch it,” said the doctor.
The woman bent over the table, and thrust her hand into the box ; the apparition melted away ; a single fragrant tube-rose was flung out upon the table. “ Oh, oh ! ” sobbed the woman. “ My Lily’s favorite flower ! She always liked snow-drops above everything, because they came the first thing in the spring. Oh, how happy I am to think she can come to me, — to know that she is living yet, and can never die ! I ’m sure I felt her little hand an instant, — so smooth and soft, so cold ! ”
“ They always seem to be cold,” philosophized the doctor. “ A more exquisite vitality coming in contact with our own would naturally give the sensation of cold. But you must sit down, now. Mrs. Blodgett,” added the doctor, kindly. “ Look ! There is another hand.”
A large wrinkled hand, like that of an elderly woman, crept tremulously through the opening of the box, sank, and then creeping upward again laid its fingers out over the edge of the table. No one recognized it, and it would have won no general acclaim if Mrs. Merrifield had not called attention to the lace which encircled the wrist; she caught a bit of this between her thumb and finger, and detained it a moment while the other ladies bent over and examined it. There was but one voice; it was real lace.
One hand after another now appeared in the box, some of them finding a difficulty in making their way up through the aperture, which had been formed by cutting across in the figure of an X the black cloth which lined the bottom of the box, and which now hung down in triangular flaps. The slow and feeble effort of the apparitions to free themselves from these dangling pieces of cloth heightened their effectiveness. From time to time a hand violently responded to the demand from one of the circle, “ Is it for me ? ” and several persons were allowed to place their hands in the box and touch the materializations. These persons testified that they felt a distinct pressure from the spectral hands.
“ Would you like to try, Mr. Phillips ? ” politely asked the doctor.
“ Thanks, yes,” said Phillips, after a hesitation. He put his hand in the box : the apparitional hand, apparently that of a young girl, dealt him a flying touch, and vanished. Phillips nervously withdrew his hand.
“ Did you feel it ? ” inquired Dr. Boynton.
“ Yes,” answered Phillips.
“Oh, what was it like? Wasn’t it smooth and soft and cold ? ” demanded the mother of the first apparition.
“Yes,” said Phillips; “ it was a sensation like the touch of a kid glove.”
“ Oh, of course, of course ! ” Mr. Eccles burst out, in a sort of scornful groan. “ A staffed glove ! If we are to approach the investigation in this spirit ” —
“ I beg your pardon?” said Phillips, inquiringly.
“ I’m sure,” interposed Dr. Boynton, “ that Mr. Phillips, whom I have had the honor of introducing to this circle, has intended nothing but a bona fide description of the sensation he experienced.”
“ I don’t understand,” said Phillips.
“ You were not aware, then,” pursued the doctor, “ that there have been attempts to impugn the character of these and similar materializations, — in fact, to prove that these hands are merely stuffed gloves, mechanically operated ? ”
“ Not at all ! ” cried Phillips.
“ I was certain of your good feeling, your delicacy,” said the doctor. “ We will go on, friends.”
But the apparitions had apparently ceased, while the raps, which had been keeping up a sort of desultory, telegraphic tattoo throughout, when not actively in use as a means of conversation with the disembodied presences, suddenly seemed to cover the whole surface of the table with their detonation.
“ The materializations are over,” said Mrs. Le Roy, speaking for the first time. Her voice, small and thin, oddly contrasted with her physical bulk.
“ Oh, pshaw, Mrs. Le Roy ! ” protested Hatch, “don’t give it up, that way. Come ! I want Jim. Ladies, join me in loud cries for Jim.”
Several of the ladies beset Mrs. Le Roy, who at last yielded so far as to ask if Jim were present. A sharp affirmative rap responded, and after an interval, during which the spectators peered anxiously into the dark box, a sort of dull fumbling was heard, and another materialization was evidently in progress.
“You can’t see the hand of a gentleman of Jim’s complexion against that black cloth,” said Hatch, rising. “ Lend me your handkerchiefs, ladies. James has a salt and sullen rheum offends him.”
Several ladies made haste to offer their handkerchiefs, and, leaning over, Hatch draped them about the bottom of the box. The flaps were again agitated, and a large black hand showed itself distinctly against the white ground formed by the handkerchiefs. It was hailed with a burst of ecstasy from all those who seemed to be frequenters of these séances, and it wagged an awkward salutation to the company.
“ Good for you, good for you, James ! ” said Hatch, approvingly. “ Rings ? Wish to adorn your person, James?” he continued. The hand gesticulated an imaginable assent to this proposal, and Hatch gravely said, “ Your rings, ladies.” A half dozen were passed to him, and he contrived, with some trouble, to slip them on the fingers of the hand, which continually moved itself, in spite of many caressing demands from tne ladies (with whom Jim was apparently a favorite spectre) that he would hold still, and Hatch’s repeated admonition that he should moderate his transports. When the rings were all in place, the hand was still dissatisfied, as it seemed, and beckoned toward Egeria. “ Want Miss Boynton’s ring ? ” asked Hatch.
The girl gave a start, involuntarily laying hold of the ring, and Dr. Boynton said instantly, “ He cannot have it. The ring was her mother’s.” This drew general attention to Miss Boynton’s ring: it was what is called a marchioness ring, and was set with a long, black stone, sharply pointed at either end.
“All right; beg pardon, doctor,” said Hatch, respectfully ; but the hand, after a moment’s hesitation, sank through the aperture, as if in dudgeon, and was heard knocking off the rings against the table underneath. This seemed a climax for which the familiars of the house had been waiting. The ladies who had lent their rings to Mr. Hatch, and had joined their coaxing voices to his in entreating the black hand to be quiet, now rose with a rustle of drapery, and joyously cackled satisfaction in Jim’s characteristic behavior.
“ That is the last,” announced Mrs. Le Roy, and withdrew. Some one turned on the light, and Hatch began to pick up the rings under the table; this was the occasion of renewed delight in Jim on the part of the ladies to whom he restored their property.
“ Would you like to look under the table ? ” asked Dr. Boynton of Ford, politely lifting the cloth and throwing it back.
“I don't care to look,” said Ford, remaining seated, and keeping the same impassive face with which he had witnessed all the shows of the séance.
Dr. Boynton directed a glance of invitation at Phillips, who stooped and peered curiously at the under side of the table, and then passed his hand over the carpet beneath the aperture. “ No signs of a trap ? ” suggested the doctor.
“ No, quite solid,” said Phillips.
“ These things are evidently merely in their inception,” remarked the doctor, candidly. “ I would n’t advise their implicit acceptation under all circumstances, but here the conditions strike me as simple and really very fair.”
“ I’ve been very greatly interested indeed,” said Phillips, “ and I should n’t at all attempt to explain what I’ve seen.”
“We shall now try our own experiment,” said the doctor, looking round at the windows, through the blinds and curtains of which the early twilight was stealing. “Mr. Hatch, will you put up the battening?” While Hatch made haste to darken the windows completely with some light wooden sheathings prepared for the purpose, Dr. Boynton included Ford also in his explanation. “ What we are about to do requires the exclusion of all light. These intelligences, whatever they are, that visit us seem peculiarly sensitive to certain qualities of light; they sometimes endure candles pretty well, but they dislike gas even more than day-light, and we shall shut that off entirely. Yes, my dear,” he said, turning lightly toward his daughter, who, apparently relieved from the spell under which she had sat throughout the séance, now approached him, and addressed him some entreaty in a low tone, to which the anxiety of her serious face gave its effect. Ford watched them narrowly while they spoke together ; she evidently beseeching, and her father urging with a sort of obdurate kindness, from which she turned at last in despair, and sat listlessly down again in her place. One might have interpreted the substance of their difference as light or weighty, but there could be no doubt of its result in the girl’s reluctant obedience. She sat with her long hands in her lap and her eyes downcast while the young man bent his glance upon her with a somewhat softened curiosity. Phillips drew up a chair beside her, and began to address her some evening-party conversation, to which, after her first terrified start at the sound of his voice, she listened with a look of dull mystification, and a vague and monosyllabic comment. He was in the midst of this difficult part when Dr. Boynton announced that the preparations were now perfect, and invited the company to seat themselves in a circle around his daughter, from whose side Phillips was neoessarily driven. Mrs. Le Roy reëntered, and after a survey of the forming circle took her place in it, and joined hands like the rest with her neighbor on either side. Dr. Boynton instantly shut off the gas, and several of the circle, led by Miss Merrill, began to sing. It was music in a minor key, and as the sound of it fell the air was suddenly filled with noises of a heterogeneous variety. Voices whispered here and there, overhead and, as it appeared, underfoot; a fan was caught up, and each person in the circle swiftly and violently fanned ; a music - box, placed on Phillips’s knee, was wound up, and then set floating, as it seemed, through the air; rings were snatched from some fingers and roughly thrust upon others, amidst the cries and nervous laughter of the women.
Through all, the mystical voices continued, and now they began to be recognized by different persons in the circle. The mother of one briefly visited him, and exhorted him to have faith in a life to come; the little sister of another revealed that she could never tell the beauty of the spirit-land ; a lady cried out, “ O John, is that you kissing me ? ” to which a hollow whisper answered, “Yes; persevere, and all will be well.” Suddenly a sharp smack was heard, and another lady, whose chubbiness had no doubt commended her as a medium for this sort of communication, exclaimed, with a hysterical laugh, “ Oh, here’s Jim, again ! He’s slapping me on the shoulder! ” and in another instant this frolic ghost had passed round the circle, slapping shoulders and knees in the absolute darkness with amazing precision.
Jim went as suddenly as he came, and then there was a lull in the demonstrations. They began again with the voices, amidst which was heard the soft and rhythmic clapping of Egeria’s hands, as she beat her palms together, to prove that she had no material agency in the feats performed. Then, one of the circle called out, “ Oh, delicious! Somebody is pressing a perfumed handkerchief to my face ! ” “ And mine ! ” “ And mine! ” came quickly from others.
“ Be careful,” warned the small voice of Mrs. Le Roy, “ not to break the circle now, or some one will get hurt.”
She had scarcely spoken, when there came a shriek of pain and terror, with the muffled noise of a struggle; then a fainter cry, and a fall to the floor.
All sprang to their feet in confusion.
“ Egeria ! Egeria ! ” shouted Dr. Boynton. The girl made no answer. “ Oh. light the gas, light the gas ! ” he entreated ; and now the crowning wonder of the séance appeared. A hand of bluish flame shone in the air, and was seen to hover near one of the gas-burners, which it touched ; as the gas flashed up and the hand vanished, a groan of admiration burst forth, which was hardly checked by the spectacle that the strong light revealed.
Egeria lay stretched along the floor in a swoon, the masses of her yellow hair disordered and tossed about her pale face. Her arms were flung outward, and the hand on which she wore her ring showed a stain of blood, oozing from a cut in a finger next the ring ; the hand must have been caught in a savage clutch, and the sharp edge of the setting crushed into the tender flesh.
Ford was already on his knees beside the girl, over whose insensible face he bowed himself to lift her fallen head.
“I told you,” said Mrs. Le Roy, “that some one would get hurt if anybody broke the circle.”
“It has been a glorious time ! ” cried Dr. Boynton, with sparkling eyes, while he went about shaking hands with one and another. “ It has surpassed my utmost hopes ! We stand upon the verge of a great era! The whole history of supernaturalism shows nothing like it! The key to the mystery is found ! ”
The company thronged eagerly about him, some to ask what the key was, others to talk of the wonderful hand. Egeria was forgotten ; she might have been trodden under foot but for the active efforts of Hatch, who cleared a circle about her, and at last managed to withdraw the doctor from his auditors and secure his attention for the young girl.
“ Oh, a faint, a mere faint,” he said, as he bent over her and touched her pulse. “ The facts established are richly worth all they have cost. Ah ! ” he added, “ we must have air to revive her.”
“ You won’t get it in this crowd! ” said Hatch, looking savagely round.
“ We had better carry her to her room,” said Mrs. Le Roy.
“ Yes, yes ; very good, very good ! ” cried the doctor, absently trying to gather the languid shape into his arms. He presently desisted, and turned again to the group which Hatch had forced aside, and began to talk of the luminous hand and its points of difference from the hands shown in the box.
Hatch glanced round after him in despair, and then, with a look at Ford, said, “ We must manage it, somehow.” He bent over the inanimate girl, and with consummate reverence and delicacy drew her into his arms, and made some steps toward the door.
“ It won’t do : you ’re too little, Mr. Hatch,” said Mrs. Le Roy, with brutal common sense. “ You never could carry her up them stairs in the world. Give her to the other gentleman, and go and fetch Dr. Boynton, if you can ever get him away.”
Hatch hesitated a moment, and with another look at Ford surrendered his burden to him. Ford received it as reverently as the other had given it; the beautiful face lay white upon his shoulder ; the long, bright, disheveled hair fell over his arm ; in his strong clasp he lifted her as lightly away as if she had been indeed some pale phantom.
Phillips, standing aloof from the other group and intent upon this tableau, was able to describe it very effectively, a few evenings afterwards, to a lady who knew both himself and Ford well enough to enjoy it.
Mr. Phillips’s father had been in business on that obscure line which divides the wholesale merchant’s social acceptability from the lost condition of the retail dealer. When he died, however, his son emerged forever from the social twilight in which the father had been content to remain. He took account of his means, and found that he had enough to live handsomely upon, not only without, anything like shop - keeping, but without business of any sort, and he courageously resolved to be a man of leisure. He had certain tastes which qualified him for this life; he had read much, and he had traveled abroad. He joined a club convenient to the lodging which he kept in his paternal home, letting out the rest of the house to a thrifty woman whose interest it was that he should have nothing to complain of. Every morning, at nine precisely, he breakfasted at the club, beside one of the pleasantest windows ; the sun came in there in the afternoon, and except in the winter months he dined at another table. His breakfast and his dinner were the chief events of a day which he had the wisdom to keep as like every other day as he could, unless for some very good reason. When he had finished either meal, he turned over the newspapers and magazines, largely English, in the reading-room; after dinner he often dozed a few minutes in his chair. For the rest, he paid visits and went about to the picture stores and to the studios. He now and then bought a painting, which in his hands turned out a good investment; but his passion was bricabrac, and he liked the excitement of the auction-room, where he picked up from time to time a rug, a queer vase, a colonial clock, a claw-footed table or chest of drawers, and added them to his stores.
He kept up with the current literature, and distilled from it a polite essence, with which he knew how to perfume his conversation in the measure agreeable to ladies willing to learn what it was distinguished to read. With many he was an authority in such matters, and with nearly all he was acceptable for a certain freshness of the susceptibilities, which he studiously preserved, growing them under glass, as it were, when it was past their natural seasons to flourish in the open air. Now and then one revolted against this artificial bloom, and declared that Mr. Phillips’s emotions smelt of the wateringpot; but commonly they were well liked by the sex with which, even if he had not preferred, he would have been forced mainly to associate. There is no society but that of women for an idler in our country; the other men are busy and tired, with little patience and little sympathy for men who are not busy and tired.
Such men as Phillips consorted with were of the feminine temperament, like artists and musicians (he had a pretty taste in music) ; or else they were of the intensely masculine sort, like Ford, to whom he had attached himself. He liked to have their queer intimacy noted, and to talk of it with the ladies of his circle, finding it as much of a mystery as he could. At these times he treated his friend as a bit of virtù, telling at what length his lovely listener would of how he had happened to pick Ford up. He bore much from him in the way of contemptuous sarcasm ; it illustrated the strange fascination which such a man as Ford had for such a man as Phillips. He lay in wait for his friend’s characteristics, and when he had surprised this trait or that in him he was fond of exhibiting his capture.
The tie that bound Ford, on his part, to Phillips was not tangible ; it was hardly more than force of habit, or like an indifferent yielding to the advances made by the latter. Doubtless the absence of any other intimacy had much to do with this apparent intimacy. They had as little in common in matters of taste as in temperament. Ford openly scorned bricabrac; he rarely went into society; for the ladies in whose company Phillips liked to bask be cared as slightly as for stamped leather or Saracenic tiles. He was not of Bostonian origin, and had come to the city a much younger man than we find him. He was known to a few persons of like tastes for his scientific studies, which he pursued somewhat fitfully, as his poverty, and that dark industry known as writing for the press, by which he eked out his poverty, permitted. He wrote a caustic style ; and this, together with his brooding look and his taciturn and evasive habits, gave rise to conjecture that his past life concealed a disappointment in love, “ Or perhaps,” suggested a fair analyst, “in literature.”
Several mornings after the seance at Mrs. Le Roy’s, he sat on one of the many benches which the time found vacant in the Public Gardens. It was yet far too early for the nurse-maids and their charges and suitors; the marble Venus of the fountain was surprised without her shower on; Mr. Ball’s equestrian Washington drew his sword in solitude unbroken by a policeman upon Dr. Rimmer’s Hamilton in Commonwealth Avenue ; the whole precinct rested in patrician insensibility to the plebeian hour of seven; and Ford, if he had cared, would have been safe from the polite amaze of that neighborhood at finding one even of its remote acquaintance in those pleasure-grounds at that period of the day. He sat in a place which was habitual with him ; for he lodged in one of the boarding-houses on a street near by, and he made the Public Gardens the resort of such leisure as each day afforded him, seeking always the same seat under the same Kilmarnock willow, and suffering a sense of invasion when he found it taken. Commonly his leisure fell much later in the day ; and he had now the aspect of the sleep-broken man, rather than the early riser who takes the air on principle or from choice. He sat and gazed absently over at the pond, where the swans lay still on the still water, with their white shadows under them as distinct and substantial to the eye as their own bulk.
A few stragglers, looking as jaded as himself for the most part, lounged on the seats along the walks, or hung listless on the parapet of the bridge. The spiteful English sparrows scattered thensharp, irritating notes through the air, and quarreled about over the grass, or made love like the nagging lovers out of a lady’s novel.
When Ford at last withdrew his absent eyes from the swans and looked up, he was aware of a large and flabby presence, which towered, in the sense that a lofty mould of jelly may be said to tower, on the path directly before him. In this he gradually recognized an acquaintance of the spiritual séance, and finally knew the mottled face of Mr. Eccles ; the morning was unseasonably close and warm; his hat was off, and the breeze played with the hair that crept thinly over his crown ; his shirt and white waistcoat were clean, but affected the spectator differently.
“ A-r-r-h — good - morning! ” he said, with a slow, hard smoothness, staring intently at Ford, with a set smile and shut teeth.
“How d’ye do!” answered Ford, without interest.
“ Nice morning,” said Mr. Eccles, turning half about, and describing it with a wave of his limp-rimmed silk hat.
“ Very pleasant,” assented Ford, making no motion to rise, and neither inviting nor forbidding further conversation.
“ A habitual early riser ? ” suggested Mr. Eccles.
“ No, I merely happen to be up.”
“ I rise early myself,” said Mr. Eceles. “It is my digestion. I sleep badly.” He looked, as he spoke, like a man who had never slept well. “ Your friend, I presume, is not troubled in his digestion ? ”
“ If you mean Mr. Phillips,” replied Ford, with a cold ray of amusement, “ I believe not. He makes it a matter of conscience to digest well.”
“It isn’t that, sir.” said Mr. Eccles. “ I have experimented in the matter a great deal. I have tried to digest well on principle, but that does not reach the root of the trouble. It may be alleviated by the proper influences; but this sourness ” — he struck his stomach softly — “ seems to be the material response to some spiritual ferment which we are at present powerless to escape. I am satisfied that the large majority of our indigestion, sir, comes from the existing imperfections of mediumization.”
“ Some philosophers attribute it to pie,” said Ford, neutrally.
“ That is a very superficial way of looking at it,” returned Mr, Eccles. “If we could once establish the true relations with the other life, pie would n’t stand in our way.”
“ I ’ve no doubt that those who establish their relations in the old-fashioned way, by dying, are not troubled by pie,” said Ford.
“ Oh, death is not necessary to a complete rapport,” returned Mr. Eccles, somewhat impatiently. “ I have long been satisfied of that. It may even prove an obstacle. What we want is to place ourselves in connection with the regions of order and peace. Till we can do this, we must feel the effects of the acidity, as I may call it, which characterizes the crude and unsettled spiritual existence reached by our present system of mediumization. We had an illustration of that the other night, sir, in the vulgar violence of the manifestations. I was ashamed that any person of refinement should have been invited to witness such a — a saturnalia. I should have withdrawn from the circle myself, at once, as soon as I perceived what the character of the communications was likely to be, if it had not been for my regard for Dr. Boynton and his daughter. There is no doubt in my mind, sir, that if we had then been in communication with ladies and gentlemen of the other life, the circle could have been broken with impunity. As it was, you saw the brutality with which the violation of a single condition was resented by the savage crew we had suffered to be called about us. They dreaded to lose an opportunity for riot. The consequence was that Miss Boynton’s hand was caught and crushed till the setting of her ring cut to the bone; then she was flung to the ground. The only redeeming feature, the only hopeful aspect, of the affair was the apparition which terminated the disgraceful scene. Undoubtedly the hand which turned on the gas was a celestial agency of the highest and purest type.”
VOL. XLV. — NO. 267. 6
Ford let his eyes, which had been dwelling upon Mr. Eccles’s face with their usual cold scrutiny, drop to the ground. “ I hope,” he said, “ that Miss Boynton has quite recovered from her — accident.”
“It was a shock,” returned Mr. Eccles, candidly, “ and her physique is delicate. She is a mingling of the finest elements, but the proportions are so adjusted that the equilibrium is very easily disturbed. Her digestion, I should say, was normally very good. She is evidently in relation, for the most part, with settled and orderly essences.” He again set his teeth, and shone upon Ford with a wide, joyless smile. He waited for a moment, and Ford making no sign of interest, he said “ Good morning,” and towered tremulously away, carrying his hat in his hand, and letting his baldness take the breeze as he walked.
When he was gone, Ford sat in a long reverie, from which he was roused by the clock of the Arlington Street church striking eight, which was his breakfast hour. He rose, and strolled down the path and across the street to his lodging, which he entered with his latch-key. The other boarders, with their morning freshness of toilet upon them, were lounging or tripping down-stairs to breakfast, and met him with various degrees of interest, umbrage, and indifference in their salutation as he went up. The men mostly growled at him, with settled dislike in their tones; some of the women beheld him with pique, others with kindly curiosity; one little lady, in a pretty morning robe, warbled at him, as she swept her skirts aside to make room for him at the turn of the stairs, “ Doing the early bird, Mr. Ford? ”
“ No ; the early worm,” he returned with as little effusion as he had lavished upon Mr. Eccles.
The lady gave him the slant of a laughing face, turned up at him, as she tripped down the stairs. “ Don’t disagree with the bird! ” she said saucily. She had achieved celebrity among the other ladies by not being afraid of him.
He seemed not to think any answer necessary, and passed up two more flights to his room, which was small and in the rear of the house. It was cheerlessly furnished with a tumbled bed and two or three chairs and a large table, on which many newspapers and books, arranged in scrupulously neat order, left a small vacant space at one corner for writing, where some sheets of fresh manuscript lay. On the window seat were some chemical materials and apparatus; on the chimney shelf some faded photographs ; a tobacco pouch and pipes. Ford’s business was with the manuscript leaves, which he took up and tore carefully into small pieces. He flung these into the grate, and then, with a conscious air, lifted one of the pipes, and fingered it a moment before he turned to leave the room. It was as if he had not liked the witness of his wonted environment to this act of his. He went on down to breakfast, and took his place at a table as yet but sparsely tenanted. The lively lady of the stairs-landing was there; she sat long at meat, morning, noon, and night, not for the material, but for the mental refreshment; for she found that more people could be made to give some account of themselves there than anywhere else. She was sipping her coffee out of her spoon, and looking about her between sips, with a disengaged air, when Ford came in, and she fastened upon him, over a good stretch of table, at once.
“ Perhaps you went out so early in order to see a ghost, Mr. Ford ?”
“ Very likely,” answered Ford, making a listless decision between the steak and the bacon.
“ And did you ? ”
“ What ? ”
“ See one.”
“ They always charge people not to say.”
“ Ah, not nowadays ! They want you to go and tell all about it. That’s what I understand from Mr. Phillips.” She sank back a little into herself, with her eyes resting quietly upon Ford’s inattentive face, and her elbow brought gracefully to her side, and softly stirred her coffee. She was not of the society in which Mr. Phillips ordinarily moved, but was one of the interesting people on its borders whom his leisure allowed him to cultivate. She thus became in some sort of his world, — enough at least to know what was going on in it, and to be referred to there as Mr. Phillips’s bright little friend, by ladies who did not like her. She waited for Ford to speak in response to her last remark; but he was not one of those men who rush like air into any empty place ; he had the gift of reticence, and the lady who had planned the vacuum beheld his self-control with admiration. It piqued her to fresh effort; she believed that his speaking was only a question of time. “ Mr. Phillips,” she went on, beginning to sip her coffee again. “ gave me quite a glowing description of the Pythoness, as he called her ; quite a Medea-like beauty, I should judge, — if it was her own hair.”
“ Mr. Phillips has a very catholic taste in female loveliness,” said Ford.
“ But really, now, Mr. Ford, said the lady, in a tone of alluring candor, “were n’t you very much frightened ? ”
“ I am constitutionally timid.”
The lady laughed. “ Then you were ! What did you make of it all, Mr. Ford ? What do you suppose made the cut in her hand? Don’t you think she made it herself? You know Mr. Phillips likes mystery, and he would n’t offer the least suggestion.”
“ Then I don’t think it would be wise in me to hazard a guess. I don’t see Mr. Perham, this morning,” said Ford, lifting his eyes for the first time, and lazily looking at the vacant places about the lady.
She visibly honored him for this demonstration upon her weak point. She was a good-natured creature, and she liked skillful manœuvring, especially in men, where it had the piquancy of a surprise. “ Oh, no ! ” she smiled. “ Poor Mr. Perham is not equal to these early breakfasts. If you were often down yourself, Mr. Ford, you would have noticed his absence before this. He lets me come down on condition that I bring him his modest chop with my own hand, when I come up. You have no idea what a truly amiable invalid is till you know Mr. Perham well.”
Ford expressed no concern for the intimate character of Mr. Perham, and after some further toying with her spoon Mrs. Perham slipped back to her point of attack: 44 I don’t know but I ought to make my excuses for trying to provoke you to talk of the matter.”
“ I don’t mind your trying. But I should have been vexed if you had succeeded.”
14 Yes, that would have been a dead loss of material. I suppose you intend to write about it.”
A flush passed over Ford’s face, which Mrs. Perham gleefully noted. He replied, a little off his balance, that he had no intention of writing of it.
44 Oh, then, you have written ! ” joyed Mrs. Perham.
Ford did not answer, but put his napkin into his ring, and rose from his chair, quitting the room with a faintly visible inclination toward the end of the table at which Mrs. Perham sat.
44 Mrs. Perham, I don’t see how you can bear to speak to that man,” said one of the ladies.
44 His manners are odious! ” cried another.
44 Oh, he has manners then — of some sort ? ” inquired a third. 44I had n’t observed.”
44 My dears,” said Mrs. Perham, 44 he’s charming! He is as natural as the noble savage, and twice as handsome. I like those men who show their contempt of you. At least, they ’re not hypocrites. And Mr. Ford’s insolence has a sort of cold thrill about it that’s delicious. Few men can retreat with dignity. He was routed, just now, but he went off like see the conquering hero.”
44 He skulked off,” said one of the unpersuaded.
44 Skulked ? Did he really skulk?” demanded Mrs. Perham. 14 I wish I could believe I had made him skulk. Mary, have you Mr. Perham’s chop ready ? I ’ll take it up, — I said I took it.”
Mrs. Perham laughed, and disappeared with her little tray, like a conjugal chocolatière, and the ladies continued for a decent space to talk about Ford. Then they began to talk about her.
W. D. Howells.