An Evicted Spirit

I WAS an only child. In tradition, station, circumstance, my people, by all acknowledgment, were among the leaders of the small provincial town which for generations had fostered our respected family tree, and I, being the only green arboreal shoot from that venerable growth, was the leader of my family. Nature had done much for me: I was good looking, though not unpleasantly aware of it; clever, and strove to value myself ouly to myself, for my ability, though the very imputation of an effort may point to a not unvarying success. Accordingly, I was looked up to, admired, envied generally, occasionally criticised, though never to my face ; in short, I led. Happy I was not wholly, for never in my own life, nor in the lives of those with whom my lot was cast, had I found the illusive ideal quality for which I yearned; but still I lived, vitally always, at times buoyant with the mere ecstasy of being alive ; and then one day I died.

The nurse had told me I would recover ; the doctor had told my parents I would not. After the first brief agony, when sensation and consciousness met halfway, for myself I did not care ; nature has her own fashion of announcing bad tidings to her children.

The watchers stood or knelt about my bed while physical life was ebbing away from me like the sound of a distant bell. Now and again, as those far-away vibrations take on a stronger tone before they fade to nothingness, so for brief moments my strength revived, but it was the rally that precedes the end. A little accelerated breathing as if something in me were in haste to break away for a long journey, a little trickle in the throat, and then a large, firm hand, unseen and inescapable, was laid upon my features, pressing them gently back from the heightened lines of suffering to the smooth contours of infancy. Among the watchers life seemed to be suspended, and the silence to become not merely a negation of sound, but a fearful and growing entity that at any minute might take bodily form, seizing the living and engulfing them in some terrible abyss made up of unfathomable spaces full of silence. Then the human interruption came in the person of the nurse. Lifting the curtain of the alcove, to which she had withdrawn discreetly, she noiselessly approached the doctor as he stood at the foot of the bed, watch in hand, with his eyes upon my face, and in a matter-of-fact whisper asked him a question which he answered with a slight nod, and which formulated my exit from this life.

“ Is she dead ? ” The words struck with a jarring note upon the tense chord to which the listeners’ hearts were strung. My cousin Ophia shuddered and fell to stifled sobbing; my mother moved to throw her arms about my frame, but fell forward with hidden face and aimless outstretched hands ; while my father, with an impatient exclamation, strode noisily from the room, as if death had done him a personal injury, without offering him a decent opportunity for the reprisals due a gentleman. Then Ophia, after kissing my rapidly stiffening lips and hands, led my mother from the room, and I was left with those to whom death was a professional necessity.

“Is she dead?” For weeks, unwittingly, I had been casting aside, one by one, the toys with which my consciousness habitually played in the game I had fancied to be life; for weeks I had been wearing out the little body that at once had clothed and realized me; and somewhere about the moment when the doctor had affirmed the nurse’s question as he closed his watch, the last of the old familiar ties had ceased to bind me, the dear hands of my people were powerless to stay me, and, shaking itself clear of sensation and the encumbrance of the flesh, my consciousness went marching on alone. There was no break, there was no subversion ; it went marching on, as it always had been marching, from unremembered time ; on and on to some as yet unapprehended end, inevitable and foreordained ; on and on, and ever on ; and as it marched the clouds that hitherto had blurred my vision were dispelled, and I began to see.

“ She is dead ! ” The news sped abroad on wings, and hurrying grief’s andante came the activity of preparation. All lives are but a series of preliminaries and preparations : for birth, for adolescence, for position, for pleasure, to understand, to make one’s self understood, to prolong one’s days with honor or enjoyment; in short, all life is but a preparation to live, until we die. But of all the paraphernalia of preparation with which we deck events, none carries more grotesqueness to the disembodied consciousness than our preparations to entertain the great, unwelcome visitor. All other events are relative, having a position in a universal series ; for all other catastrophes we have a comparison, an explanation, or a remedy. So long as there is a flicker of life in the newborn child, we can incubate it into fuller life ; we lose our money, — there is more money in the world to be scrambled for ; our friends are unsuccessful, — we can give them good advice ; our neighbor is unhappy in his marriage, — we can say that after all it is his own business, if not indeed his fault; our ideals are shattered, — we become saints or cynics ; our nerves are wrecked, — we take to golf or mental therapeutics. But death alone is absolute, — the one situation our little wisdom cannot explain away, the one unquestioned and unanswerable fact in life!

And so at death’s coming we hasten to affect external differences, pitifully shrouding ourselves in the dark negations of the colors of life, putting the mottled blackness of crape between our faces and the sky ; and is there not also a pathetic expression of remorse in this ceremonial for the dead, a belated payment that Love grudgingly owed life, and, heartbroken, lavishes too prodigally on a memory ?

Downstairs, my mother, meek and apathetic, her tears exhausted, was standing as a lay figure to the dressmaker, while my cousin Ophia, being of all least fitted for the task, was composing my obituary notices. “ To-day, at her late residence,” she wrote. Horrible ! I had inherited my father’s critical love of language ; careless English at all times set my subjective teeth on edge, and now, by the irony of fate, I was made to die “ at my late residence.” Psychically speaking, I paced the floor. Would no one come to my rescue and snatch the pen from Ophia’s hand?

“ There, Mis’ Stanleymain,” said Miss McNulty, the dressmaker, her mouth full of adroitly controlled pins, as she pulled the skirted folds into a stiff flare, “ I guess that ’ll do for now. I ’ll baste it good and strong for the ceremony, and any little alterations you want I 'll fix up for you later on. All you want now is to look prepared, but not conspicuous, so that the first thing people say as you come up the aisle is, ‘ My ! what a genteel, simple frock ! ’ ”

“ I don’t care ! I don’t care ! ” moaned my mother.

“Of course you don’t, dear,” rejoined Miss McNulty, dropping the skirt in a dark nimbus about her subject’s feet. “ I’ve known trouble myself. Step over it. ’T ain’t to be expected you should care at such a time, — not but what that kind is often the fussiest when they commence to take notice again ! ” she added to herself, as with the dexterity of a juggler she debouched the pins.

The milliner had entered. “ I’ve made you up a Marie Stuart shape, Mis’ Stanleymain,” she said in a hoarse, sepulchral whisper. “ It goes with the deepest bereavement, yet it always looks real dressy.” At my mother’s protesting little moan, “ There, there, my dear, I know just how it strikes you ; I can enter into a mourner’s feelings, for I come of a burying family,” she proudly proclaimed. “ Seven years, week in an’ week out, I never was a day out of blacks, heavy and lightened, and — Come, Mis’ Stanleymain, you can’t go bareheaded, you know. Think of her ! She would have been the first to want you to look your best, and — There, there, dear heart, let me just run down into the kitchen and draw you a cup o’ tea! ”

Ophia now held out her ridiculous announcements, smudged with tears. “ Will you please look at these, cousin Sarah ? I never can quite trust my own composition,” she explained, with excellent reason. “ Our dear one was always so particular ; and the young man from the newspaper is waiting, — and newspaper gentlemen are always in such a hurry, — and I don’t know whether to say ' taken,’ or ‘ passed away,’ or ‘ called home,’ or just ” — a sob took the place of the ill-omened word.

But my mother, never critical, was beyond detail, and I certainly should have “ passed away ” in print, had not my father come whistling down the stairs. “ Ask him,” said my father’s wife, with the nearest approach to sarcasm I ever had heard her gentle voice attain.

With a light laugh, half jocular, half sneering, the head of the family drew the pen through Ophia’s delicately illegible tracery, and in his firm hand set forth how on that day, at her father’s house, Gillian Stanleymain had died. Then, making the women wince with a joke about its still being his house till the mortgage was foreclosed, he let himself out into the street. At the gate, my old Gordon setter, long banished from my sickroom, came whimpering to him with the pathos of unanswered question in its faithful eyes ; but my father only gave the creature an impatient push out of his path, yet did not drive it back, as his wont was, when it followed him.

Our neighbor. Mrs. Piper, was the first caller of condolence admitted to the darkened house. Mrs. Piper was a large, unwieldy woman, whose habit was to “run in,” as she phrased it, in neighborly fashion, by the servants’ door. Today she slowly and asthmatically climbed the front steps, announcing herself by what I never had suspected her of owning, — a card. Her attire also showed an unusual formality. Long carnelian pendants swung bobbing from her ears, while from her best bonnet she had removed the too gaudy cherries, hitherto its crowning glory, and in their place had pinned at a precarious angle a dingy velvet bow. An old cashmere shawl, that as a child I had been permitted to gaze on at rare and royal intervals, hung from her shoulders, exhaling the conflicting aromas of sandalwood and camphor, its folds adjusted so as skillfully to conceal the strained relations between hooks and eyes at her imaginary waist-line, and as skillfully displaying the bit of old thread lace, pinned with a platter-like cameo, about her neck. Then a remembrance of old laughter came to me as I recalled a saying of Mrs. Piper’s, made in all good faith, that a “ true gentlewoman might always feel well dressed if she only dressed her neck.” And there she sat, dear soul, doing my departure homage with her clothes; saying little, but sighing heavily and mopping her broad face, while her chin drew in and out like the pleats of an accordion, as with neighborliness and comfort written in her every line she held my mother’s hand.

In contrast to Mrs. Piper, the Misses Jenkins, with whom we were on formal terms, now came, with an assumption of intimacy, by the servants’ way. “ She ’ll see us ! ” they said, only to find themselves denied ; for a day or so before, when my illness was taking a hopeful turn, they had teased my mother’s ears and torn her heart by personally conducting her, as it were, through several death-bed scenes, in a study of whose details lay their gruesome dissipation; and thereafter my mother, illogically enough, in her secret heart, held these estimable ladies in part responsible for my demise. Of course they asked permission to “ view ” my mortal residuum, but again being peremptorily denied, on their way home they at first agreed to mark their displeasure by not coming to my funeral. For such abstention, however, the mortuary habit was too strong with them, so they decided that it really would be too hard upon my memory, since I was not responsible for the slight, — though I would have been quite capable of it, they added, which was true.

“ How old do you suppose she was, anyway?” asked Miss Jane of Miss Luella. “ She owned to twenty-seven.”

“ That ’s what the evening paper said,” answered Miss Luella. “ I read it over a gentleman’s shoulder in the car.”

“ Pouf ! Don’t talk to me of the paper ! ” cried Miss Jane. “ You know I won’t allow one in the house, — except the Weekly Christian, which never has any news.”

“ Well, but, sister,” rejoined Miss Luella, “ I think the paper is right. I dropped into Townley’s this afternoon just to see what sort of a casket they were giving the poor child ; you know that sort of thing has always had an attraction for me since the dear lieutenant was taken. It’s quite an elegant affair, — rosewood trimmed with silver ; and the dates were on the plates — and silver wears so well people would never dare engrave a falsehood on it, for fear of being confronted with it on the Judgment Day ! ”

The “ dear lieutenant ” was a familiar if unsubstantial figure in our town. A naval officer to whom Miss Luella had been plighted in her youth, he had perished in the civil war; but as the taking of Richmond receded into history he grew more and more shadowy, and for a time was nearly blotted out. Then, lo and behold ! all of a sudden his melancholy ghost reappeared, stalking through Miss Luella’s conversation, but reconstructed and newly painted with such neat allusions to the “recent war ” as to make him quite a jaunty, fin-de-siècle ghost.

Then the acerb sisters agreed that some people had called me good-looking, though for their own part they never could see it. Stylish, ye-es, but that Was my clothes. And stuck up ! Well, poor thing, one must speak only charitably of the dead, and so saying they stopped at the florist’s to punctuate my passing with what they termed a floral piece.

“ Should id be an emplem, or should id be chust cud flowers ? ” Mr. Dunkel asked.

“ Oh no,” cried the ladies with one voice, “not cut flowers! ” They wanted something superior. It was for one of the first families, — a dear and intimate friend.

“Should de vrend yung or olt be? ” was the question.

The ladies looked at each other. “ Well,” said Miss Jane, with happy tact, “ she was young to die.”

“ I tells you vy. I gif you points. I am an ardist,” said the florist. “ It should abbrobriate be. To egsamble, for de yung a great variedy of floral emplems is: a wreathe, a gross, an angor ” —

“ Oh, not an anchor,” Miss Luella interposed, “ except in the case of a naval officer! ”

“ Vell, an angor shands on its own endt and a goot shew makes,” they were told, “ but it gives oder tings abbrobriate for de yung. For de mittel-aged,” he continued, “ I favors oder emplems ; to egsamble, a harbp, or golten gades, or gades achar ; but yunger as five or older as fifdy is de same, de grossmutter as de babpy, — a leedle billow done in efferlasdings mit de vun vord— Resdt! ”

My case being presented more explicitly, the artist in floral emblems advised a cross, a wreath, or “Vait! ” he said, with sudden inspiration. “ I haf id. You vant a pasket mit a tuv berching on de handel like id chust alighted vos, — a tuv mit oudtshpred vinks ! ” But Miss Jane, being a member of the Audubon Society, objected to the use of a bird in decoration, so the sisters sent the basket, but spared me the dove.

Other visitors came to the house ; also written attempts at consolation for the loss of me, most of them sincere, some few perfunctory, some simply idiotic.

There were those who told my mother, with curious irrelevance, that a dead sorrow was better than a living one ; others assured her — as if they knew ! — that I was at peace. Some bade her regard it, not as death, but sleep, which was nonsense, seeing I was just plain dead. And some there were who took upon themselves to answer for the Deity with a smug complacence which I then and there should have denounced, could I but have found a voice or stirred my frozen hand. What came nearest to my consciousness with an approach to pleasure were the offerings from the children I had cared for in the ragged quarter of the town, — not because these were more genuine than the others in their sympathy (most of them spelled it smypathy), but because they made my mother smile through her tears. She never will destroy those poor little thumbmarked compositions from the children, full of the sympathy they could not spell.

An old friend came, and begged to take his turn in the night-watches by my side. A success only in extraordinary failure, with poetic talent that persistently refused to fructify, I always had gibed at him — and this was his revenge ! It was the nobler in him because he had a physical fear of mortality, this poor lad who tried, but failed, to make himself immortal. I too had had that same fear once, but now it seemed to me fantastic beyond words to find a supernatural horror in the poor little piece of white stillness that had been I, now only asking to be put out of sight! So as he sat beside me in the night I tried to encompass my friend with my psychic presence to his strength and comfort, though the immediate material result to him was only a poem which all the magazines refused.

The nurse and the undertaker were making me ready for the grave. “ It ’s a gloomy profession, yours, Mr. Townley,” said the nurse.

“No, no, Miss Carr, you must n’t think that,” protested Mr. Townley. “ It has its ups and downs, but it’s a nice trade ; it’s an artistic trade,” —here he bent one of my arms stiffly across my breast, and straightened the other stiffly by my side ; “ and then, you see, it’s steady, — it’s steady.”

“ That s so,” said the nurse, gazing at him thoughtfully, for the doctor had family ties, but the undertaker was a bachelor. It don’t affect your spirits in private life, Mr. Townley ? ” she suggested.

“ Now, now, Miss Carr, I would n’t like you to think that of me,” she was assured. “ In my own home I like my little sing ; I like my little joke with the best of ’em. Outside my profession I have the keenest sense of the ridiculous. Why, I don’t mind telling you, as between friends, that I take in two of the comic papers ! But once I cross the threshold of a house where I ’ve put crape upon the door, I ’m a different man. Shoes that don’t creak, a face that looks as if it did n’t know the shape of a smile, the feelings of the family to be respected — why, though I say it who should not say it, I may go so far as to say I ain’t a human being so much as part of an occasion.” And indeed the unobtrusive demeanor of the little man suggested that he might be Death’s valet, by whom, with all submission, the dread king must not expect to be regarded as a hero.

Skipping back a few paces, he eyed me with a critical approval, which changed quickly to reproach. “ Oh, them mourners, them mourners, you never know what they 'll do next ! ” he exclaimed, shaking his head and sighing heavily as one whose patience with humanity had been taxed too far.

“ What’s the matter ? ” asked the nurse.

“ I ’m not disposed to be hard upon mourners,” he defended his position. “ I make allowance for their feelings; I give ’em all the leeway I can ; any little trinket, letters, or flowers they may wish to put in I make no objection to ; but — that hair!” and he shook his head at me severely.

Ophia had arranged my hair. Dear heart! she always had longed to do small personal offices for me which I, in my proud isolation, never had suffered from her ; but now at the last with loving hands she had dressed my hair as I generally wore it, characteristically putting in the hairpins criss-cross in a way that would have annoyed me greatly, had feeling stayed by me.

“ What’s the matter with the hair? ” asked the nurse. “ It looks just as natural.”

“That’s all very well,” the undertaker answered ; “ but how can I be expected to get the lid down with a pompadour in front and a bun behind ? ”

“Oh, if that’s all,” said the nurse, “ here, I ’ll fix it,” and with apt hands she loosened and laid flat the coils above my neck, so as to lower my offending head.

And that in part symbolized my life. I had come into the world a naked, round-eyed child, ready to view the world with instinctive truth, but by the imperfect processes of education and the unconscious distortions of the social machine I had become what those about me were, — little better than a frontage on life, a mere facade.

Mr. Townley again skipped back a few paces, and, his head on one side like cock robin’s, he now surveyed me with entire approbation. “ Lovely ! ” he commented. “ Lovely ! ”

“She does look nice,”agreed the nurse.

“ Not that I would have had this happen for the world,” said the undertaker with a burst of genuine feeling. “I 've watched her grow up, child and woman, and it goes to my heart to handle her professionally before her time.” And as he took up his hat he added, “ I only wish there was some little extra thing I could do that need n’t go down upon the bill.”

“ I’m sure you have done everything in the nicest way,” replied the nurse. “ But what’s your hurry ? Stay and talk a bit.”

But Mr. Townley excused himself with a mournful pleasantness, saying that he had an appointment out of town to “ ice a party.”

The church services over me came to my consciousness not as an empty form. They did not matter much to me, but for the living they held a timely message of dignified submission to the inevitable, with a hope of better things beyond the objective world. Of course there was no collection taken up, but while the choir was singing, and the congregation trying to sing, Lead, Kindly Light, I, who in life had been proud of my unostentatious charities, now went about the church, a poor little Psyche evicted from the flesh, begging for charity to my memory. And as I looked at the people recalling the intellectual estimates I had formed of them on whose justice I had prided myself, it came to me that after all, while it is a good thing to be invariably just, a day comes when there may be more comfort in remembering that one has been occasionally kind.

Then there was the long drive to the cemetery. I had always liked to lead, and in this my last social function I led ; but those who followed me were erect, while I alone lay, — leading, but not of my own volition ; the cast-off garment of a woman ! Behind me came a long diminuendo line of grief in carriages: the handkerchiefs of those nearest me were wet hard balls with excess of tears, the handkerchiefs in the middle of the procession were wispy rags with modified regret, while some poor relations at the end were almost dry-eyed and actually enjoyed the ride.

At the grave happened one unexpected thing. When “Ashes to ashes” and “ dust to dust ” was read, Mr. Townley stepped neatly forth with a handful of gravel for his accustomed illustration of the rubric ; but my father, who was damned by the Weekly Christian as an atheist, put the undertaker on one side, and himself dropped the symbolic earth upon my coffin-lid. Then later he seized a spade from one of the men and helped to fill in the grave, the action bringing out strong lines on his inert good-lookingness. Some of the flowers they put beneath the little mound, and some they laid outside it, and all perished before the sun went down.

That night, for the last time, my consciousness revisited the places that had held the most vital part of my existence. One house, one room, in particular I sought, — the home of a man who had professed himself my most patient and devoted lover. I always had said that I never would allow myself to be married, unless to a great statesman or a genius, yet into my life this man had come with an insistence not lightly to be gainsaid. An average man on a decidedly material plane I thought him; indeed, that very evening, in a curious emotional reaction, he had taken the train to the nearest city to see a popular and silly vaudeville. Yet in my developing consciousness there dawned a question that demanded light. A faint moon ray slid between the bowed shutters of his room, and I saw that everything about the man was clean, from his surroundings to his heart. As he lay there, ruddy, of gigantic strength and stature, he looked, for all his vigorous manhood, like an overgrown child, for he had cried himself to sleep. The salt rheum of sorrow glued his eyelids fast, his nostrils and the corners of his well-shaped mouth were wet, and in his relaxed grasp lay a ridiculous little tintype that he had been clasping so close as to cut the flesh. On his dressing-table I noticed the portrait of his mother, — an eagle-faced woman, imperial in her maternity, — and I recalled how it was said that this man had been a good son to her no less than a father to a brood of younger brothers ; then, as I looked at him again, I had a curious apprehension of what manner of child he must have been, and of the child a woman might bear to him, and by degrees illumination came to me. Once, in my wish to lead, almost as much as through my love for the flower, on a wet autumn day, I had made a passionate pilgrimage for the first fringed gentian of the year. On the wet hilltops I had hunted it, in hidden nooks, through bog and bracken, even to the heart of the low-lying valleys ; but in vain. And as I returned home, wet, weary, and discouraged, there on a common wayside bank, there at my very door, grew my blue-eyed treasure-trove, awaiting my return. The quest had been worth while for aspiration’s sake, but the flower had been growing at my door! So it came to me that this man, had I lived, would have been my husband. He had ridiculed my tenuous studies, burlesquing my psuché, as I called my psychism, into my “ sukey,” and I had despised his material views of life; but meanwhile a bond had been strengthening between us, for I had touched the spiritual part of him, and he had reached the human quality in me. Yes, had I lived I should have come to love this man well enough even to black his boots — though I might never have told him that, in just so many words. I knew it now — and humanly speaking I was dead. So the little sukey that he had laughed at, but truly loved, bent over him as he lay asleep and gave him a butterfly kiss that he would never feel, — a kiss of revelation and good-by. Then I went home.

In his study my father sat, though the night was well advanced; but it was not the clever, bad French novel in his hand that kept him from his bed, for he turned no page. The years seemed suddenly to have set their seal upon his frame, and his face was creased, like an insomniac’s pillow. I waited by him, my consciousness of the subjective life becoming every moment more distinct. Finally he threw aside his book, and together we went into my mother’s room. Her bed was untouched: she was not there. We mounted to my room : she was not there. We looked for her by Ophia: she was not there. We sought her over the house, my father, with growing anxiety, calling her by her name, “ Sarah,” as he had not done for years, and then by foolish loving names that must have belonged to their courtship days, “Sarahkins ” and “ Sally.” There was no answer. At last we found her in the garret, too enwrapped in an old grief to hear my father’s step, as she sat by an open drawer filled with the longput-away daintiness of a baby’s clothes. These never had belonged to me, for, with my abhorrence of sentiment, I had caused the swathings of my infancy to be bestowed on the deserving poor ; these had been intended for a child that had come to my parents in their early wedded life, hardly to live an hour, — a loss for which my mother had grieved so over-long that my father had grown impatient; and thus had they drifted apart. Then I had come, the child of psychic unrest, too late to bring them together ; nor had I tried, — not as I should have tried, — as now I saw. Nor, as I saw now, had they made me fully understand; for after all, age is so much nearer to youth than is youth to age ! So in my lifetime we three had missed one another, but now to-night, though the mortal part of me was lying in a new-made grave, my subjective presence held my parents in a close embrace. Tenderly my father led my mother down to my deserted room, where they sat awhile and talked of me. Their lives had grown too far apart for perfect understanding, but at any rate their childless old age would be sweet with mutual kindliness, like the winter sunshine that melts the snow. And so I left them, while the night wore away in peace.

Marguerite Merington.