A Difficult Case
IN TWO PARTS. PART FIRST.
IT was in the fervor of their first married years that the Ewberts came to live in the little town of Hilbrook, shortly after Hilbrook University had been established there under the name of its founder, Josiah Hilbrook. The town itself had then just changed its name, in compliance with the conditions of his public benefactions, and in recognition of the honor he had done it in making it a seat of learning. Up to a certain day it had been called West Mallow, ever since it was set off from the original town of Mallow ; but after a hundred and seventy years of this custom, it began on that day to call itself Hilbrook, and thenceforward, with the curious American acquiescence in the accomplished fact, no one within or without its limits called it West Mallow again.
The memory of Josiah Hilbrook himself began to be lost in the name he had given the place ; and except for the perfunctory mention of its founder in the ceremonies of Commencement Day, the university hardly remembered him as a man, but rather regarded him as a locality. He had in fact never been an important man in West Mallow, up to the time he had left it to seek his fortune in New York ; and when he died, somewhat abruptly, and left his money, as it were out of a clear sky, to his native place in the form of a university, a town hall, a soldiers’ monument, a drinking fountain, and a public library, his fellow townsmen, in making the due civic acknowledgment and acceptance of his gifts, recalled with effort the obscure family to which he belonged.
He had not tried to characterize the university by his peculiar religious faith, but he had given a church building, a parsonage, and a fund for the support of preaching among them at Hilbrook, to the small body of believers to which his people adhered. This sect had a name by which it was officially known to itself ; but, like the Shakers, the Quakers, the Moravians, it had early received a nickname, which it passively adopted, and even among its own members the body was rarely spoken of or thought of except as the Rixonites.
Mrs. Ewbert fretted under the nickname, with an impatience perhaps the greater because she had merely married into the Rixonite church, and had accepted its doctrine because she loved her husband rather than because she had been convinced of its truth. From the first she complained that the Rixonites were cold ; and if there was anything Emily Ewbert had always detested, it was coldness. No one, she once testified, need talk to her of their passive waiting for a sign, as a religious life; if there were not some strong, central belief, some rigorously formulated creed, some —
“ Good old herb and root theology,” her husband interrupted.
“Yes!” she heedlessly acquiesced. “ Unless there is something like that, all the waiting in the world won’t ” — she cast about for some powerful image — “ won’t keep the cold chills from running down my back when I think of my duty as a Christian.”
“ Then don’t think of your duty as a Christian, my dear,” he pleaded, with the caressing languor which sometimes made her say, in reprobation of her own pleasure in it, that he was a Rixonite, if ever there was one. “ Think of your duty as a woman, or even as a mortal.”
“ I believe you ’re thinking of making a sermon on that,” she retorted ; and he gave a sad, consenting laugh, as if it were quite true, though in fact he never really preached a sermon on mere femininity or mere mortality. His sermons were all very good, however: and that was another thing that put her out of patience with his Rixonite parishioners,— that they should sit there Sunday after Sunday, year in and year out, and listen to his beautiful sermons, which ought to melt their hearts and bring tears into their eyes, and not seem influenced by them any more than if they were so many dry chips.
“ But think how long they ’ve had the gospel,” he suggested, in a pensive selfderision which she would not share.
“ Well, one thing, Clarence,” she summed up, “ I’m not going to let you throw yourself away on them; and unless you see some of the university people in the congregation, I want you to use your old sermons from this out. They ’ll never know the difference ; and I ’m going to make you take one of the old sermons along every Sunday, so as to be prepared.”
One good trait of Mrs. Ewbert was that she never meant half she said, — she could not; but in this case there was more meaning than usual in her saying. It really vexed her that the university families, who had all received them so nicely, and who appreciated her husband’s spiritual and intellectual quality as fully as even she could wish, came some of them so seldom, and some of them never, to hear him at the Rixonite church. They ought, she said, to have been just suited by his preaching, which inculcated with the peculiar grace of his gentle, poetic nature a refinement of the mystical theology of tine founder. The Rev. Adoniram Rixon, who had seventy years before formulated his conception of the religious life as a patient waiting upon the divine will, with a constant reference of this world’s mysteries and problems to the world to come, had doubtless meant a more strenuous abeyance than Clarence Ewbert was now preaching to a third generation of his followers. He had doubtless meant them to be eager and alert in this patience, but the version of his gospel which his latest apostle gave taught a species of acquiescence which was foreign to the thoughts of the founder. He put as great stress as could be asked upon the importance of a realizing faith in the life to come, and an implicit trust in it for the solution of the problems and perplexities of this life; but so far from wishing his hearers to be constantly taking stock, as it were, of their spiritual condition, and interrogating Providence as to its will concerning them, he besought them to rest in confidence of the divine mindfulness, secure that while they fulfilled all their plain, simple duties toward one another, God would inspire them to act according to his purposes in the more psychological crises and emergencies, if these should ever be part of their experience.
In maintaining, on a certain Sunday evening, that his ideas were much more adapted to the spiritual nourishment of the president, the dean, and the several professors of Hilbrook University than to that of the hereditary Rixonites who nodded in a slumbrous acceptance of them, Mrs. Ewbert failed as usual to rouse her husband to a due sense of his grievance with the university people.
“Well,” he said, “you know I can’t make them come, my dear.”
“ Of course not. And I would be the last to have you lift a finger. But I know that you feel about it just as I do.”
“ Perhaps ; but I hope not so much as you think you feel. Of course, I’m very grateful for your indignation. But I know you don’t undervalue the good I may do to my poor sheep — they ’re not an intellectual flock — in trying to lead them in the ways of spiritual modesty and unconsciousness. How do we know but they profit more by my preaching than the faculty would ? Perhaps our university friends are spiritually unconscious enough already, if not modest.”
“ I see what you mean,” said Mrs. Ewbert, provisionally suspending her sense of the whimsical quality in his suggestion. “ But you need never tell me that they would n’t appreciate you move,”
“ More than old Ransom Hilbrook ? ” he asked.
“ Oh, I hope he is n’t coming here tonight, again ! ” she implored, with a nervous leap from the point in question. “ If he’s coming here every Sunday night ” —
As he knew she wished, her husband represented that Hilbrook’s having come the last Sunday night was no proof that he was going to make a habit of it.
“ But he stayed so late ! ” she insisted from the safety of her real belief that he was not coming.
“ He came very early, though,” said Ewbert, with a gentle sigh, in which her sympathetic penetration detected a retrospective exhaustion.
“ I shall tell him you ’re not well,” she went on : “I shall tell him you are lying down. You ought to be, now. You ’re perfectly worn out with that long walk you took.” She rose, and beat up the sofa pillows with a menacing eye upon him.
“Oh, I’m very comfortable here,” he said from the depths of his easy-chair. “ Hilbrook won’t come to-night. It’s past the time.”
She glanced at the clock with him, and then desisted. “If he does, I’m determined to excuse you somehow. You ought never to have gone near him, Clarence. You’ve brought it upon yourself.”
Ewbert could not deny this, though he did not feel himself so much to blame for it as she would have liked to make out in her pity of him. He owned that if he had never gone to see Hilbrook the old man would probably never have come near them, and that if he had not tried so much to interest him when he did come Hilbrook would not have stayed so long; and even in this contrite mind, he would not allow that he ought not to have visited him and ought not to have welcomed him.
The minister had found his parishioner in the old Hilbrook homestead, which Josiah Hilbrook, while he lived, suffered Ransom Hilbrook to occupy, and when he died bequeathed to him, with a sufficient income for all his simple wants. They were cousins, and they had both gone out into the world about the same time: one had made a success of it, and remained ; and the other had made a failure of it, and come back. They were both Rixonites, as the families of both had been in the generation before them. It could be supposed that Josiah Hilbrook, since he had given the money for a Rixonite church and the perpetual pay of a Rixonite minister in his native place, had died in the faith ; and it might have been supposed that Ransom Hilbrook, from his constant attendance upon its services, was living in the same faith. What was certain was that the survivor lived alone in the family homestead on the slope of the stony hill overlooking the village. The house was gray with age, and it crouched low on the ground where it had been built a century before, and anchored fast by the great central chimney characteristic of the early New England farmhouse. Below it staggered the trees of an apple orchard belted in with a stone wall, and beside it sagged the sheds whose stretch united the gray old house to the gray old barn, and made it possible for Hilbrook to do his chores in rain or snow without leaving cover. There was a dooryard defined by a picket fence, and near the kitchen door was a well with a high pent roof, where there had once been a long sweep.
These simple features showed to the village on the opposite slope with a distinctness that made the place seem much lonelier than if it had been much more remote. It gained no cheerfulness from its proximity, and when the windows of the house lighted up with the pale gleam of the sunset, they imparted to the village a sense of dreary solitude which its own lamps could do nothing to relieve.
Ransom Hilbrook came and went among the villagers in the same sort of inaccessible contiguity. He did not shun passing the time of day with people he met; he was in and out at the grocer’s, the meat man’s, the baker’s, upon the ordinary domestic occasions ; but he never darkened any other doors, except on his visits to the bank where he cashed the checks for his quarterly allowance. There had been a proposition to use him representatively in the ceremonies celebrating the acceptance of the various gifts of Josiah Hilbrook ; but he had not lent himself to this, and upon experiment the authorities found that he was right in his guess that they could get along without him.
He had not said it surlily, but sadly, and with a gentle deprecation of their insistence. While the several monuments that testified to his cousin’s wealth and munificence rose in the village beyond the brook, he continued in the old homestead without change, except that when his housekeeper died he began to do for himself the few things that the ailing and aged woman had done for him. How he did them was not known, for he invited no intimacy from his neighbors. But from the extent of his dealings with the grocer it was imagined that he lived mainly upon canned goods. The fish man paid him a weekly visit, and once a week he got from the meat man a piece of salt pork, which it was obvious to the meanest intelligence was for his Sunday baked beans. From his purchase of flour and baking powder it was reasonably inferred that he now and then made himself hot biscuit. Beyond these meagre facts everything was conjecture, in which the local curiosity played sometimes actively, but for the most part with a growing acquiescence in the general ignorance none felt authorized to dispel. There had been a time when some fulfilled a fancied duty to the solitary in trying to see him. But the visitors who found him out of doors were not asked within, and were obliged to dismiss themselves, after an interview across the pickets of the dooryard fence or from the trestles or inverted feed pails on which they were invited to seats in the barn or shed. Those who happened to find their host more ceremoniously at home were allowed to come in, but were received in rooms so comfortless from the drawn blinds or fireless hearths that they had not the spirits for the task of cheering him up which they had set themselves, and departed in greater depression than that they left him to.
Ewbert felt all the more impelled to his own first visit by the fame of these failures, but he was not hastened in it. He thought best to wait for some sign or leading from Hilbrook; but when none came, except the apparent attention with which Hilbrook listened to his preaching, and the sympathy which he believed he detected at times in the old eyes blinking upon him through his sermons, he felt urged to the visit which he had vainly delayed.
Hilbrook’s reception was wary and non-committal, but it was by no means so grudging as Ewbert had been led to expect. After some ceremonious moments in the cold parlor Hilbrook asked him into the warm kitchen, where apparently he passed most of his own time. There was something cooking in a pot on the stove, and a small room opened out of the kitchen, with a bed in it, which looked as if it were going to be made, as Ewbert handsomely maintained. There was an old dog stretched on the hearth behind the stove, who whimpered with rheumatic apprehension when his master went to put the lamp on the mantel above him.
In describing the incident to his wife Ewbert stopped at this point, and then passed on to say that after they got to talking Hilbrook seemed more and more gratified, and even glad, to see him.
“ Everybody ’s glad to see you, Clarence,” she broke out, with tender pride. “ But why do you say, ‘ After we got to talking’ ? Did n’t you get to talking at once ? ”
“ Well, no,” he answered, with a vague smile ; “ we did a good deal of listening at first, both of us. I did n’t know just where to begin, after I got through my excuses for coming, and Mr. Hilbrook did n’t offer any opening. Don’t you think he’s a very handsome old man ? ”
“ He has a pretty head, and his closecut white hair gives it a neat effect, like a nice child’s. He has a refined face ; such a straight nose, and a delicate chin. Yes, he is certainly good looking. But what ” —
“ Oh, nothing. Only, all at once I realized that he had a sensitive nature. I don’t know why I should n’t have realized it before. I had somehow taken it for granted that he was a self-conscious hermit, who lived in a squalid seclusion because he liked being wondered at. But he did not seem to be anything of the kind. I don’t know whether he ’s a good cook, for he did n’t ask me to eat anything; but I don’t think he’s a bad housekeeper.”
“ With his bed unmade at eight o’clock in the evening ! ”
“ Pie may have got up late,” said Ewbert. “ The house seemed very orderly, otherwise ; and what is really the use of making up a bed till you need it? ”
Mrs. Ewbert passed the point, and asked, “ What did you talk about when you got started ? ”
“ I found he was a reader, or had been. There was a case of good books in the parlor, and I began by talking with him about them.”
“ Well, what did he say about them ? ”
“ That he was n’t interested in them. He had been once, but lie was not now.”
“ I can understand that,” said Mrs. Ewbert philosophically. “ Books are crowded out after your life fills up with other interests.”
“ Yes, what ? ”
“ So far as I could make out, Mr. Hilbrook’s life had n’t filled up with other interests. He did not care for the events of the day, as far as I tried him on them, and he did not care for the past. I tempted him with autobiography ; but he seemed quite indifferent to his own history, though he was not reticent about it. I proposed the history of his cousin in the boyish days which he said they had spent together; but he seemed no more interested in his cousin than in himself. Then I tried his dog and his pathetic sufferings, and I said something about the pity of the poor old fellow’s last days being so miserable. That seemed to strike a gleam of interest from him, and he asked me if I thought animals might live again. And I found — I don’t know just how to put it so as to give you the right sense of his psychological attitude.”
“ No matter ! Put it any way, and I will take care of the right sense. Go on ! ” said Mrs. Ewbert.
“ I found that his question led up to the question whether men lived again, and to a confession that he did n’t or could n’t believe they did.”
“ Well, upon my word ! ” Mrs. Ewbert exclaimed. “ I don’t see what business he has coming to church, then. Does n’t he understand that the idea of immortality is very essence of Rixonitism ? I think it was personally insulting to you, Clarence. What did you say ? ”
“I did n’t take a very high hand with him. You know I don’t embody the idea of immortality, and the church is no bad place even for unbelievers. The fact is, it struck me as profoundly pathetic. He was n’t arrogant about it, as people sometimes are, — they seem proud of not believing; but he was sufficiently ignorant in his premises. He said he had seen too many dead people. You know he was in the civil war.”
“ No ! ”
“ Yes, — through it all. It came out on my asking him if he were going to the Decoration Day services. He said that the sight of the first great battlefield deprived him of the power of believing in a life hereafter. He was not very explanatory, but as I understood it the overwhelming presence of death had extinguished his faith in immortality; the dead riders were just like their dead horses ” —
“ Shocking ! ” Mrs. Ewbert broke in.
“ He said something went out of him.” Ewbert waited a moment before adding: “ It was very affecting, though Hilbrook himself was as apathetic about it as he was about everything else. He was not interested in not believing, even, but I could see that it had taken the heart out of life for him. If our life here does not mean life elsewhere, the interest of it must end with our activities. When it comes to old age, as it has with poor Hilbrook, it has no meaning at all, unless it has the hope of more life in it. I felt his forlornness, and I strongly wished to help him. I stayed a long time talking; I tried to interest him in the fact that he was not interested, and ” —
“ Well, what ? ”
“ If I did n’t fatigue Hilbrook, I came away feeling perfectly exhausted myself. Were you uneasy at my being out so late ? ”
It was some time after the Ewberts had given up expecting him that old Hilbrook came to return the minister’s visit. Then, as if some excuse were necessary, he brought a dozen eggs in a paper bag, which he said he hoped Mrs. Ewbert could use, because his hens were giving him more than he knew what to do with. He came to the back door with them ; but Mrs. Ewbert always let her maid of all work go out Sunday evening, and she could receive him in the kitchen herself. She felt obliged to make him the more welcome on account of his humility, and she showed him into the library with perhaps exaggerated hospitality.
It was a chilly evening of April, and so early that the lamp was not lighted; but there was a pleasant glow from the fire on the hearth, and Ewbert made his guest sit down before it. As he lay back in the easy-chair, stretching his thin old hands toward the blaze, the delicacy of his profile was charming, and that senile parting of the lips with which he listened reminded Ewbert of his own father’s looks in his last years ; so that it was with an affectionate eagerness he set about making Hilbrook feel his presence acceptable, when Mrs. Ewbert left them to finish up the work she had promised herself not to leave for the maid. It was much that Hilbrook had come at all, and he ought to be made to realize that Ewbert appreciated his coming. But Hilbrook seemed indifferent to his efforts, or rather, insensible to them, in the several topics that Ewbert advanced ; and there began to be pauses, in which the minister racked his brain for some new thing to say, or found himself saying something he cared nothing for in a voice of hollow resolution, or falling into commonplaces which he tried to give vitality by strenuousness of expression. He heard his wife moving about in the kitchen and dining room, with a clicking of spoons and knives and a faint clash of china, as she put the supper things away, and he wished that she would come in and help him with old Hilbrook ; but he could not very well call her, and she kept at her work, with no apparent purpose of leaving it.
Hilbrook was a farmer, so far as he was anything industrially, and Ewbert tried him with questions of crops, soils, and fertilizers ; but he tried him in vain. The old man said he had never cared much for those things, and now it was too late for him to begin. He generally sold his grass standing, and his apples on the trees; and he had no animals about the place except his chickens, — they took care of themselves. Ewbert urged, for the sake of conversation, even of a disputative character, that poultry were liable to disease, if they were not looked after ; but Hilbrook said, Not if there were not too many of them, and so made an end of that subject. Ewbert desperately suggested that he must find them company, — they seemed sociable creatures ; and then, in his utter dearth, he asked how the old dog was getting on.
“ Oh, he ’s dead,” said Hilbrook, and the minister’s heart smote him with a pity for the survivor’s forlornness which the old man’s apathetic tone had scarcely invited. He inquired how and when the dog had died, and said how much Hilbrook must miss him.
“Well, I don’t know,” Hilbrook returned. “ He wa’n’t much comfort, and he’s out of his misery, anyway.” After a moment he added, with a gleam of interest: “ I’ve been thinkin’, since he went, of what we talked about the other night, — I don’t mean animals, but men. I tried to go over what you said, in my own mind, but I could n’t seem to make it.”
He lifted his face, sculptured so fine by age, and blinked at Ewbert, who was glad to fancy something appealing in his words and manner.
“ You mean as to a life beyond this ? ”
“ Ah! ”
“ Well, let us see if we can’t go over it together.”
Ewbert had forgotten the points he had made before, and he had to take up the whole subject anew. He did so at first in an involuntarily patronizing confidence that Hilbrook was ignorant of the ground ; but from time to time the old man let drop a hint of knowledge that surprised the minister. Before they had done, it appeared that Hilbrook was acquainted with the literature of the doctrine of immortality from Plato to Swedenborg, and even to Mr. John Fiske. How well he was acquainted with it Ewbert could not quite make out; but he had recurrently a misgiving, as if he were in the presence of a doubter whose doubt was hopeless through his knowledge. In this bleak air it seemed to him that he at last detected the one thing in which the old man felt an interest: his sole tie with the earth was the belief that when he left it he should cease to be. This affected Ewbert as most interesting, and he set himself, with all his heart and soul, to dislodge Hilbrook from his deplorable conviction. He would not perhaps have found it easy to overcome at once that repugnance which Hilbrook’s doubt provoked in him, if it had been less gently, less simply owned. As it was, it was not possible to deal with it in any spirit of mere authority. He must meet it and overcome it in terms of affectionate persuasion.
It should not be difficult to overcome it; but Ewbert had not yet succeeded in arraying his reasons satisfactorily against it when his wife returned from her work in the kitchen, and sat down beside the library table. Her coming operated a total diversion, in which Hilbrook lapsed into his apathy, and was not to be roused from it by the overtures to conversation which she made. He presently got to his feet and said he must be going, against all her protests that it was very early. Ewbert wished to walk home with him ; but Hilbrook would not suffer this, and the minister had to come back from following him to the gate, and watching his figure lose itself in the dark, with a pang in his heart for the solitude which awaited the old man under his own roof. He ran swiftly over their argument in his mind, and questioned himself whether he had used him with unfailing tenderness, whether he had let him think that he regarded him as at all reprobate and culpable. He gave up the quest as he rejoined his wife with a long, unconscious sigh that made her lift her head.
“ What is it, Clarence ? ”
“ Nothing ” —
“ You look perfectly exhausted. You look worried. Was it something you were talking about ? ”
Then he told her, and he had trouble to keep her resentment in bounds. She held that, as a minister, he ought to have rebuked the wretched creature; that it was nothing short of offensive to him for Hilbrook to take such a position. She said his face was all flushed, and that she knew he would not sleep, and she should get him a glass of warm milk; the fire was out in the stove, but she could heat it over the lamp in a tin cup.
Hilbrook did not come again till Ewbert had been to see him; and in the meantime the minister suffered from the fear that the old man was staying away because of some hurt which he had received in their controversy. Hilbrook came to church as before, and blinked at him through the two sermons which Ewbert preached on significant texts, and the minister hoped he was listening with a sense of personal appeal in them. He had not only sought to make them convincing as to the doctrine of another life, but he had dealt in terms of loving entreaty with those who had not the precious faith of this in their hearts, and he had wished to convey to this hearer an assurance of peculiar sympathy.
The day following the last of his sermons, Ewbert had to officiate at the funeral of a little child whose mother had been stricken to the earth by her bereavement. The hapless creature had sent for him again and again, and had clung about his very soul, beseeching him for assurance that she should see her child hereafter, and have it hers, just as it was, forever. He had not had the heart to refuse her this consolation, and he had pushed himself, in giving it, beyond the bounds of imagination. When she confessed her own inability to see how it could be, and yet demanded of him that it should be, he answered her that our inability to realize the fact had nothing to do with its reality. In the few words he said over the little one, at the last, he recurred to this position, and urged it upon all his hearers ; but in the moment of doing so a point that old Hilbrook had made in their talk suddenly presented itself. He experienced inwardly such a collapse that he could not be sure he had spoken, and he repeated his declaration in a voice of such harsh defiance that he could scarcely afterward bring himself down to the meek level of the closing prayer.
As they walked home together, his wife asked, “ Why did you repeat yourself in that passage, Clarence, and why did you lift your voice so ? It sounded as if you were contradicting some one. I hope you were not thinking of anything that wretched old man said ? ”
With the mystical sympathy by which the wife divines what is in her husband’s mind she had touched the truth, and he could not deny it. “ Yes, yes, I was,” he owned in a sort of anguish, and she said : —
“ Well, then, I wish he would n’t come about any more. He has perfectly obsessed you. I could see that the two last Sundays you were preaching right at him.” He had vainly hoped she had not noticed this, though he had not concealed from her that his talk with Hilbrook had suggested his theme. “ What are you going to do about him ? ” she pursued.
“ I don’t know, — I don’t know, indeed,” said Ewbert; and perhaps because he did not know, he felt that he must do something, that he must at least not leave him to himself. He hoped that Hilbrook would come to him, and so put him under the necessity of doing something; but Hilbrook did not come, and after waiting a fortnight Ewbert went to him, as was his duty.
The spring had advanced so far that there were now days when it was pleasant, to be out in the soft warmth of the afternoons. The day when Ewbert climbed to the Hilbrook homestead it was even a little hot, and he came up to the dooryard mopping his forehead with his handkerchief, and glad of the southwestern breeze which he caught at this point over the shoulder of the hill. He had expected to go round to the side door of the house, where he had parted with Hilbrook on his former visit; but he stopped on seeing the old man at his front door, where he was looking vaguely at a mass of Spanish willow fallen disheveled beside it, as if he had some thought of lifting its tangled spray. The sun shone on his bare head, and struck silvery gleams from his close - cropped white hair ; there was something uncommon in his air, though his dress was plain and old-fashioned ; and Ewbert wished that his wife were there to share his impression of distinction in Hilbrook’s presence.
He turned at Ewbert’s cheerful hail, and after a moment of apparent uncertainty as to who he was, he came down the walk of broken brick and opened the gate to his visitor.
“ I was just out looking round at the old things,” he said, with an effort of apology. “ This sort of weather is apt to make fools of us. It gets into our heads, and before we know we feel as if we had something to do with the season.”
“ Perhaps we have,” said the minister. “ The spring is in us, too.”
The old man shook his head. “ It was once, when we were children ; now there’s what we remember of it. We like to make believe about it, — that’s natural; and it’s natural we should make believe that there is going to be a spring for us somewhere else like what we see for the grass and bushes, here, every year ; but I guess not. A tree puts out its leaves every spring ; but by and by the tree dies, and then it does n’t put out its leaves any more.”
“ I see what you mean,” said Ewbert, “ and I allow that there is no real analogy between our life and that of the grass and bushes; yet somehow I feel strengthened in my belief in the hereafter by each renewal of the earth’s life. It is n’t a proof, it is n’t a promise ; but it’s a suggestion, an intimation.”
They were in the midst of the great question, and they sat down on the decaying doorstep to have it out; Hilbrook having gone in for his hat, and come out again, with its soft wide brim shading his thin face, frosted with half a week’s beard.
“ But character,” the minister urged at a certain point, —“what becomes of character ? You may suppose that life can be lavished by its Origin in the immeasurable superabundance which we see in nature. But character, — that is a different thing ; that cannot die.”
“ The beasts that perish have character ; my old dog had. Some are good and some bad ; they ’re kind and they ’re ugly.”
“ Ah, excuse me ! That is n’t character ; that’s temperament. Men have temperament, too ; but the beasts have n’t character. Doesn’t that fact prove something, — or no, not prove, but give us some reasonable expectation of a hereafter ? ”
Hilbrook did not say anything for a moment. He broke a bit of fragrant spray from the flowering currant — which guarded the doorway on his side of the steps ; Ewbert sat next the Spanish willow — and softly twisted the stem between his thumb and finger.
“ Ever heard how I came to leave Hilbrook,—West Mallow, as it was then ? ” he asked at last.
Ewbert was forced to own that he had heard a story, but he said, mainly in Hilbrook’s interest, that he had not paid much attention to it.
“Thought there wa’n’t much in it? Well, that’s right, generally speakin’. Folks like to make up stories about a man that lives alone like me, here ; and they usually get in a disappointment. I ain’t goin’ to go over it. I don’t care any more about it now than if it had happened to somebody else ; but it did happen. Josiah got the girl, and I did n’t. I presume they like to make out that I’ve grieved over it ever since. Sho ! It’s forty years since I gave it a thought, that way.” A certain contemptuous indignation supplanted the wonted gentleness of the old man, as if he spurned the notion of such sentimental folly. “ I’ve read of folks mournin’ all their lives through, and in their old age goin’ back to a thing like that, as if it still meant somethin’. But it ain’t true ; I don’t suppose I care any move for losin’ her now than Josiah would for gettin’ her if he was alive. It did make a difference for a while ; I ain’t goin’ to deny that. It lasted me four or five years, in all, I guess ; but I was married to somebody else when I went to the war, — Ewbert controlled a start of surprise; he had always taken it for granted that Hilbrook was a bachelor, — “ and we had one child. So you may say that I was well over that first thing. It wore out; and if it wa’n’t that it makes me mad to have folks believin’ that I m sufferin’ from it yet, I presume I should n’t think of it from one year’s end to another. My wife and I always got on well together; she was a good woman. She died when I was away at the war, and the little boy died after I got back. I was sorry to lose her, and I thought losin’ him would kill me. It did n’t. It appeared one while as if I could n’t live without him, and I was always contrivin’ how I should meet up with him somewhere else. I could n’t figure it out.”
Hilbrook stopped, and swallowed dryly. Ewbert noticed how he had dropped more and more into the vernacular, in these reminiscences ; in their controversies he had used the language of books and had spoken like a cultivated man, but now he was simply and touchingly rustic.
“Well,” he resumed, “that wore out, too. I went into business, and I made money and I lost it. I went through all that experience, and I got enough of it, just as I got enough of fightin’. I guess I was no worse scared than the rest of ’em, but when it came to the end I ’d ’bout made up my mind that if there was another war I’d go to Canady ; I was sick of it, and I was sick of business even before I lost money. I lost pretty much everything. Josiah — he was always a good enough friend of mine — wanted me to start in again, and he offered to back me, but I said no. I said if he wanted to do something for me, he could let me come home and live on the old place, here ; it would n’t cost him anything like so much, and it would be a safer investment. He agreed, and here I be, to make a long story short.”
Hilbrook had stiffened more and more, as he went on, in the sort of defiance he had put on when he first began to speak of himself, and at the end of his confidence Ewbert did not venture any comment. His forbearance seemed to leave the old man freer to resume at the point where he had broken off, and he did so with something of lingering challenge,
“ You asked me just now why I did n’t think character, as we call it, gave us some right to expect a life after this. Well, I ’ll try to tell you. I consider that I’ve been the rounds, as you may say, and that I’ve got as much character as most men. I’ve had about everything in my life that most have, and a great deal more than some. I’ve seen that everything wears out, and that when a thing’s worn out it’s for good and all. I think it’s reasonable to suppose that when I wear out it will be for good and all, too. There is n’t anything of us, as I look at it, except the potentiality of experiences. The experiences come through the passions that you can tell on the fingers of one hand: love, hate, hope, grief, and you may say greed for the thumb. When you’ve had them, that’s the end of it; you’ve exhausted your capacity ; you ’re used up, and so’s your character, — that often dies before the body does.”
“ No, no ! ” Ewbert protested. “ Human capacity is infinite ; ” but even while he spoke this seemed to him a contradiction in terms. “ I mean that the passions renew themselves with new occasions, new opportunities, and character grows continually. You have loved twice, you have grieved twice ; in battle you hated more than once ; in business you must have coveted many times. Under different conditions, the passions, the potentiality of experiences, will have a pristine strength. Can’t you see it in that light ? Can’t you draw some hope from that? ”
“ Hope ! ” cried Ransom Hilbrook, lifting his fallen head and staring at the minister. “ Why, man, you don’t suppose I want to live hereafter ? Do you think I’m anxious to have it all over again, or any of it ? Is that why you’ve been trying to convince me of immortality ? I know there’s something in what you say, — more than what you realize. I’ve argued annihilation up to this point and that, and almost proved it to my own mind ; but there’s always some point that I can’t quite get over. If I had the certainty, the absolute certainty, that this was all there was to be of it, I would n’t want to live an hour longer, not a minute ! But it’s the uncertainty that keeps me. What I’m afraid of is, that if I get out of it here, I might wake up in my old identity, with the potentiality of new experiences in new conditions. That’s it. I’m tired. I’ve had enough. I want to be let alone. I don’t want to do anything more, or have anything more done to me. I want to stop.”
Ewbert’s first impression was that he was shocked ; but he was too honest to remain in this conventional assumption. He was profoundly moved, however, and intensely interested. He realized that Hilbrook was perfectly sincere, and he could put himself in the old man’s place, and imagine why he should feel as he did. Ewbert blamed himself for not having conceived of such a case before ; and he saw that if he were to do anything for this lonely soul, he must begin far back of the point from which he had started with him. The old man’s position had a kind of dignity which did not admit of the sort of pity Ewbert had been feeling for him, and the minister had before him the difficult and delicate task of persuading Hilbrook, not that a man, if he died, should live again, but that he should live upon terms so kind and just that none of the fortuities of mortal life should be repeated in that immortality. He must show the immortal man to be a creature so happily conditioned that he would be in effect newly created, before Hilbrook would consent to accept the idea of living again. He might say to him that he would probably not be consulted in the matter, since he had not been consulted as to his existence here; but such an answer would brutally ignore the claim that such a man’s developed consciousness could justly urge to some share in the counsels of omnipotence. Ewbert did not know where to begin, and in his despair he began with a laugh.
“ Upon my word,” he said, “ you’ve presented a problem that would give any casuist pause, and it’s beyond my powers without some further thought. Your doubt, as I now understand it, is not of immortality, but of mortality ; and there I can’t meet you in argument without entirely forsaking my own ground. If it will not seem harsh, I will confess that your doubt is rather consoling to me ; for I have so much faith in the Love which rules the world that I am perfectly willing to accept reëxistence on any terms that Love may offer. You may say that this is because I have not yet exhausted the potentialities of experience, and am still interested in my own identity ; and one half of this, at least, I can’t deny. But even if it were otherwise, I should trust to find among those Many Mansions which we are told of some chamber where I should be at rest without being annihilated ; and I can even imagine my being glad to do any sort of work about the House, when I was tired of resting.”
“ I am glad you said that to him ! ” cried Ewbert’s wife, when he told her of his interview with old Hilbrook. “ That will give him something to think about. What did he say ? ”
Ewbert had been less and less satisfied with his reply to Hilbrook, in which it seemed to him that he had passed from mockery to reproof, with no great credit to himself ; and his wife’s applause now set the seal to his displeasure with it.
“ Oh, he said simply that he could understand a younger person feeling differently, and that he did not wish to set himself up as a censor. But he could not pretend that he was glad to have been called out of nonentity into being, and that he could imagine nothing better than eternal unconsciousness.”
“ Well ? ”
“ I told him that his very words implied the refusal of his being to accept nonentity again; that they expressed, or adumbrated, the conception of an eternal consciousness of the eternal unconsciousness he imagined himself longing for. I’m not so sure they did, now.”
“ Of course they did ! And then what did he say ? ”
“ He said nothing in direct reply ; he sighed, and dropped his poor old head on his breast, and seemed very tired ; so that I tried talking of other things for a while, and then I came away. Emily, I’m afraid I was n’t perfectly candid, perfectly kind, with him.”
“ I don’t see how you could have been more so ! ” she retorted, in tender indignation with him against himself. “ And I think what he said was terrible. It was bad enough for him to pretend to believe that he was not going to live again, but for him to tell you that he was afraid he was ! ” An image sufficiently monstrous to typify Hilbrook’s wickedness failed to present itself to Mrs. Ewbert, and she went out to give the maid instructions for something unusually nourishing for Ewbert at their midday dinner. “ You look fairly fagged out, Clarence,” she said, when she came back ; “ and I insist upon your not going up to that dreadful old man’s again, — at least, not till you’ve got over this shock.”
“ Oh, I don’t think it has affected me seriously,” he returned lightly.
“ Yes, it has ! yes, it has ! ” she declared. “ It’s just like your thinking you had n’t taken cold, the other day when you were caught in the rain ; and the next morning you got up with a sore throat, and it was Sunday morning, too.”
Ewbert could not deny this, and he had no great wish to see Hilbrook soon again. He consented to wait for Hilbrook to come to him, before trying to satisfy these scruples of conscience which he had hinted at ; and he reasonably hoped that the painful points would cease to rankle with the lapse of time, if there should be a long interval before they met.
That night, before the Ewberts had finished their tea, there came a ring at the door, from which Mrs. Ewbert disconsolately foreboded a premature evening call. “ And just when I was counting on a long, quiet, restful time for you, and getting you to bed early! ” she lamented in undertone to her husband ; to the maid who passed through the room with an inquiring glance, on her way to the front door, she sighed, still in undertone, “ Oh yes, of course we ’re at home.”
They both listened for the voice at the door, to make out who was there; but the voice was so low that they were still in ignorance while the maid was showing the visitor into the library, and until she came back to them.
' “ It’s that old gentleman who lives all alone by himself on the hill over the brook,” she explained ; and Mrs. Ewbert rose with an air of authority, waving her husband to keep his seat.
“ Now, Clarence, I am simply not going to let you go in. You are sick enough as it is, and if you are going to let that awful old man spend the whole evening here, and drain the life out of you ! I will see him, and tell him ” —
“ No, no, Emily! It won’t do. I must see him. It is n’t true that I ’m sick. He ’s old, and he has a right to the best we can do for him. Think of his loneliness ! I shall certainly not let you send him away.” Ewbert was excitedly gulping his second cup of tea; he pushed his chair back, and flung his napkin down as he added, “You can come in, too, and see that I get off alive.”
“ I shall not come near you,” she answered resentfully; but Ewbert had not closed the door behind him, and she felt it her duty to listen.
W. D. Howells.