A Difficult Case



MRS. EWBERT heard old Hilbrook begin at once in a high senile key without any form of response to her husband’s greeting : “ There was one thing you said to-day that I’ve been thinkin’ over, and I’ve come down to talk with you about it.”

“ Yes ? ” Ewbert queried submissively, though he was aware of being quite as fagged as his wife accused him of being, after he spoke.

“ Yes,” Hilbrook returned. “ I guess I ha’n’t been exactly up and down with myself. I guess I’ve been playing fast and loose with myself. I guess you ’re right about my wantin’ to have enough consciousness to enjoy my unconsciousness,” and the old gentleman gave a laugh of rather weird enjoyment. “ There are things,” he resumed seriously, “ that are deeper in us than anything we call ourselves. I supposed I had gone to the bottom, but I guess I hadn’t. All the while there was something down there that I had n’t got at; but you reached it and touched it, and now I know it’s there. I don’t know but it’s my Soul that’s been havin’ its say all the time, and me not listenin’. I guess you made your point.”

Ewbert was still not so sure of that. He had thrown out that hasty suggestion without much faith in it at the time, and his faith in it had not grown since.

“ I’m glad,” he began, but Hilbrook pressed on as if he had not spoken.

“ I guess we ’re built like an onion,” he said, with a severity that forbade Ewbert to feel anything undignified in the homely illustration. “ You can strip away layer after layer till you seem to get to nothing at all; but when you’ve got to that nothing you’ve got to the very thing that had the life in it, and that would have grown again if you had put it in the ground.”

“ Exactly ! ” said Ewbert.

“ You made a point that I can’t get round,” Hilbrook continued, and it was here that Ewbert enjoyed a little instant of triumph. “ But that ain’t the point with me. I see that I can’t prove we shan’t live again any more than you can prove that we shall. What I want you to do now is to convince me, or to give me the least reason to believe, that we shan’t live again on exactly the same terms that we live now. I don’t want to argue immortality any more ; we ’ll take that for granted. But how is it going to be any different from mortality with the hope of death taken away ? ”

Hilbrook’s apathy was gone, and his gentleness ; he had suddenly an air and tone of fierce challenge. As he spoke he brought a clenched fist down on the arm of his chair ; he pushed his face forward and fixed Ewbert with the vitreous glitter of his old eyes. Ewbert found him terrible, and he had a confused sense of responsibility for him, as if he had spiritually constituted him, in the charnel of unbelief, out of the spoil of death, like some new and fearfuler figment of Frankenstein’s. But if he had fortuitously reached him, through the one insincerity of his being, and bidden him live again forever, he must not forsake him or deny him.

“ I don’t know how far you accept or reject the teachings of Scripture on this matter,” he began rather vaguely, but Hilbrook stopped him.

“ You did n’t go to the Book for the point you made against me. But if you go to it now for the point I want you to make for me, what are you going to find ? Are you going to find the promise of a life any different from the life we have here ? I accept it all, — all that the Old Testament says, and all that the New Testament says ; and what does it amount to on this point ? ”

“ Nothing but the assurance that if we live rightly here we shall be happy in the keeping of the divine Love there. That assurance is everything to me.”

“ It is n’t to me ! ” cried the old man. “We are in the keeping of the divine Love here, too, and are we happy ? Are those who live rightly happy ? It’s because we ’re not conditioned for happiness here; and how are we going to be conditioned differently there ? We are going to suffer to all eternity through our passions, our potentialities of experience, there just as we do here.”

“ There may be other passions, other potentialities of experience,” Ewbert suggested, casting about in the void.

“ Like what ? ” Hilbrook demanded. “I’ve been trying to figure it, and I can’t. I should like you to try it. You can’t imagine a new passion in the soul any more than you can imagine a new feature in the face. There they are: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, chin ; love, hate, greed, hope, fear ! You can’t add to them or take away from them.” The old man dropped from his defiance in an entreaty that was even more terrible to Ewbert. “ I wish you could ! I should like to have you try. Maybe I have n’t been over the whole ground. Maybe there’s some principle that I’ve missed.” He hitched his chair closer to Ewbert’s, and laid some tremulous fingers on the minister’s sleeve. “ If I’ve got to live forever, what have I got to live for ? ”

“ Well,” said Ewbert, meeting him fully in his humility, “ let us try to make it out together. Let us try to think. Apparently, our way has brought us to a dead wall ; but I believe there’s light beyond it, if we can only break through. Is it really necessary that we should discover some new principle ? Do we know all that love can do from our experience of it here ? ”

“ Have you seen a mother with her child ? ” Hilbrook retorted.

“ Yes, I know. But even that has some alloy of selfishness. Can’t we imagine love in which there is no greed, — for greed, and not hate, is the true antithesis of love which is all giving, while greed is all getting, — a love that is absolutely pure ? ”

I can’t,” said the old man. “ All the love I ever felt had greed in it; I wanted to keep the thing I loved for myself.”

“ Yes, because you were afraid in the midst of your love. It was fear that alloyed it, not greed. And in easily imaginable conditions in which there is no fear of want, or harm, or death, love would be pure ; for it is these things that greed itself wants to save us from. You can imagine conditions in which there shall be no fear, in which love casteth out fear ? ”

“Well,” said Hilbrook provisionally.

Ewbert had not thought of these points himself before, and he was pleased with his discovery, though afterwards he was aware that it was something like an intellectual juggle. “ You see,” he temporized, “ we have got rid of two of the passions already, fear and greed, which are the potentialities of our unhappiest experience in this life. In fact, we have got rid of three, for without fear and greed men cannot hate.”

“ But how can we exist without them ? ” Hilbrook urged. “ Shall we be made up of two passions, — of love and hope alone ? ”

“ Why not ? ” Ewbert returned, with what he felt a specious brightness.

“ Because we should not be complete beings with these two elements alone.”

“ Ah, as we know ourselves here, I grant you,” said the minister. “ But why should we not be far more simply constituted somewhere else ? Have you ever read Isaac Taylor’s Physical Theory of Another Life ? He argues that the immortal body would be a far less complex mechanism than the mortal body. Why should not the immortal soul be simple, too ? In fact, it would necessarily be so, being one with the body. I think I can put my hand on that book, and if I can I must make you take it with you.”

He rose briskly from his chair, and went to the shelves, running his fingers along the books with that subtlety of touch by which the student knows a given book in the dark. He had heard Mrs. Ewbert stirring about in the rooms beyond with an activity in which he divined a menacing impatience ; and he would have been glad to get rid of old Hilbrook before her impatience burst in an irruption upon them. Perhaps because of this distraction he could not find the book, but he remained on foot, talking with an implication in his tone that they were both preparing to part, and were now merely finishing off some odds and ends of discourse before they said good-night.

Old Hilbrook did not stir. He was far too sincere a nature, Ewbert saw, to conceive of such inhospitality as a hint for his departure, or he was too deeply interested to be aware of it. The minister was obliged to sit down again, and it was eleven o’clock before Hilbrook rose to go.


Ewbert went out to the gate with the old man, and when he came back to his study, he found his wife there looking strangely tall and monumental in her reproach. “ I supposed you were in bed long ago, my dear,” he attempted lightly.

“ You don’t mean that you ’ve been out in the night air without your hat on ! ” she returned. “ Well, this is too much ! ”

Her long-pent-up Impatience broke in tears, and he strove in vain to comfort her with caresses. “ Oh, what a fatal day it was when you stirred that wretched old creature up ! Why could n’t you leave him alone ! ”

“ To his apathy ? To his despair ? Emily ! ” Ewbert dropped his arms from the embrace in which he had folded her woodenly unresponsive frame, and regarded her sadly.

“ Oh yes, of course,” she answered, rubbing her handkerchief into her eyes. “ But you don’t know that it was despair ; and he was quite happy in his apathy ; and as it is, you 've got him on your hands ; and if he’s going to come here every night and stay till morning, it will kill you. You know you ’re not strong ; and you get so excited when you sit up talking. Look how flushed your cheeks are, now, and your eyes — as big ! You won’t sleep a wink to-night, — I know you won’t.”

“ Oh yes, I shall,” he answered bravely. " I believe I’ve done some good work with poor old Hilbrook ; and you must n’t think he’s tired me. I feel fresher than I did when he came.”

“ It’s because you ’re excited,” she persisted. “ I know you won’t sleep.”

“ Yes, I shall. I shall just stay here, and read my nerves down a little. Then I ’ll come.”

“ Oh yes ! ” Mrs. Ewbert exulted disconsolately, and she left him to his book. She returned to say : “ If you must take anything to make you sleepy, I’ve left some warm milk on the back of the stove. Promise me you won’t take any sulphonal! You know how you feel the next day ! ”

“ No, no, I won’t,” said Ewbert; and he kept his word, with the effect of remaining awake all night. Toward morning he did not know but he had drowsed ; he was not aware of losing consciousness, and he started from his drowse with the word “ consciousness ” in his mind, as he had heard Hilbrook speaking it.


Throughout the day, under his wife’s watchful eye, he failed of the naps he tried for, and he had to own himself as haggard, when night came again, as the fondest anxiety of a wife could pronounce a husband. He could not think of his talk with old Hilbrook without an anguish of brain exhaustion; and yet he could not help thinking of it. He realized what the misery of mere weakness must be, and the horror of not having the power to rest. He wished to go to bed before the hour when Hilbrook commonly appeared, but this was so early that Ewbert knew he should merely toss about and grow more and more wakeful from his premature effort to sleep. He trembled at every step outside, and at the sound of feet approaching the door on the short brick walk from the gate, he and his wife arrested themselves with their teacups poised in the air. Ewbert was aware of feebly hoping the feet might go away again; but the bell rang, and then he could not meet his wife’s eye.

“If it is that old Mr. Hilbrook,” she said to the maid in transit through the room, “ tell him that Mr. Ewbert is not well, but I shall be glad to see him,” and now Ewbert did not dare to protest. His forebodings were verified when he heard Hilbrook asking for him, but though he knew the voice, he detected a difference in the tone that puzzled him.

His wife did not give Hilbrook time to get away, if he had wished, without seeing her ; she rose at once and went out to him. Ewbert heard her asking him into the library, and then he heard them in parley there ; and presently they came out into the hall again, and went to the front door together. Ewbert’s heart misgave him of something summary on her part, and he did not know what to make of the cheerful parting between them. “ Well, I bid you good-evening, ma’am,” he heard old Hilbrook say briskly, and his wife return sweetly, “ Good - night, Mr. Hilbrook. You must come soon again.”

“ You may put your mind at rest, Clarence,” she said, as she reëntered the dining room and met his face of surprise. “ He did n’t come to make a call; he just wanted to borrow a book, — Physical Theory of Another Life.”

“ How did you find it ? ” asked Ewbert, with relief.

“ It was where it always was,” she returned indifferently. “ Mr. Hilbrook seemed to be very much interested in something you said to him about it. I do believe you have done him good, Clarence ; and now, if you can only get a full night’s rest, I shall forgive him. But I hope he won’t come very soon again, and will never stay so late when he does come. Promise me you won’t gfo near him till he ’s brought the book back ! ”


Hilbrook came the night after he had borrowed the book, full of talk about it, to ask if he might keep it a little longer. Ewbert had slept well the intervening night, and had been suffered to see Hilbrook upon promising his wife that he would not encourage the old man to stay ; but Hilbrook stayed without encouragement. An interest had come into his apathetic life which renewed it, and gave vitality to a whole dead world of things. He wished to talk, and he wished even more to listen, that he might confirm himself from Ewbert’s faith and reason in the conjectures with which his mind was filled. His eagerness as to the conditions of a future life, now that he had begun to imagine them, was insatiable, and Ewbert, who met it with glad sympathy, felt drained of his own spiritual forces by the strength which he supplied to the old man. But the case was so strange, so absorbing, so important, that he could not refuse himself to it. He could not deny Hilbrook’s claim to all that he could give him in this sort; he was as helpless to withhold the succor he supplied as he was to hide from Mrs. Ewbert’s censoriously anxious eye the nervous exhaustion to which it left him after each visit that Hilbrook paid him. But there was a drain from another source of which he would not speak to her till he could make sure that the effect was not some trick of his own imagination.

He had been aware in twice urging some reason upon Hilbrook of a certain perfunctory quality in his performance. It was as if the truth, so vital at first, had perished in its formulation, and in the repetition he was sensible, or he was fearful, of an insincerity, a hollowness in the arguments he had originally employed so earnestly against the old man’s doubt. He recognized with dismay a quality of question in his own mind, and he fancied that as Hilbrook waxed in belief he himself waned. The conviction of a life hereafter was not something which he was sharing with Hilbrook ; he was giving it absolutely, and with such entire unreserve that he was impoverishing his own soul of its most precious possession.

So it seemed to him in those flaccid moods to which Hilbrook’s visits left him, when mind and body were both spent in the effort he had been making. In the intervals in which his strength renewed itself, he put this fear from him as a hypochondriacal fancy, and he summoned a cheerfulness which he felt less and less to meet the hopeful face of the old man. Hilbrook had renewed himself, apparently, in the measure that the minister had aged and waned. He looked, to Ewbert, younger and stronger. To the conventional question how he did, he one night answered that he never felt better in his life. " But you,” he said, casting an eye over the face and figure of the minister, who lay back in his easy-chair, with his hands stretched nerveless on the arms, “ you look rather peaked. I don’t know as I noticed it before, but come to think, I seemed to feel the same way about it when I saw you in the pulpit yesterday.”

“ It was a very close day,” said Ewbert. " I don’t know why I should n’t be about as well as usual.”

“ Well, that’s right,” said Hilbrook, in willing dismissal of the trifle which had delayed him from the great matter in his mind.

Some new thoughts had occurred to him in corroboration of the notions they had agreed upon in their last meeting. But in response Ewbert found himself beset by a strange temptation, — by the wish to take up these notions and expose their fallacy. They were indeed mere toys of their common fancy which they had constructed together in mutual supposition, but Ewbert felt a sacredness in them, while he longed so strangely to break them one by one and cast them in the old man’s face. Like all imaginative people, he was at times the prey of morbid self-suggestions, whose nature can scarcely be stated without excess. The more monstrous the thing appeared to his mind and conscience, the more fascinating it became. Once the mere horror of such a conception as catching a comely parishioner about the waist and kissing her, when she had come to him with a case of conscience, had so confused him in her presence as to make him answer her wildly, not because he was really tempted to the wickedness, but because he realized so vividly the hideousness of the impossible temptation. In some such sort he now trembled before old Hilbrook, thinking how dreadful it would be if he were suddenly to begin undoing the work of faith in him, and putting back in its place the doubts which he had uprooted before. In a swift series of dramatic representations he figured the old man’s helpless amaze at the demoniacal gayety with which he should mock his own seriousness in the past, the cynical ease with which he should show the vanity of the hopes he had been so fervent in awakening. He had throughout recognized the claim that all the counter-doubts had upon the reason, and he saw how effective he could make these if he were now to become their advocate. He pictured the despair in which he could send his proselyte tottering home to his lonely house through the dark.

He rent himself from the spell, but the last picture remained so real with him that he went to the window and looked out, saying, “ Is there a moon ? ”

“ It ain’t up yet, I guess,” said old Hilbrook, and from something in his manner, rather than from anything he recollected of their talk, Ewbert fancied him to have asked a question, and to be now waiting for some answer. He had not the least notion what the question could have been, and he began to walk up and down, trying to think of something to say, but feeling his legs weak under him and the sweat cold on his forehead. All the time he was aware of Hilbrook following him with an air of cheerful interest, and patiently waiting till he should take up the thread of their discourse again.

He controlled himself at last, and sank into his chair. “ Where were we ? ” he asked. “ I had gone off on a train of associations, and I don’t just recall our last point.”

Hilbrook stated it, and Ewbert said, “ Oh yes,” as if he recognized it, and went on from it upon the line of thought which it suggested. He was aware of talking rationally and forcibly ; but in the subjective undercurrent paralleling his objective thought he was holding discourse with himself to an effect wholly different from that produced in Hilbrook.

“ Well, sir,” said the old man when he rose to go at last, “ I guess you’ve settled it for me. You’ve made me see that there can be an immortal life that’s worth living; and I was afraid there wa’n’t! I should n’t care, now, if I woke up any morning in the other world. I guess it would be all right ; and that there would be new conditions every way, so that a man could go on and be himself, without feelin’ that he was in any danger of bein’ wasted. You’ve made me want to meet my boy again; and I used to dread it; I did n’t think I was fit for it. I don’t know whether you expect me to thank you; I presume you don’t; but I”—he faltered, and his voice shook in sympathy with the old hand that he put trembling into Ewbert’s — “I bless you ! ”


The time had come when the minister must seek refuge and counsel with his wife. He went to her as a troubled child goes to its mother, and she heard the confession of his strange experience with the motherly sympathy which performs the comforting office of perfect intelligence. If she did not grasp its whole significance, she seized what was perhaps the main point, and she put herself in antagonism to the cause of his morbid condition, while administering an inevitable chastisement for the neglect of her own prevision.

“ That terrible old man,” she said, “ has simply been draining the life out of you, Clarence. I saw it from the beginning, and I warned you against it; but you would n’t listen to me. Now I suppose you will listen, after the doctor tells you that you ’re in danger of nervous prostration, and that you’ve got to give up everything and rest. I think you’ve been in danger of losing your reason, you’ve overworked it so ; and I shan’t be easy till I’ve got you safely away at the seaside, and out of the reach of that — that vampire.”

“ Emily ! ” the minister protested. “ I can’t allow you to use such language. At the worst, and supposing that he has really been that drain upon me which you say (though I don’t admit it), what is my life for but to give to others ? ”

“ But my life is n’t for you to give to others, and your life is mine, and I think I have some right to say what shall be done with it, and I don’t choose to have it used up on old Hilbrook.” It passed through Ewbert’s languid thought, which it stirred to a vague amusement, that the son of an older church than the Rixonite might have found in this thoroughly terrestrial attitude of his wife a potent argument for sacerdotal celibacy ; but he did not attempt to formulate it, and he listened submissively while she went on : “ One thing : I am certainly not going to let you see him again till you’ve seen the doctor, and I hope he won’t come about. If he does, I shall see him.”

The menace in this declaration moved Ewbert to another protest, which he worded conciliatingly : “ I shall have to let you. But I know you won’t say anything to convey a sense of responsibility to him. I could n’t forgive myself if he were allowed to feel that he had been preying upon me. The fact is, I’ve been overdoing in every way, and nobody is to blame for my morbid fancies but myself. I should blame myself very severely if you based any sort of superstition on them, and acted from that superstition.”

“ Oh, you need n’t be afraid ! ” said Mrs. Ewbert. “ I shall take care of his feelings, but I shall have my own opinions, all the same, Clarence.”

Whether a woman with opinions so strong as Mrs. Ewbert’s, and so indistinguishable from her prejudices, could be trusted to keep them to herself, in dealing with the matter in hand, was a question which her husband felt must largely be left to her goodness of heart for its right solution.

When Hilbrook came that night, as usual, she had already had it out with him in several strenuous reveries before they met, and she was able to welcome him gently to the interview which she made very brief. His face fell in visible disappointment when she said that Mr. Ewbert would not be able to see him, and perhaps there was nothing to uplift him in the reasons she gave, though she obscurely resented his continued dejection as a kind of ingratitude. She explained that poor Mr. Ewbert was quite broken down, and that the doctor had advised his going to the seaside for the whole of August, where he promised everything from the air and the bathing. Mr. Ewbert merely needed toning up, she said ; but to correct the impression she might be giving that his breakdown was a trifling matter, she added that she felt very anxious about it, and wanted to get him away as soon as possible. She said with a confidential effect, as of something in which Hilbrook could sympathize with her : “ You know it is n’t merely his church work proper; it’s his giving himself spiritually to all sorts of people so indiscriminately. He can’t deny himself to any one ; and sometimes he’s perfectly exhausted by it. You must come and see him as soon as he gets back, Mr. Hilbrook. He will count upon it, I know; he’s so much interested in the discussions he has been having with you.”

She gave the old man her hand for good-by, after she had artfully stood him up, in a double hope, — a hope that he would understand that there was some limit to her husband’s nervous strength, and a hope that her closing invitation would keep him from feeling anything personal in her hints.

Hilbrook took his leave in the dreamy fashion age has with so many things, as if there were a veil between him and experience which kept him from the full realization of what had happened ; and as she watched his bent shoulders down the garden walk, carrying his forward-drooping head at a slant that scarcely left the crown of his hat visible, a fear came upon her which made it impossible for her to recount all the facts of her interview to her husband. It became her duty, rather, to conceal what was painful to herself in it, and she merely told him that Mr. Hilbrook had taken it all in the right way, and she had made him promise to come and see them as soon as they got back.


Events approved the wisdom of Mrs, Ewbert’s course in so many respects that she confidently trusted them for the rest. Ewbert picked up wonderfully at the seaside, and she said to him again and again that it was not merely those interviews with old Hilbrook which had drained his vitality, but it was the whole social and religious keeping of the place. Everybody, she said, had thrown themselves upon his sympathies, and he was carrying a load that nobody could bear up under. She addressed these declarations to her lingering consciousness of Ransom Hilbrook, and confirmed herself, by their repetition, in the belief that he had not taken her generalizations personally. She now extended these so as to inculpate the faculty of the university, who ought to have felt it their duty not to let a man of Ewbert’s intellectual quality stagger on alone among them, with no sign of appreciation or recognition in the work he was doing, not so much for the Rixonite church as for the whole community. She took several ladies at the hotel into her confidence on this point, and upon some study of the situation they said it was a shame. After that she began to feel more bitter about it, and to attribute her husband’s collapse to a concealed sense of the indifference of the university people, so galling to a sensitive nature like his.

She suggested this theory to Ewbert, and he denied it with blithe derision, but she said that he need not tell her, and in confirming herself in it she began to relax her belief that old Ransom Hilbrook had preyed upon him. She even went so far as to say that the only intellectual companionship he had ever had in the place was that which he found in the old man’s society. When she discovered, after the fact, that Ewbert had written to him since they came away, she was not so severe with him as she might have expected herself to be in view of an act which, if not quite clandestine, was certainly without her privity. She would have considered him fitly punished by Hilbrook’s failure to reply, if she had not shared his uneasiness at the old man’s silence. But she did not allow this to affect her good spirits, which were essential to her husband’s comfort as well as her own. She redoubled her care of him in every sort, and among all the ladies who admired her devotion to him there was none who enjoyed it as much as herself. There was none who believed more implicitly that it was owing to her foresight and oversight that his health mended so rapidly, and that at the end of the bathing season she was, as she said, taking him home quite another man. In her perfect satisfaction she suffered him his small joke about not feeling it quite right to go with her if that were so ; and though a woman of little humor, she even professed to find pleasure in his joke after she fully understood it.

“ All that I ask,” she said, as if it followed, “ is that you won’t spoil everything by letting old Hilbrook come every night and drain the life out of you again.”

“ I won’t,” he retorted, “ if you ’ll promise to make the university people come regularly to my sermons.”

He treated the notion of Hilbrook’s visits lightly; but with his return to the familiar environment he felt a shrinking from them in an experience which was like something physical. Yet when he sat down the first night in his study, with his lamp in its wonted place, it was with an expectation of old Hilbrook in his usual seat so vivid that its defeat was more a shock than its fulfillment upon supernatural terms would have been. In fact, the absence of the old man was spectral; and though Ewbert employed himself fully the first night in answering an accumulation of letters that inquired immediate reply, it was with nervous starts from time to time, which he could trace to no other cause. His wife came in and out, with what he knew to be an accusing eye, as she brought up those arrears of housekeeping which always await the housewife on the return from any vacation ; and he knew that he did not conceal his guilt from her.

They both ignored the stress which had fallen back upon him, and which accumulated, as the days of the week went by, until the first Sunday came.

Ewbert dreaded to look in the direction of Hilbrook’s pew, lest he should find it empty; but the old man was there, and he sat blinking at the minister, as his custom was, through the sermon, and thoughtfully passing the tip of his tongue over the inner edge of his lower lip.

Many came up to shake hands with the minister after church, and to tell him how well he was looking, but Hilbrook was not among them. Some of the university people who had made a point of being there that morning, out of a personal regard for Ewbert, were grouped about his wife, in the church vestibule, where she stood answering their questions about his health. He glimpsed between the heads and shoulders of this gratifying group the figure of Hilbrook dropping from grade to grade on the steps outside, till it ceased to be visible, and he fancied, with a pang, that the old man had lingered to speak with him, and had then given up and started home.

The cordial interest of the university people was hardly a compensation for the disappointment he shared with Hilbrook ; but his wife was so happy in it that he could not say anything to damp her joy. “ Now,” she declared, on their way home, “ I am perfectly satisfied that they will keep coming. You never preached so well, Clarence, and if they have any appreciation at all, they simply won’t be able to keep away. I wish you could have heard all the nice things they said about you. I guess they’ve waked up to you, at last, and I do believe that the idea of losing you has had a great deal to do with it. And that is something we owe to old Ransom Hilbrook more than to anything else. I saw the poor old fellow hanging about, and I could n’t help feeling for him. I knew he wanted to speak with you, and I’m not afraid that he will be a burden again. It will be such an inspiration, the prospect of having the university people come every Sunday, now, that you can richly afford to give a little of it to him, and I want you to go and see him soon ; he evidently is n’t coming till you do.”


Ewbert had learned not to inquire too critically for a logical process in his wife’s changes of attitude toward any fact. In her present mood he recognized an effect of the exuberant good will awakened by the handsome behavior of the university people, and he agreed with her that he must go to see old Hilbrook at once. In this good intention his painful feeling concerning him was soothed, and Ewbert did not get up to the Hilbrook place till well into the week. It was Thursday afternoon when he climbed through the orchard, under the yellowing leaves which dappled the green masses of the trees like intenser spots of the September sunshine. He came round by the well to the side door of the house, which stood open, and he did not hesitate to enter when he saw how freely the hens were coming and going through it. They scuttled out around him and between his legs, with guilty screeches, and left him standing alone in the middle of the wide, low kitchen. A certain discomfort of nerves which their flight gave him was heightened by some details quite insignificant in themselves. There was no fire in the stove, and the wooden clock on the mantel behind it was stopped; the wind had carried in some red leaves from the maple near the door, and these were swept against the farther wall, where they lay palpitating in the draft.

The neglect in all was evidently too recent to suggest any supposition but that of the master’s temporary absence, and Ewbert went to the threshold to look for his coming from the sheds or the barn. But these were all fast shut, and there was no sign of Hilbrook anywhere. Ewbert turned back into the room again, and saw the door of the old man’s little bedroom standing slightly ajar. With a chill of apprehension he pushed it open, and he could not have experienced a more disagreeable effect if the dark fear in his mind had been realized than he did to see Hilbrook lying in his bed alive and awake. His face showed like a fine mask above the sheet, and his long, narrow hands rested on the covering across his breast. His eyes met those of Ewbert not only without surprise, but without any apparent emotion.

“ Why, Mr. Hilbrook,” said the minister, “ are you sick ? ”

“ No, I am first-rate,” the old man answered.

It was on the point of the minister’s tongue to ask him, “ Then what in the world are you doing in bed ? ” but he substituted the less authoritative suggestion, “ I am afraid I disturbed you, — that I woke you out of a nap. But I found the door open and the hens inside, and I ventured to come in ” —

Hilbrook replied calmly, “ I heard you ; I wa’n’t asleep.”

“ Oh,” said Ewbert apologetically, and he did not know quite what to do ; he had an aimless wish for his wife, as if she would have known what to do. In her absence, he decided to shut the door against the hens, who were returning adventurously to the threshold, and then he asked, “ Is there something I can do for you ? Make a fire for you to get up by ” —

“ I ha’n’t got any call to get up,” said Hilbrook; and after giving Ewbert time to make the best of this declaration, he asked abruptly, “ What was that you said about my wantin’ to be alive enough to know I was dead ? ”

“ The consciousness of unconsciousness ? ”

“ Ah ! ” the old man assented, as with satisfaction in having got the notion right; and then he added with a certain defiance : “ There ain’t anything in that. I got to thinkin’ it over, when you was gone, and the whole thing went to pieces. That idea don’t prove anything at all, and all that we worked out of it had to go with it.”

“ Well,” the minister returned, with an assumption of cosiness in his tone which he did not feel, and feigning to make himself easy in the hard kitchen chair which he pulled up to the door of Hilbrook’s room, “ let’s see if we can’t put that notion together again.”

You can, if you want to,” said the old man dryly. “ I got no interest in it any more ; ’t wa’n’t nothing but a casuistical toy, anyway.” He turned his head apathetically on the pillow, and no longer faced his visitor, who found it impossible in the conditions of tacit dismissal to philosophize further.

“ I was sorry,” Ewbert began, “ not to be able to speak with you after church, the other day. There were so many people ” —

“ That’s all right,” said Hilbrook unresentfully; “ I had n’t anything to say, in particular.”

“ But I had,” the minister persisted. “ I thought a great deal about you when I was away, and I went over our talks in my own mind a great many times. The more I thought about them, the more I believed that we had felt our way to some important truth in the matter. I don’t say final truth, for I don’t suppose that we shall ever reach that in this life.”

“Very likely,” Hilbrook returned, with his face to the wall. “ I don’t see as it makes any difference; or if it does, I don’t care for it.”

Something occurred to Ewbert which seemed to him of more immediate usefulness than the psychological question. “ Could n’t I get you something to eat, Mr. Hilbrook ? If you have n’t had any breakfast to-day, you must be hungry.”

“ Yes, I’m hungry,” the old man assented, “ but I don’t want to eat anything.”

Ewbert had risen hopefully in making his suggestion, but now his heart sank. Here, it seemed to him, a physician rather than a philosopher was needed, and at the sound of wheels on the wagon track to the door his imagination leaped to the miracle of the doctor’s providential advent. He hurried to the threshold and met the fish man, who was about to announce himself with the handle of his whip on the clapboarding. He grasped the situation from the minister’s brief statement, and confessed that he had expected to find the old gentleman dead in his bed some day, and he volunteered to send some of the women folks from the farm up the road. When these came, concentrated in the person of the farmer’s bustling wife, who had a fire kindled in the stove and the kettle on before Ewbert could get away, he went for the doctor, and returned with him to find her in possession of everything in the house except the owner’s interest. Her usefulness had been arrested by an invisible but impassable barrier, though she had passed and repassed the threshold of Hilbrook’s chamber with tea and milk toast. He said simply that he saw no object in eating; and he had not been sufficiently interested to turn his head and look at her in speaking to her.

With the doctor’s science he was as indifferent as with the farmwife’s service. He submitted to have his pulse felt, and he could not Help being prescribed for, but he would have no agency in taking his medicine. He said, as he had said to Mrs. Stephson about eating, that he saw no object in it. The doctor retorted, with the temper of a man not used to having his will crossed, that he had better take it, if he had any object in living, and Hilbrook answered that he had none. In his absolute apathy he did not even ask to be let alone.

“ You see,” the baffled doctor fumed in the conference that he had with Ewbert apart, “ he does n’t really need any medicine. There’s nothing the matter with him, and I only wanted to give him something to put an edge to his appetite. He’s got cranky living here alone ; but there is such a thing as starving to death, and that’s the only thing Hilbrook’s in danger of. If you ’re going to stay with him — he ought n’t to be left alone ” —

“ I can come up, yes, certainly, after supper,” said Ewbert, and he fortified himself inwardly for the question this would raise with his wife.

“ Then you must try to interest him in something. Get him to talking, and then let Mrs. Stephson come in with a good bowl of broth, and I guess we may trust Nature to do the rest.”


When we speak of Nature, we figure her as one thing, with a fixed purpose and office in the universal economy ; but she is an immense number of things, and her functions are inexpressibly varied. She includes decay as well as growth ; she compasses death as well as birth. We call certain phenomena unnatural ; but in a natural world how can anything be unnatural, except the supernatural ? These facts gave Ewbert pause in view of the obstinate behavior of Ransom Hilbrook in dying for no obvious reason, and kept him from pronouncing it unnatural. The old man, he reflected, had really less reason to live than to die, if it came to reasons ; for everything that had made the world home to him had gone out of it, and left him in exile here. The motives had ceased ; the interests had perished ; the strong personality that had persisted was solitary amid the familiar environment grown alien.

The wonder was that he should ever have been roused from his apathetic unfaith to inquiry concerning the world beyond this, and to a certain degree of belief in possibilities long abandoned by his imagination. Ewbert had assisted at the miracle of this resuscitation upon terms which, until he was himself much older, he could not question as to their beneficence, and in fact it never came to his being quite frank with himself concerning them. He kept his thoughts on this point in that state of solution which holds so many conjectures from precipitation in actual conviction.

But his wife had no misgivings. Her dread was that in his devotion to that miserable old man (as she called him, not always in compassion) he should again contribute to Hilbrook’s vitality at the expense, if not the danger, of his own. She of course expressed her joy that Ewbert had at last prevailed upon him to eat something, when the entreaty of his nurse and the authority of his doctor availed nothing ; and of course she felt the pathos of his doing it out of affection for Ewbert, and merely to please him, as Hilbrook declared. It did not surprise her that any one should do anything for the love of Ewbert, but it is doubtful if she fully recognized the beauty of this last efflorescence of the aged life ; and she perceived it her duty not to sympathize entirely with Ewbert’s morbid regret that it came too late. She was much more resigned than he to the will of Providence, and she urged a like submissiveness upon him.

“ Don’t talk so ! ” he burst out. “ It’s horrible ! ” It was in the first hours after Ewbert’s return from Hilbrook’s deathbed, and his spent nerves gave way in a gush of tears.

“ I see what you mean,” she said after a pause in which he controlled his sobs. “ And I suppose,” she added, with a touch of bitterness, “ that you blame me for taking you away from him here when he was coming every night and sapping your very life. You were very glad to have me do it at the time ! And what use would there have been in your killing yourself, anyway ? It was n’t as if he were a young man with a career of usefulness before him, that might have been marred by his not believing this or that. He had been a complete failure every way, and the end of the world had come for him. What did it matter whether such a man believed that there was another world or not ? ”

“ Emily ! Emily ! ” the minister cried out. “ What are you saying ? ”

Mrs. Ewbert broke down in her turn. “ I don’t know what I’m saying ! ” she retorted from behind her handkerchief. “ I’m trying to show you that it’s your duty to yourself — and to me — and to people who can know how to profit by your teaching and your example, not to give way as you ’re doing, simply because a wornout old agnostic could n’t keep his hold on the truth. I don’t know what your Rixonitism is for if it won’t let you wait upon the divine will in such a thing, too! You’re more conscientious than the worst kind of Congregationalist. And now for you to blame me ” —

“ Emily, I don’t blame you,” said her husband. “ I blame myself.”

“ And you see that that’s the same thing! You ought to thank me for saving your life; for it was just as if you were pouring your heart’s blood into him, and I could see you getting more anæmic every day. Even now you ’re not half as well as when you got home! And yet I do believe that if you could bring old Hilbrook back into a world that he was sick and tired of, you’d give your own life to do it.”

There was reason and there was justice in what she said, though they were so chaotic in form, and Ewbert could not refuse to acquiesce. After all, he had done what he could, and he would not abandon himself to a useless remorse. He rather set himself to study the lesson of old Hilbrook’s life, and in the funeral sermon that he preached he urged upon his hearers the necessity of keeping themselves alive through some relation to the undying frame of things, which they could do only by cherishing earthly ties ; and when these were snapped in the removal of their objects, by attaching the broken threads through an effort of the will to yet other objects: the world could furnish these inexhaustibly. He touched delicately upon the peculiarities, the eccentricities, of the deceased, and he did cordial justice to his gentleness, his blameless, harmless life, his heroism on the battlefields of his country. He declared that he would not be the one to deny an inner piety, and certainly not a steadfast courage, in Hilbrook’s acceptance of whatever his sincere doubts implied.

The sermon apparently made a strong impression on all who heard it. Mrs. Ewbert was afraid that it was rather abstruse in certain passages, but she felt sure that all the university people would appreciate these. The university people, to testify their respect for their founder, had come in a body to the obsequies of his kinsman ; and Mrs. Ewbert augured the best things for her husband’s future usefulness from their presence.

W. D. Howells.