A Difficult Case
by William Dean Howells
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 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 there ever _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 self-derision 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 the 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 wouldn’t appreciate you more.”
“More than old Ransom Hilbrook?” he asked.
“Oh, I hope _he_ isn’t coming here to-night, 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 somewhat 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’? Didn’t you go 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 didn’t know just where to begin, after I got through my excuses for coming, and Mr. Hilbrook didn’t offer any opening. Don’t you think he’s a very handsome old man?”
“He has a pretty head, and his close-cut 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 shouldn’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 didn’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!”
“He 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 wasn’t interested in them. He had been once, but he 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?” Mrs. Ewbert followed him up.
“So far as I could make out, Mr. Hilbrook’s life hadn’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 didn’t or couldn’t believe they did.”
“Well, upon my word!” Mrs. Ewbert exclaimed. “I don’t see what business he has coming to church, then. Doesn’t he understand that the idea of immortality is the very essence of Rixonitism! I think it was personally insulting to _you_, Clarence. What did you say?”
“I didn’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 wasn’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.”
“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”–
“If I didn’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 old 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 couldn’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?”
“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 mast 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?”
“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 Hilbrook 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 afterwards 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 like 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 wouldn’t come about any more. He has perfectly obsessed you. I could see that the last two 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 relentlessly.
“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 dishevelled 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 doesn’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 isn’t a proof, it isn’t a promise; but it’s a suggestion, an intimation.”
They were in the midst of a 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 isn’t character; that’s temperament. Men have temperament, too; but the beasts haven’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 hear 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 didn’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 more 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 shouldn’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 didn’t. It appeared one while as if I couldn’t live without him, and I was always contrivin’ how I should meet up with him somewhere else. I couldn’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 wouldn’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 didn’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 isn’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 wouldn’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 reexistence 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.”
“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 wasn’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 mid-day 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 hadn’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, 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 isn’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.
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 hadn’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 that 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 didn’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 isn’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 haven’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_ couldn’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 mustn’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 reentered the dining room and met his face of surprise. “He didn’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 go 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 shouldn’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 shouldn’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 didn’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 wouldn’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 sha’n’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 isn’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 couldn’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 needn’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 isn’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 study of the situation they said it was a shame. After that she felt more bitter about it, and attributed her husband’s collapse to a concealed sense of the indifference of the university people, so galling to a sensitive nature.
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 fulfilment 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 required 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 couldn’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 afford to give a little of it to him, and I want you to go and see him soon; he evidently isn’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 the 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 thinking 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; ‘twa’n’t nothing but a metaphysical 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 hadn’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. “Couldn’t I get you something to eat, Mr. Hilbrook? If you haven’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 re-passed 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 farm-wife’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 doesn’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 oughtn’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 death-bed, 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 wasn’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 couldn’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 anaemic 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.