DAVID POINDEXTER'S DISAPPEARANCE AND OTHER TALES
BY JULIAN HAWTHORNE
DAVID POINDEXTER'S DISAPPEARANCE KEN'S MYSTERY "WHEN HALF-GODS GO, THE GODS ARRIVE" "SET NOT THY FOOT ON GRAVES" MY FRIEND PATON
DAVID POINDEXTER'S DISAPPEARANCE.
Among the records of the English state trials are to be found many strange stories, which would, as the phrase is, make the fortune of a modern novelist. But there are also numerous cases, not less stimulating to imagination and curiosity, which never attained more than local notoriety, of which the law was able to take but comparatively small cognizance, although they became subjects of much unofficial discussion and mystification. Among these cases none, perhaps, is better worth recalling than that of David Poindexter. It will be my aim here to tell the tale as simply and briefly as possible —to repeat it, indeed, very much as it came to my ears while living, several years ago, near the scene in which its events took place. There is a temptation to amplify it, and to give it a more recent date and a different setting; but (other considerations aside) the story might lose in force and weight more than it would thereby gain in artistic balance and smoothness.
David Poindexter was a younger son of an old and respected family in Sussex, England. He was born in London in 1785. He was educated at Oxford, with a view to his entering the clerical profession, and in the year 1810 he obtained a living in the little town of Witton, near Twickenham, known historically as the home of Sir John Suckling. The Poindexters had been much impoverished by the excesses of David's father and grandfather, and David seems to have had few or no resources beyond the very modest stipend appertaining to his position. He was, at all events, poor, though possessed of capacities which bade fair to open to him some of the higher prizes of his calling; but, on the other hand, there is evidence that he chafed at his poverty, and reason to believe that he had inherited no small share of the ill-regulated temperament which had proved so detrimental to the elder generations of his family.
Personally he was a man of striking aspect, having long, dark hair, heavily-marked eyebrows, and blue eyes; his mouth and chin were graceful in contour, but wanting in resolution; his figure was tall, well knit, and slender. He was an eloquent preacher, and capable, when warmed by his subject, of powerfully affecting the emotions of his congregation. He was a great favorite with women—whom, however, he uniformly treated with coldness—and by no means unpopular with men, toward some of whom he manifested much less reserve. Nevertheless, before the close of the second year of his incumbency he was known to be paying his addresses to a young lady of the neighborhood, Miss Edith Saltine, the only child of an ex-army officer. The colonel was a widower, and in poor health, and since he was living mainly on his half-pay, and had very little to give his daughter, the affair was looked upon as a love match, the rather since Edith was a handsome young woman of charming character. The Reverend David Poindexter certainly had every appearance of being deeply in love; and it is often seen that the passions of reserved men, when once aroused, are stronger than those of persons more generally demonstrative.
Colonel Saltine did not at first receive his proposed son-in-law with favor. He was a valetudinarian, and accustomed to regard his daughter as his nurse by right, and he resented the idea of her leaving him forlorn for the sake of a good-looking parson. It is very likely that his objections might have had the effect of breaking off the match, for his daughter was devotedly attached to him, and hardly questioned his right to dispose of her as he saw fit; but after a while the worthy gentleman seems to have thought better of his contrariness. Poindexter had strong persuasive powers, and no doubt made himself personally agreeable to the colonel, and, moreover, it was arranged that the latter should occupy the same house with Mr. and Mrs. Poindexter after they were married. Nevertheless, the colonel was not a man to move rapidly, and the engagement had worn along for nearly a year without the wedding-day having been fixed. One winter evening in the early part of December, Poindexter dined with the colonel and Edith, and as the gentlemen were sitting over their wine the lover spoke on the topic that was uppermost in his thoughts, and asked his host whether there was any good reason why the marriage should not be consummated at once.
"Christmas is at hand," the young man remarked; "why should it not be rendered doubly memorable by granting this great boon?"
"For a parson, David, you are a deuced impatient man," the colonel said.
"Parsons are human," the other exclaimed with warmth.
"Humph! I suppose some of them are. In fact, David, if I didn't believe that there was something more in you than texts and litanies and the Athanasian creed, I'll be hanged if I'd ever have let you look twice at Edith. That girl has got blood in her veins, David; she's not to be thrown away on any lantern-jawed, white-livered doctor of souls, I can tell you."
David held his head down, and seemed not to intend a reply; but he suddenly raised his eyes, and fixed them upon the colonel's. "You know what my father was," he said, in a low, distinct voice; "I am my father's son."
"That idea has occurred to me more than once, David, and to say the truth, I've liked you none the less for it. But, then, what the deuce should a fellow like you want to do in a pulpit? I respect the cloth as much as any man, I hope, but leaving theory aside, and coming down to practice, aren't there fools and knaves enough in the world to carry on that business, without a fellow of heart and spirit like you going into it?"
"Theory or no theory, there have been as great men in the pulpit as in any other position," said David, gloomily.
"I don't say to the contrary: ecclesiastical history, and all that: but what I do say is, if a man is great in the pulpit, it's a pity he isn't somewhere else, where he could use his greatness to more advantage."
"Well," remarked David, in the same somber tone, "I am not contented: so much I can admit to the father of the woman I love. But you know as well as I do that men nowadays are called to my profession not so much by the Divine summons as by the accident of birth. Were it not for the law of primogeniture, Colonel Saltine, the Church of England would be, for the most part, a congregation without a clergyman."
"Gad! I'm much of your opinion," returned the colonel, with a grin; "but there are two doors, you know, for a second son to enter the world by. If he doesn't fancy a cassock, he can put on His Majesty's uniform."
"Neither the discipline nor the activity of a soldier's life would suit me," David answered. "So far as I know my own nature, what it craves is freedom, and the enjoyment of its capacities. Only under such conditions could I show what I am capable of. In other words," he added, with a short laugh, "ten thousand a year is the profession I should choose."
"Ah," murmured the colonel, heaving a sigh, "I doubt that's a profession we'd all of us like to practice as well as preach. What! no more wine? Oh, ay, Edith, of course! Well, go to her, sir, if you must; but when you come to my age you'll have found out which wears the best —woman or the bottle. I'll join you presently, and maybe we'll see what can be done about this marrying business."
So David went to Edith, and they had a clear hour together before they heard the colonel's slippered tread hobbling through the hall. Just before he opened the door, David had said: "I sometimes doubt whether you wholly love me, after all." And she had answered:
"If I do not, it is because I sometimes feel as if you were not your real self."
The colonel heard nothing of this odd bit of dialogue; but when he had subsided, with his usual grunt, into his arm-chair beside the fire- place, and Edith had brought him his foot-stool and his pipe, and pat the velvet skull cap on his bald pate, he drew a long whiff of tobacco smoke, and said:
"If you young folks want to set up housekeeping a month from to-day, you can do it, for all I care."
Little did any one of the three suspect what that month was destined to bring forth.
David Poindexter's father had been married twice, his second wife dying within a year of her wedding-day, and two weeks after bringing David into the world. This lady, whose maiden name was Lambert, had a brother who was a gentleman farmer, and a tolerably successful one. His farm was situated in the parish of Witton, and he owned a handsome house on the outskirts of the town itself. He and David's father had been at one time great friends, insomuch that David was named after him, and Lambert, as his godfather as well as uncle, presented the child with the usual silver mug. Lambert was never known to have married, but there were rumors, dating as far as back David's earliest recollections, to the effect that he had entertained a secret and obscure passion for some foreign woman of great beauty, but of doubtful character and antecedents. Nobody could be found who had ever seen this woman, or would accept the responsibility of asserting that she actually existed; but she afforded a convenient means of accounting for many things that seemed mysterious in Mr. Lambert's conduct. At length, when David was about eight years old, his godfather left England abruptly, and without telling any one whither he was going or when he would return. As a matter of fact he never did return, nor had any certain news ever been heard of him since his departure. Neither his house nor his farm was ever sold, however, though they were rented to more than one tenant during a number of years. It was said, also, that Lambert held possession of some valuable real estate in London. Nevertheless, in process of time he was forgotten, or remembered only as a name. And the new generation of men, though they might speak of "the old Lambert House," neither knew nor cared how it happened to have that title. For aught they could tell, it might have borne it ever since Queen Elizabeth's time. Even David Poindexter had long ceased to think of his uncle as anything much more substantial than a dream.
He was all the more surprised, therefore, when, on the day following the interview just mentioned, he received a letter from the late David Lambert's lawyers. It informed him in substance that his uncle had died in Constantinople, unmarried (so far as could be ascertained), intestate, and without blood-relations surviving him. Under these circumstances, his property, amounting to one hundred and sixty thousand pounds, the bulk of which was invested in land and houses in the city of London, as well as the country-seat in Witton known as the old Lambert House, and the farm lands thereto appertaining—all this wealth, not to mention four or five thousand pounds in ready money, came into possession of the late David Lambert's nearest of kin, who, as it appeared, was none other than the Reverend David Poindexter. "Would that gentleman, therefore be kind enough, at his convenience, to advise his obedient servants as to what disposition he wished to make of his inheritance?"
It was a Saturday morning, and the young clergyman was sitting at his study table; the fire was burning in the grate at his right hand, and his half-written sermon lay on the desk before him. After reading the letter, at first hurriedly and amazedly, afterward more slowly, with frequent pauses, he folded it up, and, still holding it in his hand, leaned back in his chair, and remained for the better part of an hour in a state of deep preoccupation. Many changing expressions passed across his face, and glowed in his dark-blue eyes, and trembled on the curves of his lips. At last he roused himself, sat erect, and smote the table violently with his clinched hand. Yes, it was true it was real; he, David Poindexter, an hour ago the poor imprisoned clergyman of the Church of England—he, as by a stroke of magic, was free, powerful, emancipated, the heir of seven thousand pounds a year! And what about tomorrow's sermon?
He rose up smiling, with a vivid color in his cheeks and a bright sparkle in his eyes. He stretched himself to his full height, threw out his arms, and smote his chest with both fists. What a load was gone from his heart! What a new ardor of life was this that danced in his veins! He walked with long strides to the window, and threw it wide open, breathing in the rush of bright icy air with deep inhalations. Freedom! emancipation! Yonder, above the dark, level boughs of the cedar of Lebanon, rose the square, gray tower of the church. Yesterday it was the incubus of his vain hopes; to-day it was the tomb of a dead and despised past. What had David Poindexter to do with calling sinners to repentance? Let him first find out for himself what sin was like. Then he looked to the right, where between the leafless trees Colonel Saltine's little dwelling raised its red-tile roof above the high garden-wall. And so, Edith, you doubted whether I were at all times my real self? You shall not need to make that complaint hereafter. As for to-morrow's sermon—I am not he who wrote sermons, nor shall I ever preach any. Away with it, therefore!
He strode back to the table, took up the sheets of manuscript from the desk, tore them across, and laid them on the burning coals. They smoldered for a moment, then blazed up, and the draught from the open window whisked the blackened ashes up the chimney. David stood, meanwhile, with his arms folded, smiling to himself, and repeating, in a low voice:
"Never again—never again—never again."
By-and-by he reseated himself at his desk, and hurriedly wrote two or three notes, one of which was directed to Miss Saltine. He gave them to his servant with an injunction to deliver them at their addresses during the afternoon. Looking at his watch, he was surprised to find that it was already past twelve o'clock. He went up-stairs, packed a small portmanteau, made some changes in his dress, and came down again with a buoyant step. There was a decanter half full of sherry on the sideboard in the dining-room; he poured out and drank two glasses in succession. This done, he put on his hat, and left the house with his portmanteau in his hand, and ten minutes later he had intercepted the London coach, and was bowling along on his way to the city.
There was a dramatic instinct in David, as in many eloquent men of impressionable temperament, which caused him every now and then to look upon all that was occurring as a sort of play, and to resolve to act his part in a telling and picturesque manner. On that Saturday afternoon he had an interview with the late Mr. Lambert's lawyers, and they were struck by his calm, lofty, and indifferent bearing. He seemed to regard worldly prosperity as a thing beneath him, yet to feel in a half-impatient way the responsibility which the control of wealth forced upon him.
"It is my purpose not to allow this legacy to interfere permanently with my devotion to my higher duties," he remarked, "but I have taken measures to enable myself to place these affairs upon a fixed and convenient footing. I presume," he added, fixing his eyes steadily upon his interlocutor, "that you have thoroughly investigated the possibility of there being any claimant nearer than myself?"
"No such claimant could exist," the lawyer replied, "unless the late Mr. Lambert had married and had issue."
"Is there, then, any reason to suppose that he contemplated the contingency that has happened?"
"If he bestowed any thought at all upon the subject, that contingency could hardly have failed to present itself to his mind," the lawyer answered.
David consented to receive the draft for a thousand pounds which was tendered him, and took his leave. He returned to his rooms at the Tavistock Hotel, Covent Garden. In the evening, after making some changes in his costume, he went to the theatre, and saw Kean play something of Shakespeare's. When the play was over, and he was out in the frosty air again, he felt it impossible to sleep. It was after midnight before he returned to his hotel, with flushed cheeks, and a peculiar brilliance in his eyes. He slept heavily, but awoke early in the morning with a slight feeling of feverishness. It was Sunday morning. He thought of his study in the parsonage at Witton, with its bright fire, its simplicity, its repose. He thought of the church, and of the congregation which he would never face again. And Edith—what had been her thoughts and dreams during the night? He got up, and went to the window. It looked out upon a narrow, inclosed court. The sky was dingy, the air was full of the muffled tumult of the city. His present state, as to its merely external aspect, was certainly not so agreeable as that of the morning before. Ay, but what a vista had opened now which then was closed! David dressed himself, and went down to his breakfast. While sitting at his table in the window, looking out upon the market-place, and stirring his cup of Mocha, a gentleman came up and accosted him.
"Am I mistaken, or is your name Poindexter?"
David looked up, and recognized Harwood Courtney, a son of Lord Derwent. Courtney was a man of fashion, a member of the great clubs, and a man, as they say, with a reputation. He was a good twenty years older than David, and had been the companion of the latter's father in some of his wildest escapades. To David, at this moment, he was the representative and symbol of that great, splendid, unregenerate world, with which it was his purpose to make acquaintance.
"You are not mistaken, Mr. Courtney," he said, quietly. "Have you breakfasted? It is some time since we have met."
"Why, yes, egad! If I remember right, you were setting out on another road than that which I was travelling. However, we sinners, you know, depend upon you parsons to pull us up in time to prevent any—er—any very serious catastrophe! Ha! ha!"
"I understand you; but for my part I have left the pulpit," said David, uttering the irrevocable words with a carelessness which he himself wondered at.
"By Jove!" exclaimed Courtney, with a little intonation of surprise and curiosity, which his good breeding prevented him from formulating more explicitly. As David made no rejoinder, he presently continued: "Then— er—perhaps you might find it in your way to dine with me this evening. Only one or two friends—a very quiet Sunday party."
"Thank you," said David. "I had intended going to bed betimes to-night; but it will give me pleasure to meet a quiet party."
"Then that's settled," exclaimed Courtney; "and meanwhile, if you've finished your coffee, what do you say to a turn in the Row? I've got my trap here, and a breath of air will freshen us up."
David and Courtney spent the day together, and by evening the young ex- clergyman had made the acquaintance of many of the leading men about town. He had also allowed the fact to transpire that his pecuniary standing was of the soundest kind; but this was done so skillfully— with such a lofty air—that even Courtney, who was as cynical as any man, was by no means convinced that David's change of fortune had anything to do with his relinquishing the pulpit.
"David Poindexter is no fool," he remarked, confidentially, to a friend. "He has double the stuff in him that the old fellow had. You must get up early to get the better of a man who has been a parson, and seen through himself!"
David, in fact, felt himself the superior, intellectually and by nature, of most of the men he saw. He penetrated and comprehended them, but to them he was impenetrable; a certain air of authority rested upon him; he had abandoned the service of God; but the training whereby he had fitted himself for it stood him in good stead; it had developed his insight, his subtlety, and, strange to say, his powers of dissimulation. Contrary to what is popularly supposed, his study of the affairs of the other world had enabled him to deal with this world's affairs with a half-contemptuous facility. As for the minor technicalities, the social pass-words, and so forth, to which much importance is generally ascribed, David had nothing to fear from them; first, because he was a man of noble manners, naturally as well as by cultivation; and, secondly, because the fact that he had been a clergyman acted as a sort of breastplate against criticism. It would be thought that he chose to appear ignorant of that which he really knew.
As for Mr. Courtney's dinner, though it may doubtless have been a quiet one from his point of view, it differed considerably from such Sunday festivities as David had been accustomed to. A good deal of wine was drunk, and the conversation (a little cautious at first, on David's account) gradually thawed into freedom. It was late when they rose from table; and then a proposition was made to go to a certain well-known club in St. James's Street. David went with the rest, and, for the first time in his life, played cards for money; he lost seven hundred pounds—more money than he had handled during the last three years—but he kept his head, and at three o'clock in the morning drove with Courtney to the latter's lodgings, with five hundred pounds in his pocket over and above the sum with which he had begun to play. Here was a wonderful change in his existence; but it did not seem to him half so wonderful as his reason told him it was. It seemed natural—as if, after much wandering, he had at last found his way into the place where he belonged. It is said that savages, educated from infancy amid civilized surroundings, will, on breathing once more their native air, tear off their clothes and become savages again. Somewhat similar may have been David's case, who, inheriting in a vivid degree the manly instincts of his forefathers, had forcibly and by constraint of circumstances lived a life wholly opposed to these impulses—an artificial life, therefore. But now at length he had come into his birthright, and felt at home.
One episode of the previous evening remained in his memory: it had produced an effect upon him out of proportion with its apparent significance. A gentleman, a guest at the dinner, a small man with sandy hair and keen gray eyes, on being presented to David had looked at him with an expression of shrewd perplexity, and said:
"Have we not met before?"
"It is possible, but I confess I do not recollect it," replied David.
"The name was not Poindexter," continued the other, "but the face— pardon me—I could have taken my oath to."
"Where did this meeting take place?" asked David, smiling.
"In Paris, at ——'s," said the gray-eyed gentleman (mentioning the name of a well-known French nobleman).
"You are quite certain, of that?"
"Yes. It was but a month since."
"I was never in Paris. For three years I have hardly been out of sight of London," David answered. "What was your friend's name?"
"It has slipped my memory," he replied. "An Italian name, I fancy. But he was a man—pardon me—of very striking appearance, and I conversed with him for more than an hour."
Now it is by no means an uncommon occurrence for two persons to bear a close resemblance to each other, but (aside from the fact that David was anything but an ordinary-looking man) this mistake of his new acquaintance affected him oddly. He involuntarily associated it with the internal and external transformation which had happened to him, and said to himself:
"This counterpart of mine was prophetic: he was what I am to be—what I am." And fantastic though the notion was, he could not rid himself of it.
David returned to Witton about the middle of the week. In the interval he had taken measures to make known to those concerned the revolution of his affairs, and to have the old Lambert mansion opened, and put in some sort of condition for his reception. He had gone forth on foot, an unknown, poor, and humble clergyman; he returned driving behind a pair of horses, by far the most important personage in the town; and yet this outward change was far less great than the change within. His reception could scarcely be called cordial; though not wanting in the technical respect and ceremony due to him as a gentleman of wealth and influence, he could perceive a half concealed suspense and misgiving, due unmistakably to his attitude as a recreant clergyman.
In fact, his worthy parishioners were in a terrible quandary how to reconcile their desire to stand well with their richest fellow- townsman, and their dismayed recognition of that townsman's scandalous professional conduct. David smiled at this, but it made him bitter too. He had intended once more to call the congregation together, and frankly to explain to them the reasons, good or bad, which had induced him to withdraw from active labor in the church. But now he determined to preserve a proud and indifferent silence. There was only one person who had a right to call him to account, and it was not without fearfulness that he looked forward to his meeting with her. However, the sooner such fears are put at rest the better, and he called upon Edith on the evening of his arrival. Her father had been in bed for two days with a cold, and she was sitting alone in the little parlor.
She rose at his entrance with a deep blush, and a look of mixed gladness and anxiety. Her eyes swiftly noted the change in his dress, for he had considerably modified, though not as yet wholly laid aside, the external marks of his profession. She held back from him with a certain strangeness and timidity, so that lie did not kiss her cheek, but only her hand. The first words of greeting were constrained and conventional, but at last he said:
"All is changed, Edith, except our love for each other."
"I do not hold you to that," she answered, quickly.
"But you can not turn me from it," he said, with a smile.
"I do not know you yet," said she, looking away.
"When I last saw you, you said you doubted whether I were my real self. I have become my real self since then."
"Because you are not what you were, it does not follow that you are what you should be."
"Surely, Edith, that is not reasonable. I was what circumstances forced me to be, henceforth I shall be what God made me."
"Did God, then, have no hand in those circumstances?"
"Not more, at all events, than in these."
Edith shook her head. "God does not absolve us from holy vows."
"But how if I can not, with loyalty to my inner conscience, hold to those vows?" exclaimed David, with more warmth. "I have long felt that I was not fitted for this sacred calling. Before the secret tribunal of my self-knowledge, I have stood charged with the sin of hypocrisy. It has been God's will that I be delivered from that sin."
"Why did you not say that before, David?" she demanded, looking at him. "Why did you remain a hypocrite until it was for your worldly benefit to abandon your trust? Can you say, on your word of honor, that you would stand where you do now if you were still poor instead of rich?"
"Men's eyes are to some extent opened and their views are confirmed by events. They make our dreams and forebodings into realities. We question in our minds, and events give us the answers."
"Such an argument might excuse any villainy," said Edith, lifting her head indignantly.
"Villainy! Do you use that word to me?" exclaimed David.
"Not unless your own heart bids me—and I do not know your heart."
"Because you do not love me?"
"You may be right," replied Edith, striving to steady her voice; "but at least I believed I loved you."
"You are cured of that belief, it seems—as I am cured of many foolish faiths," said David, with gloomy bitterness. "Well, so be it! The love that waits upon a fastidious conscience is never the deepest love. My love is not of that complexion. Were it possible that the shadow of sin, or of crime itself, could descend upon you, it would but render you dearer to me than before."
"You may break my heart, David, if you will," cried the girl, tremulously, yet resolutely, "but I reverence love more than I love you."
David had turned away as if to leave the room, but he paused and confronted her once more.
"At any rate, we will understand each other," said he. "Do you make it your condition that I should go back to the ministry?"
Edith was still seated, but the condition of the crisis compelled her to rise. She stood before him, her dark eyes downcast, her lips trembling, nervously drawing the fingers of one hand through the clasp of the other. She was tempted to yield to him, for she could imagine no happiness in life without him; but a rare sanity and integrity of mind made her perceive that he had pushed the matter to a false alternative. It was not a question of preaching or not preaching sermons, but of sinful apostasy from an upright life. At last she raised her eyes, which shone like dark jewels in her pale countenance, and said, slowly, "We had better part."
"Then my sins be upon your head!" cried David, passionately.
The blood mounted to her cheeks at the injustice of this rejoinder, but she either could not or would not answer again. She remained erect and proud until the door had closed between them; what she did after that neither David nor any one else knew.
The apostate David seems to have determined that, if she were to bear the burden of his sins, they should be neither few nor light. His life for many weeks after this interview was a scandal and a disgrace. The old Lambert mansion was the scene of carousals and excesses such as recalled the exploits of the monks of Medmenham. Harwood Courtney, and a score of dissolute gentlemen like him, not to speak of other visitors, thronged the old house day and night; drinking, gaming, and yet wilder doings gave the sober little town no rest, till the Reverend David Poindexter was commonly referred to as the Wicked Parson. Meanwhile Edith Saltine bore herself with a grave, pale impassiveness, which some admired, others wondered at, and others deemed an indication that she had no heart. If she had not, so much the better for her; for her father was almost as difficult to manage as David himself. The old gentleman could neither comprehend nor forgive what seemed to him his daughter's immeasurable perversity. One day she had been all for marrying a poor, unknown preacher; and the next day, when to marry him meant to be the foremost lady in the neighborhood, she dismissed him without appeal. And the worst of it was that, much as the poor colonel's mouth watered at the feasts and festivities of the Lambert mansion, he was prevented by the fatality of his position from taking any part in them. So Edith could find no peace either at home or abroad; and if it dwelt not in her own heart, she was indeed forlorn.
What may have been the cost of all this dissipation it was difficult to say, but several observant persons were of opinion that the parson's income could not long stand it. There were rumors that he had heavy bills owing in several quarters, which he could pay only by realizing some of his investments. On the other hand, it was said that he played high and constantly, and usually had the devil's luck. But it is impossible to gauge the truth of such stories, and the Wicked Parson himself took no pains either to deny or confirm them. He was always the loudest, the gayest, and the most reckless of his company, and the leader and inspirer of all their wild proceedings; but it was noticed that, though he laughed often, he never smiled; and that his face, when in repose, bore traces of anything but happiness. For some cause or other, moreover—but whether maliciously or remorsefully was open to question—he never entirely laid aside his clerical garb; he seemed either to delight in profaning it, or to retain it as the reminder and scourge of his own wickedness.
One night there was a great gathering up at the mansion, and the noise and music were kept up till well past the small hours of the morning. Gradually the guests departed, some going toward London, some elsewhere. At last only Harwood Courtney remained, and he and David sat down in the empty dining-room, disorderly with the remains of the carousal, to play picquet. They played, with short intermissions, for nearly twenty-four hours. At last David threw down his cards, and said, quietly:
"Well, that's all. Give me until to-morrow."
"With all the pleasure in life, my boy," replied the other; "and your revenge, too, if you like. Meanwhile, the best thing we can do is to take a nap."
"You may do so if you please," said David; "for my part, I must take a turn on horseback first. I can never sleep till I have breathed fresh air."
They parted accordingly, Courtney going to his room, and David to the stables, whence he presently issued, mounted on his bay mare, and rode eastward. On his way he passed Colonel Saltine's house, and drew rein for a moment beside it, looking up at Edith's window. It was between four and five o'clock of a morning in early April; the sky was clear, and all was still and peaceful. As he sat in the saddle looking up, the blind of the window was raised and the sash itself opened, and Edith, in her white night-dress, with her heavy brown hair falling round her face and on her shoulders, gazed out. She regarded him with a half- bewildered expression, as if doubting of his reality, For a moment they remained thus; then he waved his hand to her with a wild gesture of farewell, and rode on, passing immediately out of sight behind the dark foliage of the cedar of Lebanon.
On reaching the London high-road the horseman paused once more, and seemed to hesitate what course to pursue; but finally he turned to the right, and rode in a southerly direction. The road wound gently, and dipped and rose to cross low hills; trees bordered the way on each side; and as the sun rose they threw long shadows westward, while the birds warbled and twittered in the fields and hedges. By-and-by a clump of woodland came into view about half a mile off, the road passing through the midst of it. As David entered it at one end, he saw, advancing toward him through the shade and sunlight, a rider mounted on a black horse. The latter seemed to be a very spirited animal, and as David drew near it suddenly shied and reared so violently that any but a practiced horseman would have been unseated. No catastrophe occurred, however, and a moment afterward the two cavaliers were face to face. No sooner had their eyes met than, as if by a common impulse, they both drew rein, and set staring at each other with a curiosity which merged into astonishment. At length the stranger on the black horse gave a short laugh, and said:
"I perceive that the same strange thing has struck us both, sir. If you won't consider it uncivil, I should like to know who you are. My name is Giovanni Lambert."
"Giovanni Lambert," repeated David, with a slight involuntary movement; "unless I am mistaken, I have heard mention of you. But you are not Italian?"
"Only on my mother's side. But you have the advantage of me."
"You will understand that I could not have heard of you without feeling a strong desire to meet you," said David, dismounting as he spoke. "It is, I think, the only desire left me in the world. I had marked this wood, as I came along, as an inviting place to rest in. Would it suit you to spend an hour here, where we can converse better at our ease than in saddle; or does time press you? As for me, I have little more to do with time."
"I am at your service, sir, with pleasure," returned the other, leaping lightly to the ground, and revealing by the movement a pair of small pistols attached to the belt beneath his blue riding surtout. "It was in my mind, also, to stretch my legs and take a pull at my pipe, for, early as it is, I have ridden far this morning."
At the point where they had halted a green lane branched off into the depths of the wood, and down this they passed, leading their horses. When they were out of sight of the road they made their animals fast in such a way that they could crop the grass, and themselves reclined at the foot of a broad-limbed oak, and they remained in converse there for upward of an hour.
In fact, it must been several hours later (for the sun was high in the heavens) when one of them issued from the wood. He was mounted on a black horse, and wore a blue surtout and high boots. After looking up and down the road, and assuring himself that no one was in sight, he turned his horse's head toward London, and set off at a round canter. Coming to a cross-road, he turned to the right, and rode for an hour in that direction, crossing the Thames near Hampton Wick. In the afternoon he entered London from the south, and put up at an obscure hostelry. Having seen his horse attended to, and eaten something himself, he went to bed and slept soundly for eighteen hours. On awaking, he ate heartily again, and spent the rest of the day in writing and arranging a quantity of documents that were packed in his saddle-bags. The next morning early he paid his reckoning, rode across London Bridge, and shaped his course toward the west.
Meanwhile the town of Witton was in vast perturbation. When Mr. Harwood Courtney woke up late in the afternoon, and came yawning down-stairs to get his breakfast, he learned, in answer to his inquiries, that nothing had been seen of David Poindexter since he rode away thirteen hours ago. Mr. Courtney expressed anxiety at this news, and dispatched his own valet and one of David's grooms to make investigations in the neighborhood. These two personages investigated to such good purpose that before night the whole neighborhood was aware that David Poindexter had disappeared. By the next morning it became evident that something had happened to the Wicked Parson, and some people ventured to opine that the thing which had happened to him was that he had run away. And indeed it was astonishing to find to how many worthy people this evil-minded parson was in debt. Every other man you met had a bill against the Reverend David Poindexter in his pocket; and as the day wore on, and still no tidings of the missing man were received, individuals of the sheriff and bailiff species began to be distinguishable amid the crowd. But the great sensation was yet to come. How the report started no one knew, but toward supper-time it passed from mouth to mouth that Mr. Harwood Courtney, in the course of his twenty-four hours of picquet with Poindexter, had won from the latter not his ready money alone, but the entire property and estates that had accrued to him as nearest of kin to the late David Lambert. And it was added that, as the debt was a gambling transaction, and therefore not technically recoverable by process of law, Mr. Courtney was naturally very anxious for his debtor to put in an appearance. Now it so happened that this report, unlike many others ostensibly more plausible, was true in every particular.
Probably there was more gossip at the supper-tables of Witton that night than in any other town of ten times the size in the United Kingdom; and it was formally agreed that Poindexter had escaped to the Continent, and would either remain in hiding there, or take passage by the first opportunity to the American colonies, or the United States, as they had now been called for some years past. Nobody defended the reverend apostate, but, on the other hand, nobody pretended to be sorry for Mr. Harwood Courtney; it was generally agreed that they had both of them got what they deserved. The only question was, What was to become of the property? Some people said it ought to belong to Edith Saltine; but of course poetical justice of that kind was not to be expected.
Edith, meanwhile, had kept herself strictly secluded. She was the last person who had seen David Poindexter, but she had mentioned the fact to no one. She was also the only person who did not believe that he had escaped, but who felt convinced that he was dead, and that he had died by his own hand. That gesture of farewell and of despair which he had made to her as he vanished behind the cedar of Lebanon had for her a significance capable of only one interpretation. Were he alive, he would have returned.
On the evening of the day following the events just recorded, the solitude of her room suddenly became terrible to Edith, and she was irresistibly impelled to dress herself and go forth in the open air. She wound a veil about her head, and, avoiding the main thoroughfare, slipped out of the town unperceived, and gained the free country. After a while she found herself approaching a large tree, which spread its branches across a narrow lane that made a short-cut to the London highway. Beneath the tree was a natural seat, formed of a fragment of stone, and here David and she had often met and sat. It was a mild, still evening; she sat down on the stone, and removed her veil. The moon, then in its first quarter, was low in the west, and shone beneath the branches of the tree.
Presently she was aware—though not by any sound—that some one was approaching, and she drew back in the shadow of the tree. Down the lane came a horseman, mounted on a tall, black horse. The outline of his figure and the manner in which he rode fixed Edith's gaze as if by a spell, and made the blood hum in her ears. Nearer he came, and now his face was discernible in the level moonlight. It was impossible to mistake that countenance: the horseman was David Poindexter. His costume, however, was different from any he had ever before worn; there was nothing clerical about it; nor was that black horse from the Poindexter stables. Then, too, how noiselessly he rode!—as noiselessly as a ghost. That, however, must have been because his horse's hoofs fell on the soft turf. He rode slowly, and his head was bent as if in thought; but almost before Edith could draw her breath, much less to speak, he had passed beneath the boughs of the tree, and was riding on toward the village. Now he had vanished in the vague light and shadow, and a moment later Edith began to doubt whether her senses had not played her a trick. A superstitious horror fell upon her; what she had seen was a spirit, not living flesh and blood. She knelt down by the stone, and remained for a long time with her face hidden upon her arms, and her hands clasped, sometimes praying, sometimes wondering and fearing. At last she rose to her feet, and hastened homeward through the increasing darkness. But before she had reached her house she had discovered that what she had seen was no ghost. The whole village was in a fever of excitement.
Everybody was full of the story. An hour ago who should appear riding quietly up the village street but David Poindexter himself—at least, if it were not he, it was the devil. He seemed to take little notice of the astonished glances that were thrown at him, or, at any rate, not to understand them. Instead of going to the Lambert mansion, he had alighted at the inn, and asked the innkeeper whether he might have lodging there. But when the innkeeper, who had known the reverend gentleman as well as he knew his own sign-board, had addressed him by name, the other had shaken his head, seemed perplexed, and had affirmed that his name was not Poindexter but Lambert; and had added, upon further inquiry, that he was the only son of David Lambert, and was come to claim that gentleman's property, to which he was by law entitled; in proof whereof he had produced various documents, among them the certificates of his mother's marriage and of his own birth. As to David Poindexter, he declared that he knew not there was such a person; and although no man in his senses could be made to believe that David Poindexter and this so-called Lambert were twain, and not one and the same individual, the latter stoutly maintained his story, and vowed that the truth would sooner or later appear and confirm him. Meanwhile, however, one of his creditors had had him arrested for a debt of eight hundred pounds; and Harwood Courtney had seen him, and said that he was ready to pledge his salvation that the man was Poindexter and nobody else. So here the matter rested for the present. But who ever heard of so strange and audacious an attempt at imposition? The man had not even made any effort to disguise himself further than to put on a different suit of clothes and get another horse; and why, in the name of all that was inconceivable, had he come back to Witton, instead of going to any other part of the earth's surface What could he expect here, except immediate detection, imprisonment, and ruin? Was he insane? He did not seem to be so; but that interpretation of his conduct was not only the most charitable one, but no other could be imagined that would account for the facts.
Witton slept but little that night; but who shall describe its bewilderment when, early in the morning, a constable arrived in the village with the news that the dead body of the Reverend David Poindexter had been found in some woods about fifteen miles off, and that his bay mare had been picked up grazing along the roadside not far from home! Upon the heels of this intelligence came the corpse itself, lying in a country wagon, and the bay mare trotting behind. It was taken out and placed on the table in the inn parlor, where it immediately became the center of a crowd half crazy with curiosity and amazement. The cause of death was found to be the breaking of the vertebral column just at the base of the neck. There was no other injury on the body, and, allowing for the natural changes incident to death, the face was in every particular the face of David Poindexter. The man who called himself Lambert was now brought into the room, and made to stand beside the corpse, which he regarded with a certain calm interest. The resemblance between the two was minute and astonishing; it was found to be impossible, upon that evidence alone, to decide which was David Poindexter.
The matter was brought to trial as promptly as possible. A great number of witnesses identified the prisoner as David Poindexter, but those who had seen the corpse mostly gave their evidence an opposite inclination; and four persons (one of them the gray-eyed gentleman who has been already mentioned) swore positively that the prisoner was Giovanni Lambert, the gray-eyed gentleman adding that he had once met Poindexter, and had confidently taken him to be Lambert.
An attempt was then made to prove that Lambert had murdered Poindexter; but it entirely failed, there being no evidence that the two men had ever so much as met, and there being no conceivable motive for the murder. Lambert, therefore, was permitted to enter undisturbed upon his inheritance; for he had no difficulty in establishing the fact of the elder Lambert's marriage to an Italian woman twenty-three years before. The marriage had been a secret one, and soon after a violent quarrel had taken place between the wife and husband, and they had separated. The following month Giovanni was born prematurely. He had seen his father but once. The quarrel was never made up, but Lambert sent his wife, from time to time, money enough for her support. She had died about ten years ago, and had given her son the papers to establish his identity, telling him that the day would come to use them. Giovanni had been a soldier, fighting against the French in Spain and elsewhere, and had only heard of his father's death a few weeks ago. He had thereupon come to claim his own, with the singular results that we have seen.
Here was the end of the case, so far as the law was concerned; but the real end of it is worth noting. Lambert, by his own voluntary act, paid all the legal debts contracted by Poindexter, and gave Courtney, in settlement of the gambling transaction, a sum of fifty thousand pounds. The remainder of his fortune, which was still considerable, he devoted almost entirely to charitable purposes, doing so much genuine good, in a manner so hearty and unassuming, that he became the object of more personal affection than falls to the lot of most philanthropists. He was of a quiet, sad, and retiring disposition, and uniformly very sparing of words. After a year or so, circumstances brought it about that he and Miss Saltine were associated in some benevolent enterprise, and from that time forward they often consulted together in such matters, Lambert making her the medium of many of his benefactions. Of course the gossips were ready to predict that it would end with a marriage; and indeed it was impossible to see the two together (though both of them, and especially Edith, had altered somewhat with the passage of years) without being reminded of the former love affair in which Lambert's double had been the hero. Did this also occur to Edith? It could hardly have been otherwise, and it would be interesting to speculate on her feelings in the matter; but I have only the story to tell. At all events, they never did marry, though they became very tender friends. At the end of seven years Colonel Saltine died of jaundice; he had been failing in his mind for some time previous, and had always addressed Lambert as Poindexter, and spoken of him as his son-in-law. The year following Lambert himself died, after a brief illness. He left all his property to Edith. She survived to her seventieth year, making it the business of her life to carry out his philanthropic schemes, and she always dressed in widows' weeds. After her death, the following passage was found in one of her private journals. It refers to her last interview with Lambert, on his death- bed:
".... He smiled, and said, 'You will believe, now, that I was sincere in renouncing the ministry, though I have tried to serve the Lord in other ways than from the pulpit.' I felt a shock in my heart, and could hardly say, 'What do you mean, Mr. Lambert?' He replied, 'Surely, Edith, your soul knows, if your reason does not, that I am David Poindexter!' I could not speak. I hid my face in my hands. After a while, in separate sentences, he told me the truth. When he rode forth on that dreadful morning it was with the purpose to die. But he met on the road this Giovanni Lambert, who so marvelously resembled him, and they sat down together in the wood and talked, and Giovanni told him all the story of his life.... As Giovanni was about to mount his horse, which was very restive, he saw a violet in the grass, and stooped to pick it. The horse lashed out with its heels, and struck him in the back of the neck and killed him.... Then the idea came to David to exchange clothes with the dead man, and to take his papers, and personate him. Thus, he could escape from the individuality which was his curse, and find his true self, as it were, in another person. He said, too, that his greatest hope had been to win my love and make me his wife; but he found that he could not bring himself to attempt that, unless he confessed his falsehood to me, and he had feared that this confession would turn me from him forever. I wept, and told him that my heart had been his almost from the first, because I always thought of him as David, and that I would have loved him through all things. He said, 'Then God has been more merciful to me than I deserve; but, doubtless, it is also of His mercy that we have remained unmarried.' But I was in an agony, and could not yet be reconciled. At last he said, 'Will you kiss me, Edith?' and afterward he said, 'My wife!' and that was his last word. But we shall meet again!"
One cool October evening—it was the last day of the month, and unusually cool for the time of year—I made up my mind to go and spend an hour or two with my friend Keningale. Keningale was an artist (as well as a musical amateur and poet), and had a very delightful studio built onto his house, in which he was wont to sit of an evening. The studio had a cavernous fire-place, designed in imitation of the old- fashioned fire-places of Elizabethan manor-houses, and in it, when the temperature out-doors warranted, he would build up a cheerful fire of dry logs. It would suit me particularly well, I thought, to go and have a quiet pipe and chat in front of that fire with my friend.
I had not had such a chat for a very long time—not, in fact, since Keningale (or Ken, as his friends called him) had returned from his visit to Europe the year before. He went abroad, as he affirmed at the time, "for purposes of study," whereat we all smiled, for Ken, so far as we knew him, was more likely to do anything else than to study. He was a young fellow of buoyant temperament, lively and social in his habits, of a brilliant and versatile mind, and possessing an income of twelve or fifteen thousand dollars a year; he could sing, play, scribble, and paint very cleverly, and some of his heads and figure- pieces were really well done, considering that he never had any regular training in art; but he was not a worker. Personally he was fine- looking, of good height and figure, active, healthy, and with a remarkably fine brow, and clear, full-gazing eye. Nobody was surprised at his going to Europe, nobody expected him to do anything there except amuse himself, and few anticipated that he would be soon again seen in New York. He was one of the sort that find Europe agree with them. Off he went, therefore; and in the course of a few months the rumor reached us that he was engaged to a handsome and wealthy New York girl whom he had met in London. This was nearly all we did hear of him until, not very long afterward, he turned up again on Fifth Avenue, to every one's astonishment; made no satisfactory answer to those who wanted to know how he happened to tire so soon of the Old World; while, as to the reported engagement, he cut short all allusion to that in so peremptory a manner as to show that it was not a permissible topic of conversation with him. It was surmised that the lady had jilted him; but, on the other hand, she herself returned home not a great while after, and, though she had plenty of opportunities, she has never married to this day.
Be the rights of that matter what they may, it was soon remarked that Ken was no longer the careless and merry fellow he used to be; on the contrary, he appeared grave, moody, averse from general society, and habitually taciturn and undemonstrative even in the company of his most intimate friends. Evidently something had happened to him, or he had done something. What? Had he committed a murder? or joined the Nihilists? or was his unsuccessful love affair at the bottom of it? Some declared that the cloud was only temporary, and would soon pass away. Nevertheless, up to the period of which I am writing, it had not passed away, but had rather gathered additional gloom, and threatened to become permanent.
Meanwhile I had met him twice or thrice at the club, at the opera, or in the street, but had as yet had no opportunity of regularly renewing my acquaintance with him. We had been on a footing of more than common intimacy in the old days, and I was not disposed to think that he would refuse to renew the former relations now. But what I had heard and myself seen of his changed condition imparted a stimulating tinge of suspense or curiosity to the pleasure with which I looked forward to the prospects of this evening. His house stood at a distance of two or three miles beyond the general range of habitations in New York at this time, and as I walked briskly along in the clear twilight air I had leisure to go over in my mind all that I had known of Ken and had divined of his character. After all, had there not always been something in his nature—deep down, and held in abeyance by the activity of his animal spirits—but something strange and separate, and capable of developing under suitable conditions into—into what? As I asked myself this question I arrived at his door; and it was with a feeling of relief that I felt the next moment the cordial grasp of his hand, and his voice bidding me welcome in a tone that indicated unaffected gratification at my presence. He drew me at once into the studio, relieved me of my hat and cane, and then put his hand on my shoulder.
"I am glad to see you," he repeated, with singular earnestness—"glad to see you and to feel you; and to-night of all nights in the year."
"Why to-night especially?"
"Oh, never mind. It's just as well, too, you didn't let me know beforehand you were coming; the unreadiness is all, to paraphrase the poet. Now, with you to help me, I can drink a glass of whisky and water and take a bit draw of the pipe. This would have been a grim night for me if I'd been left to myself."
"In such a lap of luxury as this, too!" said I, looking round at the glowing fire-place, the low, luxurious chairs, and all the rich and sumptuous fittings of the room. "I should have thought a condemned murderer might make himself comfortable here."
"Perhaps; but that's not exactly my category at present. But have you forgotten what night this is? This is November-eve, when, as tradition asserts, the dead arise and walk about, and fairies, goblins, and spiritual beings of all kinds have more freedom and power than on any other day of the year. One can see you've never been in Ireland."
"I wasn't aware till now that you had been there, either."
"Yes, I have been in Ireland. Yes—" He paused, sighed, and fell into a reverie, from which, however, he soon roused himself by an effort, and went to a cabinet in a corner of the room for the liquor and tobacco. While he was thus employed I sauntered about the studio, taking note of the various beauties, grotesquenesses, and curiosities that it contained. Many things were there to repay study and arouse admiration; for Ken was a good collector, having excellent taste as well as means to back it. But, upon the whole, nothing interested me more than some studies of a female head, roughly done in oils, and, judging from the sequestered positions in which I found them, not intended by the artist for exhibition or criticism. There were three or four of these studies, all of the same face, but in different poses and costumes. In one the head was enveloped in a dark hood, overshadowing and partly concealing the features; in another she seemed to be peering duskily through a latticed casement, lit by a faint moonlight; a third showed her splendidly attired in evening costume, with jewels in her hair and cars, and sparkling on her snowy bosom. The expressions were as various as the poses; now it was demure penetration, now a subtle inviting glance, now burning passion, and again a look of elfish and elusive mockery. In whatever phase, the countenance possessed a singular and poignant fascination, not of beauty merely, though that was very striking, but of character and quality likewise.
"Did you find this model abroad?" I inquired at length. "She has evidently inspired yon, and I don't wonder at it."
Ken, who had been mixing the punch, and had not noticed my movements, now looked up, and said: "I didn't mean those to be seen. They don't satisfy me, and I am going to destroy them; but I couldn't rest till I'd made some attempts to reproduce—What was it you asked? Abroad? Yes—or no. They were all painted here within the last six weeks."
'"Whether they satisfy you or not, they are by far the best things of yours I have ever seen."
'"Well, let them alone, and tell me what you think of this beverage. To my thinking, it goes to the right spot. It owes its existence to your coming here. I can't drink alone, and those portraits are not company, though, for aught I know, she might have come out of the canvas to- night and sat down in that chair." Then, seeing my inquiring look, he added, with a hasty laugh, "It's November-eve, you know, when anything may happen, provided its strange enough. Well, here's to ourselves."
We each swallowed a deep draught of the smoking and aromatic liquor, and set down our glasses with approval. The punch was excellent. Ken now opened a box of cigars, and we seated ourselves before the fire- place.
"All we need now," I remarked, after a short silence, "is a little music. By-the-by, Ken, have you still got the banjo I gave you before you went abroad?"
He paused so long before replying that I supposed he had not heard my question. "I have got it," he said, at length, "but it will never make any more music."
"Got broken, eh? Can't it be mended? It was a fine instrument."
"It's not broken, but it's past mending. You shall see for yourself."
He arose as he spoke, and going to another part of the studio, opened a black oak coffer, and took out of it a long object wrapped up in a piece of faded yellow silk. He handed it to me, and when I had unwrapped it, there appeared a thing that might once have been a banjo, but had little resemblance to one now. It bore every sign of extreme age. The wood of the handle was honeycombed with the gnawings of worms, and dusty with dry-rot. The parchment head was green with mold, and hung in shriveled tatters. The hoop, which was of solid silver, was so blackened and tarnished that it looked like dilapidated iron. The strings were gone, and most of the tuning-screws had dropped out of their decayed sockets. Altogether it had the appearance of having been made before the Flood, and been forgotten in the forecastle of Noah's Ark ever since.
"It is a curious relic, certainly," I said. "Where did you come across it? I had no idea that the banjo was invented so long ago as this. It certainly can't be less than two hundred years old, and may be much older than that."
Ken smiled gloomily. "You are quite right," lie said; "it is at least two hundred years old, and yet it is the very same banjo that you gave me a year ago."
"Hardly," I returned, smiling in my turn, "since that was made to my order with a view to presenting it to you."
"I know that; but the two hundred years have passed since then. Yes; it is absurd and impossible, I know, but nothing is truer. That banjo, which was made last year, existed in the sixteenth century, and has been rotting ever since. Stay. Give it to me a moment, and I'll convince you. You recollect that your name and mine, with the date, were engraved on the silver hoop?"
"Yes; and there was a private mark of my own there, also."
"Very well," said Ken, who had been rubbing a place on the hoop with a corner of the yellow silk wrapper; "look at that."
I took the decrepit instrument from him, and examined the spot which he had rubbed. It was incredible, sure enough; but there were the names and the date precisely as I had caused them to be engraved; and there, moreover, was my own private mark, which I had idly made with an old etching point not more than eighteen months before. After convincing myself that there was no mistake, I laid the banjo across my knees, and stared at my friend in bewilderment. He sat smoking with a kind of grim composure, his eyes fixed upon the blazing logs.
"I'm mystified, I confess," said I. "Come; what is the joke? What method have you discovered of producing the decay of centuries on this unfortunate banjo in a few months? And why did you do it? I have heard of an elixir to counteract the effects of time, but your recipe seems to work the other way—to make time rush forward at two hundred times his usual rate, in one place, while he jogs on at his usual gait elsewhere. Unfold your mystery, magician. Seriously, Ken, how on earth did the thing happen?"
"I know no more about it than you do," was his reply. "Either you and I and all the rest of the living world are insane, or else there has been wrought a miracle as strange as any in tradition. How can I explain it? It is a common saying—a common experience, if you will—that we may, on certain trying or tremendous occasions, live years in one moment. But that's a mental experience, not a physical one, and one that applies, at all events, only to human beings, not to senseless things of wood and metal. You imagine the thing is some trick or jugglery. If it be, I don't know the secret of it. There's no chemical appliance that I ever heard of that will get a piece of solid wood into that condition in a few months, or a few years. And it wasn't done in a few years, or a few months either. A year ago today at this very hour that banjo was as sound as when it left the maker's hands, and twenty-four hours afterward—I'm telling you the simple truth—it was as you see it now."
The gravity and earnestness with which Ken made this astounding statement were evidently not assumed, He believed every word that he uttered. I knew not what to think. Of course my friend might be insane, though he betrayed none of the ordinary symptoms of mania; but, however that might be, there was the banjo, a witness whose silent testimony there was no gainsaying. The more I meditated on the matter the more inconceivable did it appear. Two hundred years—twenty-four hours; these were the terms of the proposed equation. Ken and the banjo both affirmed that the equation had been made; all worldly knowledge and experience affirmed it to be impossible. "What was the explanation? What is time? What is life? I felt myself beginning to doubt the reality of all things. And so this was the mystery which my friend had been brooding over since his return from abroad. No wonder it had changed him. More to be wondered at was it that it had not changed him more.
"Can you tell me the whole story?" I demanded at length.
Ken quaffed another draught from his glass of whisky and water and rubbed his hand through his thick brown beard. "I have never spoken to any one of it heretofore," he said, "and I had never meant to speak of it. But I'll try and give you some idea of what it was. You know me better than any one else; you'll understand the thing as far as it can ever be understood, and perhaps I may be relieved of some of the oppression it has caused me. For it is rather a ghastly memory to grapple with alone, I can tell you."
Hereupon, without further preface, Ken related the following tale. He was, I may observe in passing, a naturally fine narrator. There were deep, lingering tones in his voice, and he could strikingly enhance the comic or pathetic effect of a sentence by dwelling here and there upon some syllable. His features were equally susceptible of humorous and of solemn expressions, and his eyes were in form and hue wonderfully adapted to showing great varieties of emotion. Their mournful aspect was extremely earnest and affecting; and when Ken was giving utterance to some mysterious passage of the tale they had a doubtful, melancholy, exploring look which appealed irresistibly to the imagination. But the interest of his story was too pressing to allow of noticing these incidental embellishments at the time, though they doubtless had their influence upon me all the same.
"I left New York on an Inman Line steamer, you remember," began Ken, "and landed at Havre. I went the usual round of sight-seeing on the Continent, and got round to London in July, at the height of the season. I had good introductions, and met any number of agreeable and famous people. Among others was a young lady, a countrywoman of my own —you know whom I mean—who interested me very much, and before her family left London she and I were engaged. We parted there for the time, because she had the Continental trip still to make, while I wanted to take the opportunity to visit the north of England and Ireland. I landed at Dublin about the 1st of October, and, zigzagging about the country, I found myself in County Cork about two weeks later.
"There is in that region some of the most lovely scenery that human eyes ever rested on, and it seems to be less known to tourists than many places of infinitely less picturesque value. A lonely region too: during my rambles I met not a single stranger like myself, and few enough natives. It seems incredible that so beautiful a country should be so deserted. After walking a dozen Irish miles you come across a group of two or three one-roomed cottages, and, like as not, one or more of those will have the roof off and the walls in ruins. The few peasants whom one sees, however, are affable and hospitable, especially when they hear you are from that terrestrial heaven whither most of their friends and relatives have gone before them. They seem simple and primitive enough at first sight, and yet they are as strange and incomprehensible a race as any in the world. They are as superstitious, as credulous of marvels, fairies, magicians, and omens, as the men whom St. Patrick preached to, and at the same time they are shrewd, skeptical, sensible, and bottomless liars. Upon the whole, I met with no nation on my travels whose company I enjoyed so much, or who inspired me with so much kindliness, curiosity, and repugnance.
"At length I got to a place on the sea-coast, which I will not further specify than to say that it is not many miles from Ballymacheen, on the south shore. I have seen Venice and Naples, I have driven along the Cornice Road, I have spent a month at our own Mount Desert, and I say that all of them together are not so beautiful as this glowing, deep- hued, soft-gleaming, silvery-lighted, ancient harbor and town, with the tall hills crowding round it and the black cliffs and headlands planting their iron feet in the blue, transparent sea. It is a very old place, and has had a history which it has outlived ages since. It may once have had two or three thousand inhabitants; it has scarce five or six hundred to day. Half the houses are in ruins or have disappeared; many of the remainder are standing empty. All the people are poor, most of them abjectly so; they saunter about with bare feet and uncovered heads, the women in quaint black or dark-blue cloaks, the men in such anomalous attire as only an Irishman knows how to get together, the children half naked. The only comfortable-looking people are the monks and the priests, and the soldiers in the fort. For there is a fort there, constructed on the huge ruins of one which may have done duty in the reign of Edward the Black Prince, or earlier, in whose mossy embrasures are mounted a couple of cannon, which occasionally sent a practice-shot or two at the cliff on the other side of the harbor. The garrison consists of a dozen men and three or four officers and non- commissioned officers. I suppose they are relieved occasionally, but those I saw seemed to have become component parts of their surroundings.
"I put up at a wonderful little old inn, the only one in the place, and took my meals in a dining-saloon fifteen feet by nine, with a portrait of George I (a print varnished to preserve it) hanging over the mantel- piece. On the second evening after dinner a young gentleman came in— the dining-saloon being public property of course—and ordered some bread and cheese and a bottle of Dublin stout. We presently fell into talk; he turned out to be an officer from the fort, Lieutenant O'Connor, and a fine young specimen of the Irish soldier he was. After telling me all he knew about the town, the surrounding country, his friends, and himself, he intimated a readiness to sympathize with whatever tale I might choose to pour into his ear; and I had pleasure in trying to rival his own outspokenness. We became excellent friends; we had up a half-pint of Kinahan's whisky, and the lieutenant expressed himself in terms of high praise of my countrymen, my country, and my own particular cigars. When it became time for him to depart I accompanied him—for there was a splendid moon abroad—and bade him farewell at the fort entrance, having promised to come over the next day and make the acquaintance of the other fellows. 'And mind your eye, now, going back, my dear boy,' he called out, as I turned my face homeward. 'Faith, 'tis a spooky place, that graveyard, and you'll as likely meet the black woman there as anywhere else!'
"The graveyard was a forlorn and barren spot on the hill-side, just the hither side of the fort: thirty or forty rough head-stones, few of which retained any semblance of the perpendicular, while many were so shattered and decayed as to seem nothing more than irregular natural projections from the ground. Who the black woman might be I knew not, and did not stay to inquire. I had never been subject to ghostly apprehensions, and as a matter of fact, though the path I had to follow was in places very bad going, not to mention a hap-hazard scramble over a ruined bridge that covered a deep-lying brook, I reached my inn without any adventure whatever.
"The next day I kept my appointment at the fort, and found no reason to regret it; and my friendly sentiments were abundantly reciprocated, thanks more especially, perhaps, to the success of my banjo, which I carried with me, and which was as novel as it was popular with those who listened to it. The chief personages in the social circle besides my friend the lieutenant were Major Molloy, who was in command, a racy and juicy old campaigner, with a face like a sunset, and the surgeon, Dr. Dudeen, a long, dry, humorous genius, with a wealth of anecdotical and traditional lore at his command that I have never seen surpassed. We had a jolly time of it, and it was the precursor of many more like it. The remains of October slipped away rapidly, and I was obliged to remember that I was a traveler in Europe, and not a resident in Ireland. The major, the surgeon, and the lieutenant all protested cordially against my proposed departure, but, as there was no help for it, they arranged a farewell dinner to take place in the fort on All- halloween.
"I wish you could have been at that dinner with me! It was the essence of Irish good-fellowship. Dr. Dudeen was in great force; the major was better than the best of Lever's novels; the lieutenant was overflowing with hearty good-humor, merry chaff, and sentimental rhapsodies anent this or the other pretty girl of the neighborhood. For my part I made the banjo ring as it had never rung before, and the others joined in the chorus with a mellow strength of lungs such as you don't often hear outside of Ireland. Among the stories that Dr. Dudeen regaled us with was one about the Kern of Querin and his wife, Ethelind Fionguala— which being interpreted signifies 'the white-shouldered.' The lady, it appears, was originally betrothed to one O'Connor (here the lieutenant smacked his lips), but was stolen away on the wedding night by a party of vampires, who, it would seem, were at that period a prominent feature among the troubles of Ireland. But as they were bearing her along—she being unconscious—to that supper where she was not to eat but to be eaten, the young Kern of Querin, who happened to be out duck- shooting, met the party, and emptied his gun at it. The vampires fled, and the Kern carried the fair lady, still in a state of insensibility, to his house. 'And by the same token, Mr. Keningale,' observed the doctor, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, 'ye're after passing that very house on your way here. The one with the dark archway underneath it, and the big mullioned window at the corner, ye recollect, hanging over the street as I might say—'
"'Go 'long wid the house, Dr. Dudeen, dear,' interrupted the lieutenant; 'sure can't you see we're all dying to know what happened to sweet Miss Fionguala, God be good to her, when I was after getting her safe up-stairs—'
"'Faith, then, I can tell ye that myself, Mr. O'Connor,' exclaimed the major, imparting a rotary motion to the remnants of whisky in his tumbler. ''Tis a question to be solved on general principles, as Colonel O'Halloran said that time he was asked what he'd do if he'd been the Book o' Wellington, and the Prussians hadn't come up in the nick o' time at Waterloo. 'Faith,' says the colonel, 'I'll tell ye—'
"'Arrah, then, major, why would ye be interruptin' the doctor, and Mr. Keningale there lettin' his glass stay empty till he hears—The Lord save us! the bottle's empty!'
"In the excitement consequent upon this discovery, the thread of the doctor's story was lost; and before it could be recovered the evening had advanced so far that I felt obliged to withdraw. It took some time to make my proposition heard and comprehended; and a still longer time to put it in execution; so that it was fully midnight before I found myself standing in the cool pure air outside the fort, with the farewells of my boon companions ringing in my ears.
"Considering that it had been rather a wet evening in-doors, I was in a remarkably good state of preservation, and I therefore ascribed it rather to the roughness of the road than to the smoothness of the liquor, when, after advancing a few rods, I stumbled and fell. As I picked myself up I fancied I had heard a laugh, and supposed that the lieutenant, who had accompanied me to the gate, was making merry over my mishap; but on looking round I saw that the gate was closed and no one was visible. The laugh, moreover, had seemed to be close at hand, and to be even pitched in a key that was rather feminine than masculine. Of course I must have been deceived; nobody was near me: my imagination had played me a trick, or else there was more truth than poetry in the tradition that Halloween is the carnival-time of disembodied spirits. It did not occur to me at the time that a stumble is held by the superstitious Irish to be an evil omen, and had I remembered it it would only have been to laugh at it. At all events, I was physically none the worse for my fall, and I resumed my way immediately.
"But the path was singularly difficult to find, or rather the path I was following did not seem to be the right one. I did not recognize it; I could have sworn (except I knew the contrary) that I had never seen it before. The moon had risen, though her light was as yet obscured by clouds, but neither my immediate surroundings nor the general aspect of the region appeared familiar. Dark, silent hill-sides mounted up on either hand, and the road, for the most part, plunged downward, as if to conduct me into the bowels of the earth. The place was alive with strange echoes, so that at times I seemed to be walking through the midst of muttering voices and mysterious whispers, and a wild, faint sound of laughter seemed ever and anon to reverberate among the passes of the hills. Currents of colder air sighing up through narrow defiles and dark crevices touched my face as with airy fingers. A certain feeling of anxiety and insecurity began to take possession of me, though there was no definable cause for it, unless that I might be belated in getting home. With the perverse instinct of those who are lost I hastened my steps, but was impelled now and then to glance back over my shoulder, with a sensation of being pursued. But no living creature was in sight. The moon, however, had now risen higher, and the clouds that were drifting slowly across the sky flung into the naked valley dusky shadows, which occasionally assumed shapes that looked like the vague semblance of gigantic human forms.
"How long I had been hurrying onward I know not, when, with a kind of suddenness, I found myself approaching a graveyard. It was situated on the spur of a hill, and there was no fence around it, nor anything to protect it from the incursions of passers-by. There was something in the general appearance of this spot that made me half fancy I had seen it before; and I should have taken it to be the same that I had often noticed on my way to the fort, but that the latter was only a few hundred yards distant therefrom, whereas I must have traversed several miles at least. As I drew near, moreover, I observed that the head- stones did not appear so ancient and decayed as those of the other. But what chiefly attracted my attention was the figure that was leaning or half sitting upon one of the largest of the upright slabs near the road. It was a female figure draped in black, and a closer inspection— for I was soon within a few yards of her—showed that she wore the calla, or long hooded cloak, the most common as well as the most ancient garment of Irish women, and doubtless of Spanish origin.
"I was a trifle startled by this apparition, so unexpected as it was, and so strange did it seem that any human creature should be at that hour of the night in so desolate and sinister a place. Involuntarily I paused as I came opposite her, and gazed at her intently. But the moonlight fell behind her, and the deep hood of her cloak so completely shadowed her face that I was unable to discern anything but the sparkle of a pair of eyes, which appeared to be returning my gaze with much vivacity.
"'You seem to be at home here,' I said, at length. 'Can you tell me where I am?'
"Hereupon the mysterious personage broke into a light laugh, which, though in itself musical and agreeable, was of a timbre and intonation that caused my heart to beat rather faster than my late pedestrian exertions warranted; for it was the identical laugh (or so my imagination persuaded me) that had echoed in my ears as I arose from my tumble an hour or two ago. For the rest, it was the laugh of a young woman, and presumably of a pretty one; and yet it had a wild, airy, mocking quality, that seemed hardly human at all, or not, at any rate, characteristic of a being of affections and limitations like unto ours. But this impression of mine was fostered, no doubt, by the unusual and uncanny circumstances of the occasion.
"'Sure, sir,' said she, 'you're at the grave of Ethelind Fionguala.'
"As she spoke she rose to her feet, and pointed to the inscription on the stone. I bent forward, and was able, without much difficulty, to decipher the name, and a date which indicated that the occupant of the grave must have entered the disembodied state between two and three centuries ago.
"'And who are you?' was my next question.
"'I'm called Elsie,' she replied. 'But where would your honor be going November-eve?'
"I mentioned my destination, and asked her whether she could direct me thither.
"'Indeed, then, 'tis there I'm going myself,' Elsie replied; 'and if your honor'll follow me, and play me a tune on the pretty instrument, 'tisn't long we'll be on the road.'
"She pointed to the banjo which I carried wrapped up under my arm. How she knew that it was a musical instrument I could not imagine; possibly, I thought, she may have seen me playing on it as I strolled about the environs of the town. Be that as it may, I offered no opposition to the bargain, and further intimated that I would reward her more substantially on our arrival. At that she laughed again, and made a peculiar gesture with her hand above her head. I uncovered my banjo, swept my fingers across the strings, and struck into a fantastic dance-measure, to the music of which we proceeded along the path, Elsie slightly in advance, her feet keeping time to the airy measure. In fact, she trod so lightly, with an elastic, undulating movement, that with a little more it seemed as if she might float onward like a spirit. The extreme whiteness of her feet attracted my eye, and I was surprised to find that instead of being bare, as I had supposed, these were incased in white satin slippers quaintly embroidered with gold thread.
"'Elsie,' said I, lengthening my steps so as to come up with her, 'where do you live, and what do you do for a living?'
"'Sure, I live by myself,' she answered; 'and if you'd be after knowing how, you must come and see for yourself.'
"'Are you in the habit of walking over the hills at night in shoes like that?'
"'And why would I not?' she asked, in her turn. 'And where did your honor get the pretty gold ring on your finger?'
"The ring, which was of no great intrinsic value, had struck my eye in an old curiosity-shop in Cork. It was an antique of very old-fashioned design, and might have belonged (as the vender assured me was the case) to one of the early kings or queens of Ireland.
"'Do you like it?' said I.
"'Will your honor be after making a present of it to Elsie?' she returned, with an insinuating tone and turn of the head.
"'Maybe I will, Elsie, on one condition. I am an artist; I make pictures of people. If you will promise to come to my studio and let me paint your portrait, I'll give you the ring, and some money besides.'
"'And will you give me the ring now?' said Elsie.
"'Yes, if you'll promise.'
"'And will you play the music to me?' she continued.
"'As much as you like.'
"'But maybe I'll not be handsome enough for ye,' said she, with a glance of her eyes beneath the dark hood.
"'I'll take the risk of that,' I answered, laughing, 'though, all the same, I don't mind taking a peep beforehand to remember you by.' So saying, I put forth a hand to draw back the concealing hood. But Elsie eluded me, I scarce know how, and laughed a third time, with the same airy, mocking cadence.
"'Give me the ring first, and then you shall see me,' she said, coaxingly.
"'Stretch out your hand, then,' returned I, removing the ring from my finger. 'When we are better acquainted, Elsie, you won't be so suspicious.'
"She held out a slender, delicate hand, on the forefinger of which I slipped the ring. As I did so, the folds of her cloak fell a little apart, affording me a glimpse of a white shoulder and of a dress that seemed in that deceptive semi-darkness to be wrought of rich and costly material; and I caught, too, or so I fancied, the frosty sparkle of precious stones.
"'Arrah, mind where ye tread!' said Elsie, in a sudden, sharp tone.
"I looked round, and became aware for the first time that we were standing near the middle of a ruined bridge which spanned a rapid stream that flowed at a considerable depth below. The parapet of the bridge on one side was broken down, and I must have been, in fact, in imminent danger of stepping over into empty air. I made my way cautiously across the decaying structure; but, when I turned to assist Elsie, she was nowhere to be seen.
"What had become of the girl? I called, but no answer came. I gazed about on every side, but no trace of her was visible. Unless she had plunged into the narrow abyss at my feet, there was no place where she could have concealed herself—none at least that I could discover. She had vanished, nevertheless; and since her disappearance must have been premeditated, I finally came to the conclusion that it was useless to attempt to find her. She would present herself again in her own good time, or not at all. She had given me the slip very cleverly, and I must make the best of it. The adventure was perhaps worth the ring.