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- Miss Ludington's Sister - 2/23 -
But it was to another Hilton that she went.
The fortune she had inherited had enabled her to carry out a design which had been a day-dream with her ever since the transformation of the village had begun. Among the pieces of property left her was a large farm on Long Island several miles out of the city of Brooklyn. Here she had rebuilt the Hilton of her girlhood, in facsimile, with every change restored, every landmark replaced. In the midst of this silent village she had built for her residence an exact duplicate of the Ludington homestead, situated in respect to the rest of the village precisely as the original was situated in the real Hilton.
The astonishment of the surveyors and builders at the character of the work required of them was probably great, and their bills certainly were, though Miss Ludington would not have grudged the money had they been ten times greater. However, seeing that the part of the village duplicated consisted of but one broad maple-planted street, with not over thirty houses, mostly a story and a half, and that none of the buildings, except the school-house, the little meeting-house, and the homestead, were finished inside, the outlay was not greater than an elaborate plan of landscape gardening would have involved.
The furniture and fittings of the Massachusetts homestead, to the least detail, had been used to fit up its Long Island duplicate, and when all was complete and Miss Ludington had settled down to housekeeping, she felt more at home than in ten years past.
True, the village which she had restored was empty; but it was not more empty than the other Hilton had been to her these many years, since her old schoolmates had been metamorphosed into staid fathers and mothers. These respectable persons were not the schoolmates and friends of her girlhood, and with no hard feelings toward them, she had still rather resented seeing them about, as tending to blur her recollections of their former selves, in whom alone she was interested.
That her new Long Island neighbours considered her mildly insane was to her the least of all concerns. The only neighbours she cared about were the shadowy forms which peopled the village she had rescued from oblivion, whose faces she fancied smiling gratefully at her from the windows of the homes she had restored to them.
For she had a notion that the spirits of her old neighbours, long dead, had found out this resurrected Hilton, and were grateful for the opportunity to revisit the unaltered scenes of their passion. If she had grieved over the removal of the old landmarks and the change in the appearance of the village, how much more hopelessly must they have grieved if indeed the dead revisit earth! The living, if their homes are broken up, can make them new ones, which, after a fashion, will serve the purpose; but the dead cannot. They are thenceforth homeless and desolate.
No sense of having benefited living persons would have afforded Miss Ludington the pleasure she took in feeling that, by rebuilding ancient Hilton, she had restored homes to these homeless ones.
But of all this fabric of the past which she had resurrected, the central figure was the school-girl Ida Ludington. The restored village was the mausoleum of her youth.
Over the great old-fashioned fireplace, in the sitting-room of the homestead which she had rebuilt in the midst of the village, she had hung a portrait in oil, by the first portrait-painter then in the country. It was an enlarged copy of the little likeness on ivory which had formerly been so great a solace to her.
The portrait was executed with extremely life-like effect, and was fondly believed by Miss Ludington to be a more accurate likeness in some particulars than the ivory picture itself.
It represented a very beautiful girl of seventeen or eighteen, although already possessing the ripened charms of a woman. She was dressed in white, with a low bodice, her luxuriant golden hair, of a rare sheen and fineness, falling upon beautifully moulded shoulders. The complexion was of a purity that needed the faint tinge of pink in the cheeks to relieve it of a suspicion of pallor. The eyes were of the deepest, tenderest violet, full of the light of youth, and the lips were smiling.
It was, indeed, no wonder that Miss Ludington had mourned the vanishing from earth of this delectable maiden with exceeding bitterness, or that her heart yet yearned after her with an aching tenderness across the gulf of years.
How bright, how vivid, how glowing had been the life of that beautiful girl! How real as compared with her own faint and faded personality, which, indeed, had shone these many years only by the light reflected from that young face! And yet that life, in its strength and brightness, had vanished like an exhalation, and its elements might no more be recombined than the hues of yesterday's dawn.
Miss Ludington had hung the portraits of her father and mother with immortelles, but the frame of the girl's picture she had wound with deepest crape.
Her father and mother she did not mourn as one without hope, believing that she should see them some day in another world; but from the death of change which the girl had died no Messiah had ever promised any resurrection.
The solitude in which Miss Ludington lived had become, through habit, so endeared to her that when, a few years after she had been settled in her ghostly village, a cousin died in poverty, bequeathing to her with his last breath a motherless infant boy, it was with great reluctance that she accepted the charge. She would have willingly assumed the support of the child, but if it had been possible would have greatly preferred providing for him elsewhere to bringing him home with her. This, however, was impracticable, and so there came to be a baby in the old maid's house.
Little Paul De Riemer was two years old when he was brought to live with Miss Ludington--a beautiful child, with loving ways, and deep, dark, thoughtful eyes. When he was first taken into the sitting-room, the picture of the smiling girl over the fireplace instantly attracted his gaze, and, putting out his arms, he cooed to it. This completed the conquest of Miss Ludington, whose womanly heart had gone out to the winsome child at first sight.
As the boy grew older his first rational questions were about the pretty lady in the picture, and, he was never so happy as when Miss Ludington took him upon her knee and told him stories about her for hours together.
These stories she always related in the third person, for it would only puzzle and grieve the child to intimate to him that there was anything in common between the radiant girl he had been taught to call Ida and the withered woman whom he called Aunty. What, indeed, had they in common but their name? and it had been so long since any one had called her Ida, that Miss Ludington scarcely felt that the name belonged to her present self at all.
In their daily walks about the village she would tell the little boy endless stories about incidents which had befallen Ida at this spot or that. She was never weary of telling, or he of listening to, these tales, and it was wonderful how the artless sympathy of the child comforted the lone woman.
One day, when he was eight years old, finding himself alone in the sitting-room, the lad, after contemplating Ida's picture for a long time, piled one chair on another, and climbing upon the structure, put up his chubby lips to the painted lips of the portrait and kissed them with right good-will. Just then Miss Ludington came in, and saw what he was doing. Seizing him in her arms, she cried over him and kissed him till he was thoroughly frightened.
A year or two later, on his announcing one day his intention to marry Ida when he grew up, Miss Ludington explained to him that she was dead. He was quite overcome with grief at this intelligence, and for a long time refused to be comforted.
And so it was, that never straying beyond the confines of the eerie village, and having no companion but Miss Ludington, the boy fell scarcely less than she under the influence of the beautiful girl who was the presiding genius of the place.
As he grew older, far from losing its charm, Ida's picture laid upon him a new spell. Her violet eyes lighted his first love-dreams. She became his ideal of feminine loveliness, drawing to herself, as the sun draws mist, all the sentiment and dawning passion of the youth. In a word, he fell in love with her.
Of course he knew now who she had been. Long before as soon as he was old enough to understand it, this had been explained to him. But though he was well aware that neither on earth nor in heaven, nor anywhere in the universe, did she any more exist, that knowledge was quite without effect upon the devotion which she had inspired. The matter indeed, presented itself in a very simple way to his mind. "If I had never seen her picture," he said one day to Miss Ludington, "I should never have known that my love was dead, and I should have gone seeking her through all the world, and wondering what was the reason I could not find her."
Miss Ludington was over sixty years of age and Paul was twenty-two when he finished his course at college. She had naturally supposed that, on going out into the world, mixing with young men and meeting young women, he would outgrow his romantic fancy concerning Ida; but the event was very different. As year after year he returned home to spend his vacations, it was evident that his visionary passion was strengthening rather than losing its hold upon him.
But the strangest thing of all was the very peculiar manner in which, during the last vacation preceding his graduation, he began to allude to Ida in his conversations with Miss Ludington. It was, indeed, so peculiar that when, after his return to college, she recalled the impression left upon her mind, she was constrained to think that she had, somehow, totally misunderstood him; for he had certainly seemed to talk as if Ida, instead of being that most utterly, pathetically dead of all dead things--the past self of a living person--were possibly not dead at all: as if, in fact she might have a spiritual existence, like that ascribed to the souls of those other dead whose bodies are laid in the grave.
Decidedly, she must have misunderstood him.
Some months later, on one of the last days of June, he graduated. Miss Ludington. would have attended the graduation exercises but for the fact that her long seclusion from society made the idea of going away from home and mingling with strangers intolerable. She had expected him home the morning after his graduation. When, however, she came downstairs,
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