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- Miss Ludington's Sister - 20/23 -
heaven, where there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. This was the key to her inexplicable sorrow during the past weeks. This explained why, though she loved him so tenderly, the thought of becoming his wife was so intolerable to her.
So be it. Her nature could not sink to his, but his should rise to hers. This brief dream of earthly passion must pass. Better a thousand times that he should be disappointed in all that is dear to the heart of a man, than that he should grieve her thus. In that moment it did not seem hard to him to sacrifice the hopes of the man to the devotion of the lover. By one great effort he rose again to the level of the ascetic passion that had glorified his life up to these last delirious weeks. She had brought heaven to earth for him, but it should still be heaven, since her happiness demanded it.
And having reasoned thus, at last, for there seemed no end of her weeping, or any diminution of its bitterness, he touched her. She started, and turned her streaming eyes to him, then, seeing who it was, threw her arms around his neck, and, as he sat beside her, laid her head on his shoulder clinging to him convulsively.
"You don't believe I love you, Paul; and I can't blame you for it, I can't blame you," she sobbed; "but I do, oh, I do!"
"I do believe it. I know it," he said. "Don't think that I doubt it, and don't cry now, for after this your love shall be enough for me. I will not trouble you any more with importunings to be my wife. I have been very cruel to you."
"It is because I love you that I will not marry you," she sobbed. "Promise me you will never doubt that. Don't ask me to explain to you why it is; only believe me."
"I think I understand why it is already," he replied, gently. "I was very dull not to know before. If I had known, I should not have caused you so much grief."
She raised her head from his shoulder.
"What is it that you know?" she asked, quickly.
He thereupon proceeded to tell her, in tenderest words of reverence, what, in his opinion, was the mystical cause, unsuspected, perhaps, even by herself, of her unconquerable repugnance to the idea of being his wife, truly as he knew she loved him. He blamed himself that he had not recognized the sacred instinct which had held her back, but in his selfish blindness had gone on urging her to do violence to her nature. Now that his eyes were opened he would not grieve her any more. Her love alone should satisfy and bless him. Earthly passion should no more vex her serenity.
When he first began to speak she had regarded him with evident astonishment. As the meaning of his words became clear to her she had turned her face away from him and covered it with both her hands, as a person does under an overpowering sense of shame. She did not remove them until he had finished, when she rose abruptly.
Light enough came from the windows behind them for him to see that her cheeks and forehead were crimson.
"I think I may as well go now," she said. "Good-bye." And in another moment he found himself alone, not a little astonished at the suddenness of her departure.
Ida passed with a quick step through the sitting-room and upstairs to her bedroom, where she locked the door and threw herself upon the bed in a paroxysm of tearless sobbing.
"I believe I have no more tears left," she whispered, as at last she raised herself and arranged her dishevelled hair.
She sat awhile in woful reverie upon the edge of the bed, and then crossed the room to a beautiful writing-desk which Miss Ludington had given her. She opened it, and, taking out several sheets of paper, prepared to write. "If I had not run upstairs that moment," she murmured, "I must have told him the whole horrible story. But it is better this way. I believe it would have killed me to see the look on his face. Oh, my darling, my darling! what will you think of me when you know?" and then she sat down to write.
She stopped so many times to cry over it that it was midnight when the writing was finished. It was a letter, and the superscription read as follows:--
"To my lover, Paul, who will never love me any mere after he reads this, but whom I shall love for ever:--
"This letter will explain to you why my room is empty this morning. I could stand it no longer: to be loved and almost worshipped, by those whom I was basely deceiving. And so I have fled. You will never see me or hear from me again, and you will never want to after you have read this letter. All the jewellery and dresses, and everything that Miss Ludington has given me, I have left behind, except the clothes I had to have to go away in, and these I will return as soon as I get where I am going. Oh, my poor Paul! I am no more Ida Ludington than you are. How could you ever believe such a thing? But let me tell my shameful story in order. Perhaps it was not so strange that you were deceived. I think any one might have been who held the belief you did at the outset.
"I am Ida Slater, Mrs. Slater's daughter, whom she named after Miss Ludington, because she thought her name so pretty when they went to school together as children in Hilton. I was born in Hilton twenty-three years ago, several years after Miss Ludington left the village. My father is Mr. Slater, of course, but he is the person you know as Dr. Hull, which is an assumed name. Mrs. Legrand, who is no more dead than you are, is a sister of my father. Her husband is dead, and father acts as her manager, and mother helps about the seances, and does what she can in any way to bring a little money. We have always been very poor, and it has been very, very hard for us to get a living. Father is a man of education, and had tried many things before we came to this, but nothing succeeded. We grew poorer and poorer, and when this business came in our way he had to take up with it or send us to the almshouse. It is not an honest business, at least as we conducted it; but, oh, Paul! none of you that are rich understand that to a very poor man the duty of supporting his family seems sometimes as if it were the only duty in the world.
"Well, when mother came to visit Miss Ludington, and saw that picture which is so much like me, and so little, mother says, like what Miss Ludington ever was, and when she found out about your belief in the immortality of past selves, the idea first came to her of deceiving you.
"That story of mother's going to Cincinnati was a lie, to prevent your suspecting that she had anything to do with the business. Mrs. Rhinehart is an imaginary person. At first, the idea was only to get you interested in the seances, for the profit of the fees; but when they saw how entirely deceived you were by my resemblance to the picture, the scheme of getting me into this house occurred to them.
"Or rather it did not occur to them at all. It was you, Paul, yourself, who suggested it, when you said that night after the first seance, that if a medium died in a trance, you believed the materialized spirit could not dematerialize but would return to earth. But for that the idea would never have occurred to them.
"It seemed a daring plot, but many things favoured it. I had lived in Hilton up to within a few years, and knew every stick and stone of the old as well as the new part of the village. I had wandered all over the old Ludington homestead time and again. Mother knew as much about Miss Ludington's early life as she did herself, and could post me on the subject, and there was my wonderful resemblance to the picture, which, of itself, would be almost enough to carry me through.
"It was for my sake entirely that they proposed this scheme. My father and mother may be looked down upon by the world as a very poor kind of people, but they have always been very good to me. I will not have you blame them except as you blame me with them. They thought that in this way I could be rescued from the hard and questionable life which they were living, and in which they did not wish me to grow up. If the plan succeeded, and you were deceived and took me here, thinking me the true Ida, they believed that I would be secured a life of happiness and luxury. They had seen, too, how you were in love with the true Ida, and made no question that you would love me and marry me.
"It was that more than all, Paul, that decided me to do it. I had fallen in love with you that night of the first seance when I stood before you and you looked at me with such boundless, adoring love. I think it would have turned almost any girl's head to be looked at in that way. And then, Paul, you are very handsome.
"I always had a taste for acting. They used to say I would have done well on the stage, and the idea of playing a role so fine and so bold as this took my fancy from the start. It was that, Paul, that, and the notion of your making love to me, more than any thought of the wealth and luxury I might get a share in, which made me consent to the plan.
"That sickness of Mrs. Legrand's between the seances--I am telling you all, Paul--was only a sham, so that we might see how much in earnest you were, and to get time for me to learn by heart all mother could teach me about the Hilton of forty years ago and Miss Ludington's girlhood. There were so many lists of names to be kept in mind, and school-room incidents, picnics, and flirtations; but it was as interesting as a romance, and being a Hilton girl, it did not take me long to make myself as much at home with the last generation as with my own. Sometimes mother would say to me, 'Ida, if I did not know that you are a good girl, and would be good to Miss Ludington, I would not betray my old friend this way. I would not do it for any one but you, and if I did not believe that in deceiving her you would make her very happy--far happier than now.'
"I think, in spite of all, she was very fond of Miss Ludington, for she made me promise, again and again, that I would be very good to her, as if I could have helped being good to such a gentle, tender-hearted person as she.
"You see, in our business, we had shown to so many sad people what they believed to be the forms and faces of their dead friends, and had sent them away comforted, that we had come to feel our frauds condoned by the happiness they caused, and that we were, after all, doing good.
"As for you, Paul, mother had no scruples. She said that I was a good girl, and any man was lucky to get me. I was not sure of that, but I knew that any girl would be fortunate whom you loved. She had a dress cut for me in the exact pattern of that in the picture--a very old-fashioned pattern, but very becoming to me--and all was ready. You know the rest.
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