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- Miss Ludington's Sister - 3/23 -
expecting to greet him at the breakfast-table, she found instead a letter from him, which, to her further astonishment, consisted of several closely written sheets. What could have possessed him to write her this laborious letter on the very day of his return?
The letter began by telling her that he had accepted an invitation from a class-mate, and should not be home for a couple of days. "But this is only an excuse," he went on; "the true reason that I do not at once return is that you may have a day or two to think over the contents of this letter before you see me; for what I have to say will seem very startling to you at first. I was trying to prepare you for it when I talked, as you evidently thought, so strangely, about Ida, the last time I was at home; but you were only mystified, and I was not ready to explain. A certain timidity held me back. It was so great a matter that I was afraid to broach it by word of mouth lest I might fail to put it in just the best way before your mind, and its strangeness might terrify you before you could be led to consider its reasonableness. But, now that I am coming home to stay, I should not be able to keep it from you, and it has seemed to me better to write you in this way, so that you may have time fully to debate the matter with your own heart before you see me. Do you remember the last evening that I was at home, my asking you if you did not sometimes have a sense of Ida's presence? You looked at me as if you thought I were losing my wits. What did I mean, you asked, by speaking of her as a living person? But I was not ready to speak, and I put you off.
"I am going to answer your question now. I am going to tell you how and why I believe that she is neither lost nor dead, but a living and immortal spirit. For this, nothing less than this, is my absolute assurance, the conviction which I ask you to share.
"But stop, let us go back. Let us assume nothing. Let us reason it all out carefully from the beginning. Let me forget that I am her lover. Let me be stiff; and slow, and formal as a logician, while I prove that my darling lives for ever. And you, follow me carefully, to see if I slip. Forget what ineffable thing she is to you; forget what it is to you that she lives. Do not let your eyes fill; do not let your brain swim. It would be madness to believe it if it is not true. Listen, then:-- You know that men speak of human beings, taken singly, as individuals. It is taken for granted in the common speech that the individual is the unit of humanity, not to be subdivided. That is, indeed, what the etymology of the word means. Nevertheless, the slightest reflection will cause any one to see that this assumption is a most mistaken one. The individual is no more the unit of humanity than is the tribe or family; but, like them, is a collective noun, and stands for a number of distinct persons, related one to another in a particular way, and having certain features of resemblance. The persons composing a family are related both collaterally and by succession or descent, while the persons composing an individual are related by succession only. They are called infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, maturity, age, and dotage.
"These persons are very unlike one another. Striking physical, mental, and moral differences exist between them. Infancy and childhood are incomprehensible to manhood, and manhood not less so to them. The youth looks forward with disgust to the old age which is to follow him, and the old man has far more in common with other old men, his own contemporaries, than with the youth who preceded him. How frequently do we see the youth vicious and depraved, and the man who follows him upright and virtuous, hating iniquity! How often, on the other hand, is a pure and innocent girlhood succeeded by a dissolute and shameless womanhood! In many cases age looks back upon youth with inexpressible longing and tenderness, and quite as often with shame and remorse; but in all cases with the same consciousness of profound contrast, and of a great gulf fixed between.
"If the series of persons which constitutes an individual could by any magic be brought together and these persons confronted with one another, in how many cases would the result be mutual misunderstanding, disgust, and even animosity? Suppose, for instance, that Saul, the persecutor of the disciples of Jesus, who held the garments of them that stoned Stephen, should be confronted with his later self, Paul the apostle, would there not be reason to anticipate a stormy interview? For there is no more ground to suppose that Saul would be converted to Paul's view than the reverse. Each was fully persuaded in his own mind as to what he did.
"But for the fact that each one of the persons who together constitute an individual is well off the field before his successor comes upon it, we should not infrequently see the man collaring his own youth, handing him over to the authorities, and prefering charges against him as a rascally fellow.
"Not by any means are the successive persons of an individual always thus out of harmony with one another. In many, perhaps in a majority, of cases, the same general principles and ideals are recognized by the man which were adopted by the boy, and as much sympathy exists between them as is possible in view of the different aspects which the world necessarily presents to youth and age. In such cases, no doubt, could the series of persons constituting the individual be brought together, a scene of inexpressibly tender and intimate communion would ensue.
"But, though no magic may bring back our past selves to earth, may we not hope to meet them hereafter in some other world? Nay, must we not expect so to meet them if we believe in the immortality of human souls? For if our past selves, who were dead before we were alive, had no souls, then why suppose our present selves have any? Childhood, youth, and manhood are the sweetest, the fairest, the noblest, the strongest of the persons who together constitute an individual. Are they soulless? Do they go down in darkness to oblivion while immortality is reserved for the withered soul of age? If we must believe that there is but one soul to all the persons of an individual it would be easier to believe that it belongs to youth or manhood, and that age is soulless. For if youth, strong-winged and ardent, full of fire and power, perish, leaving nothing behind save a few traces in the memory, how shall the flickering spirit of age have strength to survive the blast of death?
"The individual, in its career of seventy years, has not one body, but many, each wholly new. It is a commonplace of physiology that there is not a particle in the body to-day that was in it a few years ago. Shall we say that none of these bodies has a soul except the last, merely because the last decays more suddenly than the others?
"Or is it maintained that, although there is such utter diversity--physical, mental, moral--between infancy and manhood, youth and age, nevertheless, there is a certain essence common to them all, and persisting unchanged through them all, and that this is the soul of the individual? But such an essence as should be the same in the babe and the man, the youth and the dotard, could be nothing more than a colourless abstraction, without distinctive qualities of any kind--a mere principle of life like the fabled jelly protoplasm. Such a fancy reduces the hope of immortality to an absurdity.
"No! no! It is not any such grotesque or fragmentary immortality that God has given us. The Creator does not administer the universe on so niggardly a plan. Either there is no immortality for us which is intelligible or satisfying, or childhood, youth, manhood, age, and all the other persons who make up an individual, live for ever, and one day will meet and be together in God's eternal present; and when the several souls of an individual are in harmony no doubt He will perfect their felicity by joining them with a tie that shall be incomparably more tender and intimate than any earthly union ever dreamed of, constituting a life one yet manifold--a harp of many strings, not struck successively as here on earth, but blending in rich accord.
"And now I beg you not to suppose that what I have tried to demonstrate is any hasty or ill-considered fancy. It was, indeed, at first but a dream with which the eyes of my sweet mistress inspired me, but from a dream it has grown into a belief, and in these last months into a conviction which I am sure nothing can shake. If you can share it the long mourning of your life will be at an end. Per my own part I could never return to the old way of thinking without relapsing into unutterable despair. To do so would be virtually to give up faith in any immortality at all worth speaking of. For it is the long procession of our past selves, each with its own peculiar charm and incommunicable quality, slipping away from us as we pass on, and not the last self of all whom the grave entraps, which constitutes our chief contribution to mortality. What shall it avail for the grave to give up its handful if there be no immortality for this great multitude? God would not mock us thus. He has power not only over the grave, but over the viewless sepulchre of the past, and not one of the souls to which he has ever given life will be found wanting on the day when he makes up his jewels."
To understand the impression which Paul's letter produced upon Miss Ludington imagine, in the days before the resurrection of the dead was preached, with what effect the convincing announcement of that doctrine would have fallen on the ears of one who had devoted her life to hopeless regrets over the ashes of a friend.
And yet at no time have men been wholly without belief in some form of survival beyond the grave, and such a bereaved woman of antiquity would merely have received a more clear and positive assurance of what she had vaguely imagined before. But that there was any resurrection for her former self--that the bright youth which she had so yearned after and lamented could anywhere still exist, in a mode however shadowy, Miss Ludington had never so much as dreamed.
There might be immortality for all things else; the birds and beasts, and even the lowest forms of life, might, under some form, in some world, live again; but no priest had ever promised, nor any poet ever dreamed, that the title of a man's past selves to a life immortal is as indefeasible as that of his present self.
It did not occur to her to doubt, to quibble, or to question, concerning the grounds of this great hope. From the first moment that she comprehended the purport of Paul's argument, she had accepted its conclusion as an indubitable revelation, and only wondered that she had never thought of it herself, so natural, so inevitable, so incontrovertible did it seem.
And as a sunburst in an instant transforms the sad fields of November into a bright and cheerful landscape, so did this revelation suddenly illumine her sombre life.
All day she went about the house and the village like one in a dream, smiling and weeping, and reading Paul's letter over and over, through eyes swimming with a joy unutterable.
In the afternoon, with tender, tremulous fingers, she removed the crape from the frame of Ida's picture, which it had draped for so many years. As she was performing this symbolic act, it seemed to the old lady that the fair young face smiled upon her. "Forgive me!" she murmured. "How could I have ever thought you dead!"
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