Hommes se baignant de Michiel Sweerts.jpeg

Fanny Stevenson



Anne was walking down the slope of a hill at the time of the first stirring of dawn on a spring morning. She was an old woman, now, her youth lying years behind her; but she had not been one to fall easily into the sere and yellow leaf. Though frail in health, she had kept her manifold interests sharp and lively; pictures gave her pleasure keen as of yore, and there was no critic of literature more quick than she to detect a lapse in taste or art, nor with a readier appreciation of style, originality, or even intention. She was, at last, however, forced to believe that she was growing old. She was old, and the days were flying past her with an incredible rapidity. She rebelled with passionate fierceness against the inevitable, approaching end. As bitterly as for herself (she was sixty and past), she resented the fact that John, her husband, stood even nearer the final catastrophe than she; John, whom, though ten years her senior, she had petted and spoiled like a child. Hers had always been the dominant mind. John, older and aging more rapidly than she, had now become absolutely dependent on her, almost for his thoughts. Their marriage was blessed with no children, wherefore all the motherly instincts of the wife had been lavished on the husband. "My very love has made him helpless," thought Anne; "pray God he be called before me."


She walked more quickly, in time with her thoughts, which now wandered along devious pathways through the past. The scenes she recalled were nothing in themselves, no more than most elderly people keep stored in their memories; but to her, who had played the principal parts, they were of the liveliest interest. The day she and John took possession of the house that had been their own ever since was as vivid as yesterday. Nay, more vivid, for she was not at all sure concerning yesterday; she had had a headache, and was stupid, and had slept a good deal; and John dozed in his chair; there was nothing to remember in yesterday.


But that first day in the new house, both so proud, so fond, so full of plans; and it was all over. The plans matured or failed, and they were only two old people, conscious of ever-failing strength, careful of draughts, easily tired—well, no, not so very easily tired after all, at least not Anne, or at least not to-day. It must be the early morning, or the spring weather. She had heard of old people who recovered their faculties in a sort of Indian summer, possibly her Indian summer was about to burst into a mature blossoming. She felt so light on her feet, so uplifted as with a wholesome, altogether delightful intoxication. The sensation carried her far back to her childhood, to a first day in the garden after a winter's illness. How she skipped, and ran, and laughed. She was conscious to-day of the same pure joy in living. It was like being a child again. And those sad, querulous days, yesterday, and the days and years before—that was the child's illness; such a long illness, ever-increasing, with but one terrible cure.


But not even that fancy could depress Anne to-day, glorious to-day, this day of ten thousand! She laughed aloud, pretending, as children pretend, that she had, unknowing, drunk of the golden elixir; her eyes should be unclouded, her cheeks flower-fresh, her scant, white locks changed to rings of softest brown; a tall, slim slip of a girl, as John first met her. At the foot of the meadow where she kept tryst with John there used to be a still pool where she preened her feathers while waiting for her gallant. She looked about for a pool, smiling at this vanity in an old woman; but suppose—suppose—?


Of course she was always properly dressed and coifed as became one of her station and fortune, with a certain well-bred deference to the prevailing modes, and she owned to a nice taste in lace and jewels. Jane, her maid, had been very much remiss when she laid out the gown her mistress wore this morning. It must be a new one, by the way, or an old one remodelled; it was not in her usual style, but of a singular cut, stiff, plain, and ungraceful in its prim folds. However, it was white, and white was still Anne's color. And what matters a gown when one is in so high a humor?


The valley below was everywhere covered with a white rime which ran in sparkles as the sun touched it. It should be sharply cold, Anne thought, but she felt no chill. Frost generally passed over the high ground, while it nipped the lower. She hoped it had spared the tender plants in her garden, and the budding peaches. Already the crocuses were in bloom, and the lilacs showed a few timid, scented leaves. Anne was very fond of her garden, and it was one of her grievances against time that she could no longer tend it in person.


She had forgotten why she searched for the pool; she was a little confused, doubtless the effect of yesterday's headache—nothing unpleasant, rather a delightful, dizzy jumbling of thoughts, ideas, remembrances. At any rate, here was the pool, clear and unruffled; new grass was springing on its banks, and here and there woolly brown bosses showed where ferns were sprouting. She would fetch John here one day—if he were able to walk so far. John used to like a pool when his sight was stronger; not in Anne's way; her liking was innocent and sentimental. John would bring his microscope and discover the most wonderful things in water that appeared absolutely pure. Decidedly she must manage to fetch John.


Anne leaned over and looked into the pool. She leaned farther, lower, turned her head this way and that, and then drew back in utter bewilderment. There was no reflection of her face in the water! She was overwhelmed with disappointment. This enchanting rejuvenation, then, was only a dream. She could almost have wept; not quite, for the dream still held her as in an embrace of joyousness. She wondered what her body looked like, lying on its bed while its soul was roaming the fields. She pitied it, the worn, frail, old body, as though it were a thing separate from herself. It had suffered in its fairly long life, and had endured many contrarieties, but there had been more than compensating happinesses, and no great sorrows. She hoped it slept well. John's dear, white head would be lying on the pillow beside it. "Oh," she thought, "I wish I could give my dream to John. Well, it shall be the best dream in the world if John is only to have it at second hand."


In the certainty that she was dreaming, Anne now gave her imagination a free rein. False shame is out of place in a dream. She gambolled like a prisoned kid set free, and sang—softly, lest the dream should be shattered. As the day advanced wild things came out of the wood; squirrels, and other animals so shy by nature that she had only seen them, heretofore, at a distance, stopped beside her and conversed together in their own language. She saw what no naturalist has ever beheld, God's creatures at home and unafraid. She laid her hand on the head of a doe as it drank at a pool, and ran with it feather-footed. She spurned the earth and took long, smooth flights over the undergrowth like a bird sailing on the wing.


Suddenly she became aware of a voice, clear and penetrating, that spoke the name—Anne. A face was before her, vaguely familiar, a face of her childhood.


"Marian!" she cried; "my mother's cousin, Marian."


"You remember me, dear Anne."


"You—you went to India," murmured Anne in a maze; "I thought—mother talked of you to us children—your portrait in the school-room——"


"Yes, I went to the Indies; I died there when you were a little child. You were always much in my mind, for I loved your mother, and you were her favorite. So she did not allow my name to be forgotten? She talked of me to her children, and she kept my portrait."


"Did you say—died!" repeated Anne, who had given an involuntary start at the word. "I wonder if I am really meeting your spirit in a dream? It might be. Why should it not?"


"You certainly are meeting my spirit, which is myself, but not in a dream, dear."


Anne felt a thrill of terror. What if this were not a dream? "I am not dead?" She looked at Marian with frightened, questioning eyes.


"You must be dead," was the answer, "else how should you be here? Your mother used to write me that you had unusual powers; I never had. You might, as a mortal, possibly see me, but I could not be conscious of you unless you were as real as myself."


Anne stared hard at her companion. "I have, it is true," said she, "imagined I saw spirits, but they were not like you; they were phantoms, ghosts, immaterial." She hesitated, and then took Marian's hand in hers. "This hand is as solid as my own. If I believed you were dead—if I thought I was—dead—myself, oh, it would be appalling!"


"My dear Anne," said Marian, "we are both spirits; we were always spirits, only in the body we were chained spirits. Material or immaterial only means a point of view, not a difference."


"I am no spirit," said Anne. "I am of the earth, and the flesh; all my thoughts are with, and on the earth, and of the earth. As to you, Marian, I don't know. There is an uncertainty in my mind—no, I mean an enlightenment; I don't know what to call it—an apprehension. Marian, do you mind? I thought heaven was a very different place. I should expect something more serious, more solemn. The idea of an everlasting sabbath used to depress me. I have no desire for such a state——"


"Heaven! Heaven! Did you think you were in heaven? Oh, no, this is not heaven. I trust there may be a heaven, and a future life, but this is not heaven. I only know about this world in which I exist, and that it is immeasurably better than that other world we have both happily left."


"It is all so different from one's dreams," said Anne. "Dreams," she repeated; "dreams. Marian, did you long for those you left behind? Were you lonely without them? Or were you with them, following all their affairs with sympathy and understanding?"


"No," replied Marian, "I knew no more of my loved ones in the past life than they knew of me. That is the worst of it, both now and before; the separation, the waiting. I wish I had had more faith in the old days. I wish my faith were greater now. My dearest ones left me when I was no more than thirty, and I was eighty when I died. It was a long waiting. You were a little child, then, and you must have been well in years when——"


"Don't, don't!" cried Anne; "don't repeat that dreadful word! I am not, I cannot be! And yet I know, and hate the knowledge, that it must come to me very soon, for I am, as you say, an old woman. Let me enjoy this beautiful dream wherein I am still young. But is this youth? When I look at you, Marian, you are not old, but you are not young. My intellect will not conceive it what it is."


"If you would only believe me," said Marian, "that we are both relieved of the burden of the flesh with all its infirmities and limitations. It is that, only that. There can be no pain where there is no flesh to suffer."


"And no sorrow?" asked Anne.


"Sorrow," replied Marian, "that is of the mind, and the mind is part of ourselves."


"Separation is the worst," replied Anne. "Separation." "Suppose," she thought, "that I am really in another existence, where then is my dear, old John, my husband?"


"Marian," she cried out, "I must go home; at once!"


"But my dear," said Marian, "you cannot; as a mortal you could not come here; how then can you now go there? Oh, Anne, there are many loved ones waiting for you here. Many who loved you. We knew you would arrive suddenly; we were warned of that; I came first—it was thought best—to prepare you for the great meeting."


"I tell you," said Anne, sharply, "I am going home. John will miss me. I have been too long away already."


"Your mother, Anne, she is coming," pleaded Marian.


"Not mother, nor father, nor friends beloved can come between John and me. I must see John first. Something may have happened."


She looked about her. "I don't quite know where I am. There should be people about. I see no one to put me on the road."


"Anne," said Marian, "neither you nor I can find that road."


"Oh, come with me," cried Anne, "help me to find John; I must find John."


The two women moved together hand in hand down the hill into the valley.


"I can make out nothing in this bewildering fog," said Anne, peering out from under her hand. "Whenever I seem just about to recognize a familiar place or object, it is to be blotted out by the fog. There was no fog before. Oh, Marian, it should be hereabouts; our house should be here!"


Marian withdrew her hand from Anne's.


"You disturb me," she said; "what you are doing is unlawful. Come away; something mortal might appear. If you will not, Anne, you drive me from you; I dare not stay."


Anne stood alone, trying to pierce with her gaze the fog which grew perceptibly thinner. The elm, and then the shrubbery of her garden began to show darkly, like shadows. She drew closer, for now the house itself loomed up, large and imposing, but in some intangible way different. The walls, the doors, the windows, all were there, all in their appointed places. What, then, was the indefinable change? It used to be considered such a pleasant house, so cheerful, so gay with its hanging creepers, and the bright curtains at the windows. Two years running a bird had nested in the cornice over the porch. But to-day it presented an aspect of gloom that was forbidding in the extreme. It gave the impression of a house to be avoided, a place where wrong things had happened, or might happen. Anne, now that she was so near that a word spoken aloud would reach her husband's ear, and she had only to lift the knocker and enter her own door, shrank back with an odd reluctance. She would walk round to the study first, and look through the window. Perhaps John would be there, reading, or writing a letter, and, without doubt, wondering what had become of his wife. The blinds were closed. How like John not to think of opening them. With all the blinds down like that, people would think there was a death——


John was sitting by the table, leaning forward, apparently asleep. He was so still, so quiet. Oh, if anything had happened to John! No; he raised his head as though he heard someone call, looking straight in his wife's eyes. Why did he not speak? What ailed him to look like that? Anne remembered that she was behind the closed blinds. His eyes had a strained look as though he almost saw her.


"John! John!" she cried.


The old man shivered and looked vaguely round him. Anne noticed that he had no fire. The hoar-frost of the morning, that looked so beautiful, he would feel that; he was very sensitive to changes of temperature and weather. His clothes, too, looked thinner than he was in the habit of wearing—and with a great black patch on one sleeve! Anne must see to this at once. John was less fit than ever to take care of himself. He looked so feeble, so old, so much older than she had thought. Ah, what would John do without her? Her heart yearned over him with the tender compassion of the strong for the weak, the deep affection that belongs to the habit of a lifetime—stronger than the love of youth.


"John, John, my husband!"


Again he turned his face toward the window, a leaden gray face. Slow tears ran down his furrowed cheeks and fell on his breast.


"Oh, what is it? Oh, my poor old husband!"


Anne flew to the closed door and snatched at the knocker. Her hands closed on vacancy. Her own house, her home, John's home, and she could not get in! Back she ran to the window. He was still there, his head lying on his clenched hands. As though from a long distance, thin and faint, his voice came to Anne, broken with weeping. He was calling on her name—"Anne, Anne!"


"Oh, my dear old husband, do you miss me so sorely? John, John, open the window and let me in!"


He moved, as though in answer, but sank back again with a weary shake of his head. Anne lifted her arms and struck at the wall. That it should prove "such stuff as dreams are made on" gave her no surprise. She was beside John; nothing else was of importance. A shadowy serving-maid opened a door, looked wildly round, shuddered, and fled. John seemed conscious of her presence; oh, why not, then, of Anne's?


She knelt beside him, she laid her hands on his, she murmured all the foolish endearing phrases that were their own; but he saw nothing, he heard nothing.


"Oh, my dear old husband," she said; "husband of my youth and of my old age; we are one; we cannot be parted. I will not leave you. I shall wait beside you."


John turned with seeing eyes. "Anne!" he cried, with a loud voice, as his head fell on her breast.


Together they passed out of the house, paying no heed to what was left behind, nor to the terrified call of the serving-maid, "Help, help, master is dead!"