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Chapter 1


The incident was of a dignity which the supernatural has by no means always had, and which has been more than ever lacking in it since the manifestations of professional spiritualism began to vulgarize it. Hewson appreciated this as soon as he realized that he had been confronted with an apparition. He had been very little agitated at the moment, and it was not till later, when the conflict between sense and reason concerning the fact itself arose, that he was aware of any perturbation. Even then, amidst the tumult of his whirling emotions he had a sort of central calm, in which he noted the particulars of the occurrence with distinctness and precision. He had always supposed that if anything of the sort happened to him he would be greatly frightened, but he had not been at all frightened, so far as he could make out. His hair had not risen, or his cheek felt a chill; his heart had not lost or gained a beat in its pulsation; and his prime conclusion was that if the Mysteries had chosen him an agent in approaching the material world they had not made a mistake. This becomes grotesque in being put into words, but the words do not misrepresent, except by their inevitable excess, the mind in which Hewson rose, and flung open his shutters to let in the dawn upon the scene of the apparition, which he now perceived must have been, as it were, self-lighted. The robins were yelling from the trees and the sparrows bickering under them; catbirds were calling from the thickets of syringa, and in the nearest woods a hermit-thrush was ringing its crystal bells. The clear day was penetrating the east with the subtle light which precedes the sun, and a summer sweetness rose cool from the garden below, gray with dew.

In the solitude of the hour there was an intimation of privity to the event which had taken place, an implication of the unity of the natural and the supernatural, strangely different from that robust gayety of the plain day which later seemed to disown the affair, and leave the burden of proof altogether to the human witness. By this time Hewson had already set about to putting it in such phrases as should carry conviction to the hearer, and yet should convey to him no suspicion of the pride which Hewson felt in the incident as a sort of tribute to himself. He dramatized the scene at breakfast when he should describe it in plain, matter-of-fact terms, and hold every one spellbound, as he or she leaned forward over the table to listen, while he related the fact with studied unconcern for his own part in it, but with a serious regard for the integrity of the fact itself, which he had no wish to exaggerate as to its immediate meaning or remoter implications. It did not yet occur to him that it had none; they were simply to be matters of future observation in a second ordeal; for the first emotion which the incident imparted was the feeling that it would happen again, and in this return would interpret itself. Hewson was so strongly persuaded of something of the kind, that after standing for an indefinite period at the window in his pajamas, he got hardily back into bed, and waited for the repetition. He was agreeably aware of waiting without a tremor, and rather eagerly than otherwise; then he began to feel drowsy, and this at first flattered him, as a proof of his strange courage in circumstances which would have rendered sleep impossible to most men; but in another moment he started from it. If he slept every one would say he had dreamt the whole thing; and he could never himself be quite sure that he had not.

He got up, and began to dress, thinking all the time, in a dim way, how very long it would be till breakfast, and wondering what he should do till then with his appetite and his apparition. It was now only a little after four o'clock of the June morning, and nobody would be down till after eight; most people at that very movable feast, which St. John had in the English fashion, did not show themselves before nine. It was impossible to get a book and read for five hours; he would be dropping with hunger if he walked so long. Yet he must not sleep; and he must do something to keep from sleeping. He remembered a little interloping hotel, which had lately forced its way into precincts sacred to cottage life, and had impudently called itself the St. Johnswort Inn, after St. John's place, by a name which he prided himself on having poetically invented from his own and that of a prevalent wild flower. Upon the chance of getting an early cup of coffee at this hotel, Hewson finished dressing, and crept down stairs to let himself out of the house.

He not only found the door locked, as he had expected, but the key taken out; and after some misgiving he decided to lift one of the long library windows, from which he could get into the garden, closing the window after him, and so make his escape. No one was stirring outside the house any more than within; he knocked down a trellis by which a clematis was trying to climb over the window he emerged from, and found his way out of the grounds without alarming any one. He was not so successful at the hotel, where a lank boy, sweeping the long piazzas, recognized one of the St. Johnswort guests in the figure approaching the steps, and apparently had his worst fears roused for Hewson's sanity when Hewson called to him and wondered if he could get a cup of coffee at that hour; he openly owned it was an unnatural hour, and he had a fine inward sense that it was supernatural. The boy dropped his broom without a word, and vanished through the office door, reappearing after a blank interval to pick up his broom and say, "I guess so," as he began sweeping again. It was well, for one reason that he did not state his belief too confidently, Hewson thought; but after another interval of unknown length a rude, sad girl came to tell him his coffee was waiting for him. He followed her back into the still dishevelled dining room, and sat down at a long table to a cup of lukewarm drink that in color and quality recalled terrible mornings of Atlantic travel when he haplessly rose and descended to the dining-saloon of the steamer, and had a marine version of British coffee brought him by an alien table-steward.

He remembered the pock-marked nose of one alien steward, and how he had questioned whether he should give the fellow six-pence or a shilling, seeing that apart from this tribute he should have to fee his own steward for the voyage; at the same time his fancy played with the question whether that uncouth, melancholy waitress had found a moment to wash her face before hurrying to fetch his coffee. He amused himself by contrasting her sloven dejection with the brisk neatness of the service at St. Johnswort; but through all he never lost the awe, the sense of responsibility which he bore to the vision vouchsafed him, doubtless for some reason and to some end that it behooved him to divine.

He found a yesterday's paper in the office of the hotel, and read it till he began to drowse over it, when he pulled himself up with a sharp jerk. He discovered that it was now six o'clock, and he thought if he could walk about for an hour he might return to St. Johnswort, and worry through the remaining hour till breakfast somehow. He was still framing in his thoughts some sort of statement concerning the apparition which he should make when the largest number of guests had got together at the table, with a fine question whether he should take them between the cantaloupe and the broiled chicken, or wait till they had come to the corn griddle-cakes, which St. John's cook served of a filigree perfection in homage to the good old American breakfast ideal. There would be more women, if he waited, and he should need the sympathy and countenance of women; his story would be wanting in something of its supreme effect without the electrical response of their keener nerves.

William Dean Howells

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