Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 2

II.

The psychologist set his cup down and resumed his cigar, which he had to pull at pretty strongly before it revived. "I should not be surprised," he began, "if a good deal of the fear of death had arisen, and perpetuated itself in the race, from the early personification of dissolution as an enemy of a certain dreadful aspect, armed and threatening. That conception wouldn't have been found in men's minds at first; it would have been the result of later crude meditation upon the fact. But it would have remained through all the imaginative ages, and the notion might have been intensified in the more delicate temperaments as time went on, and by the play of heredity it might come down to our own day in certain instances with a force scarcely impaired by the lapse of incalculable time."

"You said just now," said Rulledge, in rueful reproach, "that personification had gone out."

"Yes, it has. I did say that, and yet I suppose that though such a notion of death, say, no longer survives in the consciousness, it does survive in the unconsciousness, and that any vivid accident or illusory suggestion would have force to bring it to the surface."

"I wish I knew what you were driving at," said Rulledge.

"You remember Ormond, don't you?" asked Wanhope, turning suddenly to me.

"Perfectly," I said. "I—he isn't living, is he?"

"No; he died two years ago."

"I thought so," I said, with the relief that one feels in not having put a fellow-creature out of life, even conditionally.

"You knew Mrs. Ormond, too, I believe," the psychologist pursued.

I owned that I used to go to the Ormonds' house.

"Then you know what a type she was, I suppose," he turned to the others, "and as they're both dead it's no contravention of the club etiquette against talking of women, to speak of her. I can't very well give the instance—the sign—that Rulledge is seeking without speaking of her, unless I use a great deal of circumlocution." We all urged him to go on, and he went on. "I had the facts I'm going to give, from Mrs. Ormond. You know that the Ormonds left New York a couple of years ago?"

He happened to look at Minver as he spoke, and Minver answered: "No; I must confess that I didn't even know they had left the planet."

Wanhope ignored his irrelevant ignorance. "They went to live provisionally at a place up the Housatonic road, somewhere—perhaps Canaan; but it doesn't matter. Ormond had been suffering some time with an obscure affection of the heart—"

"Oh, come now!" said Rulledge. "You're not going to spring anything so pat as heart-disease on us?"

"Acton is all ears," said Minver, nodding toward me. "He hears the weird note afar."

The psychologist smiled. "I'm afraid you're not interested. I'm not much interested myself in these unrelated instances."

"Oh, no!" "Don't!" "Do go on!" the different entreaties came, and after a little time taken to recover his lost equanimity, Wanhope went on: "I don't know whether you knew that Ormond had rather a peculiar dread of death." We none of us could affirm that we did, and again Wanhope resumed: "I shouldn't say that he was a coward above other men I believe he was rather below the average in cowardice. But the thought of death weighed upon him. You find this much more commonly among the Russians, if we are to believe their novelists, than among Americans. He might have been a character out of one of Tourguénief's books, the idea of death was so constantly present with him. He once told me that the fear of it was a part of his earliest consciousness, before the time when he could have had any intellectual conception of it. It seemed to be something like the projection of an alien horror into his life—a prenatal influence—"

"Jove!" Rulledge broke in. "I don't see how the women stand it. To look forward nearly a whole year to death as the possible end of all they're hoping for and suffering for! Talk of men's courage after that! I wonder we're not all marked.'

"I never heard of anything of the kind in Ormond's history," said
Wanhope, tolerant of the incursion.

Minver took his cigar out to ask, the more impressively, perhaps, "What do you fellows make of the terror that a two months' babe starts in its sleep with before it can have any notion of what fear is on its own hook?"

"We don't make anything of it," the psychologist answered. "Perhaps the pathologists do."

"Oh, it's easy enough to say wind," Rulledge indignantly protested.

"Too easy, I agree with you," Wanhope consented. "We cannot tell what influences reach us from our environment, or what our environment really is, or how much or little we mean by the word. The sense of danger seems to be inborn, and possibly it is a survival of our race life when it was wholly animal and took care of itself through what we used to call the instincts. But, as I was saying, it was not danger that Ormond seemed to be afraid of, if it came short of death. He was almost abnormally indifferent to pain. I knew of his undergoing an operation that most people would take ether for, and not wincing, because it was not supposed to involve a fatal result.

"Perhaps he carried his own anodyne with him," said Minver, "like the
Chinese."

"You mean a sort of self-anaesthesia?" Wanhope asked. "That is very interesting. How far such a principle, if there is one, can be carried in practice. The hypnotists—"

"I'm afraid I didn't mean anything so serious or scientific," said the painter.

"Then don't switch Wanhope off on a side track," Rulledge implored. "You know how hard it is to keep him on the main line. He's got a mind that splays all over the place if you give him the least chance. Now, Wanhope, come down to business."

Wanhope laughed amiably. "Why, there's so very little of the business. I'm not sure that it wasn't Mrs. Ormond's attitude toward the fact that interested me most. It was nothing short of devout. She was a convert. She believed he really saw—I suppose," he turned to me, "there's no harm in our recognizing now that they didn't always get on smoothly together?"

"Did they ever?" I asked.

"Oh, yes—oh, yes," said the psychologist, kindly. "They were very fond of each other, and often very peaceful."

"I never happened to be by," I said.

"Used to fight like cats and dogs," said Minver. "And they didn't seem to mind people. It was very swell, in a way, their indifference, and it did help to take away a fellow's embarrassment."

"That seemed to come mostly to an end that summer," said Wanhope, "if you could believe Mrs. Ormond."

"You probably couldn't," the painter put in.

"At any rate she seemed to worship his memory."

"Oh, yes; she hadn't him there to claw."

"Well, she was quite frank about it with me," the psychologist pursued. "She admitted that they had always quarreled a good deal. She seemed to think it was a token of their perfect unity. It was as if they were each quarreling with themselves, she said. I'm not sure that there wasn't something in the notion. There is no doubt but that they were tremendously in love with each other, and there is something curious in the bickerings of married people if they are in love. It's one way of having no concealments; it's perfect confidence of a kind—"

"Or unkind," Minver suggested.

"What has all that got to do with it!" Rulledge demanded.

"Nothing directly," Wanhope confessed, "and I'm not sure that it has much to do indirectly. Still, it has a certain atmospheric relation. It is very remarkable how thoughts connect themselves with one another. It's a sort of wireless telegraphy. They do not touch at all; there is apparently no manner of tie between them, but they communicate—"

"Oh, Lord!" Rulledge fumed.

Wanhope looked at him with a smiling concern, such as a physician might feel in the symptoms of a peculiar case. "I wonder," he said absently, "how much of our impatience with a fact delayed is a survival of the childhood of the race, and how far it is the effect of conditions in which possession is the ideal!"

Rulledge pushed back his chair, and walked away in dudgeon. "I'm a busy man myself. When you've got anything to say you can send for me."

Minver ran after him, as no doubt he meant some one should. "Oh, come back! He's just going to begin;" and when Rulledge, after some pouting, had been pushed down into his chair again, Wanhope went on, with a glance of scientific pleasure at him.

William Dean Howells

Sorry, no summary available yet.