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Chapter 3

III.

"The house they had taken was rather a lonely place, out of sight of neighbors, which they had got cheap because it was so isolated and inconvenient, I fancy. Of course Mrs. Ormond, with her exaggeration, represented it as a sort of solitude which nobody but tramps of the most dangerous description ever visited. As she said, she never went to sleep without expecting to wake up murdered in her bed."

"Like her," said Minver, with a glance at me full of relish for the touch of character which I would feel with him.

"She said," Wanhope went on, "that she was anxious from the first for the effect upon Ormond. In the stress of any danger, she gave me to understand, he always behaved very well, but out of its immediate presence he was full of all sorts of gloomy apprehensions, unless the surroundings were cheerful. She could not imagine how he came to take the place, but when she told him so—"

"I've no doubt she told him so pretty promptly," the painter grinned.

"—he explained that he had seen it on a brilliant day in spring, when all the trees were in bloom, and the bees humming in the blossoms, and the orioles singing, and the outlook from the lawn down over the river valley was at its best. He had fallen in love with the place, that was the truth, and he was so wildly in love with it all through that he could not feel the defect she did in it. He used to go gaily about the wide, harking old house at night, shutting it up, and singing or whistling while she sat quaking at the notion of their loneliness and their absolute helplessness—an invalid and a little woman—in case anything happened. She wanted him to get the man who did the odd jobs about the house, to sleep there, but he laughed at her, and they kept on with their usual town equipment of two serving-women. She could not account for his spirits, which were usually so low when they were alone—"

"And not fighting," Minver suggested to me.

"—and when she asked him what the matter was he could not account for them, either. But he said, one day, that the fear of death seemed to be lifted from his soul, and that made her shudder."

Rulledge fetched a long sigh, and Minver interpreted, "Beginning to feel that it's something like now."

"He said that for the first time within his memory he was rid of that nether consciousness of mortality which had haunted his whole life, and poisoned, more or less, all his pleasure in living. He had got a reprieve, or a respite, and he felt like a boy—another kind of boy from what he had ever been. He was full of all sorts of brilliant hopes and plans. He had visions of success in business beyond anything he had known, and talked of buying the place he had taken, and getting a summer colony of friends about them. He meant to cut the property up, and make the right kind of people inducements. His world seemed to have been emptied of all trouble as well as all mortal danger."

"Haven't you psychologists some message about a condition like that!" I asked.

"Perhaps it's only the pathologists again," said Minver.

"The alienists, rather more specifically," said Wanhope. "They recognize it as one of the beginnings of insanit—folie des grandeurs as the French call the stage."

"Is it necessarily that?" Rulledge demanded, with a resentment which we felt so droll in him that we laughed.

"I don't know that it is," said Wanhope. "I don't know why we shouldn't sometimes, in the absence of proofs to the contrary, give such a fact the chance to evince a spiritual import. Of course it had no other import to poor Mrs. Ormond, and of course I didn't dream of suggesting a scientific significance."

"I should think not!" Rulledge puffed.

Wanhope went on: "I don't think I should have dared to do so to a woman in her exaltation concerning it. I could see that however his state had affected her with dread or discomfort in the first place, it had since come to be her supreme hope and consolation. In view of what afterward happened, she regarded it as the effect of a mystical intimation from another world that was sacred, and could not he considered like an ordinary fact without sacrilege. There was something very pathetic in her absolute conviction that Ormond's happiness was an emanation from the source of all happiness, such as sometimes, where the consciousness persists, comes to a death-bed. That the dying are not afraid of dying is a fact of such common, such almost invariable observation—"

"You mean," I interposed, "when the vital forces are beaten so low that the natural dread of ceasing to be, has no play? It has less play, I've noticed, in age than in youth, but for the same reason that it has when people are weakened by sickness."

"Ah," said Wanhope, "that comparative indifference to death in the old, to whom it is so much nearer than it is to the young, is very suggestive. There may be something in what you say; they may not care so much because they have no longer the strength—the muscular strength—for caring. They are too tired to care as they used. There is a whole region of most important inquiry in that direction—"

"Did you mean to have him take that direction?" Rulledge asked, sulkily.

"He can take any direction for me," I said. "He is always delightful."

"Ah, thank you!" said Wanhope.

"But I confess," I went on, "that I was wondering whether the fact that the dying are indifferent to death could be established in the case of those who die in the flush of health and strength, like, for instance, people who are put to death."

Wanhope smiled. "I think it can—measurably. Most murderers make a good end, as the saying used to be, when they end on the scaffold, though they are not supported by religious fervor of any kind, or the exaltation of a high ideal. They go meekly and even cheerfully to their death, without rebellion or even objection. It is most exceptional that they make a fight for their lives, as that woman did a few years ago at Dannemora, and disgusted all refined people with capital punishment."

"I wish they would make a fight always," said Rulledge, with unexpected feeling. "It would do more than anything to put an end to that barbarity."

"It would be very interesting, as Wanhope says," Minver remarked. "But aren't we getting rather far away? From the Ormonds, I mean."

"We are, rather," said Wanhope. "Though I agree that it would be interesting. I should rather like to have it tried. You know Frederick Douglass acted upon some such principle when his master attempted to whip him. He fought, and he had a theory that if the slave had always fought there would soon have been an end of whipping, and so an end of slavery. But probably it will be a good while before criminals are—"

"Educated up to the idea," Minver proposed.

"Yes," Wanhope absently acquiesced. "There seems to be a resignation intimated to the parting soul, whether in sickness or in health, by the mere proximity of death. In Ormond's case there seems to have been something more positive. His wife says that in the beginning of those days he used to come to her and wonder what could be the matter with him. He had a joy he could not account for by anything in their lives, and it made her tremble."

"Probably it didn't. I don't think there was anything that could make Mrs. Ormond tremble, unless it was the chance that Ormond would get the last word," said Minver.

No one minded him, and Wanhope continued: "Of course she thought he must be going to have a fit of sickness, as the people say in the country, or used to say. Those expressions often survive in the common parlance long after the peculiar mental and moral conditions in which they originated have passed away. They must once have been more accurate than they are now. When one said 'fit of sickness' one must have meant something specific; it would be interesting to know what. Women use those expressions longer than men; they seem to be inveterate in their nerves; and women apparently do their thinking in their nerves rather than their brains."

William Dean Howells

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