I was abroad when Mrs. Alderling died, but I heard that it was from a typhoid fever which she had contracted from the water in their well, as was supposed. The water-supply all along that coast is scanty, and that summer most of the wells were dry, and quite a plague of typhoid raged among the people from drinking the dregs. The fever might have gone the worse with her because of her over-fed robustness; at any rate it went badly enough.
I first heard of her death from Minver at the club, and I heard with still greater astonishment that Alderling was down there alone where she had died. Minver said that somebody ought to go down and look after the poor old fellow, but nobody seemed to feel it exactly his office. Certainly I did not feel it mine, and I thought it rather a hardship when a few days after I found a letter from Alderling at the club quite piteously beseeching me to come to him. He had read of my arrival home, in a stray New York paper, and he was firing his letter, he said, at the club, with one chance in a thousand of hitting me with it. Rulledge was by when I read it, and he decided, with that unsparing activity of his, where other people are concerned, that I must go; I certainly could not resist such an appeal as that. He had a vague impression, he said, of something weird in the situation down there, and I ought to go and pull Alderling out of it; besides, I might find my account in it as a psychologist. I hesitated a day, out of self-respect, or self-assertion, and then, the weather coming on suddenly hot, in the beginning of September, I went.
Of course I had meant to go, all along, but I was not so glad when I arrived, as I might have been if Alderling had given me a little warmer welcome. His mood had changed since writing to me, and the strongest feeling he showed at seeing me was what affected me very like a cold surprise.
If I had broken in on a solitude in that place before, I was now the intruder upon a desolation. Alderling was living absolutely alone, except for the occasional presence of a neighboring widow—all the middle-aged women there are widows, with dim or dimmer memories of husbands lost off the Banks, or elsewhere at sea—who came in to get his meals and make his bed, and then had instructions to leave. It was in one of her prevailing absences that I arrived with my bag, and I had to hammer a long time with the knocker on the open door before Alderling came clacking down the stairs in his slippers from the top of the house, and gave me his somewhat defiant greeting. I could almost have said that he did not recognize me at the first bleared glance, and his inability, when he realized who it was, to make me feel at home, encouraged me to take the affair into my own hands.
He looked frightfully altered, but perhaps it was the shaggy beard that he had let grow over his poor, lean muzzle, that mainly made the difference. His clothes hung gauntly upon him, and he had a weak-kneed stoop. His coat sleeves were tattered at the wrists, and one of them showed the white lining at the elbow. I simply shuddered at his shirt.
"Will you smoke?" he asked huskily, almost at the first word, and with an effect of bewilderment in his hospitality that almost made me shed tears.
"Well, not just yet, Alderling," I said. "Shall I go to my old room?"
"Go anywhere," he answered, and he let me carry my bag to the chamber where I had slept before.
It was quite as his wife would have arranged it, even to the detail of a triangular portion of the bedding turned down as she used to do it for me. The place was well aired and dusted, and gave me the sense of being as immaculately clean and fresh as Alderling was not. He sat down in a chair by the window, and he remained, while I laid out my things and made my brief toilet, unabashed by those incidents for which I did not feel it necessary to banish him, if he liked staying.
We had supper by-and-by, a very well-cooked meal of fried fresh cod and potatoes, with those belated blackberries which grow so sweet when they hang long on the canes into September. There was a third plate laid, and I expected that when the housekeeper had put the dishes on the table, she would sit down with us, as the country-fashion still is, but she did not reappear till she came in with the dessert and coffee. Alderling ate hungrily, and much more than I had remembered his doing, but perhaps I formerly had the impression of Mrs. Alderling's fine appetite so strongly in mind that I had failed to note his. Certainly, however, there was a difference in one sort which I could not be mistaken in, and that was in his not talking. Her mantle of silence had fallen upon him, and whereas he used hardly to give me a chance in the conversation, he now let me do all of it. He scarcely answered my questions, and he asked none of his own; but I saw that he liked being talked to, and I did my best, shying off from his sorrow, as people foolishly do, and speaking banalities about my trip to Europe, and the Psychological Congress in Geneva, and the fellows at the club, and heaven knows what rot else.
He listened, but I do not know whether he heard much of my clack, and I got very tired of it myself at last. When I had finished my blackberries, he asked mechanically, in an echo of my former visit, with a repetition of his gesture towards the coffee-pot, "More?" I shook my head, and then he led the way out to the veranda, stopping to get his pipe and tobacco from the mantel on the way. But when we sat down in the early falling September twilight outside, he did not light his pipe, letting me smoke my cigarette alone.
"Are you off your tobacco?" I asked.
"I don't smoke," he answered, but he did not explain why, and I did not feel authorized to ask.
The talk went on as lopsidedly as before, and I began to get sleepy. I made bold to yawn, but Alderling did not mind that, and then I made bold to say that I thought I would go to bed. He followed me indoors, saying that he would go to bed, too. The hall was lighted from a hanging-lamp and two clear-burning hand-lamps which the widow had put for us on a small table. She had evidently gone home, and left us to ourselves. He took one lamp and I the other, and he started up stairs before me. If he were not coming down again, he meant to let the hanging-lamp burn, and I had nothing to say about that; but I suggested, concerning the wide-open door behind me, "Shall I close the door, Alderling?" and he answered, without looking round, "I don't shut it."
He led the way into my room, and he sat down as when I had come, and absently watched my processes of getting into bed. There was something droll, and yet miserable, in his behavior. At first, I thought he might be staying merely for the comfort of a human presence, and again, I thought he might be afraid, for I felt a little creepy myself, for no assignable reason, except that Absence, which he must have been incomparably more sensible of than I. From certain ineffectual movements that he made, and from certain preliminary noises in his throat, which ended in nothing, I decided that he wished to say something to me, tell me something, and could not. But I was selfishly sleepy, and it seemed to me that anything he had on his mind would keep there till morning, at least, and that if he got it off on mine now, it might give me a night of wakeful speculation. So when I got into bed and pulled the sheet up under my chin, I said, "Well, I don't want to turn you out, old fellow."
He stared, and answered, "Oh!" and went without other words, carrying his lamp with him and moving with a weak-kneed shuffle, like a very old man.
He was going to leave the door open behind him, but I called out, "I wish you'd shut me in, Alderling," and after a hesitation, he came back and closed the door.
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