We breakfasted as silently on his part as we had supped, but when we had finished, and I was wondering what he was going to let me do with myself, and on the whole what the deuce I had come for, he said, in the longest speech I had yet had from him, "Wouldn't you like to come up and see what I've been doing?"
I said I should like it immensely, and he led the way up stairs, as far As his attic studio. The door of that, like the other doors in the house, stood open, and I got the emotion which the interior gave me, full force, at the first glance. The place was so startlingly alive with that dead woman on a score of canvases in the character in which he had always painted her, that I could scarcely keep from calling out; but I went about, pretending to examine the several Madonnas, and speaking rubbish about them, while he stood stoopingly in the midst of them like the little withered old man he looked. When I had emptied myself of my chaff, I perceived that the time had come.
I glanced about for a seat, and was going to take that in which Mrs.
Alderling used to pose for him, but he called out with sudden sharpness,
"Not that!" and without appearing to notice, I found a box which I
inverted, and sat down on.
"Tell me about your wife, Alderling," I said, and he answered with a sort of scream, "I wanted you to ask me! Why didn't you ask me before? What did you suppose I got you here for?"
With that he shrank down, a miserable heap, in his own chair, and bowed his hapless head and cried. It was more affecting than any notion I can give you of it, and I could only wait patiently for his grief to wash itself out in one of those paroxysms which come to bereavement and leave it somehow a little comforted when they pass.
"I was waiting, for the stupid reasons you will imagine, to let you speak first," I said, "but here in her presence I couldn't hold in any longer."
He asked with strange eagerness, "You noticed that?"
I chose to feign that he meant in the pictures. "Over and over again,"
He would not have my feint. "I don't mean in these wretched caricatures!"
"Well?" I assented provisionally.
"I mean her very self, listening, looking, living—waiting!"
Whether I had insanity or sorrow to deal with, I could not gainsay the unhappy man, and I only said what I really felt: "Yes, the place seems strangely full of her. I wish you would tell me about her."
He asked, with a certain slyness, "Have you heard anything about her already? At the club? From that fool woman in the kitchen?"
"For heaven's sake, no, Alderling!"
"Or about me?"
He seemed relieved of whatever suspicion he felt, but he said finally, and with an air of precaution, "I should like to know just how much you mean by the place seeming full of her."
"Oh, I suppose the association of her personality with the whole house, and especially this room. I didn't mean anything preternatural, I believe."
"Then you don't believe in a life after death?" he demanded with a kind of defiance.
I thought this rather droll, seeing what his own position had been, but that was not the moment for the expression of my amusement. "The tendency is to a greater tolerance of the notion," I said. "Men like James and Royce, among the psychologists, and Shaler, among the scientists, scarcely leave us at peace in our doubts, any more, much less our denials."
He said, as if he had forgotten the question: "They called it a very light case, and they thought she was getting well. In fact, she did get well, and then—there was a relapse. They laid it to her eating some fruit which they allowed her."
Alderling spoke with a kind of bitter patience, but in my own mind I was not able to put all the blame on the doctors. Neither did I blame that innocently earthy creature, who was of no more harm in her strong appetite than any other creature which gluts its craving as simply as it feels it. The sense of her presence was deepened by the fact of those childlike self-indulgences which Alderling's words recalled to me. I made no comment, however, and he asked gloomily, as if with a return of his suspicion, "And you haven't heard of anything happening afterward?"
"I don't know what you refer to," I told him, "but I can safely say I haven't, for I haven't heard anything at all."
"They contended that it didn't happen," he resumed. "She died, they said, and by all the tests she had been dead two whole days. She died with her hand in mine. I was not trying to hold her back; she had a kind of majestic preoccupation in her going, so that I would not have dared to detain her if I could. You've seen them go, and how they seem to draw those last, long, deep breaths, as if they had no thought in the world but of the work of getting out of it. When her breathing stopped I expected it to go on, but it did not go on, and that was all. Nothing startling, nothing dramatic, just simple, natural, like her! I gave her hand back, I put it on her breast myself, and crossed the other on it. She looked as if she were sleeping, with that faint color hovering in her face, which was not wasted, but I did not make-believe about it; I accepted the fact of her death. In your 'Quests of the Occult,'" Alderling broke off, with a kind of superiority that was of almost the quality of contempt, "I believe you don't allow yourself to be daunted by a diametrical difference of opinion among the witnesses of an occurrence, as to its nature, or as to its reality, even?" "Not exactly that," I said. "I think I argued that the passive negation of one witness ought not to invalidate the testimony of another as to his experience. One might hear and see things, and strongly affirm them, and another, absorbed in something else, or in a mere suspense of the observant faculties, might quite as honestly declare that so far as his own knowledge was concerned, nothing of the kind happened. I held that in such a case, counter-testimony should not be allowed to invalidate the testimony for the fact."
"Yes, that is what I meant," said Alderling. "You say it more clearly in the book, though."
"Oh, of course."
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