The Path, June, 1891.
To some the story that I have to tell may sound like a dream, but it is not for them I write, - there are those that know and understand.
The latter part of last summer I happened to be spending at a little out of the way village in the south of England. During the course of a busy and moderately successful life, I have found it necessary now and then to seek a certain amount of retirement, to take myself entirely out of the rut of common life, to absent myself from sight and sound of all familiar things. Fortunately I have always been able to indulge this fancy. The place I found on this occasion suited me exactly. The village was picturesquely situated, and surrounded by a lovely country, of the walks and drives in which I thought I could never tire. But I awoke one morning to find that neither the prospect of a canter on horseback nor a morning with fishing-rod and book could satisfy me. I was longing for new worlds to conquer. Mentioning this at breakfast to my landlady, I was asked, had I seen the Manor House. "The Manor House? No, I had not." "Ah, then sir," I was answered with pardonable pride, "You have not seen one of the finest houses in England." About a hour later I found myself in the large oak-wainscoated hall, and the housekeeper, a pleasant elderly woman, was preparing to show me through the house. "Yes, sir," she answered with the glibness of her class in answer to my inquiry, "the family have been absent many years - none of them have lived here since the old baronet died. That's him, sir," pointing to a portrait of a white-haired man, holding a book and with the student's far-away look in the eyes, "they found it too lonely, sir, they say, and lonely enough it is sometimes." We passed from room to room, all handsome, all gloomy, the walls hung with the faces of long-passed generations. I shivered, and wondered how the old woman traveling on in front of me could endure the atmosphere of the place. Suddenly we stopped before a low curtained door. The housekeeper selected a small key from her bunch and bent to fit it in the lock. I could not understand what it was, but, as I stood there waiting, the strangest feeling took possession of me - in some way a sense of excitement, mingled with a vague familiarity. I made a desperate effort to remember something, in doing which this all left me. We came to a narrow passage, turned to the right, and, opening another door, entered. "The Lady Alice's apartments, sir." I saw a long low room, hung in faded yellow damask, flooded with summer sunshine. In spite of the sadness of its antiquity and desertion, it was a livable room, bright and tasteful, and a delicate aroma of feminine grace and charm was felt in the air like a subtle perfume. A basket holding silk and a fine piece of half-finished needle-work stood on a small table drawn near the cushioned window seat. It was pleasing to think of the reverence which let this remain just as the poor dead hand had left it. "Things had evidently been left just as they were," I said. This seemed to please my cicerone, who told me her great grandmother had been housekeeper in Lady Alice's time, and had kept the lovely lady's memory green in the hearts of her descendents. "This is where she used to sit," pointing to the window seat, "and watch for the lover who never came." "Ah, then, there is a romance," said I, thinking I had at length found the bright spot in this gloomy old Manor. "Indeed a romance my mother often told me," and then I heard the story; how a young lord of one of the neighboring counties had won her love, and how they were to have had a great wedding, for this was one of the finest country houses in those days, and there were continually ball and feast and crowds of guests, and then one night there was a grand masking to which all England came (so said my narrator). Among the guests was a lady who loved Lady Alice's lover, and she had copied her rival's disguise, and the young Lord taking her for his betrothed spent all the evening with her. When at the last moment there was a sudden call for him - a call of life and death - he drew her aside to a recess and pulled her mask away to kiss her farewell, and saw who it was; not his sweet lady, but her enemy. Then the Lady Alice came and stood before them, with tears in her reproachful eyes, and he had to leave with only a hurried "It is a mistake, God bless thee." Those who stood about said he was a villain, and the rival lady did all she could to encourage this idea, and some said he would come never back again, now that he was found out. But the Lady Alice said it was a lie, he would come back, - and she waited for him day by day, but he never came. Afterwards when she had been dead several years, they found out that, riding back to her, his horse had lost his footing and plunged him down a ravine, where he was instantly killed.
This pathetic story told in so homely a way touched me profoundly. I could think only of the girlish figure sitting in the window on the yellow damask cushions, waiting, waiting, with such a tumult of despair and longing in her heart. A generous fee won me the houskeeper, and, indeed, I think she was glad besides to have an interested listener, especially to all concerning the "poor dead lady" of whose sad history I could never hear enough. Day after day found me in the yellow boudoir, sitting in deep reverie or wandering about it, noting each detail, though hardly daring to touch what I saw. Once I made a great discovery. Beside one of the cushions, which an awkward movement of mine displaced, I found a little book of devotions. In it was written in a cramped old hand, "To my beloved Alice", following which were Lovelace's lines beginning, "Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind." Beneath was a date long, long, passed! One night I gained permission to sleep there - in a bed chamber just above the yellow boudoir. Strange dreams I had that night, but mostly I saw stately masked figures moving to and fro in some forgotten dance, and in a dim recess two figures, man and woman, bending toward each other like lovers, and whenever I looked at them any time, a strange mad anger blazed in my heart. As the days drew near autumn I found it pleasanter to walk in the garden leading from the boudoir, since the need of a fire made the room chill. And there I would pace to and fro in the sunshine, thinking, thinking, and with all my might striving, for it had come to that now, striving to remember! The day before I intended leaving, for business and pleasure were calling me home, I made my farewell visit. The morning was spent in the garden, then tired of walking I returned to the yellow room to sit and dream for maybe the last time. I do not remember exactly what I was doing, until suddenly I looked up. In the open doorway, with blown hair and her hands full of great purple asters, no deeper than her eyes, stood a woman smiling. "Alice", I cried. "Dearest," she answered me in the sweet, spirit voice of that other world, "rest thy heart. We know all here, and are happy, because, for the mistakes and sorrows of earth, in God's Great Hereafter is ample compensation." I fell upon my knees and stretched out my arms in an ecstacy of love and thankfulness for the blessed instant of memory and knowledge vouchsafed me.
When I came to myself, I was sitting in the yellow boudoir, with the late afternoon sunshine lying on the floor and touching with a delicate glory an old withered leaf the wind had blown through the open door.
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