The happiness of some lives is distributed pretty evenly over the whole stretch from the cradle to the grave, while that of others comes all at once, glorifying some particular epoch and leaving the rest in shadow. During one, five, or ten blithe years, as the case may be, all the springs of life send up sweet waters; joy is in the very air we breathe; happiness seems our native element. During this period we know what is the zest of living, as compared with the mere endurance of existence, which is, perhaps, the most we have attained to before or since. With men this culminating epoch comes often in manhood, or even at maturity, especially with men of arduous and successful careers. But with women it comes most frequently perhaps in girlhood and young womanhood. Particularly is this wont to be the fact with women who do not marry, and with whom, as the years glide on, life becomes lonelier and its interests fewer.
By the time Miss Ida Ludington was twenty-five years old she recognised that she had done with happiness, and that the pale pleasures of memory were all which remained to her.
It was not so much the mere fact that her youth was past, saddening though that might be, which had so embittered her life, but the peculiarly cruel manner in which it had been taken from her.
The Ludingtons were one of the old families of Hilton, a little farming village among the hills of Massachusetts. They were not rich, but were well-to-do, lived in the largest house in the place, and were regarded somewhat as local magnates. Miss Ludington's childhood had been an exceptionally happy one, and as a girl she had been the belle of the village. Her beauty, together, with her social position and amiability of disposition, made her the idol of the young men, recognised leader of the girls, and the animating and central figure in the social life of the place.
She was about twenty years old, at the height of her beauty and in the full tide of youthful enjoyment, when she fell ill of a dreadful disease, and for a long time lay between life and death. Or, to state the case more accurately, the girl did die—it was a sad and faded woman who rose from that bed of sickness.
The ravages of disease had not left a vestige of her beauty—it was hopelessly gone. The luxuriant, shining hair had fallen out and been replaced by a scanty growth of washed-out hue; the lips, but yesterday so full, and red, and tempting, were thin, and drawn, and colourless, and the rose-leaf complexion had given place to an aspect so cruelly pitted, seamed, and scarred that even friends did not recognize her.
The fading of youth is always a melancholy experience with women; but in most cases the process is so gradual as to temper the poignancy of regret, and perhaps often to prevent its being experienced at all except as a vague sentiment.
But in Miss Ludington's case the transition had been piteously sharp and abrupt.
With others, ere youth is fully past its charms are well-nigh forgotten in the engrossments of later years; but with her there had been nothing to temper the bitterness of her loss.
During the long period of invalidism which followed her sickness her only solace was a miniature of herself, at the age of seventeen, painted on ivory, the daguerrotype process not having come into use at this time, which was toward the close of the third decade of the present century.
Over this picture she brooded hours together when no one was near, studying the bonny, gladsome face through blinding tears, and sometimes murmuring incoherent words of tenderness.
Her young friends occasionally came to sit with her, by way of enlivening the weary hours of an invalid's day. At such times she would listen with patient indifference while they sought to interest her with current local gossip, and as soon as possible would turn the conversation back to the old happy days before her sickness. On this topic she was never weary of talking, but it was impossible to induce her to take any interest in the present.
She had caused a locket to be made, to contain the ivory miniature of herself as a girl, and always wore it on her bosom.
In no way could her visitors give her more pleasure than by asking to see this picture, and expressing their admiration of it. Then her poor, disfigured face would look actually happy, and she would exclaim, "Was she not beautiful?" "I do not think it flattered her, do you?" and with other similar expressions indicate her sympathy with the admiration expressed. The absence of anything like self-consciousness in the delight she took in these tributes to the charms of her girlish self was pathetic in its completeness. It was indeed not as herself, but as another, that she thought of this fair girl, who had vanished from the earth, leaving a picture as her sole memento. How, indeed, could it be otherwise when she looked from the picture to the looking-glass, and contrasted the images? She mourned for her girlish self, which had been so cruelly effaced from the world of life, as for a person, near and precious to her beyond the power of words to express, who had died.
From the time that she had first risen from the sick-bed, where she had suffered so sad a transformation, nothing could induce her to put on the brightly coloured gowns, beribboned, and ruffled, and gaily trimmed, which she had worn as a girl; and as soon as she was able she carefully folded and put them away in lavender, like relics of the dead. For herself, she dressed henceforth in drab or black.
For three or four years she remained more or less an invalid. At the end of that time she regained a fair measure of health, although she seemed not likely ever to be strong.
In the meanwhile her school-mates and friends had pretty much all married, or been given in marriage. She was a stranger to the new set of young people which had come on the stage since her day, while her former companions lived in a world of new interests, with which she had nothing in common. Society, in reorganizing itself, had left her on the outside. The present had moved on, leaving her behind with the past. She asked nothing better. If she was nothing to the present, the present was still less to her. As to society, her sensitiveness to the unpleasant impression made by her personal appearance rendered social gatherings distasteful to her, and she wore a heavy veil when she went to church.
She was an only child. Her mother had long been dead, and when about this time her father died she was left without near kin. With no ties of contemporary interest to hold her to the present she fell more and more under the influence of the habit of retrospection.
The only brightness of colour which life could ever have for her lay behind in the girlhood which had ended but yesterday, and was yet so completely ended. She found her only happiness in the recollections of that period which she retained. These were the only goods she prized, and it was the grief of her life that, while she had strong boxes for her money, and locks and keys for her silver and her linen, there was no device whereby she could protect her store of memories from the slow wasting of forgetfulness.
She lived with a servant quite alone in the old Ludington homestead, which it was her absorbing care to keep in precisely the same condition, even to the arrangement of the furniture, in which it had always been.
If she could have insured the same permanence in the village of Hilton, outside the homestead enclosure, she would have been spared the cause of her keenest unhappiness. For the hand of change was making havoc with the village: the railroad had come, shops had been built, and stores and new houses were going up on every side, and the beautiful hamlet, with its score or two of old-fashioned dwellings, which had been the scene of her girlhood, was in a fair way to be transformed into a vile manufacturing village.
Miss Ludington, to whom every stick and stone of the place was dear, could not walk abroad without missing some ancient landmark removed since she had passed that way before, perhaps a tree felled, some meadow, that had been a playground of her childhood, dug up for building-lots, or a row of brick tenements going up on the site of a sacred grove.
Her neighbours generally had succumbed to the rage for improvement, as they called it. There was a general remodelling and modernizing of houses, and, where nothing more expensive could be afforded, the paint-brush wrought its cheap metamorphosis. "You wouldn't know Hilton was the same place," was the complacent verdict of her neighbours, to which Miss Ludington sorrowfully assented.
It would be hard to describe her impotent wrath, her sense of outrage and irreparable loss, as one by one these changes effaced some souvenir of her early life. The past was once dead already; they were killing it a second time. Her feelings at length became so intolerable that she kept her house, pretty much ceasing to walk abroad.
At this period, when she was between thirty and thirty-five years old, a distant relative left her a large fortune. She had been well-to-do before, but now she was very rich. As her expenses had never exceeded a few hundred dollars a year, which had procured her everything she needed, it would be hard to imagine a person with less apparent use for a great deal of money. And yet no young rake, in the heyday of youth and the riot of hot blood, could have been more overjoyed at the falling to him of a fortune than was this sad-faced old maid. She became smiling and animated. She no longer kept at home, but walked abroad. Her step was quick and strong; she looked on at the tree-choppers, the builders, and the painters, at their nefarious work, no more in helpless grief and indignation, but with an unmistakable expression of triumph.
Presently surveyors appeared in the village, taking exact and careful measurements of the single broad and grassy street which formed the older part of it. Miss Ludington was closeted with a builder, and engrossed with estimates. The next year she left Hilton to the mercy of the vandals, and never returned.
But it was to another Hilton that she went.
The fortune she had inherited had enabled her to carry out a design which had been a day-dream with her ever since the transformation of the village had begun. Among the pieces of property left her was a large farm on Long Island several miles out of the city of Brooklyn. Here she had rebuilt the Hilton of her girlhood, in facsimile, with every change restored, every landmark replaced. In the midst of this silent village she had built for her residence an exact duplicate of the Ludington homestead, situated in respect to the rest of the village precisely as the original was situated in the real Hilton.
The astonishment of the surveyors and builders at the character of the work required of them was probably great, and their bills certainly were, though Miss Ludington would not have grudged the money had they been ten times greater. However, seeing that the part of the village duplicated consisted of but one broad maple-planted street, with not over thirty houses, mostly a story and a half, and that none of the buildings, except the school-house, the little meeting-house, and the homestead, were finished inside, the outlay was not greater than an elaborate plan of landscape gardening would have involved.
The furniture and fittings of the Massachusetts homestead, to the least detail, had been used to fit up its Long Island duplicate, and when all was complete and Miss Ludington had settled down to housekeeping, she felt more at home than in ten years past.
True, the village which she had restored was empty; but it was not more empty than the other Hilton had been to her these many years, since her old schoolmates had been metamorphosed into staid fathers and mothers. These respectable persons were not the schoolmates and friends of her girlhood, and with no hard feelings toward them, she had still rather resented seeing them about, as tending to blur her recollections of their former selves, in whom alone she was interested.
That her new Long Island neighbours considered her mildly insane was to her the least of all concerns. The only neighbours she cared about were the shadowy forms which peopled the village she had rescued from oblivion, whose faces she fancied smiling gratefully at her from the windows of the homes she had restored to them.
For she had a notion that the spirits of her old neighbours, long dead, had found out this resurrected Hilton, and were grateful for the opportunity to revisit the unaltered scenes of their passion. If she had grieved over the removal of the old landmarks and the change in the appearance of the village, how much more hopelessly must they have grieved if indeed the dead revisit earth! The living, if their homes are broken up, can make them new ones, which, after a fashion, will serve the purpose; but the dead cannot. They are thenceforth homeless and desolate.
No sense of having benefited living persons would have afforded Miss Ludington the pleasure she took in feeling that, by rebuilding ancient Hilton, she had restored homes to these homeless ones.
But of all this fabric of the past which she had resurrected, the central figure was the school-girl Ida Ludington. The restored village was the mausoleum of her youth.
Over the great old-fashioned fireplace, in the sitting-room of the homestead which she had rebuilt in the midst of the village, she had hung a portrait in oil, by the first portrait-painter then in the country. It was an enlarged copy of the little likeness on ivory which had formerly been so great a solace to her.
The portrait was executed with extremely life-like effect, and was fondly believed by Miss Ludington to be a more accurate likeness in some particulars than the ivory picture itself.
It represented a very beautiful girl of seventeen or eighteen, although already possessing the ripened charms of a woman. She was dressed in white, with a low bodice, her luxuriant golden hair, of a rare sheen and fineness, falling upon beautifully moulded shoulders. The complexion was of a purity that needed the faint tinge of pink in the cheeks to relieve it of a suspicion of pallor. The eyes were of the deepest, tenderest violet, full of the light of youth, and the lips were smiling.
It was, indeed, no wonder that Miss Ludington had mourned the vanishing from earth of this delectable maiden with exceeding bitterness, or that her heart yet yearned after her with an aching tenderness across the gulf of years.
How bright, how vivid, how glowing had been the life of that beautiful girl! How real as compared with her own faint and faded personality, which, indeed, had shone these many years only by the light reflected from that young face! And yet that life, in its strength and brightness, had vanished like an exhalation, and its elements might no more be recombined than the hues of yesterday's dawn.
Miss Ludington had hung the portraits of her father and mother with immortelles, but the frame of the girl's picture she had wound with deepest crape.
Her father and mother she did not mourn as one without hope, believing that she should see them some day in another world; but from the death of change which the girl had died no Messiah had ever promised any resurrection.