“No, my dear,” my Uncle Abraham answered me, “no—nothing romantic ever happened to me—unless—but no: that wasn’t romantic either——”
I was. To me, I being eighteen, romance was the world. My Uncle Abraham was old and lame. I followed the gaze of his faded eyes, and my own rested on a miniature that hung at his elbow-chair’s right hand, a portrait of a woman, whose loveliness even the miniature-painter’s art had been powerless to disguise—a woman with large lustrous eyes and perfect oval face.
I rose to look at it. I had looked at it a hundred times. Often enough in my baby days I had asked, “Who’s that, uncle?” always receiving the same answer: “A lady who died long ago, my dear.”
As I looked again at the picture, I asked, “Was she like this?”
Uncle Abraham looked hard at me. “Yes,” he said at last. “Very—very like.”
I sat down on the floor by him. “Won’t you tell me about her?”
“There’s nothing to tell,” he said. “I think it was fancy, mostly, and folly; but it’s the realest thing in my long life, my dear.”
A long pause. I kept silence. “Hurry no man’s cattle” is a good motto, especially with old people.
“I remember,” he said in the dreamy tone always promising so well to the ear that a story delighteth—”I remember, when I was a young man, I was very lonely indeed. I never had a sweetheart. I was always lame, my dear, from quite a boy; and the girls used to laugh at me.”
He sighed. Presently he went on—
“And so I got into the way of mooning off by myself in lonely places, and one of my favourite walks was up through our churchyard, which was set high on a hill in the middle of the marsh country. I liked that because I never met any one there. It’s all over, years ago. I was a silly lad; but I couldn’t bear of a summer evening to hear a rustle and a whisper from the other side of the hedge, or maybe a kiss as I went by.
“Well, I used to go and sit all by myself in the churchyard, which was always sweet with thyme, and quite light (on account of its being so high) long after the marshes were dark. I used to watch the bats flitting about in the red light, and wonder why God didn’t make every one’s legs straight and strong, and wicked follies like that. But by the time the light was gone I had always worked it off, so to speak, and could go home quietly and say my prayers without any bitterness.
“Well, one hot night in August, when I had watched the sunset fade and the crescent moon grow golden, I was just stepping over the low stone wall of the churchyard when I heard a rustle behind me. I turned round, expecting it to be a rabbit or a bird. It was a woman.”
He looked at the portrait. So did I.
“Yes,” he said, “that was her very face. I was a bit scared and said something—I don’t know what—and she laughed and said, ‘Did I think she was a ghost?’ and I answered back, and I stayed talking to her over the churchyard wall till ’twas quite dark, and the glowworms were out in the wet grass all along the way home.
“Next night I saw her again; and the next night and the next. Always at twilight time; and if I passed any lovers leaning on the stiles in the marshes it was nothing to me now.”
Again my uncle paused. “It’s very long ago,” he said slowly, “and I’m an old man; but I know what youth means, and happiness, though I was always lame, and the girls used to laugh at me. I don’t know how long it went on—you don’t measure time in dreams—but at last your grandfather said I looked as if I had one foot in the grave, and he would be sending me to stay with our kin at Bath and take the waters. I had to go. I could not tell my father why I would rather had died than go.”
“What was her name, uncle?” I asked.
“She never would tell me her name, and why should she? I had names enough in my heart to call her by. Marriage? My dear, even then I knew marriage was not for me. But I met her night after night, always in our churchyard where the yew-trees were and the lichened gravestones. It was there we always met and always parted. The last time was the night before I went away. She was very sad, and dearer than life itself. And she said—
“‘If you come back before the new moon I shall meet you here just as usual. But if the new moon shines on this grave and you are not here—you will never see me again any more.’
“She laid her hand on the yellow lichened tomb against which we had been leaning. It was an old weather-worn stone, and bore on it the inscription—
“‘I shall be here.’ I said.
“‘I mean it,’ she said, with deep and sudden seriousness, ‘it is no fancy. You will be here when the new moon shines?'”
“I promised, and after a while we parted.
“I had been with my kinsfolk at Bath nearly a month. I was to go home on the next day, when, turning over a case in the parlour, I came upon that miniature. I could not speak for a minute. At last I said, with dry tongue, and heart beating to the tune of heaven and hell—
“‘Who is this?’
“‘That?’ said my aunt. ‘Oh! she was betrothed to one of our family many years ago, but she died before the wedding. They say she was a bit of a witch. A handsome one, wasn’t she?’
“I looked again at the face, the lips, the eyes of my dear and lovely love, whom I was to meet to-morrow night when the new moon shone on that tomb in our churchyard.
“‘Did you say she was dead?’ I asked, and I hardly knew my own voice.
“‘Years and years ago! Her name’s on the back and her date——’
“I took the portrait from its faded red-velvet bed, and read on the back—’Susannah Kingsnorth, Ob. 1713.’
“That was in 1813.” My uncle stopped short.
“What happened?” I asked breathlessly.
“I believe I had a fit,” my uncle answered slowly; “at any rate, I was very ill.”
“And you missed the new moon on the grave?”
“I missed the new moon on the grave.”
“And you never saw her again?”
“I never saw her again——”
“But, uncle, do you really believe?—Can the dead?—was she—did you——”
My uncle took out his pipe and filled it.
“It’s a long time ago,” he said, “a many, many years. Old man’s tales, my dear! Old man’s tales! Don’t you take any notice of them.”
He lighted the pipe, puffed silently a moment or two, and then added: “But I know what youth means, and happiness, though I was lame, and the girls used to laugh at me.”