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A short story by Josephine Daskam Bacon

The Miracle

Title:     The Miracle
Author: Josephine Daskam Bacon [More Titles by Bacon]

"And are they all really insane?"

He looked at me curiously.

"'Insane'?" he repeated, "'really'?"

He was very young, but very clever, and I had known his mother well and listened to his letters from school many a time; she was intensely proud of him.

"I tell you what it is, aunty," he began, selecting a cigarette with the deft manual gesture of a born surgeon (he was only twelve years younger than I, and his phenomenal record of almost impossible accomplishment made him seem far older than his years; but we kept to the habits of his perambulator days, when I had been tremendously pleased with the title). "I tell you what it is, aunty--I'm hanged if I know!"

He peered slit-eyed through the clouds of smoke, and I waited eagerly for what would come; when his eyes took on that look the boy seemed to me, frankly, inspired. Twenty-three years (he had finished Harvard at nineteen) appeared so pitifully inadequate to account for him! One was forced to the belief that he had directly inherited that marvelous "intuition" of his: that it was actually part of his famous father's experience--for he was Richard Stanchon's only son.

"Of course, you know," he said quietly, "I see what they mean--most of 'em. I always do, somehow. And the more you do that, the less insane they get to seem to you. It's only you and I, a little warped, a little exaggerated. My idea is that fewer and fewer of them will be sent to places like this, and more and more put out among families--oh, don't shiver, aunty, there's nothing to shiver at, I assure you.

"Look here--do you see that tall girl in the blue silk shirtwaist?"

I saw her--she was reading Punch before the big library fire (it was furnished like a wealthy private club, the library), and just because she was so calm and high bred and Madonna-faced, I flattered myself that I could jump in the right direction.

"Does she murder babies?" I asked resignedly.

"Not at all," he replied, with a tiny grin for my cleverness, "not a bit of it. She only insists on taking five baths a day and never touching any washable thing that's been handled. She wears five changes a day and cleans the piano keys before she plays--plays very well, too."

"But--but, is that all?"

"Every bit."

"Then why must she come here?"

"Oh, well, there are practical complications, of course. She thinks most people are pigs, and says so. Then her family is nervous--I notice most of them come from very nervous families--and they simply couldn't rub on. She shampoos her head every day. It's my firm belief, aunty, that if some steady-going German-American family without any nerves would give her two rooms and a bath and put up with her for a few months, she'd be all right. Honestly, as it is, she's fretting herself crazy. She's no fool, you know."

"Heavens, Will! Why, I can perfectly understand----"

"Of course you can. Not mother, though. Mother won't hear about her--and the joke of it is, you know, aunty, mother takes her three tubs a day all summer and never shakes hands in warm weather!"

I gasped.

"But, Will, this is awful! Why, we're all on the verge, if you look at it that way!"

He shrugged and put out his hand to a heavy-faced, ordinary woman of the well-groomed New York type.

"Good afternoon, Miss Vint--let me present you to my aunt, Mrs. Ba--oh, come, now, aunty's a woman of the world and she's married, too. There's no reason on earth why you shouldn't."

"But, doctor, you know what I am----"

"I know," he said kindly, and the real sympathy in his boy's eyes struck moisture into my own, "I know. But you're living it down--no woman could do more."

"Really?" she begged, her features working, "really, doctor? Heaven knows I try!"

"And you never slip back. You never slip back!" he said slowly and emphatically. "Just think what that: means, Miss Vint!"

We nodded at each other and she hurried off, almost smiling.

"She looks no more insane than I do," I suggested, and again he shrugged.

"There's where it is," he answered quietly; "she's just a little over the line, that's all. She's Levi B. Vint's daughter, you know."


"I'd hate to think what she pays a week. What she's really worrying about, I believe, is the old man's money. She insists he was all right, you know, and all this exposure business, though it couldn't shake her trust in the old scoundrel, got on her nerves and she got worrying over herself. Everybody argued with her--the whole Vint gang are a set of bronze mules, you know--and finally she arrived at a definite idee fixe: I'm sure it could have been prevented. Anyway, she thinks she's--she's all sorts of a bad lot, you know. She won't speak to the girls here--not even to the maids. She says she might corrupt them."

"How absurd--I mean how sad! But she's so healthy; she'll soon recover?"

"I don't know," he said briefly, and something scared me in his voice. "She's a very hard case. A bad age."

We walked in silence through a long glass-walled hall, a sort of conservatory, with palms and caged canaries chirping and trilling.

"I hate those birds!" I cried nervously; he stopped and looked thoughtfully into me--it was no less than that.

"That's interesting," he said abruptly, "I don't like 'em, either. And you're one of the best-balanced women I know. Mother, too--she doesn't care for them. No--nor Beatrix."

Beatrix was the hardy young woman who contemplated marrying him--a tremendous venture, it seemed to me!

"But they seem to like 'em here. The crazier they are (there's nobody bad here, you know) the more they like 'em, ... Did you know mediums and spiritualists and all that sort can't live without 'em? I never heard anybody mention it, but it's so. When I went over to Lourdes, last year, I made a point of looking up the families of the people that had the visions, and they all kept larks in cages----"

I saw he was following some train of thought and kept silence. At length he shrugged his shoulders.

"But that isn't what I asked you out for," he began. "I thought you'd be interested in seeing--Oh, Mrs. Leeth, how are you?"

"Very well, thank you, doctor."

A busy, quiet, elderly woman, plainly dressed, cut across our path through the long conservatory.

"Everything all right to-day?"

"Everything, I think, thank you, doctor."

There was nothing to remark about her until she lifted her eyes, and then the curious, intense depth of them (like a dog who could speak, I thought), held me almost breathless with sympathy. She looked, somehow, as if she had gone through more than would be right for her to tell.

"Poor creature," I said as she disappeared through a baize door. "Tell me about her. What is her trouble?"

"She has none that I know of," he replied quietly. "She's the housekeeper."

"Good Heavens, Will! I think I should go mad myself, if I lived here! How does one tell them apart?"

"I don't think one does, always," he remarked placidly. "I sometimes think that accounts for a good deal! There's a man, now--see that fussy little fellow getting out of his motor coat? That's Jarvyse."

"The Jarvyse? The great specialist?"

"That's it," he grunted with a disrespectful grin. "From my point of view, you know, aunty, he might about as well stay in, now he's here. I wouldn't go too near him, if I were you--he'll say you're a paranoiac, if you mention your prejudice against free silver or thick soup at dinner or steam heat. Everything's been paranoia with him since 1902. It's just as much an idee fixe as anybody's here. If you object to anything he says, he diagnoses you immediately. You couldn't build asylums fast enough to hold all Jarvyse's paranoiacs! That's why I'm here, by the way; the case I want you to see is really father's. But he loses his temper so, when he meets Jarvyse, that he sends me up, instead. The old boy doesn't bother me--'Morning, doctor."

We stepped into a noiseless lift and he ran it to the fourth floor. At the end of the corridor an open door showed a pleasant little interior; a window full of red geraniums, goldfish in a globe, an immense grey cat by a little Franklin stove with brass balls atop, and in the centre a round old-fashioned mahogany table piled high with various household linen. We walked directly into this little home-like picture--a great relief after the lavish publicity of the immense halls--and as I greeted the housekeeper, who stood by the heaped table (with an actual note of apology in my voice for having mistaken her!) I noticed a little elderly man, a vague pepper-and-salt effect, sitting by a business-like desk in the corner, his hat and stick on the chair beside him, a book and pencil on his knee.

"Good morning, Mr. Vail, I rather hoped you might be here; let me present you to my aunt, Mrs.----"

"Good heavens!" I almost said it aloud, for the vague pepper-and-salt took on familiar lines suddenly, and the matter-of-fact little features scattered so indistinguishably, as it were, though the boyishly round face became obviously one with the much-photographed trader-prince; it was Absolom Vail, the multimillionaire! When had he...

"Mrs. Leeth used to be Mr. Vail's housekeeper for many years," my young doctor's voice sounded reprovingly (had my jaw dropped?) "and he often looks in on her like this."

"Oh!" I recalled the hat and stick and breathed again. Not that I had any interest in the old gentleman, but he seemed a sort of public character, he and his "old stocking savings-bank," his "millions for deposit, but not a cent for speculation," his "every penny earned in honest trade," and all the rest of it.

"Never forgot an old friend yet," he chirruped, and the housekeeper smiled gravely. It was very decent and kindly and quite what one would have expected; I remembered that every employee always received a personally selected gift at Christmas and that he had stood godfather for seventeen (or was it twenty-seven?) children of labourers, born on the great eight thousand acre estate on the Hudson.

My boy listened a moment to a call from the house-telephone, turned on his heel and swung hurriedly down the corridor. I appeared to have been abandoned.

The housekeeper's lips moved silently as she fingered the napkins on the further corner of the table; it was unnecessary, evidently, to include her in the social situation, though she would be perfectly capable of the inclusion if it should be thought best.

"I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter in London last spring, Mr. Vail," I said.

"Minnie?" he inquired, his shrewd little eyes on me.

"I think so--the Countess of Barkington."

"Yes, that's Minnie. Well, Minnie's a good girl, I guess. I haven't seen her much lately. Not for some years, but once or twice. Ever see Irene?"

"I don't think so. She married----"

"She took an Italian. She's a countess, too--contessa they call it over there. The Contessa di Abbriglia. Hannibal, her husband's name is--always seemed like a Newfoundland dog's name, to me. He hasn't any such amount of land as Barkington, but the family's older, I believe. Hannibal's old enough, anyhow. How old was the count, Mrs. Leeth, when Irene married him?"

"Miss Irene was twenty-one, Mr. Vail, and Count Hannibal was forty."

"You knew them both?" I asked her, caught by a sudden curiosity to see those deep, secret brown eyes once more. The famous Absolom was just what I had supposed he would be, neither more nor less; the most interesting thing I could see in him was this simple, friendly kindness to an old retainer.

"I dressed both the young ladies for their weddings," she replied quietly.

"It must be very pleasant to you--these talks of old times," I hazarded.

"It is," she answered.

I thought of a number of remarks suitable to one or both of my old companions, but they all, somehow, seemed banal and excessive as I marshalled them to my lips. A quaint, almost hypnotic quiet rose like the tide around us: all seemed said and agreed to. A tiny fire flickered on the Franklin hearth; the iridescent fan-tailed fish bent and flattened and glided in the translucent globe; an old clock ticked restfully somewhere. The two elderly friends there--for they were friends; one felt it. And why not? They were from the same class, undoubtedly, the hardware king and the housekeeper, the solid bourgeoisie that is essentially alike in all countries and centuries--these two friends exhaled an atmosphere of contented trust in each other and what life had left for them that spread like a visible cloud, a sort of sunset autumn haze, quite through the little, homely room, and took me under it, with them. No wonder he liked to come there: it did not require much imaginative faculty to infer that neither Barkington nor di Abbriglia had been able to offer such an asylum to their father-in-law....

Asylum! How unconsciously I had fitted the original sense of the kindly old word to its technical uses! Asylum: that was what it was, a refuge, a shelter, a little back-water in the great whirlpool of overstrained, nervous modern life. And Absolom Vail had found one here, it seemed. For he was unmistakably at home here; this was not the first nor the second visit, that was plain. Such atmospheres do not grow from casual encounters.

We exchanged comfortable, old commonplaces from time to time, while Mrs. Leeth sorted, and the hardware lord actually jotted down her notes as to necessary darning and replacing, in a worn red account book--it was almost too quaint for belief! He chuckled at it a little, but not much; it was, after all, such a practical, sane sort of interlude in all the horrid, morbid confusion that the place, with all its conservatories and old mahogany and spacious vistas, necessarily included. They were more than common normal, this simple, middle-class pair, on their friendly little housekeeping island, with this treacherous sea of pain and revolt forever lapping at the edges.

I don't remember how he got to telling me of his early life, but I believe it is a habit of all that sort, and Absolom was no exception to his class and stratum. I was particularly impressed by one little incident, the foundation, really, of his fortune--if any event can be selected in those lives which seem destined to exhibit the farthest possibilities of accumulation.

"I had just exactly one hundred dollars," he said (he had the characteristic superstitious reverence for set sums, even decimal multiples of the national symbol) "that I'd saved up as carpenter's assistant in Greenwich, Connecticut. I took it out of the savings-bank and I came to New York with a clean shirt and a tooth brush and my old mother's Bible, packed in a little basket with some boiled ham and bread. I looked out a verse just as I stepped onto the train--what do you think it was?"

"I have no idea, Mr. Vail."

"No. You wouldn't have. Well, it was this: Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store. D'you see--basket! And I always intended to keep a store."

He fixed me triumphantly with his twinkling Santa Claus eyes.

"It's in Deuteronomy," he said.

"The coincidence must have seemed very comforting to you," I suggested gravely.

"It did. It did," he answered, "and from that moment on, I never had a doubt. Barkington didn't care much for that story, though--he says that the old fellows that translated the Bible away back in some king's time--King----"

"King James," said the housekeeper quietly.

"Yes, King James. Well, he says that they didn't mean that kind of a store. Maybe not. But it did the job for me, that verse, just the same."

The whole incident seemed very characteristic, very national, somehow, and I reflected gently upon it as we sat in silence, broken only by Mrs. Leeth's practical, dry voice as she announced:

"Greek Key, Irish weave, spring, 1908, six dozen, fair order.

"Thistle pattern, fall, 1906, four dozen, eight darned, ten badly worn."

It seemed that I had been there a long time....

At length I heard Will's quick, nervous step, and as it neared the door I rose, really reluctantly, and met him.

"I am quite in the doctor's hands," I said, "and I see that he thinks it time for me to leave. Good-bye, Mr. Vail"--he put his hand out for his gloves and cane--"if you are going, too, perhaps, can I take you back in town with me? I motored out."

"I'm afraid you can't," he replied, with his twinkling smile, "because I'm one of the ones that don't get out!"

I stared at him blankly.

"'That don't get out'!" I repeated stupidly. "That don't get out? Why?"

"Because I'm insane," he said placidly.

* * * * *

I don't pretend to any unusual share of equanimity, and it was not till we were back in the shelter of my own home, with the comfort of my own tea-tray before me and my own little applewood fire snapping on the hearth, that I brought myself to discuss the matter with Emily's boy. He had come back with me and we were going to the opera together later.

"I suppose that was what you wanted me to see?" I said abruptly.

He nodded.

"Just that. I wanted your idea. It's one of the most interesting cases--with all its complications--I ever knew. Father's turned it over to me, practically. He knows all about it."

"But, Will, the man's as sane as I am!"

"How much did you talk with him?"

"Quite as much as with hundreds of other people!"

He smiled thoughtfully.

"Talk much with Mrs. Leeth?"

"Oh, yes--she seems much more ordinary than her eyes, doesn't she?"

"What did she say?"

"Oh, just commonplaces--I don't recall anything special...."

"Well, try, won't you? What were the commonplaces?"

I applied myself to recollection. What, after all, had she said? As a matter of fact, beyond her linen tabulation I could not recall more than a dozen words.

"Anyway," I remonstrated, "she makes you feel as if she talked! She doesn't seem silent."

"No," he admitted thoughtfully, "that's true. But she never talks. She hardly speaks to the servants--they're all under her, you know--but they all seem to know what she wants. I've tested lots of them: the cook, the laundresses, the furnace man, the steward--and when they come to consider, they can't recall a dozen words a day. But they always insist, at first, that she gives them detailed orders and criticises them constantly. It's funny."

"Oh, well," I broke in impatiently, "never mind her! Tell me about Mr. Vail--how long has he been there?"

"He's been there six months!" Will announced triumphantly, suppressing a delighted smile at my amazement.

"Six months! And nobody knows?"

"Nobody but the family. Oh, he gets out, now and then: I or one of the doctors goes with him and he puts in a day at the office. Everybody thinks he's travelling or taking electric light baths for his liver or Roentgen rays for his lungs or osteopathy for a cold in the head--Lord knows what!"

"A day at the office? But how can he, if he's insane?"

"He's not too insane to make money." His smile was deliberately intended to intrigue me, I thought.

"He's no more insane than I am!" I cried. "Who put him there?"

"The Countess of Barkington--primarily. Abbriglia agreed, but they'd never have done it alone--Irene's too fond of the old fellow."

"Do you mean to say----"

"Oh, don't get excited, aunty--he committed himself. Nobody roped and gagged him."

"But what doctor----"

"Two besides me."

"Besides you? Why, Will!"

"Oh, I didn't say that I recommended him to an asylum. Not at all. If he had fought it, I could have found reasons on the other side."

"Like a corporation lawyer!"

"Oh, well...."

He began rolling cigarettes; they were his one weakness.

"The question is," he said slowly, "what is insanity? Medical insanity's one job, legal insanity's another.... Suppose your butler was convinced of the fact that he was Napoleon: would you care a continental, provided he buttlered as per contract? So long as he didn't shout, 'Tete d'armee!' as he passed the salad, what would you care? It's quite possible that he has some such delusion, for all you know."

"Of course, I see that."

"There was that old nurse of ours--Esther, you know? To the day of her death she swore that the druggist on the corner of Hartwell Street was Charley Ross--the child that was abducted long ago. You couldn't argue her out of it nor laugh her out of it--she said she had a feeling. She brought us up in it, you know, and for years I believed that he was Charley Ross and regarded him with veneration. She was a perfectly good nurse, just the same. But that idiotic fancy was part of her life--strengthened with every year of her life. It was an idee fixe."


"Well. Esther died a poor woman, but if she had left fifty thousand to--to a home for blind mulattoes, say, the first thing her nephews would have brought forward was that idea of Charley Ross."

"Brought forward?"

"To break her will. They would have said that it proved her mentally incapable."

"But it doesn't, Will, does it?"

"That's just as you see it. She wasn't incapable of looking after us and dressing mother and doing the marketing and keeping the accounts and making all her own clothes and some of ours. But if you ask me if she had a perfectly normal mind, I should have to say no."

"I see, Will."

I was extremely interested: I seemed to see, glimmering far off, what we were getting to, and it was gripping, absorbing. But I had no idea what we really were getting to--not then.

"Now, we'll take another case," he said, at another cigarette.

"I was at Lourdes last year, as you know, studying the Pilgrimage. Curious thing. Not an atom of proof, you see, that anybody was ever cured of a headache there. Not even sense enough to use the immense suggestive power that's massed there to do real good to neurasthenics and hysterics--in fact, they try to bar them. They prefer goitre, which is not cured by dirty baths, unfortunately. The people who go away from there think they were cured from this, that and the other; whole business founded on a perfectly authenticated case of dementia praecox--as much a pathological condition as gout or insomnia. I interviewed a prize case; she appeared before their bluff at a scientific council and presented affidavits of cure from consumption, a year previous. I examined her later. It was--as the man said--interesting if true, but the trouble was, it wasn't true, for she was nearly gone, then. I gave her three months, and she died, I took pains to learn, in ten weeks. Well: that was her delusion. Was she sane?"

"She was misinformed--mistaken."

"Quite so--but she knew she was cured, remember. She felt it. The rest of us didn't.

"Now let's go a step farther, if you don't mind. Beatrix tells me that the Almighty God, the creator of the universe, is the father of the son of a young Jewess, and sacrificed his son in order to save the world. This seems to me fantastic, frankly. But mind you, aunty, though I know that druggist wasn't Charley Ross, and though I know that the miraculous baths of Lourdes didn't cure poor Marie Tremplin of her tuberculosis, I can't say that what Beatrix assures me she knows about the Deity isn't so! It appears to me quite incapable of demonstration, but maybe it all happened as she says. Only I don't believe with her that she knows it. I say she believes it. If it helps her, as she says it does, to be the good and lovely girl she is, all right. It might help Parrott to stand straight to think he was Napoleon. All right."

"That's pragmatism," I suggested.

"Oh, well," he said, with one of his curious old smiles, "they call it different things different years, I suppose."

He drew himself up, and I could see something was coming.

"Now, aunty, attend to me. I couldn't put Beatrix in an asylum for what I and many, many others consider her delusion, could I?"

"Why, Will, of course not!"

"No, nor Marie Tremplin."

"Equally of course not. She has a right to her miracle, legally, I suppose, as well as Beatrix."

"Precisely. Well, here comes along Absolom Vail, and says he's had a miracle, too. He hasn't millions of people behind him, like Beatrix, nor thousands like Marie, nor even half a dozen, as our old Esther had--she converted all the servants and us children. He has only one--himself. A poor miracle, perhaps, but his own. And Barkington lands him in an asylum. The day of miracles is over."

"Why, Will! Why, Will..." I murmured. I seemed to feel myself on the edge of something very big and cloudy and confusing, but very necessary, somehow, to be understood. The trap he had led me into so neatly had fastened softly, but with almost an actual click, upon me.

"What--what is his miracle?" I inquired, in a subdued voice. I was beginning to feel a little afraid of this boy of ours.

"I had hoped he'd tell you himself. He will, if you ask him.... We ought to go and dress, oughtn't we?"

There was no more to be got out of him that night: he was passionately fond of music and had no mind to lose the prelude to Tristan.

But through all that evening the big, shadowy something he had stirred up in my mind grew and grew and troubled me increasingly.

"A poor miracle, but his own..." it haunted me. I went up with him again in two days' time, as he had expected me to, I have no doubt.

In the little room with the gold fish and the Franklin grate everything was the same except that the piled linen on the table was new: it was being listed and stamped. And at the little desk in the corner, his gloves and stick beside him on the floor, sat Absolom Vail, the hardware king, in a pepper-and-salt suit.

"I brought my nephew up with me and thought I'd look in for another little chat, Mr. Vail," I said. The housekeeper lifted her unfathomable eyes to mine for a moment, then dropped them.

"Six dozen snow-drop twenty-eight inch breakfast napkins," she said quietly, but my mind received--I cannot explain how--a totally different impression from what the sound of these words conveyed. Afterward, I realized that I thought suddenly of the sea, great clouds, unheard of, enormous fish, and myself driving like the wind across high, tumbling waves ... it was extraordinary. I had been literally lost in her eyes.

"Always glad to see the doctor's friends," he chirped, and soon, as Will had said, he was talking.

It was all very simple--simple and pathetic and typical enough. The hall bedroom, the rising clerk, the new branch in Kansas City, the young, fresh wife, the little story-and-a-half frame house, the bigger one on a better street, the partnership, the two daughters, the private school, the invention of the new time-lock, the great factory, the Trust, the vice-presidency, the clear head in the panic, the board of directors, the mass of capital, the amazing power.

"And of course we brought the girls up very different from what we'd had."

"Of course."

The old epic of America; the wonderful, cruel destiny of its sons and daughters ... I seemed to see them, climbing, climbing, their dainty feet on the bent, grey heads of the human stairway love had built and thrift had mortared and habit had hardened there!

"It was all right while mother was with us," he went on. "I used to get home late after one of those big dinners, and she'd be sitting up and warm me a little soup or something on the alcohol lamp (she'd never touch electricity, mother wouldn't) and I'd get my coat off and sit awhile; she'd send the servants to bed. Minnie never liked that, but while mother lived, Minnie didn't have so much say. Not but that Minnie wasn't a good girl and a good daughter, for a minute, mind you! Wasn't she?"

He turned to his old housekeeper.

"Miss Vail had a very fine mind," she said quietly, "a great deal of faculty."

"That's it--faculty," he repeated contentedly. "But Irene was easier to get along with. A good deal easier. You said you'd never met Irene?"

"I never had that pleasure."

"She was married over in Italy. The Queen of Italy asked for it to be that way, and with mother gone, I didn't see it mattered much, though Minnie didn't like it. But the Queen was Hannibal's godmother. She was at the wedding. We didn't think, when Irene used to lie in her little crib in the front bedroom in Kansas City, sucking on that rubber doll, that a queen would be at her wedding, did we?"

I looked out of the window for a minute, frowning a little in the effort to adjust my ideas to the surprise of the Vails' having had a housekeeper in those early days. When I turned my face to the room again, Mrs. Leeth was gone.

"Minnie got me to give up the business, and after a while I did. So long as I was working for mother and the girls, I'd never have stopped, but with them gone, and the rest I had to take, after the pneumonia, I sort of let things slide. What's the use? There's Vint, now--he kept at it till he died. No one to do for, really--his girl had all her mother's money, too, and she gives it all to foreign missions, anyhow.

"She's here, you know. Thinks she's--well, I guess I couldn't tell a lady just what she thinks she is, poor thing!"

"I see why she's here, Mr. Vail; but tell me, why do you stay here?" I cried suddenly; the quiet, sensible little man forced it out of me, fairly.

He looked whimsically up at me--I sat higher in my chair than he.

"Didn't the doctor tell you?" he asked quietly.

"No, he said you would, perhaps."

"Well, I don't mind. It happened when she died."

"Mrs. Vail?"

"No, Mrs. Leeth."

I jumped--I couldn't help it.

"Wh--what?" I gasped. What a horrible thing--like a bomb thrown into the quiet room!

"Yes," he said placidly, "sounds queer to you, doesn't it? Well, it is queer, I guess."

It was with the greatest difficulty that I held myself to my chair. My throat went perfectly dry, suddenly, and if I did not scream, it was merely because I have a fairly strong will and a horror of making a scene. The little room had turned dreadful to me, all at once--dreadful and unnatural; Absolom Vail, in his pepper-and-salt, a nightmare.

He seemed to read my thoughts and put his hand out reassuringly.

"Oh, I don't think she's dead, now!" he explained, "I'm not so crazy as all that comes to! Goodness, no!"

"Oh...," I faltered, soothed in spite of myself by his kindly smile.

"No, no. It was this way."

He leaned forward slightly and tapped the arms of his chair rhythmically.

"After mother left me, there wasn't much to keep going for, you see. Then Irene, she went off, and though she was mighty kind about it, and there'd always be a room for me, and all that, and I liked Hannibal well enough, still, I'd never be happy in Italy. Hannibal saw it himself. In a good many ways Hannibal used to see what I meant, now and again--funny, wasn't it, with him so foreign? You'd have thought Barkington, now ... but that's neither here nor there.

"Well, we stayed in the house together, Mrs. Leeth and me, and we got on very well. She knew all mother's ways, and we used to talk about her, evenings, and she as good as gave me her promise she'd never leave me while I wanted her.

"Then I had pneumonia. We had three trained nurses, but I guess there's no doubt she pulled me through. She was up all the nights.

"Irene and Hannibal came right over--it seems they cabled. Irene was expecting to have her baby, too, and it was in March, the worst time to cross the water. But she came. And Hannibal listened to the doctors and the nurses and then he turned to Mrs. Leeth--'How do you find Mr. Vail to-day?' he said.

"'He'll live, sir,' she said, and he said, 'All right,' and that was all there was to it. There was always something about Hannibal ...

"Then she came down. Pleurisy. I'd been South and got back, and I was well enough, you understand, but when they told me that they couldn't save her, something turned right over inside me, and I knew I couldn't bear it. It was too much--everything just slipping away from me, one by one, and me all alone--no, I wasn't good for it, that's all. I suppose it sounds dreadfully weak to you, but there it is: I wasn't good for it.

"I was sitting by her bed, looking at her, thinking of all the old days she could remember with me, and the girls she'd seen grow up, and mother, and all, and all of a sudden she opened her eyes and she knew me. She was sinking fast, but she knew me for the first time in days.

"'Mrs. Leeth,' I said, 'it's no use. If you go, I'll go too. I can't stick it out alone! Must you?' I said. 'Must you? Isn't there any way?'

"'Wait!' she sort of whispered to me, 'wait! There'll be a way, Mr. Vail--a way'll be found!'

"And then her eyes closed.

"I just sat there, staring ahead. I was too miserable to notice anything different about her, though I knew she was very still.

"By and by one of the nurses came in very soft and lifted up one of her hands--I had mine over the other. She was a nice girl, that nurse--we both liked her real well. Dr. Stanchon--the old doctor, not the boy, here--brought her, and he said to me, 'Now, Mr. Vail, here's the best nurse in New York: trust her.' And we did. She looked sharp at me, Miss Jessop did, and listened over her heart, then she put her cheek down to the lips.

"'Why, she's gone!' she said. 'Mr. Vail, when did it happen?'

"And then she called the doctor and he said yes, she was gone. That's why I say Mrs. Leeth died."

He looked calmly at me and I found to my surprise that during this story I had grown as calm as he and had quite forgotten, in my sympathy for the little man, just why he had begun to tell it. It was most perplexing. The room had taken on its homely comfort again: the horror had disappeared.

"So I sat there. The doctor said to let me stay, if I felt so. And I just saw my whole life pass right by me like pictures in a book--if you see what I mean. I saw Min when she graduated and Irene playing tunes to her mamma and me on the piano, and the day the new gold furniture came in, and Mrs. Leeth leading me by the hand out of mother's room after I'd sat all day and all night by her....

"And I looked at the face lying so quiet there, and while I looked, it sort of shook--more like when you throw a little pebble into a pond--and the eyes opened. And I knew mother was looking at me. That's all."

Poor, lonely little man! How could I have felt afraid of him? It was not difficult to see how it had been.

"Then she--Mrs. Leeth--had not really died at all, had she?" I said hastily, only to bite my lips at my tactlessness.

But he smiled tolerantly.

"That's what they said," he answered quietly. "It was very interesting, they said. The doctor was pretty hard on Miss Jessop, I thought. But I guess they always lay it off on them.

"They were all so excited about it, they didn't seem to notice what had happened. And by and by I saw they never would notice it, anyway. I just spoke a little about it to Irene and it frightened her, so I kept quiet. She said she saw Mrs. Leeth was different, somehow, but it was the sickness, she thought. They had to go right back. He wanted the baby to be born in Italy. That was all right, of course."

"And Mrs. Leeth--what did she say?"

"Oh, she was never one to talk, Mrs. Leeth. She talks less than ever, now. I don't know as I put it very clear to you: it's a pretty hard thing to put clear."

He looked appealingly at me.

"Of course, of course," I said soothingly. "Those things are not to be set down in black and white."

"That's just it. When I say that mother looks out at me from her eyes, it seems to be more what I mean. I seem to have 'em both by me, if you can see.... And when I look in her eyes, I understand it all--and I can wait," he added simply. "You've noticed her eyes?"

I nodded.

"Does she ever speak...?"

"I couldn't make you see what I mean very well, about that," he said contentedly. "She just looks at me. It's all plain, then. Maybe that's how we'll all do, in the next life. Don't you think so?"

I found my way to Will's office through a mist of tears.

"Well, what about it?" he asked abruptly.

"I think it's one of the most touching things I ever heard."

"Believe it?"

"Why, Will!"

"Oh! Then you don't blame me any more for committing him?"

"Certainly not. What else could you do?"

"Um-m-m. That's what Minnie, Countess of Barkington, said. She put it stronger than that. When a man of that age spends half of his time in the housekeeper's room, sorting linen, she suggested, there's something wrong. We shall certainly question the will--if he alters it."

"Alters it?"

"In favor of Mrs. Leeth, of course. The fair Minnie hasn't lived among the English aristocracy for nothing."

"Why, Will, how ludicrous--you mean that she suspects----"

"Certainly she does. And very hard-headed of her, too. Stranger things have been."

"But one has only to look at them!"

"That's what Irene thought. But not Barkington. He suggested an asylum. The doctor called me in. (The doctor, by the way, swears the woman died, aunty. 'Only, of course, she couldn't have,' he always adds.) To everybody's surprise Absolom agrees quietly, immediately.

"'I wouldn't have Irene worried, as she is now, for anything,' he said. 'I never meant to leave Mrs. Leeth a penny more than the thousand a year mother and I always planned, but if Minnie can't believe me, all right.'

"Now, here's an odd thing, aunty. No one of that family ever heard of this place, including Absolom himself. Precious few people know about it, anyhow, you see. It pays every one not to. Well. Mrs. Leeth is dismissed, arrangements made, I take him in a motor out here. We walk through the hall, and the first person we meet here--Mrs. Leeth. New housekeeper. It seems the old one died of heart failure overnight. Dr. Jarvyse finds this one, by great good luck just out of a job. Highly recommended by Mr. Absolom Vail. Never occupied just this post, apparently, but Jarvyse feels perfectly certain she's just the woman for it. I don't know how he knew it, but she certainly is. Best woman we ever had."

"How perfectly extraordinary! Was Mr. Vail surprised?"

"Not at all. He just smiled politely, and neither of 'em has ever discussed it."

"What did the Countess have to say?"

"Oh, she was furious, till I pointed out that we couldn't have the woman in a safer place, because every employee signs a bond on entering, never to receive by bequest or otherwise a penny from any patient. We all sign."

"What does the Italian Count think of it all?"

"Hannibal? He's all right, Hannibal. He and I and Barkington had a little session in this very room about a fortnight ago. I was saying something about the question of Mr. Vail's insanity.

"'Question?' says Barkington. 'Question? Why there is no question! As a man of science, Count Hannibal, you know as well as I do----'

"'But I am not a man of science, my dear fellow--I'm a Roman,' says Hannibal, grinning away (those Italians speak wonderful English, you know). 'Very odd things happen in Rome, now and then, my good Barkington!'"

I looked at him steadily. He sat surrounded by his mysterious electric machines under shining glass domes, among costly leather-bound volumes whose very titles questioned the foundation of reason; telephones and telegrams ready to hand upon his orderly desk. And it seemed to me that he smiled mockingly at me behind his baffling eye-glasses.

"I don't understand you, Will," I said slowly, "you seem to be leading me to ... do you mean me to understand that you believe that Mrs. Vail's--spirit--entered--came back ... do you mean you think Mr. Vail is right, all the time?"

"Not at all," he returned promptly. "I acknowledge no such conditions. I know nothing of spirits nor what they do. I do not know that there are any. I study the human brain: when it ceases to respond to nervous stimuli, I cease to study it, that's all."

"Then why do you--why do you look at me..."

He struck his fist on the table.

"I look at you," he cried, "because you amaze me so, you people who assume that you know all about the human brain, where I leave off! Granted your premises, yours and Trix's and the Barkingtons', why don't you believe him? I should. Look at that woman's eyes! Try to talk to her! Do you suppose we haven't tried? Ask Jarvyse what he's got out of her! Get something out of her, yourself! Then ask yourself: if what Absolom says is so, how would she act differently from the way she does act?

"God! I wish I could believe him!"

He struck the desk again, and it seemed to me that behind his glasses he scorned me for the nondescript I was.

I went quickly out of the office into the corridor. I would find Mrs. Leeth and have it out with her. I would--she stood directly in front of me.

"Oh--how do you do!" I stammered. Her hands were full of cut flowers.

"How--how do you feel about Mr. Vail?" I demanded brusquely.

The ordinary, stocky, black-dressed figure raised its head slowly; the eyes met mine.

And suddenly I knew that the flowers in her hands were hyacinths, hyacinths and damp fern and mignonette. It grew and grew and surrounded me with a penetrating cloud of rich perfume, perfume and old, sweet memories that cut and soothed at once. I thought of the lily-of-the-valley bed under my mother's window, and her brown, brown eyes held mine and she--my mother, back again and smiling--filled my heart so full that I stood drowned in the old days and listened for the school-bell and the other children's voices!

It seemed that it had all been a mistake, a long mistake, and she had been there all the time.... I cannot tell you how sweet and certain it all was.

And then I knew the odour for what it was--hyacinth. Hyacinths in a round, spaded bed, with a robin singing near, and myself picking a stalk, and the man stepping up behind me that had blotted out all the other men, who were mistakes and slipped away ... and yet we would not begin again, my dearest! No, no, there is plenty of time!

And just as I was swimming back, staring at her eyes, it came over me that there had been hyacinths on the piano, almost overpowering in the dusk of the room that will always be nearest to me--I hope I may lie there, dead. I was playing Chopin, and life looked so rich: the boy was not born yet. I said, "If he should die"--but of course I couldn't believe that he would. And then--and then it was as if he had not died, after all, and I saw that this had been a mistake, too! It was so calm, so simple--no shock at all. Why had I never known? And all this while the girls and I had kept flowers on that tiny, tiny grave! I must tell his father....

She dropped her eyes to the hyacinths and I put my hand on a chair to steady myself. My cheeks were all wet.

"Mr. Vail seems very contented," she said. "Of course, I am accustomed to looking after him."

She stepped quietly through an open door, the keys jangling softly at her belt.

* * * * *

I went South with my husband for a fortnight, and on my return Will dined with us.

"By the way," he said, "were you surprised at Vail's death?"

It was three days' news and I had forgotten to mention it.

"He never was the same after the pneumonia, and he worried about his daughter Irene. She came through all right, though. Well, he was over sixty."

"How--what became of Mrs. Leeth?" I asked eagerly.

He smiled oddly.

"Nobody knows. She's never been seen since the funeral."

"Never been seen? But who is the housekeeper, then?"

"Oh, they've got another. Never'll be Mrs. Leeth's equal, though. She left on the first of the month."

"But when she was paid off, didn't anybody inquire?"

"She never was paid off," he said quietly. "She never came for her money."

[The end]
Josephine Daskam Bacon's short story: Miracle