John Lansing first met Mary Hollister at the house of his friend
Pinney, whose wife was her sister. She had soft gray eyes, a pretty
color in her cheeks, rosy lips, and a charming figure. In the course of
the evening somebody suggested mind-reading as a pastime, and Lansing,
who had some powers, or supposed powers, in that direction, although he
laughed at them himself, experimented in turn with the ladies. He
failed with nearly every subject until it came Mary Hollister's turn.
As she placed her soft palm in his, closed her eyes, and gave herself
up to his influence, he knew that he should succeed with her, and so he
did. She proved a remarkably sympathetic subject, and Lansing was
himself surprised, and the spectators fairly thrilled, by the feats he
was able to perform by her aid. After that evening he met her often,
and there was more equally remarkable mind-reading; and then
mind-reading was dropped for heart-reading, and the old, old story they
read in each other's hearts had more fascination for them than the new
science. Having once discovered that their hearts beat in unison, they
took no more interest in the relation of their minds.
The action proper of this story begins four years after their
marriage, with a very shocking event,nothing less than the murder of
Austin Flint, who was found dead one morning in the house in which he
lived alone. Lansing had no hand in the deed, but he might almost as
well have had; for, while absolutely guiltless, he was caught in one of
those nets of circumstance which no foresight can avoid, whereby
innocent men are sometimes snared helplessly, and delivered over to a
horrid death. There had been a misunderstanding between him and the
dead man, and only a couple of days before the murder, they had
exchanged blows on the street. When Flint was found dead, in the lack
of any other clue, people thought of Lansing. He realized that this was
so, and remained silent as to a fact which otherwise he would have
testified to at the inquest, but which he feared might now imperil him.
He had been at Austin Flint's house the night of the murder, and might
have committed it, so far as opportunity was concerned. In reality, the
motive of his visit was anything but murderous. Deeply chagrined by the
scandal of the fight, he had gone to Flint to apologize, and to make up
their quarrel. But he knew very well that nobody would believe that
this was his true object in seeking his enemy secretly by night, while
the admission of the visit would complete a circumstantial evidence
against him stronger than had often hanged men. He believed that no one
but the dead man knew of the call, and that it would never be found
out. He had not told his wife of it at the time, and still less
afterward, on account of the anxiety she would feel at his position.
Two weeks passed, and he was beginning to breathe freely in the
assurance of safety, when, like a thunderbolt from a cloud that seems
to have passed over, the catastrophe came. A friend met him on the
street one day, and warned him to escape while he could. It appeared
that he had been seen to enter Flint's house that night. His
concealment of the fact had been accepted as corroborating evidence of
his guilt, and the police, who had shadowed him from the first, might
arrest him at any moment. The conviction that he was guilty, which the
friend who told him this evidently had, was a terrible comment on the
desperateness of his position. He walked home as in a dream. His wife
had gone out to a neighbor's. His little boy came to him, and clambered
on his knee. Papa, what makes your face so wet? he asked, for there
were great drops on his forehead. Then his wife came in, her face
white, her eyes full of horror. Oh, John! she exclaimed. They say
you were at Mr. Flint's that night, and they are going to arrest you.
Oh, John, what does it mean? Why don't you speak? I shall go mad, if
you do not speak. You were not there! Tell me that you were not there!
The ghastly face he raised to hers might well have seemed to confess
At least she seemed to take it so, and in a fit of hysterical
weeping sank to the floor, and buried her face in her hands upon a
chair. The children, alarmed at the scene, began to cry. It was growing
dark, and as he looked out of the window, Lansing saw an officer and a
number of other persons approaching the house. They were coming to
arrest him. Animal terror, the instinct of self-preservation, seized
upon his faculties, stunned and demoralized as he was by the suddenness
with which this calamity had come upon him. He opened the door and
fled, with a score of men and boys yelling in pursuit. He ran wildly,
blindly, making incredible leaps and bounds over obstacles. As men
sometimes do in nightmares, he argued with himself, as he ran, whether
this could possibly be a waking experience, and inclined to think that
it could not. It must be a dream. It was too fantastically horrible to
be anything else.
Presently he saw just before him the eddying, swirling current of
the river, swollen by a freshet. Still half convinced that he was in a
nightmare, and, if he could but shake it off, should awake in his warm
bed, he plunged headlong in, and was at once swirled out of sight of
his pursuers beneath the darkening sky. A blow from a floating object
caused him to throw up his arms, and, clutching something solid, he
clambered upon a shed carried away by the freshet from an up-river
farm. All night he drifted with the swift current, and in the morning
landed in safety thirty miles below the village from which he had fled
So John Lansing, for no fault whatever except an error of judgment,
if even it was that, was banished from home, and separated from his
family almost as hopelessly as if he were dead. To return would be to
meet an accusation of murder to which his flight had added overwhelming
weight. To write to his wife might be to put the officers of the law,
who doubtless watched her closely, upon his scent.
Under an assumed name he made his way to the far West, and, joining
the rush to the silver mines of Colorado, was among the lucky ones. At
the end of three years he was a rich man. What he had made the money
for, he could not tell, except that the engrossment of the struggle had
helped him to forget his wretchedness. Not that he ever did forget it.
His wife and babies, from whose embraces he had been so suddenly torn,
were always in his thoughts. Above all, he could not forget the look of
horror in his wife's eyes in that last terrible scene. To see her
again, and convince her, if not others, that he was innocent, was a
need which so grew upon him that, at the end of three years, he
determined to take his life in his hand and return home openly. This
life of exile was not worth living.
One day, in the course of setting his affairs in order for his
return, he was visiting a mining camp remote from the settlements, when
a voice addressed him by his old name, and looking around he saw
Pinney. The latter's first words, as soon as his astonishment and
delight had found some expression, assured Lansing that he was no
longer in danger. The murderer of Austin' Flint had been discovered,
convicted, and hanged two years previous. As for Lansing, it had been
taken for granted that he was drowned when he leaped into the river,
and there had been no further search for him. His wife had been
broken-hearted ever since, but she and the children were otherwise
well, according to the last letters received by Pinney, who, with his
wife, had moved out to Colorado a year previous.
Of course Lansing's only idea now was to get home as fast as steam
could carry him; but they were one hundred miles from the railroad, and
the only communication was by stage. It would get up from the railroad
the next day, and go back the following morning. Pinney took Lansing
out to his ranch, some miles from the mining camp, to pass the
interval. The first thing he asked Mrs. Pinney was if she had a
photograph of his wife. When she brought him one, he durst not look at
it before his hosts. Not till he had gone to his room and locked the
door did he trust himself to see again the face of his beloved Mary.
That evening Mrs. Pinney told him how his wife and children had
fared in his absence. Her father had helped them at first, but after
his death Mary had depended upon needlework for support, finding it
hard to make the two ends meet.
Lansing groaned at hearing this, but Mrs. Pinney comforted him. It
was well worth while having troubles, she said, if they could be made
up to one, as all Mary's would be to her when she saw her husband.
The upcoming stage brought the mail, and next day Pinney rode into
camp to get his weekly newspaper, and engage a passage down the next
morning for Lansing. The day dragged terribly to the latter, who stayed
at the ranch. He was quite unfit for any social purpose, as Mrs.
Pinney, to whom a guest in that lonely place was a rare treat, found to
her sorrow, though indeed she could not blame him for being poor
company. He passed hours, locked in his room, brooding over Mary's
picture. The rest of the day he spent wandering about the place,
smiling and talking to himself like an imbecile, as he dreamed of the
happiness so soon to crown his trials. If he could have put himself in
communication with Mary by telegraph during this period of waiting, it
would have been easier to get through, but the nearest telegraph
station was at the railroad. In the afternoon he saddled a horse and
rode about the country, thus disposing of a couple of hours.
When he came back to the house, he saw that Pinney had returned, for
his horse was tethered to a post of the front piazza. The doors and
windows of the living-room were open, and as he reached the front door,
he heard Pinney and his wife talking in agitated tones.
Oh, how could God let such an awful thing happen? she was
exclaiming, in a voice broken by hysterical sobbing. I 'm sure there
was never anything half so horrible before. Just as John was coming
home to her, and she worshiping him so, and he her! Oh, it will kill
him! Who is going to tell him? Who can tell him?
He must not be told to-day, said Pinney's voice. We must keep it
from him at least for to-day.
Lansing entered the room. Is she dead? he asked quietly. He could
not doubt, from what he had overheard, that she was.
God help him! He 'll have to know it now, exclaimed Pinney.
Is she dead? repeated Lansing.
No, she is n't dead.
Is she dying, then?
No, she is well.
It's the children, then?
No, answered Pinney. They are all right.
Then, in God's name, what is it? demanded Lansing, unable to
conceive what serious evil could have happened to him, if nothing had
befallen his wife and babies.
We can't keep it from him now, said Pinney to his wife. You 'll
have to give him her letter.
Can't you tell me what it is? Why do you keep me in suspense?
asked Lansing, in a voice husky with a dread he knew not of what.
I can't, man. Don't ask me! groaned Finney. It's better that you
should read it.
Mrs. Finney's face expressed an agony of compassion as, still half
clutching it, she held out a letter to Lansing. John, oh, John, she
sobbed; remember, she's not to blame! She doesn't know.
The letter, was in his wife's handwriting, addressed to Mrs. Pinney,
and read as follows:
You will be surprised by what I am going to tell you. You,
who know how I loved John, must have taken it for granted
that I would never marry again. Not that it could matter to
him. Too well I feel the gulf between the dead and living to
fancy that his peace could be troubled by any of the
weaknesses of mortal hearts. Indeed, he often used to tell
me that, if he died, he wanted me to marry again, if ever I
felt like doing so; but in those happy days I was always
sure that I should be taken first. It was he who was to go
first, though, and now it is for the sake of his children
that I am going to do what I never thought I could. I am
going to marry again. As they grow older and need more, I
find it impossible for me to support them, though I do not
mind how hard I work, and would wear my fingers to the bone
rather than take any other man's name after being John's
wife. But I cannot care for them as they should be cared
for. Johnny is now six, and ought to go to school, but I
cannot dress him decently enough to send him. Mary has
outgrown all her clothes, and I cannot get her more. Her
feet are too tender to go bare, and I cannot buy her shoes.
I get less and less sewing since the new dressmaker came to
the village, and soon shall have none. We live, oh so
plainly! For myself I should not care, but the children are
growing and need better food. They are John's children, and
for their sake I have brought myself to do what I never
could have done but for them. I have promised to marry Mr.
Whitcomb. I have not deceived him as to why alone I marry
him. He has promised to care for the children as his own,
and to send Johnny to college, for I know his father would
have wanted him to go. It will be a very quiet wedding, of
course. Mr. Whitcomb has had some cards printed to send to a
few friends, and I inclose one to you. I cannot say that I
wish you could be present, for it will be anything but a
joyful day to me. But when I meet John in heaven, he will
hold me to account for the children he left me, and this is
the only way by which I can provide for them. So long as it
is well with them, I ought not to care for myself.
The card announced that the wedding would take place at the home of
the bride, at six o'clock on the afternoon of the 27th of June.
It was June 27 that day, and it was nearly five o'clock. The Lord
help you! ejaculated Pinney, as he saw, by the ashen hue which
overspread Lansing's face, that the full realization of his situation
had come home to him. We meant to keep it from you till to-morrow. It
might be a little easier not to know it till it was over than now, when
it is going on, and you not able to lift a finger to stop it.
Oh, John, cried Mrs. Pinney once more; remember, she does n't
know! and, sobbing hysterically, she fled from the room, unable to
endure the sight of Lansing's face.
He had fallen into a chair, and was motionless, save for the slow
and labored breathing which shook his body. As he sat there in Pinney's
ranch this pleasant afternoon, the wife whom he worshiped never so
passionately as now, at their home one thousand miles away, was holding
another man by the hand, and promising to be his wife.
It was five minutes to five by the clock on the wall before him. It
therefore wanted but five minutes of six, the hour of the wedding, at
home, the difference in time being just an hour. In the years of his
exile, by way of enhancing the vividness of his dreams of home, he had
calculated exactly the difference in time from various points in
Colorado, so that he could say to himself, Now Mary is putting the
babies to bed; Now it is her own bedtime; Now she is waking up; or
Now the church-bells are ringing, and she is walking to church. He
was accustomed to carry these two standards of time always in his head,
reading one by the other, and it was this habit, bred of doting
fondness, which now would compel him to follow, as if he were a
spectator, minute by minute, each step of the scene being enacted so
People were prompt at weddings. No doubt already the few guests were
arriving, stared at by the neighbors from their windows. The complacent
bridegroom was by this time on his way to the home of the bride, or
perhaps knocking at the door. Lansing knew him well, an elderly,
well-to-do furniture-maker, who had been used to express a fatherly
admiration for Mary. The bride was upstairs in her chamber, putting the
finishing touches to her toilet; or, at this very moment, it might be,
was descending the stairs to take the bridegroom's arm and go in to be
Lansing gasped. The mountain wind was blowing through the room, but
he was suffocating.
Pinney's voice, seeming to come from very far away, was in his ears.
Rouse yourself, for God's sake! Don't give it all up that way. I
believe there's a chance yet. Remember the mind-reading you used to do
with her. You could put almost anything into her mind by just willing
it there. That's what I mean. Will her to stop what she is doing now.
Perhaps you may save her yet. There's a chance you may do it. I don't
say there's more than a chance, but there 's that There's a bare
chance. That's better than giving up. I 've heard of such things being
done. I 've read of them. Try it, for God's sake I Don't give up.
At any previous moment of his life the suggestion that he could, by
mere will power, move the mind of a person a thousand miles away, so as
to reverse a deliberate decision, would have appeared to Lansing as
wholly preposterous as no doubt it does to any who read these lines.
But a man, however logical he may be on land, will grasp at a straw
when drowning, as if it were a log. Pinney had no need to use arguments
or adjurations to induce Lansing to adopt his suggestion. The man
before him was in no mood to balance probabilities against
improbabilities. It was enough that the project offered a chance of
success, albeit infinitesimal; for on the other hand there was nothing
but an intolerable despair, and a fate that truly seemed more than
flesh and blood could bear.
Lansing had sprung to his feet while Pinney was speaking. I 'm
going to try it, and may God Almighty help me! he cried, in a terrible
Amen! echoed Pinney.
Lansing sank into his chair again, and sat leaning slightly forward,
in a rigid attitude. The expression of his eyes at once became fixed.
His features grew tense, and the muscles of his face stood out. As if
to steady the mental strain by a physical one, he had taken from the
table a horseshoe which had lain there, and held it in a convulsive
Pinney had made this extraordinary suggestion in the hope of
diverting Lansing's mind for a moment from his terrible situation, and
with not so much faith even as he feigned that it would be of any
practical avail. But now, as he looked upon the ghastly face before
him, and realized the tremendous concentration of purpose, the agony of
will, which it expressed, he was impressed that it would not be
marvelous if some marvel should be the issue. Certainly, if the will
really had any such power as Lansing was trying to exert, as so many
theorists maintained, there could never arise circumstances better
calculated than these to call forth a supreme assertion of the faculty.
He went out of the room on tiptoe, and left his friend alone to fight
this strange and terrible battle with the powers of the air for the
honor of his wife and his own.
There was little enough need of any preliminary effort on Lansing's
part to fix his thoughts upon Mary. It was only requisite that to the
intensity of the mental vision, with which he had before imagined her,
should be added the activity of the will, turning the former mood of
despair into one of resistance. He knew in what room of their house the
wedding party must now be gathered, and was able to represent to
himself the scene there as vividly as if he had been present. He saw
the relatives assembled; he saw Mr. Davenport, the minister, and,
facing him, the bridal couple, in the only spot where they could well
stand, before the fireplace. But from all the others, from the guests,
from the minister, from the bridegroom, he turned his thoughts, to fix
them on the bride alone. He saw her as if through the small end of an
immensely long telescope, distinctly, but at an immeasurable distance.
On this face his mental gaze was riveted, as by conclusive efforts his
will strove to reach and move hers against the thing that she was
doing. Although his former experiments in mental phenomena had in a
measure familiarized him with the mode of addressing his powers to such
an undertaking as this, yet the present effort was on a scale so much
vaster that his will for a time seemed appalled, and refused to go out
from him, as a bird put forth from a ship at sea returns again and
again before daring to essay the distant flight to land. He felt that
he was gaining nothing. He was as one who beats the air. It was all he
could do to struggle against the influences that tended to deflect and
dissipate his thoughts. Again and again a conviction of the uselessness
of the attempt, of the madness of imagining that a mere man could send
a wish, like a voice, across a continent, laid its paralyzing touch
upon his will, and nothing but a sense of the black horror which
failure meant enabled him to throw it off. If he but once admitted the
idea of failing, all was lost. He must believe that he could do this
thing, or he surely could not. To question it was to surrender his
wife; to despair was to abandon her to her fate. So, as a wrestler
strains against a mighty antagonist, his will strained and tugged in
supreme stress against the impalpable obstruction of space, and,
fighting despair with despair, doggedly held to its purpose, and sought
to keep his faculties unremittingly streaming to one end. Finally, as
this tremendous effort, which made minutes seem hours, went on, there
came a sense of efficiency, the feeling of achieving something. From
this consciousness was first born a faith, no longer desperate, but
rational, that he might succeed, and with faith came an instantaneous
tenfold multiplication of force. The overflow of energy lost the
tendency to dissipation and became steady. The will appeared to be
getting the mental faculties more perfectly in hand, if the expression
may be used, not only concentrating but fairly fusing them together by
the intensity with which it drove them to their object. It was time.
Already, perhaps, Mary was about to utter the vows that would give her
to another. Lansing's lips moved. As if he were standing at her side,
he murmured with strained and labored utterance ejaculations of appeal
Then came the climax of the stupendous struggle. He became aware of
a sensation so amazing that I know not if it can be described at
all,a sensation comparable to that which comes up the mile-long
sounding-line, telling that it touches bottom. Fainter far, as much
finer as is mind than matter, yet not less unmistakable, was the thrill
which told the man, agonizing on that lonely mountain of Colorado, that
the will which he had sent forth to touch the mind of another, a
thousand miles away, had found its resting-place, and the chain between
them was complete. No longer projected at random into the void, but as
if it sent along an established medium of communication, his will now
seemed to work upon hers, not uncertainly and with difficulty, but as
if in immediate contact. Simultaneously, also, its mood changed. No
more appealing, agonizing, desperate, it became insistent, imperious,
dominating. For only a few moments it remained at this pitch, and then,
the mental tension suddenly relaxing, he aroused to a perception of his
surroundings, of which toward the last he had become oblivious. He was
drenched with perspiration and completely exhausted. The iron horseshoe
which he had held in his hands was drawn halfway out.
Thirty-six hours later, Lansing, accompanied by Pinney, climbed down
from the stage at the railroad station. During the interval Lansing had
neither eaten nor slept. If at moments in that time he was able to
indulge the hope that his tremendous experiment had been successful,
for the main part the overwhelming presumption of common sense and
common experience against such a notion made it seem childish folly to
At the station was to be sent the dispatch, the reply to which would
determine Mary's fate and his own. Pinney signed it, so that, if the
worst were true, Lansing's existence might still remain a secret; for
of going back to her in that case, to make her a sharer of his shame,
there was no thought on his part. The dispatch was addressed to Mr.
Davenport, Mary's minister, and merely asked if the wedding had taken
They had to wait two hours for the answer. When it came, Lansing was
without on the platform, and Pinney was in the office. The operator
mercifully shortened his suspense by reading the purport of the message
from the tape: The dispatch in answer to yours says that the wedding
did not take place.
Pinney sprang out upon the platform. At sight of Lansing's look of
ghastly questioning, the tears blinded him, and he could not speak, but
the wild exultation of his face and gestures was speech enough.
The second day following, Lansing clasped his wife to his breast,
and this is the story she told him, interrupted with weepings and
shudderings and ecstatic embraces of reassurance. The reasons which had
determined her, in disregard of the dictates of her own heart, to marry
again, have been sufficiently intimated in her letter to Mrs. Pinney.
For the rest, Mr. Whitcomb was a highly respectable man, whom she
esteemed and believed to be good and worthy. When the hour set for the
marriage arrived, and she took her place by his side before the
minister and the guests, her heart indeed was like lead, but her mind
calm and resolved. The preliminary prayer was long, and it was natural,
as it went on, that her thoughts should go back to the day when she had
thus stood by another's side. She had ado to crowd back the scalding
tears, as she contrasted her present mood of resignation with the
mingling of virginal timidity and the abandon of love in her heart that
other day. Suddenly, seeming to rise out of this painful contrast of
the past and the present, a feeling of abhorrence for the act to which
she was committed possessed her mind. She had all along shrunk from it,
as any sensitive woman might from a marriage without love, but there
had been nothing in that shrinking to compare in intensity with this
uncontrollable aversion which now seized upon her to the idea of
holding a wife's relation to the man by her side. It had all at once
come oyer her that she could not do it. Nevertheless she was a sensible
and rational woman as well as a sweet and lovely one. Whatever might be
the origin of this sudden repugnance, she knew it had none in reason.
She was fulfilling a promise which she had maturely considered, and
neither in justice to herself nor the man to whom she had given it
could she let a purely hysterical attack like this prevent its
consummation. She called reason and common sense to her aid, and
resolutely struggled to banish the distressing fancies that assailed
her. The moisture stood out upon her forehead with the severity of the
conflict, which momentarily increased. At last the minister ended his
prayer, of which she had not heard a word. The bridal pair were bidden
to take each other by the hand. As the bridegroom's fingers closed
around hers, she could not avoid a shudder as at a loathsome contact.
It was only by a supreme effort of self-control that she restrained
from snatching her hand away with a scream. She did not hear what the
minister went on to say. Every faculty was concentrated on the
struggle, which had now become one of desperation, to repress an
outbreak of the storm that was raging within. For, despite the
shuddering protest of every instinct and the wild repulsion with which
every nerve tingled, she was determined to go through the ceremony. But
though the will in its citadel still held out, she knew that it could
not be for long. Each wave of emotion that it withstood was higher,
stronger, than the last. She felt that it was going, going. She prayed
that the minister might be quick, while yet she retained a little
self-command, and give her an opportunity to utter some binding vow
which should make good her solemn engagement, and avert the scandal of
the outbreak on the verge of which she was trembling. Do you, said
the minister to Mr. Whitcomb, take this woman whom you hold by the
hand to be your wife, to honor, protect, and love while you live? I
do, replied the bridegroom promptly. Do you, said the minister,
looking at Mary, take the man whom you hold by the hand to be your
husband, to love and honor while you live? Mary tried to say Yes,
but at the effort there surged up against it an opposition that was
almost tangible in its overpowering force. No longer merely operating
upon her sensibilities, the inexplicable influence that was conquering
her now seized on her physical functions, and laid its interdict upon
her tongue. Three times she strove to throw off the incubus, to speak,
but in vain. Great drops were on her forehead; she was deadly pale, and
her eyes were wild and staring; her features twitched as in a spasm,
while she stood there struggling with the invisible power that sealed
her lips. There was a sudden movement among the spectators; they were
whispering together. They saw that something was wrong. Do you thus
promise? repeated the minister, after a pause. Nod, if you can't
speak, murmured the bridegroom. His words were the hiss of a serpent
in her ears. Her will resisted no longer; her soul was wholly possessed
by unreasoning terror of the man and horror of the marriage. No! no!
no! she screamed in piercing tones, and snatching her hand from the
bridegroom, she threw herself upon the breast of the astonished
minister, sobbing wildly as she clung to him, Save me, save me! Take
me away! I can't marry him,I can't! Oh, I can't!
The wedding broke up in confusion, and that is the way, if you
choose to think so, that John Lansing, one thousand miles away, saved
his wife from marrying another man.
If you choose to think so, I say, for it is perfectly competent to
argue that the influence to which Mary Lansing yielded was merely an
hysterical attack, not wholly strange at such a moment in the case of a
woman devoted to her first husband, and reluctantly consenting to
second nuptials. On this theory, Lansing's simultaneous agony at
Pinners ranch in Colorado was merely a coincidence; interesting,
perhaps, but unnecessary to account for his wife's behavior. That John
and Mary Lansing should reject with indignation this simple method of
accounting for their great deliverance is not at all surprising in view
of the common proclivity of people to be impressed with the
extraordinary side of circumstances which affect themselves; nor is
there any reason why their opinion of the true explanation of the facts
should be given more weight than another's. The writer, who has merely
endeavored to put this story into narrative form, has formed no opinion
on it which is satisfactory to himself, and therefore abstains from any
effort to influence the reader's judgment.