Chapter VIII. A Vision of Dead Years
 

The interview with Dr. Marten left me very much disquieted. But it wasn't the only disquieting thing that occurred at Woodbury. Before I left the place I happened to go one day into Jane's own little sitting-room. Jane was anxious I should see it--she wanted me to know all her house, she said, for the sake of old times: and for the sake of those old times that I couldn't remember, but when I knew she'd been kind to me, I went in and looked at it.

There was nothing very peculiar about Jane's little sitting-room: just the ordinary English landlady's parlour. You know the type:--square table in the middle; bright blue vases on the mantelpiece; chromo-lithograph from the Illustrated London News on the wall; rickety whatnot with glass-shaded wax-flowers in the recess by the window. But over in one corner I chanced to observe a framed photograph of early execution, which hung faded and dim there. Perhaps it was because my father was such a scientific amateur; but photography, I found out in time, struck the key-note of my history in every chapter. I didn't know why, but this particular picture attracted me strangely. It came from The Grange, Jane told me: she'd hunted it out in the attic over the front bedroom after the house was shut up. It belonged to a lot of my father's early attempts that were locked in a box there. "He'd always been trying experiments and things," she said, "with photography, poor gentleman."

Faded and dim as it was, the picture riveted my eyes at once by some unknown power of attraction. I gazed at it long and earnestly. It represented a house of colonial aspect, square, wood-built, and verandah-girt, standing alone among strange trees whose very names and aspects were then unfamiliar to me, but which I nowadays know to be Australian eucalyptuses. On the steps of the verandah sat a lady in deep mourning. A child played by her side, and a collie dog lay curled up still and sleepy in the foreground. The child, indeed, stirred no chord of any sort in my troubled brain; but my heart came up into my mouth so at sight of the lady, that I said to myself all at once in my awe, "That must surely be my mother!"

The longer I looked at it, the more was I convinced I must have judged aright. Not indeed that in any true sense I could say I remembered her face or figure: I was so young when she died, according to everybody's account, that even if I'd remained in my First State I could hardly have retained any vivid recollection of her. But both lady and house brought up in me once more to some vague degree that strange consciousness of familiarity I had noticed at The Grange: and what was odder still, the sense of wont seemed even more marked in the Australian cottage than in the case of the house which all probability would have inclined one beforehand to think I must have remembered better. If this was indeed my earliest home, then I seemed to recollect it far more readily than my later one.

I turned trembling to Jane, hardly daring to frame the question that rose first to my lips.

"Is that--my mother?" I faltered out slowly.

But there Jane couldn't help me. She'd never seen the lady, she said.

"When first I come to The Grange, miss, you see, your mother'd been buried a year; there was only you and Mr. Callingham in family. And I never saw that photograph, neither, till I picked it out of the box locked up in the attic. The little girl might be you, like enough, when you look at it sideways; and yet again it mightn't. But the lady I don't know. I never saw your mother."

So I was fain to content myself with pure conjecture.

All day long, however, the new picture haunted me almost as persistently as the old one.

That night I went to sleep fast, and slept for some hours heavily. I woke with a start. I had been dreaming very hard. And my dream was peculiarly clear and lifelike. Never since the first night of my new life--the night of the murder--had I dreamed such a dream, or seen dead objects so vividly. It came out in clear colours, like the terrible Picture that had haunted me so long. And it affected me strangely. It was a scene, rather than a dream--a scene, as at the theatre; but a scene in which I realised and recognised everything.

I stood on the steps of a house--a white wooden house, with a green-painted verandah--the very house I had seen that afternoon in the faded photograph in Jane's little sitting-room. But I didn't think of it at first as the house in the old picture: I thought of it as home--our own place--the cottage. The steps seemed to me very high, as in childish recollection. A lady walked about on the verandah and called to me: a lady in a white gown, like the lady in the photograph, only younger and prettier, and dressed much more daintily. But I didn't think of her as that either: I called her mamma to myself: I looked up into her face, oh, ever so much above me: I must have been very small indeed when that picture first occurred to me. There was a gentleman, too, in a white linen coat, who pinched my mamma's ear, and talked softly and musically. But I didn't think of him quite so: I knew he was my papa: I played about his knees, a little scampering child, and looked up in his face, and teased him and laughed at him. My papa looked down at me, and called me a little kitten, and rolled me over on my back, and fondled me and laughed with me. There were trees growing all about, big trees with long grey leaves: the same sort of trees as the ones in the photograph. But I didn't remember that at first: in my dream, and in the first few minutes of my waking thought, I knew them at once as the big blue-gum-trees.

I awoke in the midst of it: and the picture persisted.

Then, with a sudden burst of intuition, the truth flashed upon me all at once. My dream was no mere dream, but a revelation in my sleep. It was my intellect working unconsciously and spontaneously in an automatic condition. For the very first time in my life, since the night of the murder, I had really remembered something that occurred before it.

This was a scene of my First State. In all probability it was my earliest true childish recollection.

I sat up in bed, appalled. I dared not call aloud or ring for Jane to come to me. But if I'd seen a ghost, it could hardly have affected me more profoundly than this ghost of my own dead life thus brought suddenly back to me. Gazing away across some illimitable vista of dim years, I remembered this one scene as something that once occurred, long ago, to my very self, in my own experience. Then came a vast gulf, an unbridged abyss: and after that, with a vividness as of yesterday, the murder.

I held my ears and crouched low, sitting up in my bed in the dark. But the dream seemed to go on still: it remained with me distinctly.

The more I thought it over, the more certain it appeared as part of my own experience. Putting two and two together, I made sure in my own mind this was a genuine recollection of my life in Australia. I was born there, I knew: that I had learned from everybody. But I could distinctly remember having lived there now. It came back to me as memory. The dream had reinstated it.

And it was the sight of the photograph that had produced the dream. This was curious, very. A weird idea came across me. Had I begun, in all past efforts to remember, at the wrong end? Instead of trying to recollect the circumstances that immediately preceded the murder, ought I to have set out by trying to reinstate my First Life, chapter by chapter and verse by verse, from childhood upward? Ought I to start by recalling as far as possible my very earliest recollections in my previous existence, and then gradually work up through all my subsequent history to the date of the murder?

The more I thought of it, the more convinced was I that that was the right procedure.

It was certainly significant that this vague childish recollection of something which might have happened when I was just about two years old should be the very first thing to recur to my my memory. Yet so appalled and alarmed was I by the weirdness of this sudden apparition, looming up, as it were, all by itself in the depths of my consciousness, that I hardly dared bring myself to think of trying to recall any other scenes of that dead and past existence. The picture rose like an exhalation, hanging unrelated in mid-air, a mere mental mirage: and it terrified me so much, that I shrank unutterably from the effort of calling up another of like sort to follow it.