DREAMS AND DREAM-STORIES
Part 2 of 2 - click >> for Part 1
M.D. of Paris; President of the Hermetic Society:
of "The Perfect Way; or the finding of Christ."
by Edward Maitland
Published in New York by Scribner & Welford in 1889
|1||THE DOOMED TRAIN||15|
|2||THE WONDERFUL SPECTACLES||19|
|3||THE COUNCIL OF PERFECTION||21|
|4||THE CITY OF BLOOD||22|
|5||THE BIRD AND THE CAT||24|
|6||THE TREASURE IN THE LIGHTED HOUSE||25|
|7||THE FOREST CATHEDRAL||26|
|8||THE ENCHANTED WOMAN||30|
|9||THE BANQUET OF THE GODS||38|
|10||THE DIFFICULT PATH||39|
|11||A LION IN THE WAY||41|
|12||A DREAM OF DISEMBODIMENT||41|
|13||THE PERFECT WAY WITH ANIMALS||43|
|14||THE LABORATORY UNDERGROUND||44|
|15||THE OLD YOUNG MAN||45|
|17||THE THREE KINGS||51|
|18||THE ARMED GODDESS||54|
|19||THE GAME OF CARDS||56|
|20||THE PANIC-STRUCK PACK-HORSE||59|
|21||THE HAUNTED INN||61|
|22||AN EASTERN APOLOGUE||63|
|23||A HAUNTED HOUSE INDEED !||64|
|24||THE SQUARE IN THE HAND||70|
|1||THROUGH THE AGES||77|
|2||A FRAGMENT -1-||80|
|3||A FRAGMENT -2-||80|
|4||SIGNS OF THE TIMES||81|
|5||WITH THE GODS||81|
|PART II||DREAM - STORIES|
|1||A VILLAGE OF SEERS||85|
|2||STEEPSIDE; A GHOST STORY||116|
|3||BEYOND THE SUNSET||147|
|4||A TURN OF LUCK||169|
|6||THE LITTLE OLD MAN'S STORY||212|
|8||ST GEORGE THE CHEVALIER||270|
Once upon a time there was a Princess. Now, this Princess dwelt
in a far-off and beautiful world beyond the sunset, and she had immortal youth
and an ancestry of glorious name. Very rich, too, she was, and the palace in
which she lived was made all of marble and alabaster and things precious and
wonderful. But that which was most wonderful about her was her exceeding beauty, — a
beauty not like that one sees in the world this side of the sunset. For the
beauty of the Princess was the bright-shining of a lovely spirit; her body
was but the veil of her soul that shone through all her perfect form as the
radiance of the sun shines through clear water. I cannot tell you how beautiful
this Princess was, nor can I describe the colour of her hair and her eyes,
or the aspect of her face. Many men have seen her and tried to give an account
of her; but though I have read several of these accounts, they differ so greatly
from one another that I should find it hard indeed to reproduce her picture
from the records of it which her lovers have left.
For all these men who have written about the Princess [Page 148] loved her; none, indeed, could help it who ever looked on her face. And to some she has seemed fair as the dawn, and to others dark as night; some have found her gay and joyous as Allegro, and others sad and silent and sweet as Penseroso. But to every lover she has seemed the essence and core of all beauty; the purest, noblest, highest, and most regal being that he has found it possible to conceive. I am not going to tell you about all the lovers of the Princess, for that would take many volumes to rehearse, but only about three of them, because these three were typical personages, and had very remarkable histories.
Like all the lovers of the Princess, these three men were travellers, coming from a distant country to the land beyond the sunset on purpose to see the beautiful lady of whom their fathers and grandfathers had told them; the lady who never could outlive youth because she belonged to the race of the everlasting Gods who ruled the earth in the old far-off Hellenic times.
I do not know how long these three men stayed in the country of the Princess; but they stayed quite long enough to be very, very much in love with her, and when at last they had to come away — for no man who is not dead can remain long beyond the sunset — she gave to each of them a beautiful little bird, a tiny living bird with a voice of sweetest music, that had been trained and tuned to song by Phoebus Apollo himself. And I could no more describe to you the sweetness of that song than I could describe the beauty of the Princess.
Then she told the travellers to be of brave heart and of valiant hope, because there lay before them an ordeal demanding all their prowess, and after that the prospect of a great reward. " Now," she said, " that you have [Page 149] learned to love me, and to desire to have your dwelling here with me, you must go forth to prove your knighthood. I am not inaccessible, but no man must think to win me for his lady unless he first justify his fealty by noble service. The world to which you now go is a world of mirage and of phantasms, which appear real only to those who have never reached and seen this realm of mine on the heavenward side of the sun. You will have to pass through ways beset by monstrous spectres, over wastes where rage ferocious hydras, chimaeras, and strange dragons breathing flame. You must journey past beautiful shadowy islets of the summer sea, in whose fertile bays the cunning sirens sing; you must brave the mountain robber, the goblins of the wilderness, and the ogre whose joy is to devour living men. But fear nothing, for all these are but phantoms; nor do you need any sword or spear to slay them, but only a loyal mind and an unswerving purpose. Let not your vision be deceived, nor your heart beguiled; return to me unscathed through all these many snares, and doubt not the worth and greatness of the guerdon I shall give. Nor think you go unaided. With each of you I send a guide and monitor; heed well his voice and follow where he leads."
Now, when the three travellers had received their presents, and had looked their last upon the shining face of the donor, they went out of the palace and through the golden gate of the wonderful city in which she dwelt, and so, once again, they came into the land which lies this side of the sun.
Then their ordeal began; but, indeed, they saw no [Page 150] sirens or dragons or gorgons, but only people like themselves going and coming along the highways. Some of these people sauntered, some ran, some walked, alone and pensively, others congregated in groups together and talked or laughed or shouted noisy songs. Under the pleasant trees on the greensward were pavilions, beautifully adorned; the sound of music issued from many of them, fair women danced there under the new blossoming trees, tossing flowers into the air, and feasts were spread, wine flowed, and jewels glittered. And the music and the dancing women pleased the ear and eye of one of the three travellers, so that he turned aside from his companions to listen and to look. Then presently a group of youths and girls drew near and spoke to him. " It is our festival," they said; " we are worshippers of Queen Beauty; come and feast with us. The moon of May is rising; we shall dance all night in her beautiful soft beams." But he said, "I have just returned from a country the beauty of which far surpasses that of anything one can see here, and where there is a Princess so lovely and so stately that the greatest Queen of all your world is not fit to be her tiring maid." Then they said, " Where is that country of which you speak, and who is this wonderful Princess ? " " It is the land beyond the sunset," he answered, " but the name of the Princess no man knows until she herself tells it him. And she will tell it only to the man whom she loves."
At that they laughed and made mirth among themselves. "Your land is the land of dreams", they said; "we have heard all about it. Nothing there is real, and as for your Princess she is a mere shadow, a vision of your own creation, and no substantial being at all. The only real and true beauty is the beauty we see and touch [Page 151] and hear; the beauty which sense reveals to us, and which is present with us today." Then he answered, "I do not blame you at all, for you have never seen my Princess. But I have seen her, and heard her speak, and some day I hope to return to her. And when I came away she warned me that in this country I should be beset by all manner of strange and monstrous spectres, harpies, and sirens, eaters of men, whom I must bravely meet and overcome. I pray you tell me in what part of your land these dangers lie, that I may be on my guard against them."
Thereat they laughed the more, and answered him, "Oh, foolish traveller, your head is certainly full of dreams ! There are no such things as sirens; all that is an old Greek fable, a fairy tale with no meaning except for old Greeks and modern babies ! You will never meet with any sirens or harpies, nor will you ever see again the Princess of whom you talk, unless, indeed, in your dreams. It is this country that is the only real one, there is nothing at all beyond the sunset."
Now all this time the little bird which the Princess had given
to him was singing quite loudly under the folds of the traveler’s cloak.
And he took it out and showed it to the youths who spoke with him, and said, “This
bird was given me by the Princess whom you declare to be a myth. How could
a myth give me this living bird?” They answered, “You are surely
a madman as well as a dreamer. Doubtless the bird flew into your chamber while
you slept, and your dreaming fancy took advantage of the incident to frame
this tale about the Princess and her gift. It is often so in dreams. The consciousness
perceives things as it were through a cloud, and weaves fictions out of realities.” [Page
Then he began to doubt, but still he held his ground, and said, “Yet hear how sweetly it sings! No wild, untaught bird of earth could sing like that”. Whereat they were vastly merry, and one cried, “Why, it is quite a common tweet-tweet!. It is no more than the chirp of a vulgar, everyday thrush or linnet!” And another, “Were I you, I would wring the bird’s neck; it must be a terrible nuisance if it always makes such a noise!” And a third, “Let it fly, we cannot hear ourselves speaking for its screaming!” Then the traveler began to feel ashamed of his bird. “All that I say,” he thought, “appears to them foolish, even the Princess’s gift is, in they eyes, a common chirping chaffinch. What if indeed I have been dreaming; what if this, after all, should be the real world, and the other a mere fantasy?”
The bird sang, “Away! away! or you will never see the Princess more! The real world lied beyond the gates of the sunset!”
But when the traveler asked the youths what the bird sang, they answered that they had only heard Tweet-tweet,” and Chirp-chirp. Then he was really angry, but not with them, as you would perhaps have thought. No, he was angry with the bird, and ashamed of it and of himself. And he threw it from him into the air, and clapped his hands to drive it away; and all the youths and girls that stood around him clapped theirs too. Sh-shsh, they cried, “be off, you are a good-for-nothing hedge-finch, and may be thankful your neck has not been wrung to punish you for making such a noise!”
So the bird flew away, away beyond the sunset, and I think it went back to the Princess and told her all that had happened. And the traveler went, and danced and [Page 153] sang and feasted to his heart’s content with the worshipers of Queen Beauty, not knowing that he really had fallen among the sirens after all!
Meanwhile the two other travelers had gone on their way, for neither of them cared about pleasure; one was a grave looking man who walked with his eyes on the ground, looking curiously at every rock and shrub he passed by the wayside, and often pausing to examine more closely a strange herb, or to pick to pieces a flower; the other had a calm, sweet face, and he walked erect, his eyes lifted towards the great mountains that lay far away before them.
By-and-by there came along the road towards the two travelers a company of men carrying banners, on which were inscribed as mottoes - Knowledge is Freedom!. Science knows no law but the law of Progress! Liberty, Equality, Fraternity! Utility is Virtue. and a great many other fine phrases. Most of the persons who marched first in this procession wore spectacles, and some were clad in academical costumes. The greater number had gone past, when the grave-looking traveler — he who had interested himself so much in the stones and foliage by the wayside — courteously stopped one of the company and asked him what the procession meant. “We are worshipers of Science,” answered the man whom he addressed; “today we hold solemn rites in honor of our deity. Many orations will be made by her high priests, and a great number of victims slain, — lambs, and horses, and doves, and hinds, and all manner of animals. They will be put to death with unspeakable [Page 154] torments, racked, and maimed, and burned, and hewn asunder, all for the glory and gain of Science. And we shall shout with enthusiasm as the blood flows over he altars, and the smoke ascends in her praise.
“But all this is horrible”,said the grave man, with a gesture of avoidance; “it sounds to me like a description of the orgies of savages, or of the pastimes of madmen; it is unworthy of intelligent and sane men.” “On the contrary,” returned his informant, “it is just because we are intelligent and sane that we take delight in it. For it is by means of these sacrifices that our deity vouchsafes her oracles. In the mangled corpses and entrails of these victims our augurs find the knowledges we seek”. “And what knowledges are they?” asked the traveler . “The knowledge of Nature’s secrets”, cried the votary of Science with kindling eye, “the knowledge of life and death; the magic of the art of healing disease; the solution of the riddle of the universe! All this we learn, all this we perceive, in the dying throes of our victims. Does not this suffice? — is not the end great enough to justify the means?”
Then, when the second of the travelers heard these words — he whose face had been lifted as he walked — he drew nearer and answered: —
“No; it is greater to be just than to be learned. No man should wish to be healed at the cost of another’s torment.” At which the stranger frowned, and retorted impatiently, “You forget, methinks, that they whom we seek to heal are men, and they who are tormented merely beasts. By these means we enrich and endow humanity”. “Nay, I forgot not”, he answered gently, “buy he who would be so healed is man no longer. By that wish and act he becomes lower than any beast. Nor can humanity [Page 155] be enriched by that which beggars it of all its wealth.” “Fine speeches, forsooth!” cried the worshiper of Science; “you are a moralist, I find, and doubtless a very ignorant person! All this old-fashioned talk of yours belongs to a past age. We have cast aside superstition, we have swept away the old faiths. Our only guide is Reason, our only goal is Knowledge!” “Alas!” returned the other, “it is not the higher but the lower Reason which leads you, and the Knowledge you covet is not that of realities, but of mere seemings. You do not know the real world. You are the dupes of a Phantasm which you take for Substance.” With that he passed on, and the man of Science was left in the company of the traveler who had first accosted him. “What person is that?” asked the former, looking after the retreating figure of him who had just spoken. “He is a poet”, returned the grave-faced traveler; “we have both of us been beyond the sunset to see the lovely Princess who rules that wonderful country, and we left it together on a journey to this world of yours.” Beyond the sunset ! repeated the other incredulously. “That is the land of shadows; when the world was younger they used to say the old Gods lived there”. “Maybe they live there still,” said the traveler, “for the Princess is of their kith and lineage”. “A pretty fable, indeed”, responded the scientific votary. “But we know now that all that kind of thing is sheer nonsense, and worse, for it is the basis of the effete old-world sentiment which forms the most formidable obstacle to Progress, and which Science even yet finds it hard to overthrow. But what is that strange singing I hear beneath your cloak?”
It was the bird which the traveler had received from [Page 156] the Princess. He drew it forth, but did not say whose gift it was nor whence it came, because of the contempt with which his companion had spoken of the mystic country and its Rulers. Already he began to waver in his loyalty towards the Princess, and to desire greatly the knowledges of which the stranger told him. For this traveler, though he cared nothing for pleasure, or for the beauty of sensuous things, was greatly taken by the wish to be wise; only he did not rightly know in what wisdom consists. He thought it lay in the acquirement of facts, whereas really it is the power by which facts are transcended.
“That is a foreign bird”, observed the scientific man, examining it carefully through his spectacles, “and quite a curiosity. I do not remember having ever seen one like it. The note, too, is peculiar. In some of its tones it reminds me of a nightingale. No doubt it is the descendant of a developed species of a nightingale, carefully selected and artificially bred from one generation to another. Wonderful modifications of species may be obtained in this manner, as experiments with fancy breeds of pigeons have amply proved. Permit me to examine the bill more closely. Yes, yes — a nightingale certainly — and yet — indeed, I ought not to decide in haste. I should greatly like to have the opinion of Professor Effaress on the subject. But what noise is that yonder?”
For just then a terrible hubbub arose among a crowd of people congregated under the portico of a large and magnificent building a little way from the place where the scientific man and the intellectual traveler stood conversing. This building, the facade of which was adorned all over with bas-reliefs of Liberty and Progress, and modern elderly gentlemen in doctors’ gowns and [Page 157] laurel wreaths, with rolls of paper and microscopes, was, in fact, a great Scientific Institution, and into it the procession of learned personages whom the travelers had met on their way had entered, followed by a great multitude of admirers and enthusiasts. In this edifice the solemn rites which the votary of Science had described were to be held, and a vast congregation filled its halls. All at once, just as the sacrifices were about to begin, a solitary man arose in the midst of the hushed assembly, and protested, as once of old, by the banks of the far-away Ganges, Siddârtha Buddha had protested against the bloody offerings of the priests of Indra. And much after the same manner as Buddha had spoken this man spoke, of the high duty of manhood, of the splendor of justice, of the certainty of retribution, and of the true meaning of Progress and Freedom, the noblest reaches of which are spiritual, transcending all the baser and meaner utilities of the physical nature. And when the high priests of Science, not like the priests of Indra in older times, answered the prophet disdainfully and without shame, that they knew nothing of any spiritual utilities, because they believed in evolution and held man to be only a developed ape, with no more soul than his ancestor, the stranger responded that he too was an Evolutionist, but that he understood the doctrine quite differently from them, and more after the fashion of the old teachers, — Pythagoras, Plato, Hermes and Buddha. And that the living and incorruptible Spirit of God was in all things, whether ape or man, whether beast or human, ay, and in the very flowers and grass of the field, and in every element of all that is ignorantly thought to be dead and inert matter. So that the soul of man, he said, is one of the soul that is in all Nature,[Page 158] only that when man is truly human, in him alone the soul becomes self-knowing and self-concentrated, the mirror of Heaven, and the focus of the Divine Light. And he declared, moreover, that the spiritual evolution of which he spoke was not so much promoted by intellectual knowledge as by moral goodness; and that it was possible to be a very learned ape indeed, but in no wise to deserve the name of man; and that inasmuch as any person was disposed to sacrifice the higher to the lower reason, and to rank intellectual above spiritual attainment, insomuch that person was still an ape and had not developed humanity.
Now, the stranger who was brave enough to say all this was no other than the traveler poet, and all the time he was speaking, the bird which the Princess had given him lay hid in his bosom and sang to him, clear and sweet, Courage! courage! these are the ogres and the dragons; fight the good fight; to be of bold heart!” Nor was he astonished or dismayed when the assembly arose with tumult and hooting, and violently thrust him out of the Scientific Institution into the street. And that was the noise which the other traveler and his companion had heard.
But when the greater part of the mob had returned into the building there was left with the poet a little group of men and women whose hearts had been stirred by his protest. And they said to him, “You have spoken well, sir, and have done a noble thing. We are citizens of this place, and we will devote ourselves to giving effect to your words. Doubt not that we shall succeed, though it may be long first, for indeed we will work with a will.” Then the poet was glad, because he had not spoken in vain, and he bade them good speed, and went on his [Page 159] way, but the scientific man, who was with the other traveler, heard these last words, and became very angry. "Certainly", he said, “this foolish and ignorant person who has just been turned out of the assembly must have insulted our great leaders! What presumption! what insolence! No one knows what mischief he may not have done by his silly talk! It is deplorable! But see, here comes Professor Effaress, the very man I most wished to see. Professor, let me present this gentleman. He is the owner of a rare and remarkable bird, on which we want your opinion.
The Professor was a very great personage, and his coat was covered all over with decorations and bits of colored ribbon, like those on a kit’s tail. Perhaps, like a kit’s tail, they weighed and steadied him, and kept him from mounting too high into the clouds. The Professor looked at the bird through his spectacles, and nodded his head sagaciously. “I have seen this species before,” he said, “though not often. It belongs to a very ancient family indeed, and I scarcely thought that any specimen of it remained in the present day. Quite a museum bird; and in excellent plumage too. Sir, I congratulate you.”
“You do not, then consider, Professor”, said the traveler, “that this bird has about it anything transcendental - that it is - in fact - not altogether - pardon me the expression - a terrestrial bird?” For he was afraid to say the truth, that the bird really came from beyond the sunset.
The decorated personage was much amused. He laughed pleasantly and answered in bland tones, “Oh dear, no; I recognize quite well the species to which it belongs. An ancient species, as I have said, and one indeed that Science has done her utmost to extirpate, [Page 160] purposely in part, because it is proved to be a great devastator of the crops, and thus directly injurious to the interests of mankind, and partly by accident, for it has a most remarkable song-note, and scientific men have destroyed all the specimens they have been able to procure, in the hope of discovering the mechanism by which the vocal tones are produced. But, pardon me, are you a stranger in this city, sir?”
“I am”, responded the traveler, “and permit me to assure you that I take a lively interest in the scientific and intellectual pursuits with which in this place, I perceive, you are largely occupied.”
“We have a Brotherhood of Learning here, sir”, returned the Professor; “we are all Progressionists. I trust you will remain with us and take part in our assemblies.” But, as he said that, the fairy bird suddenly lifted up his song and warned the traveler, crying in the language of the country beyond the sunset, “Beware! beware! This is an ogre, he will kill you, and mix your bones with his bread! Be warned in time, and fly; fly, if you cannot fight!”
“Dear me”, said the Professor, “what a very remarkable note! I am convinced that the structure and disposition of this bird’s vocal organs must be unique. Speaking for my scientific brethren, as well as for myself, I may say that we should hold ourselves singularly indebted to you if you would permit us the opportunity of adding so rare a specimen to our national collection. It would be an acquisition, sir, I assure you, for which we would show ourselves profoundly grateful. Indeed, I am sure that the Society to which I have the honor to belong would readily admit to its Fellowship the donor of a treasure so inestimable.” As he spoke, he fixed [Page 161] his eyes on the traveler, and bowed with much ceremony and condescension. And the traveler thought what a fine thing it would be to become a Professor, and be able to wear a great many bits of colored ribbon, and to be immensely learned, and know all the faces of the universe. And, after all, what was a little singing bird, and a fairy Princess, in whose very existence the scientific gentlemen did not in the least believe, and who was, perhaps, really the shadow of a dream? So he bowed in return, and said he was greatly honored; and Professor Effaces took the bird and twisted its neck gravely, and put the little corpse into his pocket. And so the divine and beautiful song of the fairy minstrel was quenched, and instead of it I suppose the traveler got a great deal of learning and many fine decorations on his coat.
But the spirit of the slain bird fled from that inhospitable city, and went back to the Princess and told her what had befallen.
As for the poet, he went on his way alone into the open country, and saw the peasants in the fields, reaping and gleaning and gathering fruit and corn, for it was harvest time. And he passed through many hamlets and villages, and sometimes he rested a night or two at an inn; and on Sundays he heard the parish parson say prayers and preach in some quaint little Norman or Saxon church.
And at last he came to a brand-new town, where all the houses were Early English, and all the people dressed like ancient Greeks, and all the manners Renaissance, or, [Page 162] perhaps, Gothic. The poet thought they were Gothic, and probably was right.
In this town the talk was mostly about Art, and many fine things were said in regard to sweetness and light. Everybody claimed to be an artist of some kind, whether painter, musician, novelist, dramatist, verse-maker, reciter, singer, or what not. But although they seemed so greatly devoted to the Graces and the Muses, it was but the images of the Parnassian Gods that they worshiped. For in the purlieus of this fine town, horrible cruelties and abuses were committed, yet none of the so-called poets lifted a cry of reform. Every morning, early, before daybreak, there came through the streets long and sad processions and meek-eyed oxen and bleating lambs, harried by brutal drovers, with shouts and blows, — terrible processions of innocent creatures going to die under the poleaxe and the knife in order to provide the pleasures of the table for dainty votaries of sweetness and light. Before the fair faint dawn made rosy the eastern sky over the houses, you might have heard on every side the heavy thud of the poleaxe striking down the patient heifer on her knees, — the heifer whose eyes are like the eyes of Heré, say the old Greek songbooks, that were read and quoted all day in this town of Culture and Art.
And a little later, going down the by-ways of the town, you might have seen the gutters running with fresh blood, and have met carts laden with gory hides, and buckets filled with brains and blood, going to the factories and tan-yards. Young lads spent all their days in the slaughter-houses, dealing violent deaths, witnessing tragedies of carnage, hearing incessant plaintive cries, walking about on clogs among pools of clotting or [Page 163] steamy blood, and breathing the fumes of it. And scarce a mile away from the scene of all these loathsome and degrading sights, sounds, and odors, you might have found fastidious and courtly gentlemen, and ladies all belaced and bejewelled, sentimentalizing over their aspic de foie gras, or their cotelettes à la jardinière.” or some other euphemism for the dead flesh which could not, without pardonable breach of good breeding, be called by its plain true name in their presence.
And when the poet reminded them of this truth, and spoke to them of the demoralization to which, by their habits, they daily subjected many of their fellow-men; when he drew for them graphic pictures of the slaughter-yard, and of all the scenes of suffering and tyranny that led up to it and ensued from it, they clapped their hands to their ears, and cried out that he was a shockingly coarse person, and quite too horribly indelicate for refined society. Because, indeed, they cared only about a surface and outside refinement, and not a whit for that which is inward and profound. For beauty of being they had neither desire nor power of reverence; all their enthusiasm was spent over forms and words and appearances of beauty. In them the senses were quickened, but not the heart, nor the reason. Therefore the spirit of the Reformer was not in them, but the spirit of the Dilettante only.
And the poet was grieved and angry with them, because every true
poet is a Reformer; and he went forth and spoke aloud in their public places
and rebuked the dwellers in that town. But except a few curiosity hunters and
some idle folks who wanted higher wages and less work, and thought he might
help them to get what they wished for, nobody listened to him. But they went
in crowds to see a conjurer, and to hear a man who [Page
164] lectured on blue china, and another who made them a long
oration about intricate and obscure texts in a certain old dramatic book. And
I think that in those days, if it had not been for the sweet and gracious song
of the fairy bird which he carried about always in his bosom, the poet would
have become very heart-sick and desponding indeed. I do not quite know what
it was that the bird sang, but it was something about the certainty of the
advent of wisdom, and of the coming of the perfect day; and the burden of the
song was hope for all the nations of the earth. Because every beautiful and
wise thought that any man conceives is the heritage of the whole race of men,
and an earnest and fore-gleam of what all men will some day inviolably hold
for true. And forasmuch as poets are the advanced guard of the marching army
of humanity, therefore they are necessarily the first discoverers and proclaimers
of the new landscapes and ranges of Duties and Rights that rise out of the
horizon, point after point, and vista after vista, along the line of progress.
For the sonnet of the poet today is to furnish the key-note of the morrow’s
speech in Parliament, as that which yesterday was song is today the current
prose of the hustings, the pulpit, and the market. Wherefore, O poet, take
heart for the world; thou, in whose utterance speaks the inevitable Future;
who art thyself God’s prophecy and covenant of what the race at large
shall one day be! Sing thy songs, utter thine whole intent, recount thy vision;
though today no one heed thee, thou hast nevertheless spoken, and the spoken
word is not lost. Every true thought lives, because the Spirit of God is in
it, and when the time is ripe it will incarnate itself in action. Thou, thou
art the creator, the man of thought; thou art the pioneer of the ages! [Page
Somewhat on this wise sang the fairy bird, and thereby the poet was comforted, and took courage, and lifted up his voice and his apocalypse. And though few people cared to hear, and many jeered, and some rebuked, he minded only that all he should say might be well said, and as perfect and wise and worthy as he could make it. And when he had finished his testimony, he went forth from the gates of the town, and began once more to traverse the solitudes of moor and forest.
But now the winter had set in over the land, and the wastes were bleak, and the trees stood like pallid ghosts, sheeted and shrouded in snow. And the north wind moaned across the open country, and the traveler grew cold and weary. Then he spoke to the bird and said, "Bird, when I and my companions set out on our journey from the land beyond the sunset, the Princess promised us each a guide, who should bring us back in safety if only we would faithfully heed his monitions. Where then is this guide? for hitherto I have walked alone, and have seen no leader.
And the bird answered, “O poet, I, whom thou bearest about
in they bosom, and that guide and monitor! I am thy director, thine angel,
and thine inward light. And to each of thy companions a like guide was vouchsafed,
but the man of appetite drove away his monitor, and the man of intellect did
even worse, for he gave over to death his friend and is better self. Gold against
dross, the wisdom of the Gods against the knowledges of men! But thou, poet,
art the child of the Gods, and thou alone shalt again behold with joy the land
beyond the sunset, and face of Her whose true servitor and knight thou art!”
Then the traveler was right glad, and his heart was [Page 166] lifted up, and as he went he sang. But, for all that, the way grew steeper to his feet, and the icy air colder to his face; and on every hand there were no longer meadows and orchards full of laboring folk, but glittering snow-wreaths, and diamond bright glaciers, shining hard and keen against the deeps of darkening space; and at times the roar of a distant avalanche shook the atmosphere about him, and then died away into the silence out of which the sound had come. Peak above peak of crystal-white mountain ranges rose upon his sight, massive, and still, and awful, terrible affirmations of the verity of the Ideal. For this world of colossal heights and fathomless gulfs, of blinding snows, of primeval silence, of infinite revelation, of splendid lights upon manifold summits of opal, topaz ,and sardony, all seemed to him the witness and visible manifestation of his most secret and dreadful thoughts. He had seen these things in his visions, he had shaped them in his hidden reveries, he had dared to believe that such a region as this might be — nay, ought to be — if the universe were of Divine making. And now it burst upon him, an apocalypse of giant glories, an empire of absolute being, independent and careless of human presence, affirming itself eternally to its own immeasurable solitudes.
“I have reached the top and pinnacle of life”, cried the poet; “this is the world wherein all things are made!”
And now, indeed, save for the fairy bird, he trod his path alone. Now and then great clouds of mist swept down from the heights, or rose from the icy gorges, and wrapped him in their soft gray folds, hiding from his sight the glittering expanse around him, and making him afraid. Or, at times, he beheld his own shadow, a vast [Page 167] and portentous Self, projected on the nebulous air, and looming in his pathway, a solitary monster threatening him with doom. Or yet again, there arose before him, multiplied in bewildering eddies of fog-wreath, a hundred spectral selves, each above, and behind the other, like images repeated in reverberating mirrors - his own form, his own mien, his own garb and aspect - appalling in their omnipresence, maddening in their grotesque immensity as the goblins of a fever dream. But when first the traveler beheld this sight, and shrank at it, feeling for his sword, the fairy bird at his breast sang to him, “Fear not, this is the Chimaera of whom the Princess spoke. You have passed unhurt the sirens, the ogres and the hydra-headed brood of plain and lowland; now meet with courage this phantom of the heights. Even now thou standest on the confines of the land beyond the sunset; these are the dwellers on the border, the spectres who haunt the threshold of the farther world. They are but shadows of thyself, reflections cast upon the mists of the abyss, phantoms painted on the veil of the sanctuary. Out of the void they arise, the offspring of Unreason and of the Hadean Night.”
Then a strong wind came down from the peaks of the mountain like
the breathing of a God, and it rent the clouds asunder, and scattered the fog-wreaths,
and blew the phantoms hither and thither like smoke; and like smoke they were
extinguished and spent against the crags of the pass. And after that the poet
cared no more for them, but went on his way with a bold heart, until he had
left behind and below him the clouds and mists of the ravines among the hills,
and stood on the topmost expanse of dazzling snow, and beheld once more the
golden gate of the Land that lies beyond the Sun. [Page
But of his meeting with the Princess, and of the gladness and splendor of their espousals, and of all the joy that he had, is not for me to tell, for these things, which belong to the chronicles of that fairy country, no mortal hand in words of human speech is in any wise able to relate. All that I certainly know and can speak of with plainness is this, that he obtained the fulness of his heart’s desire, and beyond all hope, or knowledge, or understanding of earth, was blessed for evermore.
And now I have finished the story of a man who say and followed
his Ideal, who loved and prized it, and clave to it above and through all lesser
mundane things. Of a man whom the senses could not allure, nor the craving
for knowledge, nor the lust of power, nor the blast of spiritual vanity, shake
from his perfect rectitude and service. Of a man who, seeing the good and the
beautiful way, turned not aside from it, nor yielded a step to the enemy; in
whose soul the voice of the inward Divinity no rebuke, no derision, nor neglect
could quench; who chose his part and abode by it, seeing no reconciliation
with the world, not weakly repining because his faith in the Justice of God
distanced his sympathies of common men. Every poet has it in him to imagine,
to comprehend, and desire such a life as this, he who lives it canonizes his
genius, and, to the topmost manhood of the Seer, adds the Divinity of Heroism. [Page
" Messieurs, faites votre jeu ! . . . Le jeu est fait! . . . Rien ne va plus ! . . . Rouge gagne et la couleur ! . . . Rouge gagne, la couleur perd! . . . Rouge perd et la couleur !. . . "
Such were the monotonous continually recurring sentences, always spoken in the same impassive tones, to which I listened as I stood by the tables in the gaming-rooms of Monte Carlo. Such are the sentences to which devotees of the fickle goddess, Chance, listen hour after hour as the day wears itself out from early morning to late evening in that beautiful, cruel, enchanting earthly paradise, whose shores are washed by the bluest sea in the world, whose gardens are dotted with globes of golden fruit, and plumed with feathery palms, and where, as you wander in and out among the delicious shadowy foliage, you hear, incessantly, the sound of guns, and may, now and then, catch sight of some doomed creature with delicate white breast and broken wing, dropping, helpless and bleeding, into the still dark waters below the cliff. A wicked place ! A cruel place! Heartless, bitter, pitiless, inhuman ! And yet, so beautiful!
I stood, on this particular
afternoon, just opposite a young man seated at one of the rouge et noir tables.
As my glance wandered from face to face among the players, it was arrested
by his, — a singularly pallid, thin, eager face; — remarkably
eager, even in such a place and in such company as this. He seemed about
twenty-five, but he had the bowed and shrunken look of an invalid, [Page
170] and from time to time he coughed terribly, the ominous
cough of a person with lungs half consumed by tubercle. He had not the air
of a man who gambles for pleasure, nor, I thought, that of a spendthrift
or a ne'er-do-weel ; disease, not dissipation, had hollowed his cheeks
and set his hands trembling, and the unnatural light in his eyes was born
of fever rather than of greed. He played anxiously but not excitedly, seldom
venturing on a heavy stake, and watching the game with an intentness which
no incident diverted. Suddenly I saw a young girl make her way through the
throng towards him. She was plainly dressed, and had a sweet, sad face and
eyes full of tenderness. She touched him on the shoulder, stooped over him,
and kissed him in the frankest, simplest manner possible on the forehead. "Viens," she
whispered, "je m'etouffe ici, il fait si frais dehors; sortons." He did not
answer; his eyes were on the cards. Rouge perd, et la couleur, said
the hard official voice.
With a sigh, he rose, coughed, passed his hand over his eyes, and took his wife's arm. (I felt sure she was his wife.) They passed slowly through the rooms together, and I lost sight of them. But not of his face — nor of hers. Sitting by the fountain outside the gaming saloons half an hour afterwards, I fell to musing about this strange couple. So young, — she scarcely more than a child, and he so ill and wasted ! He had played with the manner of an old habitué, and she seemed used to finding him at the tables and leading him away. I made up my mind that I had stumbled on a romance, and resolved to hunt it down. At the table d'hôte dinner in my hotel that evening I met a friend from Nice to whom I confided my curiosity. "I know", said he, "the young people of whom you speak; they are [Page 171] patients of Dr S. of Monaco, one of my most intimate acquaintances. He told me their story". " They", I interpolated, — " is the wife, then, also ill ? " My friend smiled a little. "Not ill exactly, perhaps", he answered. " But you must have seen, — she will very shortly be a mother. And she is very young and delicate". " Tell me their story", I said, " since you know it. It is romantic, I am certain". " It is sad", he said, " and sadness suffices, I suppose, to constitute romance. The young man's name is Georges Saint-Cyr, and his family were poor relations of an aristocratic house. I say were, because they are all dead, — his father, mother, and three sisters. The father died of tubercle, so did his daughters; the son, you see, inherits the same disease and will also die of it at no very distant time. Georges Saint-Cyr never found anybody to take him up in life. He was quite a lad when he lost his widowed mother, and his health was, even then, so bad and fitful that he could never work. He tried his best; but what chef can afford to employ a youth who is always sending in doctor's certificates to excuse his absence from his desk, and breaking down with headache or swooning on the floor in office-hours ? He was totally unfit to earn his living, and the little money he had would not suffice to keep him decently. Moreover, in his delicate condition he positively needed comforts which to other lads would have been superfluous. Still he managed to struggle on for some five years, getting copying-work and what-not to do in his own rooms, till he had contrived, by the time he was twenty-two, to save a little money. His idea was to enter the medical profession and earn a livelihood by writing for scientific journals, for he had wits and was not [Page 172] without literary talent. He was lodging then in a cheap quarter of Paris not far from the École de Médecine. Well, the poor boy passed his baccalaureat and entered on his first year. He got through that pretty well, but then came the hospital work; and then, once more he broke down. The rising at six o'clock on bitter cold winter mornings, the going out into the bleak early air sometimes thick with snow or sleet, the long attendance day after day in unwholesome wards and foetid postmortem rooms; the afternoons spent over dissecting, — all these things contributed to bring about a catastrophe. He fell sick and took to his bed, and as he was quite alone in the world, his tutor, who was a kind-hearted man, undertook to see him through his illness, both as physician and as friend. And when, after a few weeks, Georges was able to get about again, the professor, seeing how lonely the young man was, asked him to spend his Sundays and spare evenings with himself and his family in their little apartment au cinquième of the rue Cluny. For the professor was, of course, poor, working for five francs a lesson to private pupils, and a much more modest sum for class lectures such as those which Georges attended. But all this mattered nothing to Georges. He went gladly the very next Sunday to Dr Le Noir's, and there he met the professor's daughter — whom you have seen. She was only just seventeen, and prettier then than she is now I doubt not, for her face is anxious and sorrowful now, and anxiety and sorrow are not becoming. You don't wonder that the young student fell in love with her. The father, engrossed in his work, did not see what was going on, and so Pauline's heart was won before the mischief could be stopped. The young people themselves went to him [Page 173] hand in hand one evening and told him all about it. Madame Le Noir had long been dead, and the professor had two sons studying medicine. His daughter was, perhaps, rather in his way; he loved her much, but she was growing fast into womanhood, and he did not quite know what to do with her. Saint-Cyr was well-born and he was clever. If only his health were to take a turn for the better, all might go well. But then, if not ? He looked at the young man's pale face and remembered what his stethoscope had revealed. Still, in such an early stage these physical warnings often came to nothing. Rest, and fresh air, and happiness, might set him up and make a healthy man of him yet. So he gave a preliminary assent to the engagement, but forbade the young people to consider the affair settled — for the present. He wanted to see how Georges got on. It was early spring then. Hope and love and the April sunshine agreed with the young man. He was much stronger by June, and did well at the hospital and at his work. He had reached the end of his fin d'année examinations; a year's respite was before him now before beginning to pass for his doctorate. Le Noir thought that if he could pass the next winter in the south of France he would be quite set up, and lost no time in imparting this idea to Georges. But Georges was not just then in funds; his time had been lately wholly taken up with his studies, and he had been unable to do any literary hacking. When he told the professor that he could not afford to spend a winter on the Riviera, Le Noir looked at him fixedly a minute or two and then said: — ' Pauline's dot will be 10,000 francs. It comes to her from her mother. With care that ought to keep you both till you have taken your doctorate and can earn [Page 174] money for yourself. Will you marry Pauline this autumn and take her with you to the south?' Well, you can fancy whether this proposal pleased Georges or not. At first he refused, of course; he would not take Pauline's money; it was her's; he would wait till he could earn money of his own. But the professor was persuasive, and when he told his daughter of the discussion, she went privately into her father's study where Georges sat, pretending to read chemistry, and settled the matter. So the upshot of it was that late in October, Pauline became Madame Saint-Cyr, and started with her husband for the Riviera.
"The winter turned out a bitter one. Bitter and wild and treacherous over the whole of Europe. Snow where snow had not been seen time out of mind; biting murderous winds that nothing could escape. My friend Dr S. says the Riviera is not always kind to consumptives, even when at its best; and this particular season saw it at its worst. Georges Saint-Cyr caught a violent chill one evening at St Raphael, whither he and his wife had gone for the sake of the cheapness rather than to any of the larger towns on the littoral; and in a very short time his old malady was on him again, — the fever, the cough, the weakness, — in short, a fresh poussée, as the doctors say. Pauline nursed him carefully till March set in; then he recovered a little, but he was far from convalescent. She wrote hopefully to her father; so did Georges; indeed both the young man and his wife, ignorant of the hold which the disease had really got upon him, thought things to be a great deal better than they actually were. But as days went on and the cough continued, they made up their minds that St Raphael did not suit Georges, and resolved to go on to Nice. March was already far [Page 175] advanced; Nice would not be expensive now. So they went, but still Georges got no better. He even began to get weaker; the cough tore him, he said, and he leaned wearily on his wife's arm when they walked out together. Clearly he would not be able to return to Paris and to work that spring. Pauline, too, was not well, the long nursing had told on her, and she had, besides, her own ailments, for already the prospect of motherhood had defined itself. She wrote to her father that Georges was still poorly and that they should not return home till May. But before the first ten days of of April had passed, something of the true state of the case began to dawn on Saint-Cyr. ' I shall never again be strong enough to work hard,' he said to himself, ' and I must work hard if I am to pass my doctorate examinations. Meantime, all Pauline's dot will be spent. I may have to wait months before I can do any consecutive work; perhaps, even, I shall be unable to make a living by writing. I am unfit for any study. How can I get money — and get it quickly — for her sake and for the child's ?'
"Then the thought of the tables at Monte Carlo flashed into his mind. Eight thousand francs of Pauline's dot remained; too small a sum in itself to be of any permanent use, but enough to serve as capital for speculation in rouge et noir. With good luck such a sum might produce a fortune. The idea caught him and fascinated his thoughts sleeping and waking. In his dreams he beheld piles of gold shining beside him on the green cloth, and by day as he wandered feebly along the Promenade des Anglais with Pauline he grew silent, feeding his sick heart with this new fancy. One day he said to his wife: — ' Let us run over to Monte Carlo and see the playing; it will amuse us; and the gardens are [Page 176] lovely, You will be delighted with the place. Everybody says it is the most beautiful spot on the Riviera.' So they went, and were charmed, but Georges did not play that day. He stood by the tables and watched, while Pauline, too timid to venture into the saloons, and a little afraid of le jeu, sat by the great fountain in the garden outside the casino. Georges declared that evening as they sat over their tea at Nice that he had taken a fancy for beautiful Monaco, and that he would rather finish the month of April there than at Nice. Pauline assented at once, and the next day they removed to the most modest lodgings they could find within easy access of the gardens. Then; very warily and gently, Saint-Cyr unfolded to Pauline his new-born hopes. She was terribly alarmed at first and sobbed piteously. ' It is so wicked to gamble, Georges,' she said; — ' no blessing can follow such a plan as yours. And I dare not tell papa about it'. 'It would be wicked, no doubt,' said Georges, 'to play against one's friend or one's neighbour, as they do in clubs and private circles, because in such cases if one is lucky, someone else is beggared, and the money one puts in one's pocket leaves the other players so much the poorer. But here it is quite another thing. We play against a great firm, an administration, whom our individual successes do not affect, and which makes a trade of the whole concern. Scruples are out of place under such circumstances. Playing at Monte Carlo hurts nobody but oneself, and is not nearly so reprehensible as the legitimate business that goes on daily at the Bourse'. ' Still', faltered Pauline, 'such horrid persons do play, — such men, — such women ! It is not respectable.' ' It is not respectable for most people certainly,' he said, ' because other ways of earning are [Page 177] open to them. The idle come here, the dissolute, the good-for-nothings. I know all that. But we are quite differently placed; and have no other means of getting money to live with. At those tables, Pauline, I shall be working for you as sincerely and honestly as though I were buying up shares or investing in foreign railroads. It is the name and tradition of the thing that frightens you. Look it in the face and you will own that it is simply . . . speculation'. ' Georges,' said Pauline, ' you know best. Do as you like dear, I understand nothing, and you were always clever.'
"So Saint-Cyr had his way, and went to work accordingly, without loss of time, a little shyly at first, not daring to venture on any considerable stake. So he remained for a week at the roulette tables; because at the rouge et noir one can only play with gold. The week came to an end and found him neither richer nor poorer. Then he grew bolder and ventured into the deeper water. He played on rouge et noir, with luck the first day or two, but after that fortune turned dead against him. He said nothing of it to Pauline, who came every day into the rooms at intervals to seek him and say a few words, sometimes leading him out for air when he looked weary, or beguiling him away on pretence of her own need for companionship or for a walk. No doubt the poor girl suffered much; anxiety, loneliness, and a lingering shame which she could not suppress, paled her cheeks, and made her thin and careworn. She dared not ask how things were going, but her husband's silence and the increased sickliness of his aspect set her heart beating heavily with dread. Alone in her room she must have wept much during all this sad time, for my friend Dr S. says that when she made her first call upon his [Page 178] services he noted the signs of tears upon her face, and taxed her with the fact, getting from her the reply that she ' often cried.'
"Little by little, being a kind and sympathetic man, he drew from her the story I have told you. Georges became his patient also, but was always reticent in regard to le jeu. Dr S. tried to dissuade him from visiting the tables, on the ground that the atmosphere in the saloons would prove poisonous to him and perhaps even fatal. But although, in deference to this counsel, the young man shortened somewhat the duration of his sittings, and spent more time under the trees with Pauline, he did not by any means abandon his speculation, hoping always, no doubt, as all losers hope, to see the luck turn and to take revenge on Fortune."
"And the luck has not turned yet in Saint-Cyr's case, I suppose?" said I.
"No", answered my friend. "I fear things are going very ill with him and poor Pauline's dot"
As he spoke he rose from the dinner-table, and we strolled out
together upon the moonlight terrace of the hotel. " In ten minutes," said I, " my
train starts. I am going back to Nice tonight. Despite all its loveliness,
Monte Carlo is hateful to me, and I do not care to sleep under its shadow.
But before I go, I have a favour to ask of you. Let me know the sequel of the
story you have told me tonight. I want to know how it ends — in triumph
or in tragedy. Dr S. will always be able to keep you informed whether you remain
here or not. Write to me as soon as there is anything to tell, and you will
do me a signal kindness. You see you are such an admirable raconteur that
you have interested me irresistibly in your subject and must pay the penalty
of talent!" [Page
He laughed, broke off the laugh in a sigh, then shook hands with me, and we parted.
About two months later, after my return to England, I had from my friend the following letter: —
"You have, I do not doubt, retained your interest in the fortunes of the two young people who so much attracted you at the tables last April. Well, I have just seen my friend Dr S. in Lyons, and he has related to me the saddest tale you can imagine concerning Georges and Pauline. Here it is, just as he gave it, and while it is fresh in my memory. It seems that all through the month of April and well into May, Saint-Cyr's ill luck stuck to him. He lost daily, and at last only a very slender remnant of his wife's money was left to play with. Week by week, too, he grew more wasted and feeble, fading with his fading fortune. As for Pauline, although she did not complain about herself, Dr S. saw reason to feel much anxiety on her account. Grief and sickened hope and the wear of the terrible life she and Georges were leading combined to break down her strength. Phthisis, too, although not a contagious malady in the common sense of the term, is apt to exercise on debilitated persons constantly exposed to the companionship of its victims an extremely baleful effect, and to this danger Pauline was daily and nightly subjected. She became feverish, a sensation of unwonted languor took possession of her, and sleep, nevertheless, became almost impossible. Georges, engrossed in his play, observed but little the deterioration of his wife's health; or, perhaps, attributed it to her condition and to nervousness in regard to her approaching trial. Things were in this state, when, one day towards the close of May, [Page 180] Georges took his customary seat at the rouge et noir table. The weather had suddenly become extremely hot, and the crowd in the salles de jeu had considerably diminished. Only serious and veteran habitués were left, staking their gold, for the most part, with the coolness and resolution of long experience. Pauline remained in her room, she felt too ill to rise, and attributed her indisposition to the heat. Very sick at heart, Georges entered the gaming-rooms alone, and laid out on the green cloth the last of his capital. Then occurred one of those strange and complete reversions of luck that come to very few men. Georges won continuously, without a break, throughout the entire day. After an hour or two of steady success, he grew elated, and began to stake large sums, with a recklessness that might have appalled others than the old stagers who sat beside him. But his temerity brought golden returns, every stake reaped a fruitful harvest, and louis d'or accumulated in tall piles at his elbow. Before the rooms closed he had become a rich man, and had won back Pauline's dowry forty times over. Men turned to look at him as he left the tables, his face white with fatigue, his eyes burning like live coals, and his gait unsteady as a drunkard's. Outside in the open air, everything appeared to him like a dream. He could not collect his thoughts; his brain whirled; he had eaten nothing all day, fearing to quit his place lest he should change his luck or lose some good coup, and now extreme faintness overcame him. Stooping over the great basin of the fountain in front of the Casino he bathed his face with his hands, and eagerly drew in the cool evening breeze of the Mediterranean, just sweeping up sweet and full of refreshment over the parched rock of Monte Carlo. Then he made his way [Page 181] home, climbed with toil the high narrow staircase, and entered the little apartment he shared with Pauline. In the sitting room he paused a minute, poured out a glass of wine and drank it at a draught, to give himself courage to tell her his good news like a man. His hand turned the key of his bedroom; his heart beat so wildly that its throbbing deafened him; he could not hear his own voice as he cried: ' Pauline — darling ! — we are rich ! my luck has turned !' . . . But then he stopped, stricken by a blow worse than the stroke of death. Before him stood Dr S., and a woman whom he did not recognise, bending over the bed upon which Pauline lay, pallid and still, with hands folded upon her breast. Georges flung his porte-monnaie, stuffed with notes, upon the foot of the bed, and sank down on his knees beside it, his eyes fixed upon his young wife's face. Dr S. touched him upon the shoulder. ' Du courage, Saint-Cyr,' he whispered. ' She has gone . . . first.' The kindly words meant that the separation would not be for long. The woman in charge by the couch of the dead girl wept aloud, but there were no tears yet in the eyes of Georges. ' And the child ?' he asked at length, vaguely comprehending what had happened. They lifted the sheet gently, and showed him a little white corpse lying beside its mother. ' I am glad the child is dead, too,' said Georges Saint-Cyr.
"He would not have her buried by the Mediterranean; — no — nor would he let the corpse be taken home for burial. The desire for flight was upon him, and he said he must carry his dead with him till he himself should die. That night he left Monte Carlo for Rome, bearing with him those dear remains of wife and child; and the good doctor seeing his desperation and full of pity for so [Page 182] vast a woe, went with him. 'Perhaps', he told me, 'had I not gone, Georges would not himself have reached Rome alive.' They travelled night and day, for the young man would not rest an instant. His design was to have the body of his wife burned in the crematorium of the Eternal City, and Dr S. was, fortunately, able to obtain for him the fulfilment of his desire. Then Saint-Cyr enclosed the ashes of his beloved in a little silver box, slung it about his neck and bade his friend farewell. I asked the doctor where he went. Northward, he answered, ' but I did not ask his plans. He gave me no address; he had money in plenty, and it matters little where he went, for death was in his face as he wrung my hand at parting, and he cannot live to see the summer out.' "
That was the end of the letter. And for my part, with the sole exception of Georges Saint-Cyr, I never heard of any man who became rich over the tables of Monte Carlo.
I have often heard practising physicians and students of pathology assert that no one ever died of a broken heart — that is, of course, in the popular sense of the phrase. Rupture of the heart, such as that which killed the passionate tyrant John of Muscovy, is a rare accident, and has no connection with the mental trouble and strain implied in the common expression heart-breaking. I [Page 183] have, however, my own theory upon this question, — a theory founded on some tolerably strong evidence which might serve more scientifically-minded persons than myself as a text for a medical thesis; but, as for me, I am no writer of theses, and had much ado to get honestly through the only production of the sort which ever issued from my pen, my Thèse de Doctorat. For I studied the divine art of Aesculapius at the École de Médicine of Paris, and it was there, just before taking my degree, that I became involved in a singular little history, the circumstances of which first led me to adopt my present views on the subject alluded to in the opening words of this story.
It is now many years since I inhabited the students' quarter in the gay city, and rented a couple of little rooms in an hotel meublé not far from the gardens of the Luxembourg. Medical students are never rich, and I was no exception to the rule, though, compared with many of my associates, my pecuniary position was one of enviable affluence. I had a library of my own, I drank wine at a franc the litre, and occasionally smoked cigars. My little apartment overlooked a wide street busy with incessant traffic, and on warm evenings, after returning from dinner at the restaurant round the corner, it was my habit to throw open my window-casement and lean out to inhale the fresh cool air of the coming night, and to watch the crowds of foot-passengers and vehicles going and coming like swarms of ants along the paved street below.
On a certain lovely July evening towards the close of my student career, I took up my favourite position as usual, luxuriating in the fumes of my cigarette and in that sweetest of mental enjoyments, absolute idleness, earned at the cost of hard and long-continued toil. The sun [Page 184] had but just gone down, the sky was brilliant with pink lights and mellow tints of golden green blending with the blue of the deep vault overhead, scores of swift-darting birds were wheeling about in the still air, uttering sharp clear cries, as though calling one another to rest. Below, women stood at their house-doors gossiping with their neighbours; peals of laughter and the incessant chatter of feminine voices mingled with the din of horses' hoofs on the hard road and with the never-ending jingle of the harness-bells.
Gazing lazily down into the street, my attention was suddenly arrested by the singular appearance and behaviour of an odd-looking brown dog, which seemed to be seeking someone among the hurrying crowds and rattling carts. Half-a-dozen times he ran up the street and disappeared from view, only to retrace his steps, each time with increasing agitation and eagerness of manner. I saw him cross the street again and again, scan the faces of the passers-by, dash up the various turnings and come panting back, his tongue, his tail drooping; one could even fancy there were tears in his eyes. At length, exhausted or despairing, he crossed the street for the last time and sat down on the doorstep of the house I inhabited, the picture of grief and dismay. He was lost ! Now I had not served my five years' apprenticeship to medical science in Paris without becoming intimate with the horrible secrets of physiological laboratories. I knew that a lost dog in Paris, if not handsome, and valuable to sell as a pet, runs a terrible chance of falling directly or indirectly into the hands of vivisecting professors, and dying a death of torture. He may be picked up by an employé engaged in the search for fitting victims, and so handed over to immediate martyrdom, or [Page 185] he may be hurried off to languish for weeks in that horrible fourrière for lost dogs whose managers hang their wretched captives by fifties every Tuesday, and liberally supply the demands of all the physiologists who take the trouble to send to them for subjects. Knowing these things, and perceiving that my concierge was absorbed in discussing scandal on the opposite side of the street, I took advantage of her absence from her post to slip down to the rez-de-chaussée, pounce on the unfortunate dog, whom I found seated hopelessly at the entrance, and smuggle him upstairs into my rooms. There I deposited him on the floor, patted him encouragingly, and gave him water and a couple of sweet biscuits. But he was abjectly miserable, and though he drank a little, would eat nothing. After taking two or three turns round the apartment and sniffing suspiciously at the legs of the chairs and wainscot of the walls, he returned to me where I stood with my back to the window watching him, looked up in my face, wagged his tail feebly, and whined. I stooped again to caress him, and, so doing, observed that he had, tied round his neck, and half-hidden in his rough brown hair, a ribbon of silver tinsel, uncommon both in material and design. I felt assured that the dog's owner must be a woman, and hastily removed the ribbon, expecting to find embroidered upon it some such name as Amélie or Léontine. But my examination proved futile, the silver ribbon afforded me no clue to the antecedents of my canine waif. And indeed, as I stood contemplating him in some perplexity, the conviction forced itself on my mind that he was not exactly the kind of animal that Amélie or Léontine would be likely to select for a pet. He was a poodle certainly, but of an ill-bred and uncouth description [Page 186] and instead of being shaved to his centre, and wearing frills round his paws, his coat had been suffered to grow in its natural manner, — an indication either of neglect or of want of taste impossible in a feminine proprietor. But his face was the most puzzling and at the same time the most fascinating thing about him. It bore a more human expression than I had ever before seen upon a dog's countenance, an expression of singular appeal and childishness, so comic withal in its contrast with the rough hair, round eyes, and long nose of the creature, that as I watched him an involuntary laugh escaped me. "Certainly", I said to him, "you are a droll dog. One might do a good deal with you in a travelling caravan! " As the evening wore on he became more tranquil. Perhaps he began to have confidence in me and to believe that I should restore him to his owner. At any rate, before we retired to rest he prevailed on himself to eat some supper which I prepared for him, pausing every now and then in his meal to lift his infantile face to mine and wag his tail in a halfhearted manner, as though he said, "You see I am doing my best to trust you, though you are a medical student!" Poor innocent beast! Well indeed for him that he had not chanced to stop at the door of my neighbour and camarade, Paul Bouchard, who had a passion for practical physiology, and with whom no amount of animal suffering was of the smallest importance when weighed against the remote chance of an insignificant discovery, which would be challenged and contradicted as soon as announced by scores of his fellow-experimentalists. If torture were indeed the true method of science, then would the vaunted tree of knowledge be no other than the upas tree of oriental legend, beneath [Page 187] whose fatal shadow lie hecatombs of miserable victims slain by its poisonous exhalations, the odour of which is fraught with agony and death !
My poodle remained with me many days. No one appeared to claim him, and no inquiries elicited the least information regarding him. La douceur of five francs had soothed the natural indignation and resentment displayed by my concierge at the first sight of my canine protégé; the restlessness and suspicion he had evinced on making my acquaintance had subsided; and we were getting on in a very comfortable and friendly manner together, when accident threw in my way the clue I had laboriously but vainly sought. Returning one day from a lecture, and being unusually pressed for time, I took a shorter cut homeward than was my wont, and at the corner of a narrow and ill-smelling street I came upon a little heterogeneous shop, in the windows of which were set out a variety of faded and bizarre articles of millinery. Hanging from a front shelf in a conspicuous position among the collection was a strip of the identical silver ribbon which had encircled Pepin's throat — I called the dog Pepin — on the night I rescued him from the streets. Without hesitation I entered the shop and questioned a slatternly woman who sat behind the counter munching gruyere cheese and garlic.
" Will you tell me, madame," said I with my most agreeable air, " whether you recollect having sold any of that tinsel ribbon lately, and to whom?"
She was not likely to have much custom, I thought, and her clients would be easily remembered.
"What's that to you?" was her retort, as she paused in her meal
and stared at me; " do you want to buy the rest of it?" [Page
I took the hint immediately, and produced my purse. "With all the pleasure in life," I said, "if you will do me the favour I ask."
She darted a keen look at me, laughed, pushed her cheese aside, and took the ribbon from its place in the shop window.
"I sold half a mètre of it about three weeks ago," said she slowly, " to Noémi Bergeron; you know her, perhaps? She's not been this way lately. There's a mètre of it left; it's one franc twenty, monsieur."
"And where does Noémi Bergeron live ?" I asked, as she dropped the money into her till.
" Well, she used to lodge at number ten in this street, with Maman Paquet. Maybe she's gone. I've not seen either her or her dog this fortnight."
"A poodle dog," cried I eagerly, "with his coat unclipped, — a rough brown dog?"
"Yes, exactly. Ah, you know Noémi, — bien sûr!" And she leered at me, and laughed again unpleasantly.
"I never saw her in my life," said I hotly; " but her dog has come astray to my lodgings, and he had a piece of this ribbon of yours round his throat; nothing more than that."
" Ah ? Well, she lives at number ten. Tenez, — there's Maman Paquet the other side of the street; you'd better go and speak to her."
She pointed to a hideous old harridan standing on the opposite pavement, her bare arms resting on her hips, and a greasy yellow kerchief twisted turban-wiseround her head.
My heart sank. Noémi
must be very poor, or very unfortunate, to live under the same roof with
such an old sorcière ! Nevertheless, I crossed the street,
and accosted the hag with a smile. [Page
"Good-day, Maman Paquet. Can you tell me anything of your lodger, Noémi Bergeron?"
"Hein?" She was deaf and surly. I repeated my question in a louder key. " I know nothing of her," she answered, in a voice that sounded like the croak of a frog. " She couldn't pay me her rent, and I told her to be off. Maybe she's drowned by this."
"You turned her out?" I cried.
"Yes, turned her out," repeated the hag, with a savage oath. " It was her own fault; she might have sold her beast of a poodle to pay me, and she wouldn't. Why not, I should like to know, — she sold everything else she had!"
"And you can tell me nothing about her now, — you know no more than that ? "
"Nothing. Go and find her!" She muttered a curse, glared at me viciously, and hobbled off. I had turned to depart in another direction, when a skinny hand suddenly clutched my arm, and looking round, I found that Maman Paquet had followed and overtaken me. " You know the girl," she squeaked, eyeing me greedily, — "will you pay her rent? She owed me a month's lodging, seven francs."
She looked so loathsome and horrible with her withered evil face so close to mine that I gave a gesture of disgust and shook her off as though she had been a toad.
"No", said I, quickening my steps; " she is a stranger to me, and my pockets are empty".
Maman Paquet flung a curse after me, more foul and emphatic than the last, and went her way blaspheming.
I returned home to Pépin saddened and disquieted. "So, after all", I said to him, " your owner belongs to the fair sex! But, heaven! in what misery she and [Page 190] you must have lived! And yet you cried for her, Pépin!"
Not long after these incidents — three or four days at the latest — a party of my fellow-students came to smoke with me, and as the shell always sounds of the sea, our conversation naturally savoured of our professional pursuits. We discussed our hospital chefs, their crotchets, their inventions, their medical successes, their politics; we criticised new methods of operation, related anecdotes of the theatre and consulting-room, and speculated on the chances of men about to go up for examination. Then we touched on the subject of obscure diseases, unusual mental conditions, prolonged delirium, and kindred topics. It was at this point that one of us, Eugène Grellois, a house-surgeon at a neighbouring hospital, remarked, —
"By the way, we have a curious case now in the women's ward of my service, a pretty little Alsatian girl of eighteen or twenty. She was knocked down by a cart about three weeks ago and was brought in with a fracture of the neck of the left humerus, and two ribs broken. Well, there was perforation of the pleura, traumatic pleurisy and fever, and her temperature went up as high as 41º-8. She was delirious for three days, and talked incessantly; we had to put her in a separate cabinet, so that the other patients might not be disturbed. I sat by her bed for hours and listened. You never heard such odd things as she said. She let me into the whole of her history that way. I don't think I should have cared for it though, if she were not so wonderfully pretty ! "
"Was it a love story, Eugène? " asked Auguste Villemin, laughing.
"Not a bit of it; it was all about a dog who seemed [Page 191] to be her pet. Such an extraordinary dog ! From what she said I gathered that he was a brown poodle, that he could stand on his head, and walk on his hind paws, that he followed her about wherever she went, that he carved in wood for illustrated books and journals, that he wore a silver collar, that she was engaged to be married to him when he had earned enough to keep house, and that his name was Antoine !"
All his hearers laughed except myself. As for me, my heart bounded, my face flushed, I was sensible of a keen sensation of pleasure in hearing Eugène describe his patient as wonderfully pretty. I leapt from my chair, pointed to Pépin, who lay dozing in a corner of the room, and exclaimed, —
" I will wager anything that the name of your Alsatian is Noémi Bergeron, and that my dog there is Antoine himself!" And before any questions could be put I proceeded to recount the circumstances with which my reader is already acquainted. Of course Pépin was immediately summoned into the midst of the circle we had formed round the open window to have his reputed accomplishments tested as a criterion of his identity with Antoine. Amid bursts of laughter and a clamour of encouragement and approbation, it was discovered that my canine protégé possessed at least the first two of the qualifications imputed to him, and could walk on his hind legs or stand on his head for periods apparently unlimited.
In fact, so obedient and willing we found him, that when for the third time he had inverted himself, no persuasion short of picking him up by his tail, a proceeding which I deemed necessary to avert asphyxia, could induce him to resume his normal position. But that [Page 192] which rendered the entertainment specially fascinating and ludicrous was the inimitable and unbroken gravity of Pépin's expression. No matter what his attitude, his eyes retained always the solemnity one observes in the eyes of an infant to whom everything in the world is serious and nothing grotesque.
"But now for the engraving on wood !" cried Jules Leuret, when we had exhausted ourselves with laughing. "What a pity you have no implements of the art here, Gervais!"
"That's Eugène's chaff!" I cried. "Noémi never said anything of the sort, I warrant! "
"On my honour she did," said he, emphatically. " Come and see her tomorrow; she's quite sane now, no fever left at all. She'll be delighted to hear that you have her dog, and will tell you all about him, no doubt."
"After the chefs visit, then, and we'll breakfast together at noon."
"Agreed. Laughing makes one dry, mon ami; let me have some more of your wine. We can't afford good wine like that, nous autres ! "
When the following morning arrived, I rose sooner than my wont: Eugène's service was an early one, and by half-past ten o'clock he and I were alone in the wards of his hospital. He led me to a bed in one of the little spaces partitioned off from the common salle for the reception of special cases or refractory patients. There, propped up on her pillows, her arm bandaged and supported by a cushion, lay a young girl with fair braided hair and the sweetest face I had ever seen out of a [Page 193] picture. Something in the childish and wistful look of her deep eyes and serious mouth reminded me strangely of Pépin; it was Pépin's plaintive expression refined and intensified by spiritual influence, a look such as one might imagine on the face of some young novice, brought up in a convent and innocent of all evil, — an ingénue untainted by the world and ignorant of its ways. Could such a creature as this come out of the foul and sin-reeking quartier I had visited four days ago, with its filthy houses, its fetid alleys, its coarse blaspheming women and drunken men ? My mind misgave me: surely, after all, this could not be Noémi Bergeron !
I put the question to her fearfully, for I dreaded to hear her deny it. She was so beautiful; if she should say no I should be in despair.
A voice as sweet as the face answered me, with just a faint inflexion of surprise in it, and as she spoke a slight blush suffused her cheeks and showed the delicate transparency of her skin.
"Yes, that is my name. Does monsieur know me, then?"
In my turn I blushed, but with delight. No wonder Pépin had repined at separation from so lovely a mistress !
"I went to your house to inquire for you the other day, mademoiselle," stammered I, " for I think I have a dog which belongs to you. Have you not lost a brown poodle with a ribbon like this round his throat?"
As I spoke I produced the tinsel ornament from my pocket, but before I finished my last sentence she started forward with a joyous cry, and but for the timely intervention of Eugène, who stood beside the bed, the injured [Page 194] arm might have suffered seriously from the effects of her excitement.
"Ah!" she cried, weeping with joy; "my Bambin, my dear Bambin ! He is found then, he is safe, and I shall see him again ! "
" Bambin !" repeated I, dubiously. "Monsieur Grellois thought that his name was Antoine !"
The rosy colour deepened under her delicate cheeks and crept to the roots of her braided hair.
"No", she replied in a lower tone, " monsieur is mistaken. My dog's name is Bambin; we called him so because he is so like a baby. Don't you think him like a baby, monsieur ? "
She looked wondrously like a baby herself, and I longed to tell
her so; I could not restrain my curiosity, her blushes were so enticing.
"And Antoine ? " persisted I.
"He is a friend of mine, monsieur; an engraver on wood, an artist."
Eugène and I exchanged glances. "And you and he are engaged to be married, is it not so?"
Unconsciously I questioned her as I might have questioned a child. She hardly seemed old enough to have the right over her own secrets.
"Yes, monsieur. But I do not know where he is; and I have looked for him so long, ah, so long !"
"What, have you lost him too, then, as well as Bambin?"
She shook her head, and looked troubled.
"Tell me," said I, coaxing her, "perhaps I maybe able to find him also."
"We are Alsatians," said Noémi, with her eyelids [Page 195] drooping, doubtless to hide the tears gathering behind them; "and we lived in the same village and were betrothed. Antoine was very clever, and could cut pictures in wood beautifully, — oh so beautifully, — and they sent him to Paris to be apprenticed to a great house of business, and to learn engraving thoroughly. And I stayed at home with my father, and Antoine used to write to me very often, and say how well he was getting on, and how he had invented a new method of wood-carving, and how rich he should be some day, and that we were to be married very soon. And then my father died, quite suddenly, and I was all alone in the house. And Antoine did not write; — week after week there was no letter, though I never ceased writing to him. So I grew miserable and frightened, and I took Bambin — Antoine gave me Bambin, and taught him all his tricks — and I came to Paris to try and find him. I had a little money then, and besides, I can make lace, and I thought it would not be long before Antoine and I got married. But he had left the house of business for which he had worked, and they knew nothing of him at his lodgings, and there were ever so many of my letters on the table in the conciergerie unopened. So I could learn nothing, for no one knew where he had gone, and little by little the money I had brought with me went in food for me and Bambin. Then somebody told me that Maman Paquet had a room to let that was cheap, and I went there and tried to live on my lace-making, always hoping that Antoine would come to find me. But the air of the place was so horrible — oh, so horrible after our village ! — and I got the fever, and fell sick, and could do no work at all. And by degrees I sold all the things I had — my lace-pillow and all — and when they were gone the old [Page 196] woman wanted me to sell Bambin, because he was clever, and she was sure I could get a good price for him. But I would rather have sold the heart out of my body, and so I told her. Then she was angry, and turned us both out, Bambin and me, and we went wandering about all day till at last I got very faint and tired, for I had been ill a long time, monsieur, and we had nothing to eat, so that I lost my senses and fell in the road all at once, and a cart went over me. Then the people picked me up, and carried me here, but none of them knew Bambin, and I had fainted and could tell them nothing. So they must have driven him away, thinking he was a strange dog, and had no right to follow me. And when my senses came back I was in the hospital, and Bambin was gone, and I thought I never would see him again."
She sank down on her pillow and drew a great sigh of relief. It had evidently comforted her to tell her story to sympathetic listeners. Poor child! scant sympathy could she have found in Maman Paquet's unwomanly breast and evil associations. We were silent when she had finished, and in the silence we heard through the open window the joyous song of the birds, and the hum of the bees wandering blithely from flower to flower, laden with their sweets, — sounds that never cease through all the long summer days. Alas ! how strange and sad a contrast it is, — the eternal and exuberant gladness of Nature's soulless children, — the universal inevitable misery of human lives !
Presently the religieuse who had the charge of the adjoining ward opened the door softly and called Eugène.
"Monsieur, will you come to No. 7 for a moment? Her wound is
bleeding again badly." [Page
He looked up, nodded, and rose from his seat.
"I must go for the present, Gervais", said he. " If you stay with our little friend, don't let her disarrange her arm. The ribs are all right now, but the humerus is a longer affair. Au revoir ! "
But I found Noémi too much excited and fatigued for further conversation; so, promising to take every possible care of Bambin and to come again and see her very soon, I withdrew to the adjoining ward and joined Eugene.
No need to say that both these promises were faithfully observed.
Throughout the whole of July and of the ensuing month Noémi remained an inmate of the hospital, and it was not until the first two weeks of September were spent that the fractured arm was consolidated and the mandate for dismissal issued.
Two days before that fixed for her departure I went to pay her the last of my customary visits, and found her sitting at the open window busily engaged in weaving lace upon a new pillow, which she exhibited to me with childish glee.
"See, monsieur, what a beautiful present I have had ! " she cried, holding up the cushion for me to examine. " It is much better than the old one I sold; only look how prettily the bobbins on it are painted !"
I had never before beheld a lace pillow, and the curiosity which I displayed fairly delighted Noémi.
"And who is your generous benefactor?" I asked, replacing the cushion in her lap.
"Don't you know?" she asked in turn, opening her eyes wide with surprise. "I thought he would have been sure to tell you. Why, it was that good Monsieur [Page 198] Grellois, to be sure ! He gave some money to the sister to buy it for me."
Kind Eugène! He had very little money to live upon, and must, I know, have economised considerably in order to purchase this gift for his little patient. Still I was not jealous of his bounty, since for many days past I had been greatly occupied with Noémi's future welfare, and had busied myself in secret with certain schemes and arrangements the issue of which it remained only to announce.
"So," said I, taking a chair beside her, " you are going to earn your living again by making lace ? "
"To try" she answered with a sad emphasis.
"Lace-making does not pay well, then ? "
"Oh no, monsieur ! It cannot be done quickly, you see, — only a little piece like this every day, working one's best, — and so much lace is made by machines now !"
"But it cannot cost you much to live, Noémi ? "
"The eating and drinking is not much, monsieur; it is the rent; and all the cheap lodgings are so dirty ! It is that which is the most terrible. I can't bear to have ugly things about me and hideous faces, — like Maman Paquet's!"
She had the poet's instincts, this little Alsatian peasant. Most girls in her case would have cared little for the unlovely surroundings, so long as food and drink were plentiful.
"But supposing you had a nice room of your own, clean and comfortable, with an iron bedstead like this one here, and chairs and a table, and two windows looking out over the Luxembourg gardens, — and nothing to pay."
"Ah, monsieur!" [Page
She dropped her pillow, and fixed her great brown eyes earnestly on my face.
"It is impossible", pursued I, reddening under her gaze, " for you to return to the horrible quartier in which Maman Paquet lives. It is not fit for a young girl; you would grow wicked and base like the people who live there, — or else you would die, — and I think you would die, Noémi."
"But I have no money, monsieur."
"If you have no money, you have friends; a friend has given you your new pillow, you know, and another friend, perhaps, may give you a room to live in."
Her eyelids drooped, her colour came and went quickly, I detected beneath her bodice the convulsive movement of her heart. The agitation she betrayed communicated itself to me; I rose from my chair and leaned against the window-sill, so that my face might be no longer on a level with her eyes.
"I understand you, monsieur ! " she cried, and immediately burst
"Yes, Noémi", I said, "I see you understand me. There is really a room for you such as I have described. In two days you will leave the hospital, but you are not without a home. The woman of the house in which you will live is kind and good, she knows all about you and Bambin, and has promised me to take care of you. Your furniture is bought, your rent is paid, — you have nothing to do but to go and take possession of the room. I hope you and Bambin will be happy there."
She made me no reply in words, but bending forward over her pillow she took my hand and timidly kissed it.
It would be hard to say which of us was the happier on the day which saw Noémi installed in her new abode, [Page 200] — she, or I, or Bambin. Bambin's delight was certainly the most demonstrative; he careered round and round the room uttering joyous barks, returning at intervals in a panting and exhausted condition to his pretty mistress to give and receive caresses which I own I felt greatly disposed to envy him. I left my four-footed friend with some regret, for he and I had been good companions during Noémi's sojourn at the hospital, and I knew that my rooms would at first seem lonely without him. His fair owner, as she bade me good-bye at the door of her new domicile, begged me to return often and see them both, but hard as I found it to refuse the tempting request, I summoned up resolution to tell her that it would be best for us to meet very seldom indeed, perhaps only once or twice more, but that her landlady had my name and address and would be able to give me tidings of her pretty often.
Her childlike nature and instincts were never more apparent than on this occasion.
"What have I done, monsieur ?" she asked with a bewildered expression, her brown eyes lifted pleadingly, and the corners of her mouth depressed. " I thought you would like to come and see us. Bambin is so fond of you, too, — we shall both be so sorry if you don't come."
As gently and as tenderly as I could, I tried to explain to her our mutual position and the evil construction which others would be sure to place on any friendship between us. But she only shook her head in a troubled way and sighed.
"I don't understand," she said, " but of course you know best. I used to hear something like that at Maman Paquet's, about other girls, but I never understood it. [Page 201] Only say that you are not angry with me, and let me hear about you as often as you can."
I promised, smiling, and left her standing at the open door with Bambin tucked under her arm, looking after me down the street and nodding her pretty golden head.
Many days went by — I concentrated my mind upon my books, and devoted the whole of my time and of my thoughts to preparation for my last two doctorate examinations, contenting myself with only a few passing inquiries of Noémi's landlady concerning the welfare of her lodger, and with the assurance that both she and her dog were well and happy.
But one evening late in September, as I sat immersed in study, my ear caught the sound of light girlish footsteps on the staircase leading to my rooms; then came a momentary pause, a tap on the door, and the next minute Noémi herself, closely followed by the faithful Bambin, burst upon my solitude.
"I have found him, monsieur !" she cried breathlessly. "I came at once to tell you, — I knew you would be so glad !"
"What, — Antoine?" I asked, rising and laying my book aside.
"Yes; — Antoine ! I met him in the street. He was dressed like a gentleman; no one would have known him except me ! He had no idea I was in Paris; he turned quite white with the surprise of seeing me. And I told him what a search I had made for him, and how miserable I had been, and how good you were to me, and where I was living. And he is coming to see me this very evening ! Oh, I am so happy !"
"You should have sent me word of this, Noémi," said [Page 202] I gravely. " You ought not to have come here. It is very foolish ------ "
She interrupted me with an imploring gesture.
"Oh, yes, I know; I am so sorry ! But just at the moment I forgot. I longed to tell you about Antoine, and everything else went out of my head. Don't be cross with me !"
Could any one be angry with her? She was thoroughly innocent, and natural, as innocence always is.
"My child, it is only of yourself I am thinking. Antoine will teach you to be wiser by-and-by. Tell him to come and see me. I suppose you will be married soon now, won't you?"
"Oh, yes, monsieur, very soon ? Antoine only wanted money, and he has plenty now; he has a business of his own, and is a patron himself!"
"Well, Noémi, I am very glad. You must let me come to your wedding. I shall call at your house tomorrow, and ask all about it; for no doubt Antoine will want you to settle the arrangements at once. And now run home, for your own sake, my child."
"Good-bye ! monsieur." She paused at the door and added shyly, "You will really come tomorrow morning?"
" Yes, yes; before breakfast, Good-bye, Noémi."
At about ten on the ensuing day I repaired to Noémi's lodging, and found Madame Jeannel, the landlady, on the look-out for me.
" Noémi told me you were coming", she said; " I will go
and fetch her. Her fiancé was here last night, and she has a
great deal to tell you." [Page
In two minutes she returned with my pretty friend, radiant as the sunlight with happiness and renewed hope. Antoine loved her more than ever, she said, and he had brought her a beautiful present, a silver cross, which she meant to wear on her wedding-day, tied round her throat upon the bit of tinsel ribbon I had given her, and which matched it exactly. And was the wedding-day fixed ? I asked. No, not the precise day; Antoine had said nothing about it; but he had spoken much of his love, and of the happiness in store for them both, and of the lovely things he should give her. The day was nothing; that could be settled in a minute at any time. Then she fetched me some lace she had made, and told me that Antoine knew of a rich lady who would buy it, — a marquise, who doated on lace of the sort, and who gave enormous sums for a few yards; and the money would do for her dot, it would buy her wedding-dress, perhaps. So she prattled on, blithe and ingenuous, the frank simplicity of her guileless soul reflected in the clear depths of her eyes, as the light of heaven is mirrored in pure waters.
Days went by, and weeks, but Antoine never came to see me, and whenever I called at Madame Jeannel's and asked for Noémi — which I ventured to do several times, now that the good woman knew she was engaged to be married, and understood so well our relations with each other — I always heard the same story, and always received, on Antoine's behalf, the same vague excuses for the postponement of the visit I had invited him to pay me. At one time, he bade Noémi tell me his work was too pressing, and he could find no time to come; at another, that he feared to disturb me, knowing I was very busy; and again, that he had been just about to [Page 204] start when an important letter or an inopportune customer had arrived and detained him. As for the wedding-day, he would never come to the point about it, and Noémi, naturally shy of the subject, never pressed him. She was quite happy and confident; Antoine loved her with all his heart, and told her so every day. What more could she want ? He brought her lovely bunches of red and white roses, little trinkets, sweetmeats, ribbons; indeed, he seemed never to come empty-handed. She used to take walks with him when his day's work was over, in the Luxembourg gardens, and once or twice they went out as far as the Champs-Elysées. Oh, yes, Antoine loved her dearly, and she was very happy; they should certainly be married before long. We were already in November, the days were getting bleak and chill, I had to light my lamp early and close my windows against the damp evening air. One afternoon, just as it was beginning to grow dark, Madame Jeannel came to see me, looking very disturbed and anxious.
"Monsieur", she said, " a strange thing has happened which makes me so uneasy that I cannot help coming to tell you of it, and to ask your opinion and advice. Antoine came about half-an-hour ago and took Noémi out for a walk. Not ten minutes after they had left the house, a lady whom I do not know came to my door and asked if Mademoiselle Bergeron lived there. I said yes, but that she was out. The strange lady stared hard at me and asked if she had gone out alone. I told her no, she was with her fiancé, but that if any message could be left for her I would be careful to give it directly she should return. Immediately the lady seized me by the arm so tightly I almost screamed. She grew white, and then red, then she seemed to find her voice, and [Page 205] asked me if she could wait upstairs in Noémi's room till she came back. At first I said ' No', but she would not take a refusal; she insisted upon waiting; and there she is, I could not get her to leave the place."
Madame Jeannel stood opposite to me; I lifted my eyes, and met hers steadily. When I had satisfied myself of her suspicions, I said in a low voice, —
"You have done rightly to fetch me. There is great trouble in store for our poor child. I fear this woman may have a better right to Antoine than Noémi has."
"I am sure of it," responded Madame Jeannel. " If you could but have seen how she looked ! Thank the good God she has come in time to save our Noémi from any real harm !"
"It will blight the whole of her life", said I; "she is so innocent
of evil, and she loves him so much".
I took up my hat as I spoke, and followed Madame Jeannel downstairs and into the street. When we reached her house, I left her in her own little parlour upon the entresol, and with a resolute step but a heavy heart I went alone to confront the strange woman in Noémi's room. Alas ! the worst that could happen had already befallen. Noémi had returned from her walk during the absence of her landlady, and I opened the door upon a terrible scene. My poor child stood before me, with a white scared face, and heaving breast, upon which was pinned a bunch of autumn violets, Antoine's last gift to her. Her slender figure, her fair hair, her pallid complexion looked ghost-like in the uncertain twilight; she seemed like a troubled spirit, beautiful and sorely distressed, but there was no shame in her lovely face, nor any sense of guilt. Seeing me enter, she uttered a cry of relief, and sprang forward as though to seek protection. [Page 206]
"Speak to her, monsieur!" she exclaimed in a voice of piercing entreaty; "oh, speak to her and ask her what it all means ! She says she is Antoine's wife !"
The strange woman whose back had been turned towards the door when I opened it, looked round at the words, and her face met mine. She was a brunette, with sharp black eyes and an inflexible mouth, a face which beside Noémi's seemed like a dark cloud beside clear sunlight.
"Yes indeed !" she cried; and her voice was half choked with contending anger and despair, "I am his wife; and what then is she ? I tracked him here. He is always away from me now. I found a letter of hers signed with her name; she writes to him as if she loved him ! See!"
She flung upon the table a crumpled scrap of paper, and suddenly burying her face in her hands, burst into a torrent of passionate tears and sobs. Noémi stood silent and watched her, terrified and wondering. I closed the door softly, and approaching the unfortunate woman, laid my hand upon her shoulder.
"It is your husband who is alone to blame,"I whispered to her. "Do not revile this innocent girl; she suffers quite as much as you do, — perhaps even more, for she was betrothed to him years ago."
My grief for Noémi, and my resentment against Antoine made me imprudent; I spoke unjustly, but the provocation was great.
"You take her part!" she cried, repelling me indignantly. "Innocent — she
innocent ? Bah ! She must have known he was married, for why else did he not
marry her ? Do you think me a child to be fooled by such a tale?" [Page
"No", answered I sternly, looking away from her at Noémi. "You are not a child, madame, but she is one ! Had she been a woman like yourself, your husband would never have deceived her. She trusted him wholly."
With a gesture that was almost fierce in its pride, Antoine's wife turned her back upon Noémi, and moved towards the door. " I thank my God", she said solemnly, choking down her sobs, and bending her dark brows upon me, " that I was never such an innocent as she is! I am not your dupe, monsieur, I know well enough what you are, and what it is that constitutes your right to defend her. The neighbours know her story; trust them for finding it out and repeating it. This room belongs to you, monsieur; your money paid for everything in it, and your innocent there no doubt is included in the bargain. Keep her to yourself for the future; Antoine's foot shall never again be set in this wicked house!"
She opened the door with the last words, and vanished into the darkness without.
For a moment there was a deep silence, the voice which had just ceased seemed to me to ring and echo around the dim, still room. The sense of a great shame was upon me; I dared not lift my eyes to Noémi's face.
Suddenly a faint cry startled me. She stretched her arms towards me and fell on her knees at my feet.
"O monsieur! Antoine is lost! My heart is dead !" Then she struck her breast wildly with her clenched hand, and swooned upon the floor.
None of us ever saw Antoine again after that terrible evening. Whether he had been most weak or most wicked we could not tell; but, for my part I always [Page 208] believed that he had really loved Noémi, and that his marriage had been one of worldly convenience, contracted, in an evil hour, for the sake of gain. His wife was rich, Noémi was a beggar. As for her, poor child, she never uttered a word of reproach against him; never a gesture of impatience, or an expression of complaint betrayed her suffering. She had spent all her innocent life upon her love, and with the love her life also went from her. Day after day she lay on her bed like a flower crushed and fading slowly. There were no signs of organic disease in her, there was no appreciable malady; her heart was broken, so said Madame Jeannel, and more than that the wisest could not say. Bambin, dimly comprehending that some great sorrow had befallen his dear mistress, lay always at her feet, watching her with eyes full of tender and wistful affection, refusing to leave her by night or by day. It must have comforted her somewhat to see in him, at least, the evidence of one true and faithful love.
So white and spirituelle she grew as she lay there, day
by day, so delicately lovely, her deep lustrous eyes shining as with some inward
light, and her hair of gold surrounding her head like the aureole of a pictured
saint, that at times I fancied she was becoming de-materialised before our
eyes; her spirit seemed as it were to grow visible, as though in the intensity
of its pure fire the mere earthly body which had contained it were being re-absorbed
and consumed. Sometimes in the evenings her pulse quickened and her cheeks
flushed with the hectic touch of fever; — it was the only symptom of
physical disorder I ever detected in her; — but even that was slight, — the
temperature of her system was hardly affected by it. [Page
So she lay, her body fading, day after day and hour after hour.
Madame Jeannel was deeply concerned, for she was a good woman, and could sympathise with others in sorrow, but nothing that she could say or do seemed to reach the senses of Noémi. Indeed, at times I fancied the poor child had no longer eyes or ears for the world from which she was passing away so strangely; she looked as though she were already beginning life in some other sphere and on some other plane than ours, and could see and hear only sights and sounds of which our material natures had no cognisance.
"C'est le chagrin, monsieur", said Madame Jeannel; "c'est comme ça
que le chagrin tue, — toujours."
Early in the third week of December I received my summons to pass the final examination for the M.D. degree. The day was bitterly cold, a keen wind swept the empty streets and drove the new-fallen snow into drift-heaps at every corner. Along the boulevards booths and baraques for the sale of New Year's gifts were already in course of erection, the shops were gay with bright coloured bonbonnières. Children, merry with anticipations of good things corning, pressed round the various tempting displays and noisily disputed their respective merits. All the streets were filled with mirth and laughter .and preparations for festivity, and close by, in her little lonely room, Noémi lay dying of a broken heart !
I underwent my ordeal with success; yet as I quitted the examination-room and descended into the quadrangle of the École, crowded with sauntering groups of garrulous students, my spirit was heavy within me, and the expression of my face could hardly have been that of a young man who has safely passed the Rubicon of [Page 210] scientific apprenticeship, and who sees the laurels and honours of the world within his reach. The world? The very thought of its possible homage repelled me, for I knew that its best successes and its loudest praise are accorded to men whose hearts are of steel and whose lives are corrupt. I knew that still, as of old, it slays the innocent and the ingenuous and stones the pure of spirit.
Escaping somewhat impatiently from the congratulations of the friends and colleagues whom I chanced to encounter in the quadrangle, I returned gloomily home and found upon my table a twisted note in which was written this brief message: —
" Pray, come at once, monsieur, she cannot live long now. I dare
not leave her, and she begs to see you.—
With a shaking hand I thrust the paper into my vest and hastened
to obey its summons. Never had the distance between my house and Noémi's
been so long to traverse; never had the stairs which led to her room seemed
to me so many or so steep. At length I gained the door; it stood ajar; I pushed
it open and entered. Madame Jeannel sat at the foot of the little white-draped
bed; Bambin lay beside his mistress; the only sound in the room was the crackling
of the burning logs on the hearth. As I entered, Madame Jeannel turned her
head and looked at me; her eyes were heavy with tears, and she spoke in tones
that were hushed and tremulous with the awe which the presence of death inspires.
"Monsieur, you come too late. She is dead." I sprang forward with a cry of horror. "Dead?" I repeated, "Noémi dead?"
White and still she lay — a broken lily — beautiful and [Page 211] sweet even in death; her eyes were closed lightly, and upon her lovely lips was the first smile I had seen there since the day which had stricken her innocent life into the dust. Her right hand rested on Bambin's head, in her left she held the piece of silver ribbon I had given her, — the ribbon she had hoped to wear at her wedding.
"They are for you," said Madame Jeannel softly. "She said you were fond of Bambin, and he of you, and that you must take care of him and keep him with you always. And as for the ribbon, — she wished you to take it for her sake, that it might be a remembrance of her in time to come."
I fell on my knees beside the bed and wept aloud.
"Hush, hush !" whispered Madame Jeannel, bending over me; " it is best as it is, she is gone to the angels of God."
Science has ceased to believe in angels, but in the faith of good women they live still.
The chief work of the wise among us seems to me to consist in the destruction of all the beautiful hopes and loves and beliefs of the earth; of all that since the beginning of time till now has consoled, or purified, or brought peace to the hearts of men. Some day, perhaps, in the long-distant future, the voice of Nature may speak to us more clearly through the lips of a nobler and purer system of science than any we now know, and we may learn that Matter is not all in all, nor human love and desire given in vain; but that torn hearts may be healed and ruined lives perfected in a higher spiritual existence, where, " beyond these voices, there is peace."
Meanwhile Noémi's body rests in its quiet grave, and upon
the faithful bosom lies the silver cross which her lover gave her. [Page
She was one of those who could endure all things for love's sake, but shame and falsehood broke her steadfast heart. And it was the hand of her beloved which dealt the blow of which she died! [Page 212]
"It is getting very dark now, and I have been sitting at my open bay window ever since sundown. How fresh and sweet the evening air is, as it comes up from my little flower garden below, laden with the fragrance of June roses and almond blossom ! Ah, by the way, I will send over some more of those same roses to my opposite neighbour tomorrow morning, — and there is a beautiful spray of white jasmin nodding in at the casement now, and only waiting to be gathered for him. Poor old man ! he must be very lonely and quiet, lying there day after day in his dark little bed-chamber, with no companions save his books and his old housekeeper. But then Dr Peyton is with him very often, and Dr Peyton is such a dear kind soul that he makes every one cheerful ! I think they have drawn down the blinds earlier than usual tonight at the little old gentleman's. Dr Peyton says he always likes to sit up in his arm-chair when the day closes, and watch the twilight gathering over the blue range of the Malvern hills in the distance, and talk dreamy bits of poetry to himself the while, but this evening I noticed the blinds were pulled down [Page 213] almost directly after sunset. And such a lovely sunset as it was tonight! I never beheld anything more glorious ! What a wondrous glamour of molten mellow light it threw over all the meadows and cottage gardens! It seemed to me as though the gates of heaven itself were unfolded to receive the returning sun into the golden land of the Hereafter! Dear, dear, I shall get quite poetical in my old age ! This is not the first time I have caught myself stumbling unawares on the confines of romance ! Miss Lizzie, Miss Lizzie, you must not be fanciful ! Do you forget that you are an old maid ! Yes, an old maid. Ah, well-a-day, 'tis a very happy, contented,
peaceful sound to me now; but twenty years ago, ------ Here comes dear old Dr Peyton himself up my garden path! He does not seem to walk so blithely tonight as usual, — surely nothing is the matter; I wish I could see his face, but it is much too dark for that, so I'll go at once and let him in. Now I shall hear news of my opposite neighbour ! Ah, I hope he is no worse, poor little old man ! "
Gentle reader, I shall not trouble you much in the story I am going to tell, with any personal experiences of my own. But you may as well understand before we proceed farther, that I — Miss Elizabeth Fairleigh — am a spinster on the shady side of forty-five, that I and my two serving-maids occupy a tiny, green-latticed, porticoed, one-storeyed cottage just outside a certain little country town, and that Dr Peyton, the one medical man of the parish, is a white-haired old gentleman of wondrous kindliness and goodness of heart, who was Pythias to my father's Damon at college long, long ago, and who is now my best friend and my most welcome and frequent visitor. And on the particular evening in question, I had a special interest in his visit, for I wanted very much [Page 214] to know what only he could tell me, — how matters fared with my neighbour and his patient, the little old man who lay sick over the way.
Now this little old man bore the name of Mr Stephen Gray, and he was a bachelor, so Dr Peyton said, a bachelor grown, from some cause unknown to my friend, prematurely old, and wizened, and decrepit. It was long since he had first come to reside in the small house opposite mine, and from the very day of his arrival I had observed him with singular interest, and conjectured variously in my idle moments about his probable history and circumstances. For many months after his establishment over the way, this old gentleman used morning and evening to perambulate the little country road which divided our respective dwellings, supporting his feeble limbs with a venerable-looking staff, silver-headed like himself; and on one occasion, when my flower garden happened to look especially gay and inviting, he paused by the gate and gazed so wistfully at its beauties, that I ventured to invite him in, and presented him, bashfully enough, with a posy of my choicest rarities. After this unconventional introduction, many little courtesies passed between us, other nosegays were culled from my small parterre to adorn the little old gentleman's parlour, and more than once Miss Elizabeth Fairleigh received and accepted an invitation to tea with Mr Stephen Gray.
But by-and-by these invitations ceased, and my neighbour's pedestrian excursions up and down our road became less and less frequent. Yet when I sent my maid, as I often did, to inquire after his health, the answer returned alternated only between two inflections, — Mr Gray was always either pretty well, or a little better today. But presently I noticed that my friend Dr Peyton [Page 215] began to pay visits at my opposite neighbour's, and of him I inquired concerning the little old man's condition, and learned to my surprise and sorrow that his health and strength were rapidly failing, and his life surely and irrecoverably ebbing away. It might be many long months, Dr Peyton said, before the end, it might be only a few weeks, but he had seen many such cases, and knew that no human skill or tenderness had power to do more than to prolong the patient's days upon earth by some brief space, and to make the weary hours of feebleness and prostration as pleasant and calm as possible.
When Dr Peyton told me this, it was late autumn, and the little
old gentleman lived on in his weakness all through the snow-time and the dim
bleak winter days. But when the Spring came round once more, he rallied, and
I used often to see him sitting up in his arm-chair at the open window, arrayed
in his dressing-gown, and looking so cheerful and placid, that I could not
forbear to nod to him and smile hopefully, as I stood by my garden gate in
the soft warm sunshine, thinking that after all my opposite neighbour would
soon be able to take his daily walks, and have tea with me again in his cosy
little parlour. But when I spoke of this to Dr Peyton, he only shook his head
incredulously, and murmured something about the flame burning brighter for
a little while before going out altogether. So the old gentleman lingered on
until June, and still every time I sent to ask after his health returned the
same old reply, — his "kind regards to Miss Fairleigh, and he was a little
better today." And thus matters remained on that identical evening of which
I first spoke, when I sat at the bay window in my tiny drawing-room, and saw
Dr Peyton coming so soberly up the garden path. [Page
Dr Peyton," said I, as I placed my most comfortable chair for him in the prettiest corner of the bay, " you are the very person I have been longing to see for the last half-hour ! I want to know how my neighbour Mr Gray is tonight. I see his blinds are down, and I am afraid he may be worse. Have you been there this evening ? "
I paused abruptly, for my old friend looked very gravely at me, and I thought as his eyes rested for a moment on my face, that notwithstanding the twilight, I could discern traces of recent tears in them.
"Lizzie", said he, very slowly, and his voice certainly trembled a little as he spoke, " I don't think Mr Gray was ever so well in his life as he is tonight. I have been with him for several hours. He is dead."
"Dead!" I echoed faintly, for I almost doubted whether my ears heard aright. " My little old gentleman dead ? Oh, I am very, very grieved indeed ! I fancied he was getting so much stronger !"
Dr Peyton smiled, one of his peculiar, sweet, grave smiles, such as I had often seen on his kindly face at certain times and seasons when other men would not have smiled at all.
"Lizzie", he answered, "there are some deaths so beautiful and so full of peace, that no one ought to grieve about them, for they bring eternal rest after a life that has been only bitter disquiet and heaviness. And such a death — aye, and such a life — were Mr Gray's."
He spoke so certainly and so calmly, that I felt comforted for the little old man's sake, and longed to know, — woman-like, I suppose, — what sad story of his this had been, to which Dr Peyton's words seemed to point.
"Then he had a romance after all !" I cried, "and you knew of it! Poor old gentleman ! I often wondered [Page 217] how he came to be so lonely. May you tell me, as we sit here together ? I should so like to hear about it."
"Yes", said he, with that same peculiar smile, " I may tell you, for it is no secret now. Indeed, I came here partly for that very purpose, because I know well how much you were interested in your opposite neighbour, and how you used to speculate about his antecedents and associations. But I have not known this story long. He only told it me this evening; just an hour or two before he died. Well, we all have our little romances, as you are pleased to call them ! "
"Yes, yes, all of us. Even I, unpretentious, plain Elizabeth Fairleigh, — but no matter". I mind me, reader, that I promised not to talk of my own experiences. Ah, there are no such phenomena in the world really, as commonplace lives, and "commonplace persons!
"Poor little old man !" I sighed again. "Did he tell you his story then of his own accord, or " — And I paused in some embarrassment, for I remembered that Dr Peyton was a true gentleman, and possessed of far too much delicacy of feeling to question anybody upon personal matters or private concerns. But either he did not actually notice my hesitation, or perhaps understood the cause of it well enough to prevent him from appearing to notice it, for he resumed at once, as though no interruption to his discourse had taken place.
"When I went this afternoon to visit your neighbour, Lizzie, I perceived immediately from the change in him that the end was not far off, though I did not think it would come today. But he did. He was in bed when I entered his room, and as soon as he saw me, he looked up and welcomed me with a pleasant smile and said, 'Ah, Doctor, I am so glad you are come! I was just [Page 218] going to send round for you ! Not that I think you can do me any more good upon earth, for I know that tonight I shall go to my long rest. To my long rest.' He lingered so strangely and so contentedly over these words, that I was singularly touched, and I sat down by his bedside and took his thin white hand in mine. ' Doctor,' said he, presently, ' you have been very good and kind to me now for more than ten months, and I have learned in that time to trust and esteem you as though I had known you for many long years. There are no friends of mine near me in the world now, for I am a lonely old man, and before I came here I lived alone, and I have been lonely almost all my life. But I cannot die tonight without telling you the story of my past, and of the days when I used to be young, — very long ago now, — that you may understand why I die here alone, a white-haired old bachelor; and that I may be comforted in my death by the knowledge that I leave at least one friend upon earth to sympathise in my sorrow and to bless me in my solitary grave. 'It is a long story, Doctor,' said the little old man, ' but I feel stronger this afternoon than I have felt for weeks, and I am quite sure I can tell it all from end to end. I have kept it many years in my heart, a secret from every human soul; but now all is over with my sorrow and with me for ever, and I care not who knows of it after I am gone.' Then after a little pause he told me his story, while I sat beside him holding his hand in mine, and I think I did not lose a word of all he said, for he spoke very slowly and distinctly, and I listened with all my heart. Shall I tell it to you, Lizzie ? It is not one of those stories that end happily, like the stories we read in children's fairy books, nor is it exciting and sensational like the modern popular [Page 219] novels. There are no dramatic situations in it, and no passionate scenes of tragical love or remorse; 'tis a still, neutral-coloured, dreamy bit of pathos, — the story of a lost life, — that it will make you sad perhaps to hear, and maybe, a little graver than usual. Only that."
" Please tell it, Dr Peyton," I answered. " You know I have a special liking for such sad histories. 'Tis one of my old-maidish eccentricities I suppose; but somehow I always think sorrow more musical than mirth, and I love the quiet of shadowy places better than the brilliant glow of the open landscape."
"You are right, Lizzie", he returned. "That is the feeling of the true poet in all ages, and the most poetical lives are always those in which the melancholy element predominates. Yet it is contrast that makes the beauty of things, and doubtless we should not fully understand the sweetness of your grave harmonies, nor the loveliness of your shadowy valleys, were all music grave and all places shadowy. And inanimate nature is most assuredly the faithful type and mirror of human life. But I must not waste our time any longer in such idle prologues as these ! You shall hear the little old man's story at once, while it is still fresh in my memory, though for the matter of that, I am not likely, I think, to forget it very easily."
So Dr Peyton told it me as we sat together there in the growing darkness of the warm summer night, and this, reader mine, is the story he told.
Some forty years ago, there lived in one of the prettiest houses in Kensington, a rich old wine-merchant, and his two only children. These young men, Stephen [Page 220] and Maurice Grey, were twins, whose mother had died at their birth, and all through their infancy and childhood the old wine-merchant had been to them as father and mother in one, and the brothers had grown up to manhood, loving him and each other as dearly as heart could wish. Already Stephen, the first-born of the twins, had become partner in his father's flourishing business, and Maurice was preparing at a military college for service in the army, which he was shortly to join, when a certain event occurred at Kensington, trifling enough in itself, but in the sequel pregnant with bitter misfortune to at least two human souls.
There came to reside in the house adjoining old Mr Gray's, an elderly widow lady and her orphan niece, — Mrs Lamertine and Miss Adelaïs Cameron. They came there principally for the sake of the latter, — a pale consumptive girl of eighteen, whose delicate health and constitution it was thought might be considerably benefited by the mild soft air of that particular neighbourhood. Soon after the arrival of these ladies in their new abode, the old wine-merchant in his courtesy and kindliness of heart saw fit to pay them a visit, and in due time and form the visit was returned, and a friendly come-and-go understanding established between the two houses. In this manner it happened that Stephen, the elder son, by living always in his father's house, from which he was absent only during the office-hours of the day, saw a great deal of Adelaïs Cameron, and learnt before long to love her with all the depth and yearning that a young man feels in his first rapturous adoration of a beautiful woman.
For a beautiful woman Adelaïs certainly was. Very fair to look upon was the pale, transparent face, and the [Page 221] plentiful braided hair, golden and soft almost as undyed silk, that wreathed about the lovely little head. Clear and sweet too were the eyes whence the soul of Adelaïs looked forth, clear and brown and sweet; so that people who beheld her fair countenance and heard her musical voice for the first time, were fain to say in their hearts, " Such a face and such a voice as these are not earthly things; Adelaïs Cameron is already far on her road towards the land of the angels."
But at least Mrs Lamertine and her friendly neighbours the Grays could perceive that the pale girl grew none the paler nor sicklier for her residence at Kensington, and as days and weeks flew pleasantly by in the long autumn season, the old lady talked more and more confidently of her niece's complete restoration to health and youthful vigour. Then by-and-by Christmas drew round, and with it Maurice Gray came home to his father's house for his last vacation-time; Maurice, with his frank handsome face and curly hair, always so cheerful, always so good-humoured, always so unconscious of his own attractiveness, that wherever he went, everybody was sure to trust and to idolise him. Ay, and to love him too sometimes, but not as Adelaïs Cameron did, when her full womanly soul awoke first to the living intensity of passion, and she found in him the one god at whose feet to cast all her new wealth of tenderness and homage. Never before had Maurice Gray been so beloved, never before had his own love been so desired and coveted by human soul. And now that the greatest blessing of earth lay so ready to his grasp, Maurice neither perceived the value of the gift, nor understood that it was offered to him. Such was the position when Christmas Day arrived, and the widower begged that Mrs Lamertine and her niece [Page 222] would do him the pleasure to dine in his house and spend the evening there, that they might sing songs and play forfeits together and keep up the ancient institutions of the time, as well as so tiny and staid a party could manage to do; to which sociable invitation, the old dame, nothing averse to pleasant fellowship at any season, readily consented. But when Adelaïs Cameron entered Mr Gray's drawing-room that Christmas evening with her soft white dress floating about her like a hazy cloud, and a single bunch of snowdrops in the coils of her golden hair, Stephen's heart leapt in his throat, and he said to himself that never until now had he known how exceeding perfect and sweet was the beautiful woman whom he loved with so absorbing a tenderness. Alas, that life should be at times such a terribly earnest game of cross purposes, such an intensely bitter reality of mistakes and blunders ! Alas, that men and women can read so little of each other's heart, and yet can comprehend so well the language of their own !
All the evening, throughout the conversation and the forfeits
and the merry-making, Stephen Gray spoke and moved and thought only for Adelaï's,
and she for Stephen's twin brother. It was for Maurice that she sang, while
Stephen stood beside her at the piano, drinking in the tender passionate notes
as though they were sweet wine for which all his soul were athirst; it was
at Maurice that she smiled, while Stephen's eyes were on her face, and to Maurice
that she prattled and sported and made mirthful jests, while Stephen alone
heeded all that she said and did; for the younger brother was reflected in
every purpose and thought of hers, even as her own image lay mirrored continually
in the heart and thoughts of the elder. [Page
But before the hour of parting came that night, Stephen drew Adelaï's aside from the others as they sat laughing and talking over some long-winded story of the old wine-merchant's experiences, and told her what she, in the blindness of her own wild love, had never guessed nor dreamed of, — all the deep adoration and worship of his soul. And when it was told, she said nothing for a few minutes, but only stood motionless and surprised, without a blush or tremor or sigh, and he, looking earnestly into her fair uplifted face, saw with unutterable pain that there was no response there to the passionate yearning of his own.
"Adelaïs", said he, presently, "you do not love me?"
"Yes, yes, Stephen", she answered, softly; "as a brother, as a dear brother."
"No more?" he asked again.
She put her hand into his, and fixing the clear light of her brown eyes full upon him: "Why", she said, hurriedly, " do you ask me this ? I cannot give you more, I cannot love you as a husband. Let no one know what has passed between us tonight; forget it yourself as I shall forget also, and we will always be brother and sister all our lives."
Then she turned and glided away across the room into the warm bright glow of the fireside, that lay brightest and warmest in the corner where Maurice sat; but Stephen stood alone in the darkness and hid his face in his hands and groaned. And after this there came a change over the fortunes of the two households. Day by day Adelaï's faded and paled and saddened; none knew why. People said it was the winter weather, and that when the spring-time came the girl would be herself again, and grow brisker and stronger than ever. But [Page 224] when Maurice was gone back to his college, to fulfil his last term there before leaving for India, the only brother of Adelaïs came up from his home by the sea-side, on a month's visit to his aunt and his sister at Kensington. He was a man of middle age almost, this same Philip Cameron, tall and handsome and fair-spoken, so that the old wine-merchant, who dearly loved good looks and courteous breeding, took to him mightily from the first, and made much of his company on all occasions. But as he stayed on from week to week at Mrs Lamertine's house, Philip saw that the pale lips and cheeks of Adelaïs grew paler and thinner continually, that the brown eyes greatened in the dark sockets, and that the fragile limbs weakened and sharpened themselves more and more, as though some terrible blight, like the curse of an old enchantment or of an evil eye, hung over the sweet girl, withering and poisoning all the life and the youth in her veins.
She lay on a sofa one afternoon, leaning her golden head upon one of her pale wan hands, and gazing dreamily through the open casement into the depths of the broad April sky, over whose clear blue firmament the drifting clouds came and went incessantly like white-sailed ships at sea. And Adelaïs thought of the sea as she watched them, and longed in her heart to be away and down by the southern coast where her brother had made his home, with the free salt breeze blowing in her face, and the free happy waves beating the shore at her feet, and the sea-fowl dipping their great strong wings in the leaping surge. Ah to be free, — to be away, — perhaps then she might forget, forget and live down her old life, and bury it somewhere out of sight in the sea-sand; — forget and grow blithe and happy and strong [Page 225] once more, like the breeze and the waves and the wild birds, who have no memory nor regret for the past, and no thought for any joy, save the joy of their present being.
"Phil", she said, as her brother came softly into the room and sat beside her, "take me back with you to the sea-side. I am weary of living always here in Kensington. It is only London after all."
"My dearest", he answered, kindly, " if that is all you wish for, it shall certainly be. But, Adelaïs, is there nothing more than this that troubles you ? There is a shadow in your eyes and on your lips that used not to be there, and all day long you sit by yourself and muse in silence; and you weep too at times, Adelaïs, when you fancy none is by to see you. Tell me, sister mine, for the sake of the love that is between us, and for the sake of our father and mother who are dead, what cloud is this that overshadows you so?"
Long time he pressed and besought her, pleading by turns his power to help, and her need of tenderness; but yet Adelaïs was afraid to speak, for the love that was breaking her heart was unreturned. So the next day he found her alone again, and prayed her to tell him her sorrow, that even if he could not help nor comfort her, they might at least lament together. Then at last she bowed her head upon his breast, and told him of Maurice, and of his near departure for India, and of her own disregarded love; but not a word she said of Stephen, because she had promised him to hold her peace. And when she had told her brother all, she laid her arms about his neck and cried, weeping, " Now you know everything that is in my heart, Phil; speak to me no more about it, but only promise to take me away with [Page 226] you when you go, that I may the sooner forget this place and all the sorrow and the pain I have suffered here.”
And Philip Cameron kissed her very tenderly, and answered, “Be at rest, sister, you shall have your will.”
But when evening came, he went over to the house of the wine-merchant, and questioned him about Maurice, whether he cared for Adelaïs or no, and whether he had ever said a word to his father or brother of the matter.
“Ay, ay”, quoth the old gentleman, musingly, when Philip had ceased. “Tis like enough if there be anything of the sort that the boys should talk of it between them, for, God be thanked, they were always very fond of each other; yet I never hear it spoken about. But then youth has little in common with age, and when young men make confidences of this kind, it is to young men that they make them, and not to grey-beards like me. But tell me, Cameron, for you know I must needs divine something from all this; your sister loves my boy Maurice?”
“If you think so, sir” answered Philip, “you must keep her secret.”
“Cameron, Cameron,” cried the wine-merchant, “Adelaïs is failing and sickening every day. Every day she grows whiter and sadder, and more silent. Don’t tell me it’s for love of Maurice! It’s not possible such a woman as she is can love anybody in vain! She’s an angel on earth, — your sister Adelaïs!”
Then because the old
man was kindly and wise and white-headed, Philip told him all that Adelaïs
had said, and how he had promised to take her home with him, and had come
unknown to any one to ask before they went whether or not there was any hope
for her of the love on which she had so set her heart. [Page
And when Philip was gone the old gentleman called his elder son, Stephen, and asked him - but warily, lest he should betray Adelaïs - how Maurice bore himself in Stephen’s presence when they were alone together and chanced to speak of her, and if Stephen knew or guessed anything of what was in his mind towards her. Then the young man understood for the first time all the blindness of his eyes and the dullness of his heart; and the pain and desolation and the hopelessness of his life that was to be, rose up before him, and he knew that from thenceforth the glory and the light of it were put out for ever.
“Father”, he said, “I know nothing whatever of all this. Is it your wish then that these two should marry?”
“It is my wish, Stephen, and the wish also of our friend Philip himself. Maurice could not take him to India a sweeter or a worthier wife than Adelaïs Cameron.”
“And does she wish it too?” he asked again. “Tell me, father, for I have guessed already.” He lifted his eyes to the old man’s face as he spoke, and perceived at once the sudden confusion and surprise that his words had caused there, yet he said no more, but waited still for a reply.
“My dear boy”, said the old gentleman at last, “if
you have guessed anything, that is enough; say no more about it, but let it
rest with yourself. I have never yet deceived either of my sons. But when Maurice
comes home again you can help us very much, for you can question him on the
matter more naturally than I could do, and no doubt he will tell you his mind
about it, as you say he always does about everything, but with me he might
be reserved and bewildered perhaps. Ask him, my boy, but keep your guesses
to yourself.” [Page
"Father," cried Stephen, pressing his hands together in agony as though his heart were between them, and he would fain crush it into dust and destroy it for ever; " tell me, if I am to do this, does Adelaï's love my brother?"
"If I tell you at all, boy", said the wine-merchant, " I shall tell you the truth; can you hold your peace like a man of discretion ? "
"I have kept other secrets, father", he answered, "I can keep this".
Then his father told him.
Early in May, Adelaïs Cameron went to the Devonshire sea-coast with her brother and her aunt, and they stayed there together a long while. But the accounts that came from week to week to Kensington were none of the best, for Adelaïs had borne the long journey but ill, and her strength did not return.
Then came the summer and the vacation-time, and Maurice Gray was home again, full to the brim of schemes for his future life, and busy all day with head and hands over his preparations for leaving England in the autumn. But when Stephen talked to him of Adelaïs, and told him she was gone to the sea-side, Maurice only laughed and answered lightly, that she was a sweet lovable girl, and that he grieved to hear of her illness ; no doubt the southern breezes would bring back the colour to her cheeks, and he should hear before he had been long gone that she was quite well and strong again. At least he hoped so.
"Then, Maurice, you don't care to see her once more before you sail ? You don't want to say good-bye ? "
"O well, if she's here, of course, but that's another thing; I wouldn't for worlds have her come back to [Page 229] Kensington just to bid me good-bye. And really you know, Steenie, I've too much to do just now to be running about and saying farewells everywhere. The time that's left me now to be at home with you and my father is none too long. What is Adelaïs Cameron to me, when all my world is here ? "
" Maurice", said Stephen again, in a voice that sounded strained and hard, like the voice of an old man trying to be young; "you're a dear affectionate fellow, and as things are, perhaps this is all very well. But supposing Adelaïs loved you, and my father and — and — everybody else you know, wished her to be your wife, how would you feel towards her then ? Supposing, Maurice — only for the sake of supposing, of course."
"What a strange fellow you are, Steenie! Why, supposing as you say, such a very wild improbable circumstance were to occur, I should be heartily sorry for poor Adelaïs ! Only imagine me with such a wife as she would make ! Why I wouldn't have so transparent, white-skinned a beauty about my house all day for a mine of gold! I should be seized with lunacy before long, through mere contemplation of her very unearthliness, and be goaded into fancying her a picture, and hanging her up framed and glazed over my drawing-room mantelpiece ! No, no, I'll leave Miss Cameron for you, you're just her style, I take it; but as for me, I never thought of marrying yet, Steenie, for I never yet had the luck or ill-luck to fall in love, and certainly you'll allow that nobody ought to think of marriage until he's really in love. So I'll wish you all success, old boy, and mind you write and tell me how the wooing gets on ! "
O Maurice ! Maurice !
Then, by-and-by, the young officer sailed, and Adelaïs [Page 230] heard of his going, and her heart died within her for greatness of sorrow and pain, yet still she held her peace, and lived her life in patience.
And so for two whole years they kept her by the sea, hoping against hope, and whispering those idle convictions that affection always suggests, about the worst being over now, and the time of convalescence being always tedious and unpromising. But in the third year, when the autumn days grew darker, and the sun set redder in the sea, and people began to talk again of Christmas, Adelaïs called her brother one evening and said: —
"Philip, I have been here very long, and I know that nothing more on earth can ever make me well again now. You will not refuse me the last request I shall make you, Phil? Take me back to the old house at Kensington, that I may see dear old Mr Gray, and my friend Stephen, once more; and you, Phil, stay with me and Auntie there until I die, for it wont be very long now, and I want to see you near me to the last."
So they brought her back again to the old house, next door to
the wine merchant's, and they carried her over the threshold, because she was
too weak to walk now, and laid her on the old sofa in the old place by the
window, for she would have it, and Philip Cameron did her bidding in everything.
And that same evening, Stephen Gray came in to see her, and they met as old
friends meet who have been long parted, and sat and talked together until past
sunset. But at length Adelaïs asked him for news of Maurice, what he was
doing, and how he was, and when they heard from him last, and what he thought
of India and of the new life there, and his companions, and the climate, and
the customs of the place; for she never guessed that Stephen knew of her [Page
231] hopeless love. But Stephen turned away his face and answered
her briefly, that his brother was well and prosperous, and wrote home constantly.
How could he tell her that Maurice had already found himself a rich handsome
wife in India ?
Soon after these things, old Mr Gray fell ill of a violent cold, which attacked him suddenly one afternoon on his return from his office. It was Christmas weather then, and the cold and the frost of the season were unusually keen, so that the physician, whom Stephen called in to see his father, looked very grave and dubious; and before many days of his patient's illness were past, he asked the young man whether there were any brothers or sisters of his, whom the merchant might wish to see. Stephen's heart beat fast when he heard the ominous question, for he understood what tidings the grave tone and the strange inquiry were meant to break to him, and knew well that the physician who spoke was one of the wisest and most skilful in London. But he answered as calmly as he could, and talked of Maurice, and of the boy's fondness for his father, and added, that if there were really imminent danger, he should like his brother to be called home, because he was sure Maurice would wish it; but that otherwise the voyage was tedious and the need unimportant.
"Let him be sent for", said the physician. "There is just time."
So Stephen wrote to his brother, and bade him leave his wife with her parents in India, and come home quickly, if he would see his father again, for the time was [Page 232] short, and in those days the only way open to Maurice was the long circuitous sea-route.
Maurice arrived only three days before the old man's death. He had not left his wife behind him, as Stephen suggested, for she loved her husband too dearly to be parted from him, and Maurice brought her with him to his father's house.
From her place on the sofa by the window, Adelaïs Cameron looked wearily out, watching for the coming of the one she loved most upon earth. And at last the coach drew up at the old gentleman's gate, and she saw Maurice dismount from the box-seat by the driver and open the coach door to hand out a handsome lady, with dark hair and bright glowing eyes.
"Who is that?" she asked of the maid, who was arranging the tea-table beside her.
"Don't you know, Miss ? " said the girl, surprised at the inquiry. " That's Mrs Maurice, the rich young lady he married in India a year ago; I was told all about it by the cook at Mr Gray's, ever-so-long ago."
But as the words were spoken, Stephen entered the room with a message for Philip Cameron, and overheard both the question and the answer. Adelaïs turned towards him and said, — "Stephen, you never told me that Maurice had a wife."
The next week they buried the old wine merchant very quietly and simply. Only three mourners attended the funeral, — Stephen and Maurice and Philip Cameron; but Adelaïs, looking down on them from her casement corner, as the coffin was carried forth from the house, laid her golden head on her aunt's bosom and cried, "Auntie, auntie, I never thought to live so long as this ! Why must those always die who are needed most, while [Page 233] such as I live on from year to year ? I fancied I had only a few weeks left me upon earth when we came back to Kensington, and yet here I am still! "
Then after a little while the brothers parted once more; Maurice and his wife went back to India, and Stephen was left alone, sole successor to his father's business, and master of the old house. But Adelaïs Cameron still lived on, like the shadow of her former self, fading in the sunset of her womanhood, the beauty sapped out from her white death-like face, and the glitter of youth and the sweetness of hope quenched for ever in the depths of her luminous eyes.
Then when the days of mourning were over, Stephen came again to Adelaïs, to renew the wooing of old times; for he said to himself, "Now that Maurice is married, and my father dead, she may pity me, seeing me so lone and desolate; and I may comfort her for the past, and make her amends with my love, for the pain and the bitterness that are gone by."
But when he knelt alone by the couch whereon Adelaïs lay, and held her white blue-veined hands in his and told his errand, she turned her face from him and wept sore, as women weep over the dead
"Adelaïs, O Adelaïs", he cried in his despair, "Why will you refuse me always ? Don't you see my heart is breaking for love of you ? Come home with me and be my wife at last!"
But she made answer very sadly and slowly: —
"Stephen, ought the living and the dead to wed with one another ? God forbid that you in your youth and manhood should take to wife such a death-like thing as I! Four years I have lain like this waiting for the messenger to fetch me away, and now that at last he is [Page 234] near at hand, shall I array myself in a bridal veil for a face-cloth, and trailing skirts of silk or satin for a shroud ? Dear Stephen, don't talk to me any more about this, — we are brother and sister still, — let nothing on earth break the sweetness of the bond between us."
"Not so, Adelaïs", cried he, passionately; " you cannot, you must not die yet! You do not know what love can do, you do not know that love is stronger than death, and that where there is love like mine death dare not come ! There is nothing in all the world that I will not do for your sake, nothing that I will leave undone to save you, nothing that shall be too hard a condition for me to perform, so that I may keep you with me still. Live, live my darling, my beloved, and be my wife! Give me the right to take you with me, my sweet; let us go together to Madeira, to Malta, to Sicily, where the land is full of life, and the skies are warm, and the atmosphere clear and pure. There is health there, Adelaïs, and youth, and air to breathe such as one cannot find in this dull, misty, heavy northern climate, and there you will grow well again, and we will think no more about death and sickness. O my darling, my darling, for God's sake refuse me no longer !"
She laid her thin transparent palm wearily over her left side, and turned her calm eyes on the passionate straining face beside her.
"There is that here," she said, pressing her wounded heart more tightly, "that I know already for the touch of the messenger's hand. Already I count the time of my sojourn here, not by weeks nor even by days, — the end has come so very, very near at last. How do I know but that even now that messenger of whom I speak may be standing in our presence, — even now, while you kneel [Page 235] here by my side and talk to me of life and youth and health?"
"Adelaïs", pleaded the poor lover, hoarsely, "you deceive yourself, my darling! Have you not often spoken before of dying, and yet have lived on ? O why should you die now and break my heart outright ? "
"I feel a mist coming over me", she answered, "even as I speak with you now. I hear a sound in my ears that is not of earth, the darkness gathers before my face, the light quivers and fades, the night is closing about me very fast. Stephen, Stephen, don't you see that I am dying?"
He bowed his head over the damp colourless brow, and whispered: " If it be so, my beloved, be as my wife yet, and die in my arms."
But while he uttered the words there came a change over her, — a shadow into the sweet eyes and a sudden spasm of pain across the white parted lips. Feebly and uncertainly she put out her hands before her face, like one groping in the darkness, her golden head drooped on his shoulder, and her breath came sharp and thick, with the sound of approaching death. Stephen folded his arms about her with a cry of agony, and pressed the poor quivering hands wildly to his bosom, as though he would fain have held them there for ever.
"O God !" he groaned in his unutterable despair; " is there no hope, no redemption, no retrieving of the past ? Is this the bitter end of all, and must I lose my darling so ? O Adelaïs, Adelaïs, my beloved ! " But even as he spoke, the gathering shadow broke softly over all her face, the sobbing, gasping breath ceased in the stillness of the darkened room, the golden head fell lower, — lower yet upon the desolate heart whose love had been so steadfast [Page 236] and so true; and Stephen covered his face with the hands of the dead, and wept such tears as men can only weep once in a lifetime, — tears that make brown hairs grey and young men old.
Philip Cameron and his aunt did not stay long at Kensington. They gave up the house to strangers, and went away to the Continent for awhile, where they travelled about together, until the old lady grew tired of wandering, and settled down with her maid in a little villa near Geneva; and after that, Stephen heard no more of her nor of Philip. But Stephen himself stayed on in the old house until he grew old too, for he loved the place where Adelaïs had lived, and could not bear to leave it for another. And every evening when he came home from his office, he would sit alone at the window of his study whence he could see across the garden into the little chamber next door, the little chintz-curtained old-fashioned chamber where she used to lie in her weakness years and years ago, where they two had so often talked and read together, and where she had died at last in his arms. But he never wept, thinking of these things now, for he had grown into a little withered dried-up old man, and his tears were dried up also, and instead of his passionate despair and heartbreaking, had come the calm bitterness of eternal regret, and a still voiceless longing for the time that every day drew nearer and nearer, and for the coming of the messenger from the land that is very far off.
But when Maurice came home once more to settle in England with his handsome wife and his children, rich and happy and prosperous, he would fain have taken some new house in London to share with his twin brother, that they might live together; but Stephen would [Page 237] not. Then when Maurice had reasoned and talked with him a long time in vain, pleading by turns the love that had been between them long ago, the loneliness of his brother's estate, and his own desire that they should not separate now, he yielded the contest, and said discontentedly, —
"Have your own way, Steenie, since you will make a solitary bachelor of yourself, but at least give up your useless toiling at the wine-office. To what end do you plod there every day, — you who are wifeless and childless, and have no need of money for yourself? give me up this great house in which you live all alone, like an owl in an oak-tree, and let me find you a cottage somewhere in the neighbourhood, where I can often come and see you, and where you may spend your days in happiness and comfort."
And the little old man shook his head and answered, " Nay, brother Maurice, but I will go away from here to some country village where I am not known, for I have toiled long and wearily all my lire, and I cannot rest in peace beside the mill where I have ground down my life so many years. Do not trouble yourself about me, Maurice, I shall find a home for myself."
Then they parted. Maurice and his family came to live in the big house at Kensington, for they liked to be near London, and Stephen sold his father's business to another merchant, and went away, Maurice knew not whither, to bury himself and his lost life in some far-off village, until by-and-by the messenger for whom he had waited and yearned so long should come also for him, " and the day break and the shadows flee away."
Such, reader mine, is in substance the story that Dr Peyton told
me. The words in which he related it I [Page
238] cannot of course quite remember now, so I have put it into
words of my own, and here and there I have added somewhat to the dialogue.
But the facts and the pathos of the romance are not mine, nor his; they are
true, actual realities, such as no dressing of fiction can make more poetical
or complete in their sorrowful interest.
"It was a long history", said I, " for a dying man to tell".
"Yes"' answered he. "And several times it was evident enough from his quick-drawn breath and sudden pauses, that the recital wearied and pained him. But he was so set upon telling, and I, Lizzie, I confess, so much interested in hearing it, that I did not absolutely hinder his fancy, but contented myself with warning him from time to time not to overtask his strength. He always answered me that he was quite strong, and liked to go on, for that it made him happy even to talk once more about Adelaïs, and to tell me how beautiful and sweet and patient she had been. It was close upon sunset when he ended his story, and he begged me, that as his fashion was, he might be lifted out of bed and carried to his arm-chair by the window, to look, as he said, for the last time, at the going down of the sun. So I called the housekeeper, and we did what he desired together, and opened the green Venetian blinds of the casement, which had been closed all the afternoon because of the heat. You remember, Lizzie, what a wonderfully bright and beautiful sunset it was this evening ? Well, as we threw back the outer shutters, the radiant glory of the sky poured into the room like a flood of transparent gold and almost dazzled us, so that I fancied the sudden brilliancy would be too much for his feeble sight, and I leaned hastily forward with the intention of partly reclosing the [Page 230] blinds. But he signed to me to let them be, so I relinquished my design, and sent the housekeeper downstairs to prepare him his tea, which I thought he might like to take sitting up in his chair by the window. I had no idea — doctor though I am — that his end was so near as it proved to be; for although certainly much exhausted and agitated with the exertion of telling me his story, I did not then perceive any immediate cause for apprehension. Still less did I understand that he was then actually dying; on the contrary, I began to think that my first impressions of his danger when I entered the room that afternoon had been erroneous, and that the change I had observed in him might possibly be an indication of temporary revival. At all events, I fancied the cup of tea which was then being made ready, would be of great use in stimulating and refreshing him after the weariness caused by his long talk, and I promised myself that if I could only persuade him to silence for the rest of the evening, he would be none the worse for the recent gratification of his whim. We sat some time by the open window, watching the sun as it sank lower and lower into the golden-sheeted west, and some unconnected speculations were straying through my mind about ' the sea of glass mingled with fire,' when the old man's words aroused me in the midst of my dreaming, and the voice in which he spoke was so unusual and so soft that it startled me.
" ' Doctor,' he said, ' I think I am dying.'
"I sprang from my seat and stood at his side in a moment, but before the utterance had well passed from his lips, I perceived that it was no mere invalid's fancy.
" ' Thirty-five years ago,' he continued, speaking still in that new unusual voice, — 'thirty-five years ago this [Page 240] very selfsame day, my Adelaïs died in my arms as the sun went down. Today, as the sun goes down, I shall die also.'
"Surely" cried I, "this is a very singular incident! Does it not seem so to you ! This evening, then, was actually the anniversary of poor Miss Cameron's death ! How strange !"
"It certainly appeared so to me at first", he rejoined. "But when my mind reverted to it afterwards, I thought it exceedingly probable that his own knowledge of the fact had itself hastened his end, for he had no doubt been long brooding over it, and maybe desired that his death should occur that particular day and hour. In his enfeebled condition, such a desire would have great physical effect; I have known several similar cases. But however that may have been, I of course have no certain means of deciding. I have already told you, that immediately on my entering his chamber in the afternoon, he expressed to me his conviction that tonight he should go to his long rest, and in the certainty of that conviction, related to me the story you have heard. But though it has been the necessary lot of my calling to be present at so many death-beds, I never before witnessed a calmer or a more peaceful end than Stephen Gray's. In his changed face, in his watchful eyes, in every placid feature of his countenance, I beheld the quiet anticipation of that long rest about which he had spoken so contentedly an hour or two since.
"He took no further heed of me whatever, — I doubt if he was even aware of my presence. Wearily he laid his head back upon the white pillows I had placed in the arm-chair behind him, folded his hands together, and kept his eyes fixed steadfastly, and — I thought — even [Page 241] reverently, upon the setting sun that was now fast sinking like a globe of fire, towards the blue ridge of the Malvern hills, and my heart beat violently as I saw it touch the topmost peak. While I watched, there broke suddenly forth from between the low lines of sunset cloud, a long ray of golden light, that fell full on the uplifted face of the little old man. He did not turn his head, or shrink from its intense brightness, but his lips moved, though the utterance of the words he spoke was so broken and indistinct, that I stooped to hear them.
" ' Adelaïs, — O my lost darling, — my Adelaïs, — let me come to thee and be beloved at last!'
"Then I looked again at the western sky, and saw that the sun had gone down."
Next morning I gathered my June roses and sweet jasmin, and took them over to the house of the little old man. I went upstairs into the darkened chamber where they had laid him, and bestowed the flowers reverently about the white-draped bed. All the wrinkles were wiped out of his pallid face now, and he looked so wondrously calm and peaceful, lying there with his closed eyelids and crossed hands, in the unbroken silence of the room, that the tears of pity I thought I should have wept at the sight never rose in my eyes; but instead, as I turned away, there came to my memory certain closing lines of a most beautiful poem, written not very long ago by a master-hand that surely held God's commission to write. It is a dead hand now, but the written words remain, and the singer herself has gone to the land of the Hereafter, where the souls of the poets float for ever in the full light of their recovered Godhead, singing such songs as mortal ear hath not yet heard, nor mortal heart [Page 242] conceived of. And the poem of which I spoke, has this ending: —
" 'Jasper first,' I said, '
And second, sapphire; third, chalcedony;
The rest in order, — last, an amethyst.' "
" But silence is most noble till the end."
— Atalanta in Calydon.
Somebody, the other day, presented me with a bunch of crimson roses and purple nightshade, tied together.
Roses and nightshade!
I thought the combination worthy of a poem !
For the rose, as all the world conceives, is the emblem of love; and the nightshade typifies silence.
I put my posy in a little vase filled with water, and when night came, I lay down to rest, with my head full of vague rhymes and unfledged ideas, whose theme was still my eccentric nosegay. Sleep, however, overtook the muse, and the soft divinities of darkness, weaving their tender spells about me, dissolved my contemplated sonnet into a dream.
It seemed to my sleeping fancy that I stood in a deep, serene
light of shadowy purple, grave and sombre, — a light which suggested
to me the sound of low minor chords, the last notes of some organ voluntary,
dying beneath a master's touch, and rolling down the hazy aisles of an empty
cathedral, out into the gloomy night, upward to the stars. [Page
A spirit floated in the air before me, — a phantom draped in heavy sweeping robes of dense purple, but with eyes of such vivid and fiery brightness, that I could not look upon them; and my heart quailed in my bosom with a strange oppressive sense of fear and wonder. Then I felt that her awful gaze was fixed upon me, and a voice, low and sonorous as the tones of an organ, broke on my ear with an intense pathos, unutterably solemn: —
Daughter of earth, I am the spirit of the purple Nightshade, the Atropa Belladonna of the south, — the scent of whose dusky chalice is the fume of bitterness; the taste of whose dark fruit is death. And because the children and the maidens shun my poisonous berries, when they go out into the woods to make garlands for Mary's shrine, or for wedding gala; and because the leech and herbalist find in me a marvellous balm to soothe the torments of physical anguish; because I give the sick man ease, and the sleepless man oblivion, and the miserable man eternal rest; because I am sombre of hue and unsweet of odour, able to calm, to hush, and to kill, the sons of earth have chosen me to be the emblem of silence. There is a shadow on your brow: my words sound strange and bitter to you; yet hear me: for once on earth I dwelt with one who thought and laboured in silence. His name is inscribed upon no calendar of the world's heroes; it is written only in heaven !
Not far from a certain large town in Piedmont there was once a miserable little cottage. It had been let when I knew it, to a poor invalid woman and her only child, a boy about nine or ten years old. They were very poor, this mother and son; and the little living they had, came mostly by means of needlework, which the woman did [Page 243] for people in the town, and by the sale of dried herbs and such-like. As for the cottage itself, it was a crazy, tumble-down tenement, half in ruins, and all the outside walls of it were covered with clinging ivies and weeds and wild climbing plants.
I was one of these. I grew just underneath the solitary window of the small chamber wherein the poor woman slept, — the whole hut consisted of only two rooms, — and I climbed and sprouted and twisted my head in and out of the net-work of shrubs about me, and clung to the crumbling stone of the wall, and stretched myself out and up continually, until I grew so tall, that I could look in at the casement and see the inside of the room. It was in the summer-time that I first managed to do this, and I remember well what a burning, sultry summer it was ! Everything seemed parched and calcined under the pitiless Italian sun, and the whole sky was like a great blazing topaz, — yellow, and hard to look at; and the water disappeared from the runlets, and there was not a breath of wind from one end of the sky to the other.
So it was no great marvel to me, when one day, not long after my first appearance at the window-sill, I saw the poor woman come into the room with a very faltering step, and a whiter, sicklier look on her wan face than was usual to it. She threw herself wearily down upon her bed in the corner, and panted for breath. She had been to the town to take thither the last piece of needlework she had done, and she laid on the wooden table by the bedside the money the people had given her for her labour. Hard-earned coins, and few of them ! She put her thin, wasted hands to her head as she lay, and I heard her murmur to herself in broken words that seemed [Page 245] interspersed with half-suppressed sobs, and I could not understand what she said. But by-and-by, when she had grown a little calmer, there was a sharp, swift tap at the door of the room, and the boy entered, with a small book in his hand, and a sparkle of pleasure in his eyes.
“Look, mother!" he cried, holding up the volume gleefully; "this is one of the great German Professor's Treatises on Chemistry ! Herr Ritter has bought it for me ! Isn't it good of him? And he is here, and wants to know if he may come and see you ! "
She smiled,' — such a poor ghost of a smile as it was ! — and answered feebly, "Let him come, "Tista." But I suppose the Herr had heard even that broken message, for at the words the door was pushed open a little further, and an old man appeared, bare-headed, wearing a long white beard, and carrying a staff in his hand. He was bent with age, and his forehead and cheeks were marked about with many lines and crosses, — deep furrows ploughed by the harrow of thought and sorrow. I had often seen him before, for he came frequently to the cottage, but I had never been so close to him as on this occasion, and had never before noticed how poor and worn his garments were. He came into the room with a courteous greeting on his lips, half-Italian, half-German in its phraseology, and signed with a nod of his head to the boy Battista to be gone, who immediately obeyed, hugging his prize, and closed the door softly behind him.
"Herr Ritter", said the woman, raising herself on the pillow,
and putting both her hands into his; " you are too good to my 'Tista, and too
good to me. Why will you do these things ? " [Page
He smiled, as though the matter were not worth a word; but she went on, —
"I say you are too good, dear friend. Never a day passes, but you bring me something, — wine or fruit or some piece of dainty fare; and as for 'Tista, there is nothing he does not owe to you! All he knows, you have taught him. We can never repay you."
"My dear Frau 'Lora, who thinks of such things twice ? Chut! But you look ill and over-tired this evening. You have been to the town again ? "
" I thought so. You must lie here and rest now. It will get cooler by-and-by; and look, I have brought you some bunches of grapes and some peaches. They will do you good."
"Oh, Herr Ritter!"
"Don't cry ' oh, Herr Ritter!' in that reproachful manner, for this fruit really cost me nothing. It was given to me. Little Andrea Bruno brought it to me today."
"The fruit-seller's child? Yes, yes, I daresay; but it was not meant for me ! It's no use trying to hide your good deeds, Herr Ritter! 'Tista has told me how kind you were to Andrea's little sister when she sprained her foot last month; and how you bandaged it for her, and used to go and read to her all the morning, when her father and Andrea were out selling fruit, and she would have been left alone but for you; and I know, too, all about poor crippled Antonia and Catterina Pic ------. Don't go away, I won't say any more about it! But I couldn't help telling you I knew; you dear, good Herr Ritter !"
He had half-risen, but now he re-seated himself, and [Page 247] drew his chair nearer her couch. In doing this his eyes met hers, and he looked earnestly into them a moment.
" 'Lora, you have been weeping. What is the matter ? "
She moved restlessly on her hard pillows, and dropped her gaze from his face, and I noted that a faint blush stole over her sunken cheeks and touched her forehead. With that tender glow, under the faded skin, she looked almost beautiful. She was young, certainly, not more than thirty at the utmost; but she was very poor and desolate, and there is nothing so quick at sapping the blood and withering the beauty of women as poverty and desolation. Nothing.
"Herr Ritter", she said, after a little pause, "I will tell you what is the matter. Perhaps you may be able to advise me; I don't quite know what to do. You know how very, very much my 'Tista wants to be a chemist, so I needn't say anything about that. Well, he must be brought up to something, you know; he must learn to be something when the time comes for him to live without me, and I don't think, Herr Ritter, it will be very long before — before that time comes, now."
I noted again that the old man did not contradict her. He only watched her drooping face, and listened.
"I have worked early and late," she went on in low, swift tones, " to try and lay by a little money towards getting him apprenticed to some chemist in the town. He has worked, too, poor child. But it is little — nothing — we could save between us; for we must live meanwhile, you know, dear friend, and there is the rent to pay. Well, now I am coming to my story. When I was a young girl, I had a sister, ten years older than I. We were orphans, and an old aunt took care of us. I married — [Page 248] against my aunt's wish, in the face of my sister's warnings, — a poor improvisatore. We were poor enough, of course, before that, my sister and I, but we were not beggars, and the husband I took was below me. Well, my sister was very angry, dreadfully angry, but I was young and strong, and I was in love, so I didn't care much about it then. My husband traveled from place to place, telling his stories and singing his rhymes, and I went with him, and soon lost sight of my sister. At last we came to Rome. 'Tista was born there, and soon after I got some news of my old home from a wandering pedlar, who had passed through the village where I used to live. My aunt was dead, and my sister had married, — married a rich innkeeper; a match as far above our station as mine had been below it. Well, Herr Ritter, my husband was badly hurt in a quarrel one evening in one of the squares. Somebody insulted him before all the people as he was telling one of his stories, and his blood got up and he struck the man, and they fought; and my husband was brought home to me that night, half-murdered. He didn't live long. He had had a heavy fall, I think, in that fight, for the back of his head was cut open, and he took brain-fever from it. I did my best, but our money was scarce, and our child was too young to be left alone with a sick man, and I could get no work to do at home. So one day, at noon, my husband died. Poor Battista! I could not help it! I could not save him ! Ah Jesu ! what a terrible thing poverty is ! what a mournful thing it is to live ! "
She shrouded her face in her hands, but not to weep, for when, after a little silence, she raised her large dark eyes again to meet the old German's compassionate gaze, I saw that they were calm and tearless.
"After that, I used to leave little 'Tista in the care of a woman, next door to me, while I went out as a model. I was handsome then, the painters said, and my hair and my complexion were worth something in the studio; but not for long. My color faded, and my hair grew thin, for I pined and sorrowed day and night after the husband I had lost, and at last no one would give two scudi for me, so I took 'Tista and left Rome to tramp. Sometimes I got hired out in the vine-harvest, and sometimes I sold fruit, or eggs, or fish in the markets, till at last I got a place as a servant in a big town, and 'Tista went to school a bit. But seven months ago my mistress died, and her daughters wouldn't keep me, because I had become weak and couldn't do the work of their house as well as I used to do it. And nobody else would take me, for all the people to whom I went said I looked half-way in my grave, and should be no use to them as a servant. So I gave it up at last, and came on here and got this cottage, almost for nothing, though it's something to me; but then they give me so little for my work, you see, in the town. Well, Herr Ritter, I daresay you think my story a very long one, don't you ? I am just near the end of it now. I went into the town today, and while I was standing in the shop with my needle-work, a lady came in. The shop-woman, who was talking to me about the price of the things I had done, left me when the lady came in, and went to serve her. So I had to stand and wait, and when the lady put back her veil to look at something she was going to buy, I saw her face. Oh, Herr Ritter! it was my sister, my sister Carlotta ! I was certain of it! I was certain of it! Nevertheless, after she had gone, I asked the shop-woman some questions about the lady. She did not tell [Page 250] me much, for I fancy she thought me inquisitive; but she told me, at least, all I had need to know. Her customer, she said, was the wife of a very rich inn-keeper, and her name was Carlotta Nero. She is lodging, the woman told me, at the Casa d'Oro. I didn't go to see her then, of course, because she could not then have reached home; but I want to go tomorrow, if I can manage to walk so far, for I think she would like to see me again, and I am sure I should like to see her. And, shall I tell you what else I am thinking about, Herr Ritter? It is that, perhaps, — perhaps, her husband, being so rich, he might be able to put "Tista in the way of doing something, or of getting me some work, so that we could save up the money for his apprenticeship by-and-by. What do you think of it now, Herr Ritter? My sister, you know, is the only friend I have in the world, except you, kind, dear Herr! and I don't think she would mind my asking her this, though we did part in anger; do you? For that was ten years ago."
She paused again, and Herr Ritter gazed tenderly at the poor sharp face, with its purple eyelids and quivering pasted lips, through which the heavy rapid breath came every moment with a sudden painful shudder, like a sob. I think he was wondering, pityingly, what such a feeble, shattered creature as she could have to do with work, at least, on this side of death.
"Herr Ritter! Herr Ritter!" cried 'Tista, bursting open the door of the little chamber, in a state of great delight; "look what Cristofero has just given me! These beautiful roses ! Will you have them ? "
"Not I, 'Tista, thank you. Gay colors and sweet odors are not for me. Put them here in this cup by [Page 251] your mother's side. Now, Frau 'Lora, I will not be contradicted !"
"Won't you have one of them, Herr Ritter ? " asked the boy, wistfully, holding out towards the old man a splendid crimson bud.
He answered hurriedly, with a gesture of avoidance.
"No, no, 'Tista! I never touch roses ! See here, I'll take a cluster of this, 'tis more in my line a great deal." He turned away to the lattice as he spoke; rather, I thought, to conceal a certain emotion that had crossed his face at the sight of the roses than for any other reason, and laid his hand upon me.
"Why, that's nightshade !" cried the boy in surprise.
"No matter", answered the old German, breaking off my blossom-head, and tucking its stalk into the buttonhole of his rusty coat; "I like it, it suits me. Belladonna is not to be despised, as you ought to know, Master Chemist!" Then, in a softer tone, " I shall come and see you tomorrow morning, Frau 'Lora, before you start. Good-night."
He went out, shutting the door behind him gently, and I went with him. He did not walk very far. About half-a-mile from the town there stood three or four old-fashioned houses, with projecting gables and low green verandahs sloping over their wide balconies, and it was in the first of these houses that Herr Ritter lodged.
He had only one room, a little dark, studious-looking apartment, scantily furnished, with a single window, opening on to the balcony, and in one corner a deep recess, within which was his bed. There were some shelves opposite the window, and upon these several ponderous old tomes in faded covers; a human skull, and a few fossils. Nothing else at all, except a tiny [Page 252] picture, hung upon the wall above the head of his couch; but this I did not see at first.
Later, when he had taken me out of his coat, and put me in water, in a little glass bowl, I was able to turn my great yellow eyes full upon the painting, and I saw that it was the miniature of a beautiful young girl, dressed in a very old-fashioned costume, and wearing upon her fair bosom a knot of crimson roses. "Ah", I said to myself, " there has been a romance in this old German's life, and now there is — silence."
Very early the next morning Battista came to see Herr Ritter. In his hand the boy carried a large clay flowerpot, wherein, carefully planted in damp mould, and supported by long sticks set cross-wise against each other, I beheld my own twining branches and pendulous tendrils; all of myself, indeed, that had been left the day before outside the cottage window.
Battista bore the pot triumphantly across the room, and deposited it in the balcony under the green verandah.
"Ecco ! Herr Ritter !" cried he, with vast delight, " you see I don't forget what you say ! You told me yesterday you liked the belladonna, so when you were gone I went and dug up its root and planted it in this pot for you, that you may always keep it in your balcony, and always have a bunch to wear in your coat. Though, indeed, I can't think how you can like it; it smells so nasty! But you are a strange old darling, aren't you, Herr Ritter?"
Battista had set down his pot now, and was looking into the old
German's face with glistening eyes. [Page
"Child", answered the Herr, smiling very gravely and tenderly, as one may fancy that perhaps a Socrates or a Plato may have smiled sometimes; " your gift is very welcome, and I am glad to know you thought of me. These are the first flowers I have ever had in my little dark room; and as for the scent of them, you know, 'Tista, that is a matter of taste, isn't it, just like color."
"Yes," quoth 'Tista, emphatically, I like roses !"
But Herr Ritter interposed hurriedly.
" 'Tista, how is your mother today?"
"That is one of the things I came to talk about. She is ill; too ill to rise this morning, and she wants to see you. Will you come back with me, for I think she has something particular to say to you ? "
"Yes, 'Tista, I will come."
He took down his old velvet cap from its peg behind the door, and stooping over the little glass dish in which he had placed the spray of my blossoms the preceding day, lifted me carefully out of the water, wiped the dripping stem, and fastened me in his coat again. I believe he did this to show the boy a pleasure.
But a little while after this, and Herr Ritter sat again in the old wooden chair by the widow's couch. Early that morning she had written to her sister a long letter, which she now put into the old German's hands, begging him to carry it for her to the Casa d'Oro, and bring her in return whatever message or note Carlotta Néro should give him. " For," said the poor woman, with anxious eyes, and pallid lips that quivered under the burden of the words they uttered, " I do not know for how long my sister may be staying here, and perhaps I shall never meet her again. And since I am not able to go myself into the town today, and I fear to miss her, I thought, [Page 254] dear friend, you would not mind taking this for me; and, perhaps, if my sister should ask you anything, saying you know me, and — and —Tista ? "
She faltered a little there, and the old man took her hand in his with the tender, pitying gesture we use to little children.
"Be at ease, dear 'Lora", he murmured, "I will bring you good news. But the hour is early yet, and if I start so soon, your sister may not be able to receive me. So I'll go back and take my cup of coffee at home before I set out."
He was rising, but she laid her hand on his arm gently.
"Dear friend, why should you leave us ? 'Tista is getting my breakfast ready now, let him get yours also."
So Herr Ritter stayed, and the three had their morning meal, together. There was a little loaf of coarse black bread, a tin jug filled with coffee, and some milk in a broken mug. Only that, and yet they enjoyed it, for they finished all the loaf, and they drank all the coffee and the milk, and seemed wonderfully better for their frugal symposium when 'Tista rose to clear the table. Only black bread and coffee; and yet that sorry repast was dignified with such discourse as those who sit at the tables of Dives are not often privileged to hear.
For Herr Ritter was a scholar and a philosopher. He had studied from his youth the strange and growing discoveries of geology, astronomy, and chemistry; he had wrested from the bosom of Nature her most subtle secrets, and the earth and the heavens were written in a language which he understood and loved to read. I learned that he had been a student in earlier days at a German university, and had there first begun to think. From [Page 255] the time he was twenty, until this very hour in which he sat by the side of 'Lora Delcor, he had been thinking; and now that he had become an ancient man, with a beard of snow, and a face full of the deep furrows of a solitary old age, he was thinking still. He had given up the world in order to think, and yet, he told us, he was as far from the truth as ever, and was content to know nothing, and to be as a little child in the presence of Life and of God.
And when 'Lora asked him why he had never cared to enter into the lists of argument and controversy with other learned philosophers and doctors of his time, and to make himself a name that should have been reverenced among men, he answered mildly, that he had no ambition, or if he had once had any, he had always felt the mysteries of existence too profoundly to make them stepping-stones to worldly honour. "It is impossible," he said, " that any man should be able, in this sphere of life, and under these conditions of being, to penetrate into the meaning of things, or to touch their inmost source with fingers of flesh. All that we can attain to know is this, that we can know nothing; and the fairest answer we can give when we are questioned, is that we do not know. If, then, we know so little about life, much less can we ever hope to discern the meaning of death. And as for the lesser considerations of our daily being, what are they? Long ago I ceased to desire; ambition and love are things of the past to me."
I thought the shadows of the hanging vine outside the lattice darkened over the old man's face as he spoke, and there seemed to come into his clear keen eyes a sudden mist as of tears that would not flow. Whether or not the gentle woman beside him also saw these things, I [Page 256] cannot tell, but when he paused she asked him softly, if his life had not been a sorrowful one ? She feared he must have suffered deeply.
"To all of us", he answered, "life is a sorrowful thing, because to all of us it is a mystery past finding out. Have you found it sweet, Frau 'Lora? no? nor have I. But what I have lost, if indeed I lost anything, I lost not wilfully. Well, — I have realised my destiny; the meanest can do no less, the greatest can do no more."
"But you withdrew yourself of your own accord from the world, dear Herr; you buried yourself in your own solitude, and kept yourself apart from the honour you might have earned by your learning in the world ? You chose to be silent?"
"Yes", he echoed, mournfully, " I chose to be silent. Why should I have wasted my breath in idle disputation, or to what end should I have laboured to get a string of empty letters tacked to my name, like the fly-papers of a boy's kite ? I do not seek to be dragged back to the ground, I prefer to mount without a string. Everything we attempt to do falls short of its conception in its fulfilment. All glory is disappointment, — all success is failure; how acutely bitter, only the hero himself can know!"
"You have no regrets, then, Herr Ritter?" said 'Lora, with her clear earnest gaze full upon his face.
"None", he answered, simply.
"And will you always keep silence?" '
"Always, so far as I can see," said the old German. "There are quarrels enough in the world without my intervention, there are dogmas enough in the world without my enunciations. I do not think I should do any good by speaking to men. Could I make them any [Page 257] wiser, purer, gentler, truer than they are ? Could I teach them to be honest in their dealings with each other, compassionate, considerate, liberal? If they have not heard the prophets, nor even the divine teacher of Nazareth, shall I be able to do them any good ? Are not their very creeds pretexts for slaughter and persecution and fraud ? Do they not support even their holiest truths, their sincerest beliefs, by organised systems of deceit and chicanery ? Chut ! I tell you that the very vesture which men compel Truth to wear, is lined and stiffened with lies ! The mysteries of life are so terrible, and its sadness so profound, that blatant tongues do not become philosophers. Words only serve to rend and vex and divide us. Therefore I think it best to hide my thoughts in my heart, believing that in matters which we cannot fathom, silence is noblest; and knowing that when I say, ' I am nothing, but God is all, — I am ignorant, but God is wise,' — all I am able to say is said. By-and-by, in the brighter light of a more perfect day beyond the sun, I shall see the King in His beauty, face to face; I shall know, even as I am known ! "
"This, then," asked 'Lora, gently, " is why you gave up the world, that you might be alone ? "
"I gave up the world, dear Frau, because I found in it all manner of oppression done in the names of Justice and of Virtue. My heart turned against the Wrong, and I had no power to set it Right. The mystery of life overcame me; I refused the gold and the honours which might have been mine, if I could have been content in being dishonest. But God gave me grace to be strong, and the world cast me out of its gilded nursery. I became a man, and put away childish things."
Then he rose slowly from his seat, and as he laid his[Page
258] hand on the door-latch, and lifted it to go out, a welcome
little puff of outside air darted into the chamber, and stirred the nightshade
blossoms in the breast of the old rusty coat. And I raised my dark purple
head, and perceived that the mournful shadow rested again upon the face
of Herr Ritter, like a cloud at sunset time, when the day that has passed
away has been a day of storm.
We went to the Casa d'Oro.
Carlotta Néro was in her sitting-room, and would see the Herr there, said the dark-haired smiling contadina, who admitted the old German into the house. She was a native of the place, and evidently remembered him with gratitude and pleasure. So we presently found ourselves in a small well-appointed chamber, on the first floor of the Casa.
On a tapestry-covered dormeuse, by the open window, and carefully protected with gauze curtains from the glare of the coming noon, reclined a handsome woman of middle age, so like, and yet so strangely unlike 'Lora Delcor, that my dusky blooms quivered and fretted with emotion, as the contadina closed the door behind us.
The same delicate features, the same luxuriance of hair, but — the eyes of 'Lora ! ah, — a soul, a divinity looked out of them; but in these one saw only the metallic glitter of the innkeeper's gold ! They turned coldly upon Herr Ritter as he stood in the doorway, and a hard ringing utterance — a gain how unlike 'Lora! for this was the dry tintinnabulation of coin — inquired his errand.
"Herr Ritter, I am told. You wish to speak to me?"
I observed that she allowed the old man to stand while she spoke.[Page
"Yes, Signora", he answered, mildly, " I bring you this letter; may I beg you will read it now, before I go ? for the writer charged me to carry back to her your answer."
He drew 'Lora's note from his vest with a gesture of reverent tenderness, as though he loved the very paper his friend had touched, and were something loath to part with it to such indifferent hands and eyes as these. Carlotta Néro took it coldly, and glanced through the close-written pages with the languid air of a supercilious fine lady. Once I fancied I saw her cheek flush and her lip quiver as she read, but when she looked up again and spoke, I thought I must have been mistaken in that fancy, or else her emotion had been due to another cause than that I had imagined. For there was no change in the ungentle glittering eyes; no softening in the dry tinkle of the voice that delivered the Signora's answer.
"I am sorry I can do nothing for your friend. You will tell her I have read her letter, and that I leave this place tomorrow morning."
She inclined her head as she said this, I suppose by way of indication that the Herr might accept his dismissal; and laid the letter on an ebony console beside her sofa. But the old German kept his ground.
"Signora", he said, tremulously, and my blossoms thrilled through all their delicate fibres with the indignant beating of his heart; do you know that letter comes from your sister? That she is poor, in want, widowed, and almost dying ? "
Carlotta Néro lifted her pencilled eyebrows.
"Indeed ? " she said. "I am pained to hear it. Still I cannot do anything for her. You may tell her so."
"Signora, I beg you to consider. Will you suffer the — the fault of ten years ago to bear weight upon your sisterly kindness, — your human compassion and sympathy, now?"
"Excuse me, Herr Ritter, I think you are talking romance. I have no sisterly kindness, no compassion, no sympathy, for any one of — of this description."
She motioned impatiently towards the letter on the console; and I thought she spoke the truth.
Herr Ritter was speechless.
"Dolores chose her own path," said the innkeeper's wife, seeing that her visitor still waited for something more, " and she has no right to appeal to me now. She disgraced herself deliberately, and she must take the consequences of her own act. I will not move a finger to help her out of a condition into which she wilfully degraded herself, in spite of my most stringent remonstrances. All imprudence brings its own punishment, and she must bear hers as other foolish people have to do. She is not the only widow in the world, and she might be worse off than she is; a great deal."
"I am to tell her this" — asked Herr Ritter, recovering himself with a prodigious effort — "from — you ? "
"As you please", returned the great lady, still in the same indifferent tone. " It will be useless for her to call here, I cannot see her; and besides, I leave tomorrow with my husband."
Again she bowed her head, and this time Herr Ritter obeyed the signal. I felt his great liberal heart heaving, — thump, thump, under the lapel of the old fusty coat; but I breathed my spirit into his face, and he said no more as he turned away than just a formal " Buon giorno, Signora."
"Silence is best", I whispered.
He went home to his little dark studio, where the sunlight so rarely entered, and where the big tomes and the skull and the fossils, and the picture of the beautiful girl and her crimson roses, greeted him with unchanged looks. All the room was pervaded with the aroma of the belladonna plant in the balcony, and all the soul of the old philosopher was filled with an atmosphere of silent liberality.
He stood before the book-shelves and laid his withered fingers falteringly upon the volumes, one after another. I knew already what was passing in his heart, and my rising perfume assisted the noble sacrifice. Then he lifted the books from their places, — one, two, three, — the volumes he prized the most, ancient classical editions that must have been an El Dorado of themselves to such a student and connoisseur as he. For a moment he lingered over the open pages with a loving, tremulous tenderness of look and touch, as though they had been faces of dear and life-long friends; then he turned and looked at the picture in the dark corner. A name rose to his lips; a soft-sounding German diminutive, but I hardly heard it for the exceeding bitterness of the sigh that caught and drowned the muttered utterance. But I knew that in that moment his liberal heart renounced a double sweetness, for surely he had cherished the gift of a dead love no less than he had treasured the noble work of immortal genius.
Then, with his books under his arm, he went silently out of the studio, and back again into the town, along many a dingy winding court, avoiding the open squares and the market-place, until we came to a tall dark-looking [Page 262] house in a narrow street. There Herr Ritter paused and entered, passing through a long vestibule into a spacious apartment at the back of the house, where there was a gentleman lounging in an easy attitude over the back of an arm-chair, from which he seemed to have just risen, and slashing with an ivory paper-knife the leaves of a book he was holding. The room in which we found ourselves had a curiously hybrid appearance, and I could not determine whether it were, indeed, part of a publisher's warehouse, or of a literary museum, or only the rather expansive sanctum of an opulent homme de lettres.
Herr Ritter laid down his three big volumes on a table that was absolutely littered from end to end with old manuscripts and curious fossilised-looking tomes in vellum covers.
"Ah, 'Giorno, Herr!" said the gentleman, looking up from his book; " what is that? "
He came towards us as he spoke, and opening the topmost volume of the pile which the old man had deposited on the table, examined the title-page.
"Sancta Maria! " cried he, his whole manner changing in a moment from easy indifference to earnest interest: " what, you will part with this after all ? Why, it is the same book I offered you two hundred pistoles for at Rome ! You wouldn't sell it then at any price, you said !"
"No, Signer, but I will now."
Ah, it was a generous martyrdom, but the pangs of it were very grievous; what wonder that the martyr sighed a little !
"The same price, then, Herr? Don't let us bargain about it. The
Eminenza is liberal in these things, you know; and you're poor, my friend,
He nodded at the old German with a sort of familiar patronage, as though he would have said, "Don't be modest, I'll stand by you !"
But the Herr seemed to notice neither words nor manner, though I thought the heart beneath the shabby coat recoiled at that instant somewhat unusually.
"The same price, if you please, Signor."
The Cardinal's agent, for such I guessed this tenderhearted individual before us to be, flashed a keen sudden glance of mingled scrutiny and surprise at the calm dignified face of the philosopher, whistled pleasantly a short aria of two notes, apparently with some design of assisting his mental digestion to victory over a tough morsel; and then turning to an iron-bound cash-box at his elbow, unlocked it, and produced therefrom the stipulated sum, which he counted out with much celerity, and forthwith handed to the old German. With tremulous fingers the Herr gathered up the money, as though it had been the price of a friend's betrayal, and drooped his noble head upon his breast, like a war-horse smitten to the heart in the passionate front of battle.
What he had done was registered in Heaven.
Herr Ritter did not go back to his lodgings then. He went past the low house with its green verandah, blistering under the fierce noon-sun, and across the pastures to the cottage of 'Lora Delcor. She was sitting at the open door, her thin transparent palms pressed tightly together, as though she were praying, and her great fringed eyelids dark and heavy with their burden of pain. Ah ! 'Lora ! 'Lora! " blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted!" Not in the world that men have made, [Page 264] daughter of earth, ah, not in that; but in the world that God shall make hereafter !
"Herr Ritter ! you have been ? O tell me what she said ! 'Tista is not here, he is gone into the woods to gather herbs."
"Have you told 'Tista anything ?"
"About this ? Nothing. I thought I would wait until I knew ------ "
She had risen from her seat to greet him, with painful agitation; and now she staggered, and I think would have fallen, but that the old man timely caught and held her in his gentle grasp.
"Be comforted, dear 'Lora", he whispered; "I bring you good news".
She dropped into her wooden chair and covered her face with her bloodless hands, weeping and sobbing for joy, as only women can who have suffered much and long and alone.
Herr Ritter stood by, watching her kindly, and stroking his white flowing beard in silence, until she had wept her fill; and her dark blissful eyes, dreamy with the mist of fallen tears, were lifted again to his face, like caverned pools in summer refreshed with a happy rain.
"What did she say? she sent me a note? a message?"
Herr Ritter poured his pistoles into her lap.
"I bring you these", said he, simply.
" Jesu-Maria ! She sent me all this ! how good ! how generous ! but ought I to take it, Herr?"
"It is for 'Tista; to pay his apprenticeship. But there is a
condition, dear Frau; 'Tista is not to know who sends him this gift. He is
to be told it comes from an unknown friend. When he is older he will know,
"My kind dear 'Lotta! Ah, she would have 'Tista learn to love her, then, before she tells him of her goodness ! For him I cannot refuse the money; can I. Herr? But I may go and thank her myself; I may go and thank her?"
"Not just yet, 'Lora. Your sister is obliged to leave this place tomorrow morning; Signor Néro's engagements compel him to proceed; and so for the present time she charged me to bear you with the gift, her greeting, and her farewell."
He was looking at her with grave mild eyes, while he leant against the cottage-wall and stroked his silver beard.
Daughter of earth, let God be judge; for He alone understands the heart of mortal man. As for me, I am only a flower of the dust of the ground, yet I confess I thought the deceit the old philosopher used, at least more graceful and gentle than the candour of Carlotta Néro.
'"Lora: you are happy now?"
She looked up and smiled in his eyes.
In that smile the philosopher had his reward.
Soon afterwards Battista Delcor was apprenticed to a chemist
in the town, and the cup of his content was filled to the brim; but as yet,
neither his mother nor Herr Ritter told him the name of his unknown friend.
Then it grew towards the end of summer, and the ferns and the brake began to
tarnish in the woodlands, and Dolores Delcor sickened, and failed, and whitened
more and more from day to day, till at last she could do no work at all, but
lived only at the hands of 'Tista and Herr Ritter. [Page
As for me, I blossomed still in the balcony beneath the green verandah, looking always into the dark studio, and noting how, one by one, the tall musty books upon the old German's shelves were bartered away for gold.
But one morning, just at dawn, the woman of that sorrowful name and dolorous life passed away into her rest, while she slept. And when "Tista, with his heart almost breaking for grief, came at the hour of sunrise to tell Herr Ritter that she was dead, the old man looked out across the hazy blue of the eastern reaches at the sea of golden splendour breaking beyond them, and answered only in his quiet patient way, that he had known it could not be for long.
I heard the words and understood them, but to the boy they meant nothing.
Then there came a night when the shelves stood empty, save for the skull and the fossils, and Herr Ritter wore a strange luminous aspect upon his placid face, that was not of the shadows nor of the lights of earth. For five days he had broken no bread, and his strength had failed him for want and for age, and no friend had been to visit him. 'Tista, I suppose, had his business now, and of late his presence in the dark studio had become more and more rare; not that he was unkind, but that he was full of youth, and the vigorous love of youth; and the old man's talk was wearisome to ears that delighted in sounds of laughter and frolic. And besides all this, he did not know how much he owed to the old philosopher, for Herr Ritter still kept silence.
All the autumn day had been sultry, and the wind seemed to have fallen asleep in some remote corner of the sky, for there had scarce been air enough to stir the [Page 267] feathery tassels of the pasture grasses, and the stillness of drought and heat had been everywhere unbroken.
But when I looked towards the west at sun-down, I saw that all the long low horizon was shrouded in twirling cumuli, with tops of lurid flame; and great shafts of red tempestuous light, shot upward from the dying sun, launched themselves over the heavens, and hung there like fiery swords above a city of doom.
Herr Ritter sat up late that night, reading a packet of old worn-looking letters, which he had taken out of a small wooden box beneath his bed; and as he read them, burning them to tinder one by one in the flame of his lamp. A little torn morsel of a note, yellow with age, and half charred with the smoke of the destruction it had escaped, fluttered down from the table through the open casement, and fell in the balcony by my side. There were words on the paper, written in stiff German characters, orthodox and methodical in every turn and upstroke and formal pothook. They were these: —
"I distinctly refuse to give my daughter in marriage to a man who is so great a fool as to throw away his chances of wealth and fame for the sake of a mere whim. Yesterday you thought fit to decline a Professorship which was offered you, on account of a condition being attached to your acceptance of it. You fancied you could not honestly fulfil that condition, and you lost your promotion. Very well: you have also lost my daughter. I see plainly that you will never be rich, for you will never get on in the world, and no child of mine shall be wife to you. Consider your engagement with her at an end."
Alas ! In this, then, was the story of the crimson roses !
It was far into the night when the last letter dropped to powder upon the table, and the old German, not pausing to undress, laid himself wearily down upon the little bed in the dark corner to take his rest. The oil of the lamp was well-nigh spent then, and its languid flame quivered dimly upon the wan starved hands that were folded above the rusty coat, and on the noble face with its pale closed eyelids and patient lips, stedfast and calm as the face of a marble king. Over his head the beautiful woman and her crimson flowers ever and anon brightened in the fitful leaping light, and shone like a beacon of lost hope upon a life that had been wrecked and cast adrift in a night of storm.
He died as he had lived, in silence; and his death was the sacrifice of a martyr, the fall of a warrior at his post.
Then the tempest broke over all the Piedmont lands, and the wind arose as a giant refreshed with his rest, and drove the dark thunder-clouds upward before the sounding pinions of his might like demon hounds upon the track of a flying world. Then came the sharp swift hiss of the stinging hail and rain, arid the baying of the hurricane, and the awful roll of the storm that shook the whole broad heaven from end to end. Strange ! that in the tumult of such a wild and terrible night as this, so gentle and so calm a soul should be destined to pass away!
Once again for a single instant I saw him, in the midst of a dazzling flash of lightning that showed me, clear and distinct as in a mirror, the whole of the silent chamber where the lamp had gone out, and the charred tinder of the burnt letters was scattered over the wooden table.
He lay motionless upon the white draped bed, a hero [Page 269] slain in the hour of his triumph, with broad chivalrous brows and tranquil lips, whence speech had fled for ever, grand and serene in the repose of a sleep that, like 'Lora's, had borne him away into peace.
For him there was no longer storm, nor darkness, nor conflict. He beheld his God face to face in the light of the Perfect Day.
Slowly at last, beyond the farthest bounds of the dull landscape, broke the white ghostly lines of dawn; and the shouting of the wind, and the rage of the chattering tempest fled down the watery sky with the flying scuds of cloud, away into the distant horizon of the west. But the belladonna-plant lay dead on the stones of the balcony, torn and beaten by the hail and the wind, its trailing stem and clinging tendrils seared with the lightning, its purple blooms scattered among the shards of the broken flower-pot and the burnt tinder on the floor of the desolate studio.
High above the white front of the coming morning, the wind, returning into the bosom of God, bore upon its limitless wings a twofold burden, the spirit of a perished flower, the oblation of a Gentle Life.
The grave, sonorous intonation sank and ended as it had begun, like the organ-roll of minor cadences; and the countenance of the phantom grew indistinct and fluctuating, till it seemed to blend with the sombre purple atmosphere that surrounded us. But as I perceived her bright eyes still fastened upon my face, I lifted my hands imploringly towards the floating presence, and would fain have caught her fading impalpable garments.
Spirit! I cried, " one question more ! The boy 'Tista
surely came with the morning, and learned at last, [Page
270] even though too late, who had been his unknown friend?"
Daughter of mortality, returned the dying voice of the phantom, " I cannot tell. That night my mission upon earth was ended. But some of my sister-flowers, which bloom about the graves of the dead, have sent me messages from time to time by the breath of God's messenger, the errant breeze of heaven. And they tell me that a certain rich chemist of a large town in Piedmont, a handsome prosperous young man, named Battista Delcor, has caused a great white cross to be set above the resting-place of Herr Ritter. And upon the base of the cross these words are graven in letters of gold: " Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this; to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world."
And again, " Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me".
strictly, neither a dream nor a dream-story, this paper is
included by the express wish of its writer, the interpretations contained
in it being largely the product of instructions received by her in sleep.
Ed] The Catholic tale of St George, our national patron and champion,
was once of world-wide renown. But since our youth have taken to reading Mill
and Huxley, Spencer and Darwin, in place of the old books wherein their ancestors
took delight, the romances of the Paladins and the knights-errant of Christian
chivalry lie somewhat rusty in the memories of the present generation. I propose,
then, first to recite the legend of the great St George and his famous conquest,
and next to offer an interpretation of the story after the esoteric manner. According to Catholic legend, St George was born in Cappadocia,
and early in the fourth century came to Lybia in quest of chivalrous adventure.
For this great saint was the noblest and bravest knight-errant the ranks of
chivalry have ever known, and the fame of his prowess [Page
273] in arms vied with the glory of his virtue, and made his
name a terror to all evil-doers the wide world over. In Lybia there was, in those days, a city called Silena, near
whose walls lay a great lake, inhabited by a monstrous and fearsome dragon.
Many a redoubted knight had fallen in conflict with this terrible beast; none
had obtained the least advantage over it; and now for a long time it had laid
waste and ravaged all the country round, no man daring to attack or hinder
it. Every day for many a long year past the miserable inhabitants of Silena
had delivered up to the dragon a certain number of sheep or kine from their
herds, so that at least the monster might be appeased without the sacrifice
of human life. At last all the flocks and the kine were devoured, and the townspeople
found themselves reduced to a terrible strait. The dragon besieged the walls
of the city, and infected all the air with his poisonous breath, so that many
persons died, as though smitten by a pestilence. Then, in order to save the
people, lots were cast among all those who had children and he to whom the
die fell was forced to give a son or daughter to the monster. This terrible
state of things had already continued for some time, when one day the fatal
lot fell to the king, none being exempted from the tax. Now the king had an only child, a fair and virgin daughter. To
save her from so horrible a doom he offered to any man who would redeem the
tax, his crown, his kingdom, and all his wealth. But the people would hear
of no exchange. They demanded that the king should bear the stroke of fate
in common with the meanest citizen. Then the king asked for a reprieve of eight
days to lament his child and prepare her for her [Page
274] death. Meanwhile the dragon, infuriated at the unusual delay,
hung continually about the city gates, expecting his victim, and poisoned all
the sentinels and men-at-arms who guarded the walls. Wherefore the people sent
messengers to the king and reproached him with his faint-heartedness. " Why",
said they, " do you suffer your subjects to die for your daughter's sake? Why
doom us to perish daily by the poisonous breath of the dragon ? " Then the king, perceiving that he could put off the evil hour
no longer, clad his daughter in royal apparel, embraced her tenderly, and said, " Alas!
dear child, I thought to see my race perpetuated in thine heirs; I hoped to
have welcomed princes to thy nuptials; but now thou must perish in the flower
of thy youth, a sacrifice to this accursed monster! Why did not the Gods decree
my death before I brought thee into the world?" When the princess heard these sorrowful words she fell at her
father's feet, and, with tears, besought his blessing. Weeping, he gave it,
and folded her a last time in his arms. Then, followed by her afflicted women
and a great concourse of people, she was led like a lamb to the gates of the
city. Here she parted from her companions, the drawbridge was lowered across
the deep moat, and alone she passed forth and went towards the lake to meet
her destroyer. Now it chanced that just then St George, in his shining armour,
came riding by, and, seeing a fair damsel alone and in tears, he sprang from
his horse, and hastened to offer her his knightly service. But she only waved
him back, and cried, " Good sir, remount your steed and fly in haste, that
you perish not with me!" [Page
275] But to this the Saint responded, " Tell me first why thou
art here with such sad mien, and why this crowd of people on the city walls
gaze after us so fearfully." And the Princess answered him, " Thou hast, I
see, a great and noble heart; but make the more haste to be gone therefore.
It is not meet that one so good should die unworthily." "I will not go", returned the knight, "until thou tell me what
I seek to know". So she told him, weeping, all the woful tale; and St George made
answer with a brave heart, in a voice that all the townfolk on the walls could
hear, " Fear not, fair maid; in the name of Christ I will do battle for thee
against this dragon." Then the Princess loved him, and wrung her hands and cried, "Brave
knight, seek not to die with me; enough that I should perish. There is no man
living that can stand against this dragon. Thou canst neither aid nor deliver
me. Thou canst but share my doom." As she spoke the words, the waters of the lake divided, and the
monster rose from its depths and espied its prey. At that the virgin trembled,
and cried again, " Fly ! fly ! O knight! stay not to see me perish ! " For all answer St George flung himself upon his steed, made the
holy sign of the cross, and, commending himself to Christ, lowered his lance
and rushed full on the open jaws of the hideous beast. With such force he directed
his aim that the dragon was instantly overthrown, and lay, disabled and powerless,
at the feet of the saint. Then, with the words of a holy spell, St George cast
a great fear upon the monster, so that it was shorn of all its fury, and durst
not lift its body from the dust. Thereupon the blessed knight beckoned to the [Page
276] Princess to approach, and bade her loose her girdle, and,
without fear, bind it about the dragon's neck. And when this was done, behold,
the beast followed the maid, spell-bound, and thus they entered the city. But the people, when they saw the dragon approaching, fled tumultuously
on every side, crying out that they would all surely perish. St George therefore
struck off the monster's head with his sword, and bade them take heart and
fear nothing, because the Lord had given him grace over all evil things to
deliver the earth from plagues. So, when the people saw that the dragon was slain, they thronged
about St George, and kissed his hands and his robe; and the king embraced him
joyfully, praising his valour and prowess above the fame of all mortal men.
And when the saint had preached to them the faith of Christ, the whole city
was straightway baptised; and the king thereafter built a noble church to the
honour of our Lady and of the brave St George. And from the foot of the altar
flowed forth a marvellous stream, whose waters healed all manner of sickness;
so that for many a long year no man died in that city. Such is the legend of the patron saint of England, — a
legend reproduced in Spenser's poem of the Faëry Queen, wherein
St George appears as the Red Cross Knight, and the Princess as Una, the mystical
maid, who, after the overthrow of the dragon, becomes the bride of her champion.
DURING the last few years a growing interest in the subject of religious metaphysic has shown itself in certain strata of our intellectual world. This interest has taken many forms, and attached itself to many developments, some of which have been chiefly distinguished for [Page 271] eccentricity, and have attracted attention rather by this quality than by their intrinsic value as solid contributions to thought. Phrases, symbols, and expositions of theosophical doctrine gathered from sources unfamiliar to the ordinary Western mind, and requiring for their comprehension the study of a foreign tongue and of a strange and intricate psychology, task too much the intellect of a seeker trained in the Christian faith and seriously bent on the profitable study of its mysteries. Fain would he learn what are these mysteries without recourse to a foreign interpreter. His own Church, his own creed, he thinks, should teach him all that he seeks to know, and he cares not to set aside and reject names and symbols hallowed by the use of ages among his people, in favour of others new to his ear and tongue. If a revival of religious metaphysic is imminent among us, let it then be directed along the old channels worn deep by the prayers and aspirations of our fathers. Let us hear what the tradition of our faith has to unfold to us of arcane secrets, and to what mystic heights of transcendental thought the paths trodden by Christian saints can lead us. For the legends and visions of the saints are full of precious testimonies to the esoteric origin and nature of Catholic dogma; and the older and more venerable the tradition, the more fundamental and spiritual its character. Chiefest for us, and most important among such sacred legends, is that of St. George the Champion, not only because he is for English folk pre-eminent among the saintly throng celebrated by our Church as each November-tide comes round, but also because his story is thoroughly typical of the class of esoteric tradition in which Catholic truth and faith crystallised themselves in simpler and purer-hearted [Page 272] times than these. Students of religious mystic thought can scarce do better than turn to such a tale by way of proem to more elaborate research. There, in softened outlines and graceful language, they will find an exposition of the whole argument of spiritual metaphysics, and a complete vindication of the method of theosophy. At the outset of a new line of inquiry the mind is usually more quickened to interest by parable than by dissertation. All great religious teachers have recognised this fact, and have directed their instructions accordingly. Nor can those who care to pursue a systematic study of Christian mysticism afford to despise these poetic embodiments.
The highest form of thought is, after all, imaginative. Man ends, as he begins, with images. Truth in itself is unutterable. The loftiest metaphysic is as purely symbolic as the popular legend.
The Catholic tale of St George, our national patron and champion, was once of world-wide renown. But since our youth have taken to reading Mill and Huxley, Spencer and Darwin, in place of the old books wherein their ancestors took delight, the romances of the Paladins and the knights-errant of Christian chivalry lie somewhat rusty in the memories of the present generation. I propose, then, first to recite the legend of the great St George and his famous conquest, and next to offer an interpretation of the story after the esoteric manner.
According to Catholic legend, St George was born in Cappadocia, and early in the fourth century came to Lybia in quest of chivalrous adventure. For this great saint was the noblest and bravest knight-errant the ranks of chivalry have ever known, and the fame of his prowess [Page 273] in arms vied with the glory of his virtue, and made his name a terror to all evil-doers the wide world over.
In Lybia there was, in those days, a city called Silena, near whose walls lay a great lake, inhabited by a monstrous and fearsome dragon. Many a redoubted knight had fallen in conflict with this terrible beast; none had obtained the least advantage over it; and now for a long time it had laid waste and ravaged all the country round, no man daring to attack or hinder it. Every day for many a long year past the miserable inhabitants of Silena had delivered up to the dragon a certain number of sheep or kine from their herds, so that at least the monster might be appeased without the sacrifice of human life. At last all the flocks and the kine were devoured, and the townspeople found themselves reduced to a terrible strait. The dragon besieged the walls of the city, and infected all the air with his poisonous breath, so that many persons died, as though smitten by a pestilence. Then, in order to save the people, lots were cast among all those who had children and he to whom the die fell was forced to give a son or daughter to the monster. This terrible state of things had already continued for some time, when one day the fatal lot fell to the king, none being exempted from the tax.
Now the king had an only child, a fair and virgin daughter. To save her from so horrible a doom he offered to any man who would redeem the tax, his crown, his kingdom, and all his wealth. But the people would hear of no exchange. They demanded that the king should bear the stroke of fate in common with the meanest citizen. Then the king asked for a reprieve of eight days to lament his child and prepare her for her [Page 274] death. Meanwhile the dragon, infuriated at the unusual delay, hung continually about the city gates, expecting his victim, and poisoned all the sentinels and men-at-arms who guarded the walls. Wherefore the people sent messengers to the king and reproached him with his faint-heartedness. " Why", said they, " do you suffer your subjects to die for your daughter's sake? Why doom us to perish daily by the poisonous breath of the dragon ? "
Then the king, perceiving that he could put off the evil hour no longer, clad his daughter in royal apparel, embraced her tenderly, and said, " Alas! dear child, I thought to see my race perpetuated in thine heirs; I hoped to have welcomed princes to thy nuptials; but now thou must perish in the flower of thy youth, a sacrifice to this accursed monster! Why did not the Gods decree my death before I brought thee into the world?"
When the princess heard these sorrowful words she fell at her father's feet, and, with tears, besought his blessing. Weeping, he gave it, and folded her a last time in his arms. Then, followed by her afflicted women and a great concourse of people, she was led like a lamb to the gates of the city. Here she parted from her companions, the drawbridge was lowered across the deep moat, and alone she passed forth and went towards the lake to meet her destroyer.
Now it chanced that just then St George, in his shining armour, came riding by, and, seeing a fair damsel alone and in tears, he sprang from his horse, and hastened to offer her his knightly service. But she only waved him back, and cried, " Good sir, remount your steed and fly in haste, that you perish not with me!" [Page 275] But to this the Saint responded, " Tell me first why thou art here with such sad mien, and why this crowd of people on the city walls gaze after us so fearfully." And the Princess answered him, " Thou hast, I see, a great and noble heart; but make the more haste to be gone therefore. It is not meet that one so good should die unworthily."
"I will not go", returned the knight, "until thou tell me what I seek to know".
So she told him, weeping, all the woful tale; and St George made answer with a brave heart, in a voice that all the townfolk on the walls could hear, " Fear not, fair maid; in the name of Christ I will do battle for thee against this dragon."
Then the Princess loved him, and wrung her hands and cried, "Brave knight, seek not to die with me; enough that I should perish. There is no man living that can stand against this dragon. Thou canst neither aid nor deliver me. Thou canst but share my doom."
As she spoke the words, the waters of the lake divided, and the monster rose from its depths and espied its prey. At that the virgin trembled, and cried again, " Fly ! fly ! O knight! stay not to see me perish ! "
For all answer St George flung himself upon his steed, made the holy sign of the cross, and, commending himself to Christ, lowered his lance and rushed full on the open jaws of the hideous beast. With such force he directed his aim that the dragon was instantly overthrown, and lay, disabled and powerless, at the feet of the saint. Then, with the words of a holy spell, St George cast a great fear upon the monster, so that it was shorn of all its fury, and durst not lift its body from the dust. Thereupon the blessed knight beckoned to the [Page 276] Princess to approach, and bade her loose her girdle, and, without fear, bind it about the dragon's neck. And when this was done, behold, the beast followed the maid, spell-bound, and thus they entered the city.
But the people, when they saw the dragon approaching, fled tumultuously on every side, crying out that they would all surely perish. St George therefore struck off the monster's head with his sword, and bade them take heart and fear nothing, because the Lord had given him grace over all evil things to deliver the earth from plagues.
So, when the people saw that the dragon was slain, they thronged about St George, and kissed his hands and his robe; and the king embraced him joyfully, praising his valour and prowess above the fame of all mortal men. And when the saint had preached to them the faith of Christ, the whole city was straightway baptised; and the king thereafter built a noble church to the honour of our Lady and of the brave St George. And from the foot of the altar flowed forth a marvellous stream, whose waters healed all manner of sickness; so that for many a long year no man died in that city.
Such is the legend of the patron saint of England, — a legend reproduced in Spenser's poem of the Faëry Queen, wherein St George appears as the Red Cross Knight, and the Princess as Una, the mystical maid, who, after the overthrow of the dragon, becomes the bride of her champion.
Need I recall to any student of classic story the resemblance between this sacred romance and that of the Greek hero Perseus, who rescued the fair Andromeda from the fangs of the sea-monster which would have [Page 277] devoured her? Or whose divine favour it was that directed and shielded the Argive champion; whose winged sandals bore him unharmed across sea and land; whose magic sword and helm armed and defended him ?
With all these symbols the name of HERMES is indissolubly connected. His are the Wings of Courage, the Rod of Science, and the Helmet of Secrecy. And his, too, is the Sword of Power, the strong and steadfast Will, by which the elemental forces are overcome and controlled, and the monsters of the abyss bound in obedience, — those spiritual dragons and chimeras that ravage the hopes of humanity and would fain devour the King's Daughter.
For Hermes — Archangel, Messenger of Heaven, and slayer of Argos the hundred-eyed (type of the stellar powers) — is no other than Thought: — Thought which alone exalts man above the beast, and sets him noble tasks to do and precious rewards to win, and lifts him at last to shine evermore with the gods above the starry heights of heaven.
All the heroes are sons of Hermes, for he is the Master and initiator
of spiritual chivalry. The heroes are the knights-errant of Greek legend. Like
St George and his six holy peers; like Arthur's knights; like the Teuton Siegfried,
the British Artegal, and many another saintly chevalier "sans peur
et sans reproche", the heroes of yet older days — Heracles, Bellerophon,
Theseus, Jason, Perseus — roamed the earth under divine guidance, waging
ceaseless warfare with tyranny and wrong; rescuing and avenging the oppressed,
destroying the agents of hell, and everywhere delivering mankind from the devices
of terrorism, thrall, and the power of darkness. [Page
The divine Order of Chivalry is the enemy of ascetic isolation and indifferentism. It is the Order of the Christ who goes about doing good. The Christian knight, mounted on a valiant steed (for the horse is the symbol of Intelligence), and equipped with the panoply of Michael, is the type of the spiritual life, — the life of heroic and active charity.
All the stories about knights and dragons have one common esoteric meaning. The dragon is always Materialism in some form; the fearsome, irrepressible spirit of Unbelief, which wages war on human peace and blights the hopes of all mankind. In most of these tales, as in the typical legend of St George, there is a princess to be delivered, — a lady, sweet and lovely, whose sacrifice is imminent at the moment of her champion's arrival on the scene. By this princess is intended the Soul: — the Woman of Holy Writ, and the central figure of all sacred dramatic art of every date and country. That the allegory is of such wide and ancient repute, proves the identity of the needs and troubles of humanity throughout the ages. Yet one cannot fail to be struck with its special bearing on the present state of thought. It seems, indeed, as though the story of St George and the Dragon might have been written yesterday, and dedicated to the men and women of our own times. Never, surely, has the dragon ravaged and despoiled the earth as he does now. When at first he came upon us, it was not much that the monster's appetite demanded. It was satisfied with the sacrifice of a few superstitions and antique beliefs, which we could well spare, and the loss of which did not greatly affect us. These were the mere sheep and kine of our outlying pastures. But at length all these were swept [Page 279] away, and the genius of Materialism remained unsatisfied. Then we began, reluctantly, to yield up to it far more precious things, — our religious convictions, our hold on sacred Scriptures, our trust in prayer, our confidence in heavenly providence, — the very children of our hearts, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, endeared to us by the hereditary faith which had become even as nature itself. All these we gave and with tears; many of them had made life lovely and desirable to us, and without them our hearth seemed desolate. But complaint and resistance we knew to be in vain; materialistic science devoured them one by one; none were left in all that ancient city, the Human Kingdom, whose ruler and monarch is Mind. This our sovereign — Mind — had hitherto cherished with fond delight one lovely and only child, the Soul. He believed that she would survive and perpetuate him, and that for ever her heirs should sit on the throne of his kingdom. To part with her would be blight and ruin to all his hopes and aspirations. Better that he should never have drawn, breath than that he should be forced to see the child he had brought into the world perish before his eyes.
Still, with ominous persistence the terrible monster hangs about the gates of the city. All the air is filled with the pestilent effluvium of his nostrils. Relentless, indeed, is this pessimistic science. It demands the sacrifice of the Soul itself, the last lovely and precious thing remaining to despoiled humanity. Into the limbo of those horrid jaws must be swept — with all other and meaner beliefs and hopes — faith in the higher Self-hood and its immortal Life. The Soul must perish ! Despair seizes the Mind of man. For some time he resists the cruel demand; he produces argument after argument, [Page 280] appeal after appeal. All are unavailing. Why should the Soul be respected where nothing else is spared? Forced into surrender, the Mind at last yields up his best-beloved. Life is no more worth living now; black death and despair confront him; he cares no longer to be ruler over a miserable kingdom bereft of its fairest treasure, its only hope. For of what value to man is the Mind without the Soul ?
Poor and puny now indeed the crown, the wealth, the royalty of Mind. Their value lay alone in this, that some day they should devolve on her, that for her they were being garnered and stored and cherished.
So the dragon triumphs; and the Soul, cast out of the city, stands face to face with the black abyss, expecting her Destroyer.
Then, even at that last and awful hour, the Divine Deliverer appears, the Son of Hermes, Genius of Interpretation, Champion of the Spiritual Life. As Hercules slew the Hydra, the Lion, and many another noxious thing; as Theseus the Minotaur, as Bellerophon the Chimera, as Rama the Ogre Ravan, as David the Giant, as Perseus the Gorgon and Sea-monster, so St George slays the Dragon and rescues from its insatiable clutch the hope and pride of humanity.
This hero of so many names is the Higher Reason; the Reason that knows (gnosis) as distinguished from the Lower Reason of mere opinion (doxa). He is no earthly warrior. He carries celestial arms, and bears the ensigns of the God.
Thus the commemoration of St George, and of the famous legend of which he is the hero, involves the praise of all valiant knights of the Hermetic art throughout the ages. Every divine man who has carried the enchanted [Page 281] sword, or worn the sandals of the winged God, who has fought with monsters and championed the King's daughter — Una, the one peerless maid — is celebrated in the person of our national patron saint. The Order to which he belongs is a Spiritual Order of the Garter, or Girdle of the Virgin; and its ensign is the armed chevalier trampling under his horse's hoofs the foul and furious agent of the nether world.
The idea of knighthood implies that of activity. The pattern saint and flower of chivalry is one who gladly fights and would as gladly die in noble causes. The words pronounced of old times on the dubbing of a knight, Be gentle, valiant, and fortunate, are not words which could realise themselves in the dullard or the churl. To the good knight, the ardent love of beauty, in all its aspects, is indispensable. The fair lady of his dreams is the spiritual bright-shining of goodness, which expresses itself to him fitly and sweetly in material and visible things. Hence he is always poet, and fighter in some cause. And he is impelled to fight because the love of beauty burns so hot within him that he cannot abide to see it outraged. His very gentleness of heart is the spur of his valour. Champion and knight as well as thinker and student, the Son of Hermes is of necessity a reformer of men, a redeemer of the world. It is not enough for him to know the doctrine, he must likewise do the will of the gods, and bid the kingdom of the Lord come upon earth without, even as in the heaven within his heart.
For the rule of his Order is the Law of Love, and "Love seeketh not her own".
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