"So the instincts which blossom out thickly over the nature of modern man to themselves are mute. The flower exhibits itself at the tip of the vine; the instinct develops itself at the farthest outreach of life; and the point where it clamors for satisfaction is at the greatest possible distance from its birthplace. For all these instincts send their roots down through the mould of the uncivilized, down through the mould of the primitive, down into the mould of the underhuman—that ancient playhouse dedicated to low tragedies.
"While this may seem to you to be going far for a commencement of the story, it is coming near to us. The kind of man and woman we are to ourselves; the kind of husband and wife we are to each other; the kind of father and mother we are to our children; the kind of human beings we are to our fellow beings—the passions which swell as with sap the buds of those relations until they burst into their final shapes of conduct are fed from the bottom of the world's mould. You and I to-night are building the structures of our moral characters upon life-piles that sink into fathomless ooze. All we human beings dip our drinking cups into a vast delta sweeping majestically towards the sea and catch drops trickling from the springs of creation.
"It is in a vast ancestral country, a Fatherland of Old Desire, that my story lies for you and for me: drawn from the forest and from human nature as the two have worked in the destiny of the earth. I have wrested it from this Tree come out of the ancient woods into the house on this Night of the Nativity."
He made the scholar's pause and resumed, falling into the tone of easy narrative. It had already become evident that this method of telling the story would be to find what Alpine flowers he could for her amid Alpine snows.
He told her then that the oldest traceable influence in the life of the human race is the sea. It is true that man in some ancestral form was rocked in the cradle of the deep; he rose from the waves as the islanded Greeks said of near Venus. Traces of this origin he still bears both in his body and his emotions; and together they make up his first set of memories—Sea Memories.
He deliberated a moment and then put the truth before her in a single picturesque phrase:
"Man himself is a closed living sea-shell in the chambers of which the hues of the first ocean are still fresh and its tempests still are sounding."
Next he told her how man's last marine ancestor quit one day the sea never again to return to the deep, crossed the sands of the beach and entered the forest; and how upon him, this living sea-shell, soft to impressions, the Spirit of the Forest fell to work, beginning to shape it over from sea uses to forest uses.
A thousand thousand ages the Spirit of the Forest worked at the sea-shell.
It remodelled the shell as so much clay; stood it up and twisted and branched it as young pliant oak; hammered it as forge-glowing iron; tempered it as steel; cast it as bronze; chiselled it as marble; painted it as a cloud; strung and tuned it as an instrument; lit it up as a life tower—the world's one beacon: steadily sending it onward through one trial form after another until at last had been perfected for it that angelic shape in which as man it was ever afterwards to sob and to smile.
And thus as one day a wandering sea-shell had quit the sea and entered the forest, now on another day of that infinite time there reappeared at the edge of the forest the creature it had made. On every wall of its being internal and external forest-written; and completely forest-minded: having nothing but forest knowledge, forest feeling, forest dreams, forest fancies, forest faith; so that in all it could do or know or feel or dream or imagine or believe it was forest-tethered.
At the edge of the forest then this creature uncontrollably impelled to emerge from the waving green sea of leaves as of old it had been driven to quit the rolling blue ocean of waters: Man at the dawn of our history of him.
And if the first set of race memories—Sea Memories—still endure within him, how much more powerful are the second set—the Forest Memories!
So powerful that since the dawn of history millions have perished as forest creatures only; so powerful that there are still remnant races on the globe which have never yet snapped the primitive tether and will become extinct as mere forest creatures to the last; so powerful that those highest races which have been longest out in the open—as our own Aryan race—have never ceased to be reached by the influence of the woods behind them; by the shadows of those tall morning trees falling across the mortal clearings toward the sunset.
These Master Memories, he said, filtering through the sandlike generations of our race, survive to-day as those pale attenuated affections which we call in ourselves the Love of Nature; these affections are inherited: new feelings for nature we have none. The writers of our day who speak of civilized man's love of nature as a developing sense err wholly. They are like explorers who should mistake a boundary for the interior of a continent. Man's knowledge of nature is modern, but it no more endows him with new feeling than modern knowledge of anatomy supplies him with a new bone or his latest knowledge about his blood furnishes him with an additional artery.
Old are our instincts and passions about Nature: all are Forest Memories.
But among the many-twisted mass of them there is one, he said, that contains the separate buried root of the story: Man's Forest Faith.
When the Spirit of the Forest had finished with the sea-shell, it had planted in him—there to grow forever—the root of faith that he was a forest child. His origin in the sea he had not yet discovered; the science of ages far distant in the future was to give him that. To himself forest-tethered he was also forest-born: he believed it to be his immediate ancestor, the creative father of mankind. Thus the Greeks in their oldest faith were tethered to the idea that they were descended from the plane tree; in the Sagas and Eddas the human race is tethered to the world-ash. Among every people of antiquity this forest faith sprang up and flourished: every race was tethered to some ancestral tree. In the Orient each succeeding Buddha of Indian mythology was tethered to a different tree; each god of the later classical Pantheon was similarly tethered: Jupiter to the oak, Apollo to the laurel, Bacchus to the vine, Minerva to the olive, Juno to the apple, on and on. Forest worship was universal—the most impressive and bewildering to modern science that the human spirit has ever built up. At the dawn of history began The Adoration of the Trees.
Then as man, the wanderer, walked away from his dawn across the ages toward the sunset bearing within him this root of faith, it grew with his growth. The successive growths were cut down by the successive scythes of time; but always new sprouts were put forth.
Thus to man during the earliest ages the divine dwelt as a bodily presence within the forest; but one final day the forest lost the Immortal as its indwelling creator.
Next the old forest worshipper peopled the trees with an intermediate race of sylvan deities less than divine, more than human; and long he beguiled himself with the exquisite reign and proximity of these; but the lesser could not maintain themselves in temples from which the greater had already been expelled, and they too passed out of sight down the roadway of the world.
Still the old forest faith would not let the wanderer rest; and during yet later ages he sent into the trees his own nature so that the woods became freshly endeared to him by many a story of how individuals of his own race had succeeded as tenants to the erstwhile habitations of the gods. Then this last panorama of illusion faded also, and civilized man stood face to face with the modern woods—inhabitated only by its sap and cells. The trees had drawn their bark close around them, wearing an inviolate tapestry across those portals through which so many a stranger to them had passed in and passed out; and henceforth the dubious oracle of the forest—its one reply to all man's questionings—became the Voice of its own Mystery.
After this the forest worshipper could worship the woods no more. But we must not forget that civilization as compared with the duration of human life on the planet began but yesterday: even our own Indo-European race dwells as it were on the forest edge. And the forest still reaches out and twines itself around our deepest spiritual truths: home—birth—love—prayer—death: it tries to overrun them all, to reclaim them. Thus when we build our houses, instinctively we attempt by some clump of trees to hide them and to shelter ourselves once more inside the forest; in some countries whenever a child is born, a tree is planted as its guardian in nature; in our marriage customs the forest still riots as master of ceremonies with garlands and fruits; our prayers strike against the forest shaped hi cathedral stone—memory of the grove, God's first temple; and when we die, it is the tree that is planted beside us as the sentinel of our rest. Even to this day the sight of a treeless grave arouses some obscure instinct in us that it is God-forsaken.
Yes, he said, whatsoever modern temple man has anywhere reared for his spirit, over the walls of it have been found growing the same leaf and tendril: he has introduced the tree into the ritual of every later world-worship; and thus he has introduced the evergreen into the ritual of Christianity.
This then is the meaning of the Christmas Tree and of its presence at the Nativity. At the dawn of history we behold man worshipping the tree as the Creator literally present on the earth; in our time we see him using that tree in the worship of the creative Father's Son come to earth in the Father's stead.
"On this evergreen in the room falls the radiance of these brief tapers of the night; but on it rests also the long light of that spiritual dawn when man began his Adoration of the Trees. It is the forest taking its place once more beside the long-lost Immortal."
Here he finished the first part of his story. That he should address her thus and that she thus should listen had in it nothing unusual for them. For years it had been his wont to traverse with her the ground of his lectures, and she shared his thought before it reached others. It was their high and equal comradeship. Wherever his mind could go hers went—a brilliant torch, a warming sympathy.
But to-night his words had fallen on her as withered leaves on a motionless figure of stone. If he was sensible of this change in her, he gave no sign. And after a moment he passed to the remaining part of the story.
"Thus far I have been speaking to you of the bare tree in wild nature: here it is loaded with decorations; and now I want to show you that they too are Forest Memories—that since the evergreen moved over into the service of Christianity, one by one like a flock of birds these Forest Memories have followed it and have alighted amid its branches. Everything here has its story. I am going to tell you in each case what that story is; I am going to interpret everything on the Christmas Tree and the other Christmas decorations in the room."
It was at this point that her keen attention became fixed on him and never afterwards wavered. If everything had its story, the mistletoe would have its; he must interpret that: and thus he himself unexpectedly had brought about the situation she wished. She would meet him at that symbolic bough: there be rendered the Judgment of the Years! And now as one sits down at some point of a road where a traveller must arrive, she waited for him there.
He turned to the Tree and explained briefly that as soon as the forest worshipper began the worship of the tree, he began to bring to it his offerings and to hang these on the boughs; for religion consists in offering something: to worship is to give. In after ages when man had learned to build shrines and temples, he still kept up his primitive custom of bringing to the altar his gifts and sacrifices; but during that immeasurable time before he had learned to carve wood or to set one stone on another, he was bringing his offerings to the grove—the only cathedral he had. And this to him was not decoration; it was prayer. So that in our age of the world when we playfully decorate the Christmas Tree it is a survival of grave rites in the worship of primitive man and is as ancient as forest worship itself.
And now he began.
With the pointer in his hand he touched the star at the apex of the fir. This, he said, was commonly understood to represent the Star of Bethlehem which guided the wise men of the East to the manger on the Night of the Nativity—the Star of the New Born. But modern discoveries show that the records of ancient Chaldea go back four or five thousand years before the Christian era; and as far back as they have been traced, we find the wise men of the East worshipping this same star and being guided by it in their spiritual wanderings as they searched for the incarnation of the Divine. They worshipped it as the star of peace and goodness and purity. Many a pious Wolfram in those dim centuries no doubt sang his evening hymn to the same star, for love of some Chaldean Elizabeth—both he and she blown about the desert how many centuries now as dust. Moreover on these records the star and the Tree are brought together as here side by side. And the story of the star leads backward to one of the first things that man ever worshipped as he looked beyond the forest: the light of the heavens floating in the depth of space—light that he wanted but could not grasp.
He touched the next object on the Tree—the candle under the star—and went on:
Imagine, he said, the forest worshipper as at the end of ages having caught this light—having brought it down in the language of his myth from heaven to earth: that is, imagine the star in space as having become a star in his hand—the candle: the star worshipper had now become also the fire worshipper. Thus the candle leads us back to the fire worshippers of ancient Persia—those highlands of the spirit seeking light. We think of the Christmas candle on the Tree as merely borrowed from the candle of the altar for the purpose of illumination; but the use of it goes back to a time when the forest worshipper, now also the fire worshipper, hung his lights on the trees, having no other altar. Far down toward modern times the temples of the old Prussians, for example, were oak groves, and among them a hierarchy of priests was ordained to keep the sacred fire perpetually burning at the root of the sacred oak.
He touched the third object on the tree—the cross under the candle—and went on:
"To the Christian believer the cross signifies one supreme event: Calvary and the tragedy of the Crucifixion. It was what the Marys saw and the apostles that morning in Gethsemane. But no one in that age thought of the cross as a Christian symbol. John and Peter and Paul and the rest went down into their graves without so regarding it. The Magdalene never clung to it with life-tired arms, nor poured out at the foot of it the benizon of her tears. Not until the third century after Christ did the Bishops assembled at Nice announce it a Christian symbol. But it was a sacred emblem in the dateless antiquity of Egypt. To primitive man it stood for that sacred light and fire of life which was himself. For he himself is a cross—the first cross he has ever known. The faithful may truly think of the Son of Man as crucified as the image of humanity. And thus ages before Christ, cross worship and forest worship were brought together: for instance, among the Druids who hunted for an oak, two boughs of which made with the trunk of the tree the figure of the cross; and on these three they cut the names of three of their gods and this was holy-cross wood."
He moved the pointer down until he touched the fourth object on the tree—the dove under the cross, and went on:
"In the mind of the Christian believer this represents the white dove of the New Testament which descended on the Son of Man when the heavens were opened. So in Parsifal the white dove descends, overshadowing the Grail. But ages before Christ the prolific white dove of Syria was worshipped throughout the Orient as the symbol of reproductive Nature: and to this day the Almighty is there believed to manifest himself under this form. In ancient Mesopotamia the divine mother of nature is often represented with this dove as having actually alighted on her shoulder or in her open hand. And here again forest worship early became associated with the worship of the dove; for, sixteen hundred years before Christ, we find the dove nurtured in the oak grove at Dodona where its presence was an augury and its wings an omen."
On he went, touching one thing after another, tracing the story of each backward till it was lost in antiquity and showing how each was entwined with forest worship.
He touched the musical instruments; the bell, the drum. The bell, he said, was used in Greece by the Priests of Bacchus in the worship of the vine. And vine worship was forest worship. Moreover, in the same oak grove at Dodona bells were tied to the oak boughs and their tinklings also were sacred auguries. The drum, which the modern boy beats on Christmas Day, was beaten ages before Christ in the worship of Confucius: the story of it dies away toward what was man's first written music in forgotten China. In the first century of the Christian era, on one of the most splendid of the old Buddhist sculptures, boys are represented as beating the drum in the worship of the sacred tree—once more showing how music passed into the service of forest faith.
He touched the cornucopia; and he traced its story back to the ram's horn—the primitive cup of libation, used for a drinking cup and used also to pour out the last product of the vine in honor of the vine itself—the forest's first goblet.
He touched the fruits and the flowers on the Tree: these were oldest of all, perhaps, he said; for before the forest worshipper had learned to shape or fabricate any offerings of his own skill, he could at least bring to the divine tree and hang on it the flower of spring, the wild fruit of autumn.
He kept on until only three things on the Tree were left uninterpreted; the tinsel, the masks, and the dolls. He told her that he had left these to the last for a reason: seemingly they were the most trivial but really the most grave; for by means of them most clearly could be traced the presence of great law running through the progress of humanity.
He drew her attention to the tinsel that covered the tree, draping it like a yellow moss. It was of no value, he said, but in the course of ages it had taken the place of the offering of actual gold in forest worship: a once universal custom of adorning the tree with everything most precious to the giver in token of his sacrifice and self-sacrifice. Even in Jeremiah is an account of the lading of the sacred tree with gold and ornaments. Herodotus relates that when Xerxes was invading Lydia, on the march he saw a divine tree and had it honored with golden robes and gifts. Livy narrates that when Romulus slew his enemy on the site of the Eternal City, he hung rich spoils on the oak of the Capitoline Hill. And this custom of decorating the tree with actual gold goes back in history until we can meet it coming down to us in the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece and in that of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Now the custom has dwindled to this tinsel flung over the Christmas Tree—the mock sacrifice for the real.
He touched the masks and unfolded the grim story that lay behind their mockery. It led back to the common custom in antiquity of sacrificing prisoners of war or condemned criminals or innocent victims in forest worship and of hanging their heads on the branches: we know this to have been the practice among Gallic and Teuton tribes. In the course of time, when such barbarity could be tolerated no longer, the mock countenance replaced the real.
He touched the dolls and revealed their sad story. Like the others, its long path led to antiquity and to the custom of sacrificing children in forest worship. How common this custom was the early literature of the human race too abundantly testifies. We encounter the trace of it in Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac—arrested by the command of Jehovah. But Abraham would never have thought of slaying his son to propitiate his God, had not the custom been well established. In the case of Jephthah's daughter the sacrifice was actually allowed. We come upon the same custom in the fate of Iphigenia—at a critical turning point in the world's mercy; in her stead the life of a lesser animal, as in Isaac's case, was accepted. When the protective charity of mankind turned against the inhumanity of the old faiths, then the substitution of the mock for the real sacrifice became complete. And now on the boughs of the Christmas Tree where richly we come upon vestiges of primitive rites only these playful toys are left to suggest the massacre of the innocent.
He had covered the ground; everything had yielded its story. All the little stories, like pathways running backward into the distance and ever converging, met somewhere in lost ages; they met in forest worship and they met in some sacrifice by the human heart.
And thus he drew his conclusion as the lesson of the night:
"Thus, Josephine, my story ends for you and for me. The Christmas Tree is all that is left of a forest memory. The forest worshipper could not worship without giving, because to worship is to give: therefore he brought his gifts to the forest—his first altar. These gifts, remember, were never, as with us, decorations. They were his sacrifices and self-sacrifices. In all the religions he has had since, the same law lives. In his lower religions he has sacrificed the better to the worse; in the higher ones he has sacrificed the worst to the best. If the race should ever outgrow all religion whatsoever, it would still have to worship what is highest in human nature and so worshipping, it would still be ruled by the ancient law of sacrifice become the law of self-sacrifice: it would still be necessary to offer up what is low in us to what is higher. Only one portion of mankind has ever believed in Jerusalem; but every religion has known its own Calvary."
He turned away from the Tree toward her and awaited her appreciation. She had sat watching him without a movement and without a word. But when at last she asked him a question, she spoke as a listener who wakens from a long revery.
"Have you finished the story for me?" she inquired.
"I have finished the story for you," he replied without betraying disappointment at her icy reception of it.
Keeping her posture, she raised one of her white arms above her head, turning her face up also until the swanlike curve of the white throat showed; and with quivering finger tips she touched some sprays of mistletoe pendent from the garland on the wall:
"You have not interpreted this," she said, her mind fixed on that sole omission.
"I have not explained that," he admitted.
She sat up, and for the first time looked with intense interest toward the manuscript on the table across the room.
"Have you explained it there?"
"I have not explained it there."
"But why?" she said with disappointment.
"I did not wish you to read that story, Josephine."
"But why, Frederick?" she inquired, startled into wonderment.
He smiled: "If I told you why, I might as well tell you the story."
"But why do you not wish to tell me the story?"
He answered with warning frankness: "If you once saw it as a picture, the picture would be coming back to you at times the rest of your life darkly."
She protested: "If it is dark to you, why should I not share the darkness of it? Have we not always looked at life's shadows together? And thus seeing life, have not bright things been doubly bright to us and dark things but half as dark?"
He merely repeated his warning: "It is a story of a crueler age than ours. It goes back to the forest worship of the Druids."
She answered: "So long as our own age is cruel, what room is left to take seriously the mere stories of crueler ones? Am I to shrink from the forest worship of the Druids? Is there any story of theirs not printed in books? Are not the books in libraries? Are they not put in libraries to be read? If others read them, may not I? And since when must I begin to dread anything in books? Or anything in life? And since when did we begin to look at life apart, we who have always looked at it with four eyes?"
"I have always told you there are things to see with four eyes, things to see with two, and things to see with none."
With sudden intensity her white arm went up again and touched the mistletoe.
"Tell me the story of this!" she pleaded as though she demanded a right. As she spoke, her thumb and forefinger meeting on a spray, they closed and went through it like a pair of shears; and a bunch of the white pearls of the forest dropped on the ridge of her shoulder and were broken apart and rolled across her breast into her lap.
He looked grave; silence or speech—which were better for her? Either, he now saw, would give her pain.
"Happily the story is far away from us," he said, as though he were half inclined to grant her request.
"If it is far away, bring it near! Bring it into the room as you brought the stories of the star and the candle and the cross and the dove and the others! Make it live before my eyes! Enact it before me! Steep me in it as you have steeped yourself!"
He held back a long time: "You who are so safe in good, why know evil?"
"Frederick," she cried, "I shall have to insist upon your telling me this story. And if you should keep any part of it back, I would know. Then tell it all: if it is dark, let each shadow have its shade; give each heavy part its heaviness; let cruelty be cruelty—and truth be truth!"
He stood gazing across the centuries, and when he began, there was a change in him; something personal was beginning to intrude itself into the narrative of the historian:
"Imagine the world of our human nature in the last centuries before Palestine became Holy Land. Athens stood with her marbles glistening by the blue AEgean, and Greek girls with fillets and sandals—the living images of those pale sculptured shapes that are the mournful eternity of Art—Greek girls were being chosen for the secret rites in the temple at Ephesus. The sun of Italy had not yet browned the little children who were to become the brown fathers and mothers of the brown soldiers of Caesar's legions; and twenty miles south of Rome, in the sacred grove of Dodona,—where the motions of oak boughs were auguries, and the flappings of the wings of white doves were divine messages, and the tinkling of bells in the foliage had divine meanings,—in this grove the virgins of Latium, as the Greek girls of Ephesus, were once a year appointed to undergo similar rites. To the south Pompeii, with its night laughter and song sounding far out toward the softly lapping Mediterranean and up the slopes of its dread volcano, drained its goblet and did not care, emptied it as often as filled and asked for nothing more. A little distance off Herculaneum, with its tender dreams of Greece but with its arms around the breathing image of Italy, slept—uncovered.
"Beyond Italy to the north, on the other side of the eternal snowcaps, lay unknown Gaul, not yet dreaming of the Caesar who was to conquer it; and across the wild sea opposite Gaul lay the wooded isle of Britain. All over that island one forest; in that forest one worship; in that worship one tree—the oak of England; and on that oak one bough—the mistletoe."
He spoke to her awhile about the oak, describing the place it had in the early civilizations of the human race. In the Old Testament it was the tree of the Hebrew idols and of Jehovah. In Greece it was the tree of Zeus, the most august and the most human of the gods. In Italy it was the tree of Jove, great father of immortals and of mankind. After the gods passed, it became the tree of the imperial Caesars. After the Caesars had passed, it was the oak that Michael Angelo in the Middle Ages scattered over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel near the creation of man and his expulsion from Paradise—there as always the chosen tree of human desire. In Britain it was the sacred tree of Druidism: there the Arch Druid and his fellow-priests performed none of their rites without using its leaves and branches: never anywhere in the world was the oak worshipped with such ceremonies and sacrifices as there.
Imagine then a scene—the chief Nature Festival of that forest worship: the New Year's day of the Druids.
A vast concourse of people, men and women and children, are on their way to the forest; they are moving toward an oak tree that has been found with mistletoe growing on it—growing there so seldom. As the excited throng come in sight of it, they hail it with loud cries of reverence and delight. Under it they gather; there a banquet is spread. In the midst of the assemblage one figure towers—the Arch Druid. Every eye is fixed fearfully on him, for on whomsoever his own eye may fall with wrath, he may be doomed to become one of the victims annually sacrificed to the oak.
A gold chain is around his neck; gold bands are around his arms. He is clad in robes of spotless white. He ascends the tree to a low bough, and making a hollow in the folds of his robes, he crops with a golden pruning hook the mistletoe and so catches it as it falls. Then it is blessed and scattered among the throng, and the priest prays that each one so receiving it may receive also the divine favor and blessing of which it is Nature's emblem. Two white bulls, the horns of which have never hitherto been touched, are now adorned with fillets and are slaughtered in sacrifice.
Then at last it is over, the people are gone, the forest is left to itself, and the New Year's ceremony of cutting the mistletoe from the oak is at an end.
Here he ended the story.
She had sat leaning far forward, her fingers interlocked and her brows knitted. When he stopped, she sat up and studied him a moment in bewilderment:
"But why did you call that a dark story?" she asked. "Where is the cruelty? It is beautiful, and I shall never forget it and it will never throw a dark image on my mind: New Year's day—the winter woods—the journeying throng—the oak—the bough—the banquet beneath—the white bulls with fillets on their horns—the white-robed priest—the golden sickle in his hand—the stroke that severs the mistletoe—the prayer that each soul receiving any smallest piece will be blessed in life's sorrows! If I were a great painter, I should like to paint that scene. In the centre should be some young girl, pressing to her heart what she believed to be heaven's covenant with her under the guise of a blossom. How could you have wished to withhold such a story from me?"
He smiled at her a little sadly.
"I have not yet told you all," he said, "but I have told you enough."
Instantly she bent far over toward him with intuitive scrutiny. Under her breath one word escaped:
It was the breath of a discovery—a discovery of something unknown to her.
"I am sparing you, Josephine!"
She stretched each arm along the back of the sofa and pinioned the wood in her clutch.
"Are you sparing me?" she asked in a tone of torture. "Or are you sparing yourself?"
The heavy staff on which he stood leaning dropped from his relaxed grasp to the floor. He looked down at it a moment and then calmly picked it up.
"I am going to tell you the story," he said with a new quietness.
She was aroused by some change in him.
"I will not listen! I do not wish to hear it!"
"You will have to listen," he said. "It is better for you to know. Better for any human being to know any truth than suffer the bane of wrong thinking. When you are free to judge, it will be impossible for you to misjudge."
"I have not misjudged you! I have not judged you! In some way that I do not understand you are judging yourself!"
He stepped back a pace—farther away from her—and he drew himself up. In the movement there was instinctive resentment. And the right not to be pried into—not even by the nearest.
The step which had removed him farther from her had brought him nearer to the Christmas Tree at his back. A long, three-fingered bough being thus pressed against was forced upward and reappeared on one of his shoulders. The movement seemed human: it was like the conscious hand of the tree. The fir, standing there decked out in the artificial tawdriness of a double-dealing race, laid its wild sincere touch on him—as sincere as the touch of dying human fingers—and let its passing youth flow into him. It attracted his attention, and he turned his head toward it as with recognition. Other boughs near the floor likewise thrust themselves forward, hiding his feet so that he stood ankle-deep in forestry.
This reunion did not escape her. Her overwrought imagination made of it a sinister omen: the bough on his shoulder rested there as the old forest claim; the boughs about his feet were the ancestral forest tether. As he had stepped backward from her, Nature had asserted the earlier right to him. In strange sickness and desolation of heart she waited.
He stood facing her but looking past her at centuries long gone; the first sound of his voice registered upon her ear some message of doom:
She buried her face in her hands.
"I cannot! I will not!"
"You will have to listen. You know that for some years, apart from my other work, I have been gathering together the woodland customs of our people and trying to trace them back to their origin and first meaning. In our age of the world we come upon many playful forest survivals of what were once grave things. Often in our play and pastimes and lingering superstitions about the forest we cross faint traces of what were once vital realities.
"Among these there has always been one that until recently I have never understood. Among country people oftenest, but heard of everywhere, is the saying that if a girl is caught standing under the mistletoe, she may be kissed by the man who thus finds her. I have always thought that this ceremony and playful sacrifice led back to some ancient rite—I could not discover what. Now I know."
In a voice full of a new delicacy and scarcely audible, he told her.
It is another scene in the forest of Britain. This time it is not the first day of the year—the New Year's day of the Druids when they celebrated the national festival of the oak. But it is early summer, perhaps the middle of May—May in England—with the young beauty of the woods. It is some hushed evening at twilight. The new moon is just silvering the tender leaves and creating a faint shadow under the trees. The hawthorn is in bloom—red and white—and not far from the spot, hidden in some fragrant tuft of this, a nightingale is singing, singing, singing.
Lifting itself above the smaller growths stands the young manhood of the woods—a splendid oak past its thirtieth year, representing its youth and its prime conjoined. In its trunk is the summer heat of the all-day sun. Around its roots is velvet turf, and there are wild violet beds. Its huge arms are stretched toward the ground as though reaching for some object they would clasp; and on one of these arms as its badge of divine authority, worn there as a knight might wear the colors of his Sovereign, grows the mistletoe. There he stands—the Forest Lover.
The woods wait, the shadows deepen, the hush is more intense, the moon's rays begin to be golden, the song of the nightingale grows more passionate, the beds of moss and violets wait.
Then the shrubbery is tremblingly parted at some place and upon the scene a young girl enters—her hair hanging down—her limbs most lightly clad—the flush of red hawthorn on the white hawthorn of her skin—in her eyes love's great need and mystery. Step by step she comes forward, her fingers trailing against whatsoever budding wayside thing may stay her strength. She draws nearer to the oak, searching amid its boughs for that emblem which she so dreads to find and yet more dreads not to find: the emblem of a woman's fruitfulness which the young oak—the Forest Lover—reaches down toward her. Finding it, beneath it with one deep breath of surrender she takes her place—the virgin's tryst with the tree—there to be tested.
Such is the command of the Arch Druid: it is obedience—submission to that test—or death for her as a sacrifice to the oak which she has rejected.
Again the shrubbery is parted, rudely pushed aside, and a man enters—a tried and seasoned man—a human oak—counterpart of the Forest Lover—to officiate at the test.
* * * * *
He was standing there in the parlor of his house and in the presence of his wife. But in fealty he was gone: he was in the summer woods of ancestral wandering, the fatherland of Old Desire.
He was the man treading down the shrubbery; it was his feet that started toward the oak; his eye that searched for the figure half fainting under the bough; for him the bed of moss and violets—the hair falling over the eyes—the loosened girdle—the breasts of hawthorn white and pink—the listening song of the nightingale—the silence of the summer woods—the seclusion—the full surrender of the two under that bough of the divine command, to escape the penalty of their own death.
The blaze of uncontrollable desire was all over him; the fire of his own story had treacherously licked him like a wind-bent flame. The light that she had not seen in his eyes for so long rose in them—the old, unfathomable, infolding tenderness. A quiver ran around his tense nostrils.
And now one little phrase which he had uttered so sacredly years before and had long since forgotten rose a second time to his lips—tossed there by a second tide of feeling. On the silence of the room fell his words:
"Bride of the Mistletoe!"
The storm that had broken over him died away. He shut his eyes on the vanishing scene: he opened them upon her.
He had told her the truth about the story; he may have been aware or he may not have been aware that he had revealed to her the truth about himself.
"This is what I would have kept from you, Josephine," he said quietly.
She was sitting there before him—the mother of his children, of the sleeping ones, of the buried ones—the butterfly broken on the wheel of years: lustreless and useless now in its summer.
She sat there with the whiteness of death.
V. THE ROOM OF THE SILENCES
The Christmas candles looked at her flickeringly; the little white candles of purity, the little red candles of love. The holly in the room concealed its bold gay berries behind its thorns, and the cedar from the faithful tree beside the house wall had need now of its bitter rosary.
Her first act was to pay what is the first debt of a fine spirit—the debt of courtesy and gratitude.
"It is a wonderful story, Frederick," she said in a manner which showed him that she referred to the beginning of his story and not to the end.
"As usual you have gone your own way about it, opening your own path into the unknown, seeing what no one else has seen, and bringing back what no one else ever brought. It is a great revelation of things that I never dreamed of and could never have imagined. I appreciate your having done this for me; it has taken time and work, but it is too much for me to-night. It is too new and too vast. I must hereafter try to understand it. And there will be leisure enough. Nor can it lose by waiting. But now there is something that cannot wait, and I wish to speak to you about that; Frederick, I am going to ask you some questions about the last part of the story. I have been wanting to ask you a long time: the story gives me the chance and—the right."
He advanced a step toward her, disengaging himself from the evergreen.
"I will answer them," he said. "If they can be answered."
And thus she sat and thus he stood as the questions and answers passed to and fro. They were solemn questions and solemn replies, drawn out of the deeps of life and sinking back into them.
"Frederick," she said, "for many years we have been happy together, so happy! Every tragedy of nature has stood at a distance from us except the loss of our children. We have lived on a sunny pinnacle of our years, lifted above life's storms. But of course I have realized that sooner or later our lot must become the common one: if we did not go down to Sorrow, Sorrow would climb to us; and I knew that on the heights it dwells best. That is why I wish to say to you to-night what I shall: I think fate's hour has struck for me; I am ready to hear it. Its arrow has already left the bow and is on its way; I open my heart to receive it. This is as I have always wished; I have said that if life had any greatest tragedy, for me, I hoped it would come when I was happiest; thus I should confront it all. I have never drunk half of my cup of happiness, as you know, and let the other half waste; I must go equally to the depth of any suffering. Worse than the suffering, I think, would be the feeling that I had shirked some of it, had stepped aside, or shut my eyes, or in any manner shown myself a cowardly soul."
After a pause she went over this subject as though she were not satisfied that she had made it clear.
"I have always said that the real pathos of things is the grief that comes to us in life when life is at its best—when no one is to blame—when no one has committed a fault—when suffering is meted out to us as the reward of our perfect obedience to the laws of nature. In earlier years when we used to read Keats together, who most of all of the world's poets felt the things that pass, even then I was wondering at the way in which he brings this out: that to understand Sorrow it must be separated from sorrows: they would be like shadows darkening the bright disk of life's clear tragedy, thus rendering it less bravely seen.
"And so he is always telling us not to summon sad pictures nor play with mournful emblems; not to feign ourselves as standing on the banks of Lethe, gloomiest of rivers; nor to gather wolf's bane and twist the poison out of its tight roots; nor set before us the cup of hemlock; nor bind about our temples the ruby grape of nightshade; nor count over the berries of the yew tree which guards sad places; nor think of the beetle ticking in the bed post, nor watch the wings of the death moth, nor listen to the elegy of the owl—the voice of ruins. Not these! they are the emblems of our sorrows. But the emblems of Sorrow are beautiful things at their perfect moment; a red peony just opening, a rainbow seen for an instant on the white foam, youth not yet faded but already fading, joy with its finger on his lips, bidding adieu.
"And so with all my happiness about me, I wish to know life's tragedy. And to know it, Frederick, not to infer it: I want to be told."
"If you can be told, you shall be told," he said.
She changed her position as though seeking physical relief and composure. Then she began:
"Years ago when you were a student in Germany, you had a college friend. You went home with him two or three years at Christmas and celebrated the German Christmas. It was in this way that we came to have the Christmas Tree in our house—through memory of him and of those years. You have often described to me how you and he in summer went Alpine climbing, and far up in some green valley girdled with glaciers lay of afternoons under some fir tree, reading and drowsing in the crystalline air. You told me of your nights of wandering down the Rhine together when the heart turns so intimately to the heart beside it. He was German youth and song and dream and happiness to you. Tell me this: before you lost him that last summer over the crevasse, had you begun to tire of him? Was there anything in you that began to draw back from anything in him? As you now look back at the friendship of your youth, have the years lessened your regret for him?"
He answered out of the ideals of his youth:
"The longer I knew him, the more I loved him. I never tired of being with him. Nothing in me ever drew back from anything in him. When he was lost, the whole world lost some of its strength and nobility. After all the years, if he could come back, he would find me unchanged—that friend of my youth!"
With a peculiar change of voice she asked next:
"The doctor, Herbert and Elsie's father, our nearest neighbor, your closest friend now in middle life. You see a great deal of the doctor; he is often here, and you and he often sit up late at night, talking with one another about many things: do you ever tire of the doctor and wish him away? Have you any feeling toward him that you try to keep secret from me? Can you be a perfectly frank man with this friend of your middle life?"
"The longer I know him the more I like him, honor him, trust him. I never tire of his companionship or his conversation; I have no disguises with him and need none."
"The children! As the children grow older do you care less for them? Do they begin to wear on you? Are they a clog, an interference? Have Harold and Elizabeth ceased forming new growths of affection in you? Do you ever unconsciously seek pretexts for avoiding them?"
"The older they grow, the more I love them. The more they interest me and tempt away from work and duties. I am more drawn to be with them and I live more and more in the thought of what they are becoming."
"Your work! Does your work attract you less than formerly? Does it develop in you the purpose to be something more or stifle in you the regret to be something less? Is it a snare to idleness or a goad to toil?"
"As the mariner steers for the lighthouse, as the hound runs down the stag, as the soldier wakes to the bugle, as the miner digs for fortune, as the drunkard drains the cup, as the saint watches the cross, I follow my work, I follow my work."
"Life, life itself, does it increase in value or lessen? Is the world still morning to you with your work ahead or afternoon when you begin to tire and to think of rest?"
"The world to me is as early morning to a man going forth to his work. Where the human race is from and whither it is hurrying and why it exists at all; why a human being loves what it loves and hates what it hates; why it is faithful when it could be unfaithful and faithless when it should be true; how civilized man can fight single handed against the ages that were his lower past—how he can develop self-renunciation out of selfishness and his own wisdom out of surrounding folly,—all these are questions that mean more and more. My work is but beginning and the world is morning."
"This house! Are you tired of it now that it is older? Would you rather move into a new one?"
"I love this house more and more. No other dwelling could take its place. Any other could be but a shelter; this is home. And I care more for it now that the signs of age begin to settle on it. If it were a ruin, I should love it best!"
She leaned over and looked down at the two setters lying at her feet.
"Do you care less for the dogs of the house as they grow older?"
"I think more of them and take better care of them now that their hunting days are over."
"The friend of your youth—the friend of your middle age—the children—your profession—the world of human life—this house—the dogs of the house—you care more for them all as time passes?"
"I care more for them all as time passes."
Then there came a great stillness in the room—the stillness of all listening years.
"Am I the only thing that you care less for as time passes?"
There was no reply.
"Am I in the way?"
There was no reply.
"Would you like to go over it all again with another?"
There was no reply.
She had hidden her face in her hands and pressed her head against the end of the sofa. Her whole figure shrank lower, as though to escape being touched by him—to escape the blow of his words. No words came. There was no touch.
A moment later she felt that he must be standing over her, looking down at her. She would respond to his hand on the back of her neck. He must be kneeling beside her; his arms would infold her. Then with a kind of incredible terror she realized that he was not there. At first she could so little believe it, that with her face still buried in one hand she searched the air for him with the other, expecting to touch him.
Then she cried out to him:
"Isn't there anything you can say to me?"
"Oh, Fred! Fred! Fred! Fred!"
In the stillness she began to hear something—the sound of his footsteps moving on the carpet. She sat up.
The room was getting darker; he was putting out the candles. It was too dark already to see his face. With fascination she began to watch his hand. How steady it was as it moved among the boughs, extinguishing the lights. Out they went one by one and back into their darkness returned the emblems of darker ages—the Forest Memories.
A solitary taper was left burning at the pinnacle of the Tree under the cross: that highest torch of love shining on everything that had disappeared.
He quietly put it out.
Yet the light seemed not put out, but instantly to have travelled through the open parlor door into the adjoining room, her bedroom; for out of that there now streamed a suffused red light; it came from the lamp near the great bed in the shadowy corner.
This lamp poured its light through a lampshade having the semblance of a bursting crimson peony as some morning in June the flower with the weight of its own splendor falls face downward on the grass. And in that room this soft lamp-light fell here and there on crimson winter draperies. He had been living alone as a bachelor before he married her. After they became engaged he, having watched for some favorite color of hers, had had this room redecorated in that shade. Every winter since she had renewed in this way or that way these hangings, and now the bridal draperies remained unchanged—after the changing years.
He replaced the taper against the wall and came over and stood before her, holding out his hands to help her rise.
She arose without his aid and passed around him, moving toward her bedroom. With arms outstretched guarding her but not touching her, he followed close, for she was unsteady. She entered her bedroom and crossed to the door of his bedroom; she pushed this open, and keeping her face bent aside waited for him to go in. He went in and she closed the door on him and turned the key. Then with a low note, with which the soul tears out of itself something that has been its life, she made a circlet of her white arms against the door and laid her profile within this circlet and stood—the figure of Memory.
Thus sometimes a stranger sees a marble figure standing outside a tomb where some story of love and youth ended: some stranger in a far land,—walking some afternoon in those quieter grounds where all human stories end; an autumn bird in the bare branches fluting of its mortality and his heart singing with the bird of one lost to him—lost to him in his own country.
On the other side of the door the silence was that of a tomb. She had felt confident—so far as she had expected anything—that he would speak to her through the door, try to open it, plead with her to open it. Nothing of the kind occurred.
Why did he not come back? What bolt could have separated her from him?
The silence began to weigh upon her.
Then in the tense stillness she heard him moving quietly about, getting ready for bed. There were the same movements, familiar to her for years. She would not open the door, she could not leave it, she could not stand, no support was near, and she sank to the floor and sat there, leaning her brow against the lintel.
On the other side the quiet preparations went on.
She heard him take off his coat and vest and hang them on the back of a chair. The buttons made a little scraping sound against the wood. Then he went to his dresser and took off his collar and tie, and he opened a drawer and laid out a night-shirt. She heard the creaking of a chair under him as he threw one foot and then the other up across his knee and took off his shoes and socks. Then there reached her the soft movements of his bare feet on the carpet (despite her agony the old impulse started in her to caution him about his slippers). Then followed the brushing of his teeth and the deliberate bathing of his hands. Then was audible the puff of breath with which he blew out his lamp after he had turned it low; and then,—on the other side of the door,—just above her ear his knock sounded.
The same knock waited for and responded to throughout the years; so often with his little variations of playfulness. Many a time in early summer when out-of-doors she would be reminded of it by hearing some bird sounding its love signal on a piece of dry wood—that tap of heart-beat. Now it crashed close to her ear.
Such strength came back to her that she rose as lightly as though her flesh were but will and spirit. When he knocked again, she was across the room, sitting on the edge of her bed with her palms pressed together and thrust between her knees: the instinctive act of a human animal suddenly chilled to the bone.
The knocking sounded again.
"Was there anything you needed?" she asked fearfully.
There was no response but another knock.
She hurriedly raised her voice to make sure that it would reach him.
"Was there anything you wanted?"
As no response came, the protective maternal instinct took greater alarm, and she crossed to the door of his room and she repeated her one question:
"Did you forget anything?"
Her mind refused to release itself from the iteration of that idea: it was some thing—not herself—that he wanted.
Her imagination, long oppressed by his silence, now made of his knock some signal of distress. It took on the authority of an appeal not to be denied. She unlocked the door and opened it a little way, and once more she asked her one poor question.
His answer to it came in the form of a gentle pressure against the door, breaking down her resistance. As she applied more strength, this was as gently overcome; and when the opening was sufficient, he walked past her into the room.
How hushed the house! How still the world outside as the cloud wove in darkness its mantle of light!
VI. THE WHITE DAWN
Day was breaking.
The crimson curtains of the bedroom were drawn close, but from behind their outer edges faint flanges of light began to advance along the wall. It was a clear light reflected from snow which had sifted in against the window-panes, was banked on the sills outside, ridged the yard fence, peaked the little gate-posts, and buried the shrubbery. There was no need to look out in order to know that it had stopped snowing, that the air was windless, and that the stars were flashing silver-pale except one—great golden-croziered shepherd of the thick, soft-footed, moving host.
It was Christmas morning on the effulgent Shield.
Already there was sufficient light in the room to reveal—less as actual things than as brown shadows of the memory—a gay company of socks and stockings hanging from the mantelpiece; sufficient to give outline to the bulk of a man asleep on the edge of the bed; and it exposed to view in a corner of the room farthest from the rays a woman sitting in a straight-backed chair, a shawl thrown about her shoulders over her night-dress.
He always slept till he was awakened; the children, having stayed up past their usual bedtime, would sleep late also; she had the white dawn to herself in quietness.
She needed it.
Sleep could not have come to her had she wished. She had not slept and she had not lain down, and the sole endeavor during those shattered hours had been to prepare herself for his awakening. She was not yet ready—she felt that during the rest of her life she should never be quite ready to meet him again. Scant time remained now.
Soon all over the Shield indoor merriment and outdoor noises would begin. Wherever in the lowlands any many-chimneyed city, proud of its size, rose by the sweep of watercourses, or any little inland town was proud of its smallness and of streets that terminated in the fields; whereever any hamlet marked the point at which two country roads this morning made the sign of the white cross, or homesteads stood proudly castled on woody hilltops, or warmed the heart of the beholder from amid their olive-dark winter pastures; or far away on the shaggy uplift of the Shield wherever any cabin clung like a swallow's nest against the gray Appalachian wall—everywhere soon would begin the healthy outbreak of joy among men and women and children—glad about themselves, glad in one another, glad of human life in a happy world. The many-voiced roar and din of this warm carnival lay not far away from her across the cold bar of silence.
Soon within the house likewise the rush of the children's feet would startle her ear; they would be tugging at the door, tugging at her heart. And as she thought of this, the recollection of old simple things came pealing back to her from behind life's hills. The years parted like naked frozen reeds, and she, sorely stricken in her womanhood, fled backward till she herself was a child again—safe in her father's and mother's protection. It was Christmas morning, and she in bare feet was tipping over the cold floors toward their bedroom—toward her stockings.
Her father and mother! How she needed them at this moment: they had been sweethearts all their lives. One picture of them rose with distinctness before her—for the wounding picture always comes to the wounded moment. She saw them sitting in their pew far down toward the chancel. Through a stained glass window (where there was a ladder of angels) the light fell softly on them—both silver-haired; and as with the voices of children they were singing out of one book. She remembered how as she sat between them she had observed her father slip his hand into her mother's lap and clasp hers with a steadfastness that wedded her for eternity; and thus over their linked hands, with the love of their youth within them and the snows of the years upon them, they sang together:
"Gently, Lord, O gently lead us * * * * * * "Through the changes Thou'st decreed us."
Her father and mother had not been led gently. They had known more than common share of life's shocks and violence, its wrongs and meannesses and ills and griefs. But their faith had never wavered that they were being led gently; so long as they were led together, to them it was gentle leading: the richer each in each for aught whereby nature or man could leave them poorer; the calmer for the shocks; the sweeter for the sour; the finer with one another because of life's rudenesses. In after years she often thought of them as faithful in their dust; and the flowers she planted over them and watered many a bright day with happy tears brought up to her in another form the freshness of their unwearied union.
That was what she had not doubted her own life would be—with him—when she had married him.
From the moment of the night before when he had forced the door open and entered her room, they had not exchanged any words nor a glance. He had lain down and soon fallen asleep; apparently he had offered that to her as for the moment at least his solution of the matter—that he should leave her to herself and absent himself in slumber.
The instant she knew him to be asleep she set about her preparations.
Before he awoke she must be gone—out of the house—anywhere—to save herself from living any longer with him. His indifference in the presence of her suffering; his pitiless withdrawal from her of touch and glance and speech as she had gone down into that darkest of life's valleys; his will of iron that since she had insisted upon knowing the whole truth, know it she should: all this left her wounded and stunned as by an incredible blow, and she was acting first from the instinct of removing herself beyond the reach of further humiliation and brutality.
Instinctively she took off her wedding ring and laid it on his dresser beside his watch: he would find it there in the morning and he could dispose of it. Then she changed her dress for the plainest heavy one and put on heavy walking shoes. She packed into a handbag a few necessary things with some heirlooms of her own. Among the latter was a case of family jewels; and as she opened it, her eyes fell upon her mother's thin wedding ring and with quick reverence she slipped that on and kissed it bitterly. She lifted out also her mother's locket containing a miniature daguerreotype of her father and dutifully fed her eyes on that. Her father was not silver-haired then, but raven-locked; with eyes that men feared at times but no woman ever.
His eyes were on her now as so often in girlhood when he had curbed her exuberance and guided her waywardness. He was watching as she, coarsely wrapped and carrying some bundle of things of her own, opened her front door, left her footprints in the snow on the porch, and passed out—wading away. Those eyes of his saw what took place the next day: the happiness of Christmas morning turned into horror; the children wild with distress and crying—the servants dumb—the inquiry at neighbors' houses—the news spreading to the town—the papers—the black ruin. And from him two restraining words issued for her ear:
Passionately she bore the picture to her lips and her pride answered him. And so answering, it applied a torch to her blood and her blood took fire and a flame of rage spread through and swept her. She stopped her preparations: she had begun to think as well as to feel.
She unpacked her travelling bag, putting each article back into its place with exaggerated pains. Having done this, she stood in the middle of the floor, looking about her irresolute: then responding to that power of low suggestion which is one of anger's weapons, she began to devise malice. She went to a wardrobe and stooping down took from a bottom drawer—where long ago it had been stored away under everything else—a shawl that had been her grandmother's; a brindled crewel shawl,—sometimes worn by superannuated women of a former generation; a garment of hideousness. Once, when a little girl, she had loyally jerked it off her grandmother because it added to her ugliness and decrepitude.
She shook this out with mocking eyes and threw it decoratively around her shoulders. She strode to the gorgeous peony lampshade and lifting it off, gibbeted it and scattered the fragments on the floor. She turned the lamp up as high as it would safely burn so that the huge lidless eye of it would throw its full glare on him and her. She drew a rocking chair to the foot of the bed and seating herself put her forefinger up to each temple and drew out from their hiding places under the mass of her black hair two long gray locks and let these hang down haglike across her bosom. She banished the carefully nourished look of youth from her face—dropped the will to look young—and allowed the forced-back years to rush into it—into the wastage, the wreckage, which he and Nature, assisting each other so ably, had wrought in her.
She sat there half-crazed, rocking noisily; waiting for the glare of the lamp to cause him to open his eyes; and she smiled upon him in exultation of vengeance that she was to live on there in his house—his house.
After a while a darker mood came over her.
With noiseless steps lest she awake him, she began to move about the room. She put out the lamp and lighted her candle and set it where it would be screened from his face; and where the shadow of the chamber was heaviest, into that shadow she retired and in it she sat—with furtive look to see whether he observed her.
A pall-like stillness deepened about the bed where he lay.
Running in her veins a wellnigh pure stream across the generations was Anglo-Saxon blood of the world's fiercest; floating in the tide of it passions of old family life which had dyed history for all time in tragedies of false friendship, false love, and false battle; but fiercest ever about the marriage bed and the betrayal of its vow. A thousand years from this night some wronged mother of hers, sitting beside some sleeping father of hers in their forest-beleaguered castle—the moonlight streaming in upon him through the javelined casement and putting before her the manly beauty of him—the blond hair matted thick on his forehead as his helmet had left it, his mouth reddening in his slumber under its curling gold—some mother of hers whom he had carried off from other men by might of his sword, thus sitting beside him and knowing him to be colder to her now than the moon's dead rays, might have watched those rays as they travelled away from his figure and put a gleam on his sword hanging near: a thousand years ago: some mother of hers.
It is when the best fails our human nature that the worst volunteers so often to take its place. The best and the worst—these are the sole alternatives which many a soul seems to be capable of making: hence life's spectacle of swift overthrow, of amazing collapse, ever present about us. Only the heroic among both men and women, losing the best as their first choice, fight their way through defeat to the standard of the second best and fight on there. And whatever one may think of the legend otherwise, abundant experience justifies the story that it was the Archangel who fell to the pit. The low never fall far: how can they? They already dwell on the bottom of things, and many a time they are to be seen there with vanity that they should inhabit such a privileged highland.
During the first of these hours which stretched for her into the tragic duration of a lifetime, it was a successive falling from a height of moral splendor; her nature went down through swift stages to the lowest she harbored either in the long channel of inheritance or as the stirred sediment of her own imperfections. And as is unfortunately true, this descent into moral darkness possessed the grateful illusion that it was an ascent into new light. All evil prompting became good suggestion; every injustice made its claim to be justification. She enjoyed the elation of feeling that she was dragging herself out of life's quicksands upward to some rock, where there might be loneliness for her, but where there would be cleanness. The love which consumed her for him raged in her as hatred; and hatred is born into perfect mastery of its weapons. However young, it needs not to wait for training in order to know how to destroy.
He presented himself to her as a character at last revealed in its faithlessness and low carnal propensities. What rankled most poignantly in this spectacle of his final self-exposure was the fact that the cloven hoof should have been found on noble mountain tops—that he should have attempted to better his disguise by dwelling near regions of sublimity. Of all hypocrisy the kind most detestable to her was that which dares live within spiritual fortresses; and now his whole story of the Christmas Tree, the solemn marshalling of words about the growth of the world's spirit—about the sacrifice of the lower in ourselves to the higher—this cant now became to her the invocation and homage of the practised impostor: he had indeed carried the Christmas Tree on his shoulder into the manger. Not the Manger of Immortal Purity for mankind but the manger of his own bestiality.
Thus scorn and satire became her speech; she soared above him with spurning; a frenzy of poisoned joy racked her that at the moment when he had let her know that he wanted to be free—at that moment she might tell him he had won his freedom at the cheap price of his unworthiness.
And thus as she descended, she enjoyed the triumph of rising; so the devil in us never lacks argument that he is the celestial guide.
Moreover, hatred never dwells solitary; it readily finds boon companions. And at one period of the night she began to look back upon her experience with a curious sense of prior familiarity—to see it as a story already known to her at second hand. She viewed it as the first stage of one of those tragedies that later find their way into the care of family physicians, into the briefs of lawyers, into the confidence of clergymen, into the papers and divorce courts, and that receive their final flaying or canonization on the stage and in novels of the time. Sitting at a distance, she had within recent years studied in a kind of altruistic absorption how the nation's press, the nation's science of medicine, the nation's science of law, the nation's practice of religion, and the nation's imaginative literature were all at work with the same national omen—the decay of the American family and the downfall of the home.
Now this new pestilence raging in other regions of the country had incredibly reached her, she thought, on the sheltered lowlands where the older traditions of American home life still lay like foundation rock. The corruption of it had attacked him; the ruin of it awaited her; and thus to-night she took her place among those women whom the world first hears of as in hospitals and sanitariums and places of refuge and in their graves—and more sadly elsewhere; whose misfortunes interested the press and whose types attracted the novelists.
She was one of them.
They swarmed about her; one by one she recognized them: the woman who unable to bear up under her tragedy soon sinks into eternity—or walks into it; the woman who disappears from the scene and somewhere under another name or with another lot lives on—devoting herself to memory or to forgetfulness; the woman who stays on in the house, giving to the world no sign for the sake of everything else that still remains to her but living apart—on the other side of the locked door; the woman who stays on without locking the door, half-hating, half-loving—the accepted and rejected compromise; the woman who welcomes the end of the love-drama as the beginning of peace and the cessation of annoyances; the woman who begins to act her tragedy to servants and children and acquaintances—reaping sympathy for herself and sowing ruin and torture—for him; the woman who drops the care of house, ends his comforts, thus forcing the sharp reminder of her value as at least an investment toward his general well-being; the woman who endeavors to rekindle dying coals by fanning them with fresh fascinations; the woman who plays upon jealousy and touches the male instinct to keep one's own though little prized lest another acquire it and prize it more; the woman who sets a watch to discover the other woman: they swarmed about her, she identified each.
And she dismissed them. They brought her no aid; she shrank from their companionship; a strange dread moved her lest they should discover her. One only she detached from the throng and for a while withdrew with her into a kind of dual solitude: the woman who when so rejected turns to another man—the man who is waiting somewhere near.
The man she turned to, who for years had hovered near, was the country doctor, her husband's tried and closest friend, whose children were asleep upstairs with her children. During all these years her secret had been—the doctor. When she had come as a bride into that neighborhood, he, her husband's senior by several years, was already well established in his practice. He had attended her at the birth of her first child; never afterwards. As time passed, she had discovered that he loved her; she could never have him again. This had dealt his professional reputation a wound, but he understood, and he welcomed the wound.
Many a night, lying awake near her window, through which noises from the turnpike plainly reached her, all earthly happiness asleep alongside her, she could hear the doctor's buggy passing on its way to some patient, or on its return from the town where he had patients also. Many a time she had heard it stop at the front gate: the road of his life there turned in to her. There were nights of pitch darkness and beating rain; and sometimes on these she had to know that he was out there.
Long she sat in the shadow of her room, looking towards the bed where her husband slept, but sending the dallying vision toward the doctor. He would be at the Christmas party; she would be dancing with him.
Clouds and darkness descended upon the plain of life and enveloped it. She groped her way, torn and wounded, downward along the old lost human paths.
The endless night scarcely moved on.
* * * * *
She was wearied out, she was exhausted. There is anger of such intensity that it scorches and shrivels away the very temptations that are its fuel; nothing can long survive the blast of that white flame, and being unfed, it dies out. Moreover, it is the destiny of a portion of mankind that they are enjoined by their very nobility from winning low battles; these always go against them: the only victories for them are won when they are leading the higher forces of human nature in life's upward conflicts.
She was weary, she was exhausted; there was in her for a while neither moral light nor moral darkness. Her consciousness lay like a boundless plain on which nothing is visible. She had passed into a great calm; and slowly there was borne across her spirit a clearness that is like the radiance of the storm-winged sky.
And now in this calm, in this clearness, two small white figures appeared—her children. Hitherto the energies of her mind had grappled with the problem of her future; now memories began—memories that decide more perhaps than anything else for us. And memories began with her children.
She arose without making any noise, took her candle, and screening it with the palm of her hand, started upstairs.
There were two ways by either of which she could go; a narrow rear stairway leading from the parlor straight to their bedrooms, and the broad stairway in the front hall. From the old maternal night-habit she started to take the shorter way but thought of the parlor and drew back. This room had become too truly the Judgment Seat of the Years. She shrank from it as one who has been arraigned may shrink from a tribunal where sentence has been pronounced which changes the rest of life. Its flowers, its fruits, its toys, its ribbons, but deepened the derision and the bitterness. And the evergreen there in the middle of the room—it became to her as that tree of the knowledge of good and evil which at Creation's morning had driven Woman from Paradise.
She chose the other way and started toward the main hall of the house, but paused in the doorway and looked back at the bed; what if he should awake in the dark, alone, with no knowledge of where she was? Would he call out to her—with what voice? Would he come to seek her—with what emotions? (The tide of memories was setting in now—the drift back to the old mooring.)
Hunt for her! How those words fell like iron strokes on the ear of remembrance. They registered the beginning of the whole trouble. Up to the last two years his first act upon reaching home had been to seek her. It had even been her playfulness at times to slip from room to room for the delight of proving how persistently he would prolong his search. But one day some two years before this, when she had entered his study about the usual hour of his return, bringing flowers for his writing desk, she saw him sitting there, hat on, driving gloves on, making some notes. The sight had struck the flowers from her hands; she swiftly gathered them up, and going to her room, shut herself in; she knew it was the beginning of the end.
The Shadow which lurks in every bridal lamp had become the Spectre of the bedchamber.
When they met later that day, he was not even aware of what he had done or failed to do, the change in him was so natural to himself. Everything else had followed: the old look dying out of the eyes; the old touch abandoning the hands; less time for her in the house, more for work; constraint beginning between them, the awkwardness of reserve; she seeing Nature's movement yet refusing to believe it; then at last resolving to know to the uttermost and choosing her bridal night as the hour of the ordeal.
If he awoke, would he come to seek her—with what feelings?
She went on upstairs, holding the candle to one side with her right hand and supporting herself by the banisters with her left. There was a turn in the stairway at the second floor, and here the candle rays fell on the face of the tall clock in the hallway. She sat down on a step, putting the candle beside her; and there she remained, her elbows on her knees, her face resting on her palms; and into the abyss of the night dropped the tranquil strokes. More memories!
She was by nature not only alive to all life but alive to surrounding lifeless things. Much alone in the house, she had sent her happiness overflowing its dumb environs—humanizing these—drawing them toward her by a gracious responsive symbolism—extending speech over realms which nature has not yet awakened to it or which she may have struck into speechlessness long aeons past.
She had symbolized the clock; it was the wooden God of Hours; she had often feigned that it might be propitiated; and opening the door of it she would pin inside the walls little clusters of blossoms as votive offerings: if it would only move faster and bring him home! The usual hour of his return from college was three in the afternoon. She had symbolized that hour; one stroke for him, one for her, one for the children—the three in one—the trinity of the household.
She sat there on the step with the candle burning beside her.
The clock struck three! The sound went through the house: down to him, up to the children, into her. It was like a cry of a night watch: all is well!
It was the first sound that had reached her from any source during this agony, and now it did not come from humanity, but from outside humanity; from Time itself which brings us together and holds us together as long as possible and then separates us and goes on its way—indifferent whether we are together or apart; Time which welds the sands into the rock and then wears the rock away to its separate sands and sends the level tide softly over them.
Once for him, once for her, once for the children! She took up the candle and went upstairs to them.
For a while she stood beside the bed in one room where the two little girls were asleep clasping each other, cheek against cheek; and in another room at the bedside of the two little boys, their backs turned on one another and each with a hand doubled into a promising fist outside the cover. In a few years how differently the four would be divided and paired; each boy a young husband, each girl a young wife; and out of the lives of the two of them who were hers she would then drop into some second place. If to-night she were realizing what befalls a wife when she becomes the Incident to her husband, she would then realize what befalls a woman when the mother becomes the Incident to her children: Woman, twice the Incident in Nature's impartial economy! Her son would playfully confide it to his bride that she must bear with his mother's whims and ways. Her daughter would caution her husband that he must overlook peculiarities and weaknesses. The very study of perfection which she herself had kindled and fanned in them as the illumination of their lives they would now turn upon her as a searchlight of her failings.
He downstairs would never do that! She could not conceive of his discussing her with any human being. Even though he should some day desert her, he would never discuss her.
She had lived so secure in the sense of him thus standing with her against the world, that it was the sheer withdrawal of his strength from her to-night that had dealt her the cruelest blow. But now she began to ask herself whether his protection had failed her. Could he have recognized the situation without rendering it worse? Had he put his arms around her, might she not have—struck at him? Had he laid a finger-weight of sympathy on her, would it not have left a scar for life? Any words of his, would they not have rung in her ears unceasingly? To pass it over was as though it had never been—was not that his protection?
She suddenly felt a desire to go down into the parlor. She kissed her child in each room and she returned and kissed the doctor's children—with memory of their mother; and then she descended by the rear stairway.
She set her candle on the table, where earlier in the night she had placed the lamp—near the manuscript—and she sat down and looked at that remorsefully: she had ignored it when he placed it there.
He had made her the gift of his work—dedicated to her the triumphs of his toil. It was his deep cry to her to share with him his widening career and enter with him into the world's service. She crossed her hands over it awhile, and then she left it.
The low-burnt candle did not penetrate far into the darkness of the immense parlor. There was an easy chair near her piano and her music. After playing when alone, she would often sit there and listen to the echoes of those influences that come into the soul from music only,—the rhythmic hauntings of some heaven of diviner beauty. She sat there now quite in darkness and closed her eyes; and upon her ear began faintly to beat the sad sublime tones of his story.
One of her delights in growing things on the farm had been to watch the youth of the hemp—a field of it, tall and wandlike and tufted. If the north wind blew upon it, the myriad stalks as by a common impulse swayed southward; if a zephyr from the south crossed it, all heads were instantly bowed before the north. West wind sent it east and east wind sent it west.
And so, it had seemed to her, is that ever living world which we sometimes call the field of human life in its perpetual summer. It is run through by many different laws; governed by many distinct forces, each of which strives to control it wholly—but never does. Selfishness blows on it like a parching sirocco, and all things seem to bow to the might of selfishness. Generosity moves across the expanse, and all things are seen responsive to what is generous. Place yourself where life is lowest and everything like an avalanche is rushing to the bottom. Place yourself where character is highest, and lo! the whole world is but one struggle upward to what is high. You see what you care to see, and find what you wish to find.
In his story of the Forest and the Heart he had wanted to trace but one law, and he had traced it; he had drawn all things together and bent them before its majesty: the ancient law of Sacrifice. Of old the high sacrificed to the low; afterwards the low to the high: once the sacrifice of others; now the sacrifice of ourselves; but always in ourselves of the lower to the higher in order that, dying, we may live.
With this law he had made his story a story of the world.
The star on the Tree bore it back to Chaldaea; the candle bore it to ancient Persia; the cross bore it to the Nile and Isis and Osiris; the dove bore it to Syria; the bell bore it to Confucius; the drum bore it to Buddha; the drinking horn to Greece; the tinsel to Romulus and Rome; the doll to Abraham and Isaac; the masks to Gaul; the mistletoe to Britain,—and all brought it to Christ,—Christ the latest world-ideal of sacrifice that is self-sacrifice and of the giving of all for all.
The story was for herself, he had said, and for himself.
Himself! Here at last all her pain and wandering of this night ended: at the bottom of her wound where rankled his problem.
From this problem she had most shrunk and into this she now entered: She sacrificed herself in him! She laid upon herself his temptation and his struggle.
* * * * *
Taking her candle, she passed back into her bedroom and screened it where she had screened it before; then went into his bedroom.
She put her wedding ring on again with blanched lips. She went to his bedside, and drawing to the pillow the chair on which his clothes were piled, sat down and laid her face over on it; and there in that shrine of feeling where speech is formed, but whence it never issues, she made her last communion with him:
_"You, to whom I gave my youth and all that youth could mean to me; whose children I have borne and nurtured at my breast—all of whose eyes I have seen open and the eyes of some of whom I have closed; husband of my girlhood, loved as no woman ever loved the man who took her home; strength and laughter of his house; helper of what is best in me; my defender against things in myself that I cannot govern; pathfinder of my future; rock of the ebbing years! Though my hair turn white as driven snow and flesh wither to the bone, I shall never cease to be the flame that you yourself have kindled.