"What we may fancy God to be makes no difference," he answered. "That which we know is always the same, we have always the love and always the beauty. All men's religion is but the assertion that the source of these sacred things must be infinitely sacred, and that whatever may happen to us, that source can suffer no harm; that we live by a power stronger than ourselves, and that has no need of us."
Helen was looking at her husband anxiously; then suddenly she asked him, "But tell me then, David; you do not believe in heaven? You do not believe that our souls are immortal?" As he answered her in the negative she gave a slight start, and knitted her brows; and after another pause she demanded, "You do not believe in revealed religion then?"
David could not help smiling, recognizing the voice of his clerical father-in-law; when he answered, however, he was serious again. "Some day, perhaps, dear Helen," he said, "I will tell you all about what I think as to such things. But very few of the world's real thinkers believe in revealed religions any more—they have come to see them simply as guesses of humanity at God's great sacred mystery, and to believe that God's way of revealing Himself to men is through the forms of life itself. As to the question of immortality that you speak of, I have always felt that death is a sign of the fact that God is infinite and perfect, and that we are but shadows in his sight; that we live by a power that is not our own, and seek for beauty that is not our own, and that each instant of our lives is a free gift which we can only repay by thankfulness and worship."
He paused for a moment, and the girl, who had still been gazing at him thoughtfully, went on, "Father used to talk about those things to me, David, and he showed me how the life of men is all spent in suffering and struggling, and that therefore faith teaches us—-"
"Yes, dearest," the other put in, "I know all that you are going to say; I have read these arguments very often, you know. But suppose that I were to tell you that I think suffering and struggling is the very essence of the soul, and that what faith teaches us is that the suffering and struggling are sacred, and not in the least that they are some day to be made as nothing? Dearest, if it is true that the soul makes this life what it is, a life of restless seeking for an infinite, would it not make the same life anywhere else? Do you remember reading with me Emerson's poem about Uriel, the seraph who sang before God's throne,—how even that could not please him, and how he left it to plunge into the struggle of things imperfect; and how ever after the rest of the seraphim were afraid of Uriel? Do you think, dearest, that this life of love and labor that you and I live our own selves needs anything else to justify it? The life that I lived all alone was much harder and more full of pain than this, but I never thought that it needed any rewarding."
David stopped and stood gazing ahead of him thoughtfully; when he continued his voice was lower and more solemn. "These things are almost too sacred to talk of, Helen," he said; "but there is one doubt that I have known about this, one thing that has made me wonder if there ought not to be another world after all. I never sympathized with any man's longing for heaven, but I can understand how a man might be haunted by some fearful baseness of his own self,—something which long years of effort had taught him he could not ever expiate by the strength of his own heart,—and how he could pray that there might be some place where rightness might be won at last, cost what it would."
The man's tone had been so strange as he spoke that it caused Helen to start; suddenly she came closer to him and put her hands upon his shoulders and gazed into his eyes. "David," she whispered, "listen to me a moment."
"Yes, dear," he said, "what is it?"
"Was it because of yourself that you said those words?"
He was silent for a moment, gazing into her anxious eyes; then he bowed his head and said in a faint voice, "Yes, dear, it was because of myself."
And the girl, becoming suddenly very serious, went on, "Do you remember, David, a long time ago—the time that I was leaving Aunt Polly's—that you told me how you knew what it was to have something very terrible on one's conscience? I have not ever said anything about that, but I have never forgotten it. Was it that that you thought of then?"
"Yes, dear, it was that," answered the other, trembling slightly.
Helen stooped down upon her knees and put her arms about him, gazing up pleadingly into his face. "Dearest David," she whispered, "is it right to refuse to tell me about that sorrow?"
There was a long silence, after which the man replied slowly, "I have not ever refused to tell you, sweetheart; it would be very fearful to tell, but I have not any secrets from you; and if you wished it, you should know. But, dear, it was long, long ago, and nothing can ever change it now. It would only make us sad to know it, so why should we talk of it?"
He stopped, and Helen gazed long and earnestly into his face. "David," she said, "it is not possible for me to imagine you ever doing anything wrong, you are so good."
"Perhaps," said David, "it is because you are so good yourself." But Helen interrupted him at that with a quick rejoinder: "Do you forget that I too have a sorrow upon my conscience?" Afterwards, as she saw that the eager remark caused the other to smile in spite of himself, she checked him gravely with the words, "Have you really forgotten so soon? Do you suppose I do not ever think now of how I treated poor Arthur, and how I drove away from me the best friend of my girlhood? He wrote me that he would think of me no more, but, David, sometimes I wonder if it were not just an angry boast, and if he might not yet be lonely and wretched, somewhere in this great cold world where I cannot ever find him or help him."
The girl paused; David was regarding her earnestly, and for a long time neither of them spoke. Then suddenly the man bent down, and pressed a kiss upon her forehead. "Let us only love each other, dear," he whispered, "and try to keep as right as we can while the time is given us."
There was a long silence after that while the two sat gazing out across the blue lake; when Helen spoke again it was to say, "Some day you must tell me all about it, David, because I can help you; but let us not talk about these dreadful things now." She stopped again, and afterwards went on thoughtfully, "I was thinking still of what you said about immortality, and how very strange it is to think of ceasing to be. Might it not be, David, that heaven is a place not of reward, but of the same ceaseless effort as you spoke of?"
"Ah, yes," said the other, "that is the thought of 'the wages of going on.' And of course, dear, we would all like those wages; there is no thought that tempts me so much as the possibility of being able to continue the great race forever; but I don't see how we have the least right to demand it, or that the facts give us the least reason to suppose that we will get it. It seems to me simply a fantastic and arbitrary fancy; the re-creating of a worn-out life in that way. I do not think, dearest, that I am in the least justified in claiming an eternity of vision because God gives me an hour; and when I ask Him the question in my own heart I learn simply that I am a wretched, sodden creature that I do not crowd that hour with all infinity and go quite mad at the sight of the beauty that He flings wide before me."
Helen did not reply for a while, and then she asked: "And you think, David, that our life justifies itself no matter how much suffering may be in it?"
"I think, dearest," was his reply, "that the soul's life is struggle, and that the soul's life is sacred; and that to be right, to struggle to be right, is not only life's purpose, but also life's reward; and that each instant of such righteousness is its own warrant, tho the man be swept out of existence in the next." Then David stopped, and when he went on it was in a lower voice. "Dear Helen," he said, "after I have told you what I feel I deserve in life, you can understand my not wishing to talk lightly about such things as suffering. Just now, as I sit here at my ease, and in fact all through my poor life, I have felt about such sacred words as duty and righteousness that it would be just as well if they did not ever pass my lips. But there have come to me one or two times, dear, when I dared a little of the labor of things, and drank a drop or two of the wine of the spirit; and those times have lived to haunt me and make me at least not a happy man in my unearned ease. There come to me still just once in a while hours when I get sight of the gleam, hours that make me loathe all that in my hours of comfort I loved; and there comes over me then a kind of Titanic rage, that I should go down a beaten soul because I have not the iron strength of will to lash my own self to life, and tear out of my own heart a little of what power is in it. At such times, Helen, I find just this one wish in my mind,—that God would send to me, cost what it might, some of the fearful experience that rouses a man's soul within him, and makes him live his life in spite of all his dullness and his fear."
David had not finished, but he halted, because he saw a strange look upon the girl's face. She did not answer him at once, but sat gazing at him; and then she said in a very grave voice, "David, I do not like to hear such words as that from you."
"What words, dearest?"
"Do you mean actually that it sometimes seems to you wrong to live happily with me as you have?"
David laid his hand quietly upon hers, watching for a minute her anxious countenance. Then he said in a low voice: "You ought not to ask me about such things, dear, or blame me for them. Sometimes I have to face the very cruel thought that I ought not ever to have linked my fate to one so sweet and gentle as you, because what I ought to be doing in the world to win a right conscience is something so hard and so stern that it would mean that I could never be really happy all my life."
David was about to go on, but he stopped again because of Helen's look of displeasure. "David," she whispered, "that is the most unloving thing that I have ever heard from you!"
"And you must blame me, dear, because of it?" he asked.
"I suppose," Helen answered, "that you would misunderstand me as long as I chose to let you. Do you not suppose that I too have a conscience,—do you suppose that I want any happiness it is wrong for us to take, or that I would not dare to go anywhere that your duty took you? And do you suppose that anything could be so painful to me as to know that you do not trust me, that you are afraid to live your life, and do what is your duty, before me?"
David bent down suddenly and pressed a kiss upon the girl's forehead. "Precious little heart," he whispered, "those words are very beautiful."
"I did not say them because they were beautiful," answered Helen gravely; "I said them because I meant them, and because I wanted you to take them in earnest. I want to know what it is that you and I ought to be doing, instead of enjoying our lives; and after you have told me what it is I can tell you one thing—that I shall not be happy again in my life until it is done."
David watched her thoughtfully a while before he answered, because he saw that she was very much in earnest. Then he said sadly, "Dearest Helen, perhaps the reason that I have never been able all through my life to satisfy my soul is the pitiful fact that I have not the strength to dare any of the work of other men; I have had always to chafe under the fact that I must choose between nourishing my poor body, or ceasing to live. I have learned that all my power—and more too, as it sometimes seemed,—was needed to bear bravely the dreadful trials that God has sent to me."
Helen paled slightly; she felt his hand trembling upon hers, and she remembered his illness at her aunt's, about which she had never had the courage to speak to him. "And so, dear heart," he went on slowly, "let us only be sure that we are keeping our lives pure and strong, that we are living in the presence of high thoughts and keeping the mastery of ourselves, and saying and really meaning that we live for something unselfish; so that if duty and danger come, we shall not prove cowards, and if suffering comes we should not give way and lose our faith. Does that please you, dear Helen?"
The girl pressed his hand silently in hers. After a while he went on still more solemnly: "Some time," he said, "I meant to talk to you about just that, dearest, to tell you how stern and how watchful we ought to be. It is very sad to me to see what happens when the great and fearful realities of life disclose themselves to good and kind people who have been living without any thought of such things. I feel that it is very wrong to live so, that if we wished to be right we would hold the high truths before us, no matter how much labor it cost."
"What truths do you mean?" asked Helen earnestly; and he answered her: "For one, the very fearful fact of which I have just been talking—that you and I are two bubbles that meet for an instant upon the whirling stream of time. Suppose, sweetheart, that I were to tell you that I do not think you and I would be living our lives truly, until we were quite sure that we could bear to be parted forever without losing our faith in God's righteousness?"
Helen turned quite white, and clutched the other's hands in hers; she had not once thought of actually applying what he had said to her. "David! David!" she cried, "No!"
The man smiled gently as he brushed back the hair from her forehead and gazed into her eyes. "And when you asked for sternness, dear," he said, "was it that you did not know what the word meant? Life is real, dear Helen, and the effort it demands is real effort."
The girl did not half hear these last words; she was still staring at her husband. "Listen to me, David," she said at last, still holding his hand tightly in hers, her voice almost a whisper; "I could bear anything for you, David, I know that I could bear anything; I could really die for you, I say that with all my soul,—that was what I was thinking of when you spoke of death. But David, if you were to be taken from me,—if you were to be taken from me—" and she stopped, unable to find a word more.
"Perhaps it will be just as well not to tell me, dear heart," he said to her, gently.
"David," she went on more strenuously yet, "listen to me—you must not ever ask me to think of that! Do you hear me? For, oh, it cannot be true, it cannot be true, David, that you could be taken from me forever! What would I have left to live for?"
"Would you not have the great wonderful God?" asked the other gently—"the God who made me and all that was lovable in me, and made you, and would demand that you worship him?" But Helen only shook her head once more and answered, "It could not be true, David,—no, no!" Then she added in a faint voice, "What would be the use of my having lived?"
The man bent forward and kissed her again, and kissed away a little of the frightened, anxious look upon her face. "My dear," he said with a gentle smile, "perhaps I was wrong to trouble you with such fearful things after all. Let me tell you instead a thought that once came to my mind, and that has stayed there as the one I should like to call the most beautiful of all my life; it may help to answer that question of yours about the use of having lived. Men love life so much, Helen dear, that they cannot ever have enough of it, and to keep it and build it up they make what we call the arts; this thought of mine is about one of them, about music, the art that you and I love most. For all the others have been derived from things external, but music was made out of nothing, and exists but for its one great purpose, and therefore is the most spiritual of all of them. I like to say that it is time made beautiful, and so a shadow picture of the soul; it is this, because it can picture different degrees of speed and of power, because it can breathe and throb, can sweep and soar, can yearn and pray,—because, in short, everything that happens in the heart can happen in music, so that we may lose ourselves in it and actually live its life, or so that a great genius can not merely tell us about himself, but can make all the best hours of his soul actually a part of our own. This thought that I said was beautiful came to me from noticing how perfectly the art was one with that which it represented; so that we may say not only that music is life, but that life is music. Music exists because it is beautiful, dear Helen, and because it brings an instant of the joy of beauty to our hearts, and for no other reason whatever; it may be music of happiness or of sorrow, of achievement or only of hope, but so long as it is beautiful it is right, and it makes no difference, either, that it cost much labor of men, or that when it is gone it is gone forever. And dearest, suppose that the music not only was beautiful, but knew that it was beautiful; that it was not only the motion of the air, but also the joy of our hearts; might it not then be its own excuse, just one strain of it that rose in the darkness, and quivered and died away again forever?"
When David had spoken thus he stopped and sat still for a while, gazing at his wife; then seeing the anxious look still in possession of her face, he rose suddenly by way of ending their talk. "Dearest," he said, smiling, "it is wrong of me, perhaps, to worry you about such very fearful things as those; let us go in, and find something to do that is useful, and not trouble ourselves with them any more."
"O Freude, habe Acht! Sprich leise, Dass nicht der Schmerz erwacht!"
It was late on the afternoon of the day that Helen's father had left for home, and David was going into the village with some letters to mail. Helen was not feeling very well herself and could not go, but she insisted upon his going, for she watched over his exercise and other matters of health with scrupulous care. She had wrapped him up in a heavy overcoat, and was kneeling beside his chair with her arms about him.
"Tell me, dear," she asked him, for the third or fourth time, "are you sure this will be enough to keep you warm?—for the nights are so very cold, you know; I do not like you to come back alone anyway."
"I don't think you would be much of a protection against danger," laughed David.
"But it will be dark when you get back, dear."
"It will only be about dusk," was the reply; "I don't mind that."
Helen gazed at him wistfully for a minute, and then she went on: "Do you not know what is the matter with me, David? You frightened me to-day, and I cannot forget what you said. Each time that it comes to my mind it makes me shudder. Why should you say such fearful things to me?"
"I am very sorry," said the other, gently.
"You simply must not talk to me so!" cried the girl; "if you do you will make me so that I cannot bear to leave you for an instant. For those thoughts make my love for you simply desperate, David; I cry out to myself that I never have loved you enough, never told you enough!" And then she added pleadingly, "But oh, you know that I love you, do you not, dear? Tell me."
"Yes, I know it," said the other gently, taking her in his arms and kissing her.
"Come back soon," Helen went on, "and I will tell you once more how much I do; and then we can be happy again, and I won't be afraid any more. Please let me be happy, won't you, David?"
"Yes, love, I will," said the man with a smile. "I do not think that I was wise ever to trouble you."
Helen was silent for a while, then as a sudden thought occurred to her she added: "David, I meant to tell you something—do you know if those horrible thoughts keep haunting me, it is just this that they will make me do; you said that God was very good, and so I was thinking that I would show him how very much I love you, how I could really never get along without you, and how I care for nothing else in the world. It seems to me to be such a little thing, that we should only just want to love; and truly, that is all I do want,—I would not mind anything else in the world,—I would go away from this little house and live in any poor place, and do all the work, and never care about anything else at all, if I just might have you. That is really true, David, and I wish that you would know it, and that God would know it, and not expect me to think of such dreadful things as you talk of."
As David gazed into her deep, earnest eyes he pressed her to him with a sudden burst of emotion. "You have me now, dearest," he whispered, "and oh, I shall trust the God who gave me this precious heart!"—He kissed her once more in fervent love, and kissed her again and again until the clouds had left her face. She leaned back and gazed at him, and was radiant with delight again. "Oh—oh—oh!" she cried. "David, it only makes me more full of wonder at the real truth! For it is the truth, David, it is the truth—that you are all mine! It is so wonderful, and it makes me so happy,—I seem to lose myself more in the thought every day!"
"You can never lose yourself too much, little sweetheart," David whispered; "let us trust to love, and let it grow all that it will. Helen, I never knew what it was to live until I met you,—never knew how life could be so full and rich and happy. And never, never will I be able to tell you how much I love you, dearest soul."
"Oh, but I believe you without being told!" she said, laughing. "Do you know, I could make myself quite mad just with saying over to myself that you love me all that I could ever wish you to love me, all that I could imagine you loving me! Isn't that true, David?"
"Yes, that is true," the man replied.
"But you don't know what a wonderful imagination I have," laughed the girl, "and how hungry for your love I am." And she clasped him to her passionately and cried, "David, you can make me too happy to live with that thought! I shall have to think about it all the time that you are gone, and when you come back I shall be so wonderfully excited,—oh—oh, David!"
Then she laughed eagerly and sprang up. "You must not stay any longer," she exclaimed, "because it is getting late; only hurry back, because I can do nothing but wait for you." And so she led him to the door, and kissed him again, and then watched him as he started up the road. He turned and looked at her, as she leaned against the railing of the porch, with the glory of the sunset falling upon her hair; she made a radiant picture, for her cheeks were still flushed, and her bosom still heaving with the glory of the thought she had promised to keep. There was so much of her love in the look which she kept upon David that it took some resolution to go on. and leave her.
As for Helen, she watched him until he had quite disappeared in the forest, after which she turned and gazed across the lake at the gold and crimson mountains. But all the time she was still thinking the thought of David's love; the wonder of it was still upon her face, and it seemed to lift her form; until at last she stretched wide her arms, and leaned back her head, and drank a deep draft of the evening air, whispering aloud, "Oh, I do not dare to be as happy as I can!" And she clasped her arms upon her bosom and laughed a wild laugh of joy.
Later on, because it was cold, she turned and went into the house, singing a song to herself as she moved. As she went to the piano and sat down she saw upon the rack the little springtime song of Grieg's that was the first thing she had ever heard upon David's violin; she played a few bars of it to herself, and then she stopped and sat still, lost in the memory which it brought to her mind of the night when she had sat at the window and listened to it, just after seeing Arthur for the last time. "And to think that it was only four or five months ago!" she whispered to herself. "And how wretched I was!"
"I do not believe I could ever be so unhappy again," she went on after a while, "I know that I could not, while I have David!" after which her thoughts came back into the old, old course of joy. When she looked at the music again the memory of her grief was gone, and she read in it all of her own love-glory. She played it through again, and afterwards sat quite still, until the twilight had begun to gather in the room.
Helen then rose and lit the lamp, and the fire in the open fire-place; she glanced at the clock and saw that more than a quarter of an hour had passed, and she said to herself that it could not be more than that time again before David was back.
"I should go out and meet him if I were feeling quite strong," she added as she went to the door and looked out; then she exclaimed suddenly: "But oh, I know how I can please him better!" And the girl went to the table where some of her books were lying, and sat down and began very diligently studying, glancing every half minute at the clock and at the door. "I shall be too busy even to hear him!" she said, with a sudden burst of glee; and quite delighted with the effect that would produce she listened eagerly every time she fancied she heard a step, and then fixed her eyes upon the book, and put on a look of most complete absorption.
Unfortunately for Helen's plan, however, each time it proved to be a false alarm; and so the fifteen minutes passed completely, and then five, and five again. The girl had quite given up studying by that time, and was gazing at the clock, and listening to its ticking, and wondering very much indeed. At last when more than three-quarters of an hour had passed since David had left, she got up and went to the door once more to listen; as she did not hear anything she went out on the piazza, and finally to the road. All about her was veiled in shadow, which her eyes strove in vain to pierce; and so growing still more impatient she raised her voice and called, "David, David!" and then stood and listened to the rustling of the leaves and the faint lapping of the water on the shore.
"That is very strange," Helen thought, growing very anxious indeed; "it is fearfully strange! What in the world can have happened?" And she called again, with no more result that before; until with a sudden resolution she turned and passed quickly into the house, and flinging a wrap about her, came out and started down the road. Occasionally she raised her voice and shouted David's name, but still she got no reply, and her anxiety soon changed into alarm, and she was hurrying along, almost in a run. In this way she climbed the long ascent which the road made from the lake shore; and when she had reached the top of it she gathered her breath and shouted once more, louder and more excitedly than ever.
This time she heard the expected reply, and found that David was only a few rods ahead of her. "What is the matter?" she called to him, and as he answered that it was nothing, but to come to him, she ran on more alarmed than ever.
There was just light enough for her to see that David was bending down; and then as she got very near she saw that on the ground in front of him was lying a dark, shadowy form. As Helen cried out again to know what was the matter, her husband said, "Do not be frightened, dear; it is only some poor woman that I have found here by the roadside."
"A woman!" the girl echoed in wonder, at the same time giving a gasp of relief at the discovery that her husband was not in trouble. "Where in the world can she have come from, David?"
"I do not know," he answered, "but she probably wandered off the main road. It is some poor, wretched creature, Helen; she has been drinking, and is quite helpless."
And Helen stood still in horror, while David arose and came to her. "You are out of breath, dear," he exclaimed, "why did you come so fast?"
"Oh, I was so frightened!" the girl panted. "I cannot tell you, David, what happens in my heart whenever I think of your coming to any harm. It was dreadful, for I knew something serious must be the matter."
David put his arm about her and kissed her to quiet her fears; then he said, "You ought not to have come out, dear; but be calm now, for there is nothing to worry you, only we must take care of this poor woman. It is such a sad sight, Helen; I wish that you had not come here."
"What were you going to do?" asked the girl, forgetting herself quickly in her sympathy.
"I meant to come down and tell you," was David's reply; "and then go back to town and get someone to come and take her away."
"But, David, you can never get back over that rough road in the darkness!" exclaimed Helen in alarm; "it is too far for you to walk, even in the daytime—I will not let you do it, you must not!"
"But dear, this poor creature cannot be left here; it will be a bitter cold night, and she might die."
Helen was silent for a moment in thought, and then she said in a low, trembling voice: "David, there is only one thing to do."
"What is that, dear?" asked the other.
"We will have to take her home with us."
"Do you know what you are saying?" asked the other with a start; "that would be a fearful thing to do, Helen."
"I cannot help it," she replied, "it is the only thing. And it would be wicked not to be willing to do that, because she is a woman."
"She is in a fearful way, dear," said the other, hesitatingly; "and to ask you to take care of her—"
"I would do anything sooner than let you take that walk in such darkness as this!" was the girl's reply; and with that statement she silenced all of his objections.
And so at last David pressed her hand, and whispered, "Very well, dear, God will bless you for it." Then for a while the two stood in silence, until Helen asked, "Do you think that we can carry her, poor creature?"
"We may try it," the other replied; and Helen went and knelt by the prostrate figure. The woman was muttering to herself, but she seemed to be quite dazed, and not to know what was going on about her. Helen did not hesitate any longer, but bent over and strove to lift her; the woman was fortunately of a slight build, and seemed to be very thin, so that with David's help it was easy to raise her to her feet. It was a fearful task none the less, for the poor wretch was foul with the mud in which she had been lying, and her wet hair was streaming over her shoulders; as Helen strove to lift her up the head sunk over upon her, but the girl bit her lips together grimly. She put her arm about the woman's waist, and David did the same on the other side, and so the three started, stumbling slowly along in the darkness.
"Are you sure that it is not too much for you?" David asked; "we can stop whenever you like, Helen."
"No, let us go on," the girl said; "she has almost no weight, and we must not leave her out here in the cold. Her hands are almost frozen now."
They soon made their way on down to where the lights of the little cottage shone through the trees. David could not but shrink back as he thought of taking their wretched burden into their little home, but he heard the woman groan feebly, and he was ashamed of his thought. Nothing more was said until they had climbed the steps, not without difficulty, and had deposited their burden upon the floor of the sitting room; after which David rose and sank back into a chair, for the strain had been a heavy one for him.
Helen also sprang up as she gazed at the figure; the woman was foul with every misery that disease and sin can bring upon a human creature, her clothing torn to shreds and her face swollen and stained. She was half delirious, and clawing about her with her shrunken, quivering hands, so that Helen exclaimed in horror: "Oh God, that is the most dreadful sight I have ever seen in my life!"
"Come away," said the other, raising himself from the chair; "it is not right that you should look at such things."
But with Helen it was only a moment before her pity had overcome every other emotion; she knelt down by the stranger and took one of the cold hands and began chafing it. "Poor, poor woman!" she exclaimed; "oh, what misery you must have suffered! David, what can a woman do to be punished like this? It is fearful!"
It was a strange picture which the two made at that moment, the woman in her cruel misery, and the girl in her pure and noble beauty. But Helen had no more thought of shrinking, for all her soul had gone out to the unfortunate stranger, and she kept on trying to bring her back to consciousness. "Oh, David," she said, "what can we do to help her? It is too much that any human being should be like this,—she would have died if we had not found her." And then as the other opened her eyes and struggled to lift herself, Helen caught an incoherent word and said, "I think she is thirsty, David; get some water and perhaps that will help her. We must find some way to comfort her, for this is too horrible to be. And perhaps it is not her fault, you know,—who knows but perhaps some man may have been the cause of it all? Is it not dreadful to think of, David?"
So the girl went on; her back was turned to her husband, and she was engrossed in her task of mercy, and did not see what he was doing. She did not see that he had started forward in his chair and was staring at the woman; she did not see him leaning forward, farther and farther, with a strange look upon his face. But there was something she did see at last, as the woman lifted herself again and stared first at Helen's own pitying face, and then vaguely about the room, and last of all gazing at David. Suddenly she stretched out her arms to him and strove to rise, with a wild cry that made Helen leap back in consternation:—"David! It's David!"
And at the same instant David sprang up with what was almost a scream of horror; he reeled and staggered backwards against the wall, clutching with his hands at his forehead, his face a ghastly, ashen gray; and as Helen sprang up and ran towards him, he sank down upon his knees with a moan, gazing up into the air with a look of agony upon his face. "My God! My God!" he gasped; "it is my Mary!"
And Helen sank down beside him, clutching him by the arm, and staring at him in terror. "David, David!" she whispered, in a hoarse voice. But the man seemed not to hear her, so overwhelmed was he by his own emotion. "It is Mary," he cried out again,—"it is my Mary!—oh God, have mercy upon my soul!" And then a shudder passed over him, and he buried his face in his arms and fell down upon the floor, with Helen, almost paralyzed with fright, still clinging to him.
In the meantime the woman had still been stretching out her trembling arms to him, crying his name again and again; as she sank back exhausted the man started up and rushed toward her, clutching her by the hand, and exclaiming frantically, "Mary, Mary, it is I—speak to me!" But the other's delirium seemed to have returned, and she only stared at him blankly. At last David staggered to his feet and began pacing wildly up and down, hiding his face in his hands, and crying helplessly, "Oh, God, that this should come to me now! Oh, how can I bear it—oh, Mary, Mary!"
He sank down upon the sofa again and burst into fearful sobbing; Helen, who had still been kneeling where he left her, rushed toward him and flung her arms about him, crying out, "David, David, what is the matter? David, you will kill me; what is it?"
And he started and stared at her wildly, clutching her arm. "Helen," he gasped, "listen to me! I ruined that woman! Do you hear me?—do you hear me? It was I who betrayed her—I who made her what she is! I—I! Oh, leave me,—leave me alone—oh, what can I do?"
Then as the girl still clung to him, sobbing his name in terror, the man went on, half beside himself with his grief, "Oh, think of it—oh, how can I bear to know it and live? Twenty-three years ago, —and it comes back to curse me now! And all these years I have been living and forgetting it—and been happy, and talking of my goodness—oh God, and this fearful madness upon the earth! And I made it—I—and she has had to pay for it! Oh, look at her, Helen, look at her—think that that foulness is mine! She was beautiful,—she was pure,—and she might have been happy, she would have been good, but for me! Oh God in heaven, where can I hide myself, what can I do?"
Helen was still clutching at his arm, crying to him, "David, spare me!" He flung her off in a mad frenzy, holding her at arm's length, and staring at her with a fearful light in his eyes. "Girl, girl!" he cried, "do you know who I am—do you know what I have done? This girl was like you once, and I made her love me—made her love me with the sacred fire that God had given me, made her love me as I made you love me! And she was beautiful like you—she was younger than you, and as happy as you! And she trusted me as you trusted me, she gave herself to me as you did, and I took her, and promised her my love—and now look at her! Can you wish to be near me, can you wish to see me? Oh, Helen, I cannot bear myself—oh, leave me, I must die!"
He sank down once more, weeping, all his form shaking with his grief; Helen flung her arms about his neck again, but the man seemed to forget her presence. "Oh, think where that woman has been," he moaned; "think what she has seen, and done, and suffered—and what she is! Was there ever such a wreck of womanhood, ever such a curse upon earth? And, oh, for the years that she has lived in her fearful sin, and I have been happy—great God, what can I do for those years,—how can I live and gaze upon this crime of mine? I, who sought for beauty, to have made this madness; and it comes now to curse me, now, when it is too late; when the life is wrecked,—when it is gone forever!"
David's voice had sunk into a moan; and then suddenly he heard the woman crying out, and he staggered to his feet. She was sitting up again, her arms stretched out; David caught her in his own, gazing into her face and crying, "Mary, Mary! Look at me! Here I am—I am David, the David you loved."
He stopped, gasping for breath, and the woman cried in a faint voice, "Water, water!" David turned and called to Helen, and the poor girl, tho scarcely able to stand, ran to get a glass of it; another thought came to the man in the meantime, and he turned to the other with a sudden cry. "If there were a child!" he gasped, "a child of mine somewhere in the world, alone and helpless!" He stared into the woman's eyes imploringly.
She was gazing at him, choking and trying to speak; she seemed to be making an effort to understand him, and as David repeated his agonizing question she gave a sign of assent, causing a still wilder look to cross the man's face. He called to her again to tell him where; but the woman seemed to be sinking back into her raving, and she only gasped faintly again for water.
When Helen brought it they poured it down her throat, and then David repeated his question once more; but he gave a groan as he saw that it was all in vain; the wild raving had begun again, and the woman only stared at him blankly, until at last the wretched man, quite overcome, sank down at her side and buried his head upon her shrunken bosom and cried like a child, poor Helen in the meantime clinging to him still.
It was only when David had quite worn himself out that he seemed to hear her pleading voice; then he looked at her, and for the first time through his own grief caught sight of hers. There was such a look of helpless woe upon Helen's face that he put out his hand to her and whispered faintly, "Oh, poor little girl, what have you done that you should suffer so?" As Helen drew closer to him, clinging to his hand in fright, he went on, "Can you ever forgive me for this horror—forgive me that I dared to forget it, that I dared to marry you?"
The girl's answer was a faint moan, "David, David, have mercy on me!" He gazed at her for a moment, reading still more of her suffering.
"Helen," he asked, "you see what has come upon me—can you ask me not to be wretched, can you ask me still to live? What can I do for such a crime,—when I look at this wreck of a soul, what comfort can I hope to find?" And the girl, her heart bursting with grief, could only clasp his hands in hers and gaze into his eyes; there was no word she could think of to say to him, and so for a long time the two remained in silence, David again fixing his eyes upon the woman, who seemed to be sinking into a kind of stupor.
When he looked up once more it was because Helen was whispering in his ear, a new thought having come to her, "David, perhaps I might be able to help you yet."
The man replied in a faint, gasping voice, "Help me? How?" And the girl answered, "Come with me," and rose weakly to her feet, half lifting him also. He gazed at the woman and saw that she was lying still, and then he did as Helen asked. She led him gently into the other room, away from the fearful sight, and the two sat down, David limp and helpless, so that he could only sink down in her arms with a groan. "Poor, poor David," she whispered, in a voice of infinite pity; "oh, my poor David!"
"Then you do not scorn me, Helen?" the man asked in a faint, trembling voice, and went on pleading with her, in words so abject and so wretched that they wrung the girl's heart more than ever.
"David, how can you speak to me so?" she cried, "you who are all my life?" And then she added with swift intensity, "Listen to me, David, it cannot be so bad as that, I know it! Will you not tell me, David? Tell me all, so that I may help you!" So she went on pleading with him gently, until at last the man spoke again, in faltering words.
"Helen," he said, "I was only a boy; God knows that is one excuse, if it is the only one. I was only seventeen, and she was no more."
"Who was she, David?" the girl asked.
"She lived in a village across the mountains from here, near where our home used to be. She was a farmer's daughter, and she was beautiful—oh, to think that that woman was once a beautiful girl, and innocent and pure! But we were young, we loved each other, and we had no one to warn us; it was so long ago that it seems like a dream to me now, but we sinned, and I took her for mine; then I went home to tell my father, to tell him that she was my wife, and that I must marry her. And oh, God, she was a farmer's daughter, and I was a rich man's son, and the cursed world knows nothing of human souls! And I must not marry her—I found all the world in arms against it—-"
"And you let yourself be persuaded?" asked the girl, in a faint whisper.
"Persuaded?" echoed David, his voice shaking; "who would have thought of persuading a mad boy? I let myself be commanded and frightened into submission, and carried away. And then five or six miserable months passed away and I got a letter from her, and she was with child, and she was ruined forever,—she prayed to me in words that have haunted me night and day all my life, to come to her and keep my promise."
And David stopped and gave a groan; the other whispered, "You could not go?"
"I went," he answered; "I borrowed money, begged it from one of my father's servants, and ran away and went up there; and oh, I was two days too late!"
"Too late?" exclaimed Helen wonderingly.
"Yes, yes," was the hoarse reply, "for she was a weak and helpless girl, and scorned of all the world; and her parents had turned her away, and she was gone, no one knew where. Helen, from that day to this I have never seen her, nor ever heard of her; and now she comes to curse me,—to curse my soul forever. And it is more than I can bear, more than I can bear!"
David sank down again, crying out, "It is too much, it is too much!" But then suddenly he caught his wife's hand in his and stared up at her, exclaiming, "And she said there was a child, Helen! Somewhere in the world there is another soul suffering for this sin of mine! Oh, somehow we must find out about that—something must be done, I could not have two such fearful things to know of. We must find out, we must find out!"
As the man stopped and stared wildly about him he heard the woman's voice again, and sprang up; but Helen, terrified at his suffering, caught him by the arm, whispering, "No, no, David, let me go in, I can take care of her." And she forced her husband down on the sofa once more, and then ran into the next room. She found the woman again struggling to raise herself upon her trembling arms, staring about her and calling out incoherently. Helen rushed to her and took her hands in hers, trying to soothe her again.
But the woman staggered to her feet, oblivious of everything about her. "Where is he? Where is he?" she gasped hoarsely; "he will come back!" She began calling David's name, and a moment later, as Helen tried to keep her quiet, she tore her hands loose and rushed blindly across the room, shrieking louder yet, "David, where are you? Don't you know me, David?"
As Helen turned she saw that her husband had heard the cries and come to the doorway again; but it was all in vain, for the woman, though she looked at him, knew him no more; it was to a phantom of her own brain that she was calling, in the meantime pacing up and down, her voice rising higher and higher. She was reeling this way and that, and Helen, frightened at her violence, strove to restrain her, only to be flung off as if she had been a child; the woman rushed on, groping about her blindly and crying still, "David! Tell me where is David!"
Then as David and Helen stood watching her in helpless misery her delirious mood changed, and she clutched her hands over her bosom, and shuddered, and moaned to herself, "It is cold, oh, it is cold!" Afterwards she burst into frantic sobbing, that choked her and shook all her frame; and again into wild peals of laughter; and then last of all she stopped and sprang back, staring in front of her with her whole face a picture of agonizing fright; she gave one wild scream after another and staggered and sank down at last upon the floor. "Oh, it is he, it is he!" she cried, her voice sinking into a shudder; "oh, spare me,—why should you beat me? Oh God, have mercy—have mercy!" Her cries rose again into a shriek that made Helen's blood run cold; she looked in terror at her husband, and saw that his face was white; in the meantime the wretched woman had flung herself down prostrate upon the floor, where she lay groveling and writhing.
That again, however, was only for a minute or two; she staggered up once more and rushed blindly across the room, crying, "I cannot bear it, I cannot bear it! Oh, what have I done?" Then suddenly as she flung up her arms imploringly and staggered blindly on, she lurched forward and fell, striking her head against the corner of the table.
Helen started forward with a cry of alarm, but before she had taken half a dozen steps the woman had raised herself to her feet once more, and was staring at her, blinded by the blood which poured from a cut in her forehead. Her clothing was torn half from her, and her tangled hair streamed from her shoulders; she was a ghastly sight to behold, as, delirious with terror, she began once more rushing this way and that about the room. The two who watched her were powerless to help her, and could only drink in the horror of it all and shudder, as with each minute the poor creature became more frantic and more desperate. All the while it was evident that her strength was fast leaving her; she staggered more and more, and at last she sank down upon her knees. She strove to rise again and found that she could not, but lurched and fell upon the floor; as she turned over and Helen saw her face, the sight was too much for the girl's self-control, and she buried her face in her hands and broke into frantic sobbing.
David in the meantime was crouching in the doorway, his gaze fixed upon the woman; he did not seem even to notice Helen's outburst, so lost was all his soul in the other sight. Fie saw that the stranger's convulsive efforts were weakening, and he staggered forward with a cry, and flung himself forward down on his knees beside her. "Mary, Mary!" he called; but she did not heed him, tho he clasped her hands and shook her, gazing into her face imploringly. Her eyes were fixed upon him, but it was with a vacant stare; and then suddenly he started back with a cry of horror— "Great God, she is dying!"
The woman made a sudden fearful effort to lift herself, struggling and gasping, her face distorted with fierce agony; as it failed she sank back, and lay panting hard for breath; then a shudder passed over her, and while David still stared, transfixed, a hoarse rattle came from her throat, and her features became suddenly set in their dreadful passion. In a moment more all was still; and David buried his face in his hands and sank down upon the corpse, without even a moan.
Afterwards, for a full minute there was not a sound in the room; Helen's sobbing had ceased, she had looked up and sat staring at the two figures,—until at last, with a sudden start of fright she sprang up and crept silently toward them. She glanced once at the woman's body, and then bent over David; as she felt that his heart was still beating, she caught him to her bosom, and knelt thus in terror, staring first into his white and tortured features, and then at the body on the floor.
Finally, however, she nerved herself, and tho she was trembling and exhausted, staggered to her feet with her burden; holding it tightly in her arms she went step by step, slowly and in silence out of the room. When she had passed into the next one she shut the door and, sinking down upon the sofa, lifted David's broken figure beside her and locked it in her arms and was still. Thus she sat without a sound or a motion, her heart within her torn with fear and pain, all through the long hours of that night; when the cold, white dawn came up, she was still pressing him to her bosom, sobbing and whispering faintly, "Oh, David! Oh, my poor, poor David!"
Hast du im Venusburg geweilt, So bist nun ewig du verdammt!
"Then said I, 'Woe is me! For I am undone;... for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.'"
David'S servant drove out early upon the following morning to tell him of a strange woman who had been asking for him in the village; they sent the man back for a doctor, and it was found that the poor creature was really dead.
They wished to take the body away, but David would not have it; and so, late in the afternoon, a grave was dug by the lake-shore near the little cottage, and what was left of Mary was buried there. David was too exhausted to leave the house, and Helen would not stir from his side, so the two sat in silence until the ceremony was over, and the men had gone. The servant went with them, because the girl said they wished to be alone; and then the house settled down to its usual quietness,—a quietness that frightened Helen now.
For when she looked at her husband her heart scarcely beat for her terror; he was ghastly white, and his lips were trembling, and though he had not shed a tear all the day, there was a look of mournful despair on his face that told more fearfully than any words how utterly the soul within him was beaten and crushed. All that day he had been so, and as Helen remembered the man that had been before so strong and eager and brare, her whole soul stood still with awe; yet as before she could do nothing but cling to him, and gaze at him with bursting heart.
But at last when the hours had passed and not a move had been made, she asked him faintly, "David, is there no hope? Is it to be like this always?"
The man raised his eyes and gazed at her helplessly. "Helen," he said, his voice sounding hollow and strange, "what can you ask of me? How can I bear to look about me again, how can I think of living? Oh, that night of horror! Helen, it burns my brain—it tortures my soul—it will drive me mad!" He buried his face in his hands again, shaking with emotion. "Oh, I cannot ever forget it," he whispered hoarsely; "it must haunt me, haunt me until I die! I must know that after all my years of struggle it was this that I made, it is this that stands for my life—and it is over, and gone from me forever and finished! Oh, God, was there ever such a horror flashed upon a guilty soul—ever such fiendish torture for a man to bear? And Helen, there was a child, too—think how that thought must goad me—a child of mine, and I cannot ever aid it—it must suffer for its mother's shame. And think, if it were a woman, Helen—this madness must go on, and go on forever! Oh, where am I to hide me; and what can I do?"
There came no tears, but only a fearful sobbing; poor Helen whispered frantically, "David, it was not your fault, you could not help it—surely you cannot be to blame for all this."
He did not answer her, but after a long silence he went on in a deep, low voice, "Helen, she was so beautiful! She has lived in my thoughts all these years as the figure that I used to see, so bright and so happy; I used to hear her singing in church, and the music was a kind of madness to me, because I knew that she loved me. And her home was a little farm-house, half buried in great trees, and I used to see her there with her flowers. Now—oh, think of her now—think of her life of shame and agony—think of her turned away from her home, and from all she loved in the world,—deserted and scorned, and helpless—think of her with child, and of the agony of her degradation! What must she not have suffered to be as she was last night—oh, are there tears enough in the world to pay for such a curse, for that twenty years' burden of wretchedness and sin? And she was beaten—oh, she was beaten—Mary, my poor, poor Mary! And to die in such horror, in drunkenness and madness! And now she is gone, and it is over; and oh, why should I live, what can I do?"
His voice dropped into a moan, and then again there was a long silence. At last Helen whispered, in a weak, trembling voice, "David, you have still love; can that be nothing to you?"
"I have no right to love," he groaned, "no right to love, and I never had any. For oh, all my life this vision has haunted me—I knew that nothing but death could have saved her from shame! Yes, and I knew, too, that some day I must find her. I have carried the terror of that in my heart all these years. Yet I dared to take your love, and dared to fly from my sin; and then there comes this thunderbolt—oh, merciful heaven, it is too much to bear, too much to bear!" He sank down again; poor Helen could find no word of comfort, no utterance of her own bursting heart except the same frantic clasp of her love.
So the day went by over that shattered life; and each hour the man's despair grew more black, his grief and misery more hopeless. The girl watched him and followed him about as if she had been a child, but she could get him to take no food, and to divert his mind to anything else she dared not even try. He would sit for hours writhing in his torment, and then again he would spring up and pace the room in agitation, though he was too weak to bear that very long. Afterwards the long night came on, and all through it he lay tossing and moaning, sometimes shuddering in a kind of paroxysm of grief,—Helen, though she was weary and almost fainting, watching thro the whole night, her heart wild with her dread.
And so the morning came, and another day of misery; and in the midst of it David flung himself down upon the sofa and buried his face in his arms and cried out, "Oh God, my God, I cannot stand it, I cannot stand it! Oh, let me die! I dare not lift my head—there is no hope for me—there is no life for me—I dare not pray! It is more than I can bear—I am beaten, I am lost forever!" And Helen fell down upon her knees beside him, and tore away his hands from his face and stared at him frantically, exclaiming, "David, it is too cruel! Oh, have mercy upon me, David, if you love me!"
He stopped and gazed long and earnestly into her face, and a look of infinite pity came into his eyes; at last he whispered, in a low voice, "Poor, poor little Helen; oh, Helen, God help you, what can I do?" He paused and afterwards went on tremblingly, "What have you done that you should suffer like this? You are right that it is too cruel—it is another curse that I have to bear! For I knew that I was born to suffering—I knew that my life was broken and dying—and yet I dared to take yours into it! And now, what can I do to save you, Helen; can you not see that I dare not live?"
"David, it is you who are killing yourself," the girl moaned in answer. He did not reply, but there came a long, long silence, in which he seemed to be sinking still deeper; and when he went on it was in a shuddering voice that made Helen's heart stop. "Oh, it is no use," he gasped, "it is no use! Listen, Helen, there was another secret that I kept from you, because it was too fearful; but I can keep it no more, I can fight no more!"
He stopped; the girl had clutched his arm, and was staring into his face, whispering his name hoarsely. At last he went on in his cruel despair, "I knew this years ago, too, and I knew that I was bringing it upon you—the misery of this wretched, dying body. Oh, it hurts—it hurts now!" And he put his hand over his heart, as a look of pain came into his face. "It cannot stand much more, my heart," he panted; "the time must come—they told me it would come years ago! And then—and then—"
The man stopped, because he was looking at Helen; she had not made a sound, but her face had turned so white, and her lips were trembling so fearfully that he dared not go on; she gave a loud, choking cry and burst out wildly, "Oh, David—David—it is fiendish—you have no right to punish me so! Oh, have mercy upon me, for you are killing me! You have no right to do it, I tell you it is a crime; you promised me your love, and if you loved me you would live for my sake, you would think of me! A thing so cruel ought not to be—it cannot be right—God could never have meant a human soul to suffer so! And there must be pardon in the world, there must be light—it cannot all be torture like this!" She burst into a flood of tears and flung herself upon David's bosom, sobbing again and again, "Oh, no, no, it is too fearful, oh, save me, save me!"
He did not answer her; as she looked up at him again she saw the same look of fearful woe, and read the cruel fact that there was no help, that her own grief and pleadings were only deepening the man's wretchedness. She stared at him for a long time; and when she spoke to him again it was with a sudden start, and in a strange, ghastly voice,—"And then, David, there is no God?"
He trembled, but the words choked him as he tried to respond, and his head dropped; then at last she heard him moan, "Oh, how can God free my soul from this madness, how can he deliver me from such a curse?" Helen could say no more—could only cling to him and sob in her fright.
So the day passed away, and another night came; and still the crushed and beaten soul was writhing in its misery, lost in blackness and despair; and still Helen read it all in his white and tortured features, and drank the full cup of his soul's fiery pain.
They took no heed of the time; but it was long after darkness had fallen; and once when the girl had gone upstairs for a moment she heard David pacing about, and then heard a stifled cry. She rushed down, and stopped short in the doorway. For the man was upon his knees, his face uplifted in wild entreaty. "Oh God, oh merciful God!" he sobbed; "all the days of my life I have sought for righteousness, labored and suffered to keep my soul alive! And oh, was it all for this—was it to go down in blackness and night, to die a beaten man, crushed and lost? Oh, I cannot bear it, I cannot bear it! It cannot—it must not be!"
He sank forward upon the sofa, and buried his head in his arms, and the girl could hear his breathing in the stillness; at last she crept across the room and knelt down beside him, and whispered softly in his ear, "You do not give me your heart any more, David?"
It was a long time before he answered her, and then it was to moan, "Oh, Helen, my heart is broken, I can give it to no one. Once I had strength and faith, and could love; but now I am lost and ruined, and there is nothing that can save me. I dare not live, and I dare not die, and I know not where to turn!"
He started up suddenly, clasping his hands to his forehead and staggering across the room, crying out, "Oh no, it cannot be, oh, it cannot be! There must be some way of finding pardon, some way of winning Tightness for a soul! Oh God, what can I do for peace?" But then again he sank down and hid his face and sobbed out: "In the face of this nightmare,—with this horror fronting me! She cried for pardon, and none came."
After that there was a long silence, with Helen crouching in terror by his side. She heard him groan: "It is all over, it is finished—I can fight no more," and then again came stillness, and when she lifted him and gazed into his face she knew not which was worse, the silent helpless despair that was upon it, or the torment and the suffering that had gone before. She tried still to soothe him, begging and pleading with him to have mercy upon her. He asked her faintly what he could do, and the poor girl, seeing how weak and exhausted he was, could think of only the things of the body, and begged him to try to rest. "It has been two nights since you have slept, David," she whispered.
"I cannot sleep with this burden upon my soul," he answered her; but still she pleaded with him, begging him as he loved her; and he yielded to her at last, and broken and helpless as he was, she half carried him upstairs and laid him upon the bed as if he had been a little child. That seemed to help little, however, for he only lay tossing and moaning, "Oh, God, it must end; I cannot bear it!"
Those were the last words Helen heard, for the poor girl was exhausted herself, almost to fainting; she lay down, without undressing, and her head had scarcely touched the pillow before she was asleep. In the meantime, through the long night-watches David lay writhing and crying out for help.
The moon rose dim and red behind the mountains,—it had mounted high in the sky, and the room was bright with it, when at last the man rose from the bed and began swiftly pacing the room, still muttering to himself. He sank down upon his knees by the window and gazed up at the silent moon. Then again he rose and turned suddenly, and after a hurried glance at Helen went to the door and passed out, closing it silently behind him, and whispered to himself, half deliriously, "Oh, great God, it must end! It must end!"
It was more than an hour afterwards that the girl awakened from her troubled sleep; she lay for an instant half dazed, trying to bring back to her mind what had happened; and then she put out her hand and discovered that her husband was no longer by her. She sat up with a wild start, and at the same instant her ear was caught by a sound outside, of footsteps pacing swiftly back and forth, back and forth, upon the piazza. The girl leaped up with a stifled cry, and ran out of the room and down the steps. The room below was still half lighted by the flickering log-fire, and Helen's shadow loomed up on the opposite wall as she rushed across the room and opened the door.
The gray light of dawn was just spreading across the lake, but the girl noticed only one thing, her husband's swiftly moving figure. She rushed to him, and as he heard her, he turned and stared at her an instant as if dazed, and then staggered with a cry into her arms. "David, David!" she exclaimed, "what is the matter?" Then as she clasped him to her she found that his body was trembling convulsively, and that his hand as she took it was hot like fire; she called to him again in yet greater anxiety: "David, David! What is it? You will kill me if you treat me so!"
He answered her weakly, "Nothing, dear, nothing," and she caught him to her, and turned and half carried him into the house. She staggered into a chair with him, and then sat gazing in terror at his countenance. For the man's forehead was burning and moist, and his frame was shaking and broken; he was completely prostrated by the fearful agitation that had possessed him. Helen cried to him once more, but he could only pant, "Wait, wait," and sink back and let his head fall upon her arm; he lay with his eyes closed, breathing swiftly, and shuddering now and then. "It was God!" he panted with a sudden start, his voice choking; "He has shown me His face! He has set me free!"
Then again for a long time he lay with heaving bosom, Helen whispering to him pleadingly, "David, David!" As he opened his eyes, the girl saw a wonderful look upon his face; and at last he began speaking, in a low, shaking voice, and pausing often to catch his breath: "Oh, Helen," he said, "it is all gone, but I won, and my life's prayer has not been for nothing! I was never so lost, so beaten; but all the time there was a voice in my soul that cried to me to fight,—that there was glory enough in God's home for even me! And oh, to-night it came—it came!"
David sank back, and there was a long silence before he went on: "It was wonderful, Helen," he whispered, "there has come nothing like it to me in all my life; for I had never drunk such sorrow before, never known such fearful need. It seems as if all the pent-up forces of my nature broke loose in one wild, fearful surge, as if there was a force behind me like a mighty, driving storm, that swept me on and away, beyond self and beyond time, and out into the life of things. It was like the surging of fierce music, it was the great ocean of the infinite bursting its way into my heart. And it bore me on, so that I was mad with it, so that I knew not where I was, only that I was panting for breath, and that I could bear it no more and cried out in pain!"
David as he spoke had been lifting himself, the memory of his vision taking hold of him once more; but then he sank down again and whispered, "Oh, I have no more strength, I can do no more; but it was God, and I am free!"
He lay trembling and breathing fast again, but sinking back from his effort and closing his eyes exhaustedly. After a long time he went on in a faint voice, "I suppose if I had lived long ago that would have been a vision of God's heaven; and yet there was not an instant of it—even when I fell down upon the ground and when I struck my hands upon the stones because they were numb and burning—when I did not know just what it was, the surging passion of my soul flung loose at last! It was like the voices of the stars and the mountains, that whisper of that which is and which conquers, of That which conquers without sound or sign; Helen, I thought of that wonderful testament of Pascal's that has haunted me all my lifetime,—those strange, wild, gasping words of a soul gone mad with awe, and beyond all utterance except a cry,—'Joy, joy, tears of joy!' And I thought of a still more fearful story, I thought that it must have been such thunder-music that rang through the soul of the Master and swept Him away beyond scorn and pain, so that the men about Him seemed like jeering phantoms that He might scatter with His hand, before the glory of vision in which it was all one to live or die. Oh, it is that which has brought me my peace! God needs not our help, but only our worship; and beside His glory all our guilt is nothing, and there is no madness like our fear. And oh, if we can only hold to that and fight for it, conquer all temptation and all pain—all fear because we must die, and cease to be—"
The man had clenched his hands again, and was lifting himself with the wild look upon his countenance; he seemed to the girl to be delirious, and she was shuddering, half with awe and half with terror. She interrupted him in a sudden burst of alarm: "Yes, yes,—but David, David, not now, not now—it is too much—you will kill yourself!"
"I can die," he panted, "I can die, but I cannot ever be mastered again, never again be blind! Oh, Helen, all my life I have been lost and beaten—beaten by my weakness and my fear; but this once, this once I was free, this once I knew, and I lived; and now I can die rejoicing! Listen to me, Helen; while I am here there can be no more delaying,—no more weakness! Such sin and doubt as that of yesterday must never conquer my soul again, I will not any more be at the mercy of chance. I love you, Helen, God knows that I love you with all my soul; and this much for love I will do, if God spares me a day,—take you, and tear the heart out of you, if need be, but only teach you to live, teach you to hold by this Truth. It is a fearful thing, Helen; it is madness to me to know that at any instant I may cease to be, and that you may be left alone in your terror and your weakness. Oh, look at me,—look at me! There is no more tempting fate, there is no more shirking the battle—there is life, there is life to be lived! And it calls to you now,—now! And now you must win,—cost just what it may in blood and tears! You have the choice between that and ruin, and before God you shall choose the right! Listen to me, Helen—it is only prayer that can do it, it is only by prayer that you can fight this fearful battle—bring before you this truth of the soul, and hold on to it,—hold on to it tho it kill you! For He was through all the ages, His glory is of the skies; and we are but for an instant, and we have to die; and this we must know, or we are lost! There comes pain, and calls you back to fear and doubt; and you fight—oh, it is a cruel fight, it is like a wild beast at your vitals,—but still you hold on—you hold on!"
The man had lifted himself with a wild effort, his hands clenched and his teeth set. He had caught the girl's hands in his, and she screamed in fear: "David, David! You will kill yourself!"
"Yes, yes!" he answered, and rushed on, chokingly; "it is coming just so; for I have just force enough left to win—just force enough to save you,—and then it will rend this frame of mine in two! It comes like a clutch at my heart—it blinds me, and the sky seems to turn to fire——"
He sank back with a gasp; Helen caught him to her bosom, exclaiming frantically, "Oh, David, spare me—wait! Not now—you cannot bear it—have mercy!"
He lay for a long time motionless, seemingly half dazed; then he whispered faintly, "Yes, dear, yes; let us wait. But oh, if you could know the terror of another defeat, of sinking down and letting one's self be bound in the old chains—I must not lose, Helen, I dare not fail!"
"Listen, David," whispered Helen, beginning suddenly with desperate swiftness; "why should you fail? Why can you not listen to me, pity me, wait until you are strong? You have won, you will not forget—and is there no peace, can you not rest in this faith, and fear no more?" The man seemed to Helen to be half out of his mind for the moment; she was trying to manage him with a kind of frenzied cunning. As she went on whispering and imploring she saw that David's exhaustion was gradually overcoming him more and more, and that he was sinking farther and farther back from his wild agitation. At last after she had continued thus for a while he closed his eyes and began breathing softly. "Yes, dear," he whispered; "yes; I will be quiet. There has come to my soul to-night a peace that is not for words; I can be still, and know that He is God, and that He is holy."
His voice dropped lower each instant, the girl in the meantime soothing him and stroking his forehead and pleading with him in a shuddering voice, her heart wild with fright. When at last he was quite still, and the fearful vision, that had been like a nightmare to her, was gone with all its storm and its madness, she took him upon her lap, just as she had done before, and sat there clasping him in her arms while the time fled by unheeded. It was long afterwards—the sun was gleaming across the lake and in at the window—before at last her trembling prayer was answered, and he sank into an exhausted slumber.
She sat watching him for a long time still, quite white with fear and weariness; finally, however, she rose, and carrying the frail body in her arms, laid it quietly upon the sofa in the next room. She knelt watching it for a time, then went out upon the piazza, closing the door behind her.
And there the fearful tension that the dread of wakening him had put upon her faculties gave way at last, and the poor girl buried her face in her hands, and sank down, sobbing convulsively: "Oh, God, oh, God, what can I do, how can I bear it?" She gazed about her wildly, exclaiming, "I cannot stand it, and there is no one to help me! What can I do?"
Perhaps it was the first real prayer that had ever passed Helen's lips; but the burden of her sorrow was too great just then for her to bear alone, even in thought. She leaned against the railing of the porch with her arms stretched out before her imploringly, her face uplifted, and the tears running down her cheeks; she poured out one frantic cry, the only cry that she could think of:—"Oh, God, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me! I cannot bear it!"
So she sobbed on, and several minutes passed, but there came to her no relief; when she thought of David, of his breaking body and of his struggling soul, it seemed to her as if she were caught in the grip of a fiend, and that no power could save her. She could only clasp her hands together and shudder, and whisper, "What shall I do, what shall I do?"
Thus it was that the time sped by; and the morning sun rose higher in front of her, and shone down upon the wild and wan figure that seemed like a phantom of the night. She was still crouching in the same position, her mind as overwrought and hysterical as ever, when a strange and unexpected event took place, one which seemed to her at first in her state of fright like some delusion of her mind.
Except for her own emotion, and for the faint sound of the waves upon the shore, everything about her had been still; her ear was suddenly caught, however, by the noise of a footstep, and she turned and saw the figure of a man coming down the path from the woods; she started to her feet, gazing in surprise.
It was broad daylight then, and Helen could see the person plainly; she took only one glance, and reeled and staggered back as if it were a ghost at which she was gazing. She crouched by a pillar of the porch, trembling like a leaf, and scarcely able to keep her senses, leaning from side to side and peering out, with her whole attitude expressive of unutterable consternation, and even fright. At last when she had gazed until it was no longer possible for her to think that she was the victim of madness, she stared suddenly up into the air, and caught her forehead in her hands, at the same time whispering to herself in an almost fainting voice: "Great heaven, what can it mean? Can it be real—can it be true? It is Arthur!"
I am Merlin And I am dying, "I am Merlin, Who follow the Gleam."
Helen stood gazing at the figure in utter consternation for at least half a minute before she could find voice; then she bent forward and called to him wildly—"Arthur!"
It was the other's turn to be startled then, and he staggered backward; as he gazed up at Helen his look showed plainly that he too was half convinced that he was gazing at a phantom of his own mind, and for a long time he stood, pressing his hands to his heart and unable to make a sound or a movement. When finally he broke the silence his voice was a hoarse whisper. "Helen," he panted, "what in heaven's name are you doing here?"
And then as the girl answered, "This is my home, Arthur," he gave another start.
"You live here with him?" he gasped.
"With him?" echoed Helen in a low voice. "With whom, Arthur?"
He answered, "With that Mr. Harrison." A look of amazement crossed Helen's face, tho followed quickly by a gleam of comprehension. She had quite forgotten that Arthur knew nothing about what she had done.
"Arthur," she said, "I did not marry Mr. Harrison;" then, seeing that he was staring at her in still greater wonder, she went on hastily: "It seems strange to go back to those old days now; but once I meant to tell you all about it, Arthur." She paused for a moment and then went on slowly: "All the time I was engaged to that man I was wretched; and when I saw you the last time—that dreadful time by the road—it was almost more than I could bear; so I took back my wicked promise of marriage and came to see you and tell you all about it."
As the girl had been speaking the other had been staring at her with a look upon his face that was indescribable, a look that was more terror than anything else; he had staggered back, he grasped at a tree to support himself. Helen saw the look and stopped, frightened herself.
"What is it, Arthur?" she cried; "what is the matter?"
"You came to see me!" the other gasped hoarsely. "You came to see me—and I—and I was gone!"
"Yes, Arthur," said Helen; "you had gone the night before, and I could not find you. Then I met this man that I loved, and you wrote that you had torn the thought of me from your heart; and so—-"
Again Helen stopped, for the man had sunk backwards with a cry that made her heart leap in fright. "Arthur!" she exclaimed, taking a step towards him; and he answered her with a moan, stretching out his arms to her. "Great God, Helen, that letter was a lie!"
Helen stopped, rooted to the spot. "A lie?" she whispered faintly.
"Yes, a lie!" cried the other with a sudden burst of emotion, leaping up and starting towards her. "Helen, I have suffered the tortures of hell! I loved you—I love you now!"
The girl sprang back, and the blood rushed to her cheeks. Half instinctively she drew her light dress more tightly about her; and the other saw the motion and stopped, a look of despair crossing his face. The two stood thus for fully a minute, staring at each other wildly; then suddenly Arthur asked: "You love this man whom you have married? You love him?"
The girl answered, "Yes, I love him," and Arthur's arms dropped, and his head sank forward. There was a look upon his face that tore Helen's heart to see, so that for a moment or two she stood quite dazed with this new terror. Then all at once, however, the old one came back to her thoughts, and with a faint cry she started toward her old friend, stretching out her arms to him and calling to him imploringly.
"Oh, Arthur," she cried, "have mercy upon me—do not frighten me any more! Arthur, if you only knew what I have suffered, you would pity me, you could not help it! You would not fling this burden of your misery upon me too."
The man fixed his eyes upon her and for the first time he seemed to become aware of the new Helen, the Helen who had replaced the girl he had known. He read in her ghastly white face some hint of what she had been through, and his own look turned quickly to one of wonder, and even awe. "Helen," he whispered, "are you ill?"
"No, Arthur," she responded quickly, full of desperate hope as she saw his change. "Not ill, but oh, so frightened. I have been more wretched than you can ever dream. Can you not help me, Arthur, will you not? I was almost despairing, I thought that my heart would burst. Can you not be unselfish?"
The man gazed at her at least a minute; and when he answered at last, it was in a low, grave voice that was new to her.
"I will do it, Helen," he said. "What is it?"
The girl came toward him, her voice sinking. "We must not let him hear us, Arthur," she whispered. Then as she gazed into his face she added pathetically, "Oh, I cannot tell you how I have wished that I might only have someone to sympathize with me and help me! I can tell everything to you, Arthur."
"You are not happy with your husband?" asked the other, in a wondering tone, not able to guess what she meant.
"Happy!" echoed Helen. "Arthur, he is ill, and I have been so terrified! I feared that he was going to die; we have had such a dreadful sorrow." She paused for a moment, and gazed about her swiftly, and laying her finger upon her lips. "He is asleep now," she went on, "asleep for the first time in three nights, and I was afraid that we might waken him; we must not make a sound, for it is so dreadful."
She stopped, and the other asked her what was the matter. "It was three nights ago," she continued, "and oh, we were so happy before it! But there came a strange woman, a fearful creature, and she was drunk, and my husband found her and brought her home. She was delirious, she died here in his arms, while there was no one to help her. The dreadful thing was that David had known this woman when she was a girl—"
Helen paused again, and caught her breath, for she had been speaking very swiftly, shaken by the memory of the scene; the other put in, in a low tone, "I heard all about this woman's death, Helen, and I know about her—that was how I happen to be here."
And the girl gave a start, echoing, "Why you happen to be here?" Afterwards she added quickly, "Oh, I forgot to ask you about that. What do you mean, Arthur?"
He hesitated a moment before he answered her, speaking very slowly. "It is so sad, Helen," he said, "it is almost too cruel to talk about." He stopped again, and the girl looked at him, wondering; then he went on to speak one sentence that struck her like a bolt of lightning from the sky:—"Helen, that poor woman was my mother!"
And Helen staggered back, almost falling, clutching her hands to her forehead, and staring, half dazed.
"Arthur," she panted, "Arthur!"
He bowed his head sadly, answering, "Yes, Helen, it is dreadful—"
And the girl leaped towards him, seizing him by the shoulders with a thrilling cry; she stared into his eyes, her own glowing like fire. "Arthur!" she gasped again, "Arthur!"
He only looked at her wonderingly, as if thinking she was mad; until suddenly she burst out frantically, "You are David's child! You are David's child!" And then for fully half a minute the two stood staring at each other, too much dazed to move or to make a sound.
At last Arthur echoed the words, scarcely audibly, "David's child!" and added, "David is your husband?" As Helen whispered "Yes" again, they stood panting for breath. It was a long time before the girl could find another word to speak, except over and over, "David's child!" She seemed unable to realize quite what it meant, she seemed unable to put the facts together.
But then suddenly Arthur whispered: "Then it was your husband who ruined that woman?" and as Helen answered "Yes," she grasped a little of the truth, and also of Arthur's thought. She ran on swiftly: "But oh, it was not his fault, he was only a boy, Arthur! And he wished to marry her, but they would not let him—I must tell you about that!" Then she stopped short, however; and when she went on it was in sudden wild joy that overcame all her other feelings, joy that gleamed in her face and made her fling herself down upon her knees before Arthur and clutch his hands in hers.
"Oh," she cried, "it was God who sent you, Arthur,—oh, I know that it was God! It is so wonderful to think of—to have come to us all in a flash! And it will save David's life—it was the thought of the child and the fate that it might have suffered that terrified him most of all, Arthur. And now to think that it is you—oh, you! And you are David's son—I cannot believe it, I cannot believe it!" Then with a wild laugh she sprang up again and turned, exclaiming, "Oh, he will be so happy,—I must tell him—we must not lose an instant!"
She caught Arthur's hand again, and started towards the house; but she had not taken half a dozen steps before she halted suddenly, and whispered, "Oh, no, I forgot! He is asleep, and we must not waken him now, we must wait!"
And then again the laughter broke out over her face, and she turned upon him, radiant. "It is so wonderful!" she cried. "It is so wonderful to be happy, to be free once more! And after so much darkness—oh, it is like coming out of prison! Arthur, dear Arthur, just think of it! And David will be so glad!" The tears started into the girl's eyes; she turned away to gaze about her at the golden morning and to drink in great draughts of its freshness that made her bosom heave. The life seemed to have leaped back into her face all at once, and the color into her cheeks, and she was more beautiful than ever. "To think of being happy!" she panted, "happy again! Oh, if I were not afraid of waking David, you do not know how happy I could be! Don't you think I ought to waken him anyway, Arthur?—it is so wonderful—it will make him strong again! It is so beautiful that you, whom I have always been so fond of, that you should be David's son! And you can live here and be happy with us! Arthur, do you know I used to think how much like David you looked, and wonder at it; but, oh, are you sure it is true?"
She chanced to think of the letter that had been left at her father's, and exclaimed, "It must have been that! You have been home, Arthur?" she added quickly. "And while father was up here?"
"Yes," said he, "I wanted to see your father—I could not stay away from home any longer. I was so very lonely and unhappy—" Arthur stopped for a moment, and the girl paled slightly; as he saw it he continued rapidly: "There was no one there but the servant, and she gave me the letter."
"And did she not tell you about me?" asked Helen.
"I asked if you were married," Arthur said; "I would not listen to any more, for I could not bear it; when I had read the letter I came up here to look for my poor mother. I wanted to see her; I was as lonely as she ever was, and I wanted someone's sympathy—even that poor, beaten soul's. I heard in the town that she was dead; they told me where the grave was, and that was how I happened out here. I thought I would see it once before I left, and before the people who lived in this house were awake. Helen, when I saw you I thought it was a ghost."
"It is wonderful, Arthur," whispered the girl; "it is almost too much to believe—but, oh, I can't think of anything except how happy it will make David! I love him so, Arthur—and you will love him, too, you cannot help but love him."
"Tell me about it all, Helen," the other answered; "I heard nothing, you know, about my poor mother's story."
Before Helen answered the question she glanced about her at the morning landscape, and for the first time thought of the fact that it was cold. "Let us go inside," she said; "we can sit there and talk until David wakens." And the two stole in, Helen opening the door very softly. David was sleeping in the next room, so that it was possible not to disturb him; the two sat down before the flickering fire and conversed in low whispers. The girl told him the story of David's love, and told him all about David, and Arthur in turn told her how he had been living in the meantime; only because he saw how suddenly happy she was, and withal how nervous and overwrought, he said no more of his sufferings.
And Helen had forgotten them utterly; it was pathetic to see her delight as she thought of being freed from the fearful terror that had haunted her,—she was like a little child in her relief. "He will be so happy—he will be so happy!" she whispered again and again. "We can all be so happy!" The thought that Arthur was actually David's son was so wonderful that she seemed never to be able to realize it fully, and every time she uttered the thought it was a sweep of the wings of her soul. Arthur had to tell her many times that it was actually Mary who had been named in that letter.