Here is a brief example describing a scene in Norway, where she was visiting, as it appeared to her upon some evening in late autumn: "This afternoon I went out to gather cranberries on the edge of the fir-belt below the Stead. Beneath me stretched the great moss-swamp, so wide that I could not discern its borders, and grey as the sea in winter. The wind blew and in the west the sun was setting, a big, red sun which glowed like the copper-covered cathedral dome that we saw last week. All about in the moss stood pools of black, stagnant water with little straggling bushes growing round them. Under the clouds they were ink, but in the path of the red light, there they were blood. A man with a large basket on his back and a long staff in his hand, was walking across the moss from west to east. The wind tossed his cloak and bent his grey beard as he threaded his way among the pools. The red light fell upon him also, and he looked as though he were on fire. Before him, gathering thicker as the sun sank, were shadows and blackness. He seemed to walk into the blackness like a man wading into the sea. It swallowed him up; he must have felt very lonely with no one near him in that immense grey place. Now he was all gone, except his head that wore a halo of the red light. He looked like a saint struggling across the world into the Black Gates. For a minute he stood still, as though he were frightened. Then a sudden gust seemed to sweep him on again, right into the Gates, and I lost sight of that man whom I shall never see any more. I wonder whether he was a saint or a sinner, and what he will find beyond the Gates. A curlew flew past me, borne out of the darkness, and its cry made me feel sad and shiver. It might have been the man's soul which wished to look upon the light again. Then the sun sank, and there was no light, only the wind moaning, and far, far away the sad cry of the curlew."
This description was simple and unpolished as it was short. Yet it impressed the mind of Morris, and its curious allegorical note appealed to his imagination. The grey moss broken by stagnant pools, lonesome and primeval; the dreary pipe of the wildfowl, the red and angry sun fronting the gloom of advancing, oblivious night; the solitary traveller, wind-buffeted, way-worn, aged, heavy-laden, fulfilling the last stage of his appointed journey to a realm of sleep and shadow. All these sprang into vision as he read, till the landscape, concentrated, and expressing itself in its tiny central point of human interest, grew more real in memory and meaning than many with which he was himself familiar.
Yet that description was written by an untrained girl not yet seventeen years of age. But with such from first to last, and this was by no means the best of them, he found her pages studded.
Then, jotted down from day to day, came the account of the illness and death of her twin sister, Gudrun, a pitiful tale to read. Hopes, prayers, agonies of despair, all were here recorded; the last scene also was set out with a plain and noble dignity, written by the bed of death in the presence of death. Now under the hand of suffering the child had become a woman, and, as was fitting, her full soul found relief in deeper notes. "Good-bye, Gudrun," she ended, "my heart is broken; but I will mourn for you no more. God has called you, and we give you back to God. Wait for me, my sister, for I am coming also, and I will not linger. I will walk quickly."
It was from this sad day of her only sister's death that the first real developments of the mystical side of Stella's character must be dated. The sudden vanishing in Gudrun in the bloom of youth and beauty brought home to her the lesson which all must learn, in such a fashion that henceforth her whole soul was tinged to its sad hue.
"Now I understand it all," she wrote after returning from the funeral. "We do not live to die, we die to live. As a grain of sand to the whole shore, as a drop of water to the whole sea, so is what we call our life to the real life. Of course one has always been taught that in church, but I never really comprehended it before. Henceforth this thought shall be a part of me! Every morning when I wake I will remember that I am one night nearer to the great dawn, every night when I lie down to sleep I will thank God that another day of waiting has ended with the sunset. Yes, and I will try to live so that after my last sunset I may meet the end as did Gudrun; without a single doubt or fear, for if I have nothing to reproach myself with, why should I be reproached? If I have longed for light and lived towards the light, however imperfect I may be, why should I be allotted to the darkness?"
Almost on the next page appeared a prayer "For the welfare and greater glory" of her who was dead, and for the mourner who was left alive, with this quaint note appended: "My father would not approve of this, as it is against the rubric, but all the same I mean to go on praying for the dead. Why should I not? If my poor petitions cannot help them who are above the need for help, at least they may show that they are not forgotten. Oh! that must be the bitter part; to live on full of love and memory and watch forgetfulness creeping into the hearts of the loved and the remembered. The priests never thought of it, but there lies the real purgatory."
The diary showed it to be a little more than a year after this that spiritual doubts began to possess the soul of Stella. After all, was she not mistaken? Was there any world beyond the physical? Were we not mere accidents, born of the will or the chance of the flesh, and shaped by the pressure of centuries of circumstance? Were not all religions different forms of a gigantic fraud played by his own imagination upon blind, believing man? And so on to the end of the long list of those questions which are as old as thought.
"I look," she wrote under the influence of this mood, "but everywhere is blackness; blackness without a single star. I cry aloud, but the only answer is the echo of my own voice beating back upon me from the deaf heavens. I pray for faith, yet faith fades and leaves me. I ask for signs, and there is no sign. The argument? So far as I have read and heard, it seems the other way. And yet I do not believe their proofs. I do not believe that so many generations of good men would have fed full upon a husk of lies and have lain down to sleep at last as though satisfied with meat. My heart rises at the thought. I am immortal. I know that I am immortal. I am a spirit. In days to come, unchained by matter, time, or space, I shall stand before the throne of the Father of all spirits, receiving of His wisdom and fulfilling His commandments. Yet, O God, help Thou my unbelief. O God, draw and deliver me from this abyss."
From this time forward here and there in the diary were to be found passages, or rather sentences, that Morris did not understand. They alluded to some secret and persistent effort which the writer had been making, and after one of them came these words, "I have failed again, but she was near me; I am sure that she was very near me."
Then at last came this entry, which, as the writing showed, was written with a shaking hand. "I have seen her beyond the possibility of a doubt. She appeared, and was with me quite a while; and, oh! the rapture! It has left me weak and faint after all that long, long preparation. It is of the casting forth of spirits that it is said, 'This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting,' but it is also true of the drawing of them down. To see a spirit one must grow akin to spirits, which is not good for us who are still in the flesh. I am satisfied. I have seen, and I know. Now I shall call her back no more lest the thing should get the mastery of me, and I become unfitted for my work on earth. This morning I could scarcely hold the bow of the violin, and its sweetest notes sounded harsh to me; I heard discords among their harmonies. Also I had no voice to sing, and after all the money and time that have been spent upon them, I must keep up my playing and singing, since, perhaps, in the future if my father's health should fail, as it often threatens to do, they may be our only means of livelihood. NO, I shall try no more; I will stop while there is yet time, while I am still my own mistress and have the strength to deny me this awful joy. But I have seen! I have seen, and I am thankful, who shall never doubt again. Yet the world, and those who tread it, can never more be quite the same to me, and that is not wholesome. This is the price which must be paid for vision of that which we were not meant to touch, to taste, to handle."
After this, for some years—until it was decided, indeed, that they should move to Monksland—there was little of startling interest in the diary. It recorded descriptions of the wild moorland scenery, of birds, and ferns, and flowers. Also there were sketches of the peasantry and of the gentlefolk with whom the writer came in contact; very shrewd and clever, some of them, but with this peculiarity—that they were absolutely free from unkindness of thought or words, though sometimes their author allowed herself the license of a mitigated satire. Such things, with notes of domestic and parish matters, and of the progress made in her arduous and continual study of vocal and instrumental music, made up the sum of these years of the diary. Then at length, at the beginning of the last volume, came this entry:
"The unexpected has happened, somebody has actually been found in whose eyes this cure of souls is desirable—namely, a certain Mr. Tomley, the rector of a village called Monksland, upon the East Coast of England. I will sum up the history of the thing. For some years I have been getting tired of this place, although, in a way, I love it too. It is so lonely here, and—I confess my weakness—playing and singing as I do now, I should like, occasionally, to have a better audience than a few old, half-deaf clergymen, their preoccupied and commonplace wives, some yeomen farmers, and a curate or two.
"It was last year, though I find that I didn't put it down at the time, that at the concert in aid of the rebuilding of Pankford church I played Tartini's 'Il Trillo del Diavolo,' to me one of the weirdest and most wonderful bits of violin music in the world. I know that I was almost crying when I finished it. But next day I saw in the report in the local paper, written by 'Our Musical Man,' that 'Miss Fregelius then relieved the proceedings with a comic interlude on the violin, which was much appreciated by the audience.' It was that, I confess it—yes, the idiotic remark of 'Our Musical Man,' which made me determine if it was in any way possible that I would shake the dust of this village off my feet. Then, so far as my father is concerned, the stipend is wretched and decreasing. Also he has never really got on here; he is too shy, too reserved, perhaps, in a way, too well read and educated, for these rough-and-ready people. Even his foreign name goes against him. The curates about here call him 'Frigid Fregelius.' It is the local idea of a joke.
"So I persuaded him to advertise for an exchange, although he said it was a mere waste of money, as nobody in his senses would look at this parish. Then came the wonderful thing. After the very first advertisement—yes, the very first—arrived a letter from Mr. Tomley, rector of Monksland, where the stipend is 100 pounds a year better than this, saying that he would wish to inquire into the matter. He has inquired, he has been, a pompous old gentleman with a slow voice and a single lock of white hair above his forehead; he says that it is satisfactory, and that, subject to the consent of the bishop, etc., he thinks that he will be glad to effect the exchange. Afterwards I found him in front of the house staring at the moorland behind, the sea in front, and the church in the middle, and looking very wretched. I asked him why he wanted to do it—the words popped out of my mouth, I couldn't help them; it was all so odd.
"Then I found out the reason. Mr. Tomley has a wife who is, or thinks she is—I am not sure which—an invalid, and who, I gather, speaks to Mr. Tomley with no uncertain sound. Mr. Tomley's wife was the niece of a long-departed rector who was inducted in 1815, and reigned here for forty-five years. He was rich, a bachelor, and rebuilt the church. (Is it not all written in the fly-leaf of the last register?) Mrs. Tomley inherited her uncle's landed property in this neighbourhood, and says that she is only well in the air of Northumberland. So Mr. Tomley has to come up here, which he doesn't at all like, although I gather that he is glad to escape from his present squire, who seems to be a distinguished but arbitrary old gentleman, an ex-Colonel of the Guards; rather quarrelsome, too, with a habit of making fun of Mrs. Tomley. There's the explanation.
"So just because of the silly criticism of 'Our Musical Man' we are going to move several hundred miles. But is that really the cause? Are these things done of our own desire, or do we do them because we must, as our forefathers believed? Beneath our shouts and chattering they have always heard the slow thunder of the waves of Fate. Through the flare of our straw fires and the dust of our hurrying feet, they could always see the shadow of his black banners and the sheen of his advancing spears, and for them every wayside sign-post was painted with his finger.
"I think like that, too, perhaps because I am all, nearly all, Norse, and we do not shake off the strong and ancient shackle of our blood in the space of a few generations of Christian freedom and enlightenment. Yes, I see the finger of Fate upon this sign-post of an advertisement in a Church paper. His flag is represented to me by Mr. Tomley's white and cherished lock. Assuredly our migration is decreed of the Norns, therefore I accept it without question; but I should like to know what kind of a web of destiny they are weaving for us yonder in the place called Monksland."
THE END OF STELLA'S DIARY
A month or two later in the diary came the account of the shipwreck of the Trondhjem and of the writer's rescue from imminent death. "My first great adventure," the pages were headed. They told how her father, with whom ready-money was a scarce commodity, and who had a passion for small and uncomfortable economies, suddenly determined to save two or three pounds by taking a passage in a Norwegian tramp steamboat named the Trondhjem. This vessel, laden with a miscellaneous cargo, had put in at a Northumbrian port, and carried freight consisting of ready-made windows, door-frames, and other wooden house-fittings suited to the requirements of the builders of seaside villas, to be delivered at the rising watering-place of Northwold, upon her way to London. Then followed a description of the voyage, the dirt of the ship, the surpassing nastiness of the food, and the roughness of the crew, whose sailor-like qualities inspired the writer with no confidence.
Next, the diary which now had been written up by Stella in the Abbey where Morris read it, went on to tell of how she had gone to her berth one night in the cabin next to that occupied by her father, and being tired by a long day in the strong sea air had fallen instantly into a heavy sleep, which was disturbed by a nightmare-like dream of shock and noise. This imagined pandemonium, it said, was followed by a great quiet, in the midst of which she awoke to miss the sound of the thumping screw and of the captain shouting his orders from the bridge.
For a while, the writing told, she lay still, till a sense that something was wrong awoke her thoroughly, when she lit the candle which she kept by her berth, and, rising, peeped out into the saloon to see that water was washing along its floor. Presently she made another discovery, that she was alone, utterly alone, even her father's cabin being untenanted.
The rest need not be repeated in detail. Throwing on some garments, and a red cloak of North-country frieze, she made her way to the deck to find that the ship was abandoned by every living soul, including her own father; why, or under what circumstances, remained a mystery. She retreated into the captain's cabin, which was on deck, being afraid to go below again in the darkness, and sheltered there until the light came. Then she went out, and though the dim, mist-laden dawn crept forward to the forecastle, and staring over the side discovered that the prow of the ship was fixed upon a rock, while her stern and waist, which floated clear, heaved and rolled with every sea. As she stood thus the vessel slipped back along the reef three feet or more, throwing her to the deck, and thrilling her from head to foot with the most sickening sensation she had ever experienced. Then the Trondhjem caught and hung again, but Stella, so she wrote, knew that the end must be near, as the ship would lift off with the full tide and founder, and for the first time felt afraid.
"I did not fear what might come after death," went on the diary, "but I did fear the act of death. I was so lonely, and the dim waters looked so cold; the brown shoulders of the rocks which showed now and again through the surges, so cruel. To be dashed by those cold waters upon those iron rocks till the life was slowly ground out of my body! And my father—the thought of him tormented my mind. Was he dead, or had he deserted me? The last seemed quite impossible, for it would have supposed him a coward, and I was sure that he would rather die than leave me; therefore, as I feared, the first must be true. I was afraid, and I was wretched, and I said my prayers and cried a little, while the cold struck me through the red cloak, and the damp mist made me shiver.
"Then suddenly I remembered that it had not been the custom of my ancestors and countrywomen of the old time to die weeping, and with the thought some of my courage came back. I rose from the deck and stood upon the prow of the ship, supporting myself by a rope, as many a dead woman of my race has done before me in the hour of battle and shipwreck. As I stood thus, believing that I was about to die, there floated into my mind a memory of the old Norse song that my mother had taught me as she learned it from her mother. It is called the 'Song of the Overlord,' and for generations without count on their death-beds has been sung, or if they were too weak to sing, whispered, by the women of my family. Even my mother murmured it upon the day she died, although to all appearances she had become an Englishwoman; and the first line of it,
"'Hail to thee, Sky King! Hail to thee, Earth King!'
were the last words that the gentlest creature whom I ever knew, my sister Gudrun, muttered before she became unconscious. This song it has always been held unlucky to sing except upon the actual approach of death, since otherwise, so goes the old saying, 'it draws the arrow whose flight was wide,' and Death, being invoked, comes soon. Still, for me I believed there was no escape, for I was quite sure from her movements that the steamer would soon come off the rocks, and I had made my confession and said my prayers. So I began to sing, and sang my loudest, pleasing myself with the empty, foolish thought that in some such circumstance as this many a Danish sea-king's daughter had sung that song before me.
"Then, as I sang, a wind began to blow, and suddenly the mist was driven before it like puffs of smoke, and in the east behind me rose the red ball of the sun. Its light fell upon the rocks and upon the waters beyond them, and there to my amazement, appearing and disappearing upon the ridges and hollows of the swell, I saw a man alone in a sailing-boat, which rode at anchor within thirty yards of me. At first I thought that it must be my father, then the man caught sight of me, and I saw his face as he looked up, for the sun shone upon his dark eyes, and knew that he was a stranger.
"He lifted his anchor and called to me to come to the companion ladder, and his voice told me that he was a gentleman. I could not meet him as I was, with my hair loose, and bare-footed like some Norse Viking girl. So I took the risk, for now, although I cannot tell why, I felt sure that no harm would come to him or me, and ran to the cabin, where also was this volume of my diary and my mother's jewels that I did not wish to lose. When at last I was ready after a fashion, I came out with my bag, and there, splashing through the water of the saloon, ran the stranger, shouting angrily to me to be quick, as the ship was lifting off the rock, which made me think how brave it was of him to come aboard to look for me. In an instant he caught me by the hand, and was dragging me up the stairs and down the companion, so that in another minute we were together in the boat, and he had told me that my father was on shore—thank God!—though with a broken thigh."
Then some pages of the diary were taken up with the description of the twenty-four hours which she had spent on the open sea with himself, of their landing, dazed and exhausted, at the Dead Church, and her strange desire to explore it, their arrival at the Abbey, and her meeting with her father. After these came a passage that may be quoted:—
"He is not handsome—I call him plain—with his projecting brow, large mouth, and untidy brown hair. But notwithstanding his stoop and his thin hands, he looks a fine man, and, when they light up, his eyes are beautiful. It was brave of him, too, very brave, although he thinks nothing of it, to come out alone to look for me like that. I wonder what brought him? I wonder if anything told his mind that I, a girl whom he had never seen, was really on the ship and in danger? Perhaps—at any rate, he came, and the odd thing is that from the moment I saw him, and especially from the moment I heard his voice, I felt as though I had known him all my life. Probably he would think me mad if I were to say so; indeed, I am by no means sure that he does not pay me that compliment already, with some excuse, perhaps, in view of the 'Song of the Overlord' and all my wild talk. Well, after such a night as I had spent anyone might be excused for talking foolishly. It is the reaction from never expecting to talk again at all. The chief advantage of a diary is that one may indulge in the luxury of telling the actual truth. So I will say that I feel as though I had known him always; always—and as though I understood him as one understands a person one has watched for years. What is more, I think that he understands me more than most people do; not that this is wonderful, seeing how few I know. At any rate, he guesses more or less what I am thinking about, and can see that there is something in the ideas which others consider foolish, as perhaps they are.
"It is very odd that I, who had made sure that I was gone, should be still alive in this pleasant house, and saved from death by this pleasant companion, to find my father, whom I feared was dead, also living. And all this after I had sung the 'Song of the Overlord!' So much for its ill-luck. But, all the same, my father was rather upset when he heard that I had been found singing it. He is very superstitious, my dear old father; that is one of the few Norse characteristics which he has left in him. I told him that there was no use in being disturbed, since, in the end, things must go as they are fated.
"Mr. Monk is engaged to a Miss Porson. He told me that in the boat. I asked him what he was thinking of when we nearly over-set against that dreadful rock. He answered that he could only think of the song he had heard me singing on the ship, which I considered a great compliment to my voice, quite the nicest I ever had. But he ought to have been thinking about the lady to whom he is engaged, and he understood that I thought so, which I daresay I should not have allowed him to do. However, when people believe that they are going to be drowned they grow confidential, and expose their minds freely. He exposed his when he told me that he thought I was talking egregious nonsense, and I am afraid that I laughed at him. I don't think that he really can love her—that is, as engaged people are supposed to love each other. If he did he would not have grown so angry—with himself—and then turned upon me because the recollection of my old death song had interfered with the reflections which he ought to have offered upon her altar. That is what struck me as odd; not his neglecting to remember her in a moment of danger, since then we often forget everything except some triviality of the hour. But, of course, this is all nonsense, which I oughtn't to write here even, as most people have their own ways of being fond of each other. Also, it is no affair of mine.
"I have seen Miss Porson's photograph, a large one of her in Court dress, which stands in Mr. Monk's laboratory (such a lovely place, it was an old chapel). She is a beautiful woman; large and soft and regal-looking, a very woman; it would be difficult to imagine a better specimen of 'the eternal feminine.' Also, they say, that is, the nurse who is looking after my father says, that she is very rich and devoted to 'Mr. Morris.' So Mr. Morris is a lucky man. I wonder why he didn't save her from a shipwreck instead of me. It would have given an appropriate touch of romance to the affair, which is now entirely wasted upon a young person, if I may still call myself so, with whom it has no concern.
"What interests me more than our host's matrimonial engagements, however, are his experiments with aerophones. That is a wonderful invention if only it can be made to work without fail upon all occasions. I do wish that I could help him there. It would be some return for his great kindness, for it must be a dreadful nuisance to have an old clergyman with a broken leg and his inconvenient daughter suddenly quartered upon you for an unlimited period of time."
The record of the following weeks was very full, but almost entirely concerned—brief mention of other things, such as her father's health excepted—with full and accurate notes and descriptions of the aerophone experiments. To Morris reading them it was wonderful, especially as Stella had received no training in the science of electricity, that she could have grasped the subject thus thoroughly in so short a time. Evidently she must have had a considerable aptitude for its theory and practice, as might be seen by the study that she gave to the literature which he lent her, including some manuscript volumes of his own notes. Also there were other entries. Thus:
"To-day Mr. Stephen Layard proposed to me in the Dead Church. I had seen it coming for the last three weeks and wished to avoid it, but he would not take a hint. I am most sorry, as I really think he cares about me—for the while—which is very kind of him. But it is out of the question, and I had to say no. Indeed, he repels me. I do not even like being in the same room with him, although no doubt this is very fastidious and wrong of me. I hope that he will get over it soon; in fact, although he seemed distressed, I am not vain enough to suppose that it will be otherwise. . . .
"Of course, my father is angry, for reasons which I need not set down. This I expected, but he said some things which I wish he had left unsaid, for they made me answer him as I ought not to have done. Fathers and daughters look at marriage from such different standpoints; what is excellent in their eyes may be as bad as death, or in some cases worse to the woman who of course must pay the price. . . .
"I sang and played my best last night, my very, very best; indeed, I don't think I ever did so well before, and perhaps never shall again. He was moved—more moved than I meant him to be, and I was moved myself. I suppose that it was the surroundings; that old chapel—how well those monks understood acoustic properties—the moonlight, the upset to my nerves this afternoon, my fear that he believed that I had accepted Mr. L. (imagine his believing that! I thought better of him, and he did believe it)—everything put together.
"While I was singing he told me that he was going away—to see Miss Porson at Beaulieu, I suppose. When I had finished—oh! how tired I was after the effort was over—he asked me straight out if I intended to marry Mr. Layard, and I asked him if he was mad! Then I put another question, I don't know why; I never meant to do it, but it came up from my heart—whether he had not said that he was going away? In answer he explained that he was thinking of so doing, but had changed his mind. Oh! I was pleased when I heard that. I was never so pleased in my life before. After all, the gift of music is of some use.
"But why should I have been pleased? Mr. Monk's comings or goings are nothing to me; I have no right to interfere with them, even indirectly, or to concern myself about them. Yet I cried when I heard those words, but I suppose it was the music that made me cry; it has that inconvenient effect sometimes. Well, I have no doubt that he will see plenty of Miss Porson, and it would have been a great pity to break off the experiments just now."
One more extract from the very last entry in the series of books. It was written at the Rectory on Christmas Eve, just before Stella started out to meet Morris at the Dead Church:
"He—Colonel M.—asked me and I told him the truth straight out. I could not help myself; it burst from my lips, although the strange thing is that until he put it into my mind with the question, I knew nothing. Then of a sudden, in an instant; in a flash; I understood and I knew that my whole being belonged to this man, his son Morris. What is love? Once I remember hearing a clever cynic argue that between men and women no such thing exists. He called their affection by other names, and said that for true love to be present the influence of sex must be absent. This he proved by declaring that this marvellous passion of love about which people talk and write is never heard of where its object is old or deformed, or even very ugly, although such accidents of chance and time are no bar to the true love of—let us say—the child and the parent, or the friend and the friend.
"Well, the argument seemed difficult to answer, although at the time I knew that it must be wrong, but how could I, who was utterly without experience, talk of such a hard matter? Now I understand that love; the real love between a man and a woman, if it be real, embraces all the other sorts of love. More—whether the key be physical or spiritual, it unlocks a window in our hearts through which we see a different world from the world that we have known. Also with this new vision come memories and foresights. This man whom I love—three months ago I had never seen his face—and now I feel as though I had known him not only all my life, but from the beginning of time—as though we never could be parted any more.
"And I talk thus about one who has never said a tender word to me. Why? Because my thought, is his thought, and my mind his mind. How am I sure of that? Because it came upon me at the moment when I learned the truth about myself. He and I are one, therefore I learned the truth about him also.
"I was like Eve when she left the Tree; knowledge was mine, only I had eaten of the fruit of Life. Yet the taste of it must be bitter in my mouth. What have I done? I have given my spirit into the keeping of a man who is pledged to another woman, and, as I think, have taken his from her keeping to my own. What then? Is this other woman, who is so good and kind, to be robbed of all that is left to her in the world? Am I to take from her him who is almost her husband? Never. If his heart has come to me I cannot help it—for the rest, no. So what is left to me? His spirit and all the future when the flesh is done with; that is heritage enough. How the philosopher who argued about the love of men and women would laugh and mock if he could see these words. Supposing that he could say, 'Stella Fregelius, I am in a position to offer you a choice. Will you have this man for your husband and live out your natural lives upon the strict stipulation that your relationship ends absolutely and forever with your last breaths? Or will you let him go to the other woman for their natural lives with the prospect of that heritage which your imagination has fashioned; that dim eternity of double joy where, hand in hand, twain and yet one, you will fulfil the secret purpose of your destinies?'
"What should I answer then?
"Before Heaven I would answer that I would not sell myself to the devil of the flesh and of this present world. What! Barter my birthright of immortality for the mess of pottage of a few brief years of union? Pay out my high hopes to their last bright coin for this dinner of mingled herbs? Drain the well of faith dug with so many prayers and labours, that its waters may suffice to nourish a rose planted in the sand, whose blooms must die at the first touch of creeping earthly frost?
"The philosopher would say that I was mad; that the linnet in the hand is better than all the birds of paradise which ever flew in fabled tropic seas.
"I reply that I am content to wait till upon some glorious morning my ship breaks into the silence of those seas, and, watching from her battered bulwarks, I behold the islands of the Blest and catch the scent of heavenly flowers, and see the jewelled birds, whereof I dream floating from palm to palm.
"'But if there are no such isles?' he would answer; 'If, with their magic birds and flowers, they are indeed but the baseless fabric of a dream? If your ship, amidst the ravings of the storm and the darkness of the tortured night, should founder once and for ever in the dark strait which leads to the gateways of that Dawn—those gateways through which no traveller returns to lay his fellows' course for the harbours of your perfect sea; what then?'
"Then I would say, let me forswear God Who has suffered me to be deceived with false spirits, and sink to depths where no light breaks, where no memories stir, where no hopes torment. Yes, then let me deny Him and die, who am of all women the most miserable. But it is not so, for to me a messenger has come; at my prayer once the Gates were opened, and now I know quite surely that it was permitted to me to see within them that I might find strength in this the bitter hour of my trial.
"Yet how can I choke the truth and tread down the human heart within me? Oh! the road which my naked feet must tread is full of thorns, and heavy the cross that I must bear. I go now, in a few minutes' time, to bid him farewell. If I can help it I shall never see him again. No, not even after many years, since it is better not. Also, perhaps this is weakness, but I should wish him to remember me wearing such beauty as I have and still young, before time and grief and labour have marked me with their ugly scars. It is the Stella whom he found singing at the daybreak on the ship which brought her to him, for whom I desire that he should seek in the hour of a different dawn.
"I go presently, to my marriage, as it were; a cold and pitiful feast, many would think it—these nuptials of life-long renunciation. The philosopher would say, Why renounce? You have some advantages, some powers, use them. The man loves you, play upon his natural weakness. Help yourself to the thing that chances to be desirable in your eyes. Three years hence who will blame you, who will even remember? His father? Well, he likes you already, and in time a man of the world accepts accomplished facts, especially if things go well, as they will do, for that invention must succeed. No one else? Yes; three others. He would remember, however much he loved me, for I should have brought him to do a shameful act. And she would remember, whom I had robbed of her husband, coming into his life after he had promised himself to her. Last of all—most of all, perhaps—I myself should remember, day by day, and hour by hour, that I was nothing more than one of the family of thieves.
"No; I will have none of such philosophy; at least I, Stella Fregelius, will live and die among the upright. So I go to my cold marriage, such as it is; so I bend my back to the burden, so I bow my head to the storm; and throughout it all I thank God for what he has been pleased to send me. I may seem poor, but how rich I am who have been dowered with a love that I know to be eternal as my eternal soul. I go, and my husband shall receive me, not with a lover's kiss and tenderness, but with words few and sad, with greetings that, almost before their echoes die, must fade into farewells. I wrap no veil about my head, he will set no ring upon my hand, perchance we shall plight no troth. So be it; our hour of harvest is not yet.
"Yesterday was very sharp and bleak, with scuds of sleet and snow driven by the wind, but as I drove here with my father I saw a man and a woman in the midst of an empty, lifeless field, planting some winter seed. Who, looking at them, who that did not know, could foretell the fruits of their miserable, unhopeful labour? Yet the summer will come and the sweet smell of the flowering beans, and the song of the nesting birds, and the plentiful reward of the year crowned with fatness. It is a symbol of this marriage of mine. To-day we sow the seed; next, after a space of raving rains and winds, will follow the long, white winter of death, then some dim, sweet spring of awakening, and beyond it the fulness of all joy.
"What is there about me that it would make me ashamed that he should know; this husband to whom I must tell nothing? I cannot think. No other man has been anything to me. I can remember no great sin. I have worked, making the best of such gifts as I possess. I have tried to do my duty, and I will do it to the end. Surely my heart is whole and my hands are clean. Perhaps it is a sin that I should have learned to love him; that I should look to a far future where I may be with him. If so, am I to blame, who ask nothing here? Can I conquer destiny who am its child? Can I read or shape the purpose of my Maker?
"And so I go. O God, I pray Thee of Thy mercy, give me strength to bear my temptations and my trials; and to him, also, give every strength and blessing. O Father, I pray Thee of Thy mercy, shorten these the days of my tribulation upon earth. Accept and sanctify this my sacrifice of denial; grant me pardon here, and hereafter through all the abyss of time in Thy knowledge and presence, that perfect peace which I desire with him to whom I am appointed. Amen."
THE EVIL GATE
Such was the end of the diary of Stella.
Morris shut the book with something like a sob. Then he rose and began to tramp up and down the length of the long, lonely room, while thoughts, crowded, confused, and overwhelming, pressed in upon his mind. What a woman was this whom he had lost! Who had known another so pure, so spiritual? Surely she did not belong to this world, and therefore her last prayer was so quickly answered, therefore Heaven took her. Many reading those final pages might have said with the philosopher she imagined that the shock of love and the sorrow of separation had turned her brain, and that she was mad. For who, so such might argue, would think that person otherwise than mad who dared to translate into action, and on earth to set up as a ruling star, that faith which day by day their lips professed.
Yet it would seem after that this "dreamer and mystic" Stella believed in nothing which our religion, accepted by millions without cavil, does not promise to its votaries. Its revelations and rewards marked the extremest limits of her fantasy; immortality of the personal soul, its foundation stone, was the rock on which she built. A heaven where there is no earthly marriage, but where each may consort with the souls most loved and most desired; where all sorrows are forgotten, all tears are wiped away, all purposes made clear, reserved for those who deny themselves, do their duty, and seek forgiveness of their sins—this heaven conceived by Stella, is it not vowed to us in the pages of the Gospel? Is it not vowed again and again, sometimes with more detail, sometimes with less; sometimes in open, simple words, sometimes wrapped in the mystic allegory of the visions of St. John; but everywhere and continually held before us as our crown and great reward? And the rest, such things as her belief in guardian angels, and that it had been given to her mortal eyes to behold and commune with a beloved ghost, is there not ample warrant for them in those inspired writings? Were not the dead seen of many in Jerusalem on the night of fear, and are we not told of "ministering spirits sent forth to do service for the sake of them that shall inherit salvation?" and of the guardian angels, who look continually upon the Father?
Now it all grew clear to Morris. In Stella he beheld an example of the doctrines of Christianity really inspiring the daily life of the believer. If her strong faith animated all those who served under that banner, then in like circumstances they would act as she had acted. They would have no doubts; their fears would vanish; their griefs be comforted, and, to a great extent, even the promptings and passions of their mortality would be trodden under foot. With Stella they would be ready to neglect the temporary in their certainty of the eternal, and even to welcome death, to them in truth, and not in mere convention, the Gate of Life.
Many things are promised to those who can achieve faith. Stella achieved it and became endued with some portion of the promise. Spiritual faith, not inherited, nor accepted, but hard-won by personal struggle and experience; that was the key-note to her character and the explanation of her actions. Yet that faith, when examined into, was nothing exotic; no combination of mysticism and mummery, but one founded upon the daily creed of the English and its fellow churches, and understood and applied to the circumstances of a life which was as brief as it seemed to be unfortunate. This was Morris's discovery, open and obvious enough, and yet at first until he grew accustomed to it, a thing marvellous in his eyes; one, moreover, in which he found comfort; since surely that straight but simple path was such as his feet might follow.
And she loved him. Oh! how she had loved him. There could be no doubt; there were her words written in that book, not hastily spoken beneath the pressure of some sudden wind of feeling, but set down in black and white, thought over, reasoned out, and recorded. And then their purport. They were a paean of passion, but the dirge of its denial. They dwelt upon the natural hopes of woman only to put them by.
"Yet how can I choke the truth and tread down the human heart within me? Oh! the road that my naked feet must tread is full of thorns, and heavy the cross that I must bear. . . . So I go to my marriage, such as it is, so I bend my back to the burden, so I bow my head to the storm, and through it all I thank God for what He has been pleased to send me. I may seem poor, but how rich I am who have been dowered with a love that I know to be eternal as my eternal soul."
That was her creed, those were the teachings of her philosophy. And this was the woman who had loved him, who died loving him. Her very words came back, spoken but a few seconds before the end:—"Remember every word which I have said to you. Remember that we are wed—truly wed; that I go to wait for you, and that even if you do not see me, I will, if I may, be near you always."
"I go to wait for you. I will be near you always." Here was another inspiration. For three years or more he had been thinking of her as dead. Or rather he had thought of her in that nebulous, undefined fashion in which we consider the dead; the slumberous people who forget everything, who see nothing; who, if they exist at all, are like stones upon the beach rolled to and fro blind and senseless, not of their own desire, but by the waves of a fearful fate that itself is driven on with the strength of a secret storm of Will. And this fate some call the Breath of God, and some the working of a soulless force that compels the universe, past, present, and to be.
But was this view as real as it is common? If Stella were right, if our religion were right, it must be most wrong. That religion told us that the Master of mankind descended into Hades to preach to the souls of men. Did he preach to dumb, ocean-driven stones, to frozen forms and fossils who had once been men, or to spirits, changed, but active and existent?
Stella, too, had walked in the valley of doubt, by the path which all who think must tread; it was written large in the book of her life. But she had not fainted there; she had lived through its thunder-rains, its arid blasts of withering dust, its quivering quicksands, and its mirage-like meadows gay with deceitful, poisonous flowers. At last she had reached the mountain slopes of Truth to travel up them higher—ever higher, till she won their topmost peak, where the sun shone undimmed and the pure air blew; whence the world seemed far away and heaven very near. Yes, and from that heaven she had called down the spirit of her lost sister, and thenceforward was content and sure.
She had called down the spirit of her sister. Was it not written in the pages which she thought that no eye but hers would see?
Well, if such spirits were, hers—Stella's—must be also. And if they could be made apparent, why should not hers share their qualities?
Morris paused in his swift walk and trembled: "I will be near you always." For aught he knew she was near him now—present, perhaps, in this very room. While she was still in life, what were her aspirations? This was one of them, he remembered, as it fell from her lips: "Still to be with those whom I have loved on earth, although they cannot see me; to soothe their sorrows, to support their weakness, to lull their fears." And if this were so; if any power were given her to fulfil her will, whom would she sooner visit than himself?
Stay! That was her wish on earth, while she was a woman. But would she still wish it afterwards? The spirit was not the flesh, the spirit could see and be sure, while the flesh must be content with deductions and hazardings. If she could see, she would know him as he was; every failing, every secret infirmity, every infidelity of heart, might be an open writing to her eyes. And then would she not close that book in horror?
A great writer has said in effect that no man would dare to affront the ears of his fellows—men much worse than himself perhaps—with the true details of his hidden history. Knowing all the truth, they would shrink from him. How much more then at such sights and sounds would a pure spirit, washed clean of every taint of earth, fly from his soiled presence, wailing and aghast? Nay, men are hypocrites, who, in greater or less degree, themselves practice the very sins that shock them, but spirits, knowing all, would forgive all. They are above hypocrisy. If the Lord of spirits can weigh the "dust whereof we are made" and still be merciful, shall his bright messengers trample it in scorn and hate? Will they not also consider the longings of the heart and its uprightness, and be pitiful towards the failings of the flesh? Would Stella hate him because he remained as he was made—as herself she might once have been? Because having no wings with which to rule the air he must still tramp onwards through the foetid, clinging mud of earth?
Oh! how he longed to see her, that he might win her faith; win it beyond all doubt by the evidence of his earthly eyes and senses. "If I die, search and you shall see," she had once said to him, and then added, "No, do not search, but wait." Wait! How could he wait? "At your death I will be with you." Why he might live another fifty years! That book of her recorded thoughts had aroused in him such a desire for the sight, or at least the actual knowledge of her continued being, that his blood was aflame as with a madness. And yet how should he search?
"Stella," he whispered, "come to me, Stella!" But no Stella came; no wings rustled, no breath stirred; the empty room was as the room had been. Its silence seemed to mock him. Those who slept beneath its marble floor were not more silent.
Was he mad that he should claim the power to work this miracle—to charm the dead back through the Gates of Death as Orpheus charmed Eurydice? Yet Stella did this thing—but how? He turned to the volume and page of her diary which dealt with the drawing down of Gudrun. Yes, here she spoke of continual efforts and of "that long, long preparation"—of prayer and fasting also. Here, too, was the whole secret summed up in a dozen words: "To see a spirit one must grow akin to spirits." Well, it could be done, and he would do it. But look further on where she said: "I shall call her back no more, lest the thing should get the mastery of me, and I become unfitted for my work on earth. . . . I will stop while there is yet time, while I am still mistress of my mind, and have the strength to deny myself this awful joy."
Was there not a warning in these words, and in those other words: "No, do not search, but wait." Surely they told of risk to him who, being yet on earth, dared to lift a corner of the veil which separates flesh and spirit. "Should get the mastery of me." If he saw her once would he be able to do as Stella did, and by an effort of his will separate himself from a communion so fearful yet so sweet? "Unfitted for my work." Supposing that it did get the mastery of him, would he not also be unfitted for his work on earth?
His work? What work had he now? It seemed to be done; for attending scientific meetings, receiving dividends, playing the country squire's only son and the wealthy host whilst awaiting the title which Mary wished for—these things are not work, and somehow his days were so arranged that he was never allowed to go beyond them. All further researches and experiments were discouraged. What did it matter if he were unfitted for that which he could no longer do? His work was finished. There it stood before him in that box, stamped "Monk's aerophone. The Twin. No. 3412."
No; he had but one ambition left. To pierce the curtain of thick night and behold her who was lost to him; her who loved him as man had been seldom loved.
The fierce temptation struck him as a sudden squall strikes a ship with all her canvas spread. For a moment mast and rigging stood the strain, then they went by the board. He would do it if it killed him; but the task must be undertaken properly, deliberately, and above all in secret. To-morrow he would begin. When he had satisfied himself; when he had seen; then he could always stop.
A few minutes later Morris stood beside his wife's bed. There she lay, in the first perfection of young motherhood and beauty, a lovely, white-wrapped vision with straying golden hair; her sweet, rounded face pink with the flush of sleep, and the long lashes lying like little shadows on her cheek.
Morris looked at her, and his doubts returned. What would Stella say? he thought to himself. It almost seemed to him that he could hear her voice, bidding him forbear; bidding him render unto his wife those things which were his wife's: all honour, loyalty, and devotion. If he entered on this course could he still render them? Was there not such a thing as moral infidelity, and did not such exercises as he proposed partake of its nature? Perhaps, perhaps. On the whole it might be well to put all this behind him.
It was three o'clock, he was tired out, and must sleep. The morning would be a more fitting time to ponder such weighty questions of the unwritten matrimonial law.
In due course, the morning came—indeed, it was not far off—and with it wiser counsels. Mary woke early and talked about the baby, which was teething; indeed, so soon as the nurse was up she sent for it that the three of them might hold a consultation over a swollen gum. Also she discussed the date of their departure to Beaulieu, for again Christmas was near at hand; adding, however, somewhat to Morris's relief, that unless the baby's teeth went on better she really did not think that they could go, as it would be most unwise to take her out of the care of Dr. Charters and trust her to the tender mercies of foreign leeches. Morris agreed that it might be risky, and mentioned that in a letter which he had received from the concierge at Beaulieu a few days before, that functionary said that the place was overrun with measles and scarlatina.
"Morris!" ejaculated Mary, sitting bolt upright in bed, "and you never told me! What is more, had it not been for baby's teeth, which brought it to your mind, I believe you never would have told me, and I might have taken those unprotected little angels and—Oh! goodness, I can't bear to think of it."
Morris muttered some apologies, whereon Mary, looking at him suspiciously through her falling hair, asked:
"Why did you forget to show me the letter? Did you suppress it because you wanted to go to Beaulieu?"
"No," answered Morris with energy; "I hate Beaulieu. I forgot, that is all; because I have so much to think about, I suppose."
"So much? I thought that things were arranged now so that you had nothing at all to think about except how to spend your money and be happy with me, and adore the dear angels—Yes, I think that perhaps the nurse had better take her away. Touch the bell, will you? There, she's gone. Keep her well wrapped up, and mind the draught, nurse.
"No, don't get up yet, Morris; I want to talk to you. You have been very gloomy of late, just like you used to be before you married, mooning about and staring at nothing. And what on earth do you do sitting up to all hours of the morning in that ghosty old chapel, where I wouldn't be alone at twelve o'clock for a hundred pounds?"
"I read," said Morris.
"Read? Read what? Novels?"
"Sometimes," answered Morris.
"Oh, how can you tell such fibs? Why, that last book by Lady What's-her-name which came in the Mudie box—the one they say is so improper—has been lying on your table for over two months, and you can't tell me yet what it was the heroine did wrong. Morris, you are not inventing anything more, are you?"
Here was an inspiration. "I admit that I am thinking of a little thing," he said with diffidence, as though he were a budding poet with a sonnet on his mind.
"A little thing? What little thing?"
"Well, a new kind of aerophone designed to work uninfluenced by its twin."
"Well, and why shouldn't it? Everything can't have a twin—only I suppose there would be nothing to hear."
"That's just the point," replied Morris in his old professional manner. "I think there would be plenty to hear if only I could make the machine sensitive to the sounds and capable of reproducing them."
"What sounds?" asked Mary.
"Well, if, for instance, one could successfully insulate it from the earth noises, the sounds which permeate space, and even those that have their origin upon the surfaces of the planets and perhaps of the more distant stars."
"Great heavens!" exclaimed Mary, "imagine a man who can want to let loose upon our poor little world every horrible noise that happens in the stars. Why, what under heaven would be the use of it?"
"Well, one might communicate with them. Conceivably even one might hear the speech of their inhabitants, if they have any; always presuming that such an instrument could be made, and that it can be successfully insulated."
"Hear the speech of their inhabitants! That is your old idea, but you will never succeed, that's one blessing. Morris, I suspect you; you want to stop at home here to work at this horrible new machine; to work for years, and years, and years without the slightest result. I suppose that you didn't invent that about the measles and the scarlatina, did you? The two of them together sound rather clumsy, as though you might have done so."
"Not a bit, upon my honour," answered Morris. "I will go and get the letter," and, not sorry to escape from further examination, he went.
Whether the cause were Mary's doubts and reproaches, or the infant's gums, or the working of his own conscience,—he felt that a man with a teething baby has no right to cultivate the occult. For quite a long period, a whole fortnight, indeed, Morris steadily refrained from any attempt to fulfil his dangerous ambition to "pierce the curtain of thick night." Only he read and re-read Stella's diary—that secret, fascinating work which in effect was building a wall between him and the healthy, common instincts of the world—till he knew whole pages of it by heart. Also he began a series of experiments whereof the object was to produce an improved and more sensitive aerophone.
That any instrument which the intellect of man could produce would really succeed in conveying sounds which, if they exist at all, are born in the vast cosmic areas that envelope our earth and its atmosphere, he believed to be most improbable. Still, such a thing was possible, for what is not? Moreover, the world itself as it rushes on its fearful journey across the depths of space has doubtless many voices that have not yet been heard by the ears of men, some of which he might be able to discover and record. At the least he stood upon the threshold of a new knowledge, and now a great desire arose in him to pass its doors, if so he might, for who could tell what he would learn or see behind them? And by degrees, as he worked, always with one ulterior object in his mind, his scruples vanished or were mastered by the growth of his longing, till this became his ruling passion—to behold the spirit of Stella. Now he no longer reasoned with himself, but openly, nakedly, in his own heart gave his will over to the achievement of this monstrous and unnatural end.
How was it to be done? That was now the sole dilemma which tormented him—as the possible methods of obtaining the drink he craves, or the drug that gives him peace and radiant visions, torment the dipsomaniac or the morphia victim in his guarded prison. He thought of his instruments, those magic machines with the working of which Stella had been familiar in her life. He even poured petitions into them in the hope that these might be delivered far beyond the ken of man, only to learn that he was travelling a road which led to a wall impassable; the wall that, for the lack of a better name, we call Death, which bars the natural from the spiritual.
Wonderful as were his electrical appliances, innumerable as might be their impalpable emanations, insoluble as seemed the mystery of their power of catching and transmitting sounds by the agency of ether, they were still physical appliances producing physical effects in obedience to the laws of nature. But what he sought lay beyond nature and was subject to some rule of which he did not even know the elements, and much less the axioms. Herein his instruments, or indeed, any that man could make, were as futile and as useless as would be the prayers of an archbishop addressed to a Mumbo-jumbo in a fetish house. The link was wanting; there was, and could be, no communication between the two. The invisible ether which he had subdued to his purposes was still a constituent part of the world of matter; he must discover the spiritual ether, and discover also the animating force by which it might be influenced.
Now he formed a new plan—to reach the dead by his petitions, by the invocation of his own spirit. "Seek me and you shall find me," she had said. So he sought and called in bitterness and concentration of heart, but still he did not find. Stella did not come.
He was in despair. She had promised, and her promise seemed to be broken. Then it was that in turning the pages of her diary he came across a passage that had escaped him, or which he had forgotten. It ran thus:
"In the result I have learned this, that we cannot compel the departed to appear. Even if they hear us they will not, or are not suffered to obey. If we would behold them we must create the power of vision in our own natures. They are about us always, only we cannot see or feel their presence; our senses are too gross. To succeed we must refine our senses until they acquire an aptitude beyond the natural. Then without any will or any intervention on their parts, we may triumph, perhaps even when they do not know that we have triumphed."
Now, by such arts as are known to those who have studied mysticism in any of its protean forms, Morris set himself to attempt communication with the unseen. In their practice these arts are as superlatively unwholesome as in their result, successful or not, they are unnatural. Also, they are very ancient. The Chaldeans knew them, and the magicians who stood before Pharaoh knew them. To the early Christian anchorites and to the gnostics they were familiar. In one shape or another, ancient wonder-workers, Scandinavian and mediaeval seers, modern Spiritualists, classical interpreters of oracles, Indian fakirs, savage witch-doctors and medicine men, all submitted or submit themselves to the yoke of the same rule in the hope of attaining an end which, however it may vary in its manifestations, is identical in essence.
This is the rule: to beat down the flesh and its instincts and nurture the spirit, its aspirations and powers. And this is the end—to escape before the time, if only partially and at intervals, into an atmosphere of vision true or false, where human feet were meant to find no road, and the trammelled minds of men no point of outlook. That such an atmosphere exists even materialists would hesitate to deny, for it is proved by the whole history of the moral world, and especially by that of the religions of the world, their founders, their prophets and their exponents, many of whom have breathed its ether, and pronounced it the very breath of life. Their feet have walked the difficult path; standing on those forbidden peaks they have scanned the dim plains and valleys of the unseen, and made report of the dreams and shapes that haunt them. Then the busy hordes of men beneath for a moment pause to listen and are satisfied.
"Lo, here is Truth," they cry, "now we may cease from troubling." So for a while they rest till others answer, "Nay, this is Truth; our teacher told it us from yonder mountain, the only Holy Hill." And yet others fall upon them and slay them, shouting, "Neither of these is Truth. She dwells not among the precipices, but in the valley; there we have heard her accents."
And still from cliff to cliff and along the secret vales echoes the voice of Truth; and still upon the snow-wreathed peaks and across the space of rolling ocean, and even among the populous streets of men, veiled, mysterious, and changeful, her shape is seen by those who have trained themselves or been inspired to watch and hear. But no two see the same shape, and no two hear the same voice, since to each she wears a different countenance, and speaks with another tongue. For Truth is as the sand of the shore for number, and as the infinite hues of the rainbow for variety. Yet the sand is ground out of one mother rock, and all the colours of earth and air are born of a single sun.
So, practising the ancient rites and mysteries, and bowing himself to the ancient law whose primeval principles every man and woman may find graven upon the tablets of their solitary heart, Morris set himself to find that truth, which for him was hid in the invisible soul of Stella, the soul which he desired to behold and handle, even if the touch and sight should slay him.
Day by day he worked, for as many hours as he could make his own, at the details of his new experiments. These in themselves were interesting, and promised even to be fruitful; but that was not his object, or, at any rate, his principal object in pursuing them with such an eager passion of research. The talk and hazardings which had passed between himself and Stella notwithstanding, both reason and experience had taught him already that all instruments made by the hand of man were useless to break a way into the dwellings of the departed. A day might come when they would enable the inhabitants of the earth to converse with the living denizens of the most distant stars; but never, never with the dead. He laboured because of the frame of thought his toil brought with it, but still more that he might be alone: that he might be able to point to his soiled hands, the shabby clothes which he wore when working with chemicals or at the forge, the sheets of paper covered with half-finished and maddening calculations, as an excuse why he should not be taken out, or, worse still, dragged from his home to stay for nights, or perhaps whole weeks, in other places. Even his wife, he felt, would relent at the sight of those figures, and would fly from the odour of chemicals.
In fact, Mary did both, for she hated what she called "smells," and a place strewn with hot irons and bottles of acids, which, as she discovered, if disturbed burnt both dress and fingers. The sight also of algebraic characters pursuing each other across quires of paper, like the grotesque forces of some broken, impish army, filled her indolent mind with a wondering admiration that was akin to fear. The man, she reflected, who could force those cabalistic symbols to reveal anything worth knowing must indeed be a genius, and one who deserved not to be disturbed, even for a tea party.
Although she disapproved deeply of these renewed studies, such was Mary's secret thought. Whether it would have sufficed alone to persuade her to permit them is another matter, since her instinct, keen and subtle as any of Morris's appliances, warned her that in them lay danger to her home and happiness. But just then, as it happened, there were other matters to occupy her mind. The baby became seriously ill over its teething, and, other infantile complications following, for some weeks it was doubtful whether she would survive.
Now Mary belonged to the class of woman which is generally known as "motherly," and adored her offspring almost to excess. Consequently for those weeks she found plenty to think about without troubling herself over-much as to Morris and his experiments. For these same reasons, perhaps, she scarcely noticed, seated as she was some distance away at the further end of the long table, how very ethereal her husband's appetite had become, or that, although he took wine as usual, it was a mere pretence, since he never emptied his glass. The most loving of women can scarcely be expected to consider a man's appetite when that of a baby is in question, or, while the child wastes, to take note whether or no its father is losing flesh. Lastly, as regards the hours at which he came to bed, being herself a sound sleeper Mary had long since ceased to interest herself about them, on the wise principle that so long as she was not expected to sit up it was no affair of hers.
Thus it happened that Morris worked and meditated by day, and by night—ah! who that has not tried to climb this difficult and endless Jacob's ladder resting upon the earth and losing itself far, far away in the blue of heaven above, can understand what he did by night? But those who have stood even on its lowest rung will guess, and—for the rest it does not matter.
He advanced; he knew that he advanced, that the gross wall of sense was wearing thin beneath the attacks of his out-thrown soul; that even if they were not drawn, from time to time the black curtains swung aside in the swift, pure breath of his continual prayers. Moreover, the dead drew near to him at moments, or he drew near the dead. Even in his earthly brain he could feel their awful presence as wave by wave soft, sweet pulses of impression beat upon him and passed through him. Through and through him they passed till his brow ached, and every nerve of his body tingled, as though it had become the receiver of some mysterious current that stirred his blood with what was not akin to it, and summoned to his mind strange memories and foresights. Visions came also that he could not define, to slip from his frantic grasp like wet sand through the fingers of a drowning man. More and more frequently, and with an ever increasing completeness, did this unearthly air, blowing from a shore no human foot has trod, breathe through his being and possess him, much as some faint wind which we cannot feel may be seen to possess an aspen tree so that it turns white and shivers when every other natural thing is still. And as that aspen turns white and shivers in this thin, impalpable air, so did his spirit blanch and quiver with joy and dread mingled mysteriously in the cup of his expectant soul.
Again and again those sweet, yet sickening waves flowed over him, to leave him shaken and unnerved. At first they were rare visitors, single clouds floating across his calm, coming he knew not whence and vanishing he knew not whither. Now they drove in upon him like some scud, ample yet broken, before the wind, till at whiles, as it were, he could not see the face of the friendly, human sun. Then he was like a traveller lost in the mist upon a mountain top, sure of nothing, feeling precipices about him, hearing voices calling him, seeing white arms stretched out to lead him, yet running forward gladly because amid so many perils a fate was in his feet.
Now, too, they came with an actual sense of wind. He would wake up at night even by his wife's side and feel this unholy breath blowing ice-cold on his brow and upon the backs of his outstretched hands. Yet if he lit a candle it had no power to stir its flame; yes, while it still blew sharp upon him the flame of the candle did not move. Then the wind would cease, and within him the intangible, imponderable power would arise, and the voices would speak like the far, far, murmur of a stream, and the thoughts which he could not weigh or interpret would soak into his being like some strange dew, and, soft, soft as falling snow, invisible feet would tread the air about him, till of a sudden a door in his brain seemed to shut, and he woke to the world again.
Every force is subject to laws. Even if they were but the emanations of an incipient madness which like all else have their origins, destinies, and forms, these possessing vapours were a force, which in time Morris, whose mind from a lifelong training was scientific and methodical, accustomed, moreover, to struggle for dominion over elements unknown or imperfectly appreciated, learned to regulate if not entirely to control. Their visits were pleasant to him, a delight even; but to experience this joy to the utmost he discovered that their power must be concentrated; that if the full effect was to be produced this moral morphia must be taken in strong doses, and at stated intervals, sufficient space being allowed between them to give his mental being time to recuperate. Science has proved that even the molecules of a wire can grow fatigued by the constant passage of electricity, or the edge of a razor by too frequent stropping. Both of them, to be effective, to do their utmost service, must have periods of rest.
Here, then, his will came to his aid, for he found that by its strong, concentrated exertion he was enabled both to shut off the sensations or to excite them. Another thing he found also—that after a while it was impossible to do without them. For a period the anticipation of their next visit would buoy him up; but if it were baulked too long, then reaction set in, and with it the horrors of the Pit.
This was the first stage of his insanity—or of his vision.
Dear as such manifestations might be to him, in time he wearied of them; these hints which but awakened his imagination, these fantastic spiced meats which, without staying it, only sharpened his spiritual appetite. More than ever he longed to see and to know, to make acquaintance with the actual presence, whereof they were but the forerunners, the cold blasts that go before the storm, the vague, mystical draperies which veiled the unearthly goddess at whose shrine he was a worshipper. He desired the full fierce fury of the tempest, the blinding flash of the lightning, the heavy hiss of the rain, the rush of the winds bursting on him from the four horizons; he desired the naked face of his goddess.
And she came—or he acquired the power to see her, whichever it might be. She came suddenly, unexpectedly, completely, as a goddess should.
It was on Christmas Eve, at night, the anniversary of Stella's death four years before. Morris and his wife were alone at the Abbey, as the Colonel had gone for a fortnight or so to Beaulieu, just to keep the house aired, as he explained. Also Lady Rawlins was there with her husband, the evil-tempered man who by a single stroke of sickness had been converted into a babbling imbecile, harmless as a babe, and amused for the most part with such toys as are given to babes. She, so Morris understood, had intimated that Sir Jonah was failing, really failing quickly, and that in her friendlessness at a foreign place, especially at Christmas time, she would be thankful to have the comfort of an old friend's presence. This the old friend, who, having been back from town for a whole month, was getting rather bored with Monksland and the sick baby, determined to vouchsafe, explaining that he knew that young married people liked to be left to each other now and again, especially when they were worried with domestic troubles. Lady Rawlins was foolish and fat, but, as the Colonel remembered, she was fond. Where, indeed, could another woman be found who would endure so much scientific discipline and yet be thankful? Also, within a few weeks, after the expected demise of Jonah, she would be wondrous wealthy—that he knew. Therefore it seemed that the matter was worth consideration—and a journey to Beaulieu.
So the Colonel went, and Morris, more and more possessed by his monomania, was glad that he had gone. His absence gave him greater opportunities of loneliness; it was now no longer necessary that he should sit at night smoking with his father, or, rather, watching him smoke at the expense of so many precious hours when he should be up and doing.
Morris and Mary dined tete-a-tete that evening, but almost immediately after dinner she had gone to the nurseries. The baby was now threatened with convulsions, and a trained nurse had been installed. But, as Mary did not in the least trust the nurse, who, according to her account, was quite unaccustomed to children, she insisted upon dogging that functionary's footsteps. Therefore, Morris saw little of her.
It was one o'clock on Christmas morning, or more. Hours ago Morris had gone though his rites, the ritual that he had invented or discovered—in its essence, simple and pathetic enough—whereby he strove to bring himself to the notice of the dead, and to fit himself to see or hear the dead. Such tentative mysticism as served his turn need not be written down, but its substance can be imagined by many. Then, through an exercise of his will, he had invoked the strange, trance-like state which has been described. The soft waves flowing from an unknown source had beat upon his brain, and with them came the accustomed phenomena; the sense of some presence near, impending, yet impotent; suggesting by analogy and effect the misdirected efforts of a blind person seeking something in a room, or the painful attempt of one almost deaf, striving to sift out words from a confused murmur of sounds. The personality of Stella seemed to pervade him, yet he could see nothing, could hear nothing. The impression might be from within, not from without. Perhaps, after all, it was nothing but a dream, a miasma, a mirage, drawn by his own burning thought from the wastes and marshes of his mind peopled with illusive hopes and waterlogged by memories. Or it might be true and real; as yet he could not be certain of its origin.
The fit passed, delightful in its overpowering emptiness, but unsatisfying as all that had gone before it, and left him weak. For a while Morris crouched by the fire, for he had grown cold, and could not think accurately. Then his vital, human strength returned, and, as seemed to him to be fitting upon this night of all nights, he began one by one to recall the events of that day four years ago, when Stella was still a living woman.
The scene in the Dead Church, the agonies of farewell; he summoned them detail by detail, word by word; her looks, the changes of her expression, the movements of her hands and eyes and lips; he counted and pictured each precious souvenir. The sound of her last sentences also, as the blind, senseless aerophone had rendered them just before the end, one by one they were repeated in his brain. There stood the very instrument; but, alas! it was silent now, its twin lay buried in the sea with her who had worked it.
Morris grew weary, the effort of memory was exhausting, and after it he was glad to think of nothing. The fire flickered, the clear light of the electric lamps shone upon the hard, sixteenth-century faces of the painted angels in the ancient roof; without the wind soughed, and through it rose the constant, sullen roar of the sea.
Tired, disappointed, unhappy, and full of self-reproaches, for when the madness was not on him he knew his sin, Morris sank into a doze. Now music crept softly into his sleep; sweet, thrilling music, causing him to open his eyes and smile. It was Christmas Eve, and doubtless he heard the village waifs.
Morris looked up arousing himself to listen, and lo! there before him, unexpected and ineffable, was Stella; Stella as she appeared that night on which she had sung to him, just as she finished singing, indeed, when he stood for a while in the faint moonlight, the flame of inspiration still flickering in those dark eyes and the sweet lips drawn down a little as though she were about to weep.
The sight did not astonish him, at the moment he never imagined even then that this could be her spirit, that his long labours in a soil no man was meant to till had issued into harvest. Surely it was a dream, nothing but a dream. He felt no tremors, no cold wind stirred his hair; his heart did not stand still, nor his breath come short. Why should a man fear so beautiful a dream? Yet, vaguely enough, he wished that it might last forever, for it was sweet to see her so—as she had been. As she had been—yet, was she ever thus? Surely some wand of change had touched her. She was beautiful, but had she worn that beauty? And those eyes! Could any such have shone in the face of woman?
"Stella," he whispered, and from roof and walls crept back the echo of his voice. He rose and went towards her. She had vanished. He returned, and there she was.
"Speak!" he muttered; "speak!" But no word came, only the lovely changeless eyes shone on and watched him.
Listen! Music seemed to float about the room, such music as he had never heard—even Stella could not make the like. The air was full of it, the night without was full of it, millions of voices took up the chant, and from far away, note by note, mighty organs and silver trumpets told its melody.
His brain reeled. In the ocean of those unimagined harmonies it was tossed like a straw upon a swirling river, tossed and overwhelmed.
Slowly, very slowly, as the straw might be sucked into the heart of a whirlpool, his soul was drawn down into blackness. It shuddered, it was afraid; this vision of a whirlpool haunted him. He could see the narrow funnel of its waters, smooth, shining like jet, unspecked by foam, solid to all appearances; but, as he was aware, alive, every atom of them, instinct with some frightful energy, the very face of force—and in the teeth of it, less than a dead leaf, himself.
Down he went, down, and still above him shone the beautiful, pitying, changeless eyes; and still round him echoed that strange, searching music. The eyes receded, the music became faint, and then—blackness.
DREAMS AND THE SLEEP
The Christmas Day which followed this strange night proved the happiest that Morris could ever remember to have spent since his childhood. In his worldly circumstances of course he was oppressed by none of the everyday worries which at this season are the lot of most—no duns came to trouble him, nor through lack of means was he forced to turn any beggar from his door. Also the baby was much better, and Mary's spirits were consequently radiant. Never, indeed, had she been more lovely and charming than when that morning she presented him with a splendid gold chronometer to take the place of the old silver watch which was his mother's as a girl, and that he had worn all his life. Secretly he sorrowed over parting with that familiar companion in favour of its new eighty-guinea rival, although it was true that it always lost ten minutes a day, and sometimes stopped altogether. But there was no help for it; so he kissed Mary and was grateful.
Moreover, the day was beautiful. In the morning they walked to church through the Abbey plantations, which run for nearly half a mile along the edge of the cliff. The rime lay thick upon the pines and firs—every little needle had its separate coat of white whereon the sun's rays glistened. The quiet sea, too, shone like some gigantic emerald, and in the sweet stillness the song of a robin perched upon the bending bough of a young poplar sounded pure and clear.