Bride of the Mistletoe
James Lane Allen
Part 2 out of 2
five thousand years before the Christian era; and as far back as they
have been traced, we find the wise men of the East worshipping this
same star and being guided by it in their spiritual wanderings as they
searched for the incarnation of the Divine. They worshipped it as the
star of peace and goodness and purity. Many a pious Wolfram in those
dim centuries no doubt sang his evening hymn to the same star, for
love of some Chaldean Elizabeth--both he and she blown about the
desert how many centuries now as dust. Moreover on these records the
star and the Tree are brought together as here side by side. And the
story of the star leads backward to one of the first things that man
ever worshipped as he looked beyond the forest: the light of the
heavens floating in the depth of space--light that he wanted but could
He touched the next object on the Tree--the candle under the star--and
Imagine, he said, the forest worshipper as at the end of ages having
caught this light--having brought it down in the language of his myth
from heaven to earth: that is, imagine the star in space as having
become a star in his hand--the candle: the star worshipper had now
become also the fire worshipper. Thus the candle leads us back to the
fire worshippers of ancient Persia--those highlands of the spirit
seeking light. We think of the Christmas candle on the Tree as merely
borrowed from the candle of the altar for the purpose of illumination;
but the use of it goes back to a time when the forest worshipper, now
also the fire worshipper, hung his lights on the trees, having no
other altar. Far down toward modern times the temples of the old
Prussians, for example, were oak groves, and among them a hierarchy of
priests was ordained to keep the sacred fire perpetually burning at
the root of the sacred oak.
He touched the third object on the tree--the cross under the
candle--and went on:
"To the Christian believer the cross signifies one supreme event:
Calvary and the tragedy of the Crucifixion. It was what the Marys saw
and the apostles that morning in Gethsemane. But no one in that age
thought of the cross as a Christian symbol. John and Peter and Paul
and the rest went down into their graves without so regarding it. The
Magdalene never clung to it with life-tired arms, nor poured out at
the foot of it the benizon of her tears. Not until the third century
after Christ did the Bishops assembled at Nice announce it a Christian
symbol. But it was a sacred emblem in the dateless antiquity of
Egypt. To primitive man it stood for that sacred light and fire of
life which was himself. For he himself is a cross--the first cross he
has ever known. The faithful may truly think of the Son of Man as
crucified as the image of humanity. And thus ages before Christ,
cross worship and forest worship were brought together: for instance,
among the Druids who hunted for an oak, two boughs of which made with
the trunk of the tree the figure of the cross; and on these three they
cut the names of three of their gods and this was holy-cross wood."
He moved the pointer down until he touched the fourth object on the
tree--the dove under the cross, and went on:
"In the mind of the Christian believer this represents the white dove
of the New Testament which descended on the Son of Man when the
heavens were opened. So in Parsifal the white dove descends,
overshadowing the Grail. But ages before Christ the prolific white
dove of Syria was worshipped throughout the Orient as the symbol of
reproductive Nature: and to this day the Almighty is there believed to
manifest himself under this form. In ancient Mesopotamia the divine
mother of nature is often represented with this dove as having
actually alighted on her shoulder or in her open hand. And here again
forest worship early became associated with the worship of the dove;
for, sixteen hundred years before Christ, we find the dove nurtured in
the oak grove at Dodona where its presence was an augury and its wings
On he went, touching one thing after another, tracing the story of
each backward till it was lost in antiquity and showing how each was
entwined with forest worship.
He touched the musical instruments; the bell, the drum. The bell, he
said, was used in Greece by the Priests of Bacchus in the worship of
the vine. And vine worship was forest worship. Moreover, in the same
oak grove at Dodona bells were tied to the oak boughs and their
tinklings also were sacred auguries. The drum, which the modern boy
beats on Christmas Day, was beaten ages before Christ in the worship
of Confucius: the story of it dies away toward what was man's first
written music in forgotten China. In the first century of the
Christian era, on one of the most splendid of the old Buddhist
sculptures, boys are represented as beating the drum in the worship of
the sacred tree--once more showing how music passed into the service
of forest faith.
He touched the cornucopia; and he traced its story back to the ram's
horn--the primitive cup of libation, used for a drinking cup and used
also to pour out the last product of the vine in honor of the vine
itself--the forest's first goblet.
He touched the fruits and the flowers on the Tree: these were oldest
of all, perhaps, he said; for before the forest worshipper had learned
to shape or fabricate any offerings of his own skill, he could at
least bring to the divine tree and hang on it the flower of spring,
the wild fruit of autumn.
He kept on until only three things on the Tree were left
uninterpreted; the tinsel, the masks, and the dolls. He told her that
he had left these to the last for a reason: seemingly they were the
most trivial but really the most grave; for by means of them most
clearly could be traced the presence of great law running through the
progress of humanity.
He drew her attention to the tinsel that covered the tree, draping it
like a yellow moss. It was of no value, he said, but in the course of
ages it had taken the place of the offering of actual gold in forest
worship: a once universal custom of adorning the tree with everything
most precious to the giver in token of his sacrifice and
self-sacrifice. Even in Jeremiah is an account of the lading of the
sacred tree with gold and ornaments. Herodotus relates that when
Xerxes was invading Lydia, on the march he saw a divine tree and had
it honored with golden robes and gifts. Livy narrates that when
Romulus slew his enemy on the site of the Eternal City, he hung rich
spoils on the oak of the Capitoline Hill. And this custom of
decorating the tree with actual gold goes back in history until we can
meet it coming down to us in the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece
and in that of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Now the custom
has dwindled to this tinsel flung over the Christmas Tree--the mock
sacrifice for the real.
He touched the masks and unfolded the grim story that lay behind their
mockery. It led back to the common custom in antiquity of sacrificing
prisoners of war or condemned criminals or innocent victims in forest
worship and of hanging their heads on the branches: we know this to
have been the practice among Gallic and Teuton tribes. In the course
of time, when such barbarity could be tolerated no longer, the mock
countenance replaced the real.
He touched the dolls and revealed their sad story. Like the others,
its long path led to antiquity and to the custom of sacrificing
children in forest worship. How common this custom was the early
literature of the human race too abundantly testifies. We encounter
the trace of it in Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac--arrested by the
command of Jehovah. But Abraham would never have thought of slaying
his son to propitiate his God, had not the custom been well
established. In the case of Jephthah's daughter the sacrifice was
actually allowed. We come upon the same custom in the fate of
Iphigenia--at a critical turning point in the world's mercy; in her
stead the life of a lesser animal, as in Isaac's case, was
accepted. When the protective charity of mankind turned against the
inhumanity of the old faiths, then the substitution of the mock for
the real sacrifice became complete. And now on the boughs of the
Christmas Tree where richly we come upon vestiges of primitive rites
only these playful toys are left to suggest the massacre of the
He had covered the ground; everything had yielded its story. All the
little stories, like pathways running backward into the distance and
ever converging, met somewhere in lost ages; they met in forest
worship and they met in some sacrifice by the human heart.
And thus he drew his conclusion as the lesson of the night:
"Thus, Josephine, my story ends for you and for me. The Christmas Tree
is all that is left of a forest memory. The forest worshipper could
not worship without giving, because to worship is to give: therefore
he brought his gifts to the forest--his first altar. These gifts,
remember, were never, as with us, decorations. They were his
sacrifices and self-sacrifices. In all the religions he has had since,
the same law lives. In his lower religions he has sacrificed the
better to the worse; in the higher ones he has sacrificed the worst to
the best. If the race should ever outgrow all religion whatsoever, it
would still have to worship what is highest in human nature and so
worshipping, it would still be ruled by the ancient law of sacrifice
become the law of self-sacrifice: it would still be necessary to offer
up what is low in us to what is higher. Only one portion of mankind
has ever believed in Jerusalem; but every religion has known its own
He turned away from the Tree toward her and awaited her
appreciation. She had sat watching him without a movement and without
a word. But when at last she asked him a question, she spoke as a
listener who wakens from a long revery.
"Have you finished the story for me?" she inquired.
"I have finished the story for you," he replied without betraying
disappointment at her icy reception of it.
Keeping her posture, she raised one of her white arms above her head,
turning her face up also until the swanlike curve of the white throat
showed; and with quivering finger tips she touched some sprays of
mistletoe pendent from the garland on the wall:
"You have not interpreted this," she said, her mind fixed on that sole
"I have not explained that," he admitted.
She sat up, and for the first time looked with intense interest toward
the manuscript on the table across the room.
"Have you explained it there?"
"I have not explained it there."
"But why?" she said with disappointment.
"I did not wish you to read that story, Josephine."
"But why, Frederick?" she inquired, startled into wonderment.
He smiled: "If I told you why, I might as well tell you the story."
"But why do you not wish to tell me the story?"
He answered with warning frankness: "If you once saw it as a picture,
the picture would be coming back to you at times the rest of your life
She protested: "If it is dark to you, why should I not share the
darkness of it? Have we not always looked at life's shadows together?
And thus seeing life, have not bright things been doubly bright to us
and dark things but half as dark?"
He merely repeated his warning: "It is a story of a crueler age than
ours. It goes back to the forest worship of the Druids."
She answered: "So long as our own age is cruel, what room is left to
take seriously the mere stories of crueler ones? Am I to shrink from
the forest worship of the Druids? Is there any story of theirs not
printed in books? Are not the books in libraries? Are they not put in
libraries to be read? If others read them, may not I? And since when
must I begin to dread anything in books? Or anything in life? And
since when did we begin to look at life apart, we who have always
looked at it with four eyes?"
"I have always told you there are things to see with four eyes, things
to see with two, and things to see with none."
With sudden intensity her white arm went up again and touched the
"Tell me the story of this!" she pleaded as though she demanded a
right. As she spoke, her thumb and forefinger meeting on a spray, they
closed and went through it like a pair of shears; and a bunch of the
white pearls of the forest dropped on the ridge of her shoulder and
were broken apart and rolled across her breast into her lap.
He looked grave; silence or speech--which were better for her? Either,
he now saw, would give her pain.
"Happily the story is far away from us," he said, as though he were
half inclined to grant her request.
"If it is far away, bring it near! Bring it into the room as you
brought the stories of the star and the candle and the cross and the
dove and the others! Make it live before my eyes! Enact it before me!
Steep me in it as you have steeped yourself!"
He held back a long time: "You who are so safe in good, why know
"Frederick," she cried, "I shall have to insist upon your telling me
this story. And if you should keep any part of it back, I would know.
Then tell it all: if it is dark, let each shadow have its shade; give
each heavy part its heaviness; let cruelty be cruelty--and truth be
He stood gazing across the centuries, and when he began, there was a
change in him; something personal was beginning to intrude itself into
the narrative of the historian:
"Imagine the world of our human nature in the last centuries before
Palestine became Holy Land. Athens stood with her marbles glistening
by the blue AEgean, and Greek girls with fillets and sandals--the
living images of those pale sculptured shapes that are the mournful
eternity of Art--Greek girls were being chosen for the secret rites in
the temple at Ephesus. The sun of Italy had not yet browned the little
children who were to become the brown fathers and mothers of the brown
soldiers of Caesar's legions; and twenty miles south of Rome, in the
sacred grove of Dodona,--where the motions of oak boughs were
auguries, and the flappings of the wings of white doves were divine
messages, and the tinkling of bells in the foliage had divine
meanings,--in this grove the virgins of Latium, as the Greek girls of
Ephesus, were once a year appointed to undergo similar rites. To the
south Pompeii, with its night laughter and song sounding far out
toward the softly lapping Mediterranean and up the slopes of its dread
volcano, drained its goblet and did not care, emptied it as often as
filled and asked for nothing more. A little distance off Herculaneum,
with its tender dreams of Greece but with its arms around the
breathing image of Italy, slept--uncovered.
"Beyond Italy to the north, on the other side of the eternal snowcaps,
lay unknown Gaul, not yet dreaming of the Caesar who was to conquer
it; and across the wild sea opposite Gaul lay the wooded isle of
Britain. All over that island one forest; in that forest one worship;
in that worship one tree--the oak of England; and on that oak one
He spoke to her awhile about the oak, describing the place it had in
the early civilizations of the human race. In the Old Testament it was
the tree of the Hebrew idols and of Jehovah. In Greece it was the
tree of Zeus, the most august and the most human of the gods. In Italy
it was the tree of Jove, great father of immortals and of
mankind. After the gods passed, it became the tree of the imperial
Caesars. After the Caesars had passed, it was the oak that Michael
Angelo in the Middle Ages scattered over the ceiling of the Sistine
Chapel near the creation of man and his expulsion from Paradise--there
as always the chosen tree of human desire. In Britain it was the
sacred tree of Druidism: there the Arch Druid and his fellow-priests
performed none of their rites without using its leaves and branches:
never anywhere in the world was the oak worshipped with such
ceremonies and sacrifices as there.
Imagine then a scene--the chief Nature Festival of that forest
worship: the New Year's day of the Druids.
A vast concourse of people, men and women and children, are on their
way to the forest; they are moving toward an oak tree that has been
found with mistletoe growing on it--growing there so seldom. As the
excited throng come in sight of it, they hail it with loud cries of
reverence and delight. Under it they gather; there a banquet is
spread. In the midst of the assemblage one figure towers--the Arch
Druid. Every eye is fixed fearfully on him, for on whomsoever his own
eye may fall with wrath, he may be doomed to become one of the victims
annually sacrificed to the oak.
A gold chain is around his neck; gold bands are around his arms. He is
clad in robes of spotless white. He ascends the tree to a low bough,
and making a hollow in the folds of his robes, he crops with a golden
pruning hook the mistletoe and so catches it as it falls. Then it is
blessed and scattered among the throng, and the priest prays that each
one so receiving it may receive also the divine favor and blessing of
which it is Nature's emblem. Two white bulls, the horns of which have
never hitherto been touched, are now adorned with fillets and are
slaughtered in sacrifice.
Then at last it is over, the people are gone, the forest is left to
itself, and the New Year's ceremony of cutting the mistletoe from the
oak is at an end.
Here he ended the story.
She had sat leaning far forward, her fingers interlocked and her brows
knitted. When he stopped, she sat up and studied him a moment in
"But why did you call that a dark story?" she asked. "Where is the
cruelty? It is beautiful, and I shall never forget it and it will
never throw a dark image on my mind: New Year's day--the winter
woods--the journeying throng--the oak--the bough--the banquet
beneath--the white bulls with fillets on their horns--the white-robed
priest--the golden sickle in his hand--the stroke that severs the
mistletoe--the prayer that each soul receiving any smallest piece will
be blessed in life's sorrows! If I were a great painter, I should like
to paint that scene. In the centre should be some young girl,
pressing to her heart what she believed to be heaven's covenant with
her under the guise of a blossom. How could you have wished to
withhold such a story from me?"
He smiled at her a little sadly.
"I have not yet told you all," he said, "but I have told you enough."
Instantly she bent far over toward him with intuitive scrutiny. Under
her breath one word escaped:
It was the breath of a discovery--a discovery of something unknown to
"I am sparing you, Josephine!"
She stretched each arm along the back of the sofa and pinioned the
wood in her clutch.
"Are you sparing me?" she asked in a tone of torture. "Or are you
The heavy staff on which he stood leaning dropped from his relaxed
grasp to the floor. He looked down at it a moment and then calmly
picked it up.
"I am going to tell you the story," he said with a new quietness.
She was aroused by some change in him.
"I will not listen! I do not wish to hear it!"
"You will have to listen," he said. "It is better for you to
know. Better for any human being to know any truth than suffer the
bane of wrong thinking. When you are free to judge, it will be
impossible for you to misjudge."
"I have not misjudged you! I have not judged you! In some way that I
do not understand you are judging yourself!"
He stepped back a pace--farther away from her--and he drew himself
up. In the movement there was instinctive resentment. And the right
not to be pried into--not even by the nearest.
The step which had removed him farther from her had brought him nearer
to the Christmas Tree at his back. A long, three-fingered bough being
thus pressed against was forced upward and reappeared on one of his
shoulders. The movement seemed human: it was like the conscious hand
of the tree. The fir, standing there decked out in the artificial
tawdriness of a double-dealing race, laid its wild sincere touch on
him--as sincere as the touch of dying human fingers--and let its
passing youth flow into him. It attracted his attention, and he turned
his head toward it as with recognition. Other boughs near the floor
likewise thrust themselves forward, hiding his feet so that he stood
ankle-deep in forestry.
This reunion did not escape her. Her overwrought imagination made of
it a sinister omen: the bough on his shoulder rested there as the old
forest claim; the boughs about his feet were the ancestral forest
tether. As he had stepped backward from her, Nature had asserted the
earlier right to him. In strange sickness and desolation of heart she
He stood facing her but looking past her at centuries long gone; the
first sound of his voice registered upon her ear some message of doom:
She buried her face in her hands.
"I cannot! I will not!"
"You will have to listen. You know that for some years, apart from my
other work, I have been gathering together the woodland customs of our
people and trying to trace them back to their origin and first
meaning. In our age of the world we come upon many playful forest
survivals of what were once grave things. Often in our play and
pastimes and lingering superstitions about the forest we cross faint
traces of what were once vital realities.
"Among these there has always been one that until recently I have
never understood. Among country people oftenest, but heard of
everywhere, is the saying that if a girl is caught standing under the
mistletoe, she may be kissed by the man who thus finds her. I have
always thought that this ceremony and playful sacrifice led back to
some ancient rite--I could not discover what. Now I know."
In a voice full of a new delicacy and scarcely audible, he told her.
It is another scene in the forest of Britain. This time it is not the
first day of the year--the New Year's day of the Druids when they
celebrated the national festival of the oak. But it is early summer,
perhaps the middle of May--May in England--with the young beauty of
the woods. It is some hushed evening at twilight. The new moon is
just silvering the tender leaves and creating a faint shadow under the
trees. The hawthorn is in bloom--red and white--and not far from the
spot, hidden in some fragrant tuft of this, a nightingale is singing,
Lifting itself above the smaller growths stands the young manhood of
the woods--a splendid oak past its thirtieth year, representing its
youth and its prime conjoined. In its trunk is the summer heat of the
all-day sun. Around its roots is velvet turf, and there are wild
violet beds. Its huge arms are stretched toward the ground as though
reaching for some object they would clasp; and on one of these arms as
its badge of divine authority, worn there as a knight might wear the
colors of his Sovereign, grows the mistletoe. There he stands--the
The woods wait, the shadows deepen, the hush is more intense, the
moon's rays begin to be golden, the song of the nightingale grows more
passionate, the beds of moss and violets wait.
Then the shrubbery is tremblingly parted at some place and upon the
scene a young girl enters--her hair hanging down--her limbs most
lightly clad--the flush of red hawthorn on the white hawthorn of her
skin--in her eyes love's great need and mystery. Step by step she
comes forward, her fingers trailing against whatsoever budding wayside
thing may stay her strength. She draws nearer to the oak, searching
amid its boughs for that emblem which she so dreads to find and yet
more dreads not to find: the emblem of a woman's fruitfulness which
the young oak--the Forest Lover--reaches down toward her. Finding it,
beneath it with one deep breath of surrender she takes her place--the
virgin's tryst with the tree--there to be tested.
Such is the command of the Arch Druid: it is obedience--submission to
that test--or death for her as a sacrifice to the oak which she has
Again the shrubbery is parted, rudely pushed aside, and a man
enters--a tried and seasoned man--a human oak--counterpart of the
Forest Lover--to officiate at the test.
* * * * *
He was standing there in the parlor of his house and in the presence
of his wife. But in fealty he was gone: he was in the summer woods of
ancestral wandering, the fatherland of Old Desire.
_He_ was the man treading down the shrubbery; it was _his_
feet that started toward the oak; _his_ eye that searched for the
figure half fainting under the bough; for _him_ the bed of moss
and violets--the hair falling over the eyes--the loosened girdle--the
breasts of hawthorn white and pink--the listening song of the
nightingale--the silence of the summer woods--the seclusion--the full
surrender of the two under that bough of the divine command, to escape
the penalty of their own death.
The blaze of uncontrollable desire was all over him; the fire of his
own story had treacherously licked him like a wind-bent flame. The
light that she had not seen in his eyes for so long rose in them--the
old, unfathomable, infolding tenderness. A quiver ran around his tense
And now one little phrase which he had uttered so sacredly years
before and had long since forgotten rose a second time to his
lips--tossed there by a second tide of feeling. On the silence of the
room fell his words:
"_Bride of the Mistletoe!_"
The storm that had broken over him died away. He shut his eyes on the
vanishing scene: he opened them upon her.
He had told her the truth about the story; he may have been aware or
he may not have been aware that he had revealed to her the truth about
"This is what I would have kept from you, Josephine," he said quietly.
She was sitting there before him--the mother of his children, of the
sleeping ones, of the buried ones--the butterfly broken on the wheel
of years: lustreless and useless now in its summer.
She sat there with the whiteness of death.
V. THE ROOM OF THE SILENCES
The Christmas candles looked at her flickeringly; the little white
candles of purity, the little red candles of love. The holly in the
room concealed its bold gay berries behind its thorns, and the cedar
from the faithful tree beside the house wall had need now of its
Her first act was to pay what is the first debt of a fine spirit--the
debt of courtesy and gratitude.
"It is a wonderful story, Frederick," she said in a manner which
showed him that she referred to the beginning of his story and not to
"As usual you have gone your own way about it, opening your own path
into the unknown, seeing what no one else has seen, and bringing back
what no one else ever brought. It is a great revelation of things that
I never dreamed of and could never have imagined. I appreciate your
having done this for me; it has taken time and work, but it is too
much for me to-night. It is too new and too vast. I must hereafter try
to understand it. And there will be leisure enough. Nor can it lose by
waiting. But now there is something that cannot wait, and I wish to
speak to you about that; Frederick, I am going to ask you some
questions about the last part of the story. I have been wanting to ask
you a long time: the story gives me the chance and--the right."
He advanced a step toward her, disengaging himself from the evergreen.
"I will answer them," he said. "If they can be answered."
And thus she sat and thus he stood as the questions and answers passed
to and fro. They were solemn questions and solemn replies, drawn out
of the deeps of life and sinking back into them.
"Frederick," she said, "for many years we have been happy together, so
happy! Every tragedy of nature has stood at a distance from us except
the loss of our children. We have lived on a sunny pinnacle of our
years, lifted above life's storms. But of course I have realized that
sooner or later our lot must become the common one: if we did not go
down to Sorrow, Sorrow would climb to us; and I knew that on the
heights it dwells best. That is why I wish to say to you to-night what
I shall: I think fate's hour has struck for me; I am ready to hear
it. Its arrow has already left the bow and is on its way; I open my
heart to receive it. This is as I have always wished; I have said that
if life had any greatest tragedy, for me, I hoped it would come when I
was happiest; thus I should confront it all. I have never drunk half
of my cup of happiness, as you know, and let the other half waste; I
must go equally to the depth of any suffering. Worse than the
suffering, I think, would be the feeling that I had shirked some of
it, had stepped aside, or shut my eyes, or in any manner shown myself
a cowardly soul."
After a pause she went over this subject as though she were not
satisfied that she had made it clear.
"I have always said that the real pathos of things is the grief that
comes to us in life when life is at its best--when no one is to
blame--when no one has committed a fault--when suffering is meted out
to us as the reward of our perfect obedience to the laws of nature. In
earlier years when we used to read Keats together, who most of all of
the world's poets felt the things that pass, even then I was wondering
at the way in which he brings this out: that to understand Sorrow it
must be separated from sorrows: they would be like shadows darkening
the bright disk of life's clear tragedy, thus rendering it less
"And so he is always telling us not to summon sad pictures nor play
with mournful emblems; not to feign ourselves as standing on the banks
of Lethe, gloomiest of rivers; nor to gather wolf's bane and twist the
poison out of its tight roots; nor set before us the cup of hemlock;
nor bind about our temples the ruby grape of nightshade; nor count
over the berries of the yew tree which guards sad places; nor think of
the beetle ticking in the bed post, nor watch the wings of the death
moth, nor listen to the elegy of the owl--the voice of ruins. Not
these! they are the emblems of our sorrows. But the emblems of Sorrow
are beautiful things at their perfect moment; a red peony just
opening, a rainbow seen for an instant on the white foam, youth not
yet faded but already fading, joy with its finger on his lips, bidding
"And so with all my happiness about me, I wish to know life's
tragedy. And to know it, Frederick, not to infer it: _I want to be
"If you can be told, you shall be told," he said.
She changed her position as though seeking physical relief and
composure. Then she began:
"Years ago when you were a student in Germany, you had a college
friend. You went home with him two or three years at Christmas and
celebrated the German Christmas. It was in this way that we came to
have the Christmas Tree in our house--through memory of him and of
those years. You have often described to me how you and he in summer
went Alpine climbing, and far up in some green valley girdled with
glaciers lay of afternoons under some fir tree, reading and drowsing
in the crystalline air. You told me of your nights of wandering down
the Rhine together when the heart turns so intimately to the heart
beside it. He was German youth and song and dream and happiness to
you. Tell me this: before you lost him that last summer over the
crevasse, had you begun to tire of him? Was there anything in you that
began to draw back from anything in him? As you now look back at the
friendship of your youth, have the years lessened your regret for
He answered out of the ideals of his youth:
"The longer I knew him, the more I loved him. I never tired of being
with him. Nothing in me ever drew back from anything in him. When he
was lost, the whole world lost some of its strength and
nobility. After all the years, if he could come back, he would find me
unchanged--that friend of my youth!"
With a peculiar change of voice she asked next:
"The doctor, Herbert and Elsie's father, our nearest neighbor, your
closest friend now in middle life. You see a great deal of the doctor;
he is often here, and you and he often sit up late at night, talking
with one another about many things: do you ever tire of the doctor and
wish him away? Have you any feeling toward him that you try to keep
secret from me? Can you be a perfectly frank man with this friend of
your middle life?"
"The longer I know him the more I like him, honor him, trust him. I
never tire of his companionship or his conversation; I have no
disguises with him and need none."
"The children! As the children grow older do you care less for them?
Do they begin to wear on you? Are they a clog, an interference? Have
Harold and Elizabeth ceased forming new growths of affection in you?
Do you ever unconsciously seek pretexts for avoiding them?"
"The older they grow, the more I love them. The more they interest me
and tempt away from work and duties. I am more drawn to be with them
and I live more and more in the thought of what they are becoming."
"Your work! Does your work attract you less than formerly? Does it
develop in you the purpose to be something more or stifle in you the
regret to be something less? Is it a snare to idleness or a goad to
"As the mariner steers for the lighthouse, as the hound runs down the
stag, as the soldier wakes to the bugle, as the miner digs for
fortune, as the drunkard drains the cup, as the saint watches the
cross, I follow my work, I follow my work."
"Life, life itself, does it increase in value or lessen? Is the world
still morning to you with your work ahead or afternoon when you begin
to tire and to think of rest?"
"The world to me is as early morning to a man going forth to his
work. Where the human race is from and whither it is hurrying and why
it exists at all; why a human being loves what it loves and hates what
it hates; why it is faithful when it could be unfaithful and faithless
when it should be true; how civilized man can fight single handed
against the ages that were his lower past--how he can develop
self-renunciation out of selfishness and his own wisdom out of
surrounding folly,--all these are questions that mean more and
more. My work is but beginning and the world is morning."
"This house! Are you tired of it now that it is older? Would you
rather move into a new one?"
"I love this house more and more. No other dwelling could take its
place. Any other could be but a shelter; this is home. And I care more
for it now that the signs of age begin to settle on it. If it were a
ruin, I should love it best!"
She leaned over and looked down at the two setters lying at her feet.
"Do you care less for the dogs of the house as they grow older?"
"I think more of them and take better care of them now that their
hunting days are over."
"The friend of your youth--the friend of your middle age--the
children--your profession--the world of human life--this house--the
dogs of the house--you care more for them all as time passes?"
"I care more for them all as time passes."
Then there came a great stillness in the room--the stillness of all
"Am I the only thing that you care less for as time passes?"
There was no reply.
"Am I in the way?"
There was no reply.
"Would you like to go over it all again with another?"
There was no reply.
She had hidden her face in her hands and pressed her head against the
end of the sofa. Her whole figure shrank lower, as though to escape
being touched by him--to escape the blow of his words. No words
came. There was no touch.
A moment later she felt that he must be standing over her, looking
down at her. She would respond to his hand on the back of her neck.
He must be kneeling beside her; his arms would infold her. Then with a
kind of incredible terror she realized that he was not there. At first
she could so little believe it, that with her face still buried in one
hand she searched the air for him with the other, expecting to touch
Then she cried out to him:
"Isn't there anything you can say to me?"
"_Oh, Fred! Fred! Fred! Fred_!"
In the stillness she began to hear something--the sound of his
footsteps moving on the carpet. She sat up.
The room was getting darker; he was putting out the candles. It was
too dark already to see his face. With fascination she began to watch
his hand. How steady it was as it moved among the boughs,
extinguishing the lights. Out they went one by one and back into their
darkness returned the emblems of darker ages--the Forest Memories.
A solitary taper was left burning at the pinnacle of the Tree under
the cross: that highest torch of love shining on everything that had
He quietly put it out.
Yet the light seemed not put out, but instantly to have travelled
through the open parlor door into the adjoining room, her bedroom; for
out of that there now streamed a suffused red light; it came from the
lamp near the great bed in the shadowy corner.
This lamp poured its light through a lampshade having the semblance of
a bursting crimson peony as some morning in June the flower with the
weight of its own splendor falls face downward on the grass. And in
that room this soft lamp-light fell here and there on crimson winter
draperies. He had been living alone as a bachelor before he married
her. After they became engaged he, having watched for some favorite
color of hers, had had this room redecorated in that shade. Every
winter since she had renewed in this way or that way these hangings,
and now the bridal draperies remained unchanged--after the changing
He replaced the taper against the wall and came over and stood before
her, holding out his hands to help her rise.
She arose without his aid and passed around him, moving toward her
bedroom. With arms outstretched guarding her but not touching her, he
followed close, for she was unsteady. She entered her bedroom and
crossed to the door of his bedroom; she pushed this open, and keeping
her face bent aside waited for him to go in. He went in and she closed
the door on him and turned the key. Then with a low note, with which
the soul tears out of itself something that has been its life, she
made a circlet of her white arms against the door and laid her profile
within this circlet and stood--the figure of Memory.
Thus sometimes a stranger sees a marble figure standing outside a tomb
where some story of love and youth ended: some stranger in a far
land,--walking some afternoon in those quieter grounds where all human
stories end; an autumn bird in the bare branches fluting of its
mortality and his heart singing with the bird of one lost to him--lost
to him in his own country.
On the other side of the door the silence was that of a tomb. She had
felt confident--so far as she had expected anything--that he would
speak to her through the door, try to open it, plead with her to open
it. Nothing of the kind occurred.
Why did he not come back? What bolt could have separated her from him?
The silence began to weigh upon her.
Then in the tense stillness she heard him moving quietly about,
getting ready for bed. There were the same movements, familiar to her
for years. She would not open the door, she could not leave it, she
could not stand, no support was near, and she sank to the floor and
sat there, leaning her brow against the lintel.
On the other side the quiet preparations went on.
She heard him take off his coat and vest and hang them on the back of
a chair. The buttons made a little scraping sound against the wood.
Then he went to his dresser and took off his collar and tie, and he
opened a drawer and laid out a night-shirt. She heard the creaking of
a chair under him as he threw one foot and then the other up across
his knee and took off his shoes and socks. Then there reached her the
soft movements of his bare feet on the carpet (despite her agony the
old impulse started in her to caution him about his slippers). Then
followed the brushing of his teeth and the deliberate bathing of his
hands. Then was audible the puff of breath with which he blew out his
lamp after he had turned it low; and then,--on the other side of the
door,--just above her ear his knock sounded.
The same knock waited for and responded to throughout the years; so
often with his little variations of playfulness. Many a time in early
summer when out-of-doors she would be reminded of it by hearing some
bird sounding its love signal on a piece of dry wood--that tap of
heart-beat. Now it crashed close to her ear.
Such strength came back to her that she rose as lightly as though her
flesh were but will and spirit. When he knocked again, she was across
the room, sitting on the edge of her bed with her palms pressed
together and thrust between her knees: the instinctive act of a human
animal suddenly chilled to the bone.
The knocking sounded again.
"Was there anything you needed?" she asked fearfully.
There was no response but another knock.
She hurriedly raised her voice to make sure that it would reach him.
"Was there anything you wanted?"
As no response came, the protective maternal instinct took greater
alarm, and she crossed to the door of his room and she repeated her
"Did you forget anything?"
Her mind refused to release itself from the iteration of that idea: it
was some _thing_--not herself--that he wanted.
Her imagination, long oppressed by his silence, now made of his knock
some signal of distress. It took on the authority of an appeal not to
be denied. She unlocked the door and opened it a little way, and once
more she asked her one poor question.
His answer to it came in the form of a gentle pressure against the
door, breaking down her resistance. As she applied more strength, this
was as gently overcome; and when the opening was sufficient, he walked
past her into the room.
How hushed the house! How still the world outside as the cloud wove in
darkness its mantle of light!
VI. THE WHITE DAWN
Day was breaking.
The crimson curtains of the bedroom were drawn close, but from behind
their outer edges faint flanges of light began to advance along the
wall. It was a clear light reflected from snow which had sifted in
against the window-panes, was banked on the sills outside, ridged the
yard fence, peaked the little gate-posts, and buried the shrubbery.
There was no need to look out in order to know that it had stopped
snowing, that the air was windless, and that the stars were flashing
silver-pale except one--great golden-croziered shepherd of the thick,
soft-footed, moving host.
It was Christmas morning on the effulgent Shield.
Already there was sufficient light in the room to reveal--less as
actual things than as brown shadows of the memory--a gay company of
socks and stockings hanging from the mantelpiece; sufficient to give
outline to the bulk of a man asleep on the edge of the bed; and it
exposed to view in a corner of the room farthest from the rays a woman
sitting in a straight-backed chair, a shawl thrown about her shoulders
over her night-dress.
He always slept till he was awakened; the children, having stayed up
past their usual bedtime, would sleep late also; she had the white
dawn to herself in quietness.
She needed it.
Sleep could not have come to her had she wished. She had not slept and
she had not lain down, and the sole endeavor during those shattered
hours had been to prepare herself for his awakening. She was not yet
ready--she felt that during the rest of her life she should never be
quite ready to meet him again. Scant time remained now.
Soon all over the Shield indoor merriment and outdoor noises would
begin. Wherever in the lowlands any many-chimneyed city, proud of its
size, rose by the sweep of watercourses, or any little inland town was
proud of its smallness and of streets that terminated in the fields;
whereever any hamlet marked the point at which two country roads this
morning made the sign of the white cross, or homesteads stood proudly
castled on woody hilltops, or warmed the heart of the beholder from
amid their olive-dark winter pastures; or far away on the shaggy
uplift of the Shield wherever any cabin clung like a swallow's nest
against the gray Appalachian wall--everywhere soon would begin the
healthy outbreak of joy among men and women and children--glad about
themselves, glad in one another, glad of human life in a happy
world. The many-voiced roar and din of this warm carnival lay not far
away from her across the cold bar of silence.
Soon within the house likewise the rush of the children's feet would
startle her ear; they would be tugging at the door, tugging at her
heart. And as she thought of this, the recollection of old simple
things came pealing back to her from behind life's hills. The years
parted like naked frozen reeds, and she, sorely stricken in her
womanhood, fled backward till she herself was a child again--safe in
her father's and mother's protection. It was Christmas morning, and
she in bare feet was tipping over the cold floors toward their
bedroom--toward her stockings.
Her father and mother! How she needed them at this moment: they had
been sweethearts all their lives. One picture of them rose with
distinctness before her--for the wounding picture always comes to the
wounded moment. She saw them sitting in their pew far down toward the
chancel. Through a stained glass window (where there was a ladder of
angels) the light fell softly on them--both silver-haired; and as with
the voices of children they were singing out of one book. She
remembered how as she sat between them she had observed her father
slip his hand into her mother's lap and clasp hers with a
steadfastness that wedded her for eternity; and thus over their linked
hands, with the love of their youth within them and the snows of the
years upon them, they sang together:
"Gently, Lord, O gently lead us
* * * * * *
"Through the changes Thou'st decreed us."
Her father and mother had not been led gently. They had known more
than common share of life's shocks and violence, its wrongs and
meannesses and ills and griefs. But their faith had never wavered that
they were being led gently; so long as they were led together, to them
it was gentle leading: the richer each in each for aught whereby
nature or man could leave them poorer; the calmer for the shocks; the
sweeter for the sour; the finer with one another because of life's
rudenesses. In after years she often thought of them as faithful in
their dust; and the flowers she planted over them and watered many a
bright day with happy tears brought up to her in another form the
freshness of their unwearied union.
That was what she had not doubted her own life would be--with
him--when she had married him.
From the moment of the night before when he had forced the door open
and entered her room, they had not exchanged any words nor a glance.
He had lain down and soon fallen asleep; apparently he had offered
that to her as for the moment at least his solution of the
matter--that he should leave her to herself and absent himself in
The instant she knew him to be asleep she set about her preparations.
Before he awoke she must be gone--out of the house--anywhere--to save
herself from living any longer with him. His indifference in the
presence of her suffering; his pitiless withdrawal from her of touch
and glance and speech as she had gone down into that darkest of life's
valleys; his will of iron that since she had insisted upon knowing the
whole truth, know it she should: all this left her wounded and stunned
as by an incredible blow, and she was acting first from the instinct
of removing herself beyond the reach of further humiliation and
Instinctively she took off her wedding ring and laid it on his dresser
beside his watch: he would find it there in the morning and he could
dispose of it. Then she changed her dress for the plainest heavy one
and put on heavy walking shoes. She packed into a handbag a few
necessary things with some heirlooms of her own. Among the latter was
a case of family jewels; and as she opened it, her eyes fell upon her
mother's thin wedding ring and with quick reverence she slipped that
on and kissed it bitterly. She lifted out also her mother's locket
containing a miniature daguerreotype of her father and dutifully fed
her eyes on that. Her father was not silver-haired then, but
raven-locked; with eyes that men feared at times but no woman ever.
His eyes were on her now as so often in girlhood when he had curbed
her exuberance and guided her waywardness. He was watching as she,
coarsely wrapped and carrying some bundle of things of her own, opened
her front door, left her footprints in the snow on the porch, and
passed out--wading away. Those eyes of his saw what took place the
next day: the happiness of Christmas morning turned into horror; the
children wild with distress and crying--the servants dumb--the inquiry
at neighbors' houses--the news spreading to the town--the papers--the
black ruin. And from him two restraining words issued for her ear:
Passionately she bore the picture to her lips and her pride answered
him. And so answering, it applied a torch to her blood and her blood
took fire and a flame of rage spread through and swept her. She
stopped her preparations: she had begun to think as well as to feel.
She unpacked her travelling bag, putting each article back into its
place with exaggerated pains. Having done this, she stood in the
middle of the floor, looking about her irresolute: then responding to
that power of low suggestion which is one of anger's weapons, she
began to devise malice. She went to a wardrobe and stooping down took
from a bottom drawer--where long ago it had been stored away under
everything else--a shawl that had been her grandmother's; a brindled
crewel shawl,--sometimes worn by superannuated women of a former
generation; a garment of hideousness. Once, when a little girl, she
had loyally jerked it off her grandmother because it added to her
ugliness and decrepitude.
She shook this out with mocking eyes and threw it decoratively around
her shoulders. She strode to the gorgeous peony lampshade and lifting
it off, gibbeted it and scattered the fragments on the floor. She
turned the lamp up as high as it would safely burn so that the huge
lidless eye of it would throw its full glare on him and her. She drew
a rocking chair to the foot of the bed and seating herself put her
forefinger up to each temple and drew out from their hiding places
under the mass of her black hair two long gray locks and let these
hang down haglike across her bosom. She banished the carefully
nourished look of youth from her face--dropped the will to look
young--and allowed the forced-back years to rush into it--into the
wastage, the wreckage, which he and Nature, assisting each other so
ably, had wrought in her.
She sat there half-crazed, rocking noisily; waiting for the glare of
the lamp to cause him to open his eyes; and she smiled upon him in
exultation of vengeance that she was to live on there in his
After a while a darker mood came over her.
With noiseless steps lest she awake him, she began to move about the
room. She put out the lamp and lighted her candle and set it where it
would be screened from his face; and where the shadow of the chamber
was heaviest, into that shadow she retired and in it she sat--with
furtive look to see whether he observed her.
A pall-like stillness deepened about the bed where he lay.
Running in her veins a wellnigh pure stream across the generations was
Anglo-Saxon blood of the world's fiercest; floating in the tide of it
passions of old family life which had dyed history for all time in
tragedies of false friendship, false love, and false battle; but
fiercest ever about the marriage bed and the betrayal of its vow. A
thousand years from this night some wronged mother of hers, sitting
beside some sleeping father of hers in their forest-beleaguered
castle--the moonlight streaming in upon him through the javelined
casement and putting before her the manly beauty of him--the blond
hair matted thick on his forehead as his helmet had left it, his mouth
reddening in his slumber under its curling gold--some mother of hers
whom he had carried off from other men by might of his sword, thus
sitting beside him and knowing him to be colder to her now than the
moon's dead rays, might have watched those rays as they travelled away
from his figure and put a gleam on his sword hanging near: a thousand
years ago: some mother of hers.
It is when the best fails our human nature that the worst volunteers
so often to take its place. The best and the worst--these are the
sole alternatives which many a soul seems to be capable of making:
hence life's spectacle of swift overthrow, of amazing collapse, ever
present about us. Only the heroic among both men and women, losing the
best as their first choice, fight their way through defeat to the
standard of the second best and fight on there. And whatever one may
think of the legend otherwise, abundant experience justifies the story
that it was the Archangel who fell to the pit. The low never fall far:
how can they? They already dwell on the bottom of things, and many a
time they are to be seen there with vanity that they should inhabit
such a privileged highland.
During the first of these hours which stretched for her into the
tragic duration of a lifetime, it was a successive falling from a
height of moral splendor; her nature went down through swift stages to
the lowest she harbored either in the long channel of inheritance or
as the stirred sediment of her own imperfections. And as is
unfortunately true, this descent into moral darkness possessed the
grateful illusion that it was an ascent into new light. All evil
prompting became good suggestion; every injustice made its claim to be
justification. She enjoyed the elation of feeling that she was
dragging herself out of life's quicksands upward to some rock, where
there might be loneliness for her, but where there would be cleanness.
The love which consumed her for him raged in her as hatred; and hatred
is born into perfect mastery of its weapons. However young, it needs
not to wait for training in order to know how to destroy.
He presented himself to her as a character at last revealed in its
faithlessness and low carnal propensities. What rankled most
poignantly in this spectacle of his final self-exposure was the fact
that the cloven hoof should have been found on noble mountain
tops--that he should have attempted to better his disguise by dwelling
near regions of sublimity. Of all hypocrisy the kind most detestable
to her was that which dares live within spiritual fortresses; and now
his whole story of the Christmas Tree, the solemn marshalling of words
about the growth of the world's spirit--about the sacrifice of the
lower in ourselves to the higher--this cant now became to her the
invocation and homage of the practised impostor: he had indeed carried
the Christmas Tree on his shoulder into the manger. Not the Manger of
Immortal Purity for mankind but the manger of his own bestiality.
Thus scorn and satire became her speech; she soared above him with
spurning; a frenzy of poisoned joy racked her that at the moment when
he had let her know that he wanted to be free--at that moment she
might tell him he had won his freedom at the cheap price of his
And thus as she descended, she enjoyed the triumph of rising; so the
devil in us never lacks argument that he is the celestial guide.
Moreover, hatred never dwells solitary; it readily finds boon
companions. And at one period of the night she began to look back upon
her experience with a curious sense of prior familiarity--to see it as
a story already known to her at second hand. She viewed it as the
first stage of one of those tragedies that later find their way into
the care of family physicians, into the briefs of lawyers, into the
confidence of clergymen, into the papers and divorce courts, and that
receive their final flaying or canonization on the stage and in novels
of the time. Sitting at a distance, she had within recent years
studied in a kind of altruistic absorption how the nation's press, the
nation's science of medicine, the nation's science of law, the
nation's practice of religion, and the nation's imaginative literature
were all at work with the same national omen--the decay of the
American family and the downfall of the home.
Now this new pestilence raging in other regions of the country had
incredibly reached her, she thought, on the sheltered lowlands where
the older traditions of American home life still lay like foundation
rock. The corruption of it had attacked him; the ruin of it awaited
her; and thus to-night she took her place among those women whom the
world first hears of as in hospitals and sanitariums and places of
refuge and in their graves--and more sadly elsewhere; whose
misfortunes interested the press and whose types attracted the
She was one of them.
They swarmed about her; one by one she recognized them: the woman who
unable to bear up under her tragedy soon sinks into eternity--or walks
into it; the woman who disappears from the scene and somewhere under
another name or with another lot lives on--devoting herself to memory
or to forgetfulness; the woman who stays on in the house, giving to
the world no sign for the sake of everything else that still remains
to her but living apart--on the other side of the locked door; the
woman who stays on without locking the door, half-hating,
half-loving--the accepted and rejected compromise; the woman who
welcomes the end of the love-drama as the beginning of peace and the
cessation of annoyances; the woman who begins to act her tragedy to
servants and children and acquaintances--reaping sympathy for herself
and sowing ruin and torture--for him; the woman who drops the care of
house, ends his comforts, thus forcing the sharp reminder of her value
as at least an investment toward his general well-being; the woman who
endeavors to rekindle dying coals by fanning them with fresh
fascinations; the woman who plays upon jealousy and touches the male
instinct to keep one's own though little prized lest another acquire
it and prize it more; the woman who sets a watch to discover the other
woman: they swarmed about her, she identified each.
And she dismissed them. They brought her no aid; she shrank from their
companionship; a strange dread moved her lest _they_ should
discover _her_. One only she detached from the throng and for a
while withdrew with her into a kind of dual solitude: the woman who
when so rejected turns to another man--the man who is waiting
The man _she_ turned to, who for years had hovered near, was the
country doctor, her husband's tried and closest friend, whose children
were asleep upstairs with her children. During all these years
_her_ secret had been--the doctor. When she had come as a bride
into that neighborhood, he, her husband's senior by several years, was
already well established in his practice. He had attended her at the
birth of her first child; never afterwards. As time passed, she had
discovered that he loved her; she could never have him again. This had
dealt his professional reputation a wound, but he understood, and he
welcomed the wound.
Many a night, lying awake near her window, through which noises from
the turnpike plainly reached her, all earthly happiness asleep
alongside her, she could hear the doctor's buggy passing on its way to
some patient, or on its return from the town where he had patients
also. Many a time she had heard it stop at the front gate: the road of
his life there turned in to her. There were nights of pitch darkness
and beating rain; and sometimes on these she had to know that he was
Long she sat in the shadow of her room, looking towards the bed where
her husband slept, but sending the dallying vision toward the
doctor. He would be at the Christmas party; she would be dancing with
Clouds and darkness descended upon the plain of life and enveloped
it. She groped her way, torn and wounded, downward along the old lost
The endless night scarcely moved on.
* * * * *
She was wearied out, she was exhausted. There is anger of such
intensity that it scorches and shrivels away the very temptations that
are its fuel; nothing can long survive the blast of that white flame,
and being unfed, it dies out. Moreover, it is the destiny of a
portion of mankind that they are enjoined by their very nobility from
winning low battles; these always go against them: the only victories
for them are won when they are leading the higher forces of human
nature in life's upward conflicts.
She was weary, she was exhausted; there was in her for a while neither
moral light nor moral darkness. Her consciousness lay like a boundless
plain on which nothing is visible. She had passed into a great calm;
and slowly there was borne across her spirit a clearness that is like
the radiance of the storm-winged sky.
And now in this calm, in this clearness, two small white figures
appeared--her children. Hitherto the energies of her mind had
grappled with the problem of her future; now memories began--memories
that decide more perhaps than anything else for us. And memories began
with her children.
She arose without making any noise, took her candle, and screening it
with the palm of her hand, started upstairs.
There were two ways by either of which she could go; a narrow rear
stairway leading from the parlor straight to their bedrooms, and the
broad stairway in the front hall. From the old maternal night-habit
she started to take the shorter way but thought of the parlor and drew
back. This room had become too truly the Judgment Seat of the
Years. She shrank from it as one who has been arraigned may shrink
from a tribunal where sentence has been pronounced which changes the
rest of life. Its flowers, its fruits, its toys, its ribbons, but
deepened the derision and the bitterness. And the evergreen there in
the middle of the room--it became to her as that tree of the knowledge
of good and evil which at Creation's morning had driven Woman from
She chose the other way and started toward the main hall of the house,
but paused in the doorway and looked back at the bed; what if he
should awake in the dark, alone, with no knowledge of where she was?
Would he call out to her--with what voice? Would he come to seek
her--with what emotions? (The tide of memories was setting in now--the
drift back to the old mooring.)
Hunt for her! How those words fell like iron strokes on the ear of
remembrance. They registered the beginning of the whole trouble. Up to
the last two years his first act upon reaching home had been to seek
her. It had even been her playfulness at times to slip from room to
room for the delight of proving how persistently he would prolong his
search. But one day some two years before this, when she had entered
his study about the usual hour of his return, bringing flowers for his
writing desk, she saw him sitting there, hat on, driving gloves on,
making some notes. The sight had struck the flowers from her hands;
she swiftly gathered them up, and going to her room, shut herself in;
she knew it was the beginning of the end.
The Shadow which lurks in every bridal lamp had become the Spectre of
When they met later that day, he was not even aware of what he had
done or failed to do, the change in him was so natural to himself.
Everything else had followed: the old look dying out of the eyes; the
old touch abandoning the hands; less time for her in the house, more
for work; constraint beginning between them, the awkwardness of
reserve; she seeing Nature's movement yet refusing to believe it; then
at last resolving to know to the uttermost and choosing her bridal
night as the hour of the ordeal.
If he awoke, would he come to seek her--with what feelings?
She went on upstairs, holding the candle to one side with her right
hand and supporting herself by the banisters with her left. There was
a turn in the stairway at the second floor, and here the candle rays
fell on the face of the tall clock in the hallway. She sat down on a
step, putting the candle beside her; and there she remained, her
elbows on her knees, her face resting on her palms; and into the abyss
of the night dropped the tranquil strokes. More memories!
She was by nature not only alive to all life but alive to surrounding
lifeless things. Much alone in the house, she had sent her happiness
overflowing its dumb environs--humanizing these--drawing them toward
her by a gracious responsive symbolism--extending speech over realms
which nature has not yet awakened to it or which she may have struck
into speechlessness long aeons past.
She had symbolized the clock; it was the wooden God of Hours; she had
often feigned that it might be propitiated; and opening the door of it
she would pin inside the walls little clusters of blossoms as votive
offerings: if it would only move faster and bring him home! The usual
hour of his return from college was three in the afternoon. She had
symbolized that hour; one stroke for him, one for her, one for the
children--the three in one--the trinity of the household.
She sat there on the step with the candle burning beside her.
The clock struck three! The sound went through the house: down to him,
up to the children, into her. It was like a cry of a night watch: all
It was the first sound that had reached her from any source during
this agony, and now it did not come from humanity, but from outside
humanity; from Time itself which brings us together and holds us
together as long as possible and then separates us and goes on its
way--indifferent whether we are together or apart; Time which welds
the sands into the rock and then wears the rock away to its separate
sands and sends the level tide softly over them.
Once for him, once for her, once for the children! She took up the
candle and went upstairs to them.
For a while she stood beside the bed in one room where the two little
girls were asleep clasping each other, cheek against cheek; and in
another room at the bedside of the two little boys, their backs turned
on one another and each with a hand doubled into a promising fist
outside the cover. In a few years how differently the four would be
divided and paired; each boy a young husband, each girl a young wife;
and out of the lives of the two of them who were hers she would then
drop into some second place. If to-night she were realizing what
befalls a wife when she becomes the Incident to her husband, she would
then realize what befalls a woman when the mother becomes the Incident
to her children: Woman, twice the Incident in Nature's impartial
economy! Her son would playfully confide it to his bride that she must
bear with his mother's whims and ways. Her daughter would caution her
husband that he must overlook peculiarities and weaknesses. The very
study of perfection which she herself had kindled and fanned in them
as the illumination of their lives they would now turn upon her as a
searchlight of her failings.
He downstairs would never do that! She could not conceive of his
discussing her with any human being. Even though he should some day
desert her, he would never discuss her.
She had lived so secure in the sense of him thus standing with her
against the world, that it was the sheer withdrawal of his strength
from her to-night that had dealt her the cruelest blow. But now she
began to ask herself whether his protection _had_ failed her.
Could he have recognized the situation without rendering it
worse? Had he put his arms around her, might she not have--struck at
him? Had he laid a finger-weight of sympathy on her, would it not have
left a scar for life? Any words of his, would they not have rung in
her ears unceasingly? To pass it over was as though it had never
been--was not _that_ his protection?
She suddenly felt a desire to go down into the parlor. She kissed her
child in each room and she returned and kissed the doctor's
children--with memory of their mother; and then she descended by the
She set her candle on the table, where earlier in the night she had
placed the lamp--near the manuscript--and she sat down and looked at
that remorsefully: she had ignored it when he placed it there.
He had made her the gift of his work--dedicated to her the triumphs of
his toil. It was his deep cry to her to share with him his widening
career and enter with him into the world's service. She crossed her
hands over it awhile, and then she left it.
The low-burnt candle did not penetrate far into the darkness of the
immense parlor. There was an easy chair near her piano and her music.
After playing when alone, she would often sit there and listen to the
echoes of those influences that come into the soul from music
only,--the rhythmic hauntings of some heaven of diviner beauty. She
sat there now quite in darkness and closed her eyes; and upon her ear
began faintly to beat the sad sublime tones of his story.
One of her delights in growing things on the farm had been to watch
the youth of the hemp--a field of it, tall and wandlike and tufted. If
the north wind blew upon it, the myriad stalks as by a common impulse
swayed southward; if a zephyr from the south crossed it, all heads
were instantly bowed before the north. West wind sent it east and east
wind sent it west.
And so, it had seemed to her, is that ever living world which we
sometimes call the field of human life in its perpetual summer. It is
run through by many different laws; governed by many distinct forces,
each of which strives to control it wholly--but never does.
Selfishness blows on it like a parching sirocco, and all things
seem to bow to the might of selfishness. Generosity moves across the
expanse, and all things are seen responsive to what is generous. Place
yourself where life is lowest and everything like an avalanche is
rushing to the bottom. Place yourself where character is highest, and
lo! the whole world is but one struggle upward to what is high. You
see what you care to see, and find what you wish to find.
In his story of the Forest and the Heart he had wanted to trace but
one law, and he had traced it; he had drawn all things together and
bent them before its majesty: the ancient law of Sacrifice. Of old the
high sacrificed to the low; afterwards the low to the high: once the
sacrifice of others; now the sacrifice of ourselves; but always in
ourselves of the lower to the higher in order that, dying, we may
With this law he had made his story a story of the world.
The star on the Tree bore it back to Chaldaea; the candle bore it to
ancient Persia; the cross bore it to the Nile and Isis and Osiris; the
dove bore it to Syria; the bell bore it to Confucius; the drum bore it
to Buddha; the drinking horn to Greece; the tinsel to Romulus and
Rome; the doll to Abraham and Isaac; the masks to Gaul; the mistletoe
to Britain,--and all brought it to Christ,--Christ the latest
world-ideal of sacrifice that is self-sacrifice and of the giving of
all for all.
The story was for herself, he had said, and for himself.
Himself! Here at last all her pain and wandering of this night ended:
at the bottom of her wound where rankled _his problem_.
From this problem she had most shrunk and into this she now entered:
She sacrificed herself in him! She laid upon herself his temptation
and his struggle.
* * * * *
Taking her candle, she passed back into her bedroom and screened it
where she had screened it before; then went into his bedroom.
She put her wedding ring on again with blanched lips. She went to his
bedside, and drawing to the pillow the chair on which his clothes were
piled, sat down and laid her face over on it; and there in that shrine
of feeling where speech is formed, but whence it never issues, she
made her last communion with him:
_"You, to whom I gave my youth and all that youth could mean to me;
whose children I have borne and nurtured at my breast--all of whose
eyes I have seen open and the eyes of some of whom I have closed;
husband of my girlhood, loved as no woman ever loved the man who took
her home; strength and laughter of his house; helper of what is best
in me; my defender against things in myself that I cannot govern;
pathfinder of my future; rock of the ebbing years! Though my hair turn
white as driven snow and flesh wither to the bone, I shall never cease
to be the flame that you yourself have kindled.
"But never again to you! Let the stillness of nature fall where there
must be stillness! Peace come with its peace! And the room which heard
our whisperings of the night, let it be the Room of the Silences--the
Long Silences! Adieu, cross of living fire that I have so clung
She remained as motionless as though she had fallen asleep or would
not lift her head until there had ebbed out of her life upon his
pillow the last drop of things that must go.
She there--her whitening head buried on his pillow: it was Life's
Calvary of the Snows.
The dawn found her sitting in the darkest corner of the room, and
there it brightened about her desolately. The moment drew near when
she must awaken him; the ordeal of their meeting must be over before
the children rushed downstairs or the servants knocked.
She had plaited her hair in two heavy braids, and down each braid the
gray told its story through the black. And she had brushed it frankly
away from brow and temples so that the contour of her head--one of
nature's noblest--was seen in its simplicity. It is thus that the
women of her land sometimes prepare themselves at the ceremony of
their baptism into a new life.
She had put on a plain night-dress, and her face and shoulders rising
out of this had the austerity of marble--exempt not from ruin, but
exempt from lesser mutation. She looked down at her wrists once and
made a little instinctive movement with her fingers as if to hide them
under the sleeves.
Then she approached the bed. As she did so, she turned back midway and
quickly stretched her arms toward the wall as though to flee to it.
Then she drew nearer, a new pitiful fear of him in her eyes--the look
of the rejected.
So she stood an instant and then she reclined on the edge of the bed,
resting on one elbow and looking down at him.
For years her first words to him on this day had been the world's best
"A Merry Christmas!"
She tried to summon the words to her lips and have them ready.
At the pressure of her body on the bed he opened his eyes and
instantly looked to see what the whole truth was: how she had come out
of it all, what their life was to be henceforth, what their future
would be worth. But at the sight of her so changed--something so gone
out of her forever--with a quick cry he reached his arms for her. She
struggled to get away from him; but he, winding his arms shelteringly
about the youth-shorn head, drew her face close down against his
face. She caught at one of the braids of her hair and threw it across
her eyes, and then silent convulsive sobs rent and tore her, tore her.
The torrent of her tears raining down into his tears.
Tears not for Life's faults but for Life when there are no
faults. They locked in each other's arms--trying to save each other on
Nature's vast lonely, tossing, uncaring sea.
The rush of children's feet was heard in the hall and there was
smothered laughter at the door and the soft turning of the knob.
It was Christmas Morning.
* * * * *
The sun rose golden and gathering up its gold threw it forward over
the gladness of the Shield. The farmhouse--such as the poet had sung
of when he could not help singing of American home life--looked out
from under its winter roof with the cheeriness of a human traveller
who laughs at the snow on his hat and shoulders. Smoke poured out of
its chimneys, bespeaking brisk fires for festive purposes. The oak
tree beside it stood quieted of its moaning and tossing. Soon after
sunrise a soul of passion on scarlet wings, rising out of the
snow-bowed shrubbery, flew up to a topmost twig of the oak; and
sitting there with its breast to the gorgeous sun scanned for a little
while that landscape of ice. It was beyond its intelligence to
understand how nature could create it for Summer and then take Summer
away. Its wisdom could only have ended in wonderment that a sun so
true could shine on a world so false.
Frolicking servants fell to work, sweeping porches and shovelling
paths. After breakfast a heavy-set, middle-aged man, his face red with
fireside warmth and laughter, without hat or gloves or overcoat,
rushed out of the front door pursued by a little soldier sternly
booted and capped and gloved; and the two snowballed each other, going
at it furiously. Watching them through a window a little girl, dancing
a dreamy measure of her own, ever turned inward and beckoned to some
one to come and look--beckoned in vain.
All day the little boy beat the drum of Confucius; all day the little
girl played with the doll--hugged to her breast the symbol of ancient
sacrifice, the emblem of the world's new mercy. Along the turnpike
sleigh-bells were borne hither and thither by rushing horses; and the
shouts of young men on fire to their marrow went echoing across the
Christmas Day! Christmas Day! Christmas Day!
One thing about the house stood in tragic aloofness from its
surroundings; just outside the bedroom window grew a cedar, low,
thick, covered with snow except where a bough had been broken off for
decorating the house; here owing to the steepness the snow slid
off. The spot looked like a wound in the side of the Divine purity,
and across this open wound the tree had hung its rosary-beads never to
be told by Sorrow's fingers.
The sunset golden and gathering up its last gold threw it backward
across the sadness of the Shield. One by one the stars came back to
their faithful places above the silence and the whiteness. A swinging
lamp was lighted on the front porch and its rays fell on little round
mats of snow stamped off by entering boot heels. On each gatepost a
low Christmas star was set to guide and welcome good neighbors; and
between those beacons soon they came hurrying, fathers and mothers and
children assembling for the party.
Late into the night the party lasted.
The logs blazed in deep fireplaces and their Forest Memories went to
ashes. Bodily comfort there was and good-will and good wishes and the
robust sensible making the best of what is best on the surface of our
life. And hale eating and drinking as old England itself once ate and
drank at Yuletide. And fast music and dancing that ever wanted to go
faster than the music.
The chief feature of the revelry was the distribution of gifts on the
Christmas Tree--the handing over to this person and to that person of
those unread lessons of the ages--little mummied packages of the lord
of time. One thing no one noted. Fresh candles had replaced those
burnt out on the Tree the night before: all the candles were white
Revellers! Revellers! A crowded canvas! A brilliantly painted scene!
Controlling everything, controlling herself, the lady of the house:
hunting out her guests with some grace that befitted each; laughing
and talking with the doctor; secretly giving most attention to the
doctor's wife--faded little sufferer; with strength in her to be the
American wife and mother in the home of the poet's dream: the
spiritual majesty of her bridal veil still about her amid life's snow
as it never lifts itself from the face of the _Jungfrau_ amid the
sad most lovely mountains: the American wife and mother!--herself the
_Jungfrau_ among the world's women!
The last thing before the company broke up took place what often takes
place there in happy gatherings: the singing of the song of the State
which is also a song of the Nation--its melody of the unfallen home:
with sadness enough in it, God knows, but with sanctity: she seated at
the piano--the others upholding her like a living bulwark.
There was another company thronging the rooms that no one wot of:
those Bodiless Ones that often are much more real than the
embodied--the Guests of the Imagination.
The Memories were there, strolling back and forth through the chambers
arm and arm with the Years: bestowing no cognizance upon that present
scene nor aware that they were not alone. About the Christmas Tree the
Wraiths of earlier children returned to gambol; and these knew naught
of those later ones who had strangely come out of the unknown to fill
their places. Around the walls stood other majestical Veiled Shapes
that bent undivided attention upon the actual pageant: these were
Life's Pities. Ever and anon they would lift their noble veils and
look out upon that brief flicker of our mortal joy, and drop them and
relapse into their compassionate vigil.
But of the Bodiless Ones there gathered a solitary young Shape filled
the entire house with her presence. As the Memories walked through the
rooms with the Years, they paused ever before her and mutely beckoned
her to a place in their Sisterhood. The children who had wandered back
peeped shyly at her but then with some sure instinct of recognition
ran to her and threw down their gifts, to put their arms around
her. And the Pities before they left the house that night walked past
her one by one and each lifted its veil and dropped it more softly.
This was the Shape:
In the great bedroom on a spot of the carpet under the
chandelier--which had no decoration whatsoever--stood an exquisite
Spirit of Youth, more insubstantial than Spring morning mist, yet most
alive; her lips scarce parted--her skin like white hawthorn shadowed
by pink--in her eyes the modesty of withdrawal from Love--in her heart
the surrender to it. During those distracting hours never did she move
nor did her look once change: she waiting there--waiting for some one
Back to Full Books