Lilith is considered among the darkest of MacDonald's works, and among the most profound. It is a story concerning the nature of life, death and salvation. Many believe MacDonald is arguing for Christian universalism, or the idea that all will eventually be saved.
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Copyright © 2016 by George MacDonald
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SOMEWHERE OR NOWHERE?
THE OLD CHURCH
MY FATHER’S MANUSCRIPT
THE BAD BURROW
THE EVIL WOOD
FRIENDS AND FOES
THE LITTLE ONES
A STRANGE HOSTESS
A GRUESOME DANCE
A GROTESQUE TRAGEDY
DEAD OR ALIVE?
THE WHITE LEECH
THE FUGITIVE MOTHER
A WOMAN OF BULIKA
THE WHITE LEOPARDESS
A BATTLE ROYAL
THE SILENT FOUNTAIN
I AM SILENCED
THE SEXTON’S OLD HORSE
THE LOVERS AND THE BAGS
THE LITTLE ONES IN BULIKA
MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
TO THE HOUSE OF BITTERNESS
THE HOUSE OF DEATH
I AM SENT
I SLEEP THE SLEEP
THE DREAMS THAT CAME
THE JOURNEY HOME
THE “ENDLESS ENDING”
I HAD JUST FINISHED MY studies at Oxford, and was taking a brief holiday from work before assuming definitely the management of the estate. My father died when I was yet a child; my mother followed him within a year; and I was nearly as much alone in the world as a man might find himself.
I had made little acquaintance with the history of my ancestors. Almost the only thing I knew concerning them was, that a notable number of them had been given to study. I had myself so far inherited the tendency as to devote a good deal of my time, though, I confess, after a somewhat desultory fashion, to the physical sciences. It was chiefly the wonder they woke that drew me. I was constantly seeing, and on the outlook to see, strange analogies, not only between the facts of different sciences of the same order, or between physical and metaphysical facts, but between physical hypotheses and suggestions glimmering out of the metaphysical dreams into which I was in the habit of falling. I was at the same time much given to a premature indulgence of the impulse to turn hypothesis into theory. Of my mental peculiarities there is no occasion to say more.
The house as well as the family was of some antiquity, but no description of it is necessary to the understanding of my narrative. It contained a fine library, whose growth began before the invention of printing, and had continued to my own time, greatly influenced, of course, by changes of taste and pursuit. Nothing surely can more impress upon a man the transitory nature of possession than his succeeding to an ancient property! Like a moving panorama mine has passed from before many eyes, and is now slowly flitting from before my own.
The library, although duly considered in many alterations of the house and additions to it, had nevertheless, like an encroaching state, absorbed one room after another until it occupied the greater part of the ground floor. Its chief room was large, and the walls of it were covered with books almost to the ceiling; the rooms into which it overflowed were of various sizes and shapes, and communicated in modes as various—by doors, by open arches, by short passages, by steps up and steps down.
In the great room I mainly spent my time, reading books of science, old as well as new; for the history of the human mind in relation to supposed knowledge was what most of all interested me. Ptolemy, Dante, the two Bacons, and Boyle were even more to me than Darwin or Maxwell, as so much nearer the vanished van breaking into the dark of ignorance.
In the evening of a gloomy day of August I was sitting in my usual place, my back to one of the windows, reading. It had rained the greater part of the morning and afternoon, but just as the sun was setting, the clouds parted in front of him, and he shone into the room. I rose and looked out of the window. In the centre of the great lawn the feathering top of the fountain column was filled with his red glory. I turned to resume my seat, when my eye was caught by the same glory on the one picture in the room—a portrait, in a sort of niche or little shrine sunk for it in the expanse of book-filled shelves. I knew it as the likeness of one of my ancestors, but had never even wondered why it hung there alone, and not in the gallery, or one of the great rooms, among the other family portraits. The direct sunlight brought out the painting wonderfully; for the first time I seemed to see it, and for the first time it seemed to respond to my look. With my eyes full of the light reflected from it, something, I cannot tell what, made me turn and cast a glance to the farther end of the room, when I saw, or seemed to see, a tall figure reaching up a hand to a bookshelf. The next instant, my vision apparently rectified by the comparative dusk, I saw no one, and concluded that my optic nerves had been momentarily affected from within.
I resumed my reading, and would doubtless have forgotten the vague, evanescent impression, had it not been that, having occasion a moment after to consult a certain volume, I found but a gap in the row where it ought to have stood, and the same instant remembered that just there I had seen, or fancied I saw, the old man in search of a book. I looked all about the spot but in vain. The next morning, however, there it was, just where I had thought to find it! I knew of no one in the house likely to be interested in such a book.
Three days after, another and yet odder thing took place.
In one of the walls was the low, narrow door of a closet, containing some of the oldest and rarest of the books. It was a very thick door, with a projecting frame, and it had been the fancy of some ancestor to cross it with shallow shelves, filled with book-backs only. The harmless trick may be excused by the fact that the titles on the sham backs were either humorously original, or those of books lost beyond hope of recovery. I had a great liking for the masked door.
To complete the illusion of it, some inventive workman apparently had shoved in, on the top of one of the rows, a part of a volume thin enough to lie between it and the bottom of the next shelf: he had cut away diagonally a considerable portion, and fixed the remnant with one of its open corners projecting beyond the book-backs. The binding of the mutilated volume was limp vellum, and one could open the corner far enough to see that it was manuscript upon parchment.
Happening, as I sat reading, to raise my eyes from the page, my glance fell upon this door, and at once I saw that the book described, if book it may be called, was gone. Angrier than any worth I knew in it justified, I rang the bell, and the butler appeared. When I asked him if he knew what had befallen it, he turned pale, and assured me he did not. I could less easily doubt his word than my own eyes, for he had been all his life in the family, and a more faithful servant never lived. He left on me the impression, nevertheless, that he could have said something more.
In the afternoon I was again reading in the library, and coming to a point which demanded reflection, I lowered the book and let my eyes go wandering. The same moment I saw the back of a slender old man, in a long, dark coat, shiny as from much wear, in the act of disappearing through the masked door into the closet beyond. I darted across the room, found the door shut, pulled it open, looked into the closet, which had no other issue, and, seeing nobody, concluded, not without uneasiness, that I had had a recurrence of my former illusion, and sat down again to my reading.
Naturally, however, I could not help feeling a little nervous, and presently glancing up to assure myself that I was indeed alone, started again to my feet, and ran to the masked door—for there was the mutilated volume in its place! I laid hold of it and pulled: it was firmly fixed as usual!
I was now utterly bewildered. I rang the bell; the butler came; I told him all I had seen, and he told me all he knew.
He had hoped, he said, that the old gentleman was going to be forgotten; it was well no one but myself had seen him. He had heard a good deal about him when first he served in the house, but by degrees he had ceased to be mentioned, and he had been very careful not to allude to him.
“The place was haunted by an old gentleman, was it?” I said.
He answered that at one time everybody believed it, but the fact that I had never heard of it seemed to imply that the thing had come to an end and was forgotten.
I questioned him as to what he had seen of the old gentleman.
He had never seen him, he said, although he had been in the house from the day my father was eight years old. My grandfather would never hear a word on the matter, declaring that whoever alluded to it should be dismissed without a moment’s warning: it was nothing but a pretext of the maids, he said, for running into the arms of the men! but old Sir Ralph believed in nothing he could not see or lay hold of. Not one of the maids ever said she had seen the apparition, but a footman had left the place because of it.
An ancient woman in the village had told him a legend concerning a Mr. Raven, long time librarian to “that Sir Upward whose portrait hangs there among the books.” Sir Upward was a great reader, she said—not of such books only as were wholesome for men to read, but of strange, forbidden, and evil books; and in so doing, Mr. Raven, who was probably the devil himself, encouraged him. Suddenly they both disappeared, and Sir Upward was never after seen or heard of, but Mr. Raven continued to show himself at uncertain intervals in the library. There were some who believed he was not dead; but both he and the old woman held it easier to believe that a dead man might revisit the world he had left, than that one who went on living for hundreds of years should be a man at all.
He had never heard that Mr. Raven meddled with anything in the house, but he might perhaps consider himself privileged in regard to the books. How the old woman had learned so much about him he could not tell; but the description she gave of him corresponded exactly with the figure I had just seen.
“I hope it was but a friendly call on the part of the old gentleman!” he concluded, with a troubled smile.
I told him I had no objection to any number of visits from Mr. Raven, but it would be well he should keep to his resolution of saying nothing about him to the servants. Then I asked him if he had ever seen the mutilated volume out of its place; he answered that he never had, and had always thought it a fixture. With that he went to it, and gave it a pull: it seemed immovable.
NOTHING MORE HAPPENED FOR SOME days. I think it was about a week after, when what I have now to tell took place.
I had often thought of the manuscript fragment, and repeatedly tried to discover some way of releasing it, but in vain: I could not find out what held it fast.
But I had for some time intended a thorough overhauling of the books in the closet, its atmosphere causing me uneasiness as to their condition. One day the intention suddenly became a resolve, and I was in the act of rising from my chair to make a beginning, when I saw the old librarian moving from the door of the closet toward the farther end of the room. I ought rather to say only that I caught sight of something shadowy from which I received the impression of a slight, stooping man, in a shabby dress-coat reaching almost to his heels, the tails of which, disparting a little as he walked, revealed thin legs in black stockings, and large feet in wide, slipper-like shoes.
At once I followed him: I might be following a shadow, but I never doubted I was following something. He went out of the library into the hall, and across to the foot of the great staircase, then up the stairs to the first floor, where lay the chief rooms. Past these rooms, I following close, he continued his way, through a wide corridor, to the foot of a narrower stair leading to the second floor. Up that he went also, and when I reached the top, strange as it may seem, I found myself in a region almost unknown to me. I never had brother or sister to incite to such romps as make children familiar with nook and cranny; I was a mere child when my guardian took me away; and I had never seen the house again until, about a month before, I returned to take possession.
Through passage after passage we came to a door at the bottom of a winding wooden stair, which we ascended. Every step creaked under my foot, but I heard no sound from that of my guide. Somewhere in the middle of the stair I lost sight of him, and from the top of it the shadowy shape was nowhere visible. I could not even imagine I saw him. The place was full of shadows, but he was not one of them.
I was in the main garret, with huge beams and rafters over my head, great spaces around me, a door here and there in sight, and long vistas whose gloom was thinned by a few lurking cobwebbed windows and small dusky skylights. I gazed with a strange mingling of awe and pleasure: the wide expanse of garret was my own, and unexplored!
In the middle of it stood an unpainted inclosure of rough planks, the door of which was ajar. Thinking Mr. Raven might be there, I pushed the door, and entered.
The small chamber was full of light, but such as dwells in places deserted: it had a dull, disconsolate look, as if it found itself of no use, and regretted having come. A few rather dim sunrays, marking their track through the cloud of motes that had just been stirred up, fell upon a tall mirror with a dusty face, old-fashioned and rather narrow—in appearance an ordinary glass. It had an ebony frame, on the top of which stood a black eagle, with outstretched wings, in his beak a golden chain, from whose end hung a black ball.
I had been looking at rather than into the mirror, when suddenly I became aware that it reflected neither the chamber nor my own person. I have an impression of having seen the wall melt away, but what followed is enough to account for any uncertainty:—could I have mistaken for a mirror the glass that protected a wonderful picture?
I saw before me a wild country, broken and heathy. Desolate hills of no great height, but somehow of strange appearance, occupied the middle distance; along the horizon stretched the tops of a far-off mountain range; nearest me lay a tract of moorland, flat and melancholy.
Being short-sighted, I stepped closer to examine the texture of a stone in the immediate foreground, and in the act espied, hopping toward me with solemnity, a large and ancient raven, whose purply black was here and there softened with gray. He seemed looking for worms as he came. Nowise astonished at the appearance of a live creature in a picture, I took another step forward to see him better, stumbled over something—doubtless the frame of the mirror—and stood nose to beak with the bird: I was in the open air, on a houseless heath!
I TURNED AND LOOKED BEHIND me: all was vague and uncertain, as when one cannot distinguish between fog and field, between cloud and mountain-side. One fact only was plain—that I saw nothing I knew. Imagining myself involved in a visual illusion, and that touch would correct sight, I stretched my arms and felt about me, walking in this direction and that, if haply, where I could see nothing, I might yet come in contact with something; but my search was vain. Instinctively then, as to the only living thing near me, I turned to the raven, which stood a little way off, regarding me with an expression at once respectful and quizzical. Then the absurdity of seeking counsel from such a one struck me, and I turned again, overwhelmed with bewilderment, not unmingled with fear. Had I wandered into a region where both the material and psychical relations of our world had ceased to hold? Might a man at any moment step beyond the realm of order, and become the sport of the lawless? Yet I saw the raven, felt the ground under my feet, and heard a sound as of wind in the lowly plants around me!
“How DID I get here?” I said—apparently aloud, for the question was immediately answered.
“You came through the door,” replied an odd, rather harsh voice.
I looked behind, then all about me, but saw no human shape. The terror that madness might be at hand laid hold upon me: must I henceforth place no confidence either in my senses or my consciousness? The same instant I knew it was the raven that had spoken, for he stood looking up at me with an air of waiting. The sun was not shining, yet the bird seemed to cast a shadow, and the shadow seemed part of himself.
I beg my reader to aid me in the endeavour to make myself intelligible—if here understanding be indeed possible between us. I was in a world, or call it a state of things, an economy of conditions, an idea of existence, so little correspondent with the ways and modes of this world—which we are apt to think the only world, that the best choice I can make of word or phrase is but an adumbration of what I would convey. I begin indeed to fear that I have undertaken an impossibility, undertaken to tell what I cannot tell because no speech at my command will fit the forms in my mind. Already I have set down statements I would gladly change did I know how to substitute a truer utterance; but as often as I try to fit the reality with nearer words, I find myself in danger of losing the things themselves, and feel like one in process of awaking from a dream, with the thing that seemed familiar gradually yet swiftly changing through a succession of forms until its very nature is no longer recognisable.
I bethought me that a bird capable of addressing a man must have the right of a man to a civil answer; perhaps, as a bird, even a greater claim.
A tendency to croak caused a certain roughness in his speech, but his voice was not disagreeable, and what he said, although conveying little enlightenment, did not sound rude.
“I did not come through any door,” I rejoined.
“I saw you come through it!—saw you with my own ancient eyes!” asserted the raven, positively but not disrespectfully.
“I never saw any door!” I persisted.
“Of course not!” he returned; “all the doors you had yet seen—and you haven’t seen many—were doors in; here you came upon a door out! The strange thing to you,” he went on thoughtfully, “will be, that the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in!”
“Oblige me by telling me where I am.”
“That is impossible. You know nothing about whereness. The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.”
“How am I to begin that where everything is so strange?”
“By doing something.”
“Anything; and the sooner you begin the better! for until you are at home, you will find it as difficult to get out as it is to get in.”
“I have, unfortunately, found it too easy to get in; once out I shall not try again!”
“You have stumbled in, and may, possibly, stumble out again. Whether you have got in UNFORTUNATELY remains to be seen.”
“Do you never go out, sir?”
“When I please I do, but not often, or for long. Your world is such a half-baked sort of place, it is at once so childish and so self-satisfied—in fact, it is not sufficiently developed for an old raven—at your service!”
“Am I wrong, then, in presuming that a man is superior to a bird?”
“That is as it may be. We do not waste our intellects in generalising, but take man or bird as we find him.—I think it is now my turn to ask you a question!”
“You have the best of rights,” I replied, “in the fact that you CAN do so!”
“Well answered!” he rejoined. “Tell me, then, who you are—if you happen to know.”
“How should I help knowing? I am myself, and must know!”
“If you know you are yourself, you know that you are not somebody else; but do you know that you are yourself? Are you sure you are not your own father?—or, excuse me, your own fool?—Who are you, pray?”
I became at once aware that I could give him no notion of who I was. Indeed, who was I? It would be no answer to say I was who! Then I understood that I did not know myself, did not know what I was, had no grounds on which to determine that I was one and not another. As for the name I went by in my own world, I had forgotten it, and did not care to recall it, for it meant nothing, and what it might be was plainly of no consequence here. I had indeed almost forgotten that there it was a custom for everybody to have a name! So I held my peace, and it was my wisdom; for what should I say to a creature such as this raven, who saw through accident into entity?
“Look at me,” he said, “and tell me who I am.”
As he spoke, he turned his back, and instantly I knew him. He was no longer a raven, but a man above the middle height with a stoop, very thin, and wearing a long black tail-coat. Again he turned, and I saw him a raven.
“I have seen you before, sir,” I said, feeling foolish rather than surprised.
“How can you say so from seeing me behind?” he rejoined. “Did you ever see yourself behind? You have never seen yourself at all!—Tell me now, then, who I am.”
“I humbly beg your pardon,” I answered: “I believe you were once the librarian of our house, but more WHO I do not know.”
“Why do you beg my pardon?”
“Because I took you for a raven,” I said—seeing him before me as plainly a raven as bird or man could look.
“You did me no wrong,” he returned. “Calling me a raven, or thinking me one, you allowed me existence, which is the sum of what one can demand of his fellow-beings. Therefore, in return, I will give you a lesson:—No one can say he is himself, until first he knows that he IS, and then what HIMSELF is. In fact, nobody is himself, and himself is nobody. There is more in it than you can see now, but not more than you need to see. You have, I fear, got into this region too soon, but none the less you must get to be at home in it; for home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you can go out and in. There are places you can go into, and places you can go out of; but the one place, if you do but find it, where you may go out and in both, is home.”
He turned to walk away, and again I saw the librarian. He did not appear to have changed, only to have taken up his shadow. I know this seems nonsense, but I cannot help it.
I gazed after him until I saw him no more; but whether distance hid him, or he disappeared among the heather, I cannot tell.
Could it be that I was dead, I thought, and did not know it? Was I in what we used to call the world beyond the grave? and must I wander about seeking my place in it? How was I to find myself at home? The raven said I must do something: what could I do here?—And would that make me somebody? for now, alas, I was nobody!
I took the way Mr. Raven had gone, and went slowly after him. Presently I saw a wood of tall slender pine-trees, and turned toward it. The odour of it met me on my way, and I made haste to bury myself in it.
Plunged at length in its twilight glooms, I spied before me something with a shine, standing between two of the stems. It had no colour, but was like the translucent trembling of the hot air that rises, in a radiant summer noon, from the sun-baked ground, vibrant like the smitten chords of a musical instrument. What it was grew no plainer as I went nearer, and when I came close up, I ceased to see it, only the form and colour of the trees beyond seemed strangely uncertain. I would have passed between the stems, but received a slight shock, stumbled, and fell. When I rose, I saw before me the wooden wall of the garret chamber. I turned, and there was the mirror, on whose top the black eagle seemed but that moment to have perched.
Terror seized me, and I fled. Outside the chamber the wide garret spaces had an UNCANNY look. They seemed to have long been waiting for something; it had come, and they were waiting again! A shudder went through me on the winding stair: the house had grown strange to me! something was about to leap upon me from behind! I darted down the spiral, struck against the wall and fell, rose and ran. On the next floor I lost my way, and had gone through several passages a second time ere I found the head of the stair. At the top of the great stair I had come to myself a little, and in a few moments I sat recovering my breath in the library.
Nothing should ever again make me go up that last terrible stair! The garret at the top of it pervaded the whole house! It sat upon it, threatening to crush me out of it! The brooding brain of the building, it was full of mysterious dwellers, one or other of whom might any moment appear in the library where I sat! I was nowhere safe! I would let, I would sell the dreadful place, in which an aërial portal stood ever open to creatures whose life was other than human! I would purchase a crag in Switzerland, and thereon build a wooden nest of one story with never a garret above it, guarded by some grand old peak that would send down nothing worse than a few tons of whelming rock!
I knew all the time that my thinking was foolish, and was even aware of a certain undertone of contemptuous humour in it; but suddenly it was checked, and I seemed again to hear the croak of the raven.
“If I know nothing of my own garret,” I thought, “what is there to secure me against my own brain? Can I tell what it is even now generating?—what thought it may present me the next moment, the next month, or a year away? What is at the heart of my brain? What is behind my THINK? Am I there at all?—Who, what am I?”
I could no more answer the question now than when the raven put it to me in—at—"Where in?—where at?” I said, and gave myself up as knowing anything of myself or the universe.
I started to my feet, hurried across the room to the masked door, where the mutilated volume, sticking out from the flat of soulless, bodiless, non-existent books, appeared to beckon me, went down on my knees, and opened it as far as its position would permit, but could see nothing. I got up again, lighted a taper, and peeping as into a pair of reluctant jaws, perceived that the manuscript was verse. Further I could not carry discovery. Beginnings of lines were visible on the left-hand page, and ends of lines on the other; but I could not, of course, get at the beginning and end of a single line, and was unable, in what I could read, to make any guess at the sense. The mere words, however, woke in me feelings which to describe was, from their strangeness, impossible. Some dreams, some poems, some musical phrases, some pictures, wake feelings such as one never had before, new in colour and form—spiritual sensations, as it were, hitherto unproved: here, some of the phrases, some of the senseless half-lines, some even of the individual words affected me in similar fashion—as with the aroma of an idea, rousing in me a great longing to know what the poem or poems might, even yet in their mutilation, hold or suggest.
I copied out a few of the larger shreds attainable, and tried hard to complete some of the lines, but without the least success. The only thing I gained in the effort was so much weariness that, when I went to bed, I fell asleep at once and slept soundly.
In the morning all that horror of the empty garret spaces had left me.
THE SUN WAS VERY BRIGHT, but I doubted if the day would long be fine, and looked into the milky sapphire I wore, to see whether the star in it was clear. It was even less defined than I had expected. I rose from the breakfast-table, and went to the window to glance at the stone again. There had been heavy rain in the night, and on the lawn was a thrush breaking his way into the shell of a snail.
As I was turning my ring about to catch the response of the star to the sun, I spied a keen black eye gazing at me out of the milky misty blue. The sight startled me so that I dropped the ring, and when I picked it up the eye was gone from it. The same moment the sun was obscured; a dark vapour covered him, and in a minute or two the whole sky was clouded. The air had grown sultry, and a gust of wind came suddenly. A moment more and there was a flash of lightning, with a single sharp thunder-clap. Then the rain fell in torrents.
I had opened the window, and stood there looking out at the precipitous rain, when I descried a raven walking toward me over the grass, with solemn gait, and utter disregard of the falling deluge. Suspecting who he was, I congratulated myself that I was safe on the ground-floor. At the same time I had a conviction that, if I were not careful, something would happen.
He came nearer and nearer, made a profound bow, and with a sudden winged leap stood on the window-sill. Then he stepped over the ledge, jumped down into the room, and walked to the door. I thought he was on his way to the library, and followed him, determined, if he went up the stair, not to take one step after him. He turned, however, neither toward the library nor the stair, but to a little door that gave upon a grass-patch in a nook between two portions of the rambling old house. I made haste to open it for him. He stepped out into its creeper-covered porch, and stood looking at the rain, which fell like a huge thin cataract; I stood in the door behind him. The second flash came, and was followed by a lengthened roll of more distant thunder. He turned his head over his shoulder and looked at me, as much as to say, “You hear that?” then swivelled it round again, and anew contemplated the weather, apparently with approbation. So human were his pose and carriage and the way he kept turning his head, that I remarked almost involuntarily,
“Fine weather for the worms, Mr. Raven!”
“Yes,” he answered, in the rather croaky voice I had learned to know, “the ground will be nice for them to get out and in!—It must be a grand time on the steppes of Uranus!” he added, with a glance upward; “I believe it is raining there too; it was, all the last week!”
“Why should that make it a grand time?” I asked.
“Because the animals there are all burrowers,” he answered, “—like the field-mice and the moles here.—They will be, for ages to come.”
“How do you know that, if I may be so bold?” I rejoined.
“As any one would who had been there to see,” he replied. “It is a great sight, until you get used to it, when the earth gives a heave, and out comes a beast. You might think it a hairy elephant or a deinotherium—but none of the animals are the same as we have ever had here. I was almost frightened myself the first time I saw the dry-bog-serpent come wallowing out—such a head and mane! and SUCH eyes!—but the shower is nearly over. It will stop directly after the next thunder-clap. There it is!”
A flash came with the words, and in about half a minute the thunder. Then the rain ceased.
“Now we should be going!” said the raven, and stepped to the front of the porch.
“Going where?” I asked.
“Going where we have to go,” he answered. “You did not surely think you had got home? I told you there was no going out and in at pleasure until you were at home!”
“I do not want to go,” I said.
“That does not make any difference—at least not much,” he answered. “This is the way!”
“I am quite content where I am.”
“You think so, but you are not. Come along.”
He hopped from the porch onto the grass, and turned, waiting.
“I will not leave the house to-day,” I said with obstinacy.
“You will come into the garden!” rejoined the raven.
“I give in so far,” I replied, and stepped from the porch.
The sun broke through the clouds, and the raindrops flashed and sparkled on the grass. The raven was walking over it.
“You will wet your feet!” I cried.
“And mire my beak,” he answered, immediately plunging it deep in the sod, and drawing out a great wriggling red worm. He threw back his head, and tossed it in the air. It spread great wings, gorgeous in red and black, and soared aloft.
“Tut! tut!” I exclaimed; “you mistake, Mr. Raven: worms are not the larvæ of butterflies!”
“Never mind,” he croaked; “it will do for once! I’m not a reading man at present, but sexton at the—at a certain graveyard—cemetery, more properly—in—at—no matter where!”
“I see! you can’t keep your spade still: and when you have nothing to bury, you must dig something up! Only you should mind what it is before you make it fly! No creature should be allowed to forget what and where it came from!”
“Why?” said the raven.
“Because it will grow proud, and cease to recognise its superiors.”
No man knows it when he is making an idiot of himself.
“Where DO the worms come from?” said the raven, as if suddenly grown curious to know.
“Why, from the earth, as you have just seen!” I answered.
“Yes, last!” he replied. “But they can’t have come from it first—for that will never go back to it!” he added, looking up.
I looked up also, but could see nothing save a little dark cloud, the edges of which were red, as if with the light of the sunset.
“Surely the sun is not going down!” I exclaimed, struck with amazement.
“Oh, no!” returned the raven. “That red belongs to the worm.”
“You see what comes of making creatures forget their origin!” I cried with some warmth.
“It is well, surely, if it be to rise higher and grow larger!” he returned. “But indeed I only teach them to find it!”
“Would you have the air full of worms?”
“That is the business of a sexton. If only the rest of the clergy understood it as well!”
In went his beak again through the soft turf, and out came the wriggling worm. He tossed it in the air, and away it flew.
I looked behind me, and gave a cry of dismay: I had but that moment declared I would not leave the house, and already I was a stranger in the strange land!
“What right have you to treat me so, Mr. Raven?” I said with deep offence. “Am I, or am I not, a free agent?”
“A man is as free as he chooses to make himself, never an atom freer,” answered the raven.
“You have no right to make me do things against my will!”
“When you have a will, you will find that no one can.”
“You wrong me in the very essence of my individuality!” I persisted.
“If you were an individual I could not, therefore now I do not. You are but beginning to become an individual.”
All about me was a pine-forest, in which my eyes were already searching deep, in the hope of discovering an unaccountable glimmer, and so finding my way home. But, alas! how could I any longer call that house HOME, where every door, every window opened into OUT, and even the garden I could not keep inside!
I suppose I looked discomfited.
“Perhaps it may comfort you,” said the raven, “to be told that you have not yet left your house, neither has your house left you. At the same time it cannot contain you, or you inhabit it!”
“I do not understand you,” I replied. “Where am I?”
“In the region of the seven dimensions,” he answered, with a curious noise in his throat, and a flutter of his tail. “You had better follow me carefully now for a moment, lest you should hurt some one!”
“There is nobody to hurt but yourself, Mr. Raven! I confess I should rather like to hurt you!”
“That you see nobody is where the danger lies. But you see that large tree to your left, about thirty yards away?”
“Of course I do: why should I not?” I answered testily.
“Ten minutes ago you did not see it, and now you do not know where it stands!”
“Where do you think it stands?”
“Why THERE, where you know it is!”
“Where is THERE?”
“You bother me with your silly questions!” I cried. “I am growing tired of you!”
“That tree stands on the hearth of your kitchen, and grows nearly straight up its chimney,” he said.
“Now I KNOW you are making game of me!” I answered, with a laugh of scorn.
“Was I making game of you when you discovered me looking out of your star-sapphire yesterday?”
“That was this morning—not an hour ago!”
“I have been widening your horizon longer than that, Mr. Vane; but never mind!”
“You mean you have been making a fool of me!” I said, turning from him.
“Excuse me: no one can do that but yourself!”
“And I decline to do it.”
“In declining to acknowledge yourself one already. You make yourself such by refusing what is true, and for that you will sorely punish yourself.”
“By believing what is not true.”
“Then, if I walk to the other side of that tree, I shall walk through the kitchen fire?”
“Certainly. You would first, however, walk through the lady at the piano in the breakfast-room. That rosebush is close by her. You would give her a terrible start!”
“There is no lady in the house!”
“Indeed! Is not your housekeeper a lady? She is counted such in a certain country where all are servants, and the liveries one and multitudinous!”
“She cannot use the piano, anyhow!”
“Her niece can: she is there—a well-educated girl and a capital musician.”
“Excuse me; I cannot help it: you seem to me to be talking sheer nonsense!”
“If you could but hear the music! Those great long heads of wild hyacinth are inside the piano, among the strings of it, and give that peculiar sweetness to her playing!—Pardon me: I forgot your deafness!”
“Two objects,” I said, “cannot exist in the same place at the same time!”
“Can they not? I did not know!—I remember now they do teach that with you. It is a great mistake—one of the greatest ever wiseacre made! No man of the universe, only a man of the world could have said so!”
“You a librarian, and talk such rubbish!” I cried. “Plainly, you did not read many of the books in your charge!”
“Oh, yes! I went through all in your library—at the time, and came out at the other side not much the wiser. I was a bookworm then, but when I came to know it, I woke among the butterflies. To be sure I have given up reading for a good many years—ever since I was made sexton.—There! I smell Grieg’s Wedding March in the quiver of those rose-petals!”
I went to the rose-bush and listened hard, but could not hear the thinnest ghost of a sound; I only smelt something I had never before smelt in any rose. It was still rose-odour, but with a difference, caused, I suppose, by the Wedding March.
When I looked up, there was the bird by my side.
“Mr. Raven,” I said, “forgive me for being so rude: I was irritated. Will you kindly show me my way home? I must go, for I have an appointment with my bailiff. One must not break faith with his servants!”
“You cannot break what was broken days ago!” he answered.
“Do show me the way,” I pleaded.
“I cannot,” he returned. “To go back, you must go through yourself, and that way no man can show another.”
Entreaty was vain. I must accept my fate! But how was life to be lived in a world of which I had all the laws to learn? There would, however, be adventure! that held consolation; and whether I found my way home or not, I should at least have the rare advantage of knowing two worlds!
I had never yet done anything to justify my existence; my former world was nothing the better for my sojourn in it: here, however, I must earn, or in some way find, my bread! But I reasoned that, as I was not to blame in being here, I might expect to be taken care of here as well as there! I had had nothing to do with getting into the world I had just left, and in it I had found myself heir to a large property! If that world, as I now saw, had a claim upon me because I had eaten, and could eat again, upon this world I had a claim because I must eat—when it would in return have a claim on me!
“There is no hurry,” said the raven, who stood regarding me; “we do not go much by the clock here. Still, the sooner one begins to do what has to be done, the better! I will take you to my wife.”
“Thank you. Let us go!” I answered, and immediately he led the way.
I FOLLOWED HIM DEEP INTO the pine-forest. Neither of us said much while yet the sacred gloom of it closed us round. We came to larger and yet larger trees—older, and more individual, some of them grotesque with age. Then the forest grew thinner.
“You see that hawthorn?” said my guide at length, pointing with his beak.
I looked where the wood melted away on the edge of an open heath.
“I see a gnarled old man, with a great white head,” I answered.
“Look again,” he rejoined: “it is a hawthorn.”
“It seems indeed an ancient hawthorn; but this is not the season for the hawthorn to blossom!” I objected.
“The season for the hawthorn to blossom,” he replied, “is when the hawthorn blossoms. That tree is in the ruins of the church on your home-farm. You were going to give some directions to the bailiff about its churchyard, were you not, the morning of the thunder?”
“I was going to tell him I wanted it turned into a wilderness of rose-trees, and that the plough must never come within three yards of it.”
“Listen!” said the raven, seeming to hold his breath.
I listened, and heard—was it the sighing of a far-off musical wind—or the ghost of a music that had once been glad? Or did I indeed hear anything?
“They go there still,” said the raven.
“Who goes there? and where do they go?” I asked.
“Some of the people who used to pray there, go to the ruins still,” he replied. “But they will not go much longer, I think.”
“What makes them go now?”
“They need help from each other to get their thinking done, and their feelings hatched, so they talk and sing together; and then, they say, the big thought floats out of their hearts like a great ship out of the river at high water.”
“Do they pray as well as sing?”
“No; they have found that each can best pray in his own silent heart.—Some people are always at their prayers.—Look! look! There goes one!”
He pointed right up into the air. A snow-white pigeon was mounting, with quick and yet quicker wing-flap, the unseen spiral of an ethereal stair. The sunshine flashed quivering from its wings.
“I see a pigeon!” I said.
“Of course you see a pigeon,” rejoined the raven, “for there is the pigeon! I see a prayer on its way.—I wonder now what heart is that dove’s mother! Some one may have come awake in my cemetery!”
“How can a pigeon be a prayer?” I said. “I understand, of course, how it should be a fit symbol or likeness for one; but a live pigeon to come out of a heart!”
“It MUST puzzle you! It cannot fail to do so!”
“A prayer is a thought, a thing spiritual!” I pursued.
“Very true! But if you understood any world besides your own, you would understand your own much better.—When a heart is really alive, then it is able to think live things. There is one heart all whose thoughts are strong, happy creatures, and whose very dreams are lives. When some pray, they lift heavy thoughts from the ground, only to drop them on it again; others send up their prayers in living shapes, this or that, the nearest likeness to each. All live things were thoughts to begin with, and are fit therefore to be used by those that think. When one says to the great Thinker:—’Here is one of thy thoughts: I am thinking it now!’ that is a prayer—a word to the big heart from one of its own little hearts.—Look, there is another!”
This time the raven pointed his beak downward—to something at the foot of a block of granite. I looked, and saw a little flower. I had never seen one like it before, and cannot utter the feeling it woke in me by its gracious, trusting form, its colour, and its odour as of a new world that was yet the old. I can only say that it suggested an anemone, was of a pale rose-hue, and had a golden heart.
“That is a prayer-flower,” said the raven.
“I never saw such a flower before!” I rejoined.
“There is no other such. Not one prayer-flower is ever quite like another,” he returned.
“How do you know it a prayer-flower?” I asked.
“By the expression of it,” he answered. “More than that I cannot tell you. If you know it, you know it; if you do not, you do not.”
“Could you not teach me to know a prayer-flower when I see it?” I said.
“I could not. But if I could, what better would you be? you would not know it of YOURSELF and ITself! Why know the name of a thing when the thing itself you do not know? Whose work is it but your own to open your eyes? But indeed the business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one, and so begin to be wise!”
But I did see that the flower was different from any flower I had ever seen before; therefore I knew that I must be seeing a shadow of the prayer in it; and a great awe came over me to think of the heart listening to the flower.
THE SEXTON’S COTTAGE
We had been for some time walking over a rocky moorland covered with dry plants and mosses, when I descried a little cottage in the farthest distance. The sun was not yet down, but he was wrapt in a gray cloud. The heath looked as if it had never been warm, and the wind blew strangely cold, as if from some region where it was always night.
“Here we are at last!” said the raven. “What a long way it is! In half the time I could have gone to Paradise and seen my cousin—him, you remember, who never came back to Noah! Dear! dear! it is almost winter!”
“Winter!” I cried; “it seems but half a day since we left home!”
“That is because we have travelled so fast,” answered the raven. “In your world you cannot pull up the plumb-line you call gravitation, and let the world spin round under your feet! But here is my wife’s house! She is very good to let me live with her, and call it the sexton’s cottage!”
“But where is your churchyard—your cemetery—where you make your graves, I mean?” said I, seeing nothing but the flat heath.
The raven stretched his neck, held out his beak horizontally, turned it slowly round to all the points of the compass, and said nothing.
I followed the beak with my eyes, and lo, without church or graves, all was a churchyard! Wherever the dreary wind swept, there was the raven’s cemetery! He was sexton of all he surveyed! lord of all that was laid aside! I stood in the burial-ground of the universe; its compass the unenclosed heath, its wall the gray horizon, low and starless! I had left spring and summer, autumn and sunshine behind me, and come to the winter that waited for me! I had set out in the prime of my youth, and here I was already!—But I mistook. The day might well be long in that region, for it contained the seasons. Winter slept there, the night through, in his winding-sheet of ice; with childlike smile, Spring came awake in the dawn; at noon, Summer blazed abroad in her gorgeous beauty; with the slow-changing afternoon, old Autumn crept in, and died at the first breath of the vaporous, ghosty night.
As we drew near the cottage, the clouded sun was rushing down the steepest slope of the west, and he sank while we were yet a few yards from the door. The same instant I was assailed by a cold that seemed almost a material presence, and I struggled across the threshold as if from the clutches of an icy death. A wind swelled up on the moor, and rushed at the door as with difficulty I closed it behind me. Then all was still, and I looked about me.
A candle burned on a deal table in the middle of the room, and the first thing I saw was the lid of a coffin, as I thought, set up against the wall; but it opened, for it was a door, and a woman entered. She was all in white—as white as new-fallen snow; and her face was as white as her dress, but not like snow, for at once it suggested warmth. I thought her features were perfect, but her eyes made me forget them. The life of her face and her whole person was gathered and concentrated in her eyes, where it became light. It might have been coming death that made her face luminous, but the eyes had life in them for a nation—large, and dark with a darkness ever deepening as I gazed. A whole night-heaven lay condensed in each pupil; all the stars were in its blackness, and flashed; while round it for a horizon lay coiled an iris of the eternal twilight. What any eye IS, God only knows: her eyes must have been coming direct out of his own! the still face might be a primeval perfection; the live eyes were a continuous creation.
“Here is Mr. Vane, wife!” said the raven.
“He is welcome,” she answered, in a low, rich, gentle voice. Treasures of immortal sound seemed to be buried in it.
I gazed, and could not speak.
“I knew you would be glad to see him!” added the raven.
She stood in front of the door by which she had entered, and did not come nearer.
“Will he sleep?” she asked.
“I fear not,” he replied; “he is neither weary nor heavy laden.”
“Why then have you brought him?”
“I have my fears it may prove precipitate.”
“I do not quite understand you,” I said, with an uneasy foreboding as to what she meant, but a vague hope of some escape. “Surely a man must do a day’s work first!”
I gazed into the white face of the woman, and my heart fluttered. She returned my gaze in silence.
“Let me first go home,” I resumed, “and come again after I have found or made, invented, or at least discovered something!”
“He has not yet learned that the day begins with sleep!” said the woman, turning to her husband. “Tell him he must rest before he can do anything!”
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