Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostępny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacji Legimi na:
UNCOLLECTED STORIES AND POEMS
Mrs. Manstey’s View
The Fulness of Life
The Lamp of Psyche
That Good May Come
The Valley of Childish Things and Other Emblems
Line of Least Resistance
The House of the Dead Hand
Writing a War Story
The Parting Day
The Last Giustianini
Botticelli’s Madonna in the Louvre
The Tomb of Ilaria Giunigi
The One Grief
Mould and Vase
The Bread of Angels
Moonrise over Tyringham
Ogrin the Hermit
Summer Afternoon (Bodiam Castle, Sussex)
The Hymn of the Lusitania
The Great Blue Tent
On Active Service
You and You
With the Tide
UNCOLLECTED STORIES AND POEMS
© VintReads - 2017
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org
The view from Mrs. Manstey’s window was not a striking one, but to her at least it was full of interest and beauty. Mrs. Manstey occupied the back room on the third floor of a New York boarding-house, in a street where the ash-barrels lingered late on the sidewalk and the gaps in the pavement would have staggered a Quintus Curtius. She was the widow of a clerk in a large wholesale house, and his death had left her alone, for her only daughter had married in California, and could not afford the long journey to New York to see her mother. Mrs. Manstey, perhaps, might have joined her daughter in the West, but they had now been so many years apart that they had ceased to feel any need of each other’s society, and their intercourse had long been limited to the exchange of a few perfunctory letters, written with indifference by the daughter, and with difficulty by Mrs. Manstey, whose right hand was growing stiff with gout. Even had she felt a stronger desire for her daughter’s companionship, Mrs. Manstey’s increasing infirmity, which caused her to dread the three flights of stairs between her room and the street, would have given her pause on the eve of undertaking so long a journey; and without perhaps, formulating these reasons she had long since accepted as a matter of course her solitary life in New York.
She was, indeed, not quite lonely, for a few friends still toiled up now and then to her room; but their visits grew rare as the years went by. Mrs. Manstey had never been a sociable woman, and during her husband’s lifetime his companionship had been all-sufficient to her. For many years she had cherished a desire to live in the country, to have a hen-house and a garden; but this longing had faded with age, leaving only in the breast of the uncommunicative old woman a vague tenderness for plants and animals. It was, perhaps, this tenderness which made her cling so fervently to her view from her window, a view in which the most optimistic eye would at first have failed to discover anything admirable.
Mrs. Manstey, from her coign of vantage (a slightly projecting bow-window where she nursed an ivy and a succession of unwholesome-looking bulbs), looked out first upon the yard of her own dwelling, of which, however, she could get but a restricted glimpse. Still, her gaze took in the topmost boughs of the ailanthus below her window, and she knew how early each year the clump of dicentra strung its bending stalk with hearts of pink.
But of greater interest were the yards beyond. Being for the most part attached to boarding-houses they were in a state of chronic untidiness and fluttering, on certain days of the week, with miscellaneous garments and frayed table-cloths. In spite of this Mrs. Manstey found much to admire in the long vista which she commanded. Some of the yards were, indeed, but stony wastes, with grass in the cracks of the pavement and no shade in spring save that afforded
by the intermittent leafage of the clothes-lines. These yards Mrs. Manstey disapproved of, but the others, the green ones, she loved. She had grown used to their disorder; the broken barrels, the empty bottles and paths unswept no longer annoyed her; hers was the happy faculty of dwelling on the pleasanter side of the prospect before her.
In the very next enclosure did not a magnolia open its hard white flowers against the watery blue of April? And was there not, a little way down the line, a fence foamed over every May be lilac waves of wistaria? Farther still, a horse-chestnut lifted its candelabra of buff and pink blossoms above broad fans of foliage; while in the opposite yard June was sweet with the breath of a neglected syringa, which persisted in growing in spite of the countless obstacles opposed to its welfare.
But if nature occupied the front rank in Mrs. Manstey’s view, there was much of a more personal character to interest her in the aspect of the houses and their inmates. She deeply disapproved of the mustard-colored curtains which had lately been hung in the doctor’s window opposite; but she glowed with pleasure when the house farther down had its old bricks washed with a coat of paint. The occupants of the houses did not often show themselves at the back windows, but the servants were always in sight. Noisy slatterns, Mrs. Manstey pronounced the greater number; she knew their ways and hated them. But to the quiet cook in the newly painted house, whose mistress bullied her, and who secretly fed the stray cats at nightfall, Mrs. Manstey’s warmest sympathies were given. On one occasion her feelings were racked by the neglect of a housemaid, who for two days forgot to feed the parrot committed to her care. On the third day, Mrs. Manstey, in spite of her gouty hand, had just penned a letter, beginning: “Madam, it is now three days since your parrot has been fed,” when the forgetful maid appeared at the window with a cup of seed in her hand.
But in Mrs. Manstey’s more meditative moods it was the narrowing perspective of far-off yards which pleased her best. She loved, at twilight, when the distant brown-stone spire seemed melting in the fluid yellow of the west, to lose herself in vague memories of a trip to Europe, made years ago, and now reduced in her mind’s eye to a pale phantasmagoria of indistinct steeples and dreamy skies. Perhaps at heart Mrs. Manstey was an artist; at all events she was sensible of many changes of color unnoticed by the average eye, and dear to her as the green of early spring was the black lattice of branches against a cold sulphur sky at the close of a snowy day. She enjoyed, also, the sunny thaws of March, when patches of earth showed through the snow, like ink-spots spreading on a sheet of white blotting-paper; and, better still, the haze of boughs, leafless but swollen, which replaced the clear-cut tracery of winter. She even watched with a certain interest the trail of smoke from a far-off factory chimney, and missed a detail in the landscape when the factory was closed and the smoke disappeared.
Mrs. Manstey, in the long hours which she spent at her window, was not idle. She read a little, and knitted numberless stockings; but the view surrounded and shaped her life as the sea does a lonely island. When her rare callers came it was difficult for her to detach herself from the contemplation of the opposite window-washing, or the scrutiny of certain green points in a neighboring flower-bed which might, or might not, turn into hyacinths, while she feigned an interest in her visitor’s anecdotes about some unknown grandchild. Mrs. Manstey’s real friends were the denizens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer musings was the church-spire floating in the sunset.
One April day, as she sat in her usual place, with knitting cast aside and eyes fixed on the blue sky mottled with round clouds, a knock at the door announced the entrance of her landlady. Mrs. Manstey did not care for her landlady, but she submitted to her visits with ladylike resignation. To-day, however, it seemed harder than usual to turn from the blue sky and the blossoming magnolia to Mrs. Sampson’s unsuggestive face, and Mrs. Manstey was conscious of a distinct effort as she did so.
“The magnolia is out earlier than usual this year, Mrs. Sampson,” she remarked, yielding to a rare impulse, for she seldom alluded to the absorbing interest of her life. In the first place it was a topic not likely to appeal to her visitors and, besides, she lacked the power of expression and could not have given utterance to her feelings had she wished to.
“The what, Mrs. Manstey?” inquired the landlady, glancing about the room as if to find there the explanation of Mrs. Manstey’s statement.
“The magnolia in the next yard—in Mrs. Black’s yard,” Mrs. Manstey repeated.
“Is it, indeed? I didn’t know there was a magnolia there,” said Mrs. Sampson, carelessly.
Mrs. Manstey looked at her; she did not know that there was a magnolia in the next yard!
“By the way,” Mrs. Sampson continued, “speaking of Mrs. Black reminds me that the work on the extension is to begin next week.”
“The what?” it was Mrs. Manstey’s turn to ask.
“The extension,” said Mrs. Sampson, nodding her head in the direction of the ignored magnolia. “You knew, of course, that Mrs. Black was going to build an extension to her house? Yes, ma’am. I hear it is to run right back to the end of the yard. How she can afford to build an extension in these hard times I don’t see; but she always was crazy about building. She used to keep a boarding-house in Seventeenth Street, and she nearly ruined herself then by sticking out bow-windows and what not; I should have thought that would have cured her of building, but I guess it’s a disease, like drink. Anyhow, the work is to begin on Monday.”
Mrs. Manstey had grown pale. She always spoke slowly, so the landlady did not heed the long pause which followed. At last Mrs. Manstey said: “Do you know how high the extension will be?”
“That’s the most absurd part of it. The extension is to be built right up to the roof of the main building; now, did you ever?”
Mrs. Manstey paused again. “Won’t it be a great annoyance to you, Mrs. Sampson?” she asked.
“I should say it would. But there’s no help for it; if people have got a mind to build extensions there’s no law to prevent ’em, that I’m aware of.”
Mrs. Manstey, knowing this, was silent. “There is no help for it,” Mrs. Sampson repeated, “but if I am a church member, I wouldn’t be so sorry if it ruined Eliza Black. Well, good-day, Mrs. Manstey; I’m glad to find you so comfortable.”
So comfortable—so comfortable! Left to herself the old woman turned once more to the window. How lovely the view was that day! The blue sky with its round clouds shed a brightness over everything; the ailanthus had put on a tinge of yellow-green, the hyacinths were budding, the magnolia flowers looked more than ever like rosettes carved in alabaster. Soon the wistaria would bloom, then the horse-chestnut; but not for her. Between her eyes and them a barrier of brick and mortar would swiftly rise; presently even the spire would disappear, and all her radiant world be blotted out. Mrs. Manstey sent away untouched the dinner-tray brought to her that evening. She lingered in the window until the windy sunset died in bat-colored dusk; then, going to bed, she lay sleepless all night.
Early the next day she was up and at the window. It was raining, but even through the slanting gray gauze the scene had its charm—and then the rain was so good for the trees. She had noticed the day before that the ailanthus was growing dusty.
“Of course I might move,” said Mrs. Manstey aloud, and turning from the window she looked about her room. She might move, of course; so might she be flayed alive; but she was not likely to survive either operation. The room, though far less important to her happiness than the view, was as much a part of her existence. She had lived in it seventeen years. She knew every stain on the wall-paper, every rent in the carpet; the light fell in a certain way on her engravings, her books had grown shabby on their shelves, her bulbs and ivy were used to their window and knew which way to lean to the sun.
“We are all too old to move,” she said.
That afternoon it cleared. Wet and radiant the blue reappeared through torn rags of cloud; the ailanthus sparkled; the earth in the flower-borders looked rich and warm. It was Thursday, and on Monday the building of the extension was to begin.
On Sunday afternoon a card was brought to Mrs. Black, as she was engaged in gathering up the fragments of the boarders’ dinner in the basement. The card, black-edged, bore Mrs. Manstey’s name.
“One of Mrs. Sampson’s boarders; wants to move, I suppose. Well, I can give her a room next year in the extension. Dinah,” said Mrs. Black, “tell the lady I’ll be upstairs in a minute.”
Mrs. Black found Mrs. Manstey standing in the long parlor garnished with statuettes and antimacassars; in that house she could not sit down.
Stooping hurriedly to open the register, which let out a cloud of dust, Mrs. Black advanced on her visitor.
“I’m happy to meet you, Mrs. Manstey; take a seat, please,” the landlady remarked in her prosperous voice, the voice of a woman who can afford to build extensions. There was no help for it; Mrs. Manstey sat down.
“Is there anything I can do for you, ma’am?” Mrs. Black continued. “My house is full at present, but I am going to build an extension, and—”
“It is about the extension that I wish to speak,” said Mrs. Manstey, suddenly. “I am a poor woman, Mrs. Black, and I have never been a happy one. I shall have to talk about myself first to—to make you understand.”
Mrs. Black, astonished but imperturbable, bowed at this parenthesis.
“I never had what I wanted,” Mrs. Manstey continued. “It was always one disappointment after another. For years I wanted to live in the country. I dreamed and dreamed about it; but we never could manage it. There was no sunny window in our house, and so all my plants died. My daughter married years ago and went away—besides, she never cared for the same things. Then my husband died and I was left alone. That was seventeen years ago. I went to live at Mrs. Sampson’s, and I have been there ever since. I have grown a little infirm, as you see, and I don’t get out often; only on fine days, if I am feeling very well. So you can understand my sitting a great deal in my window—the back window on the third floor—”
“Well, Mrs. Manstey,” said Mrs. Black, liberally, “I could give you a back room, I dare say; one of the new rooms in the ex—”
“But I don’t want to move; I can’t move,” said Mrs. Manstey, almost with a scream. “And I came to tell you that if you build that extension I shall have no view from my window— no view! Do you understand?”
Mrs. Black thought herself face to face with a lunatic, and she had always heard that lunatics must be humored.
“Dear me, dear me,” she remarked, pushing her chair back a little way, “that is too bad, isn’t it? Why, I never thought of that. To be sure, the extension will interfere with your view, Mrs. Manstey.”
“You do understand?” Mrs. Manstey gasped.
“Of course I do. And I’m real sorry about it, too. But there, don’t you worry, Mrs. Manstey. I guess we can fix that all right.”
Mrs. Manstey rose from her seat, and Mrs. Black slipped toward the door.
“What do you mean by fixing it? Do you mean that I can induce you to change your mind about the extension? Oh, Mrs. Black, listen to me. I have two thousand dollars in the bank and I could manage, I know I could manage, to give you a thousand if—” Mrs. Manstey paused; the tears were rolling down her cheeks.
“There, there, Mrs. Manstey, don’t you worry,” repeated Mrs. Black, soothingly. “I am sure we can settle it. I am sorry that I can’t stay and talk about it any longer, but this is such a busy time of day, with supper to get—”
Her hand was on the door-knob, but with sudden vigor Mrs. Manstey seized her wrist. “You are not giving me a definite answer. Do you mean to say that you accept my proposition?”
“Why, I’ll think it over, Mrs. Manstey, certainly I will. I wouldn’t annoy you for the world—”
“But the work is to begin to-morrow, I am told,” Mrs. Manstey persisted.
Mrs. Black hesitated. “It shan’t begin, I promise you that; I’ll send word to the builder this very night.” Mrs. Manstey tightened her hold.
“You are not deceiving me, are you?” she said.
“No—no,” stammered Mrs. Black. “How can you think such a thing of me, Mrs. Manstey?”
Slowly Mrs. Manstey’s clutch relaxed, and she passed through the open door. “One thousand dollars,” she repeated, pausing in the hall; then she let herself out of the house and hobbled down the steps, supporting herself on the cast-iron railing.
“My goodness,” exclaimed Mrs. Black, shutting and bolting the hall-door, “I never knew the old woman was crazy! And she looks so quiet and ladylike, too.”
Mrs. Manstey slept well that night, but early the next morning she was awakened by a sound of hammering. She got to her window with what haste she might and, looking out saw that Mrs. Black’s yard was full of workmen. Some were carrying loads of brick from the kitchen to the yard, others beginning to demolish the old-fashioned wooden balcony which adorned each story of Mrs. Black’s house. Mrs. Manstey saw that she had been deceived. At first she thought of confiding her trouble to Mrs. Sampson, but a settled discouragement soon took possession of her and she went back to bed, not caring to see what was going on.
Toward afternoon, however, feeling that she must know the worst, she rose and dressed herself. It was a laborious task, for her hands were stiffer than usual, and the hooks and buttons seemed to evade her.
When she seated herself in the window, she saw that the workmen had removed the upper part of the balcony, and that the bricks had multiplied since morning. One of the men, a coarse fellow with a bloated face, picked a magnolia blossom and, after smelling it, threw it to the ground; the next man, carrying a load of bricks, trod on the flower in passing.
“Look out, Jim,” called one of the men to another who was smoking a pipe, “if you throw matches around near those barrels of paper you’ll have the old tinder-box burning down before you know it.” And Mrs. Manstey, leaning forward, perceived that there were several barrels of paper and rubbish under the wooden balcony.
At length the work ceased and twilight fell. The sunset was perfect and a roseate light, transfiguring the distant spire, lingered late in the west. When it grew dark Mrs. Manstey drew down the shades and proceeded, in her usual methodical manner, to light her lamp. She always filled and lit it with her own hands, keeping a kettle of kerosene on a zinc-covered shelf in a closet. As the lamp-light filled the room it assumed its usual peaceful aspect. The books and pictures and plants seemed, like their mistress, to settle themselves down for another quiet evening, and Mrs. Manstey, as was her wont, drew up her armchair to the table and began to knit.
That night she could not sleep. The weather had changed and a wild wind was abroad, blotting the stars with close-driven clouds. Mrs. Manstey rose once or twice and looked out of the window; but of the view nothing was discernible save a tardy light or two in the opposite windows. These lights at last went out, and Mrs. Manstey, who had watched for their extinction, began to dress herself. She was in evident haste, for she merely flung a thin dressing-gown over her night-dress and wrapped her head in a scarf; then she opened her closet and cautiously took out the kettle of kerosene. Having slipped a bundle of wooden matches into her pocket she proceeded, with increasing precautions, to unlock her door, and a few moments later she was feeling her way down the dark staircase, led by a glimmer of gas from the lower hall. At length she reached the bottom of the stairs and began the more difficult descent into the utter darkness of the basement. Here, however, she could move more freely, as there was less danger of being overheard; and without much delay she contrived to unlock the iron door leading into the yard. A gust of cold wind smote her as she stepped out and groped shiveringly under the clothes-lines.
That morning at three o’clock an alarm of fire brought the engines to Mrs. Black’s door, and also brought Mrs. Sampson’s startled boarders to their windows. The wooden balcony at the back of Mrs. Black’s house was ablaze, and among those who watched the progress of the flames was Mrs. Manstey, leaning in her thin dressing-gown from the open window.
The fire, however, was soon put out, and the frightened occupants of the house, who had fled in scant attire, reassembled at dawn to find that little mischief had been done beyond the cracking of window panes and smoking of ceilings. In fact, the chief sufferer by the fire was Mrs. Manstey, who was found in the morning gasping with pneumonia, a not unnatural result, as everyone remarked, of her having hung out of an open window at her age in a dressing-gown. It was easy to see that she was very ill, but no one had guessed how grave the doctor’s verdict would be, and the faces gathered that evening about Mrs. Sampson’s table were awestruck and disturbed. Not that any of the boarders knew Mrs. Manstey well; she “kept to herself,” as they said, and seemed to fancy herself too good for them; but then it is always disagreeable to have anyone dying in the house and, as one lady observed to another: “It might just as well have been you or me, my dear.”
But it was only Mrs. Manstey; and she was dying, as she had lived, lonely if not alone. The doctor had sent a trained nurse, and Mrs. Sampson, with muffled step, came in from time to time; but both, to Mrs. Manstey, seemed remote and unsubstantial as the figures in a dream. All day she said nothing; but when she was asked for her daughter’s address she shook her head. At times the nurse noticed that she seemed to be listening attentively for some sound which did not come; then again she dozed.
The next morning at daylight she was very low. The nurse called Mrs. Sampson and as the two bent over the old woman they saw her lips move.
“Lift me up—out of bed,” she whispered.
They raised her in their arms, and with her stiff hand she pointed to the window.
“Oh, the window—she wants to sit in the window. She used to sit there all day,” Mrs. Sampson explained. “It can do her no harm, I suppose?” “Nothing matters now,” said the nurse.
They carried Mrs. Manstey to the window and placed her in her chair. The dawn was abroad, a jubilant spring dawn; the spire had already caught a golden ray, though the magnolia and horse-chestnut still slumbered in shadow. In Mrs. Black’s yard all was quiet. The charred timbers of the balcony lay where they had fallen. It was evident that since the fire the builders had not returned to their work. The magnolia had unfolded a few more sculptural flowers; the view was undisturbed.
It was hard for Mrs. Manstey to breathe; each moment it grew more difficult. She tried to make them open the window, but they would not understand. If she could have tasted the air, sweet with the penetrating ailanthus savor, it would have eased her; but the view at least was there—the spire was golden now, the heavens had warmed from pearl to blue, day was alight from east to west, even the magnolia had caught the sun.
Mrs. Manstey’s head fell back and smiling she died. That day the building of the extension was resumed.
( Scribner’s 10, July 1891)
For hours she had lain in a kind of gentle torpor, not unlike that sweet lassitude which masters one in the hush of a midsummer noon, when the heat seems to have silenced the very birds and insects, and, lying sunk in the tasselled meadow-grasses, one looks up through a level roofing of maple-leaves at the vast shadowless, and unsuggestive blue. Now and then, at ever- lengthening intervals, a flash of pain darted through her, like the ripple of sheet-lightning across such a midsummer sky; but it was too transitory to shake her stupor, that calm, delicious, bottomless stupor into which she felt herself sinking more and more deeply, without a disturbing impulse of resistance, an effort of reattachment to the vanishing edges of consciousness.
The resistance, the effort, had known their hour of violence; but now they were at an end. Through her mind, long harried by grotesque visions, fragmentary images of the life that she was leaving, tormenting lines of verse, obstinate presentments of pictures once beheld, indistinct impressions of rivers, towers, and cupolas, gathered in the length of journeys half forgotten— through her mind there now only moved a few primal sensations of colorless well-being; a vague satisfaction in the thought that she had swallowed her noxious last draught of medicine… and that she should never again hear the creaking of her husband’s boots—those horrible boots—and that no one would come to bother her about the next day’s dinner… or the butcher’s book….
At last even these dim sensations spent themselves in the thickening obscurity which enveloped her; a dusk now filled with pale geometric roses, circling softly, interminably before her, now darkened to a uniform blue-blackness, the hue of a summer night without stars. And into this darkness she felt herself sinking, sinking, with the gentle sense of security of one upheld from beneath. Like a tepid tide it rose around her, gliding ever higher and higher, folding in its velvety embrace her relaxed and tired body, now submerging her breast and shoulders, now creeping gradually, with soft inexorableness, over her throat to her chin, to her ears, to her mouth…. Ah, now it was rising too high; the impulse to struggle was renewed;… her mouth was full;… she was choking…. Help!
“It is all over,” said the nurse, drawing down the eyelids with official composure.
The clock struck three. They remembered it afterward. Someone opened the window and let in a blast of that strange, neutral air which walks the earth between darkness and dawn; someone else led the husband into another room. He walked vaguely, like a blind man, on his creaking boots.
She stood, as it seemed, on a threshold, yet no tangible gateway was in front of her. Only a wide vista of light, mild yet penetrating as the gathered glimmer of innumerable stars, expanded gradually before her eyes, in blissful contrast to the cavernous darkness from which she had of late emerged.
She stepped forward, not frightened, but hesitating, and as her eyes began to grow more familiar with the melting depths of light about her, she distinguished the outlines of a landscape, at first swimming in the opaline uncertainty of Shelley’s vaporous creations, then gradually resolved into distincter shape—the vast unrolling of a sunlit plain, aerial forms of mountains, and presently the silver crescent of a river in the valley, and a blue stencilling of trees along its curve—something suggestive in its ineffable hue of an azure background of Leonardo’s, strange, enchanting, mysterious, leading on the eye and the imagination into regions of fabulous delight. As she gazed, her heart beat with a soft and rapturous surprise; so exquisite a promise she read in the summons of that hyaline distance.
“And so death is not the end after all,” in sheer gladness she heard herself exclaiming aloud. “I always knew that it couldn’t be. I believed in Darwin, of course. I do still; but then Darwin himself said that he wasn’t sure about the soul—at least, I think he did—and Wallace was a spiritualist; and then there was St. George Mivart—”
Her gaze lost itself in the ethereal remoteness of the mountains.
“How beautiful! How satisfying!” she murmured. “Perhaps now I shall really know what it is to live.”
As she spoke she felt a sudden thickening of her heart-beats, and looking up she was aware that before her stood the Spirit of Life.
“Have you never really known what it is to live?” the Spirit of Life asked her.
“I have never known,” she replied, “that fulness of life which we all feel ourselves capable of knowing; though my life has not been without scattered hints of it, like the scent of earth which comes to one sometimes far out at sea.”
“And what do you call the fulness of life?” the Spirit asked again.
“Oh, I can’t tell you, if you don’t know,” she said, almost reproachfully.
“Many words are supposed to define it—love and sympathy are those in commonest use, but I am not even sure that they are the right ones, and so few people really know what they mean.”
“You were married,” said the Spirit, “yet you did not find the fulness of life in your marriage?”
“Oh, dear, no,” she replied, with an indulgent scorn, “my marriage was a very incomplete affair.”
“And yet you were fond of your husband?”
“You have hit upon the exact word; I was fond of him, yes, just as I was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old nurse. Oh, I was fond of him, and we were counted a very happy couple. But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”
“And your husband,” asked the Spirit, after a pause, “never got beyond the family sitting-room?”
“Never,” she returned, impatiently; “and the worst of it was that he was quite content to remain there. He thought it perfectly beautiful, and sometimes, when he was admiring its commonplace furniture, insignificant as the chairs and tables of a hotel parlor, I felt like crying out to him: ‘Fool, will you never guess that close at hand are rooms full of treasures and wonders, such as the eye of man hath not seen, rooms that no step has crossed, but that might be yours to live in, could you but find the handle of the door?’”
“Then,” the Spirit continued, “those moments of which you lately spoke, which seemed to come to you like scattered hints of the fulness of life, were not shared with your husband?”
“Oh, no—never. He was different. His boots creaked, and he always slammed the door when he went out, and he never read anything but railway novels and the sporting advertisements in the papers—and—and, in short, we never understood each other in the least.”
“To what influence, then, did you owe those exquisite sensations?”
“I can hardly tell. Sometimes to the perfume of a flower; sometimes to a verse of Dante or of Shakespeare; sometimes to a picture or a sunset, or to one of those calm days at sea, when one seems to be lying in the hollow of a blue pearl; sometimes, but rarely, to a word spoken by someone who chanced to give utterance, at the right moment, to what I felt but could not express.”
“Someone whom you loved?” asked the Spirit.
“I never loved anyone, in that way,” she said, rather sadly, “nor was I thinking of any one person when I spoke, but of two or three who, by touching for an instant upon a certain chord of my being, had called forth a single note of that strange melody which seemed sleeping in my soul. It has seldom happened, however, that I have owed such feelings to people; and no one ever gave me a moment of such happiness as it was my lot to feel one evening in the Church of Or San Michele, in Florence.”
“Tell me about it,” said the Spirit.
“It was near sunset on a rainy spring afternoon in Easter week. The clouds had vanished, dispersed by a sudden wind, and as we entered the church the fiery panes of the high windows shone out like lamps through the dusk. A priest was at the high altar, his white cope a livid spot in the incense-laden obscurity, the light of the candles flickering up and down like fireflies about his head; a few people knelt near by. We stole behind them and sat down on a bench close to the tabernacle of Orcagna.
“Strange to say, though Florence was not new to me, I had never been in the church before; and in that magical light I saw for the first time the inlaid steps, the fluted columns, the sculptured bas-reliefs and canopy of the marvellous shrine. The marble, worn and mellowed by the subtle hand of time, took on an unspeakable rosy hue, suggestive in some remote way of the honey-colored columns of the Parthenon, but more mystic, more complex, a color not born of the sun’s inveterate kiss, but made up of cryptal twilight, and the flame of candles upon martyrs’ tombs, and gleams of sunset through symbolic panes of chrysoprase and ruby; such a light as illumines the missals in the library of Siena, or burns like a hidden fire through the Madonna of Gian Bellini in the Church of the Redeemer, at Venice; the light of the Middle Ages, richer, more solemn, more significant than the limpid sunshine of Greece.
“The church was silent, but for the wail of the priest and the occasional scraping of a chair against the floor, and as I sat there, bathed in that light, absorbed in rapt contemplation of the marble miracle which rose before me, cunningly wrought as a casket of ivory and enriched with jewel-like incrustations and tarnished gleams of gold, I felt myself borne onward along a mighty current, whose source seemed to be in the very beginning of things, and whose tremendous waters gathered as they went all the mingled streams of human passion and endeavor. Life in all its varied manifestations of beauty and strangeness seemed weaving a rhythmical dance around me as I moved, and wherever the spirit of man had passed I knew that my foot had once been familiar.
“As I gazed the mediaeval bosses of the tabernacle of Orcagna seemed to melt and flow into their primal forms so that the folded lotus of the Nile and the Greek acanthus were braided with the runic knots and fish-tailed monsters of the North, and all the plastic terror and beauty born of man’s hand from the Ganges to the Baltic quivered and mingled in Orcagna’s apotheosis of Mary. And so the river bore me on, past the alien face of antique civilizations and the familiar wonders of Greece, till I swam upon the fiercely rushing tide of the Middle Ages, with its swirling eddies of passion, its heaven-reflecting pools of poetry and art; I heard the rhythmic blow of the craftsmen’s hammers in the goldsmiths’ workshops and on the walls of churches, the party-cries of armed factions in the narrow streets, the organ-roll of Dante’s verse, the crackle of the fagots around Arnold of Brescia, the twitter of the swallows to which St. Francis preached, the laughter of the ladies listening on the hillside to the quips of the Decameron, while plague- struck Florence howled beneath them—all this and much more I heard, joined in strange unison with voices earlier and more remote, fierce, passionate, or tender, yet subdued to such awful harmony that I thought of the song that the morning stars sang together and felt as though it were sounding in my ears. My heart beat to suffocation, the tears burned my lids, the joy, the mystery of it seemed too intolerable to be borne. I could not understand even then the words of the song; but I knew that if there had been someone at my side who could have heard it with me, we might have found the key to it together.
“I turned to my husband, who was sitting beside me in an attitude of patient dejection, gazing into the bottom of his hat; but at that moment he rose, and stretching his stiffened legs, said, mildly: ‘Hadn’t we better be going? There doesn’t seem to be much to see here, and you know the table d’hote dinner is at half-past six o’clock.’”
Her recital ended, there was an interval of silence; then the Spirit of Life said: “There is a compensation in store for such needs as you have expressed.”
“Oh, then you do understand?” she exclaimed.
“Tell me what compensation, I entreat you!”
“It is ordained,” the Spirit answered, “that every soul which seeks in vain on earth for a kindred soul to whom it can lay bare its inmost being shall find that soul here and be united to it for eternity.”
A glad cry broke from her lips. “Ah, shall I find him at last?” she cried, exultant.
“He is here,” said the Spirit of Life.
She looked up and saw that a man stood near whose soul (for in that unwonted light she seemed to see his soul more clearly than his face) drew her toward him with an invincible force.
“Are you really he?” she murmured.
“I am he,” he answered.
She laid her hand in his and drew him toward the parapet which overhung the valley. “Shall we go down together,” she asked him, “into that marvellous country; shall we see it together, as if with the self-same eyes, and tell each other in the same words all that we think and feel?”
“So,” he replied, “have I hoped and dreamed.”
“What?” she asked, with rising joy.
“Then you, too, have looked for me?”
“All my life.”
“How wonderful! And did you never, never find anyone in the other world who understood you?”
“Not wholly—not as you and I understand each other.”
“Then you feel it, too? Oh, I am happy,” she sighed.
They stood, hand in hand, looking down over the parapet upon the shimmering landscape which stretched forth beneath them into sapphirine space, and the Spirit of Life, who kept watch near the threshold, heard now and then a floating fragment of their talk blown backward like the stray swallows which the wind sometimes separates from their migratory tribe.
“Did you never feel at sunset—”
“Ah, yes; but I never heard anyone else say so. Did you?”
“Do you remember that line in the third canto of the ‘Inferno?’”
“Ah, that line—my favorite always. Is it possible—”
“You know the stooping Victory in the frieze of the Nike Apteros?”
“You mean the one who is tying her sandal? Then you have noticed, too, that all Botticelli and Mantegna are dormant in those flying folds of her drapery?”
“After a storm in autumn have you never seen—”
“Yes, it is curious how certain flowers suggest certain painters—the perfume of the incarnation, Leonardo; that of the rose, Titian; the tuberose, Crivelli—”
“I never supposed that anyone else had noticed it.” “Have you never thought—”
“Oh, yes, often and often; but I never dreamed that anyone else had.” “But surely you must have felt—”
“Oh, yes, yes; and you, too—”
“How beautiful! How strange—”
Their voices rose and fell, like the murmur of two fountains answering each other across a garden full of flowers. At length, with a certain tender impatience, he turned to her and said: “Love, why should we linger here? All eternity lies before us. Let us go down into that beautiful country together and make a home for ourselves on some blue hill above the shining river.”
As he spoke, the hand she had forgotten in his was suddenly withdrawn, and he felt that a cloud was passing over the radiance of her soul.
“A home,” she repeated, slowly, “a home for you and me to live in for all eternity?”
“Why not, love? Am I not the soul that yours has sought?”
“Y-yes—yes, I know—but, don’t you see, home would not be like home to me, unless—”
“Unless?” he wonderingly repeated.
She did not answer, but she thought to herself, with an impulse of whimsical inconsistency, “Unless you slammed the door and wore creaking boots.”
But he had recovered his hold upon her hand, and by imperceptible degrees was leading her toward the shining steps which descended to the valley.
“Come, O my soul’s soul,” he passionately implored; “why delay a moment? Surely you feel, as I do, that eternity itself is too short to hold such bliss as ours. It seems to me that I can see our home already. Have I not always seem it in my dreams? It is white, love, is it not, with polished columns, and a sculptured cornice against the blue? Groves of laurel and oleander and thickets of roses surround it; but from the terrace where we walk at sunset, the eye looks out over woodlands and cool meadows where, deep-bowered under ancient boughs, a stream goes delicately toward the river. Indoors our favorite pictures hang upon the walls and the rooms are lined with books. Think, dear, at last we shall have time to read them all. With which shall we begin? Come, help me to choose. Shall it be ‘Faust’ or the ‘Vita Nuova,’ the ‘Tempest’ or ‘Les Caprices de Marianne,’ or the thirty-first canto of the ‘Paradise,’ or ‘Epipsychidion’ or ‘Lycidas’? Tell me, dear, which one?”
As he spoke he saw the answer trembling joyously upon her lips; but it died in the ensuing silence, and she stood motionless, resisting the persuasion of his hand.
“What is it?” he entreated.
“Wait a moment,” she said, with a strange hesitation in her voice.
“Tell me first, are you quite sure of yourself? Is there no one on earth whom you sometimes remember?”
“Not since I have seen you,” he replied; for, being a man, he had indeed forgotten. Still she stood motionless, and he saw that the shadow deepened on her soul.
“Surely, love,” he rebuked her, “it was not that which troubled you? For my part I have walked through Lethe. The past has melted like a cloud before the moon. I never lived until I saw you.”
She made no answer to his pleadings, but at length, rousing herself with a visible effort, she turned away from him and moved toward the Spirit of Life, who still stood near the threshold.
“I want to ask you a question,” she said, in a troubled voice.
“Ask,” said the Spirit.
“A little while ago,” she began, slowly, “you told me that every soul which has not found a kindred soul on earth is destined to find one here.”
“And have you not found one?” asked the Spirit.
“Yes; but will it be so with my husband’s soul also?”
“No,” answered the Spirit of Life, “for your husband imagined that he had found his soul’s mate on earth in you; and for such delusions eternity itself contains no cure.”
She gave a little cry. Was it of disappointment or triumph? “Then—then what will happen to him when he comes here?”
“That I cannot tell you. Some field of activity and happiness he will doubtless find, in due measure to his capacity for being active and happy.”
She interrupted, almost angrily: “He will never be happy without me.”
“Do not be too sure of that,” said the Spirit.
She took no notice of this, and the Spirit continued: “He will not understand you here any better than he did on earth.”
“No matter,” she said; “I shall be the only sufferer, for he always thought that he understood me.”
“His boots will creak just as much as ever—”
“And he will slam the door—”
“And continue to read railway novels—”
She interposed, impatiently: “Many men do worse than that.”
“But you said just now,” said the Spirit, “that you did not love him.”
“True,” she answered, simply; “but don’t you understand that I shouldn’t feel at home without him? It is all very well for a week or two—but for eternity! After all, I never minded the creaking of his boots, except when my head ached, and I don’t suppose it will ache here; and he was always so sorry when he had slammed the door, only he never could remember not to.
Besides, no one else would know how to look after him, he is so helpless. His inkstand would never be filled, and he would always be out of stamps and visiting-cards. He would never remember to have his umbrella re-covered, or to ask the price of anything before he bought it. Why, he wouldn’t even know what novels to read. I always had to choose the kind he liked, with a murder or a forgery and a successful detective.”
She turned abruptly to her kindred soul, who stood listening with a mien of wonder and dismay.
“Don’t you see,” she said, “that I can’t possibly go with you?”
“But what do you intend to do?” asked the Spirit of Life.
“What do I intend to do?” she returned, indignantly. “Why, I mean to wait for my husband, of course. If he had come here first he would have waited for me for years and years; and it would break his heart not to find me here when he comes.” She pointed with a contemptuous gesture to the magic vision of hill and vale sloping away to the translucent mountains. “He wouldn’t give a fig for all that,” she said, “if he didn’t find me here.”
“But consider,” warned the Spirit, “that you are now choosing for eternity. It is a solemn moment.”
“Choosing!” she said, with a half-sad smile. “Do you still keep up here that old fiction about choosing? I should have thought that you knew better than that. How can I help myself? He will expect to find me here when he comes, and he would never believe you if you told him that I had gone away with someone else—never, never.”
“So be it,” said the Spirit. “Here, as on earth, each one must decide for himself.”
She turned to her kindred soul and looked at him gently, almost wistfully. “I am sorry,” she said. “I should have liked to talk with you again; but you will understand, I know, and I dare say you will find someone else a great deal cleverer—”
And without pausing to hear his answer she waved him a swift farewell and turned back toward the threshold.
“Will my husband come soon?” she asked the Spirit of Life.
“That you are not destined to know,” the Spirit replied.
“No matter,” she said, cheerfully; “I have all eternity to wait in.”
And still seated alone on the threshold, she listens for the creaking of his boots.
( Scribner’s 14, December 1893)