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On I went, chin on breast, heedless of all direction--now beneath the shade of trees, now crossing grassy glades or rolling meadow, or threading my way through long alleys of hop-vines; on and on, skirting hedges, by haycocks looming ghostly in the dark, by rustling cornfields, through wood and coppice, where branches touched me, as I passed, like ghostly fingers in the dark; on I went, lost to all things but my own thoughts. And my thoughts were not of Life nor Death nor the world nor the spaces beyond the world--but of my Virgil book with the broken cover, and of him who had looked at it--over her shoulder. And, raising my hands, I clasped them about my temples, and, leaning against a tree, stood there a great while. Yet, when the trembling fit had left me, I went on again, and with every footstep there rose a voice within me, crying: "Why? Why? Why?"
Why should I, Peter Vibart, hale and well in body, healthy in mind--why should I fall thus into ague-spasms because of a woman --of whom I knew nothing, who had come I knew not whence, accompanied by one whose presence, under such conditions, meant infamy to any woman; why should I burn thus in a fever if she chose to meet another while I was abroad? Was she not free to follow her own devices; had I any claim upon her; by what right did I seek to compass her goings and comings, or interest myself in her doings? Why? Why? Why?
As I went, the woods gradually fell away, and I came out upon an open place. The ground rose sharply before me, but I climbed on and up and so, in time, stood upon a hill.
Now, standing upon this elevation, with the woods looming dimly below me, as if they were a dark tide hemming me in on all sides, I became conscious of a sudden great quietude in the air--a stillness that was like the hush of expectancy; not a sound came to me, not a whisper from the myriad leaves below.
But, as I stood there listening, very faint and far away, I heard a murmur that rose and died and rose again, that swelled and swelled into the roll of distant thunder. Down in the woods was a faint rustling, as if some giant were stirring among the leaves, and out of their depths breathed a puff of wind that fanned my cheek, and so was gone. But, in a while, it was back again, stronger, more insistent than before, till, sudden as it came, it died away again, and all was hushed and still, save only for the tremor down there among the leaves; but lightning flickered upon the horizon, the thunder rolled nearer and nearer, and the giant grew ever more restless.
Round about me, in the dark, were imps that laughed and whispered together, and mocked me amid the leaves:
"Who is the madman that stands upon a lonely hill at midnight, bareheaded, half clad, and hungers for the storm? Peter Vibart! Peter Vibart! Who is he that, having eyes, sees not, and having ears, hears not? Peter Vibart! Peter Vibart! Blow, Wind, and buffet him! Flame, O Lightning, that he may see! Roar, O Thunder, that he may hear and know!"
Upon the stillness came a rustling, loud and ever louder, drowning all else, for the giant was awake at last, and stretching himself; and now, up he sprang with a sudden bellow, and, gathering himself together, swept up towards me through the swaying treetops, pelting me with broken twigs and flying leaves, and filling the air with the tumult of his coming.
Oh, the wind!--the bellowing, giant wind! On he came, exulting, whistling through my hair, stopping my breath, roaring in my ears his savage, wild halloo! And, as if in answer, forth from the inky heaven burst a jagged, blinding flame, that zigzagged down among the tossing trees, and vanished with a roaring thunder-clap that seemed to stun all things to silence. But not for long, for in the darkness came the wind again--fiercer, wilder than before, shrieking a defiance. The thunder crashed above me, and the lightning quivered in the air about me, till my eyes ached with the swift transitions from pitch darkness to dazzling light--light in which distant objects started out clear and well defined, only to be lost again in a swirl of blackness. And now came rain--a sudden, hissing downpour, long threads of scintillating fire where the lightning caught it--rain that wetted me through and through.
The storm was at its height, and, as I listened, rain and wind and thunder became merged and blended into awful music--a symphony of Life and Death played by the hands of God; and I was an atom--a grain of dust an insect, to be crushed by God's little finger. And yet needs must this insect still think upon its little self for half drowned, deafened, blind, and half stunned though I was, still the voice within me cried: "Why? Why? Why?"
Why was I here instead of lying soft and sheltered, and sleeping the blessed sleep of tired humanity? Why was I here, with death about me--and why must I think, and think, and think of Her?
The whole breadth of heaven seemed torn asunder--blue flame crackled in the air; it ran hissing along the ground; then --blackness, and a thunderclap that shook the very hill beneath me, and I was down upon my knees, with the swish of the rain about me.
Little by little upon this silence stole the rustle of leaves, and in the leaves were the imps who mocked me:
"Who is he that doth love--in despite of himself, and shall do, all his days--be she good or evil, whatever she was, whatever she is? Who is the very Fool of Love? Peter Vibart! Peter Vibart!"
And so I bowed my face upon my hands, and remained thus a great while, heeding no more the tempest about me. For now indeed was my question answered, and my fear realized.
"I love her!--whatever she was--whatever she is--good or evil--I love her. O Fool!--O most miserable Fool!"
And presently I rose, and went on down the hill. Fast I strode, stumbling and slipping, plunging on heedlessly through bush and brake until at last, looking about me, I found myself on the outskirts of a little spinney or copse; and then I became conscious that the storm had passed, for the thunder had died down to a murmur, and the rain had ceased; only all about me were little soft sounds, as if the trees were weeping silently together.
Pushing on, I came into a sort of narrow lane, grassy underfoot and shut in on either hand by very tall hedges that loomed solid and black in the night; and, being spent and weary, I sat down beneath one of these and propped my chin in my hands.
How long I remained thus I cannot say, but I was at length aroused by a voice--a strangely sweet and gentle voice at no great distance, and the words it uttered were these:
"Oh! give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever! O Lord! I beseech Thee look down in Thine infinite pity upon this, Thy world; for to-day is at hand, and Thy children must soon awake to life and toil and temptation. Oh! Thou who art the Lover of Men, let Thy Holy Spirit wait to meet with each one of us upon the threshold of the dawn, and lead us through this coming day. Like as a father pitieth his children, so dost Thou pity all the woeful and heavy-hearted. Look down upon all those who must so soon awake to their griefs, speak comfortably to them; remember those in pain who must so soon take up their weary burdens! Look down upon the hungry and the rich, the evil and the good, that, in this new day, finding each something of Thy mercy, they may give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever."
So the voice ended, and there were silence and a profound stillness upon all things; wherefore, lifting my eyes unto the east, I saw that it was dawn.
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