"A fugitive and gracious light he seeks, Shy to illumine; and I seek it too. This does not come with houses or with gold, With place, with honor, and a flattering crew; 'Tis not in the world's market bought and sold."
Three days passed by after Helen had returned to her father, during which the girl stayed by herself most of the time. When the breaking off of her engagement was known, many of her old friends came to see her, but the hints that they dropped did not move her to any confidences; she felt that it would not be possible for her to find among them any understanding of her present moods. Her old life, or rather the life to which she had been looking forward, seemed to her quite empty and shallow, and there was nothing useful that she knew of to do except to offer to help her father in such ways as she could. She drew back into her own heart, giving most of her time to thinking about Mr. Howard and Arthur, and no one but her father knew why it was that she was so subdued and silent.
It was only on the third morning, when there came a letter from Mr. Howard saying that he was coming out that afternoon to see her, that Helen seemed to be interested and stirred again. She went to the window more than once to look for him; and when at last her friend had arrived, and the two were seated in the parlor, she said to him without waiting for any circumstance, "I have been wishing very much to see you, Mr. Howard, because there is something I am anxious to talk to you about, if you will let me."
"I am sorry to say that it is about myself," she went on, when the other had expressed his willingness to hear her, "for I want to ask you to help me, and to give me some advice. I ought to have asked you the questions I am going to before this, but the last time I saw you I could think about nothing but Arthur. They only came to me after you had gone."
"What are they?" asked the man.
"You must knew, Mr. Howard," said Helen, "that it is you who have shown me the wrongness of all that I was doing in my life, and stirred me with a desire to do better. I find now that such thoughts have always been so far from me that the wish to be right is all that I have, and I do not know at all what to do. It seemed to me that I would rather talk to you about it than to anyone, even my own father. I do not know whether that is just right, but you do not mind my asking you, do you?"
"It is my wish to help you in every way that I can," was the gentle response.
"I will tell you what I have been thinking," said Helen. "I have been so unhappy in the last three days that I have done nothing at all; but it seemed to me somehow that it must be wrong of me to let go of myself in that way--as if I had no right to pamper myself and indulge my own feelings. It was not that I wished to forget what wrong things I have done, or keep from suffering because of them; yet it seemed to me that the fact that I was wretched and frightened was no excuse for my doing no good for the rest of my life. When I have thought about my duty before, it has always been my school-girl's task of studying and practicing music, but that is not at all what I want now, for I cannot bear to think of such things while the memory of Arthur is in my mind. I need something that is not for myself, Mr. Howard, and I find myself thinking that it should be something that I do not like to do."
Helen paused for a moment, gazing at the other anxiously; and then she went on: "You must know that what is really behind what I am saying is what you said that evening in the arbor, about the kind of woman I ought to be because God has made me beautiful. My heart is full of a great hunger to be set right, and to get a clearer sight of the things that are truly good in life. I want you to talk to me about your own ideals, and what you do to keep your life deep and true; and then to tell me what you would do in my place. I promise you that no matter how hard it may be I shall feel that just what you tell me to do is my duty, and at least I shall never be happy again until I have done it. Do you understand how I feel, Mr. Howard?"
"Yes," the man answered, in a quiet voice, "I understand you perfectly." And then as he paused, watching the girl from beneath his dark brows, Helen asked, "You do not mind talking to me about yourself?"
"When a man lives all alone and as self-centered as I," the other replied, smiling, "it is fatally easy for him to do that; he may blend himself with his ideals in such a curious way that he never talks about anything else. But if you will excuse that, I will tell you what I can."
"Tell me why it is that you live so much alone," said the girl. "Is it that you do not care for friends?"
"It is very difficult for a man who feels about life as I do to find many friends," he responded. "If one strives to dwell in deep things, and is very keen and earnest about it, he is apt to find very little to help him outside of himself; perhaps it is because I have met very few persons in my life, but it has not happened to me to find anyone who thinks about it as I do, or who cares to live it with my strenuousness. I have met musicians, some who labored very hard at their art, but none who felt it a duty to labor with their own souls, to make them beautiful and strong; and I have met literary men and scholars, but they were all interested in books, and were willing to be learned, and to classify and plod; I have never found one who was swift and eager, and full of high impatience for what is real and the best. There should come times to a man, I think, when he feels that books are an impertinence, when he knows that he has only the long-delayed battle with his own heart to fight, and the prize of its joy to win. When such moods come upon him he sees that he has to live his life upon his knees, and it is rarely indeed that he knows of anyone who can follow him and share in his labor. So it is that I have had to live all my life by myself, Miss Davis."
"You have always done that?" Helen asked, as he stopped.
"Yes," he answered, "or for very many years. I have a little house on the wildest of lakes up in the mountains, wyhere I play the hermit in the summer, and where I should have been now if it had not been that I yielded to your aunt's invitation. When I spoke of having no friends I forgot the things of Nature, which really do sympathize with an artist's life; I find that they never fail to become full of meaning whenever my own spirit shakes off its bonds. It has always been a belief of mine that there is nothing that Nature makes that is quite so dull and unfeeling as man,--with the exception of children and lovers, I had much rather play my violin for the flowers and the trees."
"You like to play it out of doors?" Helen asked, with a sudden smile.
"Yes," laughed the other, "that is one of my privileges as a hermit. It seems quite natural to the wild things, for they have all a music of their own, a wonderful, silent music that the best musicians cannot catch; do you not believe that, Miss Davis?"
"Yes," Helen said, and sat gazing at her companion silently for a minute. "I should think a life of such effort would be very hard," she said finally. "Do you not ever fail?"
"I do not do much else," he replied with a sad smile, "and get up and stumble on. The mastership of one's heart is the ideal, you know; and after all one's own life cannot be anything but struggle and failure, for the power he is trying to conquer is infinite. When I find my life very hard I do not complain, but know that the reason for it is that I have chosen to have it real, and that the essence of the soul is its effort. I think that is a very important thing to feel about life, Miss Davis."
"That is why I do not wish to be idle," said Helen.
"It is just because people do not know this fact about the soul," the other continued, "and are not willing to dare and suffer, and overcome dullness, and keep their spiritual faculties free, that they sink down as they grow older, and become what they call practical, and talk very wisely about experience. It is only when God sends into the world a man of genius that no mountains of earth can crush, and who keeps his faith and sweetness all through his life that we learn the baseness of the thought that experience necessarily brings cynicism and selfishness. There is to me in all this world nothing more hateful than this disillusioned worldliness, and nothing makes me angrier than to see it taking the name of wisdom. If I were a man with an art, there is nothing, I think, that I should feel more called to make war upon; it is a very blow in the face of God. Nothing makes me sadder than to see the life that such people live,--to see for instance how pathetic are the things they call their entertainments; and when one knows himself that life is a magic potion, to be drank with rapture and awe,--that every instance of it ought to be a hymn of rejoicing, and the whole of it rich and full of power, like some majestic symphony. I often find myself wishing that there were some way of saving the time that people spend in their pleasures;
"'Life piled on life Were all too little, and of one to me Little remains.'As I kneel before God's altar of the heart I know that if I had infinite time and infinite energy there would be beauty and joy still to seek, and so as I look about me in the world and see all the sin and misery that is in it, it is my comfort to know that the reason for it is that men are still living the lives of the animals, and have not even dreamed of the life that belongs to them as men. That is something about which I feel very strongly myself,--that is part of my duty as a man who seeks worship and rightness to mark that difference in my own life quite plainly."
Mr. Howard paused for a moment, and Helen said very earnestly, "I wish that you would tell me about that."
"I consider it my duty," the other replied, "to keep all the external circumstances of my life as simple and as humble as I should have to if I were quite poor. If I were not physically unable, I should feel that I ought to do for my own self all that I needed to have done, for I think that if it is necessary that others should be degraded to menial service in order that my soul might be beautiful and true, then life is bad at the heart of it, and I want none of its truth and beauty. I do not have to look into my heart very long, Miss Davis, to discover that what I am seeking in life is something that no millions of money can buy me; and when I am face to face with the sternness of what I call that spiritual fact, I see that fine houses and all the rest are a foolish kind of toy, and wonder that any man should think that he can please me by giving the labor of his soul to making them. It is much the same thing as I feel, for instance, when I go to hear a master of music, and find that he has spent his hours in torturing himself and his fingers in order to give me an acrobatic exhibition, when all the time what I wish him to do, and what his genius gave him power to do, was to find the magic word that should set free the slumbering demon of my soul. So I think that a man who wishes to grow by sympathy and worship should do without wealth, if only because it is so trivial; but of course I have left unmentioned what is the great reason for a self-denying life, the reason that lies at the heart of the matter, and that includes all the others in it,--that he who lives by prayer and joy makes all men richer, but he who takes more than his bare necessity of the wealth of the body must know that he robs his brother when he does it. The things of the soul are everywhere, but wealth stands for the toil and suffering of human beings, and thousands must starve and die so that one rich man may live at ease. That is no fine rhetoric that I am indulging in, but a very deep and earnest conviction of my soul; first of all facts of morality stands the law that the life of man is labor, and that he who chooses to live otherwise is a dastard. He may chase the phantom of happiness all his days and not find it, and yet never guess the reason,--that joy is a melody of the heart, and that he is playing upon an instrument that is out of tune. Few people choose to think of that at all, but I cannot afford ever to forget it, for my task is to live the artist's life, to dwell close to the heart of things; it is something that I simply cannot understand how any man who pretends to do that can know of the suffering and starving that is in the world, and can feel that he who has God's temple of the soul for his dwelling, has right to more of the pleasures of earth than the plainest food and shelter and what tools of his art he requires. If it is otherwise it can only be because he is no artist at all, no lover of life, but only a tradesman under another name, using God's high gift to get for himself what he can, and thinking of his sympathy and feeling as things that he puts on when he goes to work, and when he is sure that they will cost him no trouble."
Mr. Howard had been speaking very slowly, and in a deep and earnest voice; he paused for a moment, and then added with a slight smile, "I have been answering your question without thinking about it, Miss Davis, for I have told you all that there is to tell about my life."
Helen did not answer, but sat for a long time gazing at him and thinking very deeply; then she said to him, her voice shaking slightly: "You have answered only half of my question, Mr. Howard; I want you to tell me what a woman can do to bring those high things into her life--to keep her soul humble and strong. I do not think that I have your courage and self-reliance."
The man's voice dropped lower as he answered her, "Suppose that you were to find this friend of yours that knows you so well, and loves you so truly; do you not think that there might be a chance for you to win this prize of life that I speak of?" Helen did not reply, but sat with her eyes still fixed upon the other's countenance; as he went on, his deep, musical voice held them there by a spell.
"Miss Davis," he said, "a man does not live very long in the kingdom of the soul before there comes to be one thing that he loves more than anything else that life can offer; that thing is love. For love is the great gateway into the spiritual life, the stage of life's journey when human beings are unselfish and true to their hearts, if ever the power of unselfishness and truth lies in them. As for man, he has many battles to fight and much of himself to kill before the great prizes of the soul can be his--but the true woman has but one glory and one duty in life, and sacredness and beauty are hers by the free gift of God. If she be a true woman, when her one great passion takes its hold upon her it carries all her being with it, and she gives herself and all that she has. Because I believe in unselfishness and know that love is the essence of things, I find in all the world nothing more beautiful than that, and think that she has no other task in life, except to see that the self which she gives is her best and Inghest, and to hold to the thought of the sacredness of what she is doing. For love is the soul's great act of worship, and the heart's great awakening to life. If the man be selfish and a seeker of pleasure, what I say of love and woman is not for him; but if he be one who seeks to worship, to rouse the soul within him to its vision of the beauty and preciousness of life, then he must know that this is the great chance that Nature gives him, that no effort of his own will ever carry him so far towards what he seeks. The woman who gives herself to him he takes for his own with awe and trembling, knowing that the glory which he reads in her eyes is the very presence of the spirit of life; and because she stands for this precious thing to him he seeks her love more than anything else upon earth, feeling that if he has it he has everything, and if he has it not, he has nothing. He cherishes the woman as before he cherished what was best in his own soul; he chooses all fair and noble actions that may bring him still more of her love; all else that life has for him he lays as an offering at the shrine of her heart, all his joy and all his care, and asks but love in return; and because the giving of love is the woman's joy and the perfectness of her sacrifice, her glory, they come to forget themselves in each other's being, and to live their lives in each other's hearts. The joy that each cares for is no longer his own joy, but the other's; and so they come to stand for the sacredness of God to each other, and for perpetual inspiration. By and by, perhaps, from long dwelling out of themselves and feeding their hearts upon things spiritual, they learn the deep and mystic religion of love, that is the last lesson life has to teach; it is given to no man to know what is the source of this mysterious being of ours, but men who come near to it find it so glorious that they die for it in joy; and the least glimpse of it gives a man quite a new feeling about a human heart. So at last it happens that the lovers read a fearful wonder in each other's eyes, and give each other royal greeting, no longer for what they are, but for that which they would like to be. They come to worship together as they could never have worshiped apart; and always that which they worship and that in which they dwell, is what all existence is seeking with so much pain, the sacred presence of wonder that some call Truth, and some Beauty,--but all Love. When you ask me how unselfishness is to be made yours in life, that is the answer which I give you."
Mr. Howard's voice had dropped very low; as he stopped Helen was trembling within herself. She was drinking still more from the bottomless cup of her humiliation and remorse, for she was still haunted by the specter of what she had done. The man went on after an interval of silence.
"I think there is no one," he said, "whom these things touch more than the man who would live the life of art that I have talked of before; for the artist seeks experience above all things, seeks it not only for himself but for his race. And it must come from his own heart; no one can drive him to his task. All artists tell that the great source of their power is love; and the wisest of them makes of his love an art-work, as he makes an art-work of his life. He counts his power of loving most sacred of all his powers, and guards it from harm as he guards his life itself; he gives all his soul to the dreaming of that dream, and lays all his prayer before it; and when he meets with the maiden who will honor such effort, he forgets everything else in his life, and gives her all his heart, and studies to 'worship her by years of noble deeds.' For a woman who loves love, the heart of such a man is a lifetime's treasure; for his passion is of the soul, and does not die; and all that he has done has been really but a training of himself for that great consecration. If he be a true artist, all his days have been spent in learning to wrestle with himself, to rouse himself and master his own heart; until at last his very being has become a prayer, and his soul like a great storm of wind that sweeps everything away in its arms. Perhaps that hunger has possessed him so that he never even wakens in the dead of night without finding it with him in all its strength; it rouses him in the morning with a song, and when midnight comes and he is weary, it is a benediction and a hand upon his brow. All the time, because he has a man's heart and knows of his life's great glory, his longing turns to a dream of love, to a vision of the flying perfect for which all his life is a search. There is a maiden who dwells in all the music that he hears, and who calls to him in the sunrise, and flings wide the flowers upon the meadows; she treads before him on the moonlit waters and strews them with showers of fire. If his soul be only strong enough, perhaps he waits long years for that perfect woman, that woman who loves not herself, but loves love; and all the time the yearning of his heart is growing, so that those who gaze at him wonder why his eyes are dark and sunken. He knows that his heart is a treasure-house which he himself cannot explore, and that in all the world he seeks nothing but some woman before whom he might fling wide its doors."
Helen had been leaning on the table, holding her hands in front of her; towards the end they were trembling so much that she took them away and clasped them in her lap. When he ceased her eyes were lowered; she could not see how his were fixed upon her, but she knew that her bosom was heaving painfully, and that there were hot tears upon her cheeks. He added slowly: "I have told you all that I think about life, my dear friend, and all that I think about love; so I think I have told you all that I know." And Helen lifted her eyes to his and gazed at him through her tears.
"You tell _me_ of such things?" she asked. "You give such advice to _me_!"
"Yes," said the other, gently, "why not to you?"
"Mr. Howard," Helen answered, "do you not know what I have done, and how I must feel while I listen to you? It is good that I should hear such things, because I ought to suffer; but when I asked you for your advice I wished for something hard and stern to do, before I dared ever think of love, or feel myself right again."
Mr. Howard sat watching her for a moment in silence, and then he answered gently, "I do not think, my dear friend, that it is our duty as struggling mortals to feel ourselves right at all; I am not even sure that we ought to care about our rightness in the least. For God has put high and beautiful things in the world, things that call for all our attention; and I am sure that we are never so close to rightness as when we give all our devotion to them and cease quite utterly to think about ourselves. And besides that, the love that I speak of is not easy to give, Miss Davis. It is easy to give up one's self in the first glow of feeling; but to forget one's self entirely, and one's comfort and happiness in all the little things of life; to consecrate one's self and all that one has to a lifetime of patience and self-abnegation; and to seek no reward and ask for no happiness but love,--do you not think that such things would cost one pain and bring a good conscience at last?"
Helen's voice was very low as she answered, "Perhaps, at last." Then she sat very still, and finally raised her deep, earnest eyes and leaned forward and gazed straight into her companion's. "Mr. Howard," she said, "you must know that YOU are my conscience; and it is the memory of your words that causes me all my suffering. And now tell me one thing; suppose I were to say to you that I could beg upon my knees for a chance to earn such a life as that; and suppose I should ever come really to love someone, and should give up everything to win such a treasure, do you think that I could clear my soul from what I have done, and win rightness for mine? Do you think that you--that YOU could ever forget that I was the woman who had wished to sell her love for money?"
Mr. Howard answered softly, "Yes, I think so."
"But are you sure of it?" Helen asked; and when she had received the same reply she drew a long breath, and a wonderful expression of relief came upon her face; all her being seemed to rise,--as if all in an instant she had flung away the burden of shame and fear that had been crushing her soul. She sat gazing at the other with a strange look in her eyes, and then she sank down and buried her head in her arms upon the table.
And fully a minute passed thus without a sound. Helen was just lifting her head again, and Mr. Howard was about to speak, when an unexpected interruption caused him to stop. The front door was opened, and as Helen turned with a start the servant came and stood in the doorway.
"What is it, Elizabeth?" Helen asked in a faint voice.
"I have just been to the post office," the woman answered; "here is a letter for you."
"Very well," Helen answered; "give it to me."
And she took it and put it on the table in front of her. Then she waited until the servant was gone, and in the meantime, half mechanically, turned her eyes upon the envelope. Suddenly the man saw her give a violent start and turn very pale; she snatched up the letter and sprang to her feet, and stood supporting herself by the chair, her hand shaking, and her breath coming in gasps.
"What is it?" Mr. Howard cried.
Helen's voice was hoarse and choking as she answered him: "It is from Arthur!" As he started and half rose from his chair the girl tore open the letter and unfolded the contents, glancing at it once very swiftly, her eyes flying from line to line; the next instant she let it fall to the floor with a cry and clutched with her hands at her bosom. She tried to speak, but she was choking with her emotion; only her companion saw that her face was transfigured with delight; and then suddenly she sank down upon the sofa beside her, her form shaken with hysterical laughter and sobbing.
Mr. Howard had risen from his chair in wonder; but before he could take a step toward her he heard someone in the hall, and Mr. Davis rushed into the room. "Helen, Helen!" he exclaimed, "what is the matter?" and sank down upon his knees beside her; the girl raised her head and then flung herself into his arms, exclaining incoherently: "Oh, Daddy, I am free! Oh, oh--can you believe it--I am free!"
Long after her first ecstasy had passed Helen still lay with her head buried in her father's bosom, trembling and weeping and repeating half as if in a dream that last wonderful word, "Free!" Meanwhile Mr. Davis had bent down and picked up the paper to glance over it.
Most certainly Arthur would have wondered had he seen the effect of that letter upon Helen; for he wrote to her with bitter scorn, and told her that he had torn his love for her from his heart, and made himself master of his own life again. He bid her go on in the course she had chosen, for a day or two had been enough for him to find the end of her power over him, and of his care for her; and he added that he wrote to her only that she might not please herself with the thought of having wrecked him, and that he was going far away to begin his life again.
The words brought many emotions to Mr. Davis, and suggested many doubts; but to Helen they brought but one thought. She still clung to her father, sobbing like a child and muttering the one word "Free!" When at last the fit had vented itself and she looked up again, she seemed to Mr. Howard more like a girl than she ever had before; and she wiped away her tears laughingly, and smoothed back her hair, and was wonderfully beautiful in her emotion. She introduced Mr. Howard to her father, and begged him to excuse her for her lack of self-control. "I could not help it," she said, "for oh, I am so happy--so happy!" And she leaned her head upon her father's shoulder again and gazed up into his face. "Daddy dear," she said, "and are you not happy too?"
"My dear," Mr Davis protested, "of course I am glad to hear that Arthur is himself again. But that is not finding him, and I fear--"
"Oh, oh, please don't!" Helen cried, the frightened look coming back upon her face in a flash. "Oh please do not tell me that--no, no! Do let me be happy just a little while--think of it, how wretched I have been! And now to know he is safe! Oh, please, Daddy!" And the tears had welled up in Helen's eyes again. She turned quickly to Mr. Howard, her voice trembling. "Tell me that I may be happy," she exclaimed. "You know all about it, Mr. Howard. Is it not right that I should be happy just a little?"
As her friend answered her gently that he thought it was, she sat looking at him for a moment, and then the cloud passed over. She brushed away her tears, and put her arms about her father again.
"I cannot help it," she went on, quickly, "I must be happy whether I want to or not! You must not mind anything I do! For oh, think what it means to have been so wretched, so crushed and so frightened! I thought that all my life was to be like that, that I could never sing again, because Arthur was ruined. Nobody will ever know how I felt,--how many tears I shed; and now think what it means to be free--to be free,--oh, free! And to be able to be good once more! I should go mad if I thought about it!"
Helen had risen as she spoke, and she spread out her arms and flung back her head and drank in a deep breath of joy. She began singing, half to herself; and then as that brought a sudden idea into her mind she ran to the window and shut it quickly. "I will sing you my hymn!" she laughed, "_that_ is the way to be happy!"
And she went to the piano; in a minute more she had begun the chorus she had sung to Arthur, "Hail thee Joy, from Heaven descending!" The flood of emotion that was pent up within her poured itself out in the wild torrent of music, and Helen seemed happy enough to make up for all the weeks of suffering. As she swept herself on she proved what she had said,--that she would go mad if she thought much about her release; and Mr. Howard and her father sat gazing at her in wonder. When she stopped she was quite exhausted and quite dazed, and came and buried her head in her father's arms, and sat waiting until the heaving of her bosom had subsided, and she was calm once more,--in the meantime murmuring faintly to herself again and again that she was happy and that she was free.
When she looked up and brushed away her tangled hair again, perhaps she thought that her conduct was not very conventional, for she begged Mr. Howard's pardon once more, promising to be more orderly by and by. Then she added, laughing, "It is good that you should see me happy, though, because I have always troubled you with my egotisms before." She went on talking merrily, until suddenly she sprang up and said, "I shall have to sing again if I do not run away, so I am going upstairs to make myself look respectable!" And with that she danced out of the room, waking the echoes of the house with her caroling:
"Merrily, merrily, shall I live now, Under the blossom that hangs on the bough!"
Lus-tig im Leid, sing'ich von Lieb-e!