"When summer gathers up her robes of glory, And like a dream of beauty glides away."
"Across the hills and far away, Beyond their utmost purple rim, And deep into the dying day The happy princess follow'd him."
It was several months after Helen's marriage. The scene was a little lake, in one of the wildest parts of the Adirondacks, surrounded by tall mountains which converted it into a basin in the land, and walled in by a dense growth about the shores, which added still more to its appearance of seclusion. In only one place was the scenery more open, where there was a little vale between two of the hills, and where a mountain torrent came rushing down the steep incline. There the underbrush had been cleared away, and beneath the great forest trees a house constructed, a little cabin built of logs, and in harmony with the rest of the scene.
It was only large enough for two or three rooms downstairs, and as many above, and all were furnished in the plainest way. About the main room there were shelves of books, and a piano and a well-chosen music-library. It was the little home which for a dozen years or more David Howard had occupied alone, and where he and Helen had spent the golden summer of their love.
It was late in the fall then, and the mountains were robed in scarlet and orange. Helen was standing upon the little piazza, a shawl flung about her shoulders, because it was yet early in the morning. She was talking to her father, who had been paying them a few days' visit, and was taking a last look about him at the fresh morning scene before it was time for him to begin his long homeward journey.
Helen was clad in a simple dress, and with the prettiest of white sun bonnets tied upon her head; she was browned by the sun, and looked a picture of health and happiness as she held her father's arm in hers. "And then you are quite sure that you are happy?" he was saying, as he looked at her radiant face.
She echoed the word--"Happy?" and then she stretched out her arms and took a deep breath and echoed it again. "I am so happy," she laughed, "I never know what to do! You did not stay long enough for me to tell you, Daddy!" She paused for a moment, and then went on, "I think there never was anybody in the world so full of joy. For this is such a beautiful little home, you know, and we live such a beautiful life; and oh, we love each other so that the days seem to fly by like the wind! I never even have time to think how happy I am."
"Your husband really loves you as much as he ought," said the father, gazing at her tenderly.
"I think God never put on earth another such man as David," replied, the girl, with sudden gravity. "He is so noble, and so unselfish in every little thing; I see it in his eyes every instant that all his life is lived for nothing but to win my love. And it just draws the heart right out of me, Daddy, so that I could live on my knees before him, just trying to tell him how much I love him. I cannot ever love him enough; but it grows--it grows like great music, and every day my heart is more full!"
Helen was standing with her head thrown back, gazing ahead of her; then she turned and laughed, and put her arm about her father again, saying: "Haven't you just seen what a beautiful life we live? And oh, Daddy, most of the time I am afraid because I married David, when I see how much he knows. Just think of it,--he has lived all alone ever since he was young, and done nothing but read and study. Now he brings all those treasures to me, to make me happy with, and he frightens me." She stopped for a moment and then continued earnestly: "I have to be able to go with him everywhere, you know, I can't expect him to stay back all his life for me; and that makes me work very hard. David says that there is one duty in the world higher than love, and that is the duty of labor,--that no soul in the world can be right for one instant if it is standing still and is satisfied, even with the soul it loves. He told me that before he married me, but at first when we came up here he was so impatient that he quite frightened me; but now I have learned to understand it all, and we are wonderfully one in everything. Daddy, dear, isn't it a beautiful way to live, to be always striving, and having something high and sacred in one's mind? And to make all of one's life from one's own heart, and not to be dependent upon anything else? David and I live away off here in the mountains, and we never have anything of what other people call comforts and enjoyments--we have nothing but a few books and a little music, and Nature, and our own love; and we are so wonderfully happy with just those that nothing else in the world could make any difference, certainly nothing that money could buy us."
"I was worried when you wrote me that you did not even have a servant," said Mr. Davis.
"It isn't any trouble," laughed Helen. (David's man lived in the village half a mile away and came over every day to bring what was necessary.) "This is such a tiny little cottage, and David and I are very enthusiastic people, and we want to be able to make lots of noise and do just as we please. We have so much music, you know, Daddy, and of course David is quite a wild man when he gets excited with music."
Helen stopped and looked at her father and laughed; then she rattled merrily on: "We are both of us just two children, for David is so much in love with me that it makes him as young as I am; and we are away off from everything, and so we can be as happy with each other as we choose. We have this little lake all to ourselves, you know; it's getting cold now, and pretty soon we'll have to fly away to the south, but all this summer long we used to get up in the morning in time to see the sun rise, and to have a wonderful swim. And then we have so many things to read and study; and David talks to me, and tells me all that he knows; and besides all that we have to tell each other how much we love each other, which takes a fearful amount of time. It seems that neither of us can ever quite realize the glory of it, and when we think of it, it is a wonder that nobody ever told. Is not that a beautiful way to live, Daddy dear, and to love?"
"Yes," said Mr. Davis, "that is a very beautiful way indeed. And I think that my little girl has all that I could wish her to have."
"Oh, there is no need to tell me that!" laughed Helen. "All I wish is that I might really be like David and be worth his love; I never think about anything else all day." The girl stood for a moment gazing at her father, and then, looking more serious, she put her arm about him and whispered softly: "And oh, Daddy, it is too wonderful to talk about, but I ought to tell you; for some day by and by God is going to send us a new, oh, a new, new wonder!" And Helen blushed beautifully as her father gazed into her eyes.
He took her hand tenderly in his own, and the two stood for some time in silence. When it was broken it was by the rattling of the wagon which had come to take Mr. Davis away.
David came out then to bid his guest good-by, and the three stood for a few minutes conversing. It was not very difficult for, Helen to take leave of her father, for she would see him, so she said, in a week or two more. She stood waving her hands to him, until the bumping wagon was lost to sight in the woods, and then she turned and took David's hand in hers and gazed across the water at the gorgeous-colored mountains. The lake was sparkling in the sunlight, and the sky was bright and clear, but Helen's thoughts took a different turn from that.
All summer long she had been rejoicing in the glory of the landscape about her, in the glowing fern and the wild-flowers underfoot, and in the boundless canopy of green above, with its unresting song-birds; now there were only the shrill cries of a pair of blue-jays to be heard, and every puff of wind that came brought down a shower of rustling leaves to the already thickly-covered ground.
"Is it not sad, David," the girl said, "to think how the beauty should all be going?"
David did not answer her for a moment. "When I think of it," he said at last, "it brings me not so much sadness as a strange feeling of mystery. Only stop, and think of what that vanished springtime meant--think that it was a presence of living, feeling, growing creatures,--infinite, unthinkable masses of them, robing all the world; and that now the life and the glory of it all is suddenly gone back into nothingness, that it was all but a fleeting vision, a phantom presence on the earth. I never realize that without coming to think of all the other things of life, and that they too are no more real than the springtime flowers; and so it makes me feel as if I were walking upon air, and living in a dream."
Helen was leaning against a post of the piazza, her eyes fixed upon David intently. "Does that not give a new meaning to the vanished spring-time?" he asked her; and she replied in a wondering whisper, "Yes," and then gazed at him for a long time.
"David," she said at last, "it is fearful to think of a thing like that. What does it all mean? What causes it?"
"Men have been asking that helpless question since the dawn of time," he answered, "we only know what we see, this whirling and weaving of shadows, with its sacred facts of beauty and love."
Helen looked at him thoughtfully a moment, and then, recollecting something she had heard from her father, she said, "But, David, if God be a mystery like that, how can there be any religion?"
"What we may fancy God to be makes no difference," he answered. "That which we know is always the same, we have always the love and always the beauty. All men's religion is but the assertion that the source of these sacred things must be infinitely sacred, and that whatever may happen to us, that source can suffer no harm; that we live by a power stronger than ourselves, and that has no need of us."
Helen was looking at her husband anxiously; then suddenly she asked him, "But tell me then, David; you do not believe in heaven? You do not believe that our souls are immortal?" As he answered her in the negative she gave a slight start, and knitted her brows; and after another pause she demanded, "You do not believe in revealed religion then?"
David could not help smiling, recognizing the voice of his clerical father-in-law; when he answered, however, he was serious again. "Some day, perhaps, dear Helen," he said, "I will tell you all about what I think as to such things. But very few of the world's real thinkers believe in revealed religions any more--they have come to see them simply as guesses of humanity at God's great sacred mystery, and to believe that God's way of revealing Himself to men is through the forms of life itself. As to the question of immortality that you speak of, I have always felt that death is a sign of the fact that God is infinite and perfect, and that we are but shadows in his sight; that we live by a power that is not our own, and seek for beauty that is not our own, and that each instant of our lives is a free gift which we can only repay by thankfulness and worship."
He paused for a moment, and the girl, who had still been gazing at him thoughtfully, went on, "Father used to talk about those things to me, David, and he showed me how the life of men is all spent in suffering and struggling, and that therefore faith teaches us---"
"Yes, dearest," the other put in, "I know all that you are going to say; I have read these arguments very often, you know. But suppose that I were to tell you that I think suffering and struggling is the very essence of the soul, and that what faith teaches us is that the suffering and struggling are sacred, and not in the least that they are some day to be made as nothing? Dearest, if it is true that the soul makes this life what it is, a life of restless seeking for an infinite, would it not make the same life anywhere else? Do you remember reading with me Emerson's poem about Uriel, the seraph who sang before God's throne,--how even that could not please him, and how he left it to plunge into the struggle of things imperfect; and how ever after the rest of the seraphim were afraid of Uriel? Do you think, dearest, that this life of love and labor that you and I live our own selves needs anything else to justify it? The life that I lived all alone was much harder and more full of pain than this, but I never thought that it needed any rewarding."
David stopped and stood gazing ahead of him thoughtfully; when he continued his voice was lower and more solemn. "These things are almost too sacred to talk of, Helen," he said; "but there is one doubt that I have known about this, one thing that has made me wonder if there ought not to be another world after all. I never sympathized with any man's longing for heaven, but I can understand how a man might be haunted by some fearful baseness of his own self,--something which long years of effort had taught him he could not ever expiate by the strength of his own heart,--and how he could pray that there might be some place where rightness might be won at last, cost what it would."
The man's tone had been so strange as he spoke that it caused Helen to start; suddenly she came closer to him and put her hands upon his shoulders and gazed into his eyes. "David," she whispered, "listen to me a moment."
"Yes, dear," he said, "what is it?"
"Was it because of yourself that you said those words?"
He was silent for a moment, gazing into her anxious eyes; then he bowed his head and said in a faint voice, "Yes, dear, it was because of myself."
And the girl, becoming suddenly very serious, went on, "Do you remember, David, a long time ago--the time that I was leaving Aunt Polly's--that you told me how you knew what it was to have something very terrible on one's conscience? I have not ever said anything about that, but I have never forgotten it. Was it that that you thought of then?"
"Yes, dear, it was that," answered the other, trembling slightly.
Helen stooped down upon her knees and put her arms about him, gazing up pleadingly into his face. "Dearest David," she whispered, "is it right to refuse to tell me about that sorrow?"
There was a long silence, after which the man replied slowly, "I have not ever refused to tell you, sweetheart; it would be very fearful to tell, but I have not any secrets from you; and if you wished it, you should know. But, dear, it was long, long ago, and nothing can ever change it now. It would only make us sad to know it, so why should we talk of it?"
He stopped, and Helen gazed long and earnestly into his face. "David," she said, "it is not possible for me to imagine you ever doing anything wrong, you are so good."
"Perhaps," said David, "it is because you are so good yourself." But Helen interrupted him at that with a quick rejoinder: "Do you forget that I too have a sorrow upon my conscience?" Afterwards, as she saw that the eager remark caused the other to smile in spite of himself, she checked him gravely with the words, "Have you really forgotten so soon? Do you suppose I do not ever think now of how I treated poor Arthur, and how I drove away from me the best friend of my girlhood? He wrote me that he would think of me no more, but, David, sometimes I wonder if it were not just an angry boast, and if he might not yet be lonely and wretched, somewhere in this great cold world where I cannot ever find him or help him."
The girl paused; David was regarding her earnestly, and for a long time neither of them spoke. Then suddenly the man bent down, and pressed a kiss upon her forehead. "Let us only love each other, dear," he whispered, "and try to keep as right as we can while the time is given us."
There was a long silence after that while the two sat gazing out across the blue lake; when Helen spoke again it was to say, "Some day you must tell me all about it, David, because I can help you; but let us not talk about these dreadful things now." She stopped again, and afterwards went on thoughtfully, "I was thinking still of what you said about immortality, and how very strange it is to think of ceasing to be. Might it not be, David, that heaven is a place not of reward, but of the same ceaseless effort as you spoke of?"
"Ah, yes," said the other, "that is the thought of 'the wages of going on.' And of course, dear, we would all like those wages; there is no thought that tempts me so much as the possibility of being able to continue the great race forever; but I don't see how we have the least right to demand it, or that the facts give us the least reason to suppose that we will get it. It seems to me simply a fantastic and arbitrary fancy; the re-creating of a worn-out life in that way. I do not think, dearest, that I am in the least justified in claiming an eternity of vision because God gives me an hour; and when I ask Him the question in my own heart I learn simply that I am a wretched, sodden creature that I do not crowd that hour with all infinity and go quite mad at the sight of the beauty that He flings wide before me."
Helen did not reply for a while, and then she asked: "And you think, David, that our life justifies itself no matter how much suffering may be in it?"
"I think, dearest," was his reply, "that the soul's life is struggle, and that the soul's life is sacred; and that to be right, to struggle to be right, is not only life's purpose, but also life's reward; and that each instant of such righteousness is its own warrant, tho the man be swept out of existence in the next." Then David stopped, and when he went on it was in a lower voice. "Dear Helen," he said, "after I have told you what I feel I deserve in life, you can understand my not wishing to talk lightly about such things as suffering. Just now, as I sit here at my ease, and in fact all through my poor life, I have felt about such sacred words as duty and righteousness that it would be just as well if they did not ever pass my lips. But there have come to me one or two times, dear, when I dared a little of the labor of things, and drank a drop or two of the wine of the spirit; and those times have lived to haunt me and make me at least not a happy man in my unearned ease. There come to me still just once in a while hours when I get sight of the gleam, hours that make me loathe all that in my hours of comfort I loved; and there comes over me then a kind of Titanic rage, that I should go down a beaten soul because I have not the iron strength of will to lash my own self to life, and tear out of my own heart a little of what power is in it. At such times, Helen, I find just this one wish in my mind,--that God would send to me, cost what it might, some of the fearful experience that rouses a man's soul within him, and makes him live his life in spite of all his dullness and his fear."
David had not finished, but he halted, because he saw a strange look upon the girl's face. She did not answer him at once, but sat gazing at him; and then she said in a very grave voice, "David, I do not like to hear such words as that from you."
"What words, dearest?"
"Do you mean actually that it sometimes seems to you wrong to live happily with me as you have?"
David laid his hand quietly upon hers, watching for a minute her anxious countenance. Then he said in a low voice: "You ought not to ask me about such things, dear, or blame me for them. Sometimes I have to face the very cruel thought that I ought not ever to have linked my fate to one so sweet and gentle as you, because what I ought to be doing in the world to win a right conscience is something so hard and so stern that it would mean that I could never be really happy all my life."
David was about to go on, but he stopped again because of Helen's look of displeasure. "David," she whispered, "that is the most unloving thing that I have ever heard from you!"
"And you must blame me, dear, because of it?" he asked.
"I suppose," Helen answered, "that you would misunderstand me as long as I chose to let you. Do you not suppose that I too have a conscience,--do you suppose that I want any happiness it is wrong for us to take, or that I would not dare to go anywhere that your duty took you? And do you suppose that anything could be so painful to me as to know that you do not trust me, that you are afraid to live your life, and do what is your duty, before me?"
David bent down suddenly and pressed a kiss upon the girl's forehead. "Precious little heart," he whispered, "those words are very beautiful."
"I did not say them because they were beautiful," answered Helen gravely; "I said them because I meant them, and because I wanted you to take them in earnest. I want to know what it is that you and I ought to be doing, instead of enjoying our lives; and after you have told me what it is I can tell you one thing--that I shall not be happy again in my life until it is done."
David watched her thoughtfully a while before he answered, because he saw that she was very much in earnest. Then he said sadly, "Dearest Helen, perhaps the reason that I have never been able all through my life to satisfy my soul is the pitiful fact that I have not the strength to dare any of the work of other men; I have had always to chafe under the fact that I must choose between nourishing my poor body, or ceasing to live. I have learned that all my power--and more too, as it sometimes seemed,--was needed to bear bravely the dreadful trials that God has sent to me."
Helen paled slightly; she felt his hand trembling upon hers, and she remembered his illness at her aunt's, about which she had never had the courage to speak to him. "And so, dear heart," he went on slowly, "let us only be sure that we are keeping our lives pure and strong, that we are living in the presence of high thoughts and keeping the mastery of ourselves, and saying and really meaning that we live for something unselfish; so that if duty and danger come, we shall not prove cowards, and if suffering comes we should not give way and lose our faith. Does that please you, dear Helen?"
The girl pressed his hand silently in hers. After a while he went on still more solemnly: "Some time," he said, "I meant to talk to you about just that, dearest, to tell you how stern and how watchful we ought to be. It is very sad to me to see what happens when the great and fearful realities of life disclose themselves to good and kind people who have been living without any thought of such things. I feel that it is very wrong to live so, that if we wished to be right we would hold the high truths before us, no matter how much labor it cost."
"What truths do you mean?" asked Helen earnestly; and he answered her: "For one, the very fearful fact of which I have just been talking--that you and I are two bubbles that meet for an instant upon the whirling stream of time. Suppose, sweetheart, that I were to tell you that I do not think you and I would be living our lives truly, until we were quite sure that we could bear to be parted forever without losing our faith in God's righteousness?"
Helen turned quite white, and clutched the other's hands in hers; she had not once thought of actually applying what he had said to her. "David! David!" she cried, "No!"
The man smiled gently as he brushed back the hair from her forehead and gazed into her eyes. "And when you asked for sternness, dear," he said, "was it that you did not know what the word meant? Life is real, dear Helen, and the effort it demands is real effort."
The girl did not half hear these last words; she was still staring at her husband. "Listen to me, David," she said at last, still holding his hand tightly in hers, her voice almost a whisper; "I could bear anything for you, David, I know that I could bear _anything_; I could really die for you, I say that with all my soul,--that was what I was thinking of when you spoke of death. But David, if you were to be taken from me,--if you were to be taken from me--" and she stopped, unable to find a word more.
"Perhaps it will be just as well not to tell me, dear heart," he said to her, gently.
"David," she went on more strenuously yet, "listen to me--you must not ever ask me to think of that! Do you hear me? For, oh, it cannot be true, it cannot be true, David, that you could be taken from me forever! What would I have left to live for?"
"Would you not have the great wonderful God?" asked the other gently--"the God who made me and all that was lovable in me, and made you, and would demand that you worship him?" But Helen only shook her head once more and answered, "It could not be true, David,--no, no!" Then she added in a faint voice, "What would be the use of my having lived?"
The man bent forward and kissed her again, and kissed away a little of the frightened, anxious look upon her face. "My dear," he said with a gentle smile, "perhaps I was wrong to trouble you with such fearful things after all. Let me tell you instead a thought that once came to my mind, and that has stayed there as the one I should like to call the most beautiful of all my life; it may help to answer that question of yours about the use of having lived. Men love life so much, Helen dear, that they cannot ever have enough of it, and to keep it and build it up they make what we call the arts; this thought of mine is about one of them, about music, the art that you and I love most. For all the others have been derived from things external, but music was made out of nothing, and exists but for its one great purpose, and therefore is the most spiritual of all of them. I like to say that it is time made beautiful, and so a shadow picture of the soul; it is this, because it can picture different degrees of speed and of power, because it can breathe and throb, can sweep and soar, can yearn and pray,--because, in short, everything that happens in the heart can happen in music, so that we may lose ourselves in it and actually live its life, or so that a great genius can not merely tell us about himself, but can make all the best hours of his soul actually a part of our own. This thought that I said was beautiful came to me from noticing how perfectly the art was one with that which it represented; so that we may say not only that music is life, but that life is music. Music exists because it is beautiful, dear Helen, and because it brings an instant of the joy of beauty to our hearts, and for no other reason whatever; it may be music of happiness or of sorrow, of achievement or only of hope, but so long as it is beautiful it is right, and it makes no difference, either, that it cost much labor of men, or that when it is gone it is gone forever. And dearest, suppose that the music not only was beautiful, but knew that it was beautiful; that it was not only the motion of the air, but also the joy of our hearts; might it not then be its own excuse, just one strain of it that rose in the darkness, and quivered and died away again forever?"
When David had spoken thus he stopped and sat still for a while, gazing at his wife; then seeing the anxious look still in possession of her face, he rose suddenly by way of ending their talk. "Dearest," he said, smiling, "it is wrong of me, perhaps, to worry you about such very fearful things as those; let us go in, and find something to do that is useful, and not trouble ourselves with them any more."