"Then said I, 'Woe is me! For I am undone;... for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.'"
David'S servant drove out early upon the following morning to tell him of a strange woman who had been asking for him in the village; they sent the man back for a doctor, and it was found that the poor creature was really dead.
They wished to take the body away, but David would not have it; and so, late in the afternoon, a grave was dug by the lake-shore near the little cottage, and what was left of Mary was buried there. David was too exhausted to leave the house, and Helen would not stir from his side, so the two sat in silence until the ceremony was over, and the men had gone. The servant went with them, because the girl said they wished to be alone; and then the house settled down to its usual quietness,--a quietness that frightened Helen now.
For when she looked at her husband her heart scarcely beat for her terror; he was ghastly white, and his lips were trembling, and though he had not shed a tear all the day, there was a look of mournful despair on his face that told more fearfully than any words how utterly the soul within him was beaten and crushed. All that day he had been so, and as Helen remembered the man that had been before so strong and eager and brare, her whole soul stood still with awe; yet as before she could do nothing but cling to him, and gaze at him with bursting heart.
But at last when the hours had passed and not a move had been made, she asked him faintly, "David, is there no hope? Is it to be like this always?"
The man raised his eyes and gazed at her helplessly. "Helen," he said, his voice sounding hollow and strange, "what can you ask of me? How can I bear to look about me again, how can I think of living? Oh, that night of horror! Helen, it burns my brain--it tortures my soul--it will drive me mad!" He buried his face in his hands again, shaking with emotion. "Oh, I cannot ever forget it," he whispered hoarsely; "it must haunt me, haunt me until I die! I must know that after all my years of struggle it was this that I made, it is this that stands for my life--and it is over, and gone from me forever and finished! Oh, God, was there ever such a horror flashed upon a guilty soul--ever such fiendish torture for a man to bear? And Helen, there was a child, too--think how that thought must goad me--a child of mine, and I cannot ever aid it--it must suffer for its mother's shame. And think, if it were a woman, Helen--this madness must go on, and go on forever! Oh, where am I to hide me; and what can I do?"
There came no tears, but only a fearful sobbing; poor Helen whispered frantically, "David, it was not your fault, you could not help it--surely you cannot be to blame for all this."
He did not answer her, but after a long silence he went on in a deep, low voice, "Helen, she was so beautiful! She has lived in my thoughts all these years as the figure that I used to see, so bright and so happy; I used to hear her singing in church, and the music was a kind of madness to me, because I knew that she loved me. And her home was a little farm-house, half buried in great trees, and I used to see her there with her flowers. Now--oh, think of her now--think of her life of shame and agony--think of her turned away from her home, and from all she loved in the world,--deserted and scorned, and helpless--think of her with child, and of the agony of her degradation! What must she not have suffered to be as she was last night--oh, are there tears enough in the world to pay for such a curse, for that twenty years' burden of wretchedness and sin? And she was beaten--oh, she was beaten--Mary, my poor, poor Mary! And to die in such horror, in drunkenness and madness! And now she is gone, and it is over; and oh, why should I live, what can I do?"
His voice dropped into a moan, and then again there was a long silence. At last Helen whispered, in a weak, trembling voice, "David, you have still love; can that be nothing to you?"
"I have no right to love," he groaned, "no right to love, and I never had any. For oh, all my life this vision has haunted me--I knew that nothing but death could have saved her from shame! Yes, and I knew, too, that some day I must find her. I have carried the terror of that in my heart all these years. Yet I dared to take your love, and dared to fly from my sin; and then there comes this thunderbolt--oh, merciful heaven, it is too much to bear, too much to bear!" He sank down again; poor Helen could find no word of comfort, no utterance of her own bursting heart except the same frantic clasp of her love.
So the day went by over that shattered life; and each hour the man's despair grew more black, his grief and misery more hopeless. The girl watched him and followed him about as if she had been a child, but she could get him to take no food, and to divert his mind to anything else she dared not even try. He would sit for hours writhing in his torment, and then again he would spring up and pace the room in agitation, though he was too weak to bear that very long. Afterwards the long night came on, and all through it he lay tossing and moaning, sometimes shuddering in a kind of paroxysm of grief,--Helen, though she was weary and almost fainting, watching thro the whole night, her heart wild with her dread.
And so the morning came, and another day of misery; and in the midst of it David flung himself down upon the sofa and buried his face in his arms and cried out, "Oh God, my God, I cannot stand it, I cannot stand it! Oh, let me die! I dare not lift my head--there is no hope for me--there is no life for me--I dare not pray! It is more than I can bear--I am beaten, I am lost forever!" And Helen fell down upon her knees beside him, and tore away his hands from his face and stared at him frantically, exclaiming, "David, it is too cruel! Oh, have mercy upon me, David, if you love me!"
He stopped and gazed long and earnestly into her face, and a look of infinite pity came into his eyes; at last he whispered, in a low voice, "Poor, poor little Helen; oh, Helen, God help you, what can I do?" He paused and afterwards went on tremblingly, "What have you done that you should suffer like this? You are right that it is too cruel--it is another curse that I have to bear! For I knew that I was born to suffering--I knew that my life was broken and dying--and yet I dared to take yours into it! And now, what can I do to save you, Helen; can you not see that I dare not live?"
"David, it is you who are killing yourself," the girl moaned in answer. He did not reply, but there came a long, long silence, in which he seemed to be sinking still deeper; and when he went on it was in a shuddering voice that made Helen's heart stop. "Oh, it is no use," he gasped, "it is no use! Listen, Helen, there was another secret that I kept from you, because it was too fearful; but I can keep it no more, I can fight no more!"
He stopped; the girl had clutched his arm, and was staring into his face, whispering his name hoarsely. At last he went on in his cruel despair, "I knew this years ago, too, and I knew that I was bringing it upon you--the misery of this wretched, dying body. Oh, it hurts--it hurts now!" And he put his hand over his heart, as a look of pain came into his face. "It cannot stand much more, my heart," he panted; "the time must come--they told me it would come years ago! And then--and then--"
The man stopped, because he was looking at Helen; she had not made a sound, but her face had turned so white, and her lips were trembling so fearfully that he dared not go on; she gave a loud, choking cry and burst out wildly, "Oh, David--David--it is fiendish--you have no right to punish me so! Oh, have mercy upon me, for you are killing me! You have no right to do it, I tell you it is a crime; you promised me your love, and if you loved me you would live for my sake, you would think of me! A thing so cruel ought not to be--it cannot be right--God could never have meant a human soul to suffer so! And there must be pardon in the world, there must be light--it cannot all be torture like this!" She burst into a flood of tears and flung herself upon David's bosom, sobbing again and again, "Oh, no, no, it is too fearful, oh, save me, save me!"
He did not answer her; as she looked up at him again she saw the same look of fearful woe, and read the cruel fact that there was no help, that her own grief and pleadings were only deepening the man's wretchedness. She stared at him for a long time; and when she spoke to him again it was with a sudden start, and in a strange, ghastly voice,--"And then, David, there is no God?"
He trembled, but the words choked him as he tried to respond, and his head dropped; then at last she heard him moan, "Oh, how can God free my soul from this madness, how can he deliver me from such a curse?" Helen could say no more--could only cling to him and sob in her fright.
So the day passed away, and another night came; and still the crushed and beaten soul was writhing in its misery, lost in blackness and despair; and still Helen read it all in his white and tortured features, and drank the full cup of his soul's fiery pain.
They took no heed of the time; but it was long after darkness had fallen; and once when the girl had gone upstairs for a moment she heard David pacing about, and then heard a stifled cry. She rushed down, and stopped short in the doorway. For the man was upon his knees, his face uplifted in wild entreaty. "Oh God, oh merciful God!" he sobbed; "all the days of my life I have sought for righteousness, labored and suffered to keep my soul alive! And oh, was it all for this--was it to go down in blackness and night, to die a beaten man, crushed and lost? Oh, I cannot bear it, I cannot bear it! It cannot--it must not be!"
He sank forward upon the sofa, and buried his head in his arms, and the girl could hear his breathing in the stillness; at last she crept across the room and knelt down beside him, and whispered softly in his ear, "You do not give me your heart any more, David?"
It was a long time before he answered her, and then it was to moan, "Oh, Helen, my heart is broken, I can give it to no one. Once I had strength and faith, and could love; but now I am lost and ruined, and there is nothing that can save me. I dare not live, and I dare not die, and I know not where to turn!"
He started up suddenly, clasping his hands to his forehead and staggering across the room, crying out, "Oh no, it cannot be, oh, it cannot be! There must be some way of finding pardon, some way of winning Tightness for a soul! Oh God, what can I do for peace?" But then again he sank down and hid his face and sobbed out: "In the face of this nightmare,--with this horror fronting me! _She_ cried for pardon, and none came."
After that there was a long silence, with Helen crouching in terror by his side. She heard him groan: "It is all over, it is finished--I can fight no more," and then again came stillness, and when she lifted him and gazed into his face she knew not which was worse, the silent helpless despair that was upon it, or the torment and the suffering that had gone before. She tried still to soothe him, begging and pleading with him to have mercy upon her. He asked her faintly what he could do, and the poor girl, seeing how weak and exhausted he was, could think of only the things of the body, and begged him to try to rest. "It has been two nights since you have slept, David," she whispered.
"I cannot sleep with this burden upon my soul," he answered her; but still she pleaded with him, begging him as he loved her; and he yielded to her at last, and broken and helpless as he was, she half carried him upstairs and laid him upon the bed as if he had been a little child. That seemed to help little, however, for he only lay tossing and moaning, "Oh, God, it must end; I cannot bear it!"
Those were the last words Helen heard, for the poor girl was exhausted herself, almost to fainting; she lay down, without undressing, and her head had scarcely touched the pillow before she was asleep. In the meantime, through the long night-watches David lay writhing and crying out for help.
The moon rose dim and red behind the mountains,--it had mounted high in the sky, and the room was bright with it, when at last the man rose from the bed and began swiftly pacing the room, still muttering to himself. He sank down upon his knees by the window and gazed up at the silent moon. Then again he rose and turned suddenly, and after a hurried glance at Helen went to the door and passed out, closing it silently behind him, and whispered to himself, half deliriously, "Oh, great God, it must end! It must end!"
It was more than an hour afterwards that the girl awakened from her troubled sleep; she lay for an instant half dazed, trying to bring back to her mind what had happened; and then she put out her hand and discovered that her husband was no longer by her. She sat up with a wild start, and at the same instant her ear was caught by a sound outside, of footsteps pacing swiftly back and forth, back and forth, upon the piazza. The girl leaped up with a stifled cry, and ran out of the room and down the steps. The room below was still half lighted by the flickering log-fire, and Helen's shadow loomed up on the opposite wall as she rushed across the room and opened the door.
The gray light of dawn was just spreading across the lake, but the girl noticed only one thing, her husband's swiftly moving figure. She rushed to him, and as he heard her, he turned and stared at her an instant as if dazed, and then staggered with a cry into her arms. "David, David!" she exclaimed, "what is the matter?" Then as she clasped him to her she found that his body was trembling convulsively, and that his hand as she took it was hot like fire; she called to him again in yet greater anxiety: "David, David! What is it? You will kill me if you treat me so!"
He answered her weakly, "Nothing, dear, nothing," and she caught him to her, and turned and half carried him into the house. She staggered into a chair with him, and then sat gazing in terror at his countenance. For the man's forehead was burning and moist, and his frame was shaking and broken; he was completely prostrated by the fearful agitation that had possessed him. Helen cried to him once more, but he could only pant, "Wait, wait," and sink back and let his head fall upon her arm; he lay with his eyes closed, breathing swiftly, and shuddering now and then. "It was God!" he panted with a sudden start, his voice choking; "He has shown me His face! He has set me free!"
Then again for a long time he lay with heaving bosom, Helen whispering to him pleadingly, "David, David!" As he opened his eyes, the girl saw a wonderful look upon his face; and at last he began speaking, in a low, shaking voice, and pausing often to catch his breath: "Oh, Helen," he said, "it is all gone, but I won, and my life's prayer has not been for nothing! I was never so lost, so beaten; but all the time there was a voice in my soul that cried to me to fight,--that there was glory enough in God's home for even me! And oh, to-night it came--it came!"
David sank back, and there was a long silence before he went on: "It was wonderful, Helen," he whispered, "there has come nothing like it to me in all my life; for I had never drunk such sorrow before, never known such fearful need. It seems as if all the pent-up forces of my nature broke loose in one wild, fearful surge, as if there was a force behind me like a mighty, driving storm, that swept me on and away, beyond self and beyond time, and out into the life of things. It was like the surging of fierce music, it was the great ocean of the infinite bursting its way into my heart. And it bore me on, so that I was mad with it, so that I knew not where I was, only that I was panting for breath, and that I could bear it no more and cried out in pain!"
David as he spoke had been lifting himself, the memory of his vision taking hold of him once more; but then he sank down again and whispered, "Oh, I have no more strength, I can do no more; but it was God, and I am free!"
He lay trembling and breathing fast again, but sinking back from his effort and closing his eyes exhaustedly. After a long time he went on in a faint voice, "I suppose if I had lived long ago that would have been a vision of God's heaven; and yet there was not an instant of it--even when I fell down upon the ground and when I struck my hands upon the stones because they were numb and burning--when I did not know just what it was, the surging passion of my soul flung loose at last! It was like the voices of the stars and the mountains, that whisper of that which is and which conquers, of That which conquers without sound or sign; Helen, I thought of that wonderful testament of Pascal's that has haunted me all my lifetime,--those strange, wild, gasping words of a soul gone mad with awe, and beyond all utterance except a cry,--'Joy, joy, tears of joy!' And I thought of a still more fearful story, I thought that it must have been such thunder-music that rang through the soul of the Master and swept Him away beyond scorn and pain, so that the men about Him seemed like jeering phantoms that He might scatter with His hand, before the glory of vision in which it was all one to live or die. Oh, it is that which has brought me my peace! God needs not our help, but only our worship; and beside His glory all our guilt is nothing, and there is no madness like our fear. And oh, if we can only hold to that and fight for it, conquer all temptation and all pain--all fear because we must die, and cease to be--"
The man had clenched his hands again, and was lifting himself with the wild look upon his countenance; he seemed to the girl to be delirious, and she was shuddering, half with awe and half with terror. She interrupted him in a sudden burst of alarm: "Yes, yes,--but David, David, not now, not now--it is too much--you will kill yourself!"
"I can die," he panted, "I can die, but I cannot ever be mastered again, never again be blind! Oh, Helen, all my life I have been lost and beaten--beaten by my weakness and my fear; but this once, this once I was free, this once I knew, and I lived; and now I can die rejoicing! Listen to me, Helen; while I am here there can be no more delaying,--no more weakness! Such sin and doubt as that of yesterday must never conquer my soul again, I will not any more be at the mercy of chance. I love you, Helen, God knows that I love you with all my soul; and this much for love I will do, if God spares me a day,--take you, and tear the heart out of you, if need be, but only teach you to live, teach you to hold by this Truth. It is a fearful thing, Helen; it is madness to me to know that at any instant I may cease to be, and that you may be left alone in your terror and your weakness. Oh, look at me,--look at me! There is no more tempting fate, there is no more shirking the battle--there is life, there is life to be lived! And it calls to you now,--_now!_ And now you must win,--cost just what it may in blood and tears! You have the choice between that and ruin, and before God you shall choose the right! Listen to me, Helen--it is only prayer that can do it, it is only by prayer that you can fight this fearful battle--bring before you this truth of the soul, and hold on to it,--hold on to it tho it kill you! For He was through all the ages, His glory is of the skies; and we are but for an instant, and we have to die; and this we must know, or we are lost! There comes pain, and calls you back to fear and doubt; and you fight--oh, it is a cruel fight, it is like a wild beast at your vitals,--but still you hold on--you hold on!"
The man had lifted himself with a wild effort, his hands clenched and his teeth set. He had caught the girl's hands in his, and she screamed in fear: "David, David! You will kill yourself!"
"Yes, yes!" he answered, and rushed on, chokingly; "it is coming just so; for I have just force enough left to win--just force enough to save you,--and then it will rend this frame of mine in two! It comes like a clutch at my heart--it blinds me, and the sky seems to turn to fire----"
He sank back with a gasp; Helen caught him to her bosom, exclaiming frantically, "Oh, David, spare me--wait! Not now--you cannot bear it--have mercy!"
He lay for a long time motionless, seemingly half dazed; then he whispered faintly, "Yes, dear, yes; let us wait. But oh, if you could know the terror of another defeat, of sinking down and letting one's self be bound in the old chains--I must not lose, Helen, I dare not fail!"
"Listen, David," whispered Helen, beginning suddenly with desperate swiftness; "why should you fail? Why can you not listen to me, pity me, wait until you are strong? You have won, you will not forget--and is there no peace, can you not rest in this faith, and fear no more?" The man seemed to Helen to be half out of his mind for the moment; she was trying to manage him with a kind of frenzied cunning. As she went on whispering and imploring she saw that David's exhaustion was gradually overcoming him more and more, and that he was sinking farther and farther back from his wild agitation. At last after she had continued thus for a while he closed his eyes and began breathing softly. "Yes, dear," he whispered; "yes; I will be quiet. There has come to my soul to-night a peace that is not for words; I can be still, and know that He is God, and that He is holy."
His voice dropped lower each instant, the girl in the meantime soothing him and stroking his forehead and pleading with him in a shuddering voice, her heart wild with fright. When at last he was quite still, and the fearful vision, that had been like a nightmare to her, was gone with all its storm and its madness, she took him upon her lap, just as she had done before, and sat there clasping him in her arms while the time fled by unheeded. It was long afterwards--the sun was gleaming across the lake and in at the window--before at last her trembling prayer was answered, and he sank into an exhausted slumber.
She sat watching him for a long time still, quite white with fear and weariness; finally, however, she rose, and carrying the frail body in her arms, laid it quietly upon the sofa in the next room. She knelt watching it for a time, then went out upon the piazza, closing the door behind her.
And there the fearful tension that the dread of wakening him had put upon her faculties gave way at last, and the poor girl buried her face in her hands, and sank down, sobbing convulsively: "Oh, God, oh, God, what can I do, how can I bear it?" She gazed about her wildly, exclaiming, "I cannot stand it, and there is no one to help me! What _can_ I do?"
Perhaps it was the first real prayer that had ever passed Helen's lips; but the burden of her sorrow was too great just then for her to bear alone, even in thought. She leaned against the railing of the porch with her arms stretched out before her imploringly, her face uplifted, and the tears running down her cheeks; she poured out one frantic cry, the only cry that she could think of:--"Oh, God, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me! I cannot bear it!"
So she sobbed on, and several minutes passed, but there came to her no relief; when she thought of David, of his breaking body and of his struggling soul, it seemed to her as if she were caught in the grip of a fiend, and that no power could save her. She could only clasp her hands together and shudder, and whisper, "What shall I do, what shall I do?"
Thus it was that the time sped by; and the morning sun rose higher in front of her, and shone down upon the wild and wan figure that seemed like a phantom of the night. She was still crouching in the same position, her mind as overwrought and hysterical as ever, when a strange and unexpected event took place, one which seemed to her at first in her state of fright like some delusion of her mind.
Except for her own emotion, and for the faint sound of the waves upon the shore, everything about her had been still; her ear was suddenly caught, however, by the noise of a footstep, and she turned and saw the figure of a man coming down the path from the woods; she started to her feet, gazing in surprise.
It was broad daylight then, and Helen could see the person plainly; she took only one glance, and reeled and staggered back as if it were a ghost at which she was gazing. She crouched by a pillar of the porch, trembling like a leaf, and scarcely able to keep her senses, leaning from side to side and peering out, with her whole attitude expressive of unutterable consternation, and even fright. At last when she had gazed until it was no longer possible for her to think that she was the victim of madness, she stared suddenly up into the air, and caught her forehead in her hands, at the same time whispering to herself in an almost fainting voice: "Great heaven, what can it mean? Can it be real--can it be true? _It is Arthur!_"