"Giorno d' orrore.”
WHEELS rolled away in the distance ; the corner of a gray cloak fluttered where the drive turns down hill. From under the fore-wheel of Juggernaut I struggled back to life with a great sob, that died before it sounded. I looked about the library for some staff to help me to my feet again. The porphyry vases were filled with gorgeous boughs, leaves of deep scarlet, speckled, flushed, goldspotted, rimmed with green, dashed with orange, tawny and crimson, bloodsprinkled, faint clear amber ; all hues and combinations of color rioted and revelled in the crowded clusters. To what hand but hers could so much beauty have gathered? to what eye but hers did the magnificent secrets of Nature reveal themselves, so that out of a whole forest her careless straying hand should bring only its culminating glories, its most perfect results, whether of leaf or flower or fruit. For in an urn of tintless alabaster, that had lain centuries in the breathless dust and gloom of an Egyptian tomb, that hand had set a sheaf of gentians, every fringed cup blue as the wild river when a noon sky tints it, or as the vaulted azure of a June midnight on the edge of the Milky Way, —a sheaf no Ceres owned, no foodfull garner coveted, but the satiating aliment of beauty, fresh as if God that hour had pronounced them good, and set his signmanual upon each delicate tremulous petal, that might have been sapphire, save for its wistful translacence. And on the teapoy in the window stood two dainty baskets of clean willow, in which we had that day brought home chestnuts from the wood;—mine was full of nuts, but they were small and angular and worm-eaten, as the fruitage of a wet season might well be ; hers scantily freighted, but every nut round, full, and glossy, perfect from its cruel husk, a specimen, a type of its kind. And on the handle of the basket hung a little kid glove. I looked at it closely ; the tiny finger-tops and oval nails had left light creases on the delicate leather, and an indescribable perfume, in which violet predominated, drove away the vile animal scent that pervades such gloves. I flung it on the fire.
All about the room lay books that were not of my culling, from the oak cases, whose every door stood ajar, — novels innumerable, — “The Arabian Nights,” Vaughan’s “ Silex Scintillans,” with a scarlet leaf laid in against “ Peace,” and “ Tennyson ” turned on its face at “ Fatima,” a heavy volume of French moral philosophy, a Methodist hymnbook, Sir Thomas Browne’s “Hydriotaphia,” and a gilded red-bound history of “ Five Little Pigs.”
I rang the bell, and ordered all the books to be gathered up and put into an old bookcase, long banished to a dark attic. I walked to the fire and leaned my head against the mantel. The embers were all dead ; in the gray ashes was the print of a little foot, whose arched instep had left no trace between the light track of the small heel and the deeper impression that the slender toe had left. That footprint told the secret of her airy motion, —that step so akin to flight, that on an overhanging mountain-ledge I had more than once held my breath, looking to see her extended wings float over the silent tree-tops below, or longed to grasp her carelessly trailed shawl, that I might detain her upon earth. To me the track had yet another language. An hour before, as I stood there beside her, the bitter passion of a man solitary and desperate shaking every faculty before the level rays of her scornful eye, she had set her embroidered slipper in the ashes, and said,—Look ! I leave a print there which the first breath of air shall dissipate ; all fire becomes ashes, and ashes blow away,”—and so left me. I stood before the fire, that had been, still looking at that foot-mark ; my brain was stunned and stupid, my heart beat slow and loud ; I knew nothing, I felt nothing, I was nothing. Presently a bell rang.
The world is full of magicians, transformations, magnetic miracles, juggling, chemical astonishments, moral gymnastics, hypocrisies, lies of wonder,— but what is so strange, so marvellous, so inexplicable, as the power of conventions ? One minute found me tempting the blackness of darkness, every idea astray and reeling, every emotion benumbed ; the next, a bell rang, and I went to the tea-table, sat in my own place, answered my mother’s questions, resumed the politenesses and habits of daily life, seemed to be myself to those who had known me always,—ate, drank, jested,— was a man,—no more the trodden ashes under a girl’s foot, no longer the sport of a girl’s cool eye, no slave, no writhing idolater under the car-wheel ; and this lasted—half an hour ! You have seen the horses of Pharaoh following the glittering sand-track of the Judæan host, walled in with curling beryl battlements, over whose crests the white seafoam dares no more laugh and threaten ? You know those curved necks clothed with strength, the bent head whose nostrils flare with pride, the tossed and waving mane, the magnificent grace of the nervous shoulder, the great, intelligent, expectant eyes ? Suddenly the roar of waves at the farther shore ! Look at that head ! strong and quiet no more; terror erects the quivering ears; the nostril sinks and contracts with fear ; the eye glares and glances from side to side, mad with prescient instinct ; the corded veins that twist forkedly from the lip upward swell to the utmost tension of the fine skin ; that sweeping mane rises in rough undulations, the forelock is tossed back, the shoulder grows rigid with horror, the chest rises with a long indrawn breath of dismay. Horrible beyond all horrid sounds, the yell of a horse in mortal fear. Do you hear it? No,— it is a picture,—the picture of a moment between one animal that sees the impending fate, and another that has not yet caught it ; — it is human that such moments interpose between two oceans of agony, that man can momentarily control the rush of a sea which the brute must yield to.—So the sea rushed back.
All night long, all the long night ! — long as lifetimes are, measured with slowdropping arteries that drip away living blood. Once I watched by a dying woman ; wild October rains poured without, but all unheard; in the dim-lit room, scented with quaint odors of lackered cases and chests of camphor-wood, heavy with perfumes that failed to revive, and hushed with whispers of hopeless comment, that delicate frame and angelic face, which the innumerable lines of age could only exalt and sweeten, shivered with the frosts of death ; every breath was a sob ; every sigh, anguish ; the terrible restlessness of the struggle between soul and body in their parting writhed in every limb ;—but there were no words other than broken cries of prayer, only half-heard on earth, till at length the tender, wistful eyes unclosed, and in a hoarse whisper, plaintive beyond expression, full of a desolate and immortal weariness, bearing a conviction of eternity and exhaustion that words cannot hope to utter, she said, “ Will it never be morning ?” And so this night stayed its pace; my room grew narrow and low ; the ceiling pressed on my head ; the walls forever clasped me, yet receded ever as I paced the floor ; the floor fell in strange waves under me,—yet I walked steadily, up and down, up and down ! Still the night stayed. Fever set its hurried pulses fleeting like wild-fire through every vein ; a band of hot iron pressed above my eyes ;—but these were adjuncts; the curse consumed me within. In every moment I heard those calm and fatal words, “I do not love you,” sounding clear and sweet through the dull leaden air of night, — an air full of ghostly sounds, sighs about the casements, creaking stairs, taps at the window, light sounds of feet in the long hall below ; all falling heedless on my ear, for my ghost walked and talked with me, a ghastly reality, the galvanized corpse of a murdered life.
Still the night stayed. A weight of lead pressed on my brain and concentrated it to frantic power ; the months in which I had known her, the only months I could call life, came back to me inch by inch, grain by grain. I recalled our first meeting,—the sudden springing into acquaintance,— the sympathetic power that had transfused those cold blue eyes into depths of tenderness and pity,—the gay and genial manner that aroused and charmed me, —the scornful lip that curled at the world for its Worldliness,— that fresh imagination, which, like the spirit of frost, decked the commonest things with beauty ; and I recalled those early letters that had passed between us,—mine, insipid enough,— hers, piquant, graphic, refined, tender, delicately passionate, sparkling, full of lofty thought and profound feeling. Good God ! could she not have taken my heart, and wrung it, and thrown it away, under some more commonplace pretext than the profaned name of Friendship? Her friend! It is true I had called myself her friend ; I had been strenuous in the nomenclature to quiet my own conscience, —to satisfy her conventional scruples ; but had she no instinct to interpret the pretence ? What friend ever lived on every look, studied every phrase, watched every action and expression, was so torn with jealousy and racked with doubt, bore so humbly with caprices, and forgave every offence so instantly and utterly,— nay, was scarce conscious that anything her soul entertained could be an offence, could be wrong ? Friendship !—ah, that deity is calm and serene ; that firm lip and pale cheek do not flush with apprehension or quiver with passion ; that tranquil eye does not shine with anything but quiet tears. Rather call the dusky and dark-haired Twilight, whose pensive face is limned against the western hills, by the name of that fierce and fervid Noon that stands erect under the hot zenith, instinct with the red blood of a thousand summers, casting her glittering tresses abroad upon the south-wind, and holding in her hands the all-unfolded rose of life. And if I was only her friend, was that a reason why she should permit in me the thousand intimacies of look and caress that are the novitiate of love ? Was it a friend’s calm duty to give me her tiny hand to hold in mine, that I might fold and unfold the rosy fingers, and explore the white dimples that were its ornamenting gems,—to rest her tired head against my shoulder, even,—watching all day by the chair where pain, life-long ministrant, held me on the rack?—was it only friendly that she should press her soft little mouth to mine, and soothe me into quiet as a mother soothes her last, her dearest child ? No ! no ! no ! never could that be ! She knew, she had known, that I loved her ! Deliberate cruelty outlined those lovely lips ; every statue-like moulding of that proud face told the hard and unrelenting nature of the soul within. God forgive her !—the exclamation escaped me unaware, and recoiled in a savage exultation that such treachery had no forgiveness in heaven or on earth, —one gleam of desperate satisfaction in that black night. But in its light, what new madness seized me ? I had held her stainless and holy, intact of evil or deceit; what was she now ? My whole brain reeled ; the foundations were taken away ; earth and heaven met ; even as when the West forges tempest and lightning-bolts upon its melancholy hills, brooding and muttering hour by hour, till at length the livid gloom rushes upward against sun and stars, and the blackening sky shuts down upon the blackened earth, cowering at the shock, and the torrents and flames are let loose upon their prey, — so an accumulated storm of unutterable agony flung wave on wave above me, wrecked and alone.
Still the night stayed ; the black mass of forest that swept up the hill-side stood in mystical gloom, in silence that could be felt ; when at once,—not suddenly,— as if the night could forbear no more, but must utter some chord with the culmination of midnight horrors, a bird uttered one sharp cry, desolate utterly, hopeless, concentred, as if a keen blade parted its heart and the outraged life within remonstrated and despaired,—despaired not of life, for still the note repeated its monotone, but of death, of period to its pangs. That cry entered into my brain ; it was unjust of Nature so to taunt me, so to express where I was speechless ; yet I could not shut it out. A pitiful chill of flesh and sense seized me ; I was cold,— oh, how cold ! — the fevered veins crept now in sluggish ice ; sharp thrills of shivering rigor racked me from head to foot ; pain had dulled its own capacity ; wrapped in every covering my room afforded, with blunted perceptions, and a dreadful consciousness of lost vitality, which, even when I longed to die, appalled me with the touch of death’s likeness, I sunk on the floor,— and it was morning !
Morning !—“ a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains ! ” A pale sun lit the earth, but earth and sky were black,—no sun touched me in heart or eye ; I saw nothing, felt nothing, but heavy and impenetrable gloom. Yet again the ceremonies of life prevailed, and my real life slept undiscovered. Whatever pallor or shadow lined my face was no stranger there at that hour. The gray morning passed away ; the village on the hill sent down busy sounds of labor and cheer ; flies buzzed on the sunny pane, doors clicked and slammed in the house, fires crackled behind the shining fire-dogs. I went to the library,—the first breath of air had— dissipated it ! What a mockery ! I went away,—out of the house,—on, anywhere. Dry leaves rustled in my path and sent up a faint aromatic breath as they were crushed in the undried dew ; squirrels chattered in the wood ; here and there a dropping nut stirred the silence with deliberate fall, or an unseen grouse whirred through the birches at my approaching step. The way was trodden and led me by gradual slope and native windings through the dull red oaks downward to the river. Once on the path, a low cluster of sweet fern attracted me;—strange assertion of human personality, that in the deepest grief a man knows and notices the trivial features of Nature with microscopic fidelity !—that the vcining of a leaf or the pencilling of a blossom will attract the eye that no majesty or beauty of unwonted manifestation could light with one appreciative spark ! Is it that the injured and indignant soul so vindicates its own essential and divine strength, and says, unconsciously, to the most uncontrolled anguish, “ There is in me a life no mortal accident can invade ; the breath of God is not altogether extinct in any blast of man’s devising ; shake, torture, assault the outer tenement,—darken its avenues with fire to stifle, and drench its approaches with seas to drown,—there is that within that God alone can vanquish,— yours is but a finite terror” ? Half-crazed as I was, the fern-bed attracted me, as I said, and I flung myself wearily down on the leaves, whose healing and soothing odor stole up like a cloud all about me ; and I lay there in the sun, noting with pertinacious accuracy every leaf or bloom that was within the range of sight,—the dark green leaves of the wax-flower springing from their red stem, veined and threaded with creamy white, stiff and quaint in form and growth,— the bending sprays of goldenrod that bowed their light and brittle stems over me, swaying gently to and fro in the gentle wind,—the tiny scarlet cups of moss that held a little drop of dew brimming over their rims of fire, a spark in the ashy gray moss-beds where they stood,—the shrinking and wan woodasters, branched out widely, but set with meagre bloom,— every half-tint of the lichens, that scantily fed from the relentless granite rock, yet clung to its stem face with fearless persistence,—the rough seams and velvet green moss-tufts of the oak-trunks, — the light that pierced the dingy hue of oak-leaves with vivid and informing crimson : all these stamped themselves on my mind with inevitable minuteness ; the great wheel of Fate rolled over me, and I bore the marks even of its ornamental rim ; the grooves in its tire left traces of its track.
At length the minuteness of Nature oppressed me. The thousand odors, spicy, acrid, aromatic, honeyed, that an autumnal dew expressed from every herb, through that sense that is the slave of association, recalled my youth, my boyhood, the free and careless hours I knew no more, when, on just such mornings of hazy and splendid autumns, I had just so lain on the fern-beds, heedless of every beauty that haunted the woods, full of fresh life, rejoicing in dog and gun and rod as no man ever rejoices in titledeeds or stocks or hoarded gold. The reminiscence stung me to the quick ; I could endure no more. Rising, I went on, and through the oak-wood came to the brink of the river, and in a vague weariness sat down upon the massive waterwall, and looked over into the dark brown stream. It was deep below me ; a little above were clear shallows, where the water-spider pursued its toil of no result, and cast upon the yellow sand beneath a shadow that was not a shadow, but, refracted from the broken surface, spots of glittering light, clustered like the diamonds of a brooch, separate, yet linked, and tremulously bright. This, also, did I note ; but below my feet the river flowed darker and more deeply, darkness and depth broken only by the glancing fins of little fishes, that slanted downward, catching a gleam as they went. No other light pierced the sullen, apprehensive flood that rolled past in tranquil gloom, leaden from the skies above, and without ripple or fall to break its glassy quiet. Beside the wall grew a witch-hazel ; in my vague grasp at outside objects I saw it, full of wrinkled and weird bloom, as if the golden fleece had strayed thereby, and caught upon the ungainly twigs of the scragged bush, and left glittering curled threads in flecked bunches scattered on every branch ; the strange spell-sweet odor of the flowers struck me before I saw them, and the whole expression of their growth affected me with helpless admiration, so brave as it was !—defying all Autumn to daunt the immortal Spring ever surviving in its soul,—here, on October’s edge, putting out its freshness and perfume, as if seasons were an accident, and circumstance a chimera,—as if will, good-will, will to be of strength and cheer, were potent enough to laugh at Nature, and trust the God-given consciousness within, whatever adverse fate ruled and triumphed without. Not that all these ideas came to me then, else perhaps I had been spared that morning’s experience ; but they entered my brain as lightning is sometimes said to enter a tree and stamp some image from without upon its heart, thereafter to bo revealed by the hewing axe and the persistent saw. No! I sat by the river and looked down into its dark serenity, and again the horror of the past day swept over me with fresh force. Could I live ? The unswerving river lay before me ; in its bed nothing stirred ; neither pang nor passion in those chill depths could utter a cry ; there she could not come; there was rest. I did not yield ; oh, no, I did not yield ! I resisted, —passively. I laid hold upon the eternal fact that there was a God ; the blind and blank universe spun about me ; its pillars of support Wavered like waterspouts ; all that I had ever believed or loved whirled up and down in one howling chaos, and circled through all space in clouds of dust and floating atoms ; but through all I knew there was a God,—feel it I could not, neither did I see nor did one of Nature’s tongues spell me the lesson, —I only knew it. And I did not, no, I did not rush before Him ; but I lay at the bottom of the river.
I have heard it said that drowning persons recall, as by a sudden omniscience, all their past lives, as soon as the water closes above them and the first shock of horror is past. It was not so with me. I remembered nothing beyond the events of the past week ; but, by some strange action of the mind, as soon as the gasping sense of an unnatural element passed away, my thoughts went forward. l became, as it were, another man ; and above me on the bank I saw calmly the stone where my living double had left his cripple’s cane, and thought to myself for one sharp moment, “Fool!”—for I looked forward. If I had not drowned,—that was the key-note of the theme. Something that was me and was not me rose up from the water-wall and went away, — a man racked and broken by a great sorrow, it is true, but a man conscious of God. Life had turned its darkest page for him, but there was the impassable fact that it was the darkest ; no further depths remained to dread ; the worst had come, and he looked it in the face and studied it ; suffer he might, but with full knowledge of every agony. Life had been wrecked, but living remained. Calmly he took up the cripple’s cane and went home ; the birds sang no song,—after tempests they do not sing until the sun shines, — neither did the blossoms give him any greeting. Nature wastes no trivialities on such grief ; the mother, whose child comes in to her brokenlimbed and wounded, does not give it sugar-plums and kisses, but waits in silence till the surgeon has done his kindly and appalling office,—then, it may be, she sings her boy to sleep !
But this man took up life again and conquered it. Home grew about him into serenity and cheer ; as from the roots of a felled tree a thousand verdant offshoots spring, tiny in stature, but fresh and vivid in foliage, so out of this beheaded love arose a crowd of sweet affections and tender services that made the fraternity of man seem possible, and illustrated the pervasive care of God. He went out into life, and from a heart wrung with all man can endure, and a brain tested in the fire, spoke burning and fluent words of strength and consolation to hundreds who, like him, had suffered, but were sinking under what he had borne. And these words carried in them a reviving virtue. Men blessed him silently, and women sang him in their hearts as they sing hymns of prayer. Honors clustered about him as mosses to a rock ; Fame relented, and gave him an aurcole in place of a crown ; and Love, late, but sweeter than sweet, like the last sun-ripened fruit of autumn, made honors and fame alike endurable. This man conquered, and triumphed in the victory.
I held out my hand in that water and touched—a skeleton ! What ! had any other man preceded me ? I looked at it; it was the water-washed frame of a horse,—brutes together ! And death was at hand; the grasp tightened on my breast with that acrid sense of weight and suffocation that the redundant blood suffusing the lungs must needs produce. " The soul of the brute goeth downward.” Coward ! what might not life have been ? and I had lost it ! — lost it for the sting of a honey-bee !—for the contempt of a woman ! Every magnificent possibility, every immortal power, every hope of a future, tantalizing in its grand mystery, all lost! What if that sweeping starseraph that men call a comet, speeding through heaven in its lonely splendor, with nitent head, and pinions trailing with the very swiftness and strength of its onward flight, should shudder from its orbit, fling into star-strewn space its calm and awful glory, and go crashing down into the fury and blackness of chaos, carrying with it wrecks of horror, and the yelling fragments of spheres no longer choral, but smitten with the lawless stroke of a creature regardless of its Creator, an orb that made its solitary fate, and carried across the order and the law of God ruin and wreck embodied ?
And I had a soul ;—I had flung it away ; I had set my will up for my destiny, and the one had worked out the other. But had I ? When that devilish suggestion came to me on the bank, did I entertain it ? Have I not said haw I grasped at the great idea of a God, and held it with a death-gripe in the midst of assault ? How did I come in the water? I did not plunge nor fall. No shock of horror chilled me ; no remembrance of a voluntary assent to the Tempter could I recall. I was there, it was true ; but was I guilty ? Did I, in the eyes of any watching angel, consciously cast my life, brittle and blind as it was, away in that fashion ? In the water, helpless now for any effort after upper air, side by side with the fleshless anatomy of a brute, over-sailed by gray fishes with speckled sides, whose broad, unwinking eyes glared at me with maddening shine and stare,—oppressed, and almost struggling, yet all unable to achieve the struggle with the curdling blood that gorged every vein and air-cell with the hurried rush of death,—did I go out of this life red with the sin of murder ? Did I commit suicide ?
Who knows ?