The End of Desire

I.

HE had had many strong desires in his life, and God had given him joy of his desires in full measure, more than is the fortune of most men. Being an animal healthy in all parts, he had known the keen zest of appetite, and he had never become sated, using himself and his pleasures wisely with the instinctive restraint of uncorrupt blood. Nevertheless he had turned hither and thither, back and forth upon the earth, on the pleasant errands of this life, and each avenue trod by him touched a new vista of quick desires. There was no end to joy.

He had dealt kindly with whomsoever he had crossed in the pursuit of his manifold desires, — of that kindness, born of good food and drink well digested, that takes pleasure in the giving of it and believes that all men thirst alike for joy. Moreover, from the beginning, he had done the work appointed for him, and he had done it with a cheerful will. That little was asked of his hands was beyond his concern. He accomplished his tasks joyfully, and an easy labor yielded abundance, even riches. Thus states and climates furnished him with their best delights; the cycle of the year was too brief to hold them all.

Hence it follows that he was much loved and envied, placed high in the esteem of other men, and given of their best in matter and spirit. The enjoyment of this pleasant fortune caused him, at rare moments, even to envy himself, and to wonder that the sojourn on this earth, ill-spoken of by many, should have offered such a smiling face to him. But this rarely; for he was not given to reflection. To live, with him, was to desire,and to desire was to satisfy. Thus he lived in an unbroken circle, and regret was pushed ever further away, beyond the distant years.

So it went with him for a long time. Then one day he fell ill of a fever, and woke to find himself in the neat, cool room of a hospital. He could remember nothing since the day he had walked last in the city with some friends, and he called the nurse to him to question her. His eye happening to rest upon his hand, which lay white and nerveless beside him, he demanded a mirror. The nurse held one before his face, for he could not stretch forth his arm to take it; and against the glassy surface of the mirror he saw a strange man, one with deep, sunken, misty eyes, pallid face, and shrunken neck. A long, thick mustache drooped heavily at either side of the sunken mouth.

He would have turned himself to the wall but lacked the strength. Within the hard surface of the mirror there had lurked an image, pale and wan: he knew that he had seen the end of desire! So he lay in the bare and silent room, his eyes fastened to the distant ceiling. When the doctor came and found him lying with vacant eyes at rest upon the ceiling, he greeted the sick man jovially, and pressed his hand with friendly warmth.

“We shall have you out soon! ” he exclaimed.

But the sick man, his eye falling on his thin hand in the doctor’s powerful fist, remarked indifferently, —

“It seems very empty.”

“What — your stomach?” joked the doctor.

“No, no; my arm. Can’t you see? Are you empty, too, doctor ? ”

“You must sleep,” the doctor responded hastily.

“I am not tired,” the sick man answered. “ I seem to have slept a great deal. But I am empty, — like a vast jar, a cool and quiet jar.”

The doctor smiled, and glanced at the patient’s chart.

“And this room is empty! ” the sick man continued. “The shadows stalk back and forth across the ceiling, and the air dances. Do you not feel how empty it is? Are the streets and the town outside, also, empty ? ”

But the doctor had slipped away with a word to the nurse.

The patient lay in the pleasant silence of the empty room and thought of nothing, for a number of days, content with the ceiling and the empty shadows, neither asking questions nor heeding those about him. The shrunken frame began to fill once more with flesh and blood, but the eye remained within the arbor of the dark brows and would not look forth.

One night, as he lay there awake, neither thinking nor dreaming, he heard from the corridor a groan, and later another sorrowful groan.

“Some one is dying,” he said to himself calmly.

A nurse passed through the corridor, opened and closed a door, and again the hours began broodingly their travel toward the dawn. Just as the gray light was coming over the ceiling the nurse entered the room.

“Some one has died? ” he asked.

The pale and weary girl started at the question and dropped the glass she held.

“Some one has just died? ” he repeated tranquilly. “You have been with him while he died, and have just now come from him ? ”

“Yes,” she admitted, the tears starting from her eyes. “Yes, another one to-night. And to-morrow, that is to-day, there will be another, — many, many others. It is — awful.”

She bent her tired head upon her arm and rested beside the window; her tears flowed gently.

“ Why do you care ? ” the sick man asked coldly. “They are content, no doubt. ”

“ They are somebody’s children, ” she answered softly. “Somebody’s fathers or mothers. They might be mine! ”

In the dawn by the open window he could see her figure tremble.

“ So you have a father and a mother, ” he observed idly. “ Where are they ? ”

“At home, very far away.”

Her little story was soon told. They were poor in the home “very far away, ” and she had left them two years before to come to the city for work. She had longed to see the city! It was very wonderful, all said; but, fearful and shy, she had seen it only from the high windows of the hospital. And the desire to see the city was swallowed up now in the greater desire to see her home again, to fulfill which she saved the meagre dollars of her wage.

“When will you go back? Soon? ” he asked politely.

“ Maybe in another year, if I am lucky, ” she answered with a sigh, and dragged herself from the window where she leaned.

“Why don’t they come for you and take you home? ”

“All they have to live upon is what I send them, week by week, and that is — little.”

At last he asked : “ You desire it very much ? To go home ? To see them again ? ”

“Oh! ” She gave a little aspiring sigh. “Do you know the country? Where we live among the mountains there are tall blue peaks, and still valleys, and great forests.”

“Some desolate spot in the backwoods hills,” he said to himself, “where the frogs answer one another in the creek, and the flies buzz all day long. ”

“In the spring,” she continued, her eyes flashing, all weariness gone, “the mountains are covered with purple flowers. They run like flames up and down the valley. And some morning you see in the mist on the hillsides the pinky branches of the peach trees. They are like the dresses of a queen, so gay and pink.”

Her words stirred the man’s memories of forgotten scenes, — tropical twilights, nights on the Alps, a great dawn in the midst of the sea, — old pictures that once filled his heart with joy and wonder, but that hung now like paintings out of fashion in the disused galleries of his soul.

“You are overworked,” he observed when she was silent, dreaming of that valley home. “Get me my things,” he ordered suddenly; “my watch and purse. They have hidden them away in that drawer behind the door.”

The little nurse brought his watch and purse, fingering in childish wonder the long, thin chain and the many rings and seals.

“It is very beautiful! ” she murmured.

He took the heavy pocket-book from her, and with trembling fingers emptied it upon the bed. His hand fastened upon a sheaf of bank notes.

“ They look very old and yellow, ” he mused, fingering the bills with curiosity. “I must have lain here asleep a long time! I remember getting them at the bank the day before I became ill. They were bright and crisp enough then! ” he laughed. “Here,” he exclaimed excitedly, almost roughly, “ take this and go at once — to-day. You can go to-day, can’t you? ”

He thrust a thin, yellowish bill toward the little nurse. She drew back, as if frightened by his rude energy, and the ready tears came to her eyes.

“You are good! So very good. But I cannot take it.”

She covered her eyes with her fingers, lest the yellow bank note might tempt her sight.

“Why not? why not?” he panted. “ It’s enough, is n’t it ? I mean enough to take you there to the land’s end where the flowers grow all over the mountains ? And you want to go, don’t you ? You said you’ve wanted for two years to go home. Two years ! My God ! To want anything for two years! What a chance!”

She still drew away from his outthrust hand which held the trembling bill.

“I cannot take your money, no matter how much — I want it, ” she gasped.

“It is nothing,child, ” he urged. “A bit of paper with marks printed on its face. You see there are others like it, — and I want none of them. Come! It will take you there to the wonderful mountains and back, and you can get some presents for your people. You must take them something, of course.”

He urged his gift gently, pleadingly :

“It is only a bit of paper, a pass,” he said; “and it is no good at all unless you are the right one, the one meant to have it, and then it unlocks everything. I think you are the one meant, — it is your pass, — and it is no longer good for me,” he ended with something like a groan. “So take your pass while you can use it.”

Still she held back.

“Child,” he pleaded further. “Do this to give me a bit of joy. There is nothing in this wide, wide world I want as you have wanted this for two years. Just think of it! Perhaps you could make me believe I was going, too, — make me believe I wanted to go. So, child, you see it ’s nothing but a kind deed to me.”

The face of the little nurse worked nervously. She let her fingers fall from before her eyes, and looked eagerly at the magic strip of paper. It seemed to bring all the things she had longed for most and had seen afar off within the touch of her hand. Her cheeks flushed with desire.

“And, child,” the man added, perceiving some possible woman’s motive in this hesitation, “you need not think that I give it. It is your pass, and it has dropped from heaven in your path this fine spring morning. God, up aloft there, has felt the passion of your desire and answered it. Not that I am the kind of messenger God might choose ordinarily, ” he hastened to add with a whimsical smile. “But they say He uses strange messengers sometimes. And, at the worst, this messenger will not harm you, my child.”

He patted her dubious hand eneouragingly and smiled up at her. The quick-coming, irresistible desires flushed her face, and left her speechless. Suddenly she fell upon her knees beside the bed and kissed the man’s hand and cried childish tears of joy and pain.

“Tut, tut, child,” he said. “You make too much of it. Tell me again how the misty hills look when the peach trees blossom. . . . And, now, pull up the shade. I want to see if it is the same outdoors as always.”

She obeyed him, and with a startled face, like one in full course of a dream, went out and shut the door. The man lay in the calm room, remote from every desire, and watched the sun creep up the walls to the ceiling.

He thought that God had ordered the conditions of life very wisely, so that most of his creatures being poor and weak could get the full satisfaction of their desires only at rare moments. A two years’ longing would make sharp joy! He saw some wisdom in a world of strife and want.

II.

He lay there content for some days longer. The little nurse, with hat on her head and traveling bag in her hand, slipped into his room to say good-by, but finding his lids down, kissed his fingers gently instead. Later, men of business came to see him and asked this and suggested that; invariably he nodded his head and smiled. It seemed to him that they made much of nothing, but he was courteously grateful to them for their kindly interest in the trivial. Yet he might have remembered the days when he found some meaning in the commonest acts of the business day, and trotted back and forth among men with all the zest of a lively dog who carries a basket cleverly between his teeth.

Finally the doctor came to him, — the doctor who was his friend, — and said cheerily: —

“The spring is getting on. We must turn you out of this and pack you away to your country place, and let you watch the blossoms open. You ’re all fit, my friend, only a little burned out by that quick fever.”

Then it was arranged that he should return to his pleasant country home beyond the city, and that a young interne of the hospital should make him a long visit, to keep him company and watch over him. The day before he was to leave for good the cool, placid hospital room he was wheeled out upon the terrace beside the wing of the building that he might sniff the May tonic in the air, and gain strength before taking his journey. There, upon the terrace, he saw many patients from the public wards, convalescents, lying in long chairs or shuffling to and fro. They were dressed in motley blanket wraps, and the men were unshaved. When the stranger, gracefully dressed and freshly shaved, was wheeled among them, the convalescents stared at him with languid, invalid curiosity; and he stared back with a fleeting thought upon the irony of unequal distribution, thrusting its face among the sick and feeble.

His eyes rested upon one immovable bundle huddled in the shelter of the wall. An old, wrinkled, and painful face emerged at the top of the bundle. The man’s eyelids opened and shut automatically, and his breath came feebly with much effort. He was a consumptive.

A young girl, with a flaming bit of ribbon on her hat, had come to visit him, — doubtless a daughter. Her vivid, restless eyes followed the stranger rather than the consumptive’s bloodless face. He watched her with understanding, uncritical eyes. He knew that she turned to life and sought to avoid the look of death. Soon she went, and the stranger spoke to the consumptive.

“This is fine weather for us all,” he said.

“ It makes — no difference. It is — all the — same, ” gasped the consumptive spasmodically.

“Oh,” he replied good-naturedly, “to-morrow you will feel differently.”

“Even they say that no longer. I care not.”

“Your daughter, eh? You would not leave that pretty girl alone ” —

The consumptive’s lips trembled, and he interrupted shrilly : —

“She will go as her mother went. I cannot save her! ”

Between gasps he told his fears to the sympathetic stranger. This daughter, the sole child of a weak woman who had abandoned her and him, was now unfolding the meretricious bloom of her mother.

“But she must even take what lies inside her, ” the consumptive ended indifferently. “I can do no more now.”

“Suppose some one should take your place? Should do for the girl all that can be done ? Give her a good home and start her well ? ”

For a moment the sharp-set features of the consumptive relaxed, and his eyelids stayed open.

“She might be saved!” he whispered. “But who can do that now? ” “I! ” the stranger exclaimed. “You?” the consumptive asked wonderingly. “Why, why do you— Ah, well, I don’t know. She must suffer as all do in this life.”

The momentary passion died from his face, and he sank back numb. Soon he roused himself and said complainingly, —

“The sun has gone—I am cold. Why doesn’t some one wheel me into the sun away from this cold wall? ” The stranger moved him gently into the sunlight, perceiving that illness had mercifully simplified life for him and reduced his desires to a few that might easily be satisfied.

That night the consumptive died, in great peace, the breath fading from him easily. The stranger, as he left the hospital, asked to see the dead one. The body lay in the morgue, — a cold, white room.

“Here, again,” thought the man, while he gazed at the composed features of the corpse, “God has ordered wisely this difficult matter of breaking with life. He takes from us each desire, one by one, and leaves us with a calm vacancy of content, unmoved by the tenderest passions of our hearts. And this great gift of peace, He gives at last generously to all! ”

Nevertheless, there was the living woman to be cared for by living hands.

III.

“Spring in a pleasant land, among the trees, above a broad river! What more can man dream of ? ”

So pondered the idle invalid pacing back and forth between the tulip-beds of his garden. What more ? He carried an open letter, written in a childish scrawl. Some lines glowed and quickened his blood. “The rhododendron flames like fire over the mountainsides, and the peach blossoms are like perfumed gowns. ” It ended with a shy girl’s bit of sentiment: “I hope they will give me my old ward at the hospital: it will not be so lonely there, when I go back next month.”

The pleasant smile on his face faded quickly as he thought: “She is near the end of her candy, now, and another box will never seem so good as that one. When she goes back to the hospital round, her heart will be warm for a few days, and then she will, like all the rest, try to get enough fun to make the work go down.”

He turned to the agreeable young interne, who was also strolling in the garden. “My friend, read this and tell me what you make of the girl.”

“Ah,” the interne answered, rapidly scanning the writing, “the littledrudge, — that’s what the nurses called her. Not very clever, or attractive.”

“An unattractive, dull woman has no right to exist ? ”

“I suppose not, —ultimately the variants from the type will be extinguished. I mean that complex type we call a national ideal, — in matters of sex selection varied, but singularly tenacious. When that elimination takes place, I think ” —

“Friend,” — his host waved a hand distractedly,— “spare me. You clever youngsters describe the universe in a hideous vocabulary. You call it science, and worship it. It is a disease. My little drudge has a heart; she feels and sees things; she desires! Isn’t that better than a ripe figure and a smooth skin, — I mean for the race, my boy, for the race ? ”

The young interne smiled indulgently at his host’s foolery, and fingered a letter of his own, one of many that he received.

“Perhaps, ” continued his host, “you have daily evidence to fortify your mind against me ? ”

The young man blushed.

“Why, yes. She is beautiful, oh, so rarely beautiful, and she has a heart, too, as big as the land we live in! ” “Tell me,” his host urged gently. “I believe I am getting an interest in hearts, as a collector. Can you match my drudge ? ”

The young doctor flashed a scornful defiance at his host’s comparison, but yielded to his own wish to tell of her. She was the one most admired in the little town where he had grown up and where his parents lived. For her favor he had hoped and struggled against many competitors through the years at college. Others were richer than he, and all more light-hearted and companionable, he admitted; but he had won her away from them. Strange fortune that he related reverently ! In him she had seen something to love, and he bore his head more loftily for that. This he had known for a year.

The host refrained from asking questions, although he knew that more was behind the simple tale. Meantime he thought of the oddity of men, who strive with one another for women, and are proud to carry away the prize as at a county fair, — the prize of the hour, that must fade and grow less year by year! When this young man’s country belle had reached the ripeness of her powers, the mother of his children, would it not seem strange to him to look back and know that he had sought her, in part at least, because she had been the prize of his day? In love, it seemed, as in all else, the worth of the thing desired was largely lent to it by public esteem. So merchants stock their stores, and few customers give them the lie and refuse their goods. So brave young men strive for the Helen of their city and of their day, and count it honor to carry her away.

But he was too wise to tell his thoughts, and the young man cleared his throat and answered expectations.

“Yes, I said she had a heart! She knows I want to marry her more than anything in the world, but she wants me to go abroad and study, do that work I was telling you about the other day, and not tie myself down first.

“But I don’t know. She is n’t very happy at home, and two years is a long time, and I could start right in there at home and make a living from the first. It’s hard to tell which is best.”

Generally speaking, that was the truth, his kindly host reflected, deeply interested in the old conflict between the ideal of fame and the ideal of home. The young doctor was one of those who their elders say have “a future.” The young man knew it, and the thought of that had comforted him many a dreary day in the exclusive Eastern hospital where the unknown doctor, who had no family name that chimed when any one spoke it, had been made to feel that it was better to be born to a good name in this life, though you be a fool, than to be a genius. Now, should he demonstrate to the supercilious that he was a genius, or marry and get his comfort and happiness, which lay three hundred miles south-southwest in a little river town of Pennsylvania?

The young man’s brows knit, as his eyes searched the dark Sphinx, that knowing beast who never answers!

“I should do as she says,” the host advised cautiously. “Fame will not prick you far, but she will! ”

A revelation of existence, as the mad dance of atoms in obedience to the call of the mothers of the race, crossed his fancy. Evidently the thing to do was to dance hard, and win one of the mothers of the race at the end.

“If I could only take her over, too. But I shall have to borrow the money to take myself over, even! ”

He did not know what a temptation he was placing before his kindly host. The latter itched for his check-book; a month before, when he had spoken with the little nurse, he would have yielded inconsiderately with the crude wish to make mere joy. Now he refrained, wisely declining to interfere with the fabric of Fate until he was more sure of the result. The world hinged on that dance of atoms the young man was about to undertake, at least for the young man. It took wisdom to put a finger in the loom and reshape the fabric; and this rich man, who had seen the end of desire, began to doubt his wisdom.

So he answered gently: “We must have her here to make a visit. My sister will write to her at once.”

The young doctor’s thanks rang out joyously.

“You will make me jealous, sir, for she will like you tremendously.”

“Would you marry a woman who couldn’t make you jealous? ” his host asked blandly.

The evening glow lay upon the valley at their feet, filling it with peace. The one disturbing element in the scene was the evening train winding its way slowly up grade from the distant city, bearing messages and fruits out of the turmoil. At the height of the grade it stopped and puffed a while, and then passed on around the hill to other horizons.

The two men thought their thoughts each to himself. The young doctor dreamily fancied his fair Helen queening it in the little river town; he pictured her here in this comfortable mansion. He pictured her in his arms, and the world held not one thing more for him.

But the older man, dreaming in the exquisite evening peace,recalled that on the next day he must return to the city, which seemed to him now to be a very caldron of hell. They wrote him from the city that some men whom he had trusted, taking advantage of his longabsence from his usual haunts, had cheated him, and were endeavoring to take a still larger part of his wealth. Moreover, a friend whom he had loved for years, and with whom he had shared some joyous feasts,had lately fallen into a vice that was eating the life out of him. Furthermore, certain men had appealed to him to help them in a good act, — an act that would be good for all their fellows without one jot of selfgain or self-glory to any one of them.

He hated to leave the blessed peace of his valley. He remembered with wonder how in the years gone from him he would have leapt up to revenge himself upon those who had cheated him, and would have pursued them with the exultant ferocity of an Apache. That was life, he would have said. And he remembered how he had drunk with his friend very many pleasant wines, each drop of which had turned to rank poison and corrupted that friend’s mind and body. That was life, he would have said, and tossed a light word about the curse of heredity. And he remembered that he had never done in all his life an unrequited act for his fellows, without the expectation of praise and social payment; for such was life, he would have said, — a bargain and a sale between man and man.

Now he felt the lie of all such common belief: that was not life. The robber must be tracked and punished, but not because hate would be appeased. The drunkard must be nursed and shielded, but not for the sake of past feasts. And good deeds must be done by the idle and full-handed, but secretly, and not for the glory and the esteem they might bring.

“Where in it all, in this fabric of Fate, did he come ? ” he asked himself faintly. And he knew not and cared less, for he had come to the End of Desire, which is the Beginning of Wisdom.

Robert Herrick.