THE CHILD OF THE DAWN
By ARTHUR CHRISTOPHER BENSON
FELLOW OF MAGDALENE COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE
[Greek: edu ti tharsaleais ton makron teiein bion elpisin]
Author of THE UPTON LETTERS, FROM A COLLEGE WINDOW, BESIDE STILL WATERS, THE ALTAR FIRE, THE SCHOOLMASTER, AT LARGE, THE GATE OF DEATH, THE SILENT ISLE, JOHN RUSKIN, LEAVES OF THE TREE, CHILD OF THE DAWN, PAUL THE MINSTREL
To MY BEST AND DEAREST FRIEND HERBERT FRANCIS WILLIAM TATHAM IN LOVE AND HOPE
I think that a book like the following, which deals with a subject so great and so mysterious as our hope of immortality, by means of an allegory or fantasy, needs a few words of preface, in order to clear away at the outset any misunderstandings which may possibly arise in a reader's mind. Nothing is further from my wish than to attempt any philosophical or ontological exposition of what is hidden behind the veil of death. But one may be permitted to deal with the subject imaginatively or poetically, to translate hopes into visions, as I have tried to do.
The fact that underlies the book is this: that in the course of a very sad and strange experience—an illness which lasted for some two years, involving me in a dark cloud of dejection—I came to believe practically, instead of merely theoretically, in the personal immortality of the human soul. I was conscious, during the whole time, that though the physical machinery of the nerves was out of gear, the soul and the mind remained, not only intact, but practically unaffected by the disease, imprisoned, like a bird in a cage, but perfectly free in themselves, and uninjured by the bodily weakness which enveloped them. This was not all. I was led to perceive that I had been living life with an entirely distorted standard of values; I had been ambitious, covetous, eager for comfort and respect, absorbed in trivial dreams and childish fancies. I saw, in the course of my illness, that what really mattered to the soul was the relation in which it stood to other souls; that affection was the native air of the spirit; and that anything which distracted the heart from the duty of love was a kind of bodily delusion, and simply hindered the spirit in its pilgrimage.
It is easy to learn this, to attain to a sense of certainty about it, and yet to be unable to put it into practice as simply and frankly as one desires to do! The body grows strong again and reasserts itself; but the blessed consciousness of a great possibility apprehended and grasped remains.
There came to me, too, a sense that one of the saddest effects of what is practically a widespread disbelief in immortality, which affects many people who would nominally disclaim it, is that we think of the soul after death as a thing so altered as to be practically unrecognisable—as a meek and pious emanation, without qualities or aims or passions or traits—as a sort of amiable and weak-kneed sacristan in the temple of God; and this is the unhappy result of our so often making religion a pursuit apart from life—an occupation, not an atmosphere; so that it seems impious to think of the departed spirit as interested in anything but a vague species of liturgical exercise.
I read the other day the account of the death-bed of a great statesman, which was written from what I may call a somewhat clerical point of view. It was recorded with much gusto that the dying politician took no interest in his schemes of government and cares of State, but found perpetual solace in the repetition of childish hymns. This fact had, or might have had, a certain beauty of its own, if it had been expressly stated that it was a proof that the tired and broken mind fell back upon old, simple, and dear recollections of bygone love. But there was manifest in the record a kind of sanctimonious triumph in the extinction of all the great man's insight and wisdom. It seemed to me that the right treatment of the episode was rather to insist that those great qualities, won by brave experience and unselfish effort, were only temporarily obscured, and belonged actually and essentially to the spirit of the man; and that if heaven is indeed, as we may thankfully believe, a place of work and progress, those qualities would be actively and energetically employed as soon as the soul was freed from the trammels of the failing body.
Another point may also be mentioned. The idea of transmigration and reincarnation is here used as a possible solution for the extreme difficulties which beset the question of the apparently fortuitous brevity of some human lives. I do not, of course, propound it as literally and precisely as it is here set down—it is not a forecast of the future, so much as a symbolising of the forces of life—but the renewal of conscious experience, in some form or other, seems to be the only way out of the difficulty, and it is that which is here indicated. If life is a probation for those who have to face experience and temptation, how can it be a probation for infants and children, who die before the faculty of moral choice is developed? Again, I find it very hard to believe in any multiplication of human souls. It is even more difficult for me to believe in the creation of new souls than in the creation of new matter. Science has shown us that there is no actual addition made to the sum of matter, and that the apparent creation of new forms of plants or animals is nothing more than a rearrangement of existing particles—that if a new form appears in one place, it merely means that so much matter is transferred thither from another place. I find it, I say, hard to believe that the sum total of life is actually increased. To put it very simply for the sake of clearness, and accepting the assumption that human life had some time a beginning on this planet, it seems impossible to think that when, let us say, the two first progenitors of the race died, there were but two souls in heaven; that when the next generation died there were, let us say, ten souls in heaven; and that this number has been added to by thousands and millions, until the unseen world is peopled, as it must be now, if no reincarnation is possible, by myriads of human identities, who, after a single brief taste of incarnate life, join some vast community of spirits in which they eternally reside. I do not say that this latter belief may not be true; I only say that in default of evidence, it seems to me a difficult faith to hold; while a reincarnation of spirits, if one could believe it, would seem to me both to equalise the inequalities of human experience, and give one a lively belief in the virtue and worth of human endeavour. But all this is set down, as I say, in a tentative and not in a philosophical form.
And I have also in these pages kept advisedly clear of Christian doctrines and beliefs; not because I do not believe wholeheartedly in the divine origin and unexhausted vitality of the Christian revelation, but because I do not intend to lay rash and profane hands upon the highest and holiest of mysteries.
I will add one word about the genesis of the book. Some time ago I wrote a number of short tales of an allegorical type. It was a curious experience. I seemed to have come upon them in my mind, as one comes upon a covey of birds in a field. One by one they took wings and flew; and when I had finished, though I was anxious to write more tales, I could not discover any more, though I beat the covert patiently to dislodge them.
This particular tale rose unbidden in my mind. I was never conscious of creating any of its incidents. It seemed to be all there from the beginning; and I felt throughout like a man making his way along a road, and describing what he sees as he goes. The road stretched ahead of me; I could not see beyond the next turn at any moment; it just unrolled itself inevitably and, I will add, very swiftly to my view, and was thus a strange and momentous experience.
I will only add that the book is all based upon an intense belief in God, and a no less intense conviction of personal immortality and personal responsibility. It aims at bringing out the fact that our life is a very real pilgrimage to high and far-off things from mean and sordid beginnings, and that the key of the mystery lies in the frank facing of experience, as a blessed process by which the secret purpose of God is made known to us; and, even more, in a passionate belief in Love, the love of friend and neighbour, and the love of God; and in the absolute faith that we are all of us, from the lowest and most degraded human soul to the loftiest and wisest, knit together with chains of infinite nearness and dearness, under God, and in Him, and through Him, now and hereafter and for evermore.
THE OLD LODGE, MAGDALENE COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE, January, 1912.
The Child of the Dawn
Certainly the last few moments of my former material, worn-out life, as I must still call it, were made horrible enough for me. I came to, after the operation, in a deadly sickness and ghastly confusion of thought. I was just dimly conscious of the trim, bare room, the white bed, a figure or two, but everything else was swallowed up in the pain, which filled all my senses at once. Yet surely, I thought, it is all something outside me? ... my brain began to wander, and the pain became a thing. It was a tower of stone, high and blank, with a little sinister window high up, from which something was every now and then waved above the house-roofs.... The tower was gone in a moment, and there was a heap piled up on the floor of a great room with open beams—a granary, perhaps. The heap was of curved sharp steel things like sickles: something moved and muttered underneath it, and blood ran out on the floor. Then I was instantly myself, and the pain was with me again; and then there fell on me a sense of faintness, so that the cold sweat-drops ran suddenly out on my brow. There came a smell of drugs, sharp and pungent, on the air. I heard a door open softly, and a voice said, "He is sinking fast—they must be sent for at once." Then there were more people in the room, people whom I thought I had known once, long ago; but I was buried and crushed under the pain, like the thing beneath the heap of sickles. There swept over me a dreadful fear; and I could see that the fear was reflected in the faces above me; but now they were strangely distorted and elongated, so that I could have laughed, if only I had had the time; but I had to move the weight off me, which was crushing me. Then a roaring sound began to come and go upon the air, louder and louder, faster and faster; the strange pungent scent came again; and then I was thrust down under the weight, monstrous, insupportable; further and further down; and there came a sharp bright streak, like a blade severing the strands of a rope drawn taut and tense; another and another; one was left, and the blade drew near....
I fell suddenly out of the sound and scent and pain into the most incredible and blessed peace and silence. It would have been like a sleep, but I was still perfectly conscious, with a sense of unutterable and blissful fatigue; a picture passed before me, of a calm sea, of vast depth and clearness. There were cliffs at a little distance, great headlands and rocky spires. I seemed to myself to have left them, to have come down through them, to have embarked. There was a pale light everywhere, flushed with rose-colour, like the light of a summer dawn; and I felt as I had once felt as a child, awakened early in the little old house among the orchards, on a spring morning; I had risen from my bed, and leaning out of my window, filled with a delightful wonder, I had seen the cool morning quicken into light among the dewy apple-blossoms. That was what I felt like, as I lay upon the moving tide, glad to rest, not wondering or hoping, not fearing or expecting anything—just there, and at peace.
There seemed to be no time in that other blessed morning, no need to do anything. The cliffs, I did not know how, faded from me, and the boundless sea was about me on every side; but I cannot describe the timelessness of it. There are no human words for it all, yet I must speak of it in terms of time and space, because both time and space were there, though I was not bound by them.
And here first I will say a few words about the manner of speech I shall use. It is very hard to make clear, but I think I can explain it in an image. I once walked alone, on a perfect summer day, on the South Downs. The great smooth shoulders of the hills lay left and right, and, in front of me, the rich tufted grass ran suddenly down to the plain, which stretched out before me like a map. I saw the fields and woods, the minute tiled hamlet-roofs, the white roads, on which crawled tiny carts. A shepherd, far below, drove his flock along a little deep-cut lane among high hedges. The sounds of earth came faintly and sweetly up, obscure sounds of which I could not tell the origin; but the tinkling of sheep-bells was the clearest, and the barking of the shepherd-dog. My own dog sat beside me, watching my face, impatient to be gone. But at the barking he pricked up his ears, put his head on one side, and wondered, I saw, where that companionable sound came from. What he made of the scene I do not know; the sight of the fruitful earth, the homes of men, the fields and waters, filled me with an inexpressible emotion, a wide-flung hope, a sense of the immensity and intricacy of life. But to my dog it meant nothing at all, though he saw just what I did. To him it was nothing but a great excavation in the earth, patched and streaked with green. It was not then the scene itself that I loved; that was only a symbol of emotions and ideas within me. It touched the spring of a host of beautiful thoughts; but the beauty and the sweetness were the contribution of my own heart and mind.
Now in the new world in which I found myself, I approached the thoughts of beauty and loveliness direct, without any intervening symbols at all. The emotions which beautiful things had aroused in me upon earth were all there, in the new life, but not confused or blurred, as they had been in the old life, by the intruding symbols of ugly, painful, evil things. That was all gone like a mist. I could not think an evil or an ugly thought.
For a period it was so with me. For a long time—I will use the words of earth henceforth without any explanation—I abode in the same calm, untroubled peace, partly in memory of the old days, partly in the new visions. My senses seemed all blended in one sense; it was not sight or hearing or touch—it was but an instant apprehension of the essence of things. All that time I was absolutely alone, though I had a sense of being watched and tended in a sort of helpless and happy infancy. It was always the quiet sea, and the dawning light. I lived over the scenes of the old life in a vague, blissful memory. For the joy of the new life was that all that had befallen me had a strange and perfect significance. I had lived like other men. I had rejoiced, toiled, schemed, suffered, sinned. But it was all one now. I saw that each influence had somehow been shaping and moulding me. The evil I had done, was it indeed evil? It had been the flowering of a root of bitterness, the impact of material forces and influences. Had I ever desired it? Not in my spirit, I now felt. Sin had brought me shame and sorrow, and they had done their work. Repentance, contrition—ugly words! I laughed softly at the thought of how different it all was from what I had dreamed. I was as the lost sheep found, as the wayward son taken home; and should I spoil my joy with recalling what was past and done with for ever? Forgiveness was not a process, then, a thing to be sued for and to be withheld; it was all involved in the glad return to the breast of God.
What was the mystery, then? The things that I had wrought, ignoble, cruel, base, mean, selfish—had I ever willed to do them? It seemed impossible, incredible. Were those grievous things still growing, seeding, flowering in other lives left behind? Had they invaded, corrupted, hurt other poor wills and lives? I could think of them no longer, any more than I could think of the wrongs done to myself. Those had not hurt me either. Perhaps I had still to suffer, but I could not think of that. I was too much overwhelmed with joy. The whole thing seemed so infinitely little and far away. So for a time I floated on the moving crystal of the translucent sea, over the glimmering deeps, the dawn above me, the scenes of the old life growing and shaping themselves and fading without any will of my own, nothing within or without me but ineffable peace and perfect joy.
I knew quite well what had happened to me; that I had passed through what mortals call Death: and two thoughts came to me; one was this. There had been times on earth when one had felt sure with a sort of deep instinct that one could not really ever die; yet there had been hours of weariness and despair when one had wondered whether death would not mean a silent blankness. That thought had troubled me most, when I had followed to the grave some friend or some beloved. The mouldering form, shut into the narrow box, was thrust with a sense of shame and disgrace into the clay, and no word or sign returned to show that the spirit lived on, or that one would ever find that dear proximity again. How foolish it seemed now ever to have doubted, ever to have been troubled! Of course it was all eternal and everlasting. And then, too, came a second thought. One had learned in life, alas, so often to separate what was holy and sacred from daily life; there were prayers, liturgies, religious exercises, solemnities, Sabbaths—an oppressive strain, too often, and a banishing of active life. Brought up as one had been, there had been a mournful overshadowing of thought, that after death, and with God, it would be all grave and constrained and serious, a perpetual liturgy, an unending Sabbath. But now all was deliciously merged together. All of beautiful and gracious that there had been in religion, all of joyful and animated and eager that there had been in secular life, everything that amused, interested, excited, all fine pictures, great poems, lovely scenes, intrepid thoughts, exercise, work, jests, laughter, perceptions, fancies—they were all one now; only sorrow and weariness and dulness and ugliness and greediness were gone. The thought was fresh, pure, delicate, full of a great and mirthful content.
There were no divisions of time in my great peace; past, present, and future were alike all merged. How can I explain that? It seems so impossible, having once seen it, that it should be otherwise. The day did not broaden to the noon, nor fade to evening. There was no night there. More than that. In the other life, the dark low-hung days, one seemed to have lived so little, and always to have been making arrangements to live; so much time spent in plans and schemes, in alterations and regrets. There was this to be done and that to be completed; one thing to be begun, another to be cleared away; always in search of the peace which one never found; and if one did achieve it, then it was surrounded, like some cast carrion, by a cloud of poisonous thoughts, like buzzing blue-flies. Now at last one lived indeed; but there grew up in the soul, very gradually and sweetly, the sense that one was resting, growing accustomed to something, learning the ways of the new place. I became more and more aware that I was not alone; it was not that I met, or encountered, or was definitely conscious of any thought that was not my own; but there were motions as of great winds in the untroubled calm in which I lay, of vast deeps drawing past me. There were hoverings and poisings of unseen creatures, which gave me neither awe nor surprise, because they were not in the range of my thought as yet; but it was enough to show me that I was not alone, that there was life about me, purposes going forward, high activities.
The first time I experienced anything more definite was when suddenly I became aware of a great crystalline globe that rose like a bubble out of the sea. It was of an incredible vastness; but I was conscious that I did not perceive it as I had perceived things upon the earth, but that I apprehended it all together, within and without. It rose softly and swiftly out of the expanse. The surface of it was all alive. It had seas and continents, hills and valleys, woods and fields, like our own earth. There were cities and houses thronged with living beings; it was a world like our own, and yet there was hardly a form upon it that resembled any earthly form, though all were articulate and definite, ranging from growths which I knew to be vegetable, with a dumb and sightless life of their own, up to beings of intelligence and purpose. It was a world, in fact, on which a history like that of our own world was working itself out; but the whole was of a crystalline texture, if texture it can be called; there was no colour or solidity, nothing but form and silence, and I realised that I saw, if not materially yet in thought, and recognised then, that all the qualities of matter, the sounds, the colours, the scents—all that depends upon material vibration—were abstracted from it; while form, of which the idea exists in the mind apart from all concrete manifestations, was still present. For some time after that, a series of these crystalline globes passed through the atmosphere where I dwelt, some near, some far; and I saw in an instant, in each case, the life and history of each. Some were still all aflame, mere currents of molten heat and flying vapour. Some had the first signs of rudimentary life—some, again, had a full and organised life, such as ours on earth, with a clash of nations, a stream of commerce, a perfecting of knowledge. Others were growing cold, and the life upon them was artificial and strange, only achieved by a highly intellectual and noble race, with an extraordinary command of natural forces, fighting in wonderfully constructed and guarded dwellings against the growing deathliness of a frozen world, and with a tortured despair in their minds at the extinction which threatened them. There were others, again, which were frozen and dead, where the drifting snow piled itself up over the gigantic and pathetic contrivances of a race living underground, with huge vents and chimneys, burrowing further into the earth in search of shelter, and nurturing life by amazing processes which I cannot here describe. They were marvellously wise, those pale and shadowy creatures, with a vitality infinitely ahead of our own, a vitality out of which all weakly or diseased elements had long been eliminated. And again there were globes upon which all seemed dead and frozen to the core, slipping onwards in some infinite progress. But though I saw life under a myriad of new conditions, and with an endless variety of forms, the nature of it was the same as ours. There was the same ignorance of the future, the same doubts and uncertainties, the same pathetic leaning of heart to heart, the same wistful desire after permanence and happiness, which could not be there or so attained.
Then, too, I saw wild eddies of matter taking shape, of a subtlety that is as far beyond any known earthly conditions of matter as steam is above frozen stone. Great tornadoes whirled and poised; globes of spinning fire flew off on distant errands of their own, as when the heavens were made; and I saw, too, the crash of world with world, when satellites that had lost their impetus drooped inwards upon some central sun, and merged themselves at last with a titanic leap. All this enacted itself before me, while life itself flew like a pulse from system to system, never diminished, never increased, withdrawn from one to settle on another. All this I saw and knew.
I thought I could never be satiated by this infinite procession of wonders. But at last there rose in my mind, like a rising star, the need to be alone no longer. I was passing through a kind of heavenly infancy; and just as a day comes when a child puts out a hand with a conscious intention, not merely a blind groping, but with a need to clasp and caress, or answers a smile by a smile, a word by a purposeful cry, so in a moment I was aware of some one with me and near me, with a heart and a nature that leaned to mine and had need of me, as I of him. I knew him to be one who had lived as I had lived, on the earth that was ours,—lived many lives, indeed; and it was then first that I became aware that I had myself lived many lives too. My human life, which I had last left, was the fullest and clearest of all my existences; but they had been many and various, though always progressive. I must not now tell of the strange life histories that had enfolded me—they had risen in dignity and worth from a life far back, unimaginably elementary and instinctive; but I felt in a moment that my new friend's life had been far richer and more perfect than my own, though I saw that there were still experiences ahead of both of us; but not yet. I may describe his presence in human similitudes, a presence perfectly defined, though apprehended with no human sight. He bore a name which described something clear, strong, full of force, and yet gentle of access, like water. It was just that; a thing perfectly pure and pervading, which could be stained and troubled, and yet could retain no defilement or agitation; which a child could scatter and divide, and yet was absolutely powerful and insuperable. I will call him Amroth. Him, I say, because though there was no thought of sex left in my consciousness, his was a courageous, inventive, masterful spirit, which gave rather than received, and was withal of a perfect kindness and directness, love undefiled and strong. The moment I became aware of his presence, I felt him to be like one of those wonderful, pure youths of an Italian picture, whose whole mind is set on manful things, untroubled by the love of woman, and yet finding all the world intensely gracious and beautiful, full of eager frankness, even impatience, with long, slim, straight limbs and close-curled hair. I knew him to be the sort of being that painters and poets had been feeling after when they represented or spoke of angels. And I could not help laughing outright at the thought of the meek, mild, statuesque draped figures, with absurd wings and depressing smiles, that encumbered pictures and churches, with whom no human communication would be possible, and whose grave and discomfiting glance would be fatal to all ease or merriment. I recognised in Amroth a mirthful soul, full of humour and laughter, who could not be shocked by any truth, or hold anything uncomfortably sacred—though indeed he held all things sacred with a kind of eagerness that charmed me. Instead of meeting him in dolorous pietistic mood, I met him, I remember, as at school or college one suddenly met a frank, smiling, high-spirited youth or boy, who was ready at once to take comradeship for granted, and walked away with one from a gathering, with an outrush of talk and plans for further meetings. It was all so utterly unlike the subdued and cautious and sensitive atmosphere of devotion that it stirred us both, I was aware, to a delicious kind of laughter. And then came a swift interchange of thought, which I must try to represent by speech, though speech was none.
"I am glad to find you, Amroth," I said. "I was just beginning to wonder if I was not going to be lonely."
"Ah," he said, "one has what one desires here; you had too much to see and learn at first to want my company. And yet I have been with you, pointing out a thousand things, ever since you came here."
"Was it you," I said, "that have been showing me all this? I thought I was alone."
At which Amroth laughed again, a laugh full of content. "Yes," he said, "the crags and the sunset—do you not remember? I came down with you, carrying you like a child in my arms, while you slept; and then I saw you awake. You had to rest a long time at first; you had had much to bear—uncertainty—that is what tires one, even more than pain. And I have been telling you things ever since, when you could listen."
"Oh," I said, "I have a hundred things to ask you; how strange it is to see so much and understand so little!"
"Ask away," said Amroth, putting an arm through mine.
"I was afraid," I said, "that it would all be so different—like a catechism 'Dost thou believe—is this thy desire?' But instead it seems so entirely natural and simple!"
"Ah," he said, "that is how we bewilder ourselves on earth. Why, it is hard to say! But all the real things remain. It is all just as surprising and interesting and amusing and curious as it ever was: the only things that are gone—for a time, that is—are the things that are ugly and sad. But they are useful too in their way, though you have no need to think of them now. Those are just the discipline, the training."
"But," I said, "what makes people so different from each other down there—so many people who are sordid, grubby, quarrelsome, cruel, selfish, spiteful? Only a few who are bold and kind—like you, for instance?"
"No," he said, answering the thought that rose in my mind, "of course I don't mind—I like compliments as well as ever, if they come naturally! But don't you see that all the little poky, sensual, mean, disgusting lives are simply those of spirits struggling to be free; we begin by being enchained by matter at first, and then the stream runs clearer. The divine things are imagination and sympathy. That is the secret."
Once I said:
"Which kind of people do you find it hardest to help along?"
"The young people," said Amroth, with a smile.
"Youth!" I said. "Why, down below, we think of youth as being so generous and ardent and imitative! We speak of youth as the time to learn, and form fine habits; if a man is wilful and selfish in after-life, we say that it was because he was too much indulged in childhood—and we attach great importance to the impressions of youth."
"That is quite right," said Amroth, "because the impressions of youth are swift and keen; but of course, here, age is not a question of years or failing powers. The old, here, are the wise and gracious and patient and gentle; the youth of the spirit is stupidity and unimaginativeness. On the one hand are the stolid and placid, and on the other are the brutal and cruel and selfish and unrestrained."
"You confuse me greatly," I said; "surely you do not mean that spiritual life and progress are a matter of intellectual energy?"
"No, not at all," said he; "the so-called intellectual people are often the most stupid and youngest of all. The intellect counts for nothing: that is only a kind of dexterity, a pretty game. The imagination is what matters."
"Worse and worse!" I said. "Does salvation belong to poets and novelists?"
"No, no," said Amroth, "that is a game too! The imagination I speak of is the power of entering into other people's minds and hearts, of putting yourself in their place—of loving them, in fact. The more you know of people, the better chance there is of loving them; and you can only find your way into their minds by imaginative sympathy. I will tell you a story which will show you what I mean. There was once a famous writer on earth, of whose wisdom people spoke with bated breath. Men went to see him with fear and reverence, and came away, saying, 'How wonderful!' And this man, in his age, was waited upon by a little maid, an ugly, tired, tiny creature. People used to say that they wondered he had not a better servant. But she knew all that he liked and wanted, where his books and papers were, what was good for him to do. She did not understand a word of what he said, but she knew both when he had talked too much, and when he had not talked enough, so that his mind was pent up in itself, and he became cross and fractious. Now, in reality, the little maid was one of the oldest and most beautiful of spirits. She had lived many lives, each apparently humbler than the last. She never grumbled about her work, or wanted to amuse herself. She loved the silly flies that darted about her kitchen, or brushed their black heads on the ceiling; she loved the ivy tendrils that tapped on her window in the breeze. She did not go to church, she had no time for that; or if she had gone, she would not have understood what was said, though she would have loved all the people there, and noticed how they looked and sang. But the wise man himself was one of the youngest and stupidest of spirits, so young and stupid that he had to have a very old and wise spirit to look after him. He was eaten up with ideas and vanity, so that he had no time to look at any one or think of anybody, unless they praised him. He has a very long pilgrimage before him, though he wrote pretty songs enough, and his mortal body, or one of them, lies in the Poets' Corner of the Abbey, and people come and put wreaths there with tears in their eyes."
"It is very bewildering," I said, "but I see a little more than I did. It is all a matter of feeling, then? But it seems hard on people that they should be so dull and stupid about it all,—that the truth should lie so close to their hand and yet be so carefully concealed."
"Oh, they grow out of dulness!" he said, with a movement of his hand; "that is what experience does for us—it is always going on; we get widened and deepened. Why," he added, "I have seen a great man, as they called him, clever and alert, who held a high position in the State. He was laid aside by a long and painful illness, so that all his work was put away. He was brave about it, too, I remember; but he used to think to himself how sad and wasteful it was, that when he was most energetic and capable he should be put on the shelf—all the fine work he might have done interrupted; all the great speeches he would have made unuttered. But as a matter of fact, he was then for the first time growing fast, because he had to look into the minds and hearts of all sorrowful and disappointed people, and to learn that what we do matters so little, and that what we are matters so much. When he did at last get back to the world, people said, 'What a sad pity to see so fine a career spoilt!' But out of all the years of all his lives, those years had been his very best and richest, when he sat half the day feeble in the sun, and could not even look at the papers which lay beside him, or when he woke in the grey mornings, with the thought of another miserable day of idleness and pain before him."
I said, "Then is it a bad thing to be busy in the world, because it takes off your mind from the things which matter?"
"No," said Amroth, "not a bad thing at all: because two things are going on. Partly the framework of society and life is being made, so that men are not ground down into that sordid struggle, when little experience is possible because of the drudgery which clouds all the mind. Though even that has its opportunities! And all depends, for the individual, upon how he is doing his work. If he has other people in mind all the time, and does his work for them, and not to be praised for it, then all is well. But if he is thinking of his credit and his position, then he does not grow at all; that is pomposity—a very youthful thing indeed; but the worst case of all is if a man sees that the world must be helped and made, and that one can win credit thus, and so engages in work of that kind, and deals in all the jargon of it, about using influence and living for others, when he is really thinking of himself all the time, and trying to keep the eyes of the world upon him. But it is all growth really, though sometimes, as on the beach when the tide is coming in, the waves seem to draw backward from the land, and poise themselves in a crest of troubled water."
"But is a great position in the world," I said, "whether inherited or attained, a dangerous thing?"
"Nothing is dangerous, child," he said. "You must put all that out of your mind. But men in high posts and stations are often not progressing evenly, only in great jogs and starts. They learn very often, with a sudden surprise, which is not always painful, and sometimes is very beautiful and sweet, that all the ceremony and pomp, the great house, the bows and the smiles, mean nothing at all—absolutely nothing, except the chance, the opportunity of not being taken in by them. That is the use of all pleasures and all satisfactions—the frame of mind which made the old king say, 'Is not this great Babylon, which I have builded?'—they are nothing but the work of another class in the great school of life. A great many people are put to school with self-satisfaction, that they may know the fine joy of humiliation, the delight of learning that it is not effectiveness and applause that matters, but love and peacefulness. And the great thing is that we should feel that we are growing, not in hardness or indifference, nor necessarily even in courage or patience, but in our power to feel and our power to suffer. As love multiplies, suffering must multiply too. The very Heart of God is full of infinite, joyful, hopeful suffering; the whole thing is so vast, so slow, so quiet, that the end of suffering is yet far off. But when we suffer, we climb fast; the spirit grows old and wise in faith and love; and suffering is the one thing we cannot dispense with, because it is the condition of our fullest and purest life."
I said suddenly, "The joy of this place is not the security of it, but the fact that one has not to think about security. I am not afraid of anything that may happen, and there is no weariness of thought. One does not think till one is tired, but till one has finished thinking."
"Yes," said Amroth, "that was the misery of the poor body!"
"And yet I used to think," I said, "in the old days that I was grateful to the body for many pleasant things it gave me—breathing the air, feeling the sun, eating and drinking, games and exercise, and the strange thing one called love."
"Yes," said Amroth, "all those things have to be made pleasant, or to appear so; otherwise no one could submit to the discipline at all; but of course the pleasure only got in the way of the thought and of the happiness; it was not what one saw, tasted, smelt, felt, that one desired, but the real thing behind it; even the purest thing of all, the sight and contact of one whom one loved, let us say, with no sensual passion at all, but with a perfectly pure love; what a torment that was—desiring something which one could not get, the real fusion of feeling and thought! But the poor body was always in the way then, saying, 'Here am I—please me, amuse me.'"
"But then," I said, "what is the use of all that? Why should the pure, clear, joyful, sleepless life I now feel be tainted and hampered and drugged by the body? I don't feel that I am losing anything by losing the body."
"No, not losing," said Amroth, "but, happy though you are, you are not gaining things as fast now—it is your time of rest and refreshment—but we shall go back, both of us, to the other life again, when the time comes: and the point is this, that we have got to win the best things through trouble and struggle."
"But even so," I said, "there are many things I do not understand—the child that opens its eyes upon the world and closes them again; the young child that suffers and dies, just when it is the darling of the home; and at the other end of the scale, the helpless, fractious invalid, or the old man who lives in weariness, wakeful and tortured, and who is glad just to sit in the sun, indifferent to every one and everything, past feeling and hoping and thinking—or, worst of all, the people with diseased minds, whose pain makes them suspicious and malignant. What is the meaning of all this pain, which seems to do people nothing but harm, and makes them a burden to themselves and others too?"
"Oh," said he, "it is difficult enough; but you must remember that we are all bound up with the hearts and lives of others; the child that dies in its helplessness has a meaning for its parents; the child that lives long enough to be the light of its home, that has a significance deep enough; and all those who have to tend and care for the sick, to lighten the burden and the sorrow for them, that has a meaning surely for all concerned? The reason why we feel as we do about broken lives, why they seem so utterly purposeless, is because we have the proportion so wrong. We do not really, in fact, believe in immortality, when we are bound in the body—some few of us do, and many of us say that we do. But we do not realise that the little life is but one in a great chain of lives, that each spirit lives many times, over and over. There is no such thing as waste or sacrifice of life. The life is meant to do just what it does, no more and no less; bound in the body, it all seems so long or so short, so complete or so incomplete; but now and here we can see that the whole thing is so endless, so immense, that we think no more of entering life, say, for a few days, or entering it for ninety years, than we should think of counting one or ninety water-drops in the river that pours in a cataract over the lip of the rocks. Where we do lose, in life, is in not taking the particular experience, be it small or great, to heart. We try to forget things, to put them out of our minds, to banish them. Of course it is very hard to do otherwise, in a body so finite, tossed and whirled in a stream so infinite; and thus we are happiest if we can live very simply and quietly, not straining to multiply our uneasy activities, but just getting the most and the best out of the elements of life as they come to us. As we get older in spirit, we do that naturally; the things that men call ambitions and schemes are the signs of immaturity; and when we grow older, those slip off us and concern us no more; while the real vitality of feeling and emotion runs ever more clear and strong."
"But," I said, "can one revive the old lives at will? Can one look back into the long range of previous lives? Is that permitted?"
"Yes, of course it is permitted," said Amroth, smiling; "there are no rules here; but one does not care to do it overmuch. One is just glad it is all done, and that one has learnt the lesson. Look back if you like—there are all the lives behind you."
I had a curious sensation—I saw myself suddenly a stalwart savage, strangely attired for war, near a hut in a forest clearing. I was going away somewhere; there were other huts at hand; there was a fire, in the side of a mound, where some women seemed to be cooking something and wrangling over it; the smoke went up into the still air. A child came out of the hut, and ran to me. I bent down and kissed it, and it clung to me. I was sorry, in a dim way, to be going out—for I saw other figures armed too, standing about the clearing. There was to be fighting that day, and though I wished to fight, I thought I might not return. But the mind of myself, as I discerned it, was full of hurtful, cruel, rapacious thoughts, and I was sad to think that this could ever have been I.
"It is not very nice," said Amroth with a smile; "one does not care to revive that! You were young then, and had much before you."
Another picture flashed into the mind. Was it true? I was a woman, it seemed, looking out of a window on the street in a town with high, dark houses, strongly built of stone: there was a towered gate at a little distance, with some figures drawing up sacks with a pulley to a door in the gate. A man came up behind me, pulled me roughly back, and spoke angrily; I answered him fiercely and shrilly. The room I was in seemed to be a shop or store; there were barrels of wine, and bags of corn. I felt that I was busy and anxious—it was not a pleasant retrospect.
"Yet you were better then," said Amroth "you thought little of your drudgery, and much of your children."
Yes, I had had children, I saw. Their names and appearance floated before me. I had loved them tenderly. Had they passed out of my life? I felt bewildered.
Amroth laid a hand on my arm and smiled again. "No, you came near to some of them again. Do you not remember another life in which you loved a friend with a strange love, that surprised you by its nearness? He had been your child long before; and one never quite loses that."
I saw in a flash the other life he spoke of. I was a student, it seemed, at some university, where there was a boy of my own age, a curious, wilful, perverse, tactless creature, always saying and doing the wrong thing, for whom I had felt a curious and unreasonable responsibility. I had always tried to explain him to other people, to justify him; and he had turned to me fop help and companionship in a singular way. I saw myself walking with him in the country, expostulating, gesticulating; and I saw him angry and perplexed.... The vision vanished.
"But what becomes of all those whom we have loved?" I said; "it cannot be as if we had never loved them."
"No, indeed," said Amroth, "they are all there or here; but there lies one of the great mysteries which we cannot yet attain to. We shall be all brought together some time, closely and perfectly; but even now, in the world of matter, the spirit half remembers; and when one is strangely and lovingly drawn to another soul, when that love is not of the body, and has nothing of passion in it, then it is some close ancient tie reasserting itself. Do you not know how old and remote some of our friendships seemed—so much older and larger than could be accounted for by the brief days of companionship? That strange hunger for the past of one we love is nothing but the faint memory of what has been. Indeed, when you have rested happily a little longer, you will move farther afield, and you will come near to spirits you have loved. You cannot bear it yet, though they are all about you; but one regains the spiritual sense slowly after a life like yours."
"Can I revisit," I said, "the scene of my last life—see and know what those I loved are doing and feeling?"
"Not yet," said Amroth; "that would not profit either you or them. The sorrow of earth would not be sorrow, it would have no cleansing power, if the parted spirit could return at once. You do not guess, either, how much of time has passed already since you came here—it seems to you like yesterday, no doubt, since you last suffered death. To meet loss and sorrow upon earth, without either comfort or hope, is one of the finest of lessons. When we are there, we must live blindly, and if we here could make our presence known at once to the friends we leave behind, it would be all too easy. It is in the silence of death that its virtue lies."
"Yes," I said, "I do not desire to return. This is all too wonderful. It is the freshness and sweetness of it all that comes home to me. I do not desire to think of the body, and, strange to say, if I do think of it, the times that I remember gratefully are those when the body was faint and weary. The old joys and triumphs, when one laughed and loved and exulted, seem to me to have something ugly about them, because one was content, and wished things to remain for ever as they were. It was the longing for something different that helped me; the acquiescence was the shame."
One day I said to Amroth, "What a comfort it is to find that there is no religion here!"
"I know what you mean," he said. "I think it is one of the things that one wonders at most, to remember into how very small and narrow a thing religion was made, and how much that was religious was never supposed to be so."
"Yes," I said, "as I think of it now, it seems to have been a game played by a few players, a game with a great many rules."
"Yes," he said, "it was a game often enough; but of course the mischief of it was, that when it was most a game it most pretended to be something else—to contain the secret of life and all knowledge."
"I used to think," I said, "that religion was like a noble and generous boy with the lyrical heart of a poet, made by some sad chance into a king, surrounded by obsequious respect and pomp and etiquette, bound by a hundred ceremonious rules, forbidden to do this and that, taught to think that his one duty was to be magnificently attired, to acquire graceful arts of posture and courtesy, subtly and gently prevented from obeying natural and simple impulses, made powerless—a crowned slave; so that, instead of being the freest and sincerest thing in the world, it became the prisoner of respectability and convention, just a part of the social machine."
"That was only one side of it," said Amroth. "It was often where it was least supposed to be."
"Yes," I said, "as far as I resent anything now, I resent the conversion of so much religion from an inspiring force into a repressive force. One learnt as a child to think of it, not as a great moving flood of energy and joy, but as an awful power apart from life, rejoicing in petty restrictions, and mainly concerned with creating an unreal atmosphere of narrow piety, hostile to natural talk and laughter and freedom. God's aid was invoked, in childhood, mostly when one was naughty and disobedient, so that one grew to think of Him as grim, severe, irritable, anxious to interfere. What wonder that one lost all wish to meet God and all natural desire to know Him! One thought of Him as impossible to please except by behaving in a way in which it was not natural to behave; and one thought of religion as a stern and dreadful process going on somewhere, like a law-court or a prison, which one had to keep clear of if one could. Yet I hardly see how, in the interests of discipline, it could have been avoided. If only one could have begun at the other end!"
"Yes," said Amroth, "but that is because religion has fallen so much into the hands of the wrong people, and is grievously misrepresented. It has too often come to be identified, as you say, with human law, as a power which leaves one severely alone, if one behaves oneself, and which punishes harshly and mechanically if one outsteps the limit. It comes into the world as a great joyful motive; and then it becomes identified with respectability, and it is sad to think that it is simply from the fact that it has won the confidence of the world that it gains its awful power of silencing and oppressing. It becomes hostile to frankness and independence, and puts a premium on caution and submissiveness; but that is the misuse of it and the degradation of it; and religion is still the most pure and beautiful thing in the world for all that; the doctrine itself is fine and true in a way, if one can view it without impatience; it upholds the right things; it all makes for peace and order, and even for humility and just kindliness; it insists, or tries to insist, on the fact that property and position and material things do not matter, and that quality and method do matter. Of course it is terribly distorted, and gets into the hands of the wrong people—the people who want to keep things as they are. Now the Gospel, as it first came, was a perfectly beautiful thing—the idea that one must act by tender impulse, that one must always forgive, and forget, and love; that one must take a natural joy in the simplest things, find every one and everything interesting and delightful ... the perfectly natural, just, good-humoured, uncalculating life—that was the idea of it; and that one was not to be superior to the hard facts of the world, not to try to put sorrow or pain out of sight, but to live eagerly and hopefully in them and through them; not to try to school oneself into hardness or indifference, but to love lovable things, and not to condemn or despise the unlovable. That was indeed a message out of the very heart of God. But of course all the acrid divisions and subdivisions of it come, not from itself, but from the material part of the world, that determines to traffic with the beautiful secret, and make it serve its turn. But there are plenty of true souls within it all, true teachers, faithful learners—and the world cannot do without it yet, though it is strangely fettered and bound. Indeed, men can never do without it, because the spiritual force is there; it is full of poetry and mystery, that ageless brotherhood of saints and true-hearted disciples; but one has to learn that many that claim its powers have them not, while many who are outside all organisations have the secret."
"Yes," I said, "all that is true and good; it is the exclusive claim and not the inclusive which one regrets. It is the voice which says, 'Accept my exact faith, or you have no part in the inheritance,' which is wrong. The real voice of religion is that which says, 'You are my brother and my sister, though you know it not.' And if one says, 'We are all at fault, we are all far from the truth, but we live as best we can, looking for the larger hope and for the dawn of love,' that is the secret. The sacrament of God is offered and eaten at many a social meal, and the Spirit of Love finds utterance in quiet words from smiling lips. One cannot teach by harsh precept, only by desirable example; and the worst of the correct profession of religion is that it is often little more than taking out a licence to disapprove."
"Yes," said Amroth, "you are very near a great truth. The mistake we make is like the mistake so often made on earth in matters of human government—the opposing of the individual to the State, as if the State were something above and different to the individual—like the old thought of the Spirit moving on the face of the waters. The individual is the State; and it is the same with the soul and God. God is not above the soul, seeing and judging, apart in isolation. The Spirit of God is the spirit of humanity, the spirit of admiration, the spirit of love. It matters little what the soul admires and loves, whether it be a flower or a mountain, a face or a cause, a gem or a doctrine. It is that wonderful power that the current of the soul has of setting towards something that is beautiful: the need to admire, to worship, to love. A regiment of soldiers in the street, a procession of priests to a sanctuary, a march of disordered women clamouring for their rights—if the idea thrills you, if it uplifts you, it matters nothing whether other people dislike or despise or deride it—it is the voice of God for you. We must advance from what is merely brilliant to what is true; and though in the single life many a man seems to halt at a certain point, to have tied up his little packet of admirations once and for all, there are other lives where he will pass on to further loves, his passion growing more intense and pure. We are not limited by our circle, by our generation, by our age; and the things which youthful spirits are divining and proclaiming as great and wonderful discoveries, are often being practised and done by silent and humble souls. It is not the concise or impressive statement of a truth that matters, it is the intensity of the inner impulse towards what is high and true which differentiates. The more we live by that, the less are we inclined to argue and dispute about it. The base, the impure desire is only the imperfect desire; if it is gratified, it reveals its imperfections, and the soul knows that not there can it stay; but it must have faced and tested everything. If the soul, out of timidity and conventionality, says 'No' to its eager impulses, it halts upon its pilgrimage. Some of the most grievous and shameful lives on earth have been fruitful enough in reality. The reason why we mourn and despond over them is, again, that we limit our hope to the single life. There is time for everything; we must not be impatient. We must despair of nothing and of no one; the true life consists not in what a man's reason approves or disapproves, not in what he does or says, but in what he sees. It is useless to explain things to souls; they must experience them to apprehend them. The one treachery is to speak of mistakes as irreparable, and of sins as unforgivable. The sin against the Spirit is to doubt the Spirit, and the sin against life is not to use it generously and freely; we are happiest if we love others well enough to give our life to them; but it is better to use life for ourselves than not to use it at all."
One day I said to Amroth, "Are there no rules of life here? It seems almost too good to be true, not to be found fault with and censured and advised and blamed."
"Oh," said Amroth, laughing, "there are plenty of rules, as you call them; but one feels them, one is not told them; it is like breathing and seeing."
"Yes," I replied, "yet it was like that, too, in the old days; the misery was when one suddenly discovered that when one was acting in what seemed the most natural way possible, it gave pain and concern to some one whom one respected and even loved. One knew that one's action was not wrong, and yet one desired to please and satisfy one's friends; and so one fell back into conventional ways, not because one liked them but because other people did, and it was not worth while making a fuss—it was a sort of cowardice, I suppose?"
"Not quite," said Amroth; "you were more on the right lines than the people who interfered with you, no doubt; but of course the truth is that our principles ought to be used, like a stick, to support ourselves, not like a rod to beat other people with. The most difficult people to teach, as you will see hereafter, are the self-righteous people, whose lives are really pure and good, but who allow their preferences about amusements, occupations, ways of life, to become matters of principle. The worst temptation in the world is the habit of influence and authority, the desire to direct other lives and to conform them to one's own standard. The only way in which we can help other people is by loving them; by frightening another out of something which he is apt to do and of which one does not approve, one effects absolutely nothing: sin cannot be scared away; the spirit must learn to desire to cast it away, because it sees that goodness is beautiful and fine; and this can only be done by example, never by precept."
"But it is the entire absence of both that puzzles me here," I said. "Nothing to do and a friend to talk to; it's a lazy business, I think."
Amroth looked at me with amusement. "It's a sign," he said, "if you feel that, that you are getting rested, and ready to move on; but you will be very much surprised when you know a little more about the life here. You are like a baby in a cradle at present; when you come to enter one of our communities here, you will find it as complicated a business as you could wish. Part of the difficulty is that there are no rules, to use your own phrase. It is real democracy, but it is not complicated by any questions of property, which is the thing that clogs all political progress in the world below. There is nothing to scheme for, no ambitions to gratify, nothing to gain at the expense of others; the only thing that matters is one's personal relation to others; and this is what makes it at once so simple and so complex. But I do not think it is of any use to tell you all this; you will see it in a flash, when the time comes. But it may be as well for you to remember that there will be no one to command you or compel you or advise you. Your own heart and spirit will be your only guides. There is no such thing as compulsion or force in heaven. Nothing can be done to you that you do not choose or allow to be done."
"Yes," I said, "it is the blessed and beautiful sense of freedom from all ties and influences and fears that is so utterly blissful."
"But this is not all," said Amroth, shaking his head with a smile. "This is a time of rest for you, but things are very different elsewhere. When you come to enter heaven itself, you will be constantly surprised. There are labour and fear and sorrow to be faced; and you must not think it is a place for drifting pleasantly along. The moral struggle is the same—indeed it is fiercer and stronger than ever, because there is no bodily languor or fatigue to distract. There are choices to be made, duties to perform, evil to be faced. The bodily temptations are absent, but there is still that which lay behind the bodily frailties—curiosity, love of sensation, excitement, desire; the strong duality of nature—the knowledge of duty on the one hand and the indolent shrinking from performance—that is all there; there is the same sense of isolation, and the same need for patient endeavour as upon earth. All that one gets is a certain freedom of movement; one is not bound to places and employments by the material ties of earth; but you must not think that it is all to be easy and straightforward. We can each of us by using our wills shorten our probation, by not resisting influences, by putting our hearts and minds in unison with the will of God for us; and that is easier in heaven than upon earth, because there is less to distract us. But on the other hand, there is more temptation to drift, because there are no material consequences to stimulate us. There are many people on earth who exercise a sort of practical virtue simply to avoid material inconveniences, while there is no such motive in heaven; I say all this not to disturb your present tranquillity, which it is your duty now to enjoy, but just to prepare you. You must be prepared for effort and for endeavour, and even for strife. You must use right judgment, and, above all, common sense; one does not get out of the reach of that in heaven!"
These are only some of the many talks I had with Amroth. They ranged over a great many subjects and thoughts. What I cannot indicate, however, is the lightness and freshness of them; and above all, their entire frankness and amusingness. There were times when we talked like two children, revived old simple adventures of life—he had lived far more largely and fully than I had done—and I never tired of hearing the tales of his old lives, so much more varied and wonderful than my own. Sometimes we merely told each other stories out of our imaginations and hearts. We even played games, which I cannot describe, but they were like the games of earth. We seemed at times to walk and wander together; but I had a sense all this time that I was, so to speak, in hospital, being tended and cared for, and not allowed to do anything wearisome or demanding effort. But I became more and more aware of other spirits about me, like birds that chirp and twitter in the ivy of a tower, or in the thick bushes of a shrubbery. Amroth told me one day that I must prepare for a great change soon, and I found myself wondering what it would be like, half excited about it, and half afraid, unwilling as I was to lose the sweet rest, and the dear companionship of a friend who seemed like the crown and sum of all hopes of friendship. Amroth became utterly dear to me, and it was a joy beyond all joys to feel his happy and smiling nature bent upon me, hour by hour, in sympathy and understanding and love. He said to me laughingly once that I had much of earth about me yet, and that I must soon learn not to bend my thoughts so exclusively one way and on one friend.
"Yes," I said, "I am not fit for heaven yet! I believe I am jealous; I cannot bear to think that you will leave me, or that any other soul deserves your attention."
"Oh," he said lightly, "this is my business and delight now—but you will soon have to do for others what I am doing for you. You like this easy life at present, but you can hardly imagine how interesting it is to have some one given you for your own, as you were given to me. It is the delight of motherhood and fatherhood in one; and when I was allowed to take you away out of the room where you lay—I admit it was not a pleasant scene—I felt just like a child who is given a kitten for its very own."
"Well," I said, "I have been a very satisfactory pet—I have done little else but purr." I felt his eyes upon me in a wonderful nearness of love; and then I looked up and I saw that we were not alone.
It was then that I first perceived that there could be grief in heaven. I say "first perceived," but I had known it all along. But by Amroth's gentle power that had been for a time kept away from me, that I might rest and rejoice.
The form before me was that of a very young and beautiful woman—so beautiful that for a moment all my thought seemed to be concentrated upon her. But I saw, too, that all was not well with her. She was not at peace with herself, or her surroundings. In her great wide eyes there was a look of pain, and of rebellious pain. She was attired in a robe that was a blaze of colour; and when I wondered at this, for it was unlike the clear hues, pearly grey and gold, and soft roseate light that had hitherto encompassed me, the voice of Amroth answered my unuttered question, and said, "It is the image of her thought." Her slim white hands moved aimlessly over the robe, and seemed to finger the jewels which adorned it. Her lips were parted, and anything more beautiful than the pure curves of her chin and neck I had seldom seen, though she seemed never to be still, as Amroth was still, but to move restlessly and wearily about. I knew by a sort of intuition that she was unaware of Amroth and only aware of myself. She seemed startled and surprised at the sight of me, and I wondered in what form I appeared to her; in a moment she spoke, and her voice was low and thrilling.
"I am so glad," she said in a half-courteous, half-distracted way, "to find some one in the place to whom I can speak. I seem to be always moving in a crowd, and yet to see no one—they are afraid of me, I think; and it is not what I expected, not what I am used to. I am in need of help, I feel, and yet I do not know what sort of help it is that I want. May I stay with you a little?"
"Why, yes," I said; "there is no question of 'may' here."
She came up to me with a sort of proud confidence, and looked at me fixedly. "Yes," she said, "I see that I can trust you; and I am tired of being deceived!" Then she added with a sort of pettishness, "I have nowhere to go, nothing to do—it is all dull and cold. On earth it was just the opposite. I had only too much attention and love.... Oh, yes," she added with a strange glance, "it was what you would probably call sinful. The only man I ever loved did not care for me, and I was loved by many for whom I did not care. Well, I had my pleasures, and I suppose I must pay for them. I do not complain of that. But I am determined not to give way: it is unjust and cruel. I never had a chance. I was always brought up to be admired from the first. We were rich at my home, and in society—you understand? I made what was called a good match, and I never cared for my husband, but amused myself with other people; and it was splendid while it lasted: then all kinds of horrible things happened—scenes, explanations, a lawsuit—it makes me shudder to remember it all; and then I was ill, I suppose, and suddenly it was all over, and I was alone, with a feeling that I must try to take up with all kinds of tiresome things—all the things that bored me most. But now it may be going to be better; you can tell me where I can find people, perhaps? I am not quite unpresentable, even here? No, I can see that in your face. Well, take me somewhere, show me something, find something for me to do in this deadly place. I seem to have got into a perpetual sunset, and I am so sick of it all."
I felt very helpless before this beautiful creature who seemed so troubled and discontented. "No," said the voice of Amroth beside me, "it is of no use to talk; let her talk to you; let her make friends with you if she can."
"That's better," she said, looking at me. "I was afraid you were going to be grave and serious. I felt for a minute as if I was going to be confirmed."
"No," I said, "you need not be disturbed; nothing will be done to you against your wish. One has but to wish here, or to be willing, and the right thing happens."
She came close to me as I said this, and said, "Well, I think I shall like you, if only you can promise not to be serious." Then she turned, and stood for a moment disconsolate, looking away from me.
All this while the atmosphere around me had been becoming lighter and clearer, as though a mist were rising. Suddenly Amroth said, "You will have to go with her for a time, and do what you can. I must leave you for a little, but I shall not be far off; and if you need me, I shall be at hand. But do not call for me unless you are quite sure you need me." He gave me a hand-clasp and a smile, and was gone.
Then, looking about me, I saw at last that I was in a place. Lonely and bare though it was, it seemed to me very beautiful. It was like a grassy upland, with rocky heights to left and right. They were most delicate in outline, those crags, like the crags in an old picture, with sharp, smooth curves, like a fractured crystal. They seemed to be of a creamy stone, and the shadows fell blue and distinct. Down below was a great plain full of trees and waters, all very dim. A path, worn lightly in the grass, lay at my feet, and I knew that we must descend it. The girl with me—I will call her Cynthia—was gazing at it with delight. "Ah," she said, "I can see clearly now. This is something like a real place, instead of mist and light. We can find people down here, no doubt; it looks inhabited out there." She pointed with her hand, and it seemed to me that I could see spires and towers and roofs, of a fine and airy architecture, at the end of a long horn of water which lay very blue among the woods of the plain. It puzzled me, because I had the sense that it was all unreal, and, indeed, I soon perceived that it was the girl's own thought that in some way affected mine. "Quick, let us go," she said; "what are we waiting for?"
The descent was easy and gradual. We came down, following the path, over the hill-shoulders. A stream of clear water dripped among stones; it all brought back to me with an intense delight the recollection of long days spent among such hills in holiday times on earth, but all without regret; I only wished that an old and dear friend of mine, with whom I had often gone, might be with me. He had quitted life before me, and I knew somehow or hoped that I should before long see him; but I did not wish things to be otherwise; and, indeed, I had a strange interest in the fretful, silly, lovely girl with me, and in what lay before us. She prattled on, and seemed to be recovering her spirits and her confidence at the sights around us. If I could but find anything that would draw her out of her restless mood into the peace of the morning! She had a charm for me, though her impatience and desire for amusement seemed uninteresting enough; and I found myself talking to her as an elder brother might, with terms of familiar endearment, which she seemed to be grateful for. It was strange in a way, and yet it all appeared natural. The more we drew away from the hills, the happier she became. "Ah," she said once, "we have got out of that hateful place, and now perhaps we may be more comfortable,"—and when we came down beside the stream to a grove of trees, and saw something which seemed like a road beneath us, she was delighted. "That's more like it," she said, "and now we may find some real people perhaps,"—she turned to me with a smile—"though you are real enough too, and very kind to me; but I still have an idea that you are a clergyman, and are only waiting your time to draw a moral."
Now before I go on to tell the tale of what happened to us in the valley there were two very curious things that I observed or began to observe.
The first was that I could not really see into the girl's thought. I became aware that though I could see into the thought of Amroth as easily and directly as one can look into a clear sea-pool, with all its rounded pebbles and its swaying fringes of seaweed, there was in the girl's mind a centre of thought to which I was not admitted, a fortress of personality into which I could not force my way. More than that. When she mistrusted or suspected me, there came a kind of cloud out from the central thought, as if a turbid stream were poured into the sea-pool, which obscured her thoughts from me, though when she came to know me and to trust me, as she did later, the cloud was gradually withdrawn; and I perceived that there must be a perfect sacrifice of will, an intention that the mind should lie open and unashamed before the thought of one's friend and companion, before the vision can be complete. With Amroth I desired to conceal nothing, and he had no concealment from me. But with the girl it was different. There was something in her heart that she hid from me, and by no effort could I penetrate it; and I saw then that there is something at the centre of the soul which is our very own, and into which God Himself cannot even look, unless we desire that He should look; and even if we desire that He should look into our souls, if there is any timidity or shame or shrinking about us, we cannot open our souls to Him. I must speak about this later, when the great and wonderful day came to me, when I beheld God and was beheld by Him. But now, though when the girl trusted me I could see much of her thought, the inmost cell of it was still hidden from me.
And then, too, I perceived another strange thing; that the landscape in which we walked was very plain to me, but that she did not see the same things that I saw. With me, the landscape was such as I had loved most in my last experience of life; it was a land to me like the English hill-country which I loved the best; little fields of pasture mostly, with hedgerow ashes and sycamores, and here and there a clear stream of water running by the wood-ends. There were buildings, too, low white-walled farms, roughly slated, much-weathered, with evidences of homely life, byre and barn and granary, all about them. These sloping fields ran up into high moorlands and little grey crags, with the trees and thickets growing in the rock fronts. I could not think that people lived in these houses and practised agriculture, though I saw with surprise and pleasure that there were animals about, horses and sheep grazing, and dogs that frisked in and out. I had always believed and hoped that animals had their share in the inheritance of light, and now I thought that this was a proof that it was indeed so, though I could not be sure of it, because I realised that it might be but the thoughts of my mind taking shape, for, as I say, I was gradually aware that the girl did not see what I saw. To her it was a different scene, of some southern country, because she seemed to see vineyards, and high-walled lanes, hill-crests crowded with houses and crowned with churches, such as one sees at a distance in the Campagna, where the plain breaks into chestnut-clad hills. But this difference of sight did not make me feel that the scene was in any degree unreal; it was the idea of the landscape which we loved, its pretty associations and familiar features, and the mind did the rest, translating it all into a vision of scenes which had given us joy on earth, just as we do in dreams when we are in the body, when the sleeping mind creates sights which give us pleasure, and yet we have no knowledge that we are ourselves creating them. So we walked together, until I perceived that we were drawing near to the town which we had discerned.
And now we became aware of people going to and fro. Sometimes they stopped and looked upon us with smiles, and even greetings; and sometimes they went past absorbed in thought.
Houses appeared, both small wayside abodes and larger mansions with sheltered gardens. What it all meant I hardly knew; but just as we have perfectly decided tastes on earth as to what sort of a house we like and why we like it, whether we prefer high, bright rooms, or rooms low and with subdued light, so in that other country the mind creates what it desires.
Presently the houses grew thicker, and soon we were in a street—the town to my eyes was like the little towns one sees in the Cotswold country, of a beautiful golden stone, with deep plinths and cornices, with older and simpler buildings interspersed. My companion became strangely excited, glancing this way and that. And presently, as if we were certainly expected, there came up to us a kindly and grave person, who welcomed us formally to the place, and said a few courteous words about his pleasure that we should have chosen to visit it.
I do not know how it was, but I did not wholly trust our host. His mind was hidden from me; and indeed I began to have a sense, not of evil, indeed, or of oppression, but a feeling that it was not the place appointed for me, but only where my business was to lie for a season. A group of people came up to us and welcomed my companion with great cheerfulness, and she was soon absorbed in talk.
Now before I come to tell this next part of my story, there are several things which seem in want of explanation. I speak of people as looking old and young, and of there being relations between them such as fatherly and motherly, son-like and lover-like. It bewildered me at first, but I came to guess at the truth. It would seem that in the further world spirits do preserve for a long time the characteristics of the age at which they last left the earth; but I saw no very young children anywhere at first, though I came afterwards to know what befell them. It seemed to me that, in the first place I visited, the only spirits I saw were of those who had been able to make a deliberate choice of how they would live in the world and which kind of desires they would serve; it is very hard to say when this choice takes place in the world below, but I came to believe that, early or late, there does come a time when there is an opening out of two paths before each human soul, and when it realises that a choice must be made. Sometimes this is made early in life; but sometimes a soul drifts on, guileless in a sense, though its life may be evil and purposeless, not looking backwards or forwards, but simply acting as its nature bids it act. What it is that decides the awakening of the will I hardly know; it is all a secret growth, I think; but the older that the spirit is, in the sense of spiritual experience, the earlier in mortal life that choice is made; and this is only another proof of one of the things which Amroth showed me, that it is, after all, imagination which really makes the difference between souls, and not intellect or shrewdness or energy; all the real things of life—sympathy, the power of entering into fine relations, however simple they may be, with others, loyalty, patience, devotion, goodness—seem to grow out of this power of imagination; and the reason why the souls of whom I am going to speak were so content to dwell where they were, was simply that they had no imagination beyond, but dwelt happily among the delights which upon earth are represented by sound and colour and scent and comeliness and comfort. This was a perpetual surprise to me, because I saw in these fine creatures such a faculty of delicate perception, that I could not help believing again and again that their emotions were as deep and varied too; but I found little by little, that they were all bent, not on loving, and therefore on giving themselves away to what they loved, but in gathering in perceptions and sensations, and finding their delight in them; and I realised that what lies at the root of the artistic nature is its deep and vital indifference to anything except what can directly give it delight, and that these souls, for all their amazing subtlety and discrimination, had very little hold on life at all, except on its outer details and superficial harmonies; and that they were all very young in experience, and like shallow waters, easily troubled and easily appeased; and that therefore they were being dealt with like children, and allowed full scope for all their little sensitive fancies, until the time should come for them to go further yet. Of course they were one degree older than the people who in the world had been really immersed in what may be called solid interests and serious pursuits—science, politics, organisation, warfare, commerce—all these spirits were very youthful indeed, and they were, I suppose, in some very childish nursery of God. But what first bewildered me was the finding of the earthly proportions of things so strangely reversed, the serious matters of life so utterly set aside, and so much made of the things which many people take no sort of trouble about, as companionships and affections, which are so often turned into a matter of mere propinquity and circumstance. But of this I shall have to speak later in its place.
Now it is difficult to describe the time I spent in the land of delight, because it was all so unlike the life of the world, and yet was so strangely like it. There was work going on there, I found, but the nature of it I could not discern, because that was kept hidden from me. Men and women excused themselves from our company, saying they must return to their work; but most of the time was spent in leisurely converse about things which I confess from the first did not interest me. There was much wit and laughter, and there were constant games and assemblies and amusements. There were feasts of delicious things, music, dramas. There were books read and discussed; it was just like a very cultivated and civilised society. But what struck me about the people there was that it was all very restless and highly-strung, a perpetual tasting of pleasures, which somehow never pleased. There were two people there who interested me most. One was a very handsome and courteous man, who seemed to desire my company, and spoke more freely than the rest; the other a young man, who was very much occupied with the girl, my companion, and made a great friendship with her. The elder of the two, for I must give them names, shall be called Charmides, which seems to correspond with his stately charm, and the younger may be known as Lucius.
I sat one day with Charmides, listening to a great concert of stringed and wind instruments, in a portico which gave on a large sheltered garden. He was much absorbed in the music, which was now of a brisk and measured beauty, and now of a sweet seriousness which had a very luxurious effect upon my mind. "It is wonderful to me," said Charmides, as the last movement drew to a close of liquid melody, "that these sounds should pass into the heart like wine, heightening and uplifting the thought—there is nothing so beautiful as the discrimination of mood with which it affects one, weighing one delicate phrase against another, and finding all so perfect."
"Yes," I said, "I can understand that; but I must confess that there seems to me something wanting in the melodies of this place. The music which I loved in the old days was the music which spoke to the soul of something further yet and unattainable; but here the music seems to have attained its end, and to have fulfilled its own desire."