- Category: Classical
- Published on 03 April 2012
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THE SUNLIGHT LAY ACROSS MY BED
In the dark one night I lay upon my bed. I heard the policeman's feet beat on the pavement; I heard the wheels of carriages roll home from houses of entertainment; I heard a woman's laugh below my window--and then I fell asleep. And in the dark I dreamt a dream. I dreamt God took my soul to Hell.
Hell was a fair place; the water of the lake was blue.
I said to God, "I like this place."
God said, "Ay, dost thou!"
Birds sang, turf came to the water-edge, and trees grew from it. Away off among the trees I saw beautiful women walking. Their clothes were of many delicate colours and clung to them, and they were tall and graceful and had yellow hair. Their robes trailed over the grass. They glided in and out among the trees, and over their heads hung yellow fruit like large pears of melted gold.
I said, "It is very fair; I would go up and taste the--"
God said, "Wait."
And after a while I noticed a very fair woman pass: she looked this way and that, and drew down a branch, and it seemed she kissed the fruit upon it softly, and went on her way, and her dress made no rustle as she passed over the grass. And when I saw her no more, from among the stems came another woman fair as she had been, in a delicate tinted robe; she looked this way and that. When she saw no one there she drew down the fruit, and when she had looked over it to find a place, she put her mouth to it softly, and went away. And I saw other and other women come, making no noise, and they glided away also over the grass.
And I said to God, "What are they doing?"
God said, "They are poisoning."
And I said, "How?"
God said, "They touch it with their lips, when they have made a tiny wound in it with their fore-teeth they set in it that which is under their tongues: they close it with their lip--that no man may see the place, and pass on."
I said to God, "Why do they do it?"
God said, "That another may not eat."
I said to God, "But if they poison all then none dare eat; what do they gain?"
God said, "Nothing."
I said, "Are they not afraid they themselves may bite where another has bitten?"
God said, "They are afraid. In Hell all men fear."
He called me further. And the water of the lake seemed less blue.
Then, to the right among the trees were men working. And I said to God, "I should like to go and work with them. Hell must be a very fruitful place, the grass is so green."
God said, "Nothing grows in the garden they are making."
We stood looking; and I saw them working among the bushes, digging holes, but in them they set nothing; and when they had covered them with sticks and earth each went a way off and sat behind the bushes watching; and I noticed that as each walked he set his foot down carefully looking where he trod. I said to God, "What are they doing?"
God said, "Making pitfalls into which their fellows may sink."
I said to God, "Why do they do it?"
God said, "Because each thinks that when his brother falls he will rise."
I said to God, "How will he rise?"
God said, "He will not rise."
And I saw their eyes gleam from behind the bushes.
I said to God, "Are these men sane?"
God said, "They are not sane; there is no sane man in Hell."
And he told me to come further.
And I looked where I trod.
And we came where Hell opened into a plain, and a great house stood there. Marble pillars upheld the roof, and white marble steps let up to it. The wind of heaven blew through it. Only at the back hung a thick curtain. Fair men and women there feasted at long tables. They danced, and I saw the robes of women flutter in the air and heard the laugh of strong men.
What they feasted with was wine; they drew it from large jars which stood somewhat in the background, and I saw the wine sparkle as they drew it.
And I said to God, "I should like to go up and drink." And God said, "Wait." And I saw men coming in to the Banquet House; they came in from the back and lifted the corner of the curtain at the sides and crept in quickly; and they let the curtain fall behind them; they bore great jars they could hardly carry. And the men and women crowded round them, and the newcomers opened their jars and gave them of the wine to drink; and I saw
that the women drank even more greedily than the men. And when others had well drunken they set the jars among the old ones beside the wall, and took their places at the table. And I saw that some of the jars were very old and mildewed and dusty, but others had still drops of new must on them and shone from the furnace.
And I said to God, "What is that?" For amid the sound of the singing, and over the dancing of feet, and over the laughing across the wine-cups I heard a cry.
And God said, "Stand a way off."
And he took me where I saw both sides of the curtain. Behind the house was the wine-press where the wine was made. I saw the grapes crushed, and I heard them cry. I said, "Do not they on the other side hear it?"
God said, "The curtain is thick; they are feasting."
And I said, "But the men who came in last. They saw?"
God said, "They let the curtain fall behind them--and they forget!"
I said, "How came they by their jars of wine?"
God said, "In the treading of the press these are they who came to the top; they have climbed out over the edge, and filled their jars from below, and have gone into the house."
And I said, "And if they had fallen as they climbed--?"
God said, "They had been wine."
I stood a way off watching in the sunshine, and I shivered.
God lay in the sunshine watching too.
Then there rose one among the feasters, who said, "My brethren, let us pray!"
And all the men and women rose: and strong men bowed their heads, and mothers folded their little children's hands together, and turned their faces upwards, to the roof. And he who first had risen stood at the table head, and stretched out both his hands, and his beard was long and white, and his sleeves and his beard had been dipped in wine; and because the sleeves were wide and full they held much wine, and it dropped down upon the floor.
And he cried, "My brothers and my sisters, let us pray."
And all the men and women answered, "Let us pray."
He cried, "For this fair banquet-house we thank thee, Lord."
And all the men and women said "We thank thee, Lord."
"Thine is this house, dear Lord."
"Thine is this house."
"For us hast thou made it."
"Oh, fill our jars with wine, dear Lord."
"Our jars with wine."
"Give peace and plenty in our time, dear Lord."
"Peace and plenty in our time"--I said to God, "Whom is it they are talking to?" God said, "Do I know whom they speak of?" And I saw they were looking up at the roof; but out in the sunshine, God lay.
"Our children's children, Lord, shall rise and call thee blessed."
"Our children's children, Lord."--I said to God, "The grapes are crying!" God said, "Still! I hear them"--"shall call thee blessed."
"Shall call thee blessed."
"Pour forth more wine upon us, Lord."
Then men and women sat down and the feast went on. And mothers poured out wine and fed their little children with it, and men held up the cup to women's lips and cried, "Beloved! drink," and women filled their lovers' flagons and held them up; and yet the feast went on.
And after a while I looked, and I saw the curtain that hung behind the house moving.
I said to God, "Is it a wind?"
God said, "A wind."
And it seemed to me, that against the curtain I saw pressed the forms of men and women. And after a while the feasters saw it move, and they whispered, one to another. Then some rose and gathered the most worn-out cups, and into them they put what was left at the bottom of other vessels. Mothers whispered to their children, "Do not drink all, save a little drop
when you have drunk." And when they had collected all the dregs they slipped the cups out under the bottom of the curtain without lifting it. After a while the curtain left off moving.
I said to God, "How is it so quiet?"
He said, "They have gone away to drink it."
I said, "They drink it--their own!"
God said, "It comes from this side of the curtain, and they are very thirsty."
Then the feast went on, and after a while I saw a small, white hand slipped in below the curtain's edge along the floor; and it motioned towards the wine jars.
And I said to God, "Why is that hand so bloodless?"
And God said, "It is a wine-pressed hand."
And men saw it and started to their feet; and women cried, and ran to the great wine jars, and threw their arms around them, and cried, "Ours, our own, our beloved!" and twined their long hair about them.
I said to God, "Why are they frightened of that one small hand?"
God answered, "Because it is so white."
And men ran in a great company towards the curtain, and struggled there. I heard them strike upon the floor. And when they moved away the curtain hung smooth and still; and there was a small stain upon the floor.
I said to God, "Why do they not wash it out?"
God said, "They cannot."
And they took small stones and put them down along the edge of the curtain to keep it down. Then the men and women sat down again at the tables.
And I said to God, "Will those stones keep it down?"
God said, "What think you?"
I said, "If the wind blew?"
God said, "If the wind blew?"
And the feast went on.
And suddenly I cried to God, "If one should rise among them, even of themselves, and start up from the table and should cast away his cup, and cry, 'My brothers and my sisters, stay! what is it that we drink?'—and with his sword should cut in two the curtain, and holding wide the fragments, cry, 'Brothers, sisters, see! it is not wine, not wine! not wine! My brothers, oh, my sisters!' and he should overturn the--"
God said, "Be still!--, see there."
I looked: before the banquet-house, among the grass, I saw a row of mounds, flowers covered them, and gilded marble stood at their heads. I asked God what they were.
He answered, "They are the graves of those who rose up at the feast and cried."
And I asked God how they came there.
He said, "The men of the banquet-house rose and cast them down backwards."
I said, "Who buried them?"
God said, "The men who cast them down."
I said, "How came it that they threw them down, and then set marble over them?"
God said, "Because the bones cried out, they covered them."
And among the grass and weeds I saw an unburied body lying; and I asked God why it was.
God said, "Because it was thrown down only yesterday. In a little while, when the flesh shall have fallen from its bones, they will bury it also, and plant flowers over it."
And still the feast went on.
Men and women sat at the tables quaffing great bowls. Some rose, and threw their arms about each other, and danced and sang. They pledged each other in the wine, and kissed each other's blood-red lips.
Higher and higher grew the revels.
Men, when they had drunk till they could no longer, threw what was left in their glasses up to the roof, and let it fall back in cascades. Women dyed their children's garments in the wine, and fed them on it till their tiny mouths were red. Sometimes, as the dancers whirled, they overturned a vessel, and their garments were bespattered. Children sat upon the floor with great bowls of wine, and swam rose-leaves on it, for boats. They put their hands in the wine and blew large red bubbles.
And higher and higher grew the revels, and wilder the dancing, and louder and louder the singing. But here and there among the revellers were those who did not revel. I saw that at the tables here and there were men who sat with their elbows on the board and hands shading their eyes; they looked into the wine-cup beneath them, and did not drink. And when one touched them lightly on the shoulder, bidding them to rise and dance and sing, they started, and then looked down, and sat there watching the wine in the cup, but they did not move.
And here and there I saw a woman sit apart. The others danced and sang and fed their children, but she sat silent with her head aside as though she listened. Her little children plucked her gown; she did not see them; she was listening to some sound, but she did not stir.
The revels grew higher. Men drank till they could drink no longer, and lay their heads upon the table sleeping heavily. Women who could dance no more leaned back on the benches with their heads against their lovers' shoulders. Little children, sick with wine, lay down upon the edges of their mothers' robes. Sometimes, a man rose suddenly, and as he staggered struck the tables and overthrew the benches; some leaned upon the balustrades sick unto death. Here and there one rose who staggered to the wine jars and lay down beside them. He turned the wine tap, but sleep overcame him as he lay there, and the wine ran out.
Slowly the thin, red stream ran across the white marbled floor; it reached the stone steps; slowly, slowly, slowly it trickled down, from step to step, from step to step: then it sank into the earth. A thin white smoke rose up from it.
I was silent; I could not breathe; but God called me to come further.
And after I had travelled for a while I came where on seven hills lay the ruins of a mighty banquet-house larger and stronger than the one which I had seen standing.
I said to God, "What did the men who built it here?"
God said, "They feasted."
I said, "On what?"
God said, "On wine."
And I looked; and it seemed to me that behind the ruins lay still a large circular hollow within the earth where a foot of the wine-press had stood.
I said to God, "How came it that this large house fell?"
God said, "Because the earth was sodden."
He called me to come further.
And at last we came upon a hill where blue waters played, and white marble lay upon the earth. I said to God, "What was here once?"
God said, "A pleasure house."
I looked, and at my feet great pillars lay. I cried aloud for joy to God,
"The marble blossoms!"
God said, "Ay, 'twas a fairy house. There has not been one like to it, nor ever shall be. The pillars and the porticoes blossomed; and the wine cups were as gathered flowers: on this side all the curtain was broidered with fair designs, the stitching was of gold."
I said to God, "How came it that it fell?"
God said, "On the side of the wine-press it was dark."
And as we travelled, we came where lay a mighty ridge of sand, and a dark river ran there; and there rose two vast mounds.
I said to God, "They are very mighty."
God said, "Ay, exceeding great."
And I listened.
God asked me what I was listening to.
And I said, "A sound of weeping, and I hear the sound of strokes, but I cannot tell whence it comes."
God said, "It is the echo of the wine-press lingering still among the coping-stones upon the mounds. A banquet-house stood here."
And he called me to come further.
Upon a barren hill-side, where the soil was arid, God called me to stand still. And I looked around.
God said, "There was a feasting-house here once upon a time."
I said to God, "I see no mark of any!"
God said, "There was not left one stone upon another that has not been thrown down." And I looked round; and on the hill-side was a lonely grave.
I said to God, "What lies there?"
He said, "A vine truss, bruised in the wine-press!"
And at the head of the grave stood a cross, and on its foot lay a crown of thorns.
And as I turned to go, I looked backward. The wine-press and the banquet-house were gone; but the grave yet stood.
And when I came to the edge of a long ridge there opened out before me a wide plain of sand. And when I looked downward I saw great stones lie shattered; and the desert sand had half covered them over.
I said to God, "There is writing on them, but I cannot read it."
And God blew aside the desert sand, and I read the writing: "Weighed in the balance, and found--" but the last word was missing.
And I said to God, "It was a banquet-house?"
God said, "Ay, a banquet-house."
I said, "There was a wine-press here?"
God said, "There was a wine-press."
I asked no further question. I was very weary; I shaded my eyes with my hand, and looked through the pink evening light.
Far off, across the sand, I saw two figures standing. With wings upfolded high above their heads, and stern faces set, neither man nor beast, they looked out across the desert sand, watching, watching, watching! I did not ask God what they were, for I knew what the answer would be.
And, further and yet further, in the evening light, I looked with my shaded eyes.
Far off, where the sands were thick and heavy, I saw a solitary pillar standing: the crown had fallen, and the sand had buried it. On the broken pillar sat a grey owl-of-the-desert, with folded wings; and in the evening light I saw the desert fox creep past it, trailing his brush across the sand.
Further, yet further, as I looked across the desert, I saw the sand gathered into heaps as though it covered something.
I cried to God, "Oh, I am so weary."
God said, "You have seen only one half of Hell."
I said, "I cannot see more, I am afraid of Hell. In my own narrow little path I dare not walk because I think that one has dug a pitfall for me; and if I put my hand to take a fruit I draw it back again because I think it has been kissed already. If I look out across the plains, the mounds are burial heaps; and when I pass among the stones I hear them crying aloud. When I see men dancing I hear the time beaten in with sobs; and their wine is living! Oh, I cannot bear Hell!"
God said, "Where will you go?"
I said "To the earth from which I came; it was better there."
And God laughed at me; and I wondered why he laughed.
And partly I awoke. It was still and dark; the sound of the carriages had died in the street; the woman who laughed was gone; and the policeman's tread was heard no more. In the dark it seemed as if a great hand lay upon my heart, and crushed it. I tried to breathe and tossed from side to side; and then again I fell asleep, and dreamed.
God took me to the edge of that world. It ended. I looked down. The gulf, it seemed to me, was fathomless, and then I saw two bridges crossing it that both sloped upwards.
I said to God, "Is there no other way by which men cross it?"
God said, "One; it rises far from here and slopes straight upwards.
I asked God what the bridges' names were.
God said, "What matter for the names? Call them the Good, the True, the Beautiful, if you will--you will yet not understand them."
I asked God how it was I could not see the third.
God said, "It is seen only by those who climb it."
I said, "Do they all lead to one heaven?"
God said, "All Heaven is one: nevertheless some parts are higher than others; those who reach the higher may always go down to rest in the lower; but those in the lower may not have strength to climb to the higher; nevertheless the light is all one."
And I saw over the bridge nearest me, which was wider than the other, countless footmarks go. I asked God why so many went over it.
God said, "It slopes less deeply, and leads to the first heaven."
And I saw that some of the footmarks were of feet returning. I asked God how it was.
He said, "No man who has once entered Heaven ever leaves it; but some, when they have gone half way, turn back, because they are afraid there is no land beyond."
I said, "Has none ever returned?"
God said, "No; once in Heaven always in Heaven."
And God took me over. And when we came to one of the great doors—for Heaven has more doors than one, and they are all open--the posts rose up so high on either side I could not see the top, nor indeed if there were any.
And it seemed to me so wide that all Hell could go in through it.
I said to God, "Which is the larger, Heaven or Hell?"
God said, "Hell is as wide, but Heaven is deeper. All Hell could be engulfed in Heaven, but all Heaven could not be engulfed in Hell."
And we entered. It was a still great land. The mountains rose on every hand, and there was a pale clear light; and I saw it came from the rocks and stones. I asked God how it was.
But God did not answer me.
I looked and wondered, for I had thought Heaven would be otherwise. And after a while it began to grow brighter, as if the day were breaking, and I asked God if the sun were not going to rise.
God said, "No; we are coming to where the people are."
And as we went on it grew brighter and brighter till it was burning day; and on the rock were flowers blooming, and trees blossomed at the roadside; and streams of water ran everywhere, and I heard the birds singing; I asked God where they were.
God said, "It is the people calling to one another."
And when we came nearer I saw them walking, and they shone as they walked. I asked God how it was they wore no covering.
God said, "Because all their body gives the light; they dare not cover any part."
And I asked God what they were doing.
God said, "Shining on the plants that they may grow."
And I saw that some were working in companies, and some alone, but most were in twos, sometimes two men and sometimes two women; but generally there was one man and one woman; and I asked God how it was.
God said, "When one man and one woman shine together, it makes the most perfect light. Many plants need that for their growing. Nevertheless, there are more kinds of plants in Heaven than one, and they need many kinds of light."
And one from among the people came running towards me; and when he came near it seemed to me that he and I had played together when we were little children, and that we had been born on the same day. And I told God what I felt; God said, "All men feel so in Heaven when another comes towards them."
And he who ran towards me held my hand, and led me through the bright lights. And when we came among the trees he sang aloud, and his companion answered, and it was a woman, and he showed me to her. She said, "He must have water"; and she took some in her hands, and fed me (I had been afraid to drink of the water in Hell), and they gathered fruit for me, and gave it me to eat. They said, "We shone long to make it ripen," and they laughed together as they saw me eat it.
The man said, "He is very weary; he must sleep" (for I had not dared to sleep in Hell), and he laid my head on his companion's knee and spread her hair out over me. I slept, and all the while in my sleep I thought I heard the birds calling across me. And when I woke it was like early morning, with the dew on everything.
And the man took my hand and led me to a hidden spot among the rocks. The ground was very hard, but out of it were sprouting tiny plants, and there was a little stream running. He said, "This is a garden we are making, no one else knows of it. We shine here every day; see, the ground has cracked with our shining, and this little stream is bursting out. See, the flowers are growing."
And he climbed on the rocks and picked from above two little flowers with dew on them, and gave them to me. And I took one in each hand; my hands shone as I held them. He said, "This garden is for all when it is finished." And he went away to his companion, and I went out into the great pathway.
And as I walked in the light I heard a loud sound of much singing. And when I came nearer I saw one with closed eyes, singing, and his fellows were standing round him; and the light on the closed eyes was brighter than anything I had seen in Heaven. I asked one who it was. And he said, "Hush! Our singing bird."
And I asked why the eyes shone so.
And he said, "They cannot see, and we have kissed them till they shone so."
And the people gathered closer round him.
And when I went a little further I saw a crowd crossing among the trees of light with great laughter. When they came close I saw they carried one without hands or feet. And a light came from the maimed limbs so bright that I could not look at them.
And I said to one, "What is it?"
He answered, "This is our brother who once fell and lost his hands and feet, and since then he cannot help himself; but we have touched the maimed stumps so often that now they shine brighter than anything in Heaven. We pass him on that he may shine on things that need much heat. No one is allowed to keep him long, he belongs to all"; and they went on among the trees.
I said to God, "This is a strange land. I had thought blindness and maimedness were great evils. Here men make them to a rejoicing."
God said, "Didst thou then think that love had need of eyes and hands!"
And I walked down the shining way with palms on either hand. I said to God, "Ever since I was a little child and sat alone and cried, I have dreamed of this land, and now I will not go away again. I will stay here and shine." And I began to take off my garments, that I might shine as others in that land; but when I looked down I saw my body gave no light. I said to God, "How is it?"
God said, "Is there no dark blood in your heart; is it bitter against none?"
And I said, "Yes--"; and I thought--"Now is the time when I will tell God, that which I have been, meaning to tell him all along, how badly my fellow-men have treated me. How they have misunderstood me. How I have intended to be magnanimous and generous to them, and they--." And I began to tell God; but when I looked down all the flowers were withering under my breath, and I was silent.
And God called me to come up higher, and I gathered my mantle about me and followed him.
And the rocks grew higher and steeper on every side; and we came at last to a place where a great mountain rose, whose top was lost in the clouds. And on its side I saw men working; and they picked at the earth with huge picks; and I saw that they laboured mightily. And some laboured in companies, but most laboured singly. And I saw the drops of sweat fall from their foreheads, and the muscles of their arms stand out with labour.
And I said, "I had not thought in heaven to see men labour so!" And I thought of the garden where men sang and loved, and I wondered that any should choose to labour on that bare mountain-side. And I saw upon the foreheads of the men as they worked a light, and the drops which fell from them as they worked had light.
And I asked God what they were seeking for.
And God touched my eyes, and I saw that what they found were small stones, which had been too bright for me to see before; and I saw that the light of the stones and the light on the men's foreheads was the same. And I saw that when one found a stone he passed it on to his fellow, and he to another, and he to another. No man kept the stone he found. And at times they gathered in great company about when a large stone was found, and raised a great shout so that the sky rang; then they worked on again.
And I asked God what they did with the stones they found at last. Then God touched my eyes again to make them stronger; and I looked, and at my very feet was a mighty crown. The light streamed out from it.
God said, "Each stone as they find it is set here."
And the crown was wrought according to a marvellous pattern; one pattern ran through all, yet each part was different.
I said to God, "How does each man know where to set his stone, so that the pattern is worked out?"
God said, "Because in the light his forehead sheds each man sees faintly outlined that full crown."
And I said, "But how is it that each stone is joined along its edges to its fellows, so that there is no seam anywhere?"
God said, "The stones are alive; they grow."
And I said, "But what does each man gain by his working?"
God said, "He sees his outline filled."
I said, "But those stones which are last set cover those which were first; and those will again be covered by those which come later."
God said, "They are covered, but not hid. The light is the light of all. Without the first, no last."
And I said to God, "When will this crown be ended?"
And God said, "Look up!"
I looked up; and I saw the mountain tower above me, but its summit I could not see; it was lost in the clouds.
God said no more.
And I looked at the crown: then a longing seized me. Like the passion of a mother for the child whom death has taken; like the yearning of a friend for the friend whom life has buried; like the hunger of dying eyes for a life that is slipping; like the thirst of a soul for love at its first spring waking, so, but fiercer was the longing in me.
I cried to God, "I too will work here; I too will set stones in the
wonderful pattern; it shall grow beneath MY hand. And if it be that, labouring here for years, I should not find one stone, at least I will be with the men that labour here. I shall hear their shout of joy when each stone is found; I shall join in their triumph, I shall shout among them; I shall see the crown grow." So great was my longing as I looked at the crown, I thought a faint light fell from my forehead also.
God said, "Do you not hear the singing in the gardens?"
I said, "No, I hear nothing; I see only the crown." And I was dumb with longing; I forgot all the flowers of the lower Heaven and the singing there. And I ran forward, and threw my mantle on the earth and bent to seize one of the mighty tools which lay there. I could not lift it from the earth.
God said, "Where hast THOU earned the strength to raise it? Take up thy mantle."
And I took up my mantle and followed where God called me; but I looked back, and I saw the crown burning, my crown that I had loved.
Higher and higher we climbed, and the air grew thinner. Not a tree or plant was on the bare rocks, and the stillness was unbroken. My breath came hard and quick, and the blood crept within my finger-tips. I said to God, "Is this Heaven?"
God said, "Yes; it is the highest."
And still we climbed. I said to God, "I cannot breathe so high."
God said, "Because the air is pure?"
And my head grew dizzy, and as I climbed the blood burst from my finger-tips.
Then we came out upon a lonely mountain-top.
No living being moved there; but far off on a solitary peak I saw a lonely figure standing. Whether it were man or woman I could not tell; for partly it seemed the figure of a woman, but its limbs were the mighty limbs of a man. I asked God whether it was man or woman.
God said, "In the least Heaven sex reigns supreme; in the higher it is not noticed; but in the highest it does not exist."
And I saw the figure bend over its work, and labour mightily, but what it laboured at I could not see.
I said to God, "How came it here?"
God said, "By a bloody stair. Step by step it mounted from the lowest Hell, and day by day as Hell grew farther and Heaven no nearer, it hung alone between two worlds. Hour by hour in that bitter struggle its limbs grew larger, till there fell from it rag by rag the garments which it started with. Drops fell from its eyes as it strained them; each step it climbed was wet with blood. Then it came out here."
And I thought of the garden where men sang with their arms around one another; and the mountain-side where they worked in company. And I shuddered.
And I said, "Is it not terribly alone here?"
God said, "It is never alone!"
I said, "What has it for all its labour? I see nothing return to it.
Then God touched my eyes, and I saw stretched out beneath us the plains of Heaven and Hell, and all that was within them.
God said, "From that lone height on which he stands, all things are open. To him is clear the shining in the garden, he sees the flower break forth and the streams sparkle; no shout is raised upon the mountain-side but his ear may hear it. He sees the crown grow and the light shoot from it. All Hell is open to him. He sees the paths mount upwards. To him, Hell is the seed ground from which Heaven springs. He sees the sap ascending."
And I saw the figure bend over its work, and the light from its face fell upon it.
And I said to God, "What is it making?"
And God said, "Music!"
And he touched my ears, and I heard it.
And after a long while I whispered to God, "This is Heaven."
And God asked me why I was crying. But I could not answer for joy.
And the face turned from its work, and the light fell upon me. Then it grew so bright I could not see things separately; and which were God, or the man, or I, I could not tell; we were all blended. I cried to God, "Where are you?" but there was no answer, only music and light.
Afterwards, when it had grown so dark again that I could see things separately, I found that I was standing there wrapped tight in my little old, brown, earthly cloak, and God and the man were separated from each other, and from me.
I did not dare say I would go and make music beside the man. I knew I could not reach even to his knee, nor move the instrument he played. But I thought I would stand there on my little peak and sing an accompaniment to that great music. And I tried; but my voice failed. It piped and quavered. I could not sing that tune. I was silent.
Then God pointed to me, that I should go out of Heaven.
And I cried to God, "Oh, let me stay here! If indeed it be, as I know it is, that I am not great enough to sing upon the mountain, nor strong enough to labour on its side, nor bright enough to shine and love within the garden, at least let me go down to the great gateway; humbly I will kneel there sweeping; and, as the saved pass in, I will see the light upon their faces. I shall hear the singing in the garden, and the shout upon the hillside--"God said, "It may not be;" he pointed.
And I cried, "If I may not stay in Heaven, then let me go down to Hell, and I will grasp the hands of men and women there; and slowly, holding one another's hands, we will work our way upwards."
Still God pointed.
And I threw myself upon the earth and cried, "Earth is so small, so mean! It is not meet a soul should see Heaven and be cast out again!"
And God laid his hand on me, and said, "Go back to earth: that which you seek is there."
I awoke: it was morning. The silence and darkness of the night were gone. Through my narrow attic window I saw the light of another day. I closed my eyes and turned towards the wall: I could not look upon the dull grey world.
In the streets below, men and women streamed past by hundreds; I heard the beat of their feet on the pavement. Men on their way to business; servants on errands; boys hurrying to school; weary professors pacing slowly the old street; prostitutes, men and women, dragging their feet wearily after last night's debauch; artists with quick, impatient footsteps; tradesmen for orders; children to seek for bread. I heard the stream beat by. And at the alley's mouth, at the street corner, a broken barrel-organ was playing; sometimes it quavered and almost stopped, then went on again, like a broken human voice.
I listened: my heart scarcely moved; it was as cold as lead. I could not bear the long day before me; and I tried to sleep again; yet still I heard the feet upon the pavement. And suddenly I heard them cry loud as they beat, "We are seeking!--we are seeking!--we are seeking!" and the broken barrel-organ at the street corner sobbed, "The Beautiful!--the Beautiful!--the Beautiful!" And my heart, which had been dead, cried out with every throb, "Love!--Truth!--the Beautiful!--the Beautiful!" It was the music I had heard in Heaven that I could not sing there.
And fully I awoke.
Upon the faded quilt, across my bed a long yellow streak of pale London sunlight was lying. It fell through my narrow attic window.
I laughed. I rose.
I was glad the long day was before me.
Paris and London
In a certain valley there was a hunter. Day by day he went to hunt for wild-fowl in the woods; and it chanced that once he stood on the shores of a large lake. While he stood waiting in the rushes for the coming of the birds, a great shadow fell on him, and in the water he saw a reflection. He looked up to the sky; but the thing was gone. Then a burning desire came over him to see once again that reflection in the water, and all day he watched and waited; but night came and it had not returned. Then he went home with his empty bag, moody and silent. His comrades came questioning about him to know the reason, but he answered them nothing; he sat alone and brooded. Then his friend came to him, and to him he spoke.
"I have seen today," he said, "that which I never saw before--a vast white bird, with silver wings outstretched, sailing in the everlasting blue. And now it is as though a great fire burnt within my breast. It was but a sheen, a shimmer, a reflection in the water; but now I desire nothing more on earth than to hold her."
His friend laughed.
"It was but a beam playing on the water, or the shadow of your own head. Tomorrow you will forget her," he said.
But tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow the hunter walked alone. He sought in the forest and in the woods, by the lakes and among the rushes, but he could not find her. He shot no more wild fowl; what were they to him?
"What ails him?" said his comrades.
"He is mad," said one.
"No; but he is worse," said another; "he would see that which none of us have seen, and make himself a wonder."
"Come, let us forswear his company," said all.
So the hunter walked alone.
One night, as he wandered in the shade, very heartsore and weeping, an old man stood before him, grander and taller than the sons of men.
"Who are you?" asked the hunter.
"I am Wisdom," answered the old man; "but some men call me Knowledge. All my life I have grown in these valleys; but no man sees me till he has sorrowed much. The eyes must be washed with tears that are to behold me; and, according as a man has suffered, I speak."
And the hunter cried:
"Oh, you who have lived here so long, tell me, what is that great wild bird I have seen sailing in the blue? They would have me believe she is a dream; the shadow of my own head."
The old man smiled.
"Her name is Truth. He who has once seen her never rests again. Till death he desires her."
And the hunter cried:
"Oh, tell me where I may find her."
But the old man said:
"You have not suffered enough," and went.
Then the hunter took from his breast the shuttle of Imagination, and wound on it the thread of his Wishes; and all night he sat and wove a net.
In the morning he spread the golden net upon the ground, and into it he threw a few grains of credulity, which his father had left him, and which he kept in his breast-pocket. They were like white puff-balls, and when you trod on them a brown dust flew out. Then he sat by to see what would happen. The first that came into the net was a snow-white bird, with dove's eyes, and he sang a beautiful song--"A human-God! a human-God! a human-God!" it sang. The second that came was black and mystical, with dark, lovely eyes, that looked into the depths of your soul, and he sang only this--"Immortality!"
And the hunter took them both in his arms, for he said--
"They are surely of the beautiful family of Truth."
Then came another, green and gold, who sang in a shrill voice, like one crying in the marketplace,--"Reward after Death! Reward after Death!"
And he said--
"You are not so fair; but you are fair too," and he took it.
And others came, brightly coloured, singing pleasant songs, till all the grains were finished. And the hunter gathered all his birds together, and built a strong iron cage called a new creed, and put all his birds in it.
Then the people came about dancing and singing.
"Oh, happy hunter!" they cried. "Oh, wonderful man! Oh, delightful birds! Oh, lovely songs!"
No one asked where the birds had come from, nor how they had been caught; but they danced and sang before them. And the hunter too was glad, for he said:
"Surely Truth is among them. In time she will moult her feathers, and I shall see her snow-white form."
But the time passed, and the people sang and danced; but the hunter's heart grew heavy. He crept alone, as of old, to weep; the terrible desire had awakened again in his breast. One day, as he sat alone weeping, it chanced that Wisdom met him. He told the old man what he had done.
And Wisdom smiled sadly.
"Many men," he said, "have spread that net for Truth; but they have never found her. On the grains of credulity she will not feed; in the net of wishes her feet cannot be held; in the air of these valleys she will not breathe. The birds you have caught are of the brood of Lies. Lovely and beautiful, but still lies; Truth knows them not."
And the hunter cried out in bitterness--
"And must I then sit still, to be devoured of this great burning?"
And the old man said,
"Listen, and in that you have suffered much and wept much, I will tell you what I know. He who sets out to search for Truth must leave these valleys of superstition forever, taking with him not one shred that has belonged to them. Alone he must wander down into the Land of Absolute Negation and Denial; he must abide there; he must resist temptation; when the light breaks he must arise and follow it into the country of dry sunshine. The mountains of stern reality will rise before him; he must climb them; beyond them lies Truth."
"And he will hold her fast! he will hold her in his hands!" the hunter cried.
Wisdom shook his head.
"He will never see her, never hold her. The time is not yet."
"Then there is no hope?" cried the hunter.
"There is this," said Wisdom: "Some men have climbed on those mountains; circle above circle of bare rock they have scaled; and, wandering there, in those high regions, some have chanced to pick up on the ground one white silver feather, dropped from the wing of Truth. And it shall come to pass," said the old man, raising himself prophetically and pointing with his finger to the sky, "it shall come to pass, that when enough of those silver feathers shall have been gathered by the hands of men, and shall have been woven into a cord, and the cord into a net, that in that net Truth may be captured. Nothing but Truth can hold Truth."
The hunter arose. "I will go," he said.
But wisdom detained him.
"Mark you well--who leaves these valleys never returns to them. Though he should weep tears of blood seven days and nights upon the confines, he can never put his foot across them. Left--they are left forever. Upon the road which you would travel there is no reward offered. Who goes, goes freely--for the great love that is in him. The work is his reward."
"I go" said the hunter; "but upon the mountains, tell me, which path shall I take?"
"I am the child of The-Accumulated-Knowledge-of-Ages," said the man; "I can walk only where many men have trodden. On these mountains few feet have passed; each man strikes out a path for himself. He goes at his own peril: my voice he hears no more. I may follow after him, but cannot go before him."
Then Knowledge vanished.
And the hunter turned. He went to his cage, and with his hands broke down the bars, and the jagged iron tore his flesh. It is sometimes easier to build than to break.
One by one he took his plumed birds and let them fly. But when he came to his dark-plumed bird he held it, and looked into its beautiful eyes, and the bird uttered its low, deep cry--"Immortality!"
And he said quickly: "I cannot part with it. It is not heavy; it eats no food. I will hide it in my breast; I will take it with me." And he buried it there and covered it over with his cloak.
But the thing he had hidden grew heavier, heavier, heavier--till it lay on his breast like lead. He could not move with it. He could not leave those valleys with it. Then again he took it out and looked at it.
"Oh, my beautiful! my heart's own!" he cried, "may I not keep you?"
He opened his hands sadly.
"Go!" he said. "It may happen that in Truth's song one note is like yours; but I shall never hear it."
Sadly he opened his hand, and the bird flew from him forever.
Then from the shuttle of Imagination he took the thread of his wishes, and threw it on the ground; and the empty shuttle he put into his breast, for the thread was made in those valleys, but the shuttle came from an unknown country. He turned to go, but now the people came about him, howling.
"Fool, hound, demented lunatic!" they cried. "How dared you break your cage and let the birds fly?'
The hunter spoke; but they would not hear him.
"Truth! who is she? Can you eat her? can you drink her? Who has ever seen her? Your birds were real: all could hear them sing! Oh, fool! vile reptile! atheist!" they cried, "you pollute the air."
"Come, let us take up stones and stone him," cried some.
"What affair is it of ours?" said others. "Let the idiot go," and went away. But the rest gathered up stones and mud and threw at him. At last, when he was bruised and cut, the hunter crept away into the woods. And it was evening about him.
He wandered on and on, and the shade grew deeper. He was on the borders now of the land where it is always night. Then he stepped into it, and there was no light there. With his hands he groped; but each branch as he touched it broke off, and the earth was covered with cinders. At every step his foot sank in, and a fine cloud of impalpable ashes flew up into his face; and it was dark. So he sat down upon a stone and buried his face in his hands, to wait in the Land of Negation and Denial till the light came.
And it was night in his heart also.
Then from the marshes to his right and left cold mists arose and closed about him. A fine, imperceptible rain fell in the dark, and great drops gathered on his hair and clothes. His heart beat slowly, and a numbness crept through all his limbs. Then, looking up, two merry wisp lights came dancing. He lifted his head to look at them. Nearer, nearer they came. So warm, so bright, they danced like stars of fire. They stood before him at last. From the centre of the radiating flame in one looked out a woman's face, laughing, dimpled, with streaming yellow hair. In the centre of the other were merry laughing ripples, like the bubbles on a glass of wine. They danced before him.
"Who are you," asked the hunter, "who alone come to me in my solitude and darkness?"
"We are the twins Sensuality," they cried. "Our father's name is Human-Nature, and our mother's name is Excess. We are as old as the hills and rivers, as old as the first man; but we never die," they laughed.
"Oh, let me wrap my arms about you!" cried the first; "they are soft and warm. Your heart is frozen now, but I will make it beat. Oh, come to me!"
"I will pour my hot life into you," said the second; "your brain is numb, and your limbs are dead now; but they shall live with a fierce free life. Oh, let me pour it in!"
"Oh, follow us," they cried, "and live with us. Nobler hearts than yours have sat here in this darkness to wait, and they have come to us and we to them; and they have never left us, never. All else is a delusion, but we are real, we are real, we are real. Truth is a shadow; the valleys of superstition are a farce: the earth is of ashes, the trees all rotten; but we--feel us--we live! You cannot doubt us. Feel us how warm we are! Oh, come to us! Come with us!"
Nearer and nearer round his head they hovered, and the cold drops melted on his forehead. The bright light shot into his eyes, dazzling him, and the frozen blood began to run. And he said:
"Yes, why should I die here in this awful darkness? They are warm, they melt my frozen blood!" and he stretched out his hands to take them.
Then in a moment there arose before him the image of the thing he had loved, and his hand dropped to his side.
"Oh, come to us!" they cried.
But he buried his face.
"You dazzle my eyes," he cried, "you make my heart warm; but you cannot give me what I desire. I will wait here--wait till I die. Go!"
He covered his face with his hands and would not listen; and when he looked up again they were two twinkling stars, that vanished in the distance. And the long, long night rolled on.
All who leave the valley of superstition pass through that dark land; but some go through it in a few days, some linger there for months, some for years, and some die there.
At last for the hunter a faint light played along the horizon, and he rose to follow it; and he reached that light at last, and stepped into the broad sunshine. Then before him rose the almighty mountains of Dry-facts and Realities. The clear sunshine played on them, and the tops were lost in the clouds. At the foot many paths ran up. An exultant cry burst from the hunter. He chose the straightest and began to climb; and the rocks and ridges resounded with his song. They had exaggerated; after all, it was not so high, nor was the road so steep! A few days, a few weeks, a few months at most, and then the top! Not one feather only would he pick up; he would gather all that other men had found--weave the net--capture Truth--hold her fast--touch her with his hands--clasp her!
He laughed in the merry sunshine, and sang loud. Victory was very near. Nevertheless, after a while the path grew steeper. He needed all his breath for climbing, and the singing died away. On the right and left rose huge rocks, devoid of lichen or moss, and in the lava-like earth chasms yawned. Here and there he saw a sheen of white bones. Now too the path began to grow less and less marked; then it became a mere trace, with a footmark here and there; then it ceased altogether. He sang no more, but struck forth a path for himself, until it reached a mighty wall of rock, smooth and without break, stretching as far as the eye could see. "I will rear a stair against it; and, once this wall climbed, I shall be almost there," he said bravely; and worked. With his shuttle of imagination he dug out stones; but half of them would not fit, and half a month's work would roll down because those below were ill chosen. But the hunter worked on, saying always to himself, "Once this wall climbed, I shall be almost there. This great work ended!"
At last he came out upon the top, and he looked about him. Far below rolled the white mist over the valleys of superstition, and above him towered the mountains. They had seemed low before; they were of an immeasurable height now, from crown to foundation surrounded by walls of rock, that rose tier above tier in mighty circles. Upon them played the eternal sunshine. He uttered a wild cry. He bowed himself on to the earth, and when he rose his face was white. In absolute silence he walked on. He was very silent now. In those high regions the rarefied air is hard to breathe by those born in the valleys; every breath he drew hurt him, and the blood oozed out from the tips of his fingers. Before the next wall of rock he began to work. The height of this seemed infinite, and he said nothing. The sound of his tool rang night and day upon the iron rocks into which he cut steps. Years passed over him, yet he worked on; but the wall towered up always above him to heaven. Sometimes he prayed that a little moss or lichen might spring up on those bare walls to be a companion to him; but it never came.
And the years rolled on; he counted them by the steps he had cut--a few for a year--only a few. He sang no more; he said no more, "I will do this or that"--he only worked. And at night, when the twilight settled down, there looked out at him from the holes and crevices in the rocks strange wild faces.
"Stop your work, you lonely man, and speak to us," they cried.
"My salvation is in work, if I should stop but for one moment you would creep down upon me," he replied. And they put out their long necks further.
"Look down into the crevice at your feet," they said. "See what lie there--white bones! As brave and strong a man as you climbed to these rocks." And he looked up. He saw there was no use in striving; he would never hold Truth, never see her, never find her. So he lay down here, for he was very tired. He went to sleep forever. He put himself to sleep. Sleep is very tranquil. You are not lonely when you are asleep, neither do your hands ache, nor your heart. And the hunter laughed between his teeth.
"Have I torn from my heart all that was dearest; have I wandered alone in the land of night; have I resisted temptation; have I dwelt where the voice of my kind is never heard, and laboured alone, to lie down and be food for you, ye harpies?"
He laughed fiercely; and the Echoes of Despair slunk away, for the laugh of a brave, strong heart is as a death blow to them.
Nevertheless they crept out again and looked at him.
"Do you know that your hair is white?" they said, "that your hands begin to tremble like a child's? Do you see that the point of your shuttle is gone?--it is cracked already. If you should ever climb this stair," they said, "it will be your last. You will never climb another."
And he answered, "I know it!" and worked on.
The old, thin hands cut the stones ill and jaggedly, for the fingers were stiff and bent. The beauty and the strength of the man was gone.
At last, an old, wizened, shrunken face looked out above the rocks. It saw the eternal mountains rise with walls to the white clouds; but its work was done.
The old hunter folded his tired hands and lay down by the precipice where he had worked away his life. It was the sleeping time at last. Below him over the valleys rolled the thick white mist. Once it broke; and through the gap the dying eyes looked down on the trees and fields of their childhood. From afar seemed borne to him the cry of his own wild birds, and he heard the noise of people singing as they danced. And he thought he heard among them the voices of his old comrades; and he saw far off the sunlight shine on his early home. And great tears gathered in the hunter's eyes.
"Ah! they who die there do not die alone," he cried.
Then the mists rolled together again; and he turned his eyes away.
"I have sought," he said, "for long years I have laboured; but I have not found her. I have not rested, I have not repined, and I have not seen her; now my strength is gone. Where I lie down worn out other men will stand, young and fresh. By the steps that I have cut they will climb; by the stairs that I have built they will mount. They will never know the name of the man who made them. At the clumsy work they will laugh; when the stones roll they will curse me. But they will mount, and on my work; they will climb, and by my stair! They will find her, and through me! And no man liveth to himself and no man dieth to himself."
The tears rolled from beneath the shrivelled eyelids. If Truth had appeared above him in the clouds now he could not have seen her, the mist of death was in his eyes.
"My soul hears their glad step coming," he said; "and they shall mount! they shall mount!" He raised his shrivelled hand to his eyes.
Then slowly from the white sky above, through the still air, came something falling, falling, falling. Softly it fluttered down, and dropped on to the breast of the dying man. He felt it with his hands. It was a feather. He died holding it.
From Olive Schreiner's Dreams (1890)