When I woke, the ground was moist about me, and my track to the grave was growing a quicksand. In its ancient course the river was swelling, and had begun to shove at its burden. Soon it would be roaring down the precipice, and, divided in its fall, rushing with one branch to resubmerge the orchard valley, with the other to drown perhaps the monster horde, and between them to isle the Evil Wood. I set out at once on my return to those who sent me.
When I came to the precipice, I took my way betwixt the branches, for I would pass again by the cottage of Mara, lest she should have returned: I longed to see her once more ere I went to sleep; and now I knew where to cross the channels, even if the river should have overtaken me and filled them. But when I reached it, the door stood open still; the bread and the water were still on the table; and deep silence was within and around it. I stopped and called aloud at the door, but no voice replied, and I went my way.
A little farther, I came where sat a grayheaded man on the sand, weeping.
"What ails you, sir?" I asked. "Are you forsaken?"
"I weep," he answered, "because they will not let me die. I have been to the house of death, and its mistress, notwithstanding my years, refuses me. Intercede for me, sir, if you know her, I pray you."
"Nay, sir," I replied, "that I cannot; for she refuses none whom it is lawful for her to receive."
"How know you this of her? You have never sought death! you are much too young to desire it!"
"I fear your words may indicate that, were you young again, neither would you desire it."
"Indeed, young sir, I would not! and certain I am that you cannot."
"I may not be old enough to desire to die, but I am young enough to desire to live indeed! Therefore I go now to learn if she will at length take me in. You wish to die because you do not care to live: she will not open her door to you, for no one can die who does not long to live."
"It ill becomes your youth to mock a friendless old man. Pray, cease your riddles!"
"Did not then the Mother tell you something of the same sort?"
"In truth I believe she did; but I gave little heed to her excuses."
"Ah, then, sir," I rejoined, "it is but too plain you have not yet learned to die, and I am heartily grieved for you. Such had I too been but for the Lady of Sorrow. I am indeed young, but I have wept many tears; pardon me, therefore, if I presume to offer counsel:--Go to the Lady of Sorrow, and 'take with both hands'* what she will give you. Yonder lies her cottage. She is not in it now, but her door stands open, and there is bread and water on her table. Go in; sit down; eat of the bread; drink of the water; and wait there until she appear. Then ask counsel of her, for she is true, and her wisdom is great."
He fell to weeping afresh, and I left him weeping. What I said, I fear he did not heed. But Mara would find him!
The sun was down, and the moon unrisen, when I reached the abode of the monsters, but it was still as a stone till I passed over. Then I heard a noise of many waters, and a great cry behind me, but I did not turn my head.
Ere I reached the house of death, the cold was bitter and the darkness dense; and the cold and the darkness were one, and entered into my bones together. But the candle of Eve, shining from the window, guided me, and kept both frost and murk from my heart.
The door stood open, and the cottage lay empty. I sat down disconsolate.
And as I sat, there grew in me such a sense of loneliness as never yet in my wanderings had I felt. Thousands were near me, not one was with me! True, it was I who was dead, not they; but, whether by their life or by my death, we were divided! They were alive, but I was not dead enough even to know them alive: doubt WOULD come. They were, at best, far from me, and helpers I had none to lay me beside them!
Never before had I known, or truly imagined desolation! In vain I took myself to task, saying the solitude was but a seeming: I was awake, and they slept--that was all! it was only that they lay so still and did not speak! they were with me now, and soon, soon I should be with them!
I dropped Adam's old spade, and the dull sound of its fall on the clay floor seemed reverberated from the chamber beyond: a childish terror seized me; I sat and stared at the coffin-door.--But father Adam, mother Eve, sister Mara would soon come to me, and then--welcome the cold world and the white neighbours! I forgot my fears, lived a little, and loved my dead.
Something did move in the chamber of the dead! There came from it what was LIKE a dim, far-off sound, yet was not what I knew as sound. My soul sprang into my ears. Was it a mere thrill of the dead air, too slight to be heard, but quivering in every spiritual sense? I KNEW without hearing, without feeling it!
The something was coming! it drew nearer! In the bosom of my desertion awoke an infant hope. The noiseless thrill reached the coffin-door--became sound, and smote on my ear.
The door began to move--with a low, soft creaking of its hinges. It was opening! I ceased to listen, and stared expectant.
It opened a little way, and a face came into the opening. It was Lona's. Its eyes were closed, but the face itself was upon me, and seemed to see me. It was white as Eve's, white as Mara's, but did not shine like their faces. She spoke, and her voice was like a sleepy night-wind in the grass.
"Are you coming, king?" it said. "I cannot rest until you are with me, gliding down the river to the great sea, and the beautiful dream-land. The sleepiness is full of lovely things: come and see them."
"Ah, my darling!" I cried. "Had I but known!--I thought you were dead!"
She lay on my bosom--cold as ice frozen to marble. She threw her arms, so white, feebly about me, and sighed--
"Carry me back to my bed, king. I want to sleep."
I bore her to the death-chamber, holding her tight lest she should dissolve out of my arms. Unaware that I saw, I carried her straight to her couch.
"Lay me down," she said, "and cover me from the warm air; it hurts--a little. Your bed is there, next to mine. I shall see you when I wake."
She was already asleep. I threw myself on my couch--blessed as never was man on the eve of his wedding.
"Come, sweet cold," I said, "and still my heart speedily."
But there came instead a glimmer of light in the chamber, and I saw the face of Adam approaching. He had not the candle, yet I saw him. At the side of Lona's couch, he looked down on her with a questioning smile, and then greeted me across it.
"We have been to the top of the hill to hear the waters on their way," he said. "They will be in the den of the monsters to-night.--But why did you not await our return?"
"My child could not sleep," I answered.
"She is fast asleep!" he rejoined.
"Yes, now!" I said; "but she was awake when I laid her down."
"She was asleep all the time!" he insisted. "She was perhaps dreaming about you--and came to you?"
"And did you not see that her eyes were closed?"
"Now I think of it, I did."
"If you had looked ere you laid her down, you would have seen her asleep on the couch."
"That would have been terrible!"
"You would only have found that she was no longer in your arms."
"That would have been worse!"
"It is, perhaps, to think of; but to see it would not have troubled you."
"Dear father," I said, "how is it that I am not sleepy? I thought I should go to sleep like the Little Ones the moment I laid my head down!"
"Your hour is not quite come. You must have food ere you sleep."
"Ah, I ought not to have lain down without your leave, for I cannot sleep without your help! I will get up at once!"
But I found my own weight more than I could move.
"There is no need: we will serve you here," he answered. "--You do not feel cold, do you?"
"Not too cold to lie still, but perhaps too cold to eat!"
He came to the side of my couch, bent over me, and breathed on my heart. At once I was warm.
As he left me, I heard a voice, and knew it was the Mother's. She was singing, and her song was sweet and soft and low, and I thought she sat by my bed in the dark; but ere it ceased, her song soared aloft, and seemed to come from the throat of a woman-angel, high above all the region of larks, higher than man had ever yet lifted up his heart. I heard every word she sang, but could keep only this:--
"Many a wrong, and its curing song;
Many a road, and many an inn;
Room to roam, but only one home
For all the world to win!"
and I thought I had heard the song before.
Then the three came to my couch together, bringing me bread and wine, and I sat up to partake of it. Adam stood on one side of me, Eve and Mara on the other.
"You are good indeed, father Adam, mother Eve, sister Mara," I said, "to receive me! In my soul I am ashamed and sorry!"
"We knew you would come again!" answered Eve.
"How could you know it?" I returned.
"Because here was I, born to look after my brothers and sisters!" answered Mara with a smile.
"Every creature must one night yield himself and lie down," answered Adam: "he was made for liberty, and must not be left a slave!"
"It will be late, I fear, ere all have lain down!" I said.
"There is no early or late here," he rejoined. "For him the true time then first begins who lays himself down. Men are not coming home fast; women are coming faster. A desert, wide and dreary, parts him who lies down to die from him who lies down to live. The former may well make haste, but here is no haste."
"To our eyes," said Eve, "you were coming all the time: we knew Mara would find you, and you must come!"
"How long is it since my father lay down?" I asked.
"I have told you that years are of no consequence in this house," answered Adam; "we do not heed them. Your father will wake when his morning comes. Your mother, next to whom you are lying,----"
"Ah, then, it IS my mother!" I exclaimed.
"Yes--she with the wounded hand," he assented; "--she will be up and away long ere your morning is ripe."
"I am sorry."
"Rather be glad."
"It must be a sight for God Himself to see such a woman come awake!"
"It is indeed a sight for God, a sight that makes her Maker glad! He sees of the travail of His soul, and is satisfied!--Look at her once more, and sleep."
He let the rays of his candle fall on her beautiful face.
"She looks much younger!" I said.
"She IS much younger," he replied. "Even Lilith already begins to look younger!"
I lay down, blissfully drowsy.
"But when you see your mother again," he continued, "you will not at first know her. She will go on steadily growing younger until she reaches the perfection of her womanhood--a splendour beyond foresight. Then she will open her eyes, behold on one side her husband, on the other her son--and rise and leave them to go to a father and a brother more to her than they."
I heard as one in a dream. I was very cold, but already the cold caused me no suffering. I felt them put on me the white garment of the dead. Then I forgot everything. The night about me was pale with sleeping faces, but I was asleep also, nor knew that I slept.