What Dreams May Come by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Part II. The Discord.
In the life of every man there comes a time when he is brought face to face with the great problem of morality. The murderer undoubtedly comprehends the problem in all its significance when he is about to mount the scaffold, the faithless wife when she is dragged through the divorce court, and her family and friends are humbled to the dust.
Dartmouth worked it out the next night as he sat by his library fire. He had given the afternoon to his business affairs, but when night threw him back into the sole companionship of his thoughts, he doggedly faced the question which he had avoided all day.
What was sin? Could anyone tell, with the uneven standard set up by morality and religion? The world smiled upon a loveless marriage. What more degrading? It frowned upon a love perfect in all but the sanction of the Church, if the two had the courage to proclaim their love. It discreetly looked another way when the harlot of "Society" tripped by with her husband on one hand and her lover on the other. A man enriched himself at the expense of others by what he was pleased to call his business sharpness, and died revered as a philanthropist; the common thief was sent to jail.
Dartmouth threw back his head and clasped his hands behind it. Of what use rehearsing platitudes? The laws of morality were concocted to ensure the coherence and homogeneity of society; therefore, whatever deleteriously affected society was crime of less or greater magnitude. He and Sioned Penrhyn had ruined the lives and happiness of two people, had made a murderer of the one, and irrevocably hardened the nature of the other: Catherine Dartmouth had lived to fourscore, and had died with unexpiated wrong on her conscience. They had left two children half-orphaned, and they had run the risk of disgracing two of the proudest families in Great Britain. Nothing, doubtless, but the cleverness and promptitude of Sir Dafyd Penrhyn, the secretive nature of Catherine Dartmouth, the absence of rapid-news transit, and the semi-civilization of Constantinople at that time, had prevented the affair from becoming public scandal. Poor Weir! how that haughty head of hers would bend if she knew of her grandmother's sin, even did she learn nothing of her own and that sin's kinship!
Dartmouth got up and walked slowly down the long room, his hands clasped behind him, his head bent. Heaven knew his "sins" had been many; and if disaster had never ensued, it had been more by good luck than good management. And yet--he could trace a certain punishment in every case; the woman punished by the hardening of her nature and the probability of complete moral dementia; the man by satiety and an absolute loss of power to value what he possessed. Therefore, for the woman a sullen despair and its consequences; for the man a feverish striving for that which he could never find, or, if found, would have the gall in the nectar of having let slip the ability to unreservedly and innocently enjoy.
And if sin be measured by its punishment! He recalled those years in eternity, with their hell of impotence and inaction. He recalled the torment of spirit, the uncertainty worse than death. And Weir? Surely no two erring mortals had ever more terribly reaped the reward of their wrong-doing.
What did it signify? That he was to give her up? that a love which had begun in sin must not end in happiness? But his love had the strength of its generations; and the impatient, virile, control-disdaining nature of the man rebelled. Surely their punishment had been severe enough and long enough. Had they not been sent back to earth and almost thrown into each other's arms in token that guilt was expiated and vengeance satisfied? Dartmouth stopped suddenly as this solution presented itself, then impatiently thrust a chair out of his way and resumed his walk. The consciousness that their affection was the perpetuation of a lustful love disheartened and revolted him. Until that memory disappeared his punishment would not be over.
He stopped and leaned his hand on the table. "I thought I was a big enough man to rise above conventional morality," he said. "But I doubt if any man is when circumstances have combines to make him seriously face the question. He might, if born a red Indian, but not if saturated in his plastic days with the codes and dogmas of the world. They cling, they cling, and reason cannot oust them. The society in whose enveloping, penetrating atmosphere he has lived his life decrees that it is a sin to seduce another man's wife or to live with a woman outside the pale of the Church. Therefore sin, down in the roots of his consciousness, he believes it; therefore, to perpetuate a sinful love--I am becoming a petty moralist," he broke off impatiently; "but I can't help it. I am a triumph of civilization."
He stood up and threw back his shoulders. "Let it go for the present," he said. "At another time I may look at it differently or reason myself out of it. Now I will try--"
He looked towards his study door with a flash in his eyes. He half turned away, then went quickly into the little room and sat down before the desk. Every day he would make the attempt to write, and finally that obstinate wedge in his brain would give way and his soul be set free.
He drew paper before him and took up a pen. For an hour he sat motionless, bending all his power of intellect, all the artistic instincts of his nature to the luring of his song-children from that closed wing in his brain. But he could not even hear their peremptory knocks as on the nights when he had turned from those summonses in agony and terror. He would have welcomed them now and dragged the visitants into the sunlight of his intelligence and forced the song from their throats.
He took the poem from his pocket and read it over. But it gave him no inspiration, it dulled his brain, rather, and made him feel baffled and helpless. But he would not give up; and dawn found him still with his pen in his hand. Then he went to bed and slept for a few hours. That day he gave little attention to his affairs. His melancholy, held at bay by the extraordinary experience through which he had passed, returned and claimed him. He shut himself up in his library until the following morning, and alternated the hours with fruitless attempts to write and equally fruitless attempts to solve the problem in regard to Weir. The next day and night, with the exception of a few hours' restless sleep, were spent in the same way.
At the end of the third day not a word had flowed from his pen, not a step nearer had he drawn to Weir. A dull despair took possession of him. Had those song-children fled, discouraged, and was he to be withheld from the one consolation of earthly happiness? He pushed back the chair in which he had been sitting before his desk and went into the library. He opened one of the windows and looked out. How quiet it was! He could hear the rising wind sighing through the yews, but all nature was elsewise asleep. What was she doing down at Rhyd-Alwyn? Sleeping calmly, or blindly striving to link the past with the present? He had heard from her but once since he left. Perhaps she too had had a revelation. He wondered if it were as quiet there as here, or if the waves at the foot of the castle still thundered unceasingly on. He wondered if she would shrink from him when the truth came to her. Doubtless, for she had been reared in the most rigid of moral conventions, and naturally catholic-minded as she was, right, to her, was right, and wrong was wrong. He closed the window and, throwing himself on a sofa, fell asleep. But his dreams were worse than his waking thoughts. He was wandering in eternal darkness looking for someone lost ages ago, and a voice beside him was murmuring that he would never find her, but must go on--on--forever; that the curse of some crime committed centuries ago was upon him, and that he must expiate it in countless existences and eternal torment. And far off, on the very confines of space, floated a wraith-like thing with the lithe grace of a woman whom he had loved on earth. And she was searching for him, but they described always the same circle and never met. And then, finally, after millions of years, an invisible hand clutched him and bore him upward onto a plane, hitherto unexplored, then left him to grope his way as he could. All was blackness and chaos. Around him, as he passed them, he saw that dark suns were burning, but there was nothing to conduct their light, and they shed no radiance on the horrors of their world. Below him was an abyss in which countless souls were struggling, blindly, helplessly, until they should again be called to duty in some sphere of material existence. The stillness at first was deathlike, oppressive; but soon he became aware of a dull, hissing noise, such as is produced on earth by the fusion of metals. The invisible furnaces were lost in the impenetrable darkness, but the heat was terrific; the internal fires of earth or those of the Bible's hell must be sickly and pale in comparison with this awful, invisible atmosphere of flame. Now and then a planet, which, obeying Nature's laws even here, revolved around its mockery of a sun, fell at his feet a river of fire. There was stillness no longer. The roaring and the exploding of the fusing metals, or whatever it might be, filled the vast region like the hoarse cries of wild beasts and the hissing of angry serpents. It was deafening, maddening. And there was no relief but to plunge into that abyss and drown individuality. He flew downward, and as he paused a moment on the brink, he looked across to the opposite bank and saw a figure about to take the leap like himself. It was a dim, shadowy shape, but even in the blackness he knew its waving grace. And she pointed down into the abyss of blind, helpless, unintelligent torment, and then--