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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter25)

2006-08-28 22:56

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXV. In Which the Reader Shall Find Little to Do with the Story, and May, Therefore, Skip

  Is there anywhere in the world so damnable a place of torment as a bed? To lie awake through the slow, dragging hours, surrounded by a sombre quietude from whose stifling blackness thoughts, like demons, leap to catch us by the throat; or, like waves, come rolling in upon us, ceaselessly, remorselessly——burying us beneath their resistless flow, catching us up, whirling us dizzily aloft, dashing us down into depths infinite; now retreating, now advancing, from whose oncoming terror there is no escape, until we are once more buried beneath their stifling rush.

  To lie awake, staring wide-eyed into a crowding darkness wherein move terrors unimagined; to bury our throbbing temples in pillows of fire; to roll and toss until the soul within us cries out in agony, and we reach out frantic hands into a void that mocks us by the contrast of its deep and awful quiet. At such times fair Reason runs affrighted to hide herself, and foaming Madness fills her throne; at such times our everyday sorrows, howsoever small and petty they be, grow and magnify themselves until they overflow the night, filling the universe above and around us; and of all the woes the human mind can bear——surely Suspicion gnaws deeper than them all!

  So I lay beneath the incubus, my temples clasped tight between my burning palms to stay the maddening ring of the hammer in my brain. And suspicion grew into certainty, and with certainty came madness; imagination ran riot: she was a Messalina——a Julia ——a Joan of Naples——a veritable Succuba——a thing polluted, degraded, and abominable; and, because of her beauty, I cursed all beautiful things, and because of her womanhood, I cursed all women. And ever the hammer beat upon my brain, and foul shapes danced before my eyes——shapes so insanely hideous and revolting that, of a sudden, I rose from my bed, groaning, and coming to the casement——leaned out.

  Oh! the cool, sweet purity of the night! I heard the soft stir and rustle of leaves all about me, and down from heaven came a breath of wind, and in the wind a great raindrop that touched my burning brow like the finger of God. And, leaning there, with parted lips and closed eyes, gradually my madness left me, and the throbbing in my brain grew less.

  How many poor mortals, since the world began, sleepless and anguish-torn——even as I——have looked up into that self-same sky and sorrowed for the dawn!

  "For her love, in sleep I slake,For her love, all night I wake,For her love, I mourning make More than any man!"

  Poor fool! to think that thou couldst mourn more than thy kind!

  Thou'rt but a little handful of gray dust, ages since, thy name and estate long out of mind; where'er thou art, thou shouldst have got you wisdom by now, perchance.

  Poor fool! that thou must love a woman——and worship with thy love, building for her an altar in thine heart. If altar crumble and heart burst, is she to blame who is but woman, or thou, who wouldst have made her all divine?

  Well, thou'rt dead——a small handful of gray dust, long since ——perchance thou hast got thee wisdom ere now——poor fool——O Fool Divine!

  As thou art now, thy sleepless nights forgot——the carking sorrows of thy life all overpast, and done——so must I some time be, and, ages hence, shall smile at this, and reckon it no more than a broken toy——heigho!

  And so I presently turned back to my tumbled bed, but it seemed to me that torment and terror still waited me there; moreover, I was filled with a great desire for action. This narrow chamber stifled me, while outside was the stir of leaves, the gentle breathing of the wind, the cool murmur of the brook, with night brooding over all, deep and soft and still.

  Being now dressed, I stood awhile, deliberating how I might escape without disturbing her who slumbered in the outer room. So I came to the window, and thrusting my head and shoulders sidewise through the narrow lattice, slowly, and with much ado, wriggled myself out. Rising from my hands and knees, I stood up and threw wide my arms to the perfumed night, inhaling its sweetness in great, deep breaths, and so turned my steps towards the brook, drawn thither by its rippling melody; for a brook is a companionable thing, at all times, to a lonely man, and very full of wise counsel and friendly admonitions, if he but have ears to hear withal.

  Thus, as I walked beside the brook, it spoke to me of many things, grave and gay, delivering itself of observations upon the folly of Humans, comparing us very unfavorably with the godlike dignity of trees, the immutability of mountains, and the profound philosophy of brooks. Indeed it waged most eloquent upon this theme, caustic, if you will, but with a ripple, between whiles, like the deep-throated chuckle of the wise old philosopher it was.

  "Go to!" chuckled the brook. "Oh, heavy-footed, heavy-sighing Human——go to! It is written that Man was given dominion over birds and beasts and fishes, and all things made, yet how doth Man, in all his pride, compare with even a little mountain? And, as to birds and beasts and fishes, they provide for themselves, day in and day out, while Man doth starve and famish! To what end is Man born but to work, beget his kind, and die? O Man! lift up thy dull-sighted eyes——behold the wonder of the world, and the infinite universe about thee; behold thyself, and see thy many failings and imperfections, and thy stupendous littleness ——go to! Man was made for the world, and not the world for man! Man is a leaf in the forest——a grain of dust borne upon the wind, and, when the wind faileth, dust to dust returneth; out upon thee, with thy puny griefs and sorrows.

  "O Man!——who hath dominion over all things save thine own heart, and who, in thy blind egotism, setteth thyself much above me, who am but a runlet of water. O Man! I tell thee, when thou art dusty bones, I shall still be here, singing to myself in the sun or talking to some other poor human fool, in the dark. Go to!" chuckled the brook, "the Wheel of Life turneth ever faster and faster; the woes of to-day shall be the woes of last year, or ever thou canst count them all——out upon thee——go to!"

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