Flute and Violin and Other Kentucky Tales and Romances/Posthumous Fame
Posthumous Fame; or, a Legend of the Beautiful.
There once lived in a great city, where the dead were all but innumerable, a young man by the name of Nicholas Vane, who possessed a singular genius for the making of tombstones. So beautiful they were, and so fitly designed to express the shadowy pain of mortal memory or the bright forecasting of eternal hope, that all persons were held fortunate who could secure them for the calm resting-places of their beloved sleepers. Indeed, the curious tale was whispered round that the bereft were not his only patrons, but that certain personages who were peculiarly ambitious of posthumous fame—seeing they had not long to live, and unwilling to intrust others with the grave responsibility of having them—commemorated had gone to his shop and secretly advised with him respecting such monuments as might preserve their memories from too swift oblivion.
However this may fall out, certain it is that his calling had its secrets; and once he was known to observe that no man could ever understand the human heart until he had become a maker of tombstones. Whether the knowledge thus derived should make of one a laughing or a weeping philosopher, Nicholas himself remained a joyous type of youthful manhood—so joyous, in fact, that a friend of his who wrought in color, strolling one day into the workshop where Nicholas stood surrounded by the exquisite shapes of memorial marbles, had asked to paint the scene as a representation of Life chiselling to its beautiful purposes the rugged symbols of Death, and smiling as it wove the words of love and faith across the stony proofs of the universal tragedy. Afterwards, it is true, a great change was wrought in the young artisan.
He had just come in one morning and paused to look around at the various finished and unfinished mortuary designs.
"Truly," he said to himself all at once, "if I were a wise man, I'd begin this day's business by chiselling my own head-stone. For who knows but that before sunset my brother the grave-digger may be told to build me one of the houses that last till doomsday! And what man could then make the monument to stop the door of my house with? But why should I have a monument? If I lie beneath it, I shall not know I lie there. If I lie not there, then it will not stand over me. So, whether I lie there, or lie not there, what will it matter to me then? Aye; but what if, being dead only to this world and living in another, I should yet look on the monument erected to my memory and therefore be the happier? I know not; nor to what end we are vexed with this desire to be remembered after death. The prospect of vanishing from a poor, toilsome life fills us with such consternation and pain! It is therefore we strive to impress ourselves ineffaceably on the race, so that, after we have gone hence, or ceased to be, we may still have incorporeal habitation among all coming generations."
Here he was interrupted by a low knock at the door. Bidden to come in, there entered a man of delicate physiognomy, who threw a hurried glance around and inquired in an anxious tone:
"Sir, are you alone?"
"I am never alone," replied Nicholas in a ringing voice; "for I dwell hard by the gate-way of life and death, through which a multitude is always passing."
"Not so loud, I beseech you," said the visitor, stretching forth his thin, white hands with eager deprecation. "I would not, for the world, have any one discover that I have been here."
"Are you, then, a personage of such importance to the world?" said Nicholas, smiling, for the stranger's appearance argued no worldly consideration whatsoever. The suit of black, which his frail figure seemed to shrink away from with very sensitiveness, was glossy and pathetic with more than one covert patch. His shoes were dust-covered and worn. His long hair went round his head in a swirl, and he bore himself with an air of damaged, apologetic, self-appreciation.
"I am a poet," he murmured with a flush of pain, dropping his large mournful eyes beneath the scrutiny of one who might be an unsympathetic listener. "I am a poet, and I have come to speak with you privately of my—of the—of a monument. I am afraid I shall be forgotten. It is a terrible thought."
"Can you not trust your poems to keep you remembered?" asked Nicholas, with more kindliness.
"I could if they were as widely read as they should be." He appeared emboldened by his hearer's gentleness. "But, to confess the truth, I have not been accepted by my age. That, indeed, should give me no pain, since I have not written for it, but for the great future to which alone I look for my fame."
"Then why not look to it for your monument also?"
"Ah, sir!" he cried, "there are so many poets in the world that I might be entirely overlooked by posterity, did there not descend to it some sign that I was held in honor by my own generation."
"Have you never noticed," he continued, with more earnestness, "that when strangers visit a cemetery they pay no attention to the thousands of little head-stones that lie scattered close to the ground, but hunt out the highest monuments, to learn in whose honor they were erected? Have you never heard them exclaim: 'Yonder is a great monument! A great man must be buried there. Let us go and find out who he was and what he did to be so celebrated.' Oh, sir, you and I know that this is a poor way of reasoning, since the greatest monuments are not always set over the greatest men. Still the custom has wrought its good effects, and splendid memorials do serve to make known in years to come those whom they commemorate, by inciting posterity to search for their actions or revive their thoughts. I warrant you the mere bust of Homer—"
"You are not mentioning yourself in the same breath with Homer, I hope," said Nicholas, with great good-humor.
"My poems are as dear to me as Homer's were to him," replied the poet, his eyes filling.
"What if you are forgotten? Is it not enough for the poet to have lived for the sake of beauty?"
"No!" he cried, passionately. "What you say is a miserable error. For the very proof of the poet's vocation is in creating the beautiful. But how know he has created it? By his own mind? Alas, the poet's mind tells him only what is beautiful to him! It is by fame that he knows it—fame, the gratitude of men for the beauty he has revealed to them! What is so sweet, then, as the knowledge that fame has come to him already, or surely awaits him after he is dead?"
"We labor under some confusion of ideas, I fear," said Nicholas, "and, besides, are losing time. What kind of mon—"
"That I leave to you," interrupted the poet. "Only, I should like my monument to be beautiful. Ah, if you but knew how all through this poor life of mine I have loved the beautiful! Never, never have I drawn near it in any visible form without almost holding my breath as though I were looking deep, deep into God's opened eyes. But it was of the epitaph I wished to speak."
Hereupon, with a deeper flush, he drew from a large inside breast-pocket, that seemed to have been made for the purpose, a worn duodecimo volume, and fell to turning the much-fingered pages.
"This," he murmured fondly, without looking up, "is the complete collection of my poems."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Nicholas, with deep compassion.
"Yes, my complete collection. I have written a great deal more, and should have liked to publish all that I have written. But it was necessary to select, and I have included here only what it was intolerable to see wasted. There is nothing I value more than a group of elegiac poems, which every single member of my large family—who are fine critics—and all my friends, pronounce very beautiful. I think it would be a good idea to inscribe a selection from one on my monument, since those who read the selection would wish to read the entire poem, and those who read the entire poem would wish to read the entire collection. I shall now favor you with these elegies."
"I should be happy to hear them; but my time!" said Nicholas, courteously. "The living are too impatient to wait on me; the dead too patient to be defrauded."
"Surely you would not refuse to hear one of them," exclaimed the poet, his eyes flashing.
"Read one, by all means." Nicholas seated himself on a monumental lamb.
The poet passed one hand gently across his forehead, as though to brush away the stroke of rudeness; then, fixing upon Nicholas a look of infinite remoteness, he read as follows:
"He suffered, but he murmured not;
To every storm he bared his breast;
He asked but for the common lot—
To be a man among the rest.
"Here lies he now–"
"If you ask but for the common lot," interrupted Nicholas, "you should rest content to be forgotten."
But before the poet could reply, a loud knock caused him to flap the leaves of the "Complete Collection" together with one hand, while with the other he gathered the tails of his long coat about him, as though preparing to pass through some difficult aperture. The exaltation of his mood, however, still showed itself in the look and tone of proud condescension with which he said to Nicholas:
"Permit me to retire at once by some private pass way."
Nicholas led him to a door in the rear of the shop, and there, with a smile and a tear, stood for a moment watching the precipitate figure of the retreating bard, who suddenly paused when disappearing and tore open the breast of his coat to assure himself that his beloved elegies were resting safe across his heart.
The second visitor was of another sort. He hobbled on a cork leg, but inexorably disciplined the fleshly one into old-time firmness and precision. A faded military cloak draped his stalwart figure. Part of one bushy gray eyebrow had been chipped away by the same sword-cut that left its scar across his battle-beaten face.
"I have come to speak with you about my monument," he said in a gruff voice that seemed to issue from the mouth of a rusty cannon. "Those of my old comrades that did not fall at my side are dead. My wife died long ago, and my little children. I am old and forgotten. It is a time of peace. There's not a boy who will now listen to me while I tell of my campaigns. I live alone. Were I to die to-morrow my grave might not have so much as a head-stone. It might be taken for that of a coward. Make me a monument for a true soldier."
"Your grateful country will do that," said Nicholas.
"Ha?" exclaimed the veteran, whom the shock of battle had made deaf long ago.
"Your country," shouted Nicholas, close to his ear, "your country—will erect a monument–to your memory."
"My country!" The words were shot out with a reverberating, melancholy boom. "My country will do no such a thing. How many millions of soldiers have fallen on her battle-fields! Where are their monuments? They would make her one vast cemetery."
"But is it not enough for you to have been a true soldier? Why wish to be known and remembered for it?"
"I know I do not wish to be forgotten," he replied, simply. "I know I take pleasure in the thought that long after I am forgotten there will be a tongue in my monument to cry out to every passing stranger, Here lies the body of a true soldier. It is a great thing to be brave!"
"Is, then, this monument to be erected in honor of bravery, or of yourself?"
"There is no difference," said the veteran, bluntly. "Bravery is' myself."
"It is bravery," he continued, in husky tones, and with a mist gathering in his eyes that made him wink as though he were trying to see through the smoke of battle—"it is bravery that I see most clearly in the character of God. What would become of us if he were a coward? I serve him as my brave commander; and though I am stationed far from him and may be faint and sorely wounded, I know that he is somewhere on the battle-field, and that I shall see him at last, approaching me as he moves up and down among the ranks."
"But you say that your country does not notice you—that you have no friends; do you, then, feel no resentment?"
"None, none," he answered quickly, though his head dropped on his bosom.
"And you wish to be remembered by a world that is willing to forget you?"
He lifted his head proudly. "There are many true men in the world," he said, "and it has much to think of. I owe it all I can give, all I can bequeath; and I can bequeath it nothing but the memory of a true man."
One day, not long after this, there came into the workshop of Nicholas a venerable man of the gravest, sweetest, and most scholarly aspect, who spoke not a word until he had led Nicholas to the front window and pointed a trembling finger at a distant church-spire.
"You see yon spire?" he said. "It almost pierces the clouds. In the church beneath I have preached to men and women for nearly fifty years. Many that I have christened at the font I have married at the altar; many of these I have sprinkled with dust. What have I not done for them in sorrow and want! How have I not toiled to set them in the way of purer pleasures and to anchor their tempest-tossed hopes! And yet how soon they will forget me! Already many say I am too old to preach. Too old! I preach better than I ever did in my life. Yet it may be my lot to wander down into the deep valley, an idle shepherd with an idle crook. I have just come from the writing of my next sermon, in which I exhort my people to strive that their names be not written on earthly monuments or human hearts, but in the Book of Life. It is my sublimest theme. If I am ever eloquent, if I am ever persuasive, if I ever for one moment draw aside to spiritual eyes the veil that discloses the calm, enrapturing vistas of eternity, it is when I measure my finite strength against this mighty task. But why? Because they are the sermons of my own aspiration. I preach them to my own soul. Face to face with that naked soul I pen those sermons—pen them when all are asleep save the sleepless Eye that is upon me. Even in the light of that Eye do I recoil from the thought of being forgotten. How clearly I foresee it! Ashes to ashes, dust to dust! Where then will be my doctrines, my prayers, my sermons?"
"Is it not enough for you to have scattered your handful of good broadcast, to ripen as endlessly as the grass? What if they that gather know naught of him that sowed?"
"It is not enough. I should like the memory of me to live on and on in the world, inseparable from the good I may have done. What am I but the good that is in me? 'Tis this that links me to the infinite and the perfect. Does not the Perfect One wish his goodness to be associated with his name? No! No! I do not wish to be forgotten!"
"It is mere vanity."
"Not vanity," said the aged servitor, meekly. "Wait until you are old, till the grave is at your helpless feet: it is the love of life."
But some years later there befell Nicholas an event that transcended all past experiences, and left its impress on his whole subsequent life.
The hour had passed when any one was likely to enter his shop. A few rays of pale sunlight, straggling in through crevices of the door, rested like a dying halo on the heads of the monumental figures grouped around. Shadows, creeping upward from the ground, shrouded all else in thin, penetrable half-gloom, through which the stark gray emblems of mortality sent forth more solemn suggestions. A sudden sense of the earthly tragedy overwhelmed him. The chisel and the hammer dropped from his hands and, resting his head on the block he had been carving, he gave himself up to that mood of dim, distant reverie in which the soul seems to soar and float far above the shock and din of the world's disturbing nearness. On his all but oblivious ear, like the faint washings of some remote sea, beat the waves of the city's tide-driven life in the streets outside. The room itself seemed hushed to the awful stillness of the high aerial spaces. Then all at once this stillness was broken by a voice, low, clear, and tremuluous, saying close to his ear:
"Are you the maker of gravestones?"
"That is my sad calling," he cried, bitterly, starting up with instinctive forebodings.
He saw before him a veiled figure. To support herself, she rested one hand on the block he had been carving, while she pressed the other against her heart, as though to stifle pain.
"Whose monument is this?"
"A neglected poet's who died not long ago. Soon, perhaps, I shall be making one for an old soldier, and one for a holy man, whose soul, I hear, is about to be dismissed."
"Are not some monuments sadder to make than others?"
"What is the saddest you ever made?"
"The saddest monument I ever made was one for a poor mother who had lost her only son. One day a woman came in who had no sooner entered than she sat down and gave way to a passionate outburst of grief."
"'My good woman,' I said, 'why do you weep so bitterly?'
"'Do not call me good,' she moaned, and hid her face.
"I then perceived her fallen character. When she recovered self-control she drew from her sinful bosom an old purse filled with coins of different values.
"'Why do you give me this?' I asked.
"'It is to pay for a monument for my son,' she said, and the storm of her grief swept over her again.
"I learned that for years she had toiled and starved to hoard up a sum with which to build a monument to his memory, for he had never failed of his duty to her after all others had cast her out. Certainly he had his reward, not in the monument, but in the repentance which came to her after his death. I have never seen such sorrow for evil as the memory of his love wrought in her. For herself she desired only that the spot where she should be buried might be unknown. This longing to be forgotten has led me to believe that none desire to remembered for the evil that is in them, but only for some truth, or beauty, or goodness by which they have linked their individual lives to the general life of the race. Even the lying epitaphs in cemeteries prove how we would fain have the dead arrayed on the side of right in the thoughts of their survivors. This wretched mother and human outcast, believing herself to have lost everything that makes it well to be remembered, craved only the mercy of forgetfulness."
"And yet I think she died a Christian soul."
"You knew her, then?"
"I was with her in her last hours. She told me her story. She told me also of you, and that you would accept nothing for the monument you were at such care to make. It is perhaps for this reason that I have felt some desire to see you, and that I am here now to speak with you of—"
A shudder passed over her.
"After all, that was not a sad, but a joyous monument to fashion," she added, abruptly.
"Aye, it was joyous. But to me the joyous and the sad are much allied in the things of this life."
"And yet there might be one monument wholly sad, might there not?"
"There might be, but I know not whose it would be."
"If she you love should die, would not hers be so?"
"Until I love, and she I love is dead, I cannot know," said Nicholas, smiling.
"What builds the most monuments?" she asked, quickly, as though to retreat from her levity.
"Pride builds many—splendid ones. Gratitude builds some, forgiveness some, and pity some. But faith builds more than these, though often poor, humble ones; and love!—love builds more than all things else together."
"And what, of all things that monuments are built in memory of, is most loved and soonest forgotten?" she asked, with intensity.
"Nay, I cannot tell that."
"Is it not a beautiful woman? This, you say, is the monument of a poet. After the poet grows old, men love him for the songs he sang; they love the old soldier for the battles he fought, and the preacher for his remembered prayers. But a woman! Who loves her for the beauty she once possessed, or rather regards her not with the more distaste? Is there in history a figure so lonely and despised as that of the woman who, once the most beautiful in the world, crept back into her native land a withered hag? Or, if a woman die while she is yet beautiful, how long is she remembered? Her beauty is like heat and light—powerful only for those who feel and see it."
But Nicholas had scarcely heard her. His eyes had become riveted upon her hand, which rested on the marble, as white as though grown out of it under the labors of his chisel.
"My lady," he said, with the deepest respect, "will you permit me to look at your hand? I have carved many a one in marble, and studied many a one in life; but never have I seen anything so beautiful as yours."
He took it with an artist's impetuosity and bent over it, laying its palm against one of his own and stroking it softly with the other. The blood leaped through his heart, and he suddenly lifted it to his lips.
"God only can make the hand beautiful," he said.
Displaced by her arm which he had upraised, the light fabric that had concealed her figure parted on her bosom and slipped to the ground. His eyes swept over the perfect shape that stood revealed. The veil still concealed her face. The strangely mingled emotions that had been deepening within him all this time now blended themselves in one irrepressible wish.
"Will you permit me to see your face?"
She drew quickly back. A subtle pain was in his voice as he cried:
"Oh, my lady? I ask it as one who has pure eyes for the beautiful."
"My face belongs to my past. It has been my sorrow; it is nothing now."
"Only permit me to see it!"
"Is there no other face you would rather see?"
Who can fathom the motive of a woman's questions?
She drew aside her veil, and her eyes rested quietly on his like a revelation. So young she was as hardly yet to be a woman, and her beauty had in it that seraphic purity and mysterious pathos which is never seen in a woman's face until the touch of another world has chastened her spirit into the resignation of a saint. The heart of Nicholas was wrung by the sight of it with a sudden sense of inconsolable loss and longing.
"Oh, my lady!" he cried, sinking on one knee and touching his lips to her hand with greater gentleness. "Do you indeed think the beauty of a woman so soon forgotten? As long as I live, yours will be as fresh in my memory as it was the moment after I first saw it in its perfection and felt its power."
"Do not recall to me the sorrow of such thoughts." She touched her heart. "My heart is a tired hour-glass. Already the sands are wellnigh run through. Any hour it may stop, and then out—like a light! Shapeless ashes! I have loved life well, but not so well that I have not been able to prepare to leave it."
She spoke with the utmost simplicity and calmness, yet her eyes were turned with unspeakable sadness towards the shadowy recesses of the room, where from their pedestals the monumental figures looked down upon her as though they would have opened their marble lips and said, "Poor child! Poor child!"
"I have had my wish to see you and to see this place. Before long some one will come here to have you carve a monument to the most perishable of all things. Like the poor mother who had no wish to be remembered—"
Nicholas was moved to the deepest.
"I have but little skill," he said. "The great God did not bestow on me the genius of his favorite children of sculpture. But if so sad and sacred a charge should ever become mine, with his help I will rear such a monument to your memory that as long as it stands none who see it will ever be able to forget you. Year after year your memory shall grow as a legend of the beautiful."
When she was gone he sat self-forgetful until the darkness grew impenetrable. As he groped his way out at last along the thick guide-posts of death, her voice seemed to float towards him from every head stone, her name to be written in every epitaph.
The next day a shadow brooded over the place. Day by day it deepened. He went out to seek intelligence of her. In the quarter of the city where she lived he discovered that her name had already become a nucleus around which were beginning to cluster many little legends of the beautiful. He had but to hear recitals of her deeds of kindness and mercy. For the chance of seeing her again he began to haunt the neighborhood; then, having seen her, he would return to his shop the victim of more unavailing desire. All things combined to awake in him that passion of love whose roots are nourished in the soul's finest soil of pity and hopelessness. Once or twice, under some pretext, he made bold to accost her; and once, under the stress of his passion, he mutely lifted his eyes, confessing his love; but hers were turned aside.
Meantime he began to dream of the monument he chose to consider she had committed to his making. It should be the triumph of his art; but more, it would represent in stone the indissoluble union of his love with her memory. Through him alone would she enter upon her long after-life of saint-like reminiscence.
When the tidings of her death came, he soon sprang up from the prostration of his grief with a burning desire to consummate his beloved work.
"Year after year your memory shall grow as a legend of the beautiful."
These words now became the inspiration of his masterpiece. Day and night it took shape in the rolling chaos of his sorrow. What sculptor in the world ever espoused the execution of a work that lured more irresistibly from their hiding-places the shy and tender ministers of his genius? What one ever explored with greater boldness the utmost limits of artistic expression, or wrought in sterner defiance of the laws of our common forgetfulness?
One afternoon, when people thronged the great cemetery of the city, a strolling group were held fascinated by the unique loveliness of a newly erected monument.
"Never," they exclaimed, "have we seen so exquisite a masterpiece. In whose honor is it erected?"
But when they drew nearer, they found carved on it simply a woman's name.
"Who was she?" they asked, puzzled and disappointed. "Is there no epitaph?"
"Aye," spoke up a young man lying on the grass and eagerly watching the spectators. "Aye, a very fit ting epitaph."
"Where is it?"
"Carved on the heart of the monument!" he cried, in a tone of triumph.
"On the heart of the monument? Then we cannot see it."
"It is not meant to be seen."
"How do you know of it?"
"I made the monument."
"Then tell us what it is."
"It cannot be told. It is there only because it is unknown."
"Out on you! You play your pranks with the living and the dead."
"You will live to regret this day," said a thoughtful by-stander. "You have tampered with the memory of the dead."
"Why, look you, good people," cried Nicholas, springing up and approaching his beautiful master-work. He rested one hand lovingly against it and glanced around him pale with repressed excitement, as though a long-looked-for moment had at length arrived. "I play no pranks with the living or the dead. Young as I am, I have fashioned many monuments, as this cemetery will testify. But I make no more. This is my last; and as it is the last, so it is the greatest. For I have fashioned it in such love and sorrow for her who lies beneath it as you can never know. If it is beautiful, it is yet an unworthy emblem of that brief and transporting beauty which was hers; and I have planted it here beside her grave, that as a delicate white flower it may exhale the perfume of her memory for centuries to come.
"Tell me," he went on, his lips trembling, his voice faltering with the burden of oppressive hope—"tell me, you who behold it now, do you not wed her memory deathlessly to it? To its fair shape, its native and unchanging purity?"
"Aye," they interrupted, impatiently. "Cut the epitaph?"
"Ah!" he cried, with tenderer feeling, "beautiful as the monument is to the eye, it would be no fit emblem of her had it not something sacred hidden within. For she was not lovely to the sense alone, but had a perfect heart. So I have placed within the monument that which is its heart, and typifies hers. And, mark you!" he cried, in a voice of such awful warning that those standing nearest him instinctively shrank back, "the one is as inviolable as the other. No more could you rend the heart from the human bosom than this epitaph from the monument. My deep and lasting curse on him who attempts it! For I have so fitted the parts of the work together, that to disunite would be to break them in pieces; and the inscription is so fragile and delicately poised within, that so much as rudely to jar the monument would shiver it to atoms. It is put there to be inviolable. Seek to know it, you destroy it. This I but create after the plan of the Great Artist, who shows you only the fair outside of his masterpieces. What human eye ever looked into the mysterious heart of his beautiful—that heart which holds the secret of inexhaustible freshness and eternal power? Could this epitaph have been carved on the outside, you would have read it and forgotten it with natural satiety. But uncomprehended, what a spell I mark it exercises! You will—nay, you must—remember it forever! You will speak of it to others. They will come. And thus in ever-widening circle will be borne afar the memory of her whose name is on it, the emblem of whose heart is hidden within. And what more fitting memorial could a man rear to a woman, the pure shell of whose beauty all can see, the secret of whose beautiful being no one ever comprehends?"
He walked rapidly away, then, some distance off, turned and looked back. More spectators had come up. Some were earnestly talking, pointing now to the monument, now towards him. Others stood in rapt contemplation of his master-work.
Tears rose to his eyes. A look of ineffable joy overspread his face.
"Oh, my love!" he murmured, "I have triumphed. Death has claimed your body, heaven your spirit; but the earth claims the saintly memory of each. This day about your name begins to grow the Legend of the Beautiful."
The sun had just set. The ethereal white shape of the monument stood outlined against a soft background of rose-colored sky. To his transfiguring imagination it seemed lifted far into the cloud-based heavens, and the evening star, resting above its apex, was a celestial lamp lowered to guide the eye to it through the darkness of the descending night.
Mysterious complexity of our mortal nature and estate that we should so desire to be remembered after death, though born to be forgotten! Our words and deeds, the influences of our silent personalities, do indeed pass from us into the long history of the race and abide for the rest of time: so that an earthly immortality is the heritage, nay, the inalienable necessity, of even the commonest lives; only it is an immortality not of self, but of its good and evil. For Nature sows us and reaps us, that she may gather a harvest, not of us, but from us. It is God alone that gathers the harvest of us. And well for us that our destiny should be that general forgetfulness we so strangely shrink from. For no sooner are we gone hence than, even for such brief times as our memories may endure, we are apt to grow by processes of accumulative transformation into what we never were. Thou kind, kind fate, therefore—never enough named and celebrated—that biddest the sun of memory rise on our finished but imperfect lives, and then lengthenest or shortenest the little day of posthumous reminiscence, according as thou seest there is need of early twilight or of deeper shadows!
Years passed. City and cemetery were each grown vaster. It was again an afternoon when the people strolled among the graves and monuments. An old man had courteously attached himself to a group that stood around a crumbling memorial. He had reached a great age; but his figure was erect, his face animated by strong emotions, and his eyes burned beneath his brows.
"Sirs," said he, interposing in the conversation, which turned wholly on the monument, "you say nothing of him in whose honor it was erected."
"We say nothing because we know nothing."
"Is he then wholly forgotten?"
"We are not aware that he is at all remembered."
"The inscription reads: 'He was a poet.' Know you none of his poems?"
"We have never so much as heard of his poems."
"My eyes are dim; is there nothing carved beneath his name?"
One of the by-standers went up and knelt down close to the base.
"There was something here, but it is effaced by time Wait!" And tracing his finger slowly along, he read like a child;
"That is all," he cried, springing lightly up. "Oh, the dust on my knees?" he added with vexation.
"He may have sung very sweetly," pursued the old man.
"He may, indeed!" they answered, carelessly.
"But, sirs," continued he, with a sad smile, "perhaps you are the very generation that he looked to for the fame which his own denied him; perhaps he died believing that you would fully appreciate his poems."
"If so, it was a comfortable faith to die in," they said, laughing, in return. "He will never know that we did not. A few great poets have posthumous fame: we know them well enough." And they passed on.
"This," said the old man, as they paused elsewhere, "seems to be the monument of a true soldier: know you aught of the victories he helped to win?"
"He may not have helped to win any victories. He may have been a coward. How should we know? Epitaphs often lie. The dust is peopled with soldiers." And again they moved on.
"Does any one read his sermons now, know you?" asked the old man as they paused before a third monument.
"Read his sermons!" they exclaimed, laughing more heartily. "Are sermons so much read in the country you come from? See how long he has been dead! What should the world be thinking of, to be reading his musty sermons?"
"At least does it give you no pleasure to read He was a good man? "inquired he, plaintively.
"Aye; but if he was good, was not his goodness its own reward?"
"He may have also wished long to be remembered for it."
"Naturally; but we have not heard that his wish was gratified."
"Is it not sad that the memory of so much beauty and truth and goodness in our common human life should perish? But, sirs,"—and here the old man spoke with sudden energy—"if there should be one who combined perfect beauty and truth and goodness in one form and character, do you not think such a rare being would escape the common fate and be long and widely remembered?"
"Sirs," said he, quickly stepping in front of them with flashing eyes, "is there in all this vast cemetery not a single monument that has kept green the memory of the being in whose honor it was erected?"
"Aye, aye," they answered, readily. "Have you not heard of it?"
"I am but come from distant countries. Many years ago I was here, and have journeyed hither with much desire to see the place once more. Would you kindly show me this monument?"
"Come!" they answered, eagerly, starting off. "It is the best known of all the thousands in the cemetery. None who see it can ever forget it."
"Yes, yes!" murmured the old man. "That is why I have—I foresaw— Is it not a beautiful monument? Does it not lie—in what direction does it lie?"
A feverish eagerness seized him. He walked now beside, now before, his companions. Once he wheeled on them.
"Sirs, did you not say it perpetuates the memory of her—of the one—who lies beneath it?"
"Both are famous. The story of this woman and her monument will never be forgotten. It is impossible to forget it."
"Year after year—" muttered he, brushing his hand across his eyes.
They soon came to a spot where the aged branches of memorial evergreens interwove a sunless canopy, and spread far around a drapery of gloom through which the wind passed with an unending sigh. Brushing aside the lowest boughs, they stepped in awe-stricken silence within the dank, chill cone of shade. Before them rose the shape of a gray monument, at sight of which the aged traveller, who had fallen behind, dropped his staff and held out his arms as though he would have embraced it. But, controlling himself, he stepped forward, and said, in tones of thrilling sweetness:
"Sirs, you have not told me what story is connected with this monument that it should be so famous. I conceive it must be some very touching one of her whose name I read—some beautiful legend–" "Judge you of that!" interrupted one of the group, with a voice of stern sadness and not without a certain look of mysterious horror. "They say this monument was reared to a woman by the man who once loved her. She was very beautiful, and so he made her a very beautiful monument. But she had a heart so hideous in its falsity that he carved in stone an enduring curse on her evil memory, and hung it in the heart of the monument because it was too awful for any eye to see. But others tell the story differently. They say the woman not only had a heart false beyond description, but was in person the ugliest of her sex. So that while the hidden curse is a lasting execration of her nature, the beautiful exterior is a masterpiece of mockery which her nature, and not her ugliness, maddened his sensitive genius to perpetrate. There can be no doubt that this is the true story, as hundreds tell it now, and that the woman will be remembered so long as the monument stands—aye, and longer—not only for her loathsome—Help the old man!"
He had fallen backward to the ground. They tried in vain to set him on his feet. Stunned, speechless, he could only raise himself on one elbow and turn his eyes towards the monument with a look of preternatural horror, as though the lie had issued from its treacherous shape. At length he looked up to them, as they bent kindly over him, and spoke with much difficulty:
"Sirs, I am an old man—a very old man, and very feeble. Forgive this weakness. And I have come a long way, and must be faint. While you were speaking my strength failed me. You were telling me a story—were you not?—the story—the legend of a most beautiful woman, when all at once my senses grew confused and I failed to hear you rightly. Then my ears played me such a trick! Oh, sirs! if you but knew what a damnable trick my ears played me, you would pity me greatly, very, very greatly. This story touches me. It is much like one I seemed to have heard for many years, and that I have been repeating over and over to myself until I love it better than my life. If you would but go over it again—carefully—very carefully."
"My God, sirs!" he exclaimed, springing up with the energy of youth when he had heard the recital a second time, "tell me who started this story! Tell me how and where it began!"
"We cannot. We have heard many tell it, and not all alike."
"And do they—do you—believe—it is—true?" he asked, helplessly.
"We all know it is true; do not you believe it?"
"I can never forget it!" he said, in tones quickly grown harsh and husky. "Let us go away from so pitiful a place."
It was near nightfall when he returned, unobserved, and sat down beside the monument as one who had ended a pilgrimage.
"They all tell me the same story," he murmured, wearily. "Ah, it was the hidden epitaph that wrought the error! But for it, the sun of her memory would have had its brief, befitting day and tender setting. Presumptuous folly, to suppose they would understand my masterpiece, when they so often misconceive the hidden heart of His beautiful works, and convert the uncomprehended good and true into a curse of evil!"
The night fell. He was awaiting it. Nearer and nearer rolled the dark, suffering heart of a storm; nearer towards the calm, white breasts of the dead. Over the billowy graves the many-footed winds suddenly fled away in a wild, tumultuous cohort. Overhead, great black bulks swung heavily at one another across the tremulous stars.
Of all earthly spots, where does the awful discord of the elements seem so futile and theatric as in a vast cemetery? Blow, then, winds, till you uproot the trees! Pour, floods, pour, till the water trickles down into the face of the pale sleeper below! Rumble and flash, ye clouds, till the earth trembles and seems to be aflame! But not a lock of hair, so carefully put back over the brows, is tossed or disordered. The sleeper has not stretched forth an arm and drawn the shroud closer about his face, to keep out the wet. Not an ear has heard the riving thunderbolt, nor so much as an eyelid trembled on the still eyes for all the lightning's fury.
But had there been another human presence on the midnight scene, some lightning flash would have revealed the old man, a grand, a terrible figure, in sympathy with its wild, sad violence. He stood beside his masterpiece, towering to his utmost height in a posture of all but superhuman majesty and strength. His long white hair and longer white beard streamed outward on the roaring winds. His arms, bared to the shoulder, swung aloft a ponderous hammer. His face, ashen-gray as the marble before him, was set with an expression of stern despair. Then, as the thunder crashed, his hammer fell on the monument. Bolt after bolt, blow after blow. Once more he might have been seen kneeling beside the ruin, his eyes strained close to its heart, awaiting another flash to tell him that the inviolable epitaph had shared in the destruction.
For days following many curious eyes came to peer into the opened heart of the shattered structure, but in vain.
Thus the masterpiece of Nicholas failed of its end, though it served another. For no one could have heard the story of it, before it was destroyed, without being made to realize how melancholy that a man should rear a monument of execration to the false heart of the woman he once had loved; and how terrible for mankind to celebrate the dead for the evil that was in them instead of the good.