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Life And Death
by [?]

In a city beyond far seas there dwelt a Youth who claimed not land nor gold, yet wealthier was than sceptered sovereign, richer far than fancy ever feigned. The great round earth, the sun, the moon and all the stars that flame like fireflies in the silken web of night were his, because garnered in the salvatory of his soul. And the beaded dew upon the morning-glories, the crimson tints of dawn, Iris’ bended bow and all the cloth-of-gold and robes of purple that mark the royal pathway of the descending sun; the perfume of all the flowers, the bulbul’s sensuous song, and every flowing line that marks woman’s perfect form he hoarded in his heart and gloated over as a miser does his gain. And the Youth was in love with Life and held her to his heart as God’s most gracious gift. Ah, beautiful was she, with her trustful eyes of blue, and hair of tangled sunbeams blown about a brow of alabaster, arms of ivory and bust whose rounded loveliness were a pulsing pillow where ever dreamed Desire–beautiful beyond compare, and sweet as odors blown across the brine from the island- valley of Avalon, mad’ning as Lydian music, in which swoons the soul of youth while all the passion in the blood beats time in delirious ecstasy. And Youth and Life built fair castles in the air, with turrets of sapphire and gates of beaten gold, wherein they dreamed the days away on a bed of thornless roses, drained the chalice of the honeysuckle, ate the lotus-bud and thought of naught in all the world but love. Of this soft dalliance was born a son, and Life cried with falling tears, “Now I am shamed!” “Nay,” said the Youth, “for I will hide our child within my heart and none shall know.” And Life laughed and kissed the boy, and called him Ambition, and hid him in the secret recesses of her lover’s heart, and gayly went and came as though her fair breasts had never burgeoned with a wealth of liquid pearl. But the child was restless within its prison house and beat against the walls, and grew day by day, and fought with teeth and nails, until the Youth cried out in agony. And Life said mockingly: “Hast not room enough within thy heart for one poor child to range– that heart which holds the earth, the sun and stars? Cast forth the foolish rubbish–the rainbow and the flowers, the incense and the summer sea. Make room, make room for thine and mine–though naught else doth remain.” He cast them forth with fond regret, and Ambition grew and filled his heart and strove with all his strength. The Youth looked no more upon the fair field flowers, but thought only of the victor’s wreath; he heard no melody but fame’s shrill trumpet rising ever louder on the blast, and saw no beauty but in Minerva’s laureled brow; the cool sylvan path became a blinding mountain trail, his hours of dalliance days of toil and nights of agony. The hidden son had become master of the sire, and all the host of Heaven melted into a single star which poured its baleful fire into his face the treacherous star of Hope. And so he strove with augmenting strength, his goal the highest, his guerdon the immortelles. But oft he fell, and cursed his folly for having left the flowery vale to beat against the barren mountain rocks; but Life upbraided him, and with her soft breath fanned the paling star to brighter flame–the star behind which lay the throne. And Death followed them, shadowy, indistinct, like a spirit wrapt in mist. And Life mocked at Death, crying: “Behold the envious strumpet doth follow, to despoil me of mine own! Faugh! How uncanny and how cold! What lover would hang upon those ashen lips? Her bosom is marble, and in her stony heart there flames no fire. With her Ambition perishes and the Star of Hope forever fades. Her house is a ghastly tomb, her bed the granite rock, her lover childless, for her womb is barren.” And the Youth, glancing with a shudder at the figure in the mist, drew close to Life and echoed her words with trembling lip, “How uncanny and how cold!” Thus fared he on through many a toilsome year, to where no shadow falls to East or West–to manhood’s glorious noon. He looked at the towering heights before him with undaunted eye, measuring his strength against the walls of stone. He glanced back, and a chill swept over him, for he was standing far up on the mountainside, he was in a barren desert whose level waste stretched back to the pathetic tomb where Love was left to starve and sweet Content lay festering in her shroud. “Fool,” cried Life, “why looked ye back like wife of ancient Lot? Now are ye indeed undone!” The voice was harsh and shrill, and starting as from an uneasy dream, he looked on Life with wide-open eyes and soul that understood. He found her far less fair than in the heydey of his youth, when he reveled in her voluptuous charms and loved her well. Her face was hard and stern as that of some hag from Hell; the sunlight had faded from her hair, the cestus of red roses become a poisonous serpent, her fragrant breath a consuming flame, her robe of glory, a sackcloth suit, begrimed with ashes, torn by thorns and stained with blood. “Thou hast changed, O Life!” he cried in horror. “Not so,” she said; “the change is thine. In youth you saw me not, but only dreamed you saw. She you loved was a creature of your vain imaginings; I am Life, mother of that scurvy brat, Ambition.” She pointed upward, saying: “Behold, thy star is gone, and the shining goal hangs pathless in the heavens. When the sun hath reached the zenith it must descend. Henceforth your path leads downward, for every hour will sap your lusty strength, and every step be weaker than the last, until you sink into senility. Come, my love, you do not know me yet; behold me as I am!” She cast aside her soiled and ragged robe and stood revealed in all her hideousness–a thing of horror. Her breasts distilled a poisonous dew, around her gaunt limbs aspics crawled, her eyes were fierce and hollow, and in one bony hand she held a scroll on which was writ the record of her frauds and follies, her sin and shame. “Come,” she cried mockingly, “let us on together. You may caress me as in the days of old, and I will answer with a curse. Hold me to your heart and I will wither it with my breath of flame. Praise me, and I will requite you with dishonor and crown you with the grewsome chaplets of grief. Fool! Thou hast striven for a prismatic bubble bursting on the crest of a receding wave. Why scorned you gold and lands to grasp at castles in the air? Why dreamed of the Dimiurgus when desiring harlots beckoned thee? Why dealt with open hand and unsuspecting heart when thrown ‘mid a world of thieves? Hadst thou been content and not aspired to rise above the grossness, the falsehood and the folly which is Life, I would have loved thee well and deceived thee with a painted beauty to the end–my foul breasts would have been to thee ever a fragrant bed of flowers. You have invaded Life’s mysteries, the penalty whereof is pain. You have looked upon the past; behold the future!” He looked, and saw a tortuous path winding downward through bogs and poisonous fens and bitter pools. In the far distance an old man, tottering beneath his weight of years, stood leaning on a staff, reading a riddle propounded by a sullen sphinx, and striving with failing intellect to understand–“Cui Bono?” Near by was an open grave, beside which an angel of mercy stood and beckoned him. “Thou hast tarried long, my lover,” she said in a low sweet voice that was the distant note of aeolian harp, or summer zephyr soughing through the pines. With a cry of gladness he cast himself into her cool arms; she touched his tired eyes with her soft white hands, she pressed a kiss upon his lips that drained his breath in an expiring gasp of pleasure all passionless, and, cradled upon her bosom like a weary child, he fell asleep. The burden and its bearer, hallowed by a pale glory as of St. Elmo’s fire sank into the open grave, yet the sphinx sat stolidly holding the painted riddle in his stony hand–“Cui Bono?” But there was none to answer; the path faded like the phosphorescent track of a ship in midnight waters, and all was dark. He turned fiercely to Life, a question on his lip, but ere he could utter it she had answered, with a bitter shrug: “The angel with the pitying eyes; the beauteous one?” My rival, Death–so uncanny and so cold! All who love me leave me for this sorceress, and she holds them ‘neath the magic of her spell forevermore. But what care I? I do take the grain and give to her the husk; I drink the wine and leave the lees. Mine the bursting bud, hers the withered flower. Go to her and thou wilt. I have slain Ambition and blotted thy foolish ignis fatuus from the firmament. For thee the very sun henceforth is cold, the moon a monstrous wheel of blood, the stars but aged eyes winking back their tears as they look upon thy broken altars and ruined fanes, the grass grown green above the ashes of thy dead. Go; I want thee not, for thou hast seen me as I am. I am for the red wine and wild revel, where ‘in Folly’s cup still laughs the bubble Joy’–for the idle day-dream and the sensuous dance, the fond kiss of foolish Love and the velvet couch of Lust.” Then Death came and stood near him, beautiful with a beauty all spirituelle, a world of pity in her eyes. But he shrank from her with a shudder, seeing which she said: “Am I indeed so cold–I, who warm the universe? Is the bosom of Mercy to be feared and the breath of peace despised? What is Life that she should mock me?–this hideous harlot whose kisses poison and whose words betray? Is she not the mother of all ills? Behold her demoniac brood: Hate and Horror, Discord and Disease, Pride and Pain! she is the creature of Time, the slave of Space. She is the bastard spawn of Heat and Moisture– was engendered ‘mid the unclean ooze of miasmic swamps, in the womb of noisome fens. And I? I am empress of all that is, or was, or can ever be. Come dwell with me, and all the earth shall be thy home, thy period eternity. Would’st live again? Then will I make of thy clustering locks grasses to wave in the cool meadows green, of thine eyes fair daisies that nod in the dewy dawn, of thy heart a great blush rose worn between the breasts of beauty, of thy body an oak to defy the elements, of thy blood a wave breaking in slumbrous thunder upon a beach of gold, of thy breath the jasmine’s perfume, of thy restless spirit the levin brand that crashes in thunder peal above the storm. Why press the cruel thorn into thy heart, the iron into thy soul? Thus do I clasp thee to a bosom ever true, and shield thee from the slings and arrows of the world. Thy hot heart beats faint and ever fainter ‘gainst its pulseless pillow, until it ceases with a sigh, and thou art mine and eternal peace is thine.”