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They were ideal young people, and lived in a fairy farmhouse, in the Eldorado of lovers. Everything went happily with them; no troublesome grown-up people thwarted or annoyed them; they could be together as much as they liked, and had never in their whole lives heard of such a thing as impropriety. They had no enemies, nor so much as a single friend with conscientious ideas of duty. In spite of all this they were remarkably content with each other and with the world at large, and never did any wrong, to speak of, from week’s end to week’s end. For the rest, they had lived and played together ever since they could remember, had never quarrelled except to provide a pretext for a reconciliation; and she had always called him Eros, and he had always called her Psyche. They loved each other with all their hearts, and were a living refutation of the folly of those who would persuade us that pain and struggle are the necessary discipline of human beings. To see these two was enough to make one believe in the feasibility of setting up a new Garden of Eden on a durable basis.
Notwithstanding their fanciful nicknames, and exceptional surroundings and circumstances, Psyche and Eros were as thoroughly human in their thoughts and emotions as if they had lived in the most commonplace of country villages, and, although they had always been together, their temperaments were as wide asunder as the poles. Psyche was imaginative, dreamy, and sensitive to both mental and physical impressions; her gentle brown eyes would fill with tears at the lightest touch of pity or pathos, and the delicate bloom in her cheeks would fade and her girlish figure droop after but an hour’s illness. Yet she was entirely wholesome and healthy both in mind and body, and though her voice was low and soft, and her manner tender and appealing, she had a strength and courage in the cause of right and truth such as a son of Anak might have envied. Eros, on the other hand, took practical views of life, and prided himself upon his solid common sense. Being now on the verge of his twenty-first birthday, he affected a manly and dogmatic tone, as of one who knew the world, and had arrived at the maturity of his judgment. He was a red-cheeked, fair-haired, blue-eyed youth; sturdy, vigorous, and jocund. Psyche loved him devotedly, and took every occasion to persuade herself that he was the wisest as well as the dearest of mankind. But she could not help suspecting sometimes that he was not always quite amenable to reason, and would feel very guilty when the conviction was occasionally forced upon her that she had taken a higher view of this or that question than he had. On the whole, however, she continued to maintain the sense of her own inferiority unimpaired, and the more inferior she felt the better was she pleased.
Now it so happened that Eros would come of age on Christmas Day; and as if the falling together of these two celebrations were not enough, it had been decided to enhance their joyfulness by the addition of a third — which was to be neither more nor less than the young people’s wedding! Here, surely, was bliss enough to be crowded into one short twenty-four hours; and moreover, as Psyche observed, looking into her lover’s blue eyes with the frank shyness of her own brown ones, “What Christmas present could we make to each other so appropriate as the surrender of ourselves into each other’s keeping?”
Yes, this was bliss enough even for ideal young people who lived in a fairy farmhouse in the Eldorado of lovers. Nevertheless — if it will be believed — even this was not all! A fourth cause of rejoicing, and one to which Eros and Psyche looked forward with scarcely less delight than to their own near union, was the promised advent of an old and intimate friend of theirs, from whom they had been separated many years, but whom they had never forgotten, or ceased to reverence and love. He had been a young man when they were children, and they had looked upon him then, and did now, as a dear elder brother. He had been their confidant and adviser, the unweariable promoter and companion of their childish merrymakings; a teller of splendid stories, a man ardent, gay, sweet-tempered, wise. They had adored him as only children can adore such a friend; all his sayings were to them oracular, and all his doings superhuman. They fancied — with cause or without, it matters not — that but for him they would not even have loved each other as they did. He had brought out the best that was in them, and inspired that best to become better. He had shown Psyche the manliness that was in Eros, and had opened the eyes of Eros to the rare loveliness of Psyche. What did they not owe to him? And since he went away he had become transfigured in their memories.
Nine years had he been absent, a missionary among the heathen. But he had also travelled much in civilised lands, and had seen all manner of men and customs. Meantime he had written scores of delightful letters to the young friends who loved him — letters which they read and re-read scores of times, and thought more wonderful than his best stories in the old days. Throughout this long period he had never given up the purpose of seeing them again, and, if possible, to part no more. But still the intended meeting had been put off; for Mortimer — such was his name — had so much work to do in illuminating darkened souls, as to leave but a distant hope of ever being able to indulge his own personal desires. At length, however, the much-wished-for opportunity had presented itself, and Mortimer was really coming. A few days before Christmas the young people received a letter from him, telling the great news. This letter was addressed to Psyche, who, as was her right, insisted upon having it all to herself, and would not allow Eros to lay a finger on it. She indeed vouchsafed to read it aloud to him, but tantalised him by pretending to reserve certain passages to herself; because, as she archly averred, they contained secrets for her private ear. Eros, as her future lord and master, was half disposed to take umbrage at this exclusion, and, had the letter been from any other being in the wide world except Mortimer, there is no saying whether he might not actually have been jealous! But since he was debarred from jealousy, he solaced his discomfiture by putting on an air of complacent indifference, stroking his eyebrows with his forefinger, and twisting the ends of an almost imperceptible moustache. Psyche saw through his pretences, and knew that he was annoyed, and she hated to annoy him. Why, then, did she not hand him over the letter?
“I am on the point of setting sail,” the letter ran, “and probably shall arrive soon after you receive this. At all events, I am resolved to be with you on Christmas Eve — your marriage eve! Death alone can forestall me in that pleasure. I have said good-bye to my barbarians, who were very sorry to lose me, and fear that I shall never return to them. But I will; and I mean to bring you two — or you one, as you will be by that time — with me. Yes, my good old people; for though your home is Eldorado, mine is Paradise! Never was so beautiful a country — so tender and serene a climate; such gentle-hearted and Christian barbarians! It is a real Paradise, large enough and lovely enough to tempt all good souls to migrate thither; and I come forth into the world to find colonists, and bring them back with me. You will come, Psyche? and then I shall make sure that Eros will follow you, sooner or later!
“And so you are waiting for me to marry you? Well, I believe you are meant for each other, and I will do what I may to render your union sacred and perpetual. Not that I think mere earthly union is always the highest good for those who love. You know the old proverb; and there are lovers whose hearts never quite realise one another’s worth until separation has taught it them. Do you love your old friend, who used to go nutting, boating, snow-balling, and story-telling with you, any the less because you haven’t seen him for nine years? And would not you, Eros, love Psyche a thousand times better were some chance to part you from her awhile? You have never had her out of your sight, except when your eyes were shut, and you don’t half know how dear she is to you. It would do you good were I to take her with me to my Paradise, and leave you behind. Until you know what it is to be alone, and to see what you most want beyond your immediate reach, you do not know everything. But perhaps you will be content not to know?”
All this, and much more, did Psyche read to Eros. But at the end of the letter there was a postscript, having glanced at which she looked up towards her lover with a sudden apprehension in her eyes. His own happened to be averted; and after an instant’s hesitation, she folded up the letter and said, “The rest is a secret!”
“All right!” returned Eros, yawning, and getting up; “no woman can be entirely happy without a secret. Every man knows that; so I’ll make you a Christmas present of this one.” And with that he sauntered off, his hands in his pockets.
When he was gone Psyche unfolded the letter and read the postscript again.
“I sail to-morrow,” it said, “and am glad of it on more accounts than one. It is a long overland journey from my home to this port, and I did not know until I got here that a strange and fatal epidemic is wont to make its appearance in the town about this time of year. During the last few days it has broken out with great virulence, and people are dying all around me. It kills in a few hours, and gives no warning, save a passing chill. Well, I have no fears; I have passed unharmed through a hundred pestilences. Still, if I should fail to sit by your fireside next Christmas Eve, do not blame my will.”
“Dear old Mort!” Psyche murmured, tears standing in her eyes. “What if he had died, just as he was on his way to meet us after all these years! I won’t tell Eros; no, not even if it makes him angry. It’s better he should be angry than anxious. If anyone is to be anxious, let me be so. Only if Mort doesn’t come on Christmas Eve, then Eros must know. But he will come, I know; and we shall all be happy.”
It lacked scarcely three days to Christmas, and the house had to be arranged and decorated for the festivities. It was a house of a thousand to hold merrymakings in, and seemed really to take a genial interest in the preparations that were going forward, and to give it all the assistance that was in its power. Gray and weatherbeaten without, within it was warm and home-like. Square oaken beams divided the low ceilings of the rambling rooms; the deep fireplaces were dusky with the smoke of ten thousand fires; the mellow old kitchen was a world in itself; and the shadowy bed-chambers, with their great four-post bedsteads, were just the place to play hide-and-seek in with ghosts and goblins. Moreover, the best of feelings prevailed between the venerable mansion and the natural and elemental surroundings amidst which it had so long existed. The forest grouped itself artistically in the background; the hillside sloped lovingly towards it on the right; at a little distance, a clear-eyed pond smiled placid goodwill. And the rough spirits of Wind and Rain, Snow and Frost, seemed to grow soft and tractable in their sports with this time-honoured structure. “Merry Christmas!” they whispered, wept, and glistened; and the house glowed back a hearty response out of its diamond-paned lattices, and its clustered chimney breathed forth smoky satisfaction.
Meanwhile Eros and Psyche laboured with all their hearts and hands, and made the rooms green with ivy, holly, and laurel. In the parlour, beneath the cluster of mistletoe that hung from the ceiling, was arranged a little platform, with a daïs, and an altar-table covered with white samite. It was here that the marriage ceremony was to take place. By mid-day of Christmas Eve all the preparations were complete, and the two lovers were sitting together in the deep bay-window, half hidden by the ample curtains, and head-over-ears in lovers’ talk. They were big with the charming self-importance that belongs to young people in their condition. Love burned for them in the centre of all things — it illumined, warmed, and perfumed the whole world. For them the great earth turned more smoothly on her axis, and moved in a fairer orbit; the setting sun sank splendidly amidst his clouds for their sake; for their delight yonder rosy-cheeked boy ploughed his whistling way through the snow, and the sleigh-bells jingled so merrily from the distant road. If only Mortimer were there, their happiness would be complete. And now he must arrive every moment, so Eros kept saying, looking out of the window with confident expectation; but Psyche scarcely replied. Her soft little hands were cold and tremulous, and the corners of her sweet lips drooped as she thought of the secret that harboured in her breast. It was the first secret she had ever kept from Eros. Oh that it might resolve itself happily, and not — not as she now began to dread! For evening was coming on apace, and their friend had not yet come. He did not come, though he had promised that Death only should forestall him. As minute after minute slipped by, Psyche felt an almost irresistible impulse to snatch forth the letter from her bosom, where she had hidden it, and give it to her lover, that he might share and perhaps cheer her suspense. But she forebore; she was strong enough to suffer alone, and she felt, though hardly admitting it even to herself, that Eros was not so strong in that kind of strength as she. He would laugh at a blow from a fist such as would knock her senseless, but the blows of mental pain and disappointment he was but ill-fitted to endure. Thus thinking, the gentle Psyche crushed her trouble down, and even strove to forget it, or believe it unfounded and imaginary, if so she might answer her lover cheerfully, and in no way cast a shadow upon his Christmas Eve. But still that strange coldness crept at intervals through her veins, making her hands and her voice vibrate.
“Why, it’s quite dark already!” exclaimed Eros at length. “Surely the man means to be here by supper-time? I wonder how near he is now.”
“There may have been a delay. The snow is very deep, you know, in some places. Perhaps he won’t find it possible to get here before to-morrow.”
“Pooh! my dear little Psyche. You have forgotten the kind of man that our Mort is. When he says he’ll do a thing, he does it — if he’s alive. And in that very letter of yours, which you make such a mystery about, but which I know perfectly well has nothing in it more than you read to me — he says in that very letter that only Death would stand in the way of his getting here to-night. And since he’s a man in perfect health and in the prime of life, I don’t see what doubt there can be that he’ll keep his word. Only I do wish he’d told us the very hour, so that we mightn’t have had this suspense to bother us.”
“Do you suppose we shall recognise his face when he comes?” asked Psyche, after a little pause.
“Recognise him? Of course we shall!” returned Eros, positively, as became his masculine superiority. “He’ll be considerably changed, to be sure; very likely he’ll have a big black beard, and there’ll be a few lines across his forehead and round his eyes; but you mustn’t mind that. That sort of thing is bound to come on a man as he grows old. I’m beginning to find that out myself; and Mort — why he’s nearly forty by this time!”
“How very wise he will be!” murmured Psyche, thoughtfully. “He was the wisest person in the world before he went away; we shall be almost afraid of him now.”
“Well, as to that,” said Eros, rubbing his downy upper lip and smiling, “as to that, my dear Psyche, you must speak for yourself. Undoubtedly Mort, the dear old fellow, has an immense deal of information, and plenty of good sense to back it — which is more than always happens, I can assure you. But when a man reaches his majority, and is on the point of becoming a family man into the bargain — give me another, dear —— what was I going to say? Oh, well, I don’t think I shall be much afraid of him, or of anybody else, that’s all.”
“Eros,” whispered Psyche, feeling his strong young arm round her, and his hand on hers, “should you be willing to have him take us back with him to his Paradise, as he speaks of doing in the letter?”
“Well, my dear, that must depend a great deal upon circumstances. I shall talk with Mort, and see what he has to say about his place. We mustn’t forget that we’re very well situated as we are, and ought not to move unless we’re certain of bettering ourselves. The sort of society he speaks of might not suit us, you know; we’re not missionaries, and don’t care about barbarians as such. Mort, wise as he is, hasn’t much practical sense in some ways; not so much as — some men I know. He’s all for the loftiest and most ideal thing possible, without reflecting whether or not it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable too. In short, unless his Paradise turns out to be a finer place than I think it will, I shall feel inclined to keep hold on what we have. Besides, Psyche, any place that you are in will be Paradise to me.”
This compliment fairly merited the reward which Eros immediately claimed and took for it, and which, by its potent effect upon both giver and receiver, made speech seem impertinent for a time. Psyche sat gazing out across the darkened snow with her tender brown eyes, and Eros looked fondly on her, thinking that he loved her more than anything in the world, and that life would be a blank without her. Surely, were she to be taken from him, all his light and warmth would depart along with her. That passage in Mortimer’s letter which suggested that it might be well sometimes for lovers to be parted had received his unqualified, though unuttered, disapproval. Why should such a thing have been written? Often, since Psyche had read it to him, Eros had resolved to dismiss the idea from his mind; but such is the perversity of human minds that the idea remained in spite of him. It made him feel now and then really almost uneasy. The feeling, of course, was a morbid one; common sense and wholesome reason forbade him to entertain it. Had he no more confidence in Providence than to believe that it would take his Psyche from him — his Psyche, who had grown up with him from infancy? Would the good God be so cruel as to deprive him — and at this moment of all others — of the companionship of her whom he so loved? But the misgiving was unworthy of him. If he could not forget it, why then he would face it, and face it down.
He bent towards Psyche, and discovered, by some method known to lovers, that her eyes were wet with tears. When Love is in supreme command, the soul is more tenderly alive to various influences, and hence more prone to sadness of a certain kind, than at any other epoch of life. But Eros had never understood Psyche’s constitutional tendency to melancholy, and just now he found it especially inopportune.
“What makes you unhappy?” he exclaimed. “Aren’t we together, and haven’t we everything we want? And ought not this evening to be the most joyful we ever yet spent?”
She leaned her head on his shoulder, hiding a sigh. “I was wondering, dear,” she said, “whether, when we go to the real Paradise, we shall meet and know each other there as we do now. Do you believe we shall?”
There were few problems too profound for the plummet of Eros’s common sense to sound them. “Certainly we shall, my dear!” he answered emphatically. “What put such a question into your head?”
“But shall you love me then? And shall I be your own wife there, Eros, as I am to be here?”
“I really don’t see the use, my dear little Psyche, of bothering our heads with such gratuitous puzzles as that. There’s quite enough to attend to in this life, without trying to guess what may happen to us in the next. For my part, it’s enough to know that we love each other in the body, and are to be husband and wife here in this farmhouse. There’ll be time enough to speculate about other states when we are in them.”
“Ah! but, Eros,” said she, lifting her gentle face from his shoulder and looking in his eyes, “suppose that I were to die to-night — this very night, before our wedding! Could you be content to wait — could you rest satisfied with the love that we have already loved in this world, and with the knowledge that I was still loving you in Paradise, and would be yours when you came there?”
Eros felt an impulse of impatience, which he repressed so far as not to give it words; but he turned his face away. Those theories of delicate tissue and transcendental application, which Psyche was given to entertaining, irritated and silenced him. He loved Psyche, as an honest man should love a woman — better than any other man ever loved a woman, he thought; and what more could be expected of him? Besides, was it not being ungrateful for the blessings in their possession to be borrowing trouble from an improbable or unimaginable condition of things to come? It was really too bad, thought Eros, and he turned his face away and looked down the avenue, leaving Psyche unanswered.
It would have been quite dark now but for the whiteness of the snow. The wind was rising, and the window-seat was getting chilly, and Psyche’s hand, which still lay in his own, was cold as ice, and she herself seemed to shiver. The blinds must be closed, and they would go back to the fire, for Mortimer might not come till midnight, for all they knew. Stay! — what was that shadow moving this way up the avenue? Was it ——
“Psyche! Psyche! look!” cried Eros, starting to his feet in joyous excitement. “That must be — isn’t it? Yes, it must be Mortimer — it is our dear old Mort!”
“Oh Eros, I believe it is!” she answered, peering tremulously through the darkness. “I can’t see clearly; I had a vision of Death — that Death was coming instead of him!”
“Death, indeed!” exclaimed Eros, with a laugh. “Let this be a lesson to you, my dear, not to indulge in silly fancies again. But come on! We must receive the dear fellow at the door.”
He ran into the hall, Psyche following, and flung wide the heavy portal. A gust of icy wind burst in, as though it had been lying in wait for them on the threshold; and Psyche seemed to shrink away before it, and Eros himself could scarce repress a shiver. But they pressed forward again, and gazed out earnestly on the night. Yes, there could be no doubt about it now. There came their friend — he who was most honoured and trusted by them both, yet who, for nearly half their lives, had been a stranger to them — there he came, striding swiftly towards them across the snow. Only a dark, lofty shape he seemed; but the step, the bearing, were unmistakable; they were Mortimer’s own. By a simultaneous impulse the two young lovers threw one arm round each other, and extended the other to the advancing form. They could not cry out in welcome. Was it their great joy that silenced them? for joy will sometimes bind the faculties like awe. It was very dark, and neither had remembered to bring a light. Almost before they were aware of it their strange friend was standing close in front of them. How icy cold was the wind!
In moments of high feeling and excitement we do and say things as in a dream, and afterwards hardly remember how we acted. So was it now with Eros and Psyche. Did Mortimer take Eros’s hand in a grasp as soft and cold as snow? Did he kiss Psyche’s forehead with lips that sent a happy shudder to her heart? Did he speak to them in mellow, loving tones that sounded at once strange and familiar? And did they answer him? Or was it all a dream? Be that as it may, the spell soon passed off, and they found themselves in clear possession of their several senses once more. The long-expected guest had crossed their threshold, thrown aside his heavy cloak, and removed the soft fur cap from his black hair, and, Eros leading the way, the three friends had entered the warm, firelit parlour.
“Sit down, all of us!” cried the host, rubbing his hands together. “Draw up to the fire, and get warm, if you can. My stars, what a night! Psyche, you look as if you’d been kissed by an icicle; and you, Mort, you are as cold as death!”
They sat down round the broad hearth, the guest between the lovers; and as the firelight flickered over them, so flickered and fell and rose again their conversation. It often happens that, when we anticipate saying most, we find the least to say; and somewhat thus did it fall out in the present instance: or, perhaps, because in a meeting like this, however thoroughly foreshadowed and anticipated, there is apt to be a good deal of strangeness and unexpected diffidence to be overcome — perhaps it was for this reason that speech flowed but intermittently for a while. Nevertheless, the lovers could feel that they were every moment growing more and more into sympathy and understanding with their new old friend, and doing so even more speedily and completely than might have been possible through the uncertain medium of words. He diffused around him, without effort, and apparently without being conscious of it, a gentle and winning influence which was fairly irresistible; so that by-and-by Psyche and Eros fancied that never before had they known him so well as now. At the same time, however, Psyche was inwardly aware of a great, yet indescribable, change from that Mortimer who had bidden her farewell nine years before. The principle, the genius of the man remained; but it existed now within the sphere of such a mighty and grand personality as transcended all she had previously known or conceived. It was as if some beneficent angel had stooped from heaven to visit them, and, lest his celestial splendour should overwhelm them, had assumed the guise and tone of that human being in whom they felt the most affectionate trust. Through his manner and aspect, and the low resounding melody of his utterance, she seemed to catch glimpses of a power and wisdom almost superhuman; but blended with a deep kindliness and charity, and a sublimity of nature that were more human than humanity itself. She looked up to him, not in fear, but with a loving, familiar kind of reverence; and would have confided to him the choicest secrets of her heart.
The influence that he exercised was not of that kind which belongs to superior age. There was in him all the fire and vigour of unquenchable youth. His lofty figure was as alert and lightsome as it was majestic. His manner was instinct with gentle sprightliness and playfulness, and it was impossible not to feel cheery and hopeful in his company. The curve of his lips, and ever and anon the sudden kindling in his eyes, betrayed the fiery soul within; yet in everything that he said or did were visible the traces of a serene and absolute self-control.
“We are glad you came in time,” observed Eros at last. “We should never have got married, I believe, if you had not been here to tie the knot.”
“At least,” added Psyche, in her clear, subdued voice, “you will make it seem more beautiful and indissoluble, and give it a deeper significance, than anyone else could have done. Yes, I am glad you came in time. Do you know, Eros, I did not think Mortimer would come at all? That passage in the letter that I did not read you spoke of a strange pestilence, and immediately it came into my mind that Mortimer was dead. And even now,” she continued, turning to the guest, and half-timidly meeting his strong, unfathomable eyes with her own, “even now, though I see you here between us, I cannot feel as if our Mortimer were in this world. Are you really he? or a messenger come to tell us that he is gone?”
“I am alive — am I not?” answered the guest, with a particularly radiant smile; “and if I am, then your Mortimer is also. As to my getting here at the right time, I am always sure to do that; it would be a sad business, indeed, if I were not. But are you both certain that you are glad to have me here?”
“It would not be merry Christmas if you were not!” exclaimed Eros, heartily.
“I am not always so well received,” the other resumed. “I have been in all sorts of places, and have met all sorts of people, and almost all have called me abrupt and unceremonious. But then, not many know me for what I really am.”
“I think I know you,” said Psyche, after a pause; “and I cannot imagine myself so happy that your coming would not make me happier.”
“You need not fear to know me, Psyche,” returned the guest, with grave gentleness; “and really I am not so unsympathetic as I must often seem. But I have a task in the world which brings me less credit in the performance than in the after result. Mankind, you know, Eros, are not always wise and far-sighted enough to recognise at the moment what is most for their good in the long run.”
“Yes, I know that; but for my part I think I can tell what I need more quickly and surely than most people. For instance — that Psyche must be my wife, and that you must make her so.”
“You rate my powers too high,” rejoined their friend, smiling again. “God only can make a man and woman one.”
“Oh, I don’t trouble myself with such fine-drawn distinctions. If you pronounce the service over us, I will take the rest for granted. As I was telling Psyche the other day, it’s not worth while looking beyond this world. If she is mine here, I’ll risk our getting separated hereafter.”
“Hereafter may not be far off,” said the guest, more gravely than he had yet spoken. “You were best not to leave it out of the account.”
“Death is my enemy — I can see no good in him!” declared Eros; “and I will do the best I can to have my happiness in spite of him.”
“He doesn’t mean it!” exclaimed Psyche to their friend, in a low, appealing tone. “He knows that only Death can make Love immortal.”
“I must tell you,” observed the guest, after a pause, “that I cannot stay here long; I shall be gone to-night. What I came to do, therefore, must be done soon.”
“To-night!” cried Eros, in astonishment that was half incredulous. Psyche said nothing, but hid her face in her hands and shivered a little.
“I wished to make you happy — happier than you have ever been — if you would let me,” resumed the previous speaker. “Whoever has lofty beliefs will have a lofty fate. If your idea of marriage is high enough, you will not hesitate to come with me to my Paradise. How is it with you, Eros?”
“Not yet,” replied Eros, laughing and shaking his head. “It’s too far off, and the journey is too cold. If you are really determined to leave us, you must go without me. Surely you can’t expect me to be ready to start at such short notice? No, no! I mean to stay by this comfortable fireside for a long time yet, and so shall Psyche.”
“Death has summoned men on shorter notice than this,” said the other. “Think again before you decide.”
“I have decided; and I never change my mind,” said Eros, obstinately.
And truly his preference was not an unnatural one. The old parlour presented a most attractive aspect. The great log which had been burning on the broad hearth had now fallen into glowing fragments, over which small yellow and bluish flames danced intermittently. Everything was warm, home-like, and familiar. Out of doors the stars shone crisp and white, and the snow glistened pure as a maiden’s soul. But ah! it was so terribly cold; the beauty of the prospect could be enjoyed much better from the genial vantage-ground of the hearthstone.
“If that is your decision, you must abide by it,” said the guest, and something in the words, and in the manner they were uttered, awed Eros for the moment. Then, turning to Psyche, he continued: “But even your Eros cannot choose for you. What is your preference? Are you, too, willing to postpone Paradise for the fireside?”
Psyche was naturally more imaginative than most young girls, and possibly there was something in the shadowy mystery of the hour, and in her own physical and mental condition, that wrought upon her mood. A creeping languor and a chill which the heat of the embers could not counteract were gaining possession of her, and filling her brain with weird fancies. Insensibly, he who sat beside her, and whose icy lips she had felt upon her brow, had become clothed to her apprehension with an unearthly, superhuman personality. No man was he, but an angel of tender and mighty sway, stooping from heaven on the eve of Christmas, to hold high argument with two mortal lovers on those questions which most nearly concern their welfare. As she spoke her voice sounded faint and ethereal, while her eyes sought to penetrate the shadow which had fallen over the face of Eros.
“It is pleasant here,” she said; “yet if, in Paradise, our union may be eternal and secure, it is surely better to be there.”
“You will meet Eros where we are going,” returned the strange friend, gently, taking her hand in his own. “If not this Eros whom you have known here, then another and a worthier one than he.”
“Oh, not another,” whispered Psyche, entreatingly; “it must be this Eros — my own dear Eros whom I have always loved. I have lived with him, and our hearts are grown together. He is better and nobler than he seems.”
“It is not for me to decide,” was the answer. “But do you speak to him, Psyche. If he loves you, he will lay your words to heart.”
Psyche rose from her chair, and, stepping somewhat feebly, crossed to where Eros sat, and stood before him, her hands clasped. The room had become more dusky, so that the three figures appeared rather like shadows than beings of flesh and blood. For a moment or two there was silence, and only Psyche’s beseeching attitude seemed to speak.
“Eros,” she said at length, “I feel that I must go — I must go with this friend of ours. Do you know him, Eros? He is your friend as well as mine. You might have gone with us; but that was not to be. We shall not know marriage here, and we shall seem to be separated for a time. But if your love for me has been as great as mine for you, the memory of it, and the faith in what is to come, will heal the worst of the parting. Oh, my love, say it shall be so!”
“You are crazy — both of you!” cried Eros, wrestling with the fear that beset him, and striving to speak in an assured and masterful tone. “What has Mortimer to do with you, Psyche? You are mine, and whoever pretends to take you from me is my enemy!”
“Eros — Eros!” exclaimed the girl, with passionate earnestness, “it is you who are crazy, my poor darling. Mortimer is dead; and the letter which he wrote — the letter that I alone read and touched — had in it the contagion of the pestilence. It was the message of my death; and now my death has come.”
“Death shall not have you!” cried Eros, starting to his feet; and such was the vehemence of his rebellious anger that he felt ready to defy even Omnipotence. “What have I done that I should lose you? I have loved you truly and faithfully — why should not my love have its rightful fulfilment? It shall not go for naught and end in dust and ashes! As for this future you talk about, what is it? a misty possibility — an indefinite surmise — nothing! I say it is unjust and tyrannical, and I will not submit! Come to me, Psyche!”
He reached towards her through the dusk, but she seemed to falter backwards from him, and when he would have followed, the tall form of the mysterious guest rose between, and beneath that mighty and majestic gaze the eyes of Eros wavered, though the rebellion in him was unconquered still.
“You must yield her to me,” said those deep, reverberating tones; “yet it is not I that parts you. True lovers can be parted only through want of faith. Upon yourself alone, therefore, does it depend whether she leaves you for a time or for ever.”
Eros pressed his hands to his head. Every good and evil impulse of his soul was in deadly struggle for the mastery. Was his love greater than Death? or had the past been a delusion? Was the future to be a blank? He was but a man, with a man’s weaknesses. He must rise to higher levels through bitter trial, if at all; and except there were in him some elements of generous nobleness, to turn his stubborn self-will at the crisis of the conflict, the demon of mistrust would gain the victory. Had he such allies?
“Speak to him again, Psyche,” murmured the lofty presence, “you may yet prevail.”
“Eros,” she said, throwing all the tenderness of her loving soul into the word, “this is more than our friend — he is our brother. Love and Death should glorify each other. If they are enemies, Death becomes cruel and Love degraded. Yield me up now that you may possess me for ever. Oh, quick, my love — quick!”
The struggling man uttered a cry, heartrending, full of anguish. He was faint and giddy, and the world seemed to reel beneath his feet. He stretched out his arms. “I love you, Psyche,” he uttered. “Do not leave me behind; let me go with you!”
He felt her hand again within his own. “You are my own Eros,” she whispered in his ear. “I shall not altogether leave you; you will see me in dreams, and you will know that the Paradise I go to is near this earthly home of ours. At last — perhaps not for a long time — but at last we shall meet there. And now . . . take me to our marriage-altar, and let us say farewell there.”
They came to the little samite-covered table, Psyche supported between the other two. The lovers knelt down together, and the form of the mysterious guest bended beneficently above them. Then Psyche slowly drooped sideways, and Eros caught her in his arms. Yet no — she was not there!
Still kneeling, he looked upwards through the window into the clear winter night, and saw where two cloud-shapes seemed to flit hand in hand across the starlit purple of the heavens. A strange peace entered his lately tortured soul. The doubt in his love’s immortality was gone, and the struggle was ended.
“Take her, friend!” he cried, in a voice trembling with a deeper than earthly happiness. “So great is my love, that not in this world, nor with this mortal body, can I give it fit and full expression.”
He was left alone in the old parlour, with the dead embers of the fire upon the hearthstone. Christmas bells were ushering in what was to have been his wedding-day; but, like their sweet notes, his mortal hopes had been caught up to heaven, but were not lost there. It is many years since then, yet every returning Christmas has found the same light of peace in his face that first dawned there so long ago. No brooding sullenness or failing faith has changed it into gloom.
But who was the mysterious guest, and why did he bear the likeness of him whom, above all others, Eros and Psyche had loved? That is a question which answers itself in all our lives. For when the time comes — as come it must — that this majestic Presence is met face to face, shall we not trust that the countenance which will, perhaps, seem awful, may at least not be as that of a stranger whom we know not, and whose heart is indifferent towards us? Would it not be pleasant, at that hour, to recognise in him who must herald our entrance into a new society, the well-known features of one whom our previous life had made our most secure and faithful friend?
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