AILEEN: A MEMORY (The Soul of a Story)
"But to what headland of a strange shore, O my soul, art thou steering the course of my ship?" --PINDAR, Nem. iii.
This is not a story, in truth: it is a memory and a speculation.
One day many things fell away from her, or became unreal. A friend had said to her: "You cannot understand the thing I speak of, because you have all happiness and all fortune, and above all because you have no sorrow."
She had said that surely this life was enough: why did the mind crave so passionately for more life, for life to be taken up again? It troubled her. Thought was meshed in a net of dreams. Had she put her hand secretly upon sorrow, she wondered. She remembered an old tale of a mother, young too, and beautiful, who had all things of desire, and yet never saw the white flame of her heart's desire: to whom treasures of the world were as dust by the highway, blossom on the grass, foam on the shore. Below her gladness lay an incalculable sorrow, as below her beauty lay the enchantment of a beauty greater than hers. "You have all things," said those who loved her: and one added, "You of all people must long to live again, to taste life anew."
To live again--to taste life anew--Aileen wondered. Did she? No: in that thought her soul shook like a flame in wind. Could she not love Beauty, and yet be no bondager; reflect it, and yet be free of it, as a small pool reflects the mysterious march of the stars? It was a revelation to her that she had, unaware, nourished a pain that was with her every day, as the shadow of a mountain over a lake will lie in that lake from dawn to dayset, though wind and sunlight weave traceries from hour to hour.
And this pain--it was an irremediable loneliness. She suffered the more because this companion was unguessed by others. She strove to overcome, to ignore, to hide this phantom, which so often came on the breath of a rose or the vibration of a lovely sound, unexpectedly, subtly, as though wilfully clothing itself in the extreme essence of beautiful things, finding even the most delicate beauty too obvious.
One day she knew that fear had been born in her heart, and was a watcher there beside the other dweller. This fear was of life. It was a fear that life might not, after all, be laid away with the suspended breath. It was the fear of immortality. No, she thought, not that perhaps. She did not know. It was not the vague immortal life she feared: the"future" so long taught as a surety and outheld as a goal. It was the fear that life might have to be taken up again, here: that the soul had lives to go through, as, in the old tale, the King of Ireland's son had to live and die in the seven kingdoms of his inheritance before he should at last be free and let forth to be a wandering beggar. But the soul has little concern in our happiness or unhappiness. That silent watcher has her own inexplicable sorrow and her own inexplicable joy. All the rest is of hazard; and we may be happy and fortunate, and yet inwardly bow down before entranced sorrow --as we may have ills and misfortunes and gathered griefs, and yet inwardly rejoice with the pulse of life and the inextinguishable hope of that strong passion to be taken up again and lived anew.
And I wonder--I wonder--how often I have wondered if so beautiful and vivid a soul could really pass and be as dust upon the wind that is blown now this way and now that, and in the end is gathered to the wilderness of lifeless things. There is an old wisdom, that what the soul itself desires, that it shall surely have. And among the people to whom Aileen belonged there is a mysterious saying, "It is not every one, happy or unhappy, or good or bad, who has a living soul." Is there any wave upon the sea or leaf before the wind more feeble than the aimless will?--or is there any disaster of the spirit worse than that by which a winged destiny becomes a wingless and obscure fate? But who is to know how fatality is measured or how fulfilled--who is to know that behind the broken will there is not a heroic spirit upon whom has fallen the mystery of untimely sleep?
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