The Little Angel and Other Stories/Stepping-Stones
"MEN MAY RISE ON STEPPING-STONES OF THEIR DEAD SELVES TO HIGHER THINGS"
Have you ever happened to walk in a burial-ground?
Those little walled-in, quiet corners, overgrown with luscious grass, so small, and yet so ravenous, possess a peculiar dolorous poetry all their own.
Day after day thither are borne new corpses, a whole, immense, living, noisy city has been already borne thither one by one, and lo! the new city which has grown in its place is awaiting its turn—and the little corners remain ever the same, small, still, ravenous.
The peculiar air in them, the peculiar silence, and the lisping of the trees different there to anywhere else, are all mournful, pensive, tender. It is as though those white birches could not forget all those weeping eyes, which have sought the sky betwixt their green branches, and as though it were no wind, but deep sighs which keep swaying the air and the fresh leaves.
You, too, wander about the graveyard silent and pensive. Your ear is conscious of the gentle echoes of deep groans and tears, while your eyes rest on rich monuments, and modest wooden crosses; and the unmarked tombs of strangers, covering their dead, who were strangers when living, unmarked, unobserved. And you read the inscriptions on the monuments, and all these people who have disappeared from the world rise up in your imagination. You see them young, laughing, loving; you see them hale, loquacious, insolently confident in the endlessness of life.
And they are dead.
But is it necessary to go out of one's house to visit a burial ground? Is it not sufficient for this purpose, that the darkness of night should envelop you, and have swallowed up all the sounds of day?
How many rich and sumptuous monuments! How many unmarked graves of strangers!
But is night needful in order to visit a graveyard? Is not daytime enough—restless, noisy day, sufficient unto which is the evil thereof?
Look into your own soul, and then, be it day or night, you will find there a burial ground. Small greedy, having devoured so much! And a gentle, sorrowful, whisper will ye hear, an echo of bygone heavy groans when the dead was dear, whom ye left in the tomb, and could not forget nor cease to love. And monuments ye will see, and inscriptions half blotted out with tears; and still, obscure, little tombs; small and ominous mounds, under which is hidden something which once was living, although ye knew not its life, nor remarked its death. But, maybe, it was the very best in your soul——.
But why talk about it? Look for yourselves. And have you not indeed thus looked into your burial-ground every day, every single day of the long, weary year? Maybe as late as yesterday you recalled the dear departed, and wept over them. Maybe only yesterday you buried some one who had long been seriously ill, and had been forgotten even in life.
Lo! under the heavy marble surrounded by iron rails rests Love of mankind, and her sister Faith in them. How beautiful were they, and wondrous kind—these sisters. What bright light burned in their eyes, what strange power was wielded by their tender, white hands!
With what a caress did those white hands bring the cold drink to lips burning with thirst, and did feed the hungry. With what gentle care did they touch the sores of the sick, and healed them!
And they are dead, these sisters. They died of cold, as is said on the monument. They could not bear the icy wind in which life enveloped them.
And there, further on, a slanting cross marks the place where a Talent is buried in the earth. How bold it was, how noisy, how happy! It undertook anything, wished to do everything, and was confident that it could conquer the world.
And it is dead—died but lately, quietly, and unnoticed. One day it went among men, for long it was lost there, and it came back defeated, sad. Long it wept, long it strove to say something, and then without having said it—died.
And here is a long row of little sunken mounds. Who lies here?
Ah! yes. These are children. Little, keen, sportive Hopes. There were so many of them, they were so merry, and the soul was peopled with them. But one by one they died. They were so many, and they made such merriment in the soul.
It is quiet in the resting-place, and the leaves of the white birches rustle sadly.
But let the dead arise! Ye grim tombs ope wide, crumble to dust ye heavy monuments, ye iron bars give place!
Be it but for one day, for one moment, give freedom to those whom ye are smothering with your weight, and darkness!
Ye think they are dead! Oh, no! they live! They are silent, but they live.
Let them see the shining of the blue, cloudless sky, let them breathe the pure air of spring, let them be intoxicated with warmth and love.
Come to me my Talent that fell asleep. Why dost so drolly rub thine eyes. Does the sun blind thee? Does it not shine bright indeed? Thou laughest? Oh laugh, laugh on—there is so little of laughter among mankind. I too will laugh with thee. Look! there flies a swallow—let us fly after it! Has the tomb made thee too heavy? And what is that strange horror I see in thine eyes—like a reflection of the darkness of the tomb? No, no, don't! Don't cry. Don't cry, I say!
So glorious, indeed, is life for the risen!
And ye my dear little Hopes! What charming laughing faces are yours! Who art thou, stout, funny little cherub? I know thee not. And wherefore laughest thou? Has the tomb itself been unable to affright thee? Gently, my children, gently! Why dost insult it—see'st not how little, pale and weak it is become? Live ye in the world—and do not worry me. Do ye not see that I, too, have been in the tomb, and now my head is giddy with the sun, and the air, and gladness.
Ah! how glorious is life for the risen!
Come to me, ye lovely, majestic Sisters. Let me kiss your gentle white hands. What do I see? Is it bread ye are carrying? Did not the darkness of the tomb terrify you—so tender, womanly and weak; under the whelming mass did ye still think of bread for the hungry? Let me kiss your feet. I know where they will soon be going, your light, swift little feet. And I know that wherever they pass by flowers will spring up—wondrous, sweet-smelling flowers. Ye call. We will come, then.
Hither! my risen Talent—why stand gazing at the fleeting clouds. Hither! my little sportive Hopes.
I hear music. Don't shout so, cherub. Whence these wondrous sounds? Gentle, melodious, madly joyful, and sad, they speak of life eternal——
Nay, be ye not afraid. This will soon pass away. I weep, indeed, for joy!
Ah! how glorious is life for the risen!