Crowned with a mystic radiance as of trembling stars of fire, that sublime Figure towered between me and the moonlit sky; the face, austerely grand and beautiful, shone forth luminously pale,—the eyes were full of unquenchable pain, unspeakable remorse, unimaginable despair! The features I had known so long and seen day by day in familiar intercourse were the same,—the same, yet transfigured with ethereal splendour, while shadowed by an everlasting sorrow! Bodily sensations I was scarcely conscious of;—only the Soul of me, hitherto dormant, was awake and palpitating with fear. Gradually I became aware that others were around me, and looking, I saw a dense crowd of faces, wild and wonderful,— imploring eyes were turned upon me in piteous or stern agony, —and pallid hands were stretched towards me more in appeal than menace. And I beheld, as I gazed, the air darkening and anon lightening with the shadow and the brightness of wings!—vast pinions of crimson flame began to unfurl and spread upwards all round the ice-bound vessel,—upwards till their glowing tips seemed well-nigh to touch the moon. And He, my Foe, who leaned against the mast, became likewise encircled with these shafted pinions of burning rose, which, like finely-webbed clouds coloured by a strong sunset, streamed outwards flaringly from his dark Form and sprang aloft in a blaze of scintillant glory. And a Voice infinitely sad, yet infinitely sweet, struck solemn music from the frozen silence.
"Steer onward, Amiel! Onward, to the boundaries of the world!"
With every spiritual sense aroused I glanced towards the steersman's wheel,—was that Amiel? … that Being, stern as a figure of deadliest fate, with sable wings and tortured countenance? If so, I knew him for a fiend in very truth, if burning horror and endless shame can so transfigure the soul of man! A history of crime was written in his anguished looks, … what secret torment racked him no living mortal might dare to guess! With pallid skeleton hands he moved the wheel;—and as it turned, the walls of ice around us began to split with a noise of thunder.
"Onward, Amiel!" said the great sad Voice again— "Onward where never man hath trod,—steer on to the world's end!"
The crowd of weird and terrible faces grew denser,—the flaming and darkening of wings became thicker than driving storm-clouds rent by lightning,—wailing cries, groans and dreary sounds of sobbing echoed about me on all sides, … again the shattering ice roared like an earthquake under the waters, … and, unhindered by her frozen prison-walls, the ship moved on! Dizzily, and as one in a mad dream I saw the great glittering bergs rock and bend forward,—the massive ice-city shook to its foundations, … glistening pinnacles dropped and vanished, … towers lurched over, broke and plunged into the sea,—huge mountains of ice split up like fine glass, yawning asunder with a green glare in the moonlight as the 'Flame,' propelled, so it seemed, by the demon-wings of her terrific crew, cut through the frozen passage with the sharpness of a sword and the swiftness of an arrow! Whither were we bound? I dared not think,—I deemed myself dead. The world I saw was not the world I knew,—I believed I was in some spirit-land beyond the grave, whose secrets I should presently realize perchance too well! On,—on we went,—I keeping my strained sight fixed for the most part on the supreme Shape that always confronted me,—that Angel-Foe whose eyes were wild with an eternity of sorrows! Face to face with such Immortal Despair, I stood confounded and slain forever in my own regard,—a worthless atom, meriting naught but annihilation. The wailing cries and groans had ceased, —and we sped on in an awful silence,—while countless tragedies, unnamable griefs, were urged upon me in the dumb eloquence of the dreary faces round me, and the expressive teaching of their terrific eyes.
Soon the barriers of ice were passed,—and the 'Flame' floated out beyond them into a warm inland sea, calm as a lake, and bright as silver in the broad radiance of the moon. On either side were undulating shores, rich with lofty and luxuriant verdure,—I saw the distant hazy outline of dusky purple hills,—I heard the little waves plashing against hidden rocks, and murmuring upon the sand. Delicious odours filled the air;—a gentle breeze blew, … was this the lost Paradise?—this semi-tropic zone concealed behind a continent of ice and snow? Suddenly, from the tops of the dark branching trees, came floating the sound of a bird's singing,—and so sweet was the song, so heart-whole was the melody, that my aching eyes filled with tears. Beautiful memories rushed upon me,—the value and graciousness of life,—life on the kindly sunlit earth,—seemed very dear to my soul! Life's opportunities,—its joys, its wonders, its blessings, all showered down upon a thankless race by a loving Creator,—these appeared to me all at once as marvellous! Oh, for another chance of such life !—to redeem the past,—to gather up the wasted gems of lost moments,—to live as a man should live, in accord with the will of God and in brotherhood with his fellow-men! … The unknown bird sang on in a cadence like that of a mavis in spring, only more tunefully,—surely no other woodland songster ever sang half so well! And as its dulcet notes dropped roundly one by one upon the mystic silence, I saw a pale Creature move out from amid the shadowing of black and scarlet wings,—a white woman-shape, clothed in her own long hair. Slowly she glided to the vessel's edge, and there she leaned, with anguished face upturned,—it was the face of Sibyl! And even while I looked upon her, she cast herself wildly down upon the deck and wept. My soul was stirred within me, … I saw in very truth all that she might have been,—I realized what an angel a little guiding love and patience might have made her, … and at last I pitied her! I never pitied her before!
And now many familiar faces shone upon me like white stars in a mist of rain,—all faces of the dead,—all marked with unquenchable remorse and sorrow. One figure passed before me dreamily, in fetters glistening with a weight of gold,—I knew him for my college-friend of olden days; another, crouching on the ground in fear, I recognised as him who had staked his last possession at play, even to his immortal soul,—I even saw my father's face, worn and aghast with grief, -—and trembled lest the sacred beauty of her who had died to give me birth should find a place among these direful horrors.
But no !—thank God I never saw her! her spirit had not
lost its way to Heaven!
Again my eyes reverted to the Mover of this mystic scene, —that Fallen Splendour whose majestic shape now seemed to fill both earth and sky. A fiery glory blazed about him, … he raised his hand, … the ship stopped,—and the dark Steersman rested motionless on the wheel. Round us the moonlit landscape was spread like a glittering dream of fairyland,—and still the unknown bird of God sang on with such entrancing tenderness as must have soothed hell's tortured souls.
"Lo, here we pause!" said the commanding Voice. "Here, where the distorted shape of Man hath never cast a shadow!— here,—where the arrogant mind of Man hath never conceived a sin !—here, where the godless greed of Man hath never defaced a beauty, or slain a woodland thing !—here, the last spot on earth left untainted by Man's presence! Here is the world's end !—when this land is found and these shores profaned,—when Mammon plants its foot upon this soil,—then dawns the Judgment-Day! But, until then, … here, where only God doth work perfection, angels may look down undismayed, and even fiends find rest!''
A solemn sound of music surged upon the air,—and I who had been one as in chains, bound by invisible bonds and unable to stir, was suddenly liberated. Fully conscious of freedom I still faced the dark gigantic figure of my foe,—for his luminous eyes were now upon me, and his penetrating voice addressed me only.
"Man, deceive not thyself!" he said. "Think not the terrors of this night are the delusion of a dream or the snare of a vision! Thou art awake, not sleeping,—thou art flesh as well as spirit! This place is neither hell nor heaven nor any space between,—it is a corner of thine own world on which thou livest. Wherefore know from henceforth that the Supernatural Universe in and around the Natural is no lie, but the chief Reality, inasmuch as God surroundeth all! Fate strikes thine hour,—and in this hour 'tis given thee to choose thy Master. Now, by the will of God, thou seest me as Angel,— but take heed thou forget not that among men I am as Man! In human form I move with all humanity through endless ages, —to kings and counsellors, to priests and scientists, to thinkers and teachers, to old and young I come in the shape their pride or vice demands, and am as one with all! Self finds in me another Ego ;—but from the pure in heart, the high in faith, the perfect in intention, I do retreat with joy, offering naught save reverence, demanding naught save prayer! So am I,—so must I ever be,—till Man of his own will releases and redeems me. Mistake me not, but know me!—and choose thy Future for truth's sake and not for fear! Choose and change not in any time hereafter,—this hour, this moment is thy last probation,—choose, I say! Wilt thou serve Self and Me? or God only?"
The question seemed thundered on my ears, … shuddering, I looked from right to left, and saw a gathering crowd of faces, white, wistful, wondering, threatening and imploring,— they pressed about me close, with glistening eyes and lips that moved dumbly. And as they stared upon me I beheld another spectral thing,—the image of Myself!—a poor frail creature, pitiful, ignorant, and undiscerning,—limited in both capacity and intelligence, yet full of strange egotism and still stranger arrogance; every detail of my life was suddenly presented to me as in a magic mirror, and I read my own chronicle of paltry intellectual pride, vulgar ambition and vulgarer ostentation,—I realized with shame my miserable vices, my puny scorn of God, my effronteries and blasphemies; and in the sudden strong repulsion and repudiation of my own worthless existence, being and character, I found both voice and speech.
"god only!" I cried fervently. "Annihilation at His hands rather than life without Him! God only! I have chosen!"
My words vibrated passionately on my own ears, … and … even as they were spoken, the air grew misty with a snowy opalescent radiance, … the sable and crimson wings uplifted in such multitudinous array around me, palpitated with a thousand changeful hues, … and over the face of my dark Foe a light celestial fell like the smile of dawn! Awed and afraid I gazed upwards, … and there I saw a new and yet more wondrous glory, … a shining Figure outlined against the sky in such surpassing beauty and vivid brilliancy as made me think the sun itself had risen in vast Angel-shape on rainbow pinions! And from the brightening heaven there rang a silver voice, clear as a clarion-call,—
"Arise, Lucifer, Son of the Morning! One soul rejects thee;—one hour of joy is granted thee! Hence, and arise!"
Earth, air, and sea blazed suddenly into fiery gold,—blinded and stunned, I was seized by compelling hands and held firmly down by a force invisible, … the yacht was slowly sinking under me! Overwhelmed with unearthly terrors, my lips yet murmured—
"God! God only!" The heavens changed from gold to crimson—anon to shining blue, … and against this mass of wavering colour that seemed to make a jewelled archway of the sky, I saw the Form of him whom I had known as man, swiftly ascend god-like,—with flaming pinions and upturned glorious visage, like a vision of light in darkness! Around him clustered a million winged shapes,—but He, supreme, majestic, wonderful, towered high above them all, a very king of splendour, the glory round his brows resembling meteor-fires in an Arctic midnight,—his eyes, twin stars, ablaze with such great rapture as seemed half agony! Breathless and giddy, I strained my sight to follow him as he fled; … and heard the musical calling of strange sweet voices everywhere, from east to west, from north to south.
"Lucifer! Beloved and unforgotten! Lucifer, Son of the morning! Arise! … arise! … "
With all my remaining strength I strove to watch the vanishing upwards of that sublime Luminance that now filled the visible universe,—the demon-ship was still sinking steadily, … invisible hands still held me down, … I was falling, —falling,—into unimaginable depths, … when another voice, till then unheard, solemn yet sweet, spoke aloud—
''Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outermost darkness of the world! There let him find My Light!"
I heard,—yet felt no fear. "God only!" I said, as I sank into the vast profound,—and lo ! while the words yet trembled on my lips, I saw the sun! The sweet earth's sun!—the kindly orb familiar,—the lamp of God's protection,—its golden rim came glittering upwards in the east,—higher and higher it rose, making a golden background for that mighty Figure whose darkly luminous wings now seemed like sable storm-clouds stretched wide across the horizon! Once more … yet once, … the Angel-visage bent its warning looks on me, … I saw the anguished smile, … the great eyes burning with immortal sorrows! … then I was plunged forcibly downwards and thrust into an abysmal grave of frozen cold.