The day was dying, and the great crimson orb, surrounded by golden and purple clouds, half sunk below the horizon, looked like the domed roof of some vast temple. Each wrapped in his own thoughts, the aged man and I, together admired the exquisite beauty of that sky; but how differently did it impress us! The sage, wrinkled and bent, was reminded by the setting sun that his day too was drawing to a close; something like a sigh escaped him. Was it regret or anticipation of release?
"Father," I said, "such a scene fills my soul with delight, with hope. The beautiful colors and forms make me revel in dreams of brighter lands, of a better state, where there shall be only joy and goodness. Surely in time man will become more perfect even here. There is much to hope for; we must have faith in the future. What sayest thou?"
Raising his head, the old man said, "Hope! faith! enchanting illusions, interminable anticipations never to be fulfilled! Afar off we see a glittering light, soft and clear as that of the fire-flies that illumine the darkness of night. It is distant, very distant; that distance is the future, unknown, mysterious, always before us, never to be overtaken. We see the bright beam, but between it and us all is vague and shadowy. The solitary light is hope, with its glowing radiance, its deceptive mirage; hope that instills into us life and courage to go on—on—into the dim future of many griefs and few joys; that future from which, could they peer into it, many would shrink aghast, and to which others would wish to rush blindly forward to gather the yet unripe fruit that in their ignorance—poor fools!—they think will give them happiness. O, soft ray! O, fair hope! everchanging, never, never true! for delightful as the reality may be, how far does it fall short of the expectation! The nectar we have longed to quaff no sooner reaches our lips than it becomes embittered! Hope is but a vain shadow, and we cling to it as to a strong anchor; like the bright reflection cast by a mirror, its light withdrawn leaves us in yet greater darkness, Daughter, those who have no hope are never disappointed."
"Ah, let us not lose it!" I interrupted; "better to be disappointed than hopeless; few indeed are the brave souls that need not hope; many a weary spirit, without that one poor consolation, would pass through its joyless existence like a wanderer in the desert without sun or star to guide him on."
But the sage said, "Happy is he who after a lapse of years can yet hope! Happy the one whose heart has not grown sick from hope long deferred; for hope departed, can faith exist? Faith is hope's youngest sister. We hope, and have faith that our hopes will be realised. We cease to hope—for what then do we require faith? Faith for the hour in which we are, is not needed. Faith, embracing hope, is in the future; both are in fact mere words, void of meaning even for the most hopeful and faithful."
Gazing upon the wrinkled face of my companion my heart was filled with pity for one who had been robbed of all life's sweet illusions, and I said, "At least we have the happiness of doing good to the sorrowing and needy; we may ever rejoice in the exercise of charity. And yet, can lovely charity exist where hope and faith have fled?"
"No!" replied the aged man; "if we hope not for better things, have faith in no one, in nothing—the motive for charity is gone. Why put forth a hand to raise the fallen if we have no hope for them, if we believe they will fall again as surely as the sun will rise to-morrow? To relieve the temporary wants of a fellow-creature is called charity. The beggar wanders forth from his wretched hovel with hope and faith to win something from charity. He succeeds and shares his morsel with one as miserable as himself. The beggar in that brief hour exercises hope, faith, and charity. Thinkest thou that he would share the food if his heart was not buoyed up with the hope of obtaining more? Assuredly not! Had he not faith in to-morrow, he would not give away the mouthful that might preserve his own life. Let me tell thee, O, deluded young dreamer! that charity is trodden in the dust when the great law of self-preservation thrusts itself forward. Ah no! that beggar would hoard the fragment of food as a miser his treasure. In hopes of obtaining more to-morrow he is charitable to-day. Believe me, daughter, such is life in its stern reality. Poor humanity! with all its pride, its vices, its prated virtues, what is it? Make a hole in the earth, fill it to the brim with flesh—human or not human, all flesh is alike—return to that spot a few days later; gaze upon that same flesh. Ah! thou recoilest! None could recognize mother from brother, father from sister. All identity is gone, and millions of identities will spring from the destruction, identities that we either ignore or regard as infinitely inferior to ourselves; identities that are, in fact, no less important in the Great Whole than we—we who consider ourselves of such vast interest to the Supreme Power; we, who deem ourselves so wise! though we cannot even in our brief mundane life, learn half the wonders of the world we inhabit—this little ball of matter! Spread some earth over the pitful of flesh so foul to our coarse sight. Soon it will yield most sweet-scented flowers, nevertheless they and their perfume are the product of corruption."
The old man paused. Stretching my hand toward the darkening heavens, already studded with a few glittering stars, I asked him, "Is there, then, no perfect happiness in any part of that immensity, no divine abode where sorrow is unknown?"
"Happiness and sorrow only exist by comparison. The two conditions are as inseparable as light and shadow. Wert thou to live a million years in every part of the universe, thou couldst never escape all pain. To be, is to suffer as well as to rejoice. Subdue thy emotions in order to be less sensitive to grief, and thy capacity for joy will likewise be decreased. If thou wouldst know the way to avoid suffering as far as it lies in thy power, I admonish thee to commune much with nature, and little with man; and if thou desirest a cheerful spirit, see that thy body enjoys perfect health. For the rest, let conscience be thy guide—that is, do always what thou believest right."
"Canst tell me, father, what is truly right, what wrong?"
"The law-givers of each land will assure thee that right is to obey their mandates; and will chastise any divergence from them; while Nature, inexorable, will instantly inflict the penalty of any disobedience to her laws. Vice is to do anything that is unnatural. It is right for the creatures peopling sea and air to prey upon and devour each other; they obey that supreme law, self-preservation. Harsh as it may sound, selfishness is a law that all must obey.
"Those creatures follow that unerring guide called instinct, almost destroyed in man, who is now in a pitiable intermediate condition; having enough intelligence to enable him to make himself miserable by abusing instead of using. Alas! will he ever be intellectual enough to seek happiness through perfect obedience to nature's laws? The fanatic fasts until he is horrible to look upon, heaping indignities and torments on his unfortunate body. The glutton forces into his poor stomach what would be enough to keep two or three men in good health. Are not the fanatic and the glutton equally culpable and wretched? Be moderate in all things; crave neither wealth nor honors, for only knowledge and wisdom can give true satisfaction. Ponder my words, daughter, and thou dost not realize them to-day, thou wilt do so at some future time when we see each other no more."
- Published in "Home Journal," and in the "North British Advertiser" of Edinburgh.