Women's Short Fictions: A Nineteenth-Century Online Anthology--return to Index

Spofford, The Amber Gods--continued

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Astra Castra, Numen Lumen.

The click of her needles and the soft singing of the night-lamp are the only sounds breaking the stillness, the awful stillness, of this room.  How the wind blows without!  it must be whirling white gusty drifts through the split hills.  If I were as free!  Whistling round the gray gable, tearing the bleak boughs, crying faint hoarse moans down the chimneys!  A wild, sad gale!  There is a lull, a long breathless lull, before it soughs up again.  Oh, it is like a pain!  Pain!  Why do I think the word?  Must I suffer any more?  Am I crazed with opiates?  or am I dying?  They are in that drawer,--laudanum, morphine, hyoscyamus, and all the drowsy sirups,--little drops, but soaring like a fog and wrapping the whole world in a dull ache with no salient sting to catch a groan on.  They are so small, they might be lost in this long, dark room; why not the pain too, the point of pain, I?  A long, dark room; I at one end, she at the other; the curtains drawn away from me that I may breathe.  Ah, I have been stifled so long!  They look down on me, all those old dead and gone faces, those portraits on the wall,--look all from their frames at me, the last term of the race, the vanishing summit of their design.  A fierce weapon thrust into the world for evil has that race been,--from the great gray Willoughby, threatening with his iron eyes there, to me, the sharp apex of its suffering.  A fierce, glittering blade!  Why I alone singled for this curse?  Rank blossom, rank decay, they answer, but falsely.  I lie here, through no fault of mine, blasted by disease, the dread with no relief.  A hundred ancestors look from my walls and see in me the centre of their lives, of all their little splendor, of their sins and follies; what slept in them wakes in me.  Oh, let me sleep too!

How long could I live and lose nothing?  I saw my face in the hand-glass this morning,--more lovely than health fashioned it;--transparent skin, bounding blood with its fire burning behind the eye, on cheek, on lip,--a beauty that every pang has aggravated, heightened, sharpened, to a superb intensity, flushing, rapid, unearthly,--a brilliancy to be dreamed of.  Like a great autumn leaf I fall, for I am dying,--dying!  Yes, death finds me more beautiful than life made me; but have I lost nothing?  Great Heaven, I have lost all!

A fancy comes to me, that to-day was my birthday.  I have forgotten to mark time; but if it was, I am thirty-two years old.  I remember birthdays of a child,--loving, cordial days.  No one remembers to-day.  Why should they?  But I ache for a little love.  Thirty-two,--that is young to die!  I am too fair, too rich, for death!--not his fit spoil!  Is there no one to save me?  no help? can I not escape?  Ah, what a vain eagerness!  what an idle hope!  Fall back again, heart!  Escape?  I do not desire to.  Come, come, kind rest!  I am tired.

That cap-string has loosened now, and all this golden cataract of hair has rushed out over the piled pillows.  It oppresses and terrifies me.  If I could speak, it seems to me that I would ask Louise to come and bind it up.  Won't she turn and see? . . .

Have I been asleep?  What is this in my hands?  The amber gods?  Oh, yes!  I asked to see them again; I like their smell, I think.  It is ten years I have had them.  They enchant; but the charm will not last; nothing will.  I rubbed a little yellow smoke out of them,--a cloud that hung between him and the world, so that he saw only me,--at least--What am I dreaming of?  All manner of illusions haunt me.  Who said anything about ten years?  I have been married ten years.  Happy, then, ten years?  Oh, no!  One day he woke.--How close the room is!  I want some air.  Why don't they do something--

Once, in the pride of a fool, I fear having made some confidence, some recital of my joys to ears that never had any.  Did I say I would not lose him?  Did I say I could live just on the memory of that summer?  I lash myself that I must remember it!  that I ever loved him!  When he stirred, when the mist left him, when he found a mere passion had blinded him, when he spread his easel, when he abandoned love,--was I wretched?  I, too, abandoned love!--more,--I hated!  All who hate are wretched.  But he was bound to me!  Yes, he might move restlessly,--it only clanked his chains.  Did he wound me!  I was cruel.  He never spoke.  He became artist,--ceased to be man,--was more indifferent than the cloud.  He could paint me then,--and, revealed and bare, all our histories written in me, he hung me up beside my ancestors.  There I hang.  Come from thy frame, thou substance, and let this troubled phantom go!  Come? for he gave my life to thee.  In thee he shut and sealed it all, and left me as the empty husk.--Did she--that other--join us then?  No!  I sent for her.  I meant to teach him that he was yet a man,--to open before him a gulf of anguish; but I slipped down it.  Then I dogged them; they never spoke alone;  I intercepted the eye's language; I withered their wintry smiles to frowns; I stifled their sighs; I checked their breath, their motion.  Idle words passed our lips; we three lived in a real world of silence, agonized mutes.  She went.  Summer by summer my father brought her to us.  Always memory was kindled afresh, always sorrow kept smouldering.  Once she came; I lay here; she has not left me since.  He,--he also comes; he has soothed pain with that loveless eye, carried me in untender arms, watched calmly beside my delirious nights.  He who loved beauty has learned disgust.  Why should I care?  I, from the slave of bald form, enlarged him to the master of gorgeous color; his blaze is my ashes.  He studies me.  I owe him nothing. . . .

Is it near morning?  Have I dozed again?  Night is long.  The great hall-clock is striking,--throb after throb on the darkness.  I remember, when I was a child, watching its lengthened pendulum swing as if time were its own and it measured the thread slowly, loath to part,--remember streaking its great ebony case with a little finger, misting it with a warm breath.  Throb after throb,--is it going to peal forever?  Stop, solemn clangor!  hearts stop.  Midnight.

The nurses have gone down; she sits there alone.  Her bent side-face is full of pity. Now and then her head turns; the great brown eyes lift heavily, and lie on me,--heavily,--as if the sight of me pained her.  Ah, in me perishes her youth! death enters her world!  Besides, she loves me.  I do not want her love,--I would fling it off; but I am faint,--I am impotent, --I am so cold!  Not that she lives, and I die,--not that she has peace, and I tumult,--not for her voice's music,--not for her eye's lustre,--not for any charm of her womanly presence,--neither for her clear, fair soul,--nor that when the storm and winter pass and I am stiff and frozen, she smiles in the sun and leads new life,--not for all this I hate her; but because my going gives her what I lost,--because, I stepped aside, the light falls on her,--because from my despair springs her happiness.  Poor fool! let her be happy, if she can!  Her mother was a Willoughby!  And what is a flower that blows on a grave? . . .

Why do I remember so distinctly one night alone of all my life,--one night, when we dance in the low room of a seaside cottage,--dance to Lu's singing!  He leads me to her when the dance is through, brushing with his head the festooned nets that swing from the rafters,--and in at the open casement is flown a butterfly, from off the sea.  She holds it compassionately, till I pin it on my dress,--the wings, twin magnificences, freckled and barred and powdered with gold, fluttering at my breath.  Some one speaks with me; she strays to the window, he follows, and they are silent.  He looks far away over the gray loneliness stretching beyond.  At length he murmurs:  "A brief madness makes my long misery.  Louise, if the earth were dazzled aside from her constant pole-star to worship some bewildering comet, would she be more forlorn than I?"

"Dear Rose!  your art remains," I hear her say.

He bends lower, that his breath may scorch her brow.  "Was I wrong?  Am I right?" he whispers, hurriedly. "You loved me once; you love me now, Louise, if I were free?"

"But you are not free."

She does not recoil, yet her very atmosphere repels him, while looking up with those woful eyes blanching her cheek by their gathering darkness.  "And, Rose--" she signs, then ceases abruptly, while a quiver of sudden scorn writhes spurningly down eyelid and nostril and pains the whole face.

He erects himself, then reaches his hand for the rose in her belt, glances at me,--the dead thing in my bosom rising and falling with my turbulent heart,--holds the rose to his lips, leaves her.  How keen are my ears!  how flushed my cheek!  how eager and fierce my eyes!  He approaches; I snatch the rose and tear its petals in an angry shower, and then a dim east-wind pours in and scatters my dream like flakes of foam.  All dreams go; youth and hope desert me, the dark claims me.  O room, surrender me!  O sickness and sorrow, loose your weary hold!

It maddens me to know that the sun will shine again, the tender grass grow green, the veery sing, the crocus come.  She will walk in the light and re-gather youth, and I moulder, a forgotten heap.  Oh, why not all things crash to ruin with me?--

Pain, pain, pain!  Where is my father?  Why is he away, when they know I die?  He used to hold me once; he ought to hear me when I call.  He would rest me, and stroke the grief aside,--he is so strong.  Where is he?

These amulets stumbling round again?  Amber, amber gods, you did mischief in your day!  If I clutched you hard, as Lu did once, all your spells would be broken.--It is colder than it was.  I think I will go to sleep.--

What was that?  How loud and resonant!  It stuns me.  It is too sonorous.  Does sound flash?  Ah! the hour.  Another?  How long the silver toll swims on the silent air!  It is one o'clock,--a passing bell, a knell.  If I were at home by the river, the tide would be turning down, down, and out to the broad, broad sea.  Is it worth while to have lived?

Have I spoken?  She looks at me, rises, and touches that bell-rope that always brings him.  How softly he opens the door!  Waiting, perhaps.  Well.  Ten years have not altered him much.  The face is brighter, finer,--shines with the eternal youth of genius.  They pause a moment;  I suppose they are coming to me; but their eyes are on each other.

Why must the long, silent look with which he met her the day I got my amber strike back on me now so vindictively?  I remember three looks; that, and this, and one other,--one fervid noon, a look that drank my soul that culminated my existence.  Oh, I remember!  I lost it a little while ago.  I have it now.  You are coming?  Can't you hear me?  See!  these costly liqueurs, these precious perfumes beside me here, if I can reach them, I will drench the coverlet in them; it shall be white and sweet as a little child's.  I wish they were the great rich lilies of that day; it is too late for the baby May-flowers.  You do not like amber?  There the thread breaks again!  the little cruel gods go tumbling down the floor!  Come, lay my head on your breast!  kiss my life off my lips!  I am your Yone!  I forgot a little while,--but I love you, Rose!  Rose!

*    *    *

Why!  I thought arms held me.  How clear the space is!  The wind from outdoors, rising again, must have rushed in.  There is the quarter  striking.  How free I am!  No one here?  No swarm of souls about me?  Oh, those two faces looked from a great mist, a moment since; I scarcely see them now.  Drop, mask!  I will not pick you up!  Out, out into the gale! back to my elements!

So I passed out of the room, down the staircase.  The servants below did not see me, but the hounds crouched and whined.  I paused before the great ebony clock; again the fountain broke, and it chimed the half-hour; it was half past one; another quarter, and the next time its ponderous silver hammers woke the house, it would be two.  Half past one?  Why, then did not the hands move?  Why cling fixed on a point five minutes before the first quarter struck?  To and fro, soundless and purposeless, swung the long pendulum.  And, ah! what was this thing I had become?  I had done with time.  Not for me the hands moved on their recurrent circle any more.

I must have died at ten minutes past one.

The end.

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Other Online texts by Spofford

  • Page 1--9 texts under Harriet Prescott or Harriet E. Prescott;
  • Page 2--15 texts under Harriet E. Prescott;
  • Page 3--2 texts under H.P. Spofford or H. Prescott Spofford;
  • Page 4--28 texts under Harriet Spofford, Harriet P. Spofford, and Harriet Prescott Spofford;
  • Page 5--30 texts under Harriet Prescott Spofford;
  • Page 6--29 texts under Harriet Prescott Spofford;
  • Page 7--29 texts under Harriet Prescott Spofford or Harriet Spofford;
  • Page 8--9 texts under Harriet Prescott Spofford.

Online Sources about Spofford

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