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The Sexton’s Cottage
We had been for some time walking over a rocky moorland covered with dry plants and mosses, when I descried a little cottage in the farthest distance. The sun was not yet down, but he was wrapt in a gray cloud. The heath looked as if it had never been warm, and the wind blew strangely cold, as if from some region where it was always night.
“Here we are at last!” said the raven. “What a long way it is! In half the time I could have gone to Paradise and seen my cousin—him, you remember, who never came back to Noah! Dear! dear! it is almost winter!”
“Winter!” I cried; “it seems but half a day since we left home!”
“That is because we have travelled so fast,” answered the raven. “In your world you cannot pull up the plumb-line you call gravitation, and let the world spin round under your feet! But here is my wife’s house! She is very good to let me live with her, and call it the sexton’s cottage!”
“But where is your churchyard—your cemetery—where you make your graves, I mean?” said I, seeing nothing but the flat heath.
The raven stretched his neck, held out his beak horizontally, turned it slowly round to all the points of the compass, and said nothing.
I followed the beak with my eyes, and lo, without church or graves, all was a churchyard! Wherever the dreary wind swept, there was the raven’s cemetery! He was sexton of all he surveyed! lord of all that was laid aside! I stood in the burial-ground of the universe; its compass the unenclosed heath, its wall the gray horizon, low and starless! I had left spring and summer, autumn and sunshine behind me, and come to the winter that waited for me! I had set out in the prime of my youth, and here I was already!—But I mistook. The day might well be long in that region, for it contained the seasons. Winter slept there, the night through, in his winding-sheet of ice; with childlike smile, Spring came awake in the dawn; at noon, Summer blazed abroad in her gorgeous beauty; with the slow-changing afternoon, old Autumn crept in, and died at the first breath of the vaporous, ghosty night.
As we drew near the cottage, the clouded sun was rushing down the steepest slope of the west, and he sank while we were yet a few yards from the door. The same instant I was assailed by a cold that seemed almost a material presence, and I struggled across the threshold as if from the clutches of an icy death. A wind swelled up on the moor, and rushed at the door as with difficulty I closed it behind me. Then all was still, and I looked about me.
A candle burned on a deal table in the middle of the room, and the first thing I saw was the lid of a coffin, as I thought, set up against the wall; but it opened, for it was a door, and a woman entered. She was all in white—as white as new-fallen snow; and her face was as white as her dress, but not like snow, for at once it suggested warmth. I thought her features were perfect, but her eyes made me forget them. The life of her face and her whole person was gathered and concentrated in her eyes, where it became light. It might have been coming death that made her face luminous, but the eyes had life in them for a nation—large, and dark with a darkness ever deepening as I gazed. A whole night-heaven lay condensed in each pupil; all the stars were in its blackness, and flashed; while round it for a horizon lay coiled an iris of the eternal twilight. What any eye is, God only knows: her eyes must have been coming direct out of his own! the still face might be a primeval perfection; the live eyes were a continuous creation.
“Here is Mr. Vane, wife!” said the raven.
“He is welcome,” she answered, in a low, rich, gentle voice. Treasures of immortal sound seemed to he buried in it.
I gazed, and could not speak.
“I knew you would be glad to see him!” added the raven.
She stood in front of the door by which she had entered, and did not come nearer.
“Will he sleep?” she asked.
“I fear not,” he replied; “he is neither weary nor heavy laden.”
“Why then have you brought him?”
“I have my fears it may prove precipitate.”
“I do not quite understand you,” I said, with an uneasy foreboding as to what she meant, but a vague hope of some escape. “Surely a man must do a day’s work first!”
I gazed into the white face of the woman, and my heart fluttered. She returned my gaze in silence.
“Let me first go home,” I resumed, “and come again after I have found or made, invented, or at least discovered something!”
“He has not yet learned that the day begins with sleep!” said the woman, turning to her husband. “Tell him he must rest before he can do anything!”
“Men,” he answered, “think so much of having done, that they fall asleep upon it. They cannot empty an egg but they turn into the shell, and lie down!”
The words drew my eyes from the woman to the raven.
I saw no raven, but the librarian—the same slender elderly man, in a rusty black coat, large in the body and long in the tails. I had seen only his back before; now for the first time I saw his face. It was so thin that it showed the shape of the bones under it, suggesting the skulls his last-claimed profession must have made him familiar with. But in truth I had never before seen a face so alive, or a look so keen or so friendly as that in his pale blue eyes, which yet had a haze about them as if they had done much weeping.
“You knew I was not a raven!” he said with a smile.
“I knew you were Mr. Raven,” I replied; “but somehow I thought you a bird too!”
“What made you think me a bird?”
“You looked a raven, and I saw you dig worms out of the earth with your beak.”
“Toss them in the air.”
“They grew butterflies, and flew away.”
“Did you ever see a raven do that? I told you I was a sexton!”
“Does a sexton toss worms in the air, and turn them into butterflies?”
“I never saw one do it!”
“You saw me do it!—But I am still librarian in your house, for I never was dismissed, and never gave up the office. Now I am librarian here as well.”
“But you have just told me you were sexton here!”
“So I am. It is much the same profession. Except you are a true sexton, books are but dead bodies to you, and a library nothing but a catacomb!”
“You bewilder me!”
“That’s all right!”
A few moments he stood silent. The woman, moveless as a statue, stood silent also by the coffin-door.
“Upon occasion,” said the sexton at length, “it is more convenient to put one’s bird-self in front. Every one, as you ought to know, has a beast-self—and a bird-self, and a stupid fish-self, ay, and a creeping serpent-self too—which it takes a deal of crushing to kill! In truth he has also a tree-self and a crystal-self, and I don’t know how many selves more—all to get into harmony. You can tell what sort a man is by his creature that comes oftenest to the front.”
He turned to his wife, and I considered him more closely. He was above the ordinary height, and stood more erect than when last I saw him. His face was, like his wife’s, very pale; its nose handsomely encased the beak that had retired within it; its lips were very thin, and even they had no colour, but their curves were beautiful, and about them quivered a shadowy smile that had humour in it as well as love and pity.
“We are in want of something to eat and drink, wife,” he said; “we have come a long way!”
“You know, husband,” she answered, “we can give only to him that asks.”
She turned her unchanging face and radiant eyes upon mine.
“Please give me something to eat, Mrs. Raven,” I said, “and something—what you will—to quench my thirst.”
“Your thirst must be greater before you can have what will quench it,” she replied; “but what I can give you, I will gladly.”
She went to a cupboard in the wall, brought from it bread and wine, and set them on the table.
We sat down to the perfect meal; and as I ate, the bread and wine seemed to go deeper than the hunger and thirst. Anxiety and discomfort vanished; expectation took their place.
I grew very sleepy, and now first felt weary.
“I have earned neither food nor sleep, Mrs. Raven,” I said, “but you have given me the one freely, and now I hope you will give me the other, for I sorely need it.”
“Sleep is too fine a thing ever to be earned,” said the sexton; “it must be given and accepted, for it is a necessity. But it would be perilous to use this house as a half-way hostelry—for the repose of a night, that is, merely.”
A wild-looking little black cat jumped on his knee as he spoke. He patted it as one pats a child to make it go to sleep: he seemed to me patting down the sod upon a grave—patting it lovingly, with an inward lullaby.
“Here is one of Mara’s kittens!” he said to his wife: “will you give it something and put it out? she may want it!”
The woman took it from him gently, gave it a little piece of bread, and went out with it, closing the door behind her.
“How then am I to make use of your hospitality?” I asked.
“By accepting it to the full,” he answered.
“I do not understand.”
“In this house no one wakes of himself.”
“Because no one anywhere ever wakes of himself. You can wake yourself no more than you can make yourself.”
“Then perhaps you or Mrs. Raven would kindly call me!” I said, still nowise understanding, but feeling afresh that vague foreboding.
“How dare I then go to sleep?” I cried.
“If you would have the rest of this house, you must not trouble yourself about waking. You must go to sleep heartily, altogether and outright.”
My soul sank within me.
The sexton sat looking me in the face. His eyes seemed to say, “Will you not trust me?” I returned his gaze, and answered, “I will.”
“Then come,” he said; “I will show you your couch.”
As we rose, the woman came in. She took up the candle, turned to the inner door, and led the way. I went close behind her, and the sexton followed.