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Jason's Quest by Charles Warren Stoddard

I.

This is a story of love for love, and how it came to naught. In it there shall be no marrying from mercenary motives; the manoeuvering mother-in-law is suppressed; Nature takes her course; and in the climax I strive to prove how sad a thing it is that men are modest and women weak.

Still, I do not lose faith in humanity, but hope for better things in the broad, bright future. I would respectfully call attention to the moral of this tale, and, as for the heroes and heroines of the hereafter, I cheerfully leave them to regulate their affairs upon a different basis; which basis, I devoutly believe, will be one of the inevitable results of time.

But, lo! the heroine approaches and the story begins!

Life with some of us is but the grouping of a few brilliant or sombre tableaux, which are like the famous lines in an epic that immortalize the whole. Maud's life was such a one, and her years had been rather unpicturesque until now, when the shadows began to deepen and the lights to grow more intense. In fact, she seemed to be approaching some sort of a climax, and she began to grow nervous about it, being just woman enough to dwell somewhat anxiously upon her anticipated d├ębut, and to hope for at least a decent appearance in her extremity.

The good-hearted, commonplace people of a pleasant country down the coast—which I will call Dreamland for convenience' sake—thought of Maud only as a gentle and humane little lady, with a comfortable income and a character above reproach. So Maud abode in peace with her maids at the seaside cottage, spending the still hours of Dreamland between her rose-garden on the sunny slope to the southward and the conservatory of lily-like nuns on the hill toward the sea.

Maud was unhappy in a world which had treated her very kindly indeed, and it was simply because she had a dove's heart, that was always fluttering in a strange place, and the face of a nun, that was for ever getting looked at by all sorts of people, much as it disliked that kind of treatment from the best of them.

The only reason why Maud preferred such a dull place as Dreamland to the splendid metropolis up the coast was that she might have a quiet time of it, and not be annoyed by the impudent metropolitans. In fact, she was tired of her lovers—all save one, a fine young fellow named Jason, but better known in Dreamland as John. I have mentioned, I believe, that Maud was in very good circumstances: I am sorry to add that Jason wasn't. He was rich only in his untried youth and the promises of a glorious manhood.

Jason loved Maud, and she knew it as well as she ever knew anything in her life—she knew it without his having told her. Had she not divined it by the infallible intuition of the heart, she might have lived believing herself unloved, for Jason hadn't the remotest idea of mentioning the fact. He could barely live comfortably by himself, frugal as he was; and he would not go to her empty-handed, though Heaven knows she had enough for two, and was dying to share it with him. He went his way, and the way was tedious enough in those days. Like a mirage, happiness glimmered before him, but his upright and patient steps brought him no nearer to its alluring vista.

Youth is impatient and sanguine, and Jason, in his impetuous and hopeful youth, besought the oracle, whose prophetic utterances seemed to imply that his future and his fortune lay in some distant land, and that it would be wise for him to seek it at once. Jason, like his illustrious predecessor, resolved to go over the sea in search of the golden fleece. It was the most adventurous thing he ever did, and Maud thought it a hopeless and a willful act; yet she could do nothing but hold her peace, while her poor heart was as near to breaking as possible—much nearer to breaking than it is usually safe for a maiden's heart to be.

So Jason gathered his mates—a reckless lot they were, too—and, having laden his barque and swung into the stream, his men said their final adieux, receiving quantities of pincushions and bookmarks, so indispensable to Argonauts, as testimonials of eternal fidelity from the maids of Dreamland.

Jason strode to the cottage and kissed the hand of Maud as if it were the hand of a princess; after which, with much embarrassment, he plucked a rose from her garden, while a pang pierced his heart till it ached again, and a thorn probed his finger till a drop of blood fell upon a myrtle leaf; which leaf Maud coveted, and keeps to this day—hugged to her in her grave-clothes.

It is of course best that this life should not be perfect, for the life to come might suffer by comparison; yet it is one of the cruelest decrees of Nature—if Nature has really decreed what seems so wholly against her—that a woman's heart must bide its time and be silent in the presence of its natural mate while every attribute of her being implores his recognition; and that the truest men are too honorable or too proud to yield themselves, having no offering but their honest love to lay at the feet of their mistresses. If it were not so, the princess would not have mourned in her garden for her flown mate, and there would have been much happiness on short notice.

Driven forth by the propitious winds, the barque fled from the shore, while Maud, seated among her roses, with weeping and wringing of hands, poured out upon the winds the burden of her love.

Why didn't Jason catch a syllable of that fervent prayer, reef, and come home to her? Then I need not have written this history, and all would have been well in Dreamland. But he didn't. He heard nothing but the sibilant waters as they rushed under his keel: he thought of nothing but the rose that was withering in the secret locker of his cabin, and of the wound in his heart that was gaping and as fresh as ever. So the night-winds hurried him onward, and the darkness absorbed the outlines of the dear Dreamland coast.

Maud watched the barque while it lessened and lessened in the distance, and the clouds blew over her, and it grew chilly and damp in the rose-garden—as chilly and damp as though it were not the abode of a princess who was beloved of the noblest of men. She watched the sail till it faded suddenly beyond the headland, and between it and her loomed the dark towers of the convent. Out on that troubled sea, seeking the golden fleece in some remote kingdom, tossed on the treacherous waves for her sake, in her white and radiant dreams she beheld Jason. Yet ever between him and her, hiding the lessening barque from the slope of the rose-garden, loomed the dark towers of the convent.

II.

Jason and his fellows coursed the seas, scanning with eager eyes the cloudy belt of the horizon, hopefully seeking some signs of the Fortunate Islands, of whose indescribable beauty and untold wealth they had heard many surmises. Day after day they pressed on between the same blank sky and the same blank sea, but there was no token to gladden the eyes of the watchers. Jason grew impatient at last: he had called upon nearly all the saints in the calendar, and was growing to be a very poor sort of a Catholic, inasmuch as he doubted the efficacy of his prayers and the ability of saints to answer them. He didn't realize that there might be good reasons for their not being answered under the existing circumstances; which is a matter worthy of the consideration of all of us.

The fact was, the Fortunate Islands were not one-half so wonderful as had been represented; and the saints knew it well enough. Had Jason invested there, as he purposed doing at the time of his embarkment, he might have sunk all that he possessed—which was little enough to float, as one would think—and then Maud might have tended her rose-garden and carried fruit-offerings to the sweet-faced nuns till she was gray and limping, for all Jason's fine notions of independence—namely, a good income from the rise of stocks in the Fortunate Islands, and two souls and two hearts doing the same sort of thing at the same time, with complete and unqualified success, in that sweet rose-garden on the sunny slope to the southward.

That was the way life went with Captain Jason of the Argonauts, called John, for short, in Dreamland, while the crew growled a good deal at their ill-luck, and began to fear that if things went on in that way much longer they would have more fasts than Fridays in the week. Those were trying times for all of them, and when land was made at last, and it proved to be a temptation and a snare, Jason ordered a special fast and a mass for the salvation of the souls in imminent peril. Out in the world at last, thousands of miles from the unsophisticated people of Dreamland, Jason beheld the dread Symplegades rocking their enormous bulks upon the waves, and liable at any moment to swing together with a terrific and deadly crash. Probably they were whales at play: it may have been two currents of the sea rushing into each other's arms: at all events, it was something deluding, though temporary, and perhaps the selfsame difficulty experienced by the original J. when he went after the original fleece.

My hero was young and unschooled in the world's wickedness, but he knew that where two opposing elements come together with much force, whatever happens to lie between them must suffer. What should be done was a question of no little importance to the Argonauts. Most of them were in favor of running the risk of a collision and letting the vessel drive straight through. Jason thought this a judgment worthy of young men whose lady-loves give expression to their most sacred sentiments by gifts of pincushions and bookmarks. But he had something to consider more than they—yea, more than any other living man—in exemplification of the pleasing fallacy that besets all lovers in all ages. Blessed be God that it is so!

The original Jason in the fable let loose a dove upon the waters, and the dove lost only a tail-feather or two when the clashing islands clashed their worst, and in the moment of the rebound the Argo swept through in safety. The modern J. thought of this in his predicament, and having turned it in his mind, he concluded that whereas the pioneer Argonaut did not meet his princess till after his encounter with the elements, he was not worthy of consideration; for had he known her and loved her as some one knew and loved some one else at that moment, most likely he would not have valued his life so slightly. He clewed up his canvas like a wise mariner, and lay to while the Symplegades butted one another with their foreheads of adamant, and the sea was white with terror all about them. Jason was no coward: he would have braved the passage had he alone been concerned in the result; but for Maud in her rose-garden and for the future, dear to him as his hope of heaven, he paused and trembled.

It is a pity there should be so little pausing and trembling among the clashing islands when life hangs in the balance and the odds are against it. But there always has been and always will be this little, because we believe that nothing but experience is capable of teaching us, and experience invariably teaches it all wrong end to, so that we begin our lesson with a disaster and conclude it with a slow recovery.

During Jason's hour of deliberation his guardian angel, who was the only one having his interests really at heart, and who loved him unselfishly,—this angel advised him in the similitude of a dream to "luff a little and go round the obstacles." Jason luffed, and passed on with colors flying; which was doubtless much better than trying to squeeze through the floating islands in the midst of an exceedingly disagreeable sea.

Then came the land beyond, the long-sought kingdom, full of arts and wiles. Jason was beset with ten thousand temptations, and was more than once upon the point of falling into a snare, when, however, he seemed to behold the apparition of his withered rose, which bloomed and blushed again at such times, and gave out a faint fragrance, so like a breath from that Eden on the sunny slope that he paused and grew strong, and was saved.

His troubles were not yet over. There was the bargaining for the golden fleece, and the tempting offer of the dragons' teeth which he was to sow. They were the lusts of the body, that, once planted, spring up an armed force of bloody and persistent accusers. But that precious rose! How it blossomed over and over for his especial benefit, a perpetual warning and an unfailing talisman—a very profitable sort of blossom to wear in one's button-hole in these times! But such blossoms are scarce indeed.

In due course of time that potent charm got him the golden fleece in a very natural and business-like way, and, rejoicing in his possessions, Jason returned to his vessel and trimmed his sails for home.

Merry the hearts that sailed with him, and fresh the winds that wafted them onward, while, as is usual at sea, nothing occurred during the voyage worth mentioning an hour after its occurrence. Jason in his new joy had almost forgotten that withered token. In deep remorse at his thoughtlessness, he sought his treasure, and, horror of horrors! every leaf had fallen from the stem, the blossom was annihilated for ever. He dwelt upon this episode morbidly, as upon a presentiment: he pictured in his mind the hill-slope cottage deserted, the rose-garden wasted and full of tares, and the bleak wind blowing whither it listed through those avenues of beauty, for desolation possessed them all. He groaned in spirit and wrestled with his new and invisible adversary, beseeching the Most Merciful, from the bitterness of his suspense, a speedy deliverance or a happy death.

III.

There were thistles and tares in the unkept rose-garden, and the cottage was abandoned to a sisterhood of doves, who mourned perpetually for their lost princess. The place was desolate, yet there had been no sudden desertion of it. For many months no news had been heard of the Argonauts. They were considerably overdue: the sages of Dreamland shook their grizzly heads. They were just as sage and shaky in those days as in these degenerate times. The maids of the hamlet wept for a season, then turned from sorrowing, dried their tears, took unto themselves new lovers, and the world wagged well in Dreamland.

But Maud was a truer soul than any amongst them: she prayed hourly for Jason's prosperity, and was trusting and hopeful until it seemed almost that something had whispered to her the fate of the voyagers. Then she mourned night and day: she went into retirement with the sweet-faced nuns at the headland, whose secluded life had ever been very grateful to her. She gave out of her bounty to all who asked, and rested not then, but sought the sick and the suffering, and they were comforted, and blessed her who had blessed them. They began to think her half an angel in Dreamland, and it seemed as though she were not made for this world at all. The same thing happens now occasionally, and in this way we acknowledge our shortcomings before our fellow-men and women when we find some one considerably above the average who shames us into confessing it. I hope the Recording Angel is within hearing at these precious moments.

The world certainly possessed no charms for one of Maud's temperament: it never did possess any for her. She was as out of place in it as a mourning dove in a city mob. Her spirit sought tranquillity, and she found it in the serene and changless convent life. You and I might seek in vain for anything like peace of spirit in such a place: we might find it a stale and profitless imprisonment; and perhaps it speaks badly for both of us that it is so. The violet finds its silent cell in the earth-crevice by the hidden spring a sufficient refuge, and rejoices in it, but the sea-grass that has all its life tossed in the surges would think that a very dull sort of existence. There are human violets in the world, and human sunflowers and poppies, and doves also, and apes and alligators; and some of them come within one of being inhuman; and sometimes that one drops out, and the inhuman swallows up the human.

Maud was the mourning dove seeking its bower of shade: she used to fancy herself a nun, and followed the prescribed duties of the house as faithfully as Sister Grace herself. She knelt in the little chapel of the convent till her back ached and her knees were lame, but it was a never-failing joy in time of trouble, and her time of tremble had come. Maud said many prayers before an altar of exceeding loveliness, where fresh flowers seemed to breathe forth an unusual fragrance. There was a statue of the Virgin, said to possess some miraculous qualities: tradition whispered that on two or three occasions the expression on the face of the statue had been seen to change visibly. Maud heard of this, and was very eager to witness the miracle, for it was thought to be nothing less than miraculous by the good Sisters. She bowed before the altar for hours, and dreamed of the marble face till she seemed to see its features smiling upon her and its small, slim hand beckoning her back to prayer. She grew nervous and pale and almost ill with watching and waiting, and at last was found prostrate and insensible at the foot of the statue, overcome with excitement and exhaustion. When she grew better she vowed she had seen the head bowing to her, and the hands spread over her in benediction: no one could deny it, for she was alone in the chapel. After that there was a feast of lilies at the convent, and Maud became Sister Somebody or other, and never again set foot beyond the great gates of the convent wall.

The consecration was doubtless a blessing to her, for she was happy in her new home, and found a sphere of usefulness that employed her hours to the best advantage. Moreover, she grew to be a sensible nun, and ceased to look for supernatural demonstrations in the neighborhood of the chapel. She grew hearty, and was cheerful, and sang at her work, and prayed with more honesty and less sentiment. Her life was as placid as a river whose waters are untroubled by tempestuous winds, and upon her bosom light cares, like passing barges, left but a momentary wake.

As Maud mused in her cell one day, through the narrow barred window she caught a glimpse of the burnished sea bearing upon its waves a weather-beaten barque inward bound. There was danger that her mind might wander off, piloted by her dreamy and worshipful eyes. She arose, drew across the opening a leathern curtain, and returned with undisturbed complacence to her prayers.

IV.

Jason, having among his freights the veritable golden fleece, still coursed the seas, but beheld with rapture the fair outlines of the Dreamland coast traced in the far blue and mysterious horizon. The wind freshened: hour after hour they were nearing port, and as the whole familiar picture grew more and more distinct, Jason saw the convent towers looming like a great shadow, and afterward the sunny slope whereon the rose-garden grew.

The manner of his quitting the barque before she was fairly within communication with the shore was hardly worthy of his calling. I forbear to dwell upon this exhibition of human weakness, for almost any one in Jason's shoes would have been equally regardless of the regulations, and in consequence proportionally unseamanlike.

With soiled garments and unshorn beard Jason ran to the hill. No one of the idlers in port recognized the returned wanderer, and he assured himself of the fact before venturing upon his visit to the dove-cot where Maud dwelt, for he wished to gaze upon her from afar, and in silence to worship her, unknown and unregarded. When he reached the wicket, breathless with haste and excitement, he at once beheld the ruin of his hopes—the thistles in the paths, the roses overgrown and choked with weeds, the sad and general decay. Jason smote his breast in a paroxysm of despair, while the doves fluttered out from the porch of the cottage in amazement at the approach of a human foot to their domains.

What could it mean? he asked himself again and again, while suspicions taunted him almost to madness. Up and down that disordered garden he paced like a ghostly sentinel; the doves fluttered to and fro, and were dismayed; the night-winds came in from the chilly sea, and the dews gathered in his beard. Through the deepening dusk he beheld the lights of the little town below him: across the solemn silence floated the clear notes of the vesper-bell. Jason turned toward the tower on the headland. A single ray of light stealing from one of the high, narrow windows shot through the mist toward heaven. "The ladder of Jacob's dream," said Jason: "on it the angels are ascending and descending in their visitations. Oh that I, like Jacob, might receive intelligence from these!"

With the heaviest heart that ever burdened man he returned to the town and entered the open doors of the church, seeking a few moments of repose. An alien in his own land and unwelcomed of any, Jason sought the good priest and learned the fate of Maud. She was dead to the world and to him. It was but the realization of his fears, and he was in some measure prepared for it; yet the best part of the man was killed with the force of that blow. His only hope was gone. He set his house in order, like one about to leave it, never to return: his golden fleece was made over to enrich the convent, and, as the magnanimous offering of a homelesss and nameless voyager, it delights the happy creatures within those walls, and the shrine of the Virgin was made more wonderfully beautiful than it is possible to conceive.

That night Jason walked in the shadow of the lofty walls and poured out his sorrowful prayers upon the winds that swept about them. Once in his agony he beat at the massive gates, demanding in the name of God and of mercy admittance for a lost soul that had no shelter save under that roof, and no salvation away from it; but his bleeding hands made no impression upon the ponderous doors, and the silent inmates at prayer heard nothing save their own whispers, or dreamed in their cells of heaven and of peace.

So the cry of that hopeless soul rang up to the stars unanswered, and the night frowned down upon him with impenetrable darkness.

End of the tragedy of Jason's Quest, which might easily have been a pleasant comedy if Maud had only spoken her mind in the right place. Will women never learn—since God has given them the same instincts with man, to love, to trust, to doubt, to hate and to make themselves at times disagreeable, even with a more complete success than men in each of these lines of dramatic business—that God must have intended also that they should have the equal right to choose the particular object upon which they may exercise those various offices of love, trust, etc., etc.? I shall never cease to wonder why they are persistently and stupidly silent through six thousand years, content to let their hearts wither and die within them, or surrender at last to the wretched apology for a lover who offers himself as a substitute, and is surprised at rinding himself accepted.

To be sure, it is less dramatic. Jason might have come back and married Maud: there would have been a pretty wedding and some delightful hours before things grew dull and commonplace, as they must have done ultimately. That rose-garden would have come to grief when once the children got to playing in it; Jason, on some tedious afternoon, when overhauling old letters and the like, would have thrown out that withered rose (of precious memory), quite forgetful of its significance; Maud would have lost her myrtle leaf in house-cleaning. Yet what were the odds? A withered rose and a myrtle leaf are scarcely worth the keeping.

You will remember how it turned out in the days of the gods: Jason wearied of Medea and the children; Medea was disgusted with such conduct, and behaved like a savage; there was general unhappiness in the family; and I blush for my sex—which is Jason's—whenever I think of it. Now, if my Jason had married his Maud, it would have scarcely been worth noticing beyond the simple register in the Daily Dreamlander, after having been thrice published from the pulpit between the Gospel and the Creed—"Jason to Maud."

As Jason was not heard of after the windy night under the wall of the convent, there were many surmises concerning his disappearance. It was thought that he had again embarked upon some voyage of discovery. I believe he had, and it was a desperate one for him. The other Argonauts married such maids as were left unmarried, and they did well to do so. Some of the old sweethearts regretted their haste, and looked enviously upon the new brides of Dreamland; but most of them were satisfied with their children, and contented with such husbands as Heaven had sent them.

Life grew slow in the little drowsy seaport; the old tales of the Symplegades were stale and tedious; the Argonauts had become spiritless and corpulent and lazy. One night a great gale swept in from the sea: the earth fairly trembled under the repeated shocks of the breakers. Old people looked troubled and young people looked scared, and on the worst night of all the convent bell was heard to toll, and then everybody feared something dreadful was happening to the nuns, and everybody lay still and hoped it would soon be over. The nuns wondered who rang the bell; and when every one had denied all knowledge of it, it was known that most likely the devil had rung it, for it was a dreadful night, and such a one as he best likes to be out in.

In the morning, when the wind and the sea had gone down somewhat, the wreckers found a stark corpse among the rocks under the headland, lying with its face to the tower. It was dreadfully mangled: no one could identify it as being any one in particular, and it was impossible to know whether death had occurred by accident or intentionally; so it was shrouded and put away out of Christian burial in the common field of the unfortunate. The nuns sang a requiem, as was their custom, and Maud prayed earnestly for all followers of the sea; and the echo of her miserere is the saddest line in the story of Jason's Quest.