[Editor: A short story by Agnes L. Storrie. Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 1904.]
The great vengeance.
The Principle of Human Life at last rebelled. “Behold me,” it cried, “I, the ultimate word of Omnipotence, the crowning blossom of the whole scheme of creation. What have I become? To what nameless degradation have I been brought? A torch in the hand of every low buffoon, whereby he may, for his own gratification, kindle the spark of immortality — a pawn in the great game of scheming nations — a counter in the hands of gambling statesmen — I — the keystone of the Almighty’s mightiest design, to be at the beck and call of every vicious youth and wanton maid — a hound to follow meekly at the heel of every human thing, however base! No; no! In the dawning of the world, when all was young, the peoples followed simply and obediently my instincts, and all was well with them. Then human life came as naturally and beautifully as trees budded and bore fruit, flowers blossomed and seeded, the purity of my crystal stream was undefiled, my purpose truly and rationally fulfilled. But now! Look where you will, from savage lands, polluted with lust and carnage, to continents and seas, over which wave the proud banners of civilisation, and you will find that everywhere I am become a byword and a mocking among the nations, a plaything to be tossed to and fro at the whim of unprincipled generations, my high origin denied, my holy mission ignored, my very meaning distorted and misread. But an end has come. I am the living sap in the great tree of Humanity, and from every limb and branch, from the great imperial trunk, and deep earth-wrapping roots, to the tiniest leaf and twig, I shall withdraw myself. The few fair blossoms virtue has put forth, the half-developed fruits of wisdom, and the benevolence shall suffer, alas, in the general eclipse; the tree shall wither and die, and the place thereof shall know it no more.
“The sun shall rise in his accustomed splendour, and run his sure and steady course, and duly set, but not for poor humanity; and night shall call her myriad sentinels to watch the sane and silver footsteps of the moon through those aerial meadows of the sky; the wind shall twang the strings of his great harp, the sea, and sing his wonder-songs about the world, but not for poor humanity. And all the beautiful intricacies of nature, the gigantic, microscopic, exquisitely balanced mosaic, wrought in flawless symmetry by the Great Artificer, shall revolve and rise, and fall, and grow, and fade, and grow again, and play each its allotted part in matchless perfection, but not for poor humanity. And time, as he pursues his endless march, shall mark the unaccustomed quiet of the earth, but shall not pause to mourn for poor humanity. This will I do for twice two hundred years, and wipe the record clean and start afresh, and plant a new and wholesome seed, and rear another race more fit to handle elements that shall retain the impress of its origin, and hold the torch of life aloft through all vicissitudes, and know that I am holy! holy! holy!”
Unconscious of its doom the world went on. The human insect hummed and buzzed as noisily as ever in all its myriad hives, and no one knew or guessed the fiat which had gone forth. Here and there a woman wept, or thanked her luck, or cursed her gods, or turned away indifferent when a dead child was all the result of labour pangs. And here, and here, and here, a little corpse was tossed into the earth or burned, or hurried out of sight, or laid with lilies on its snowy shroud beneath the sod. Here perhaps a bitter tear of disappointment fell on the little face, a coarse laugh rang, or a grunt of anger or satisfaction was given. But no one guessed in these events more than the idle hand of chance. And here and there a woman, racked and worn with the incessant pains of childbirth, wondered at the easing of her lot. Here and here hearts waited with reverence and love for the giving of the great gift which never came. Gradually observant minds noted this strange lull in the tide of life, this sudden break in the linked chain of creation, yet thought it but a freak of circumstance, a momentary flicker in the great torch which, passing alight from generation to generation, has burned unquenched from countless ages. But days passed, and weeks and months, and nowhere amid all the sounds of all the world was heard that soul-thrilling note — a new-born infant’s cry. Empty cradles decked perchance with costliest laces waited in vain; gaunt, savage mothers, feeling their backs eased of an accustomed burden, looked up in stupid wonder; and shallow-hearted cynics, and bitter misanthropes, and brutes in human form everywhere noted with delight the absence of little toddling feet that were wont to obstruct their way, of little clinging hands, of little voices fretful with pain or shrill with innocent glee. In heathen lands pariah dogs wandered disconsolate the outskirts of cities, seeking vainly their daily dole of parent-discarded infants, great rivers no longer nursed on their cold bosoms the bodies of day-old babes. In Christian lands, within the sound of echoing church bells, sewers were no longer blocked by tiny corpses; gruesome hags no longer gathered in “for a small consideration and no questions asked” the flotsam of the tide of sin that surged about their doors; the wards of foundling homes grew emptier and emptier; and no gin-soaked travesty of a mother rolled in her drunken sleep and pressed the life out of a little helpless child. No babies! No babies! Kings on their thrones imperiously demanded heirs; mother-hearts started in the midnight at a phantom cry, and felt in fancy little silken heads nestling in their arms, little warm mouths tugging at their breasts, and woke with bitter sobs to the emptiness and silence. Dust sifted on unbroken toys in quiet attics, and in the public prints notices that read, “Wanted, married couple without encumbrance; children in arms not admitted,” etc., etc., were taken out of type. And months and years passed, and schools and nurseries all over the civilised world grew empty. No kindergartens with little human flowers, no creches, no sad processions of juvenile workers in mine or factory; desolate sea beaches, bereft of paddling feet; silent orchards and fields, and lanes, and alleys. No children! no children! Thoughtful men and women looked in each other’s faces with eyes that held a fearful question. Financiers, rulers, philosophers, scientists stood aghast, argued, experimented, cabled to each other from continent to continent, searched in laboratories and bluebooks, and sought frantically for a remedy for the irremediable. In temples and cathedrals and josshouses, by uncouth altars, and from close-shut closets prayers for help ascended. No children! What use to scheme and plan and build and legislate? The blood froze in the most callous heart.
Years passed. The stars looked down no more with sympathetic eyes on lovers’ happy meetings or passionate farewells — the mainspring of life was broken. Love no longer called forth the hidden beauties in all things, the deepest notes of music, the richest imagery of art, the loveliest aspirations of the soul. The web of life, robbed of its golden thread, hung like a funeral pall. Youth was dead! Youth with its buoyant faith, its quenchless gaiety, its gallant courage. Spring came after the bitter winters, birds built their nests and reared their young, and sang the ecstacies of love, the rapture of life. Young creatures sprang and gambolled everywhere, in forest and meadow, air and ocean; only among human kind there came no rejuvenation, no mystery and miracle of love. No youth! no youth!
Savage lands fell quickly into a growing silence; weapons dropped from nerveless lingers; legends of heroic deeds died unrehearsed. Old feuds cooled in an immeasurable indifference. What use to fight or hunt or dance with old hands, old squaws, old withered hearts? and on deserted isles and in unpeopled forests wild creatures once more held undisputed sway.
Here and there in the grass-grown streets of depopulated cities — where all unheeded lay heaped treasures — gold and silver and jewels, the crowns of monarchs, the laurels of heroes, riches for which once men fought and sweated and sinned, valueless now as the untrodden dust of the highways — there gathered like spectres a few aged men or palsied women, and shivering at the awful doom which they had lived to see, muttered brokenly of other days, of rich days when life rioted in glorious, unbelievable profusion, when every day brought its treasure of new birth heaped up, pressed down, running over, when every lane and alley, every palace and hut had its quota of life, beautiful, generous life! And withered cheeks flushed, and blear eyes sparkled for a brief moment at the memories conjured up, at the exquisite agony of remembering happier things. Only a moment; then the lonely beings, waiting forlornly for the beat of remembered footsteps in a world of silence, for the touch of vanished hands, the echo of long-lost laughter in a universe of graves yielded up the spirit and themselves passed into the universal silence, and once more the earth was empty and void, and quiet brooded on the face of the waters. No human life!
Sunrise and noon and night wove their tapestries over a dumb and inarticulate world. Wind and wave sang their symphonies unheard by any human ear. Storm and calm, the ordered sequence of the seasons, the slow, immutable processes of nature went on unmarked by any human eye, unpunctuated by the beat of any human heart, and thus was the great Principle of Human Life avenged.
AGNES L. STORRIE.
The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 5 November 1904, p. 9
josshouse = a Chinese building of worship, known colloquially as “joss houses” (a joss was a Chinese figure of a deity, or god, often housed in a shrine)
[Editor: Corrected “and meadom” to “and meadow”.]