Is There A God?
by Eugene Fersen
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This book, dealing with the Greatest Question of All Times, is the Voice of the Young Generation. In its pages are embodied the doubts, the queries, the secret longings, the silent aspirations, the undying hopes of that New Breed of Human Kind who are daring to think for themselves. Its action rides on the unflinching Determination of Youth today to burst the confining walls of Ancient Beliefs, to strike into the Open alone; to win their Life's Battle Here and Now, on Earth, instead of feeding their discontent on unsubstantial Prospects in the Hereafter.
Written for the Enlightenment of Mankind and with the definite Aim to explode Age-old Superstitions which are still blocking Humanity's progress up the Path of its Evolution, the material here presented is built up of facts taken from Life Itself, as well as from the latest investigations and discoveries in the Fields of Science, History and Religion.
LOOSE LEAVES FROM LIFE
OH, God!—Is there a God?"
The wild cry stabbed like a naked blade through the hospital ward, stilling the faint, sad tumult of a hundred war-torn men. A question—a doubt—a prayer—a revolt—a strong male voice, driven by the unutterable anguish of a tortured Soul, of a helpless being.
"Oh, why have you saved my life! Saved my life—for this! Oh, God! Give me Death—a thousand times Death! To Hell with God—if there is a God who can allow such a thing to be!"
Silence—no answer. A deadening silence! What could be said in the face of so grim and obvious a Truth? Yet, long after the last echoes had fled down the stonewalled corridors, those words rang in the hearts of the group clustered about a cot in the far corner of the ward—nurses, young doctors and a famous surgeon.
A youth lies there—a splendid head, on the body of an athlete. Two nurses, sitting on the edges of the bed, are supporting him. Fine eyes—but the light has gone out of those eyes; they do not see. The man is blind. Broad and thick is his chest, and square his shoulders—but the sleeves of his shirt dangle empty upon the pillows. The man has no arms. Powerful is his form, where it bulges the top of the covers—but beneath it, the counterpane sweeps blank and undisturbed to the foot of the mattress. The man has no legs.
Blinded, shorn of arms and legs, a human stump, a living log, a victim of the War, buried alive in a lump of useless flesh, condemned to a long, unspeakable agony of life, he exists—a triumph of surgery, an immortal wreck.
And those whose duty it is to save life, wherever a spark of it is still to be found, were wondering, as they looked upon this monument to their skill, if it would not have been infinitely more merciful to let him die. The thousands of others who had perished under their care, men who might have recovered to a happy, useful life—why had Death taken them, yet left this one behind? Could it be that even Death shrank back in horror from so much human misery? How could God, if there is a God of Love, of Kindness, of Compassion, permit such untold sorrow and suffering to come into one mortal life? Is there, after all, a God?
So pondered the nurses and young doctors, with the memory of that last mad protest fresh and aching in their hearts. Even the great surgeon, deep in the comfortable cushions of his car, became lost in speculation as he rolled through the crowded streets, thinking how unjust God, Fate or whatever you wished to call it, seemed to be in some particular instances. So rapt was his mood that he was scarcely aware of the chauffeur, respectfully opening the door to let him out. But the imposing bulk of the apartment house where he lived, the warmth and coziness of his beautifully appointed home, the attentions of his wife and of their two fine-looking youngsters, his sons, soon dispelled the already waning impressions of the hospital ward.
"By Jove," exclaimed one of the young doctors, touching his own long, strong limbs with an inquiring hand, as if to make sure they were really there. The plump, pleasant little nurse sitting with him on top of the bus appeared not to hear; she was immersed in thoughts of her own. "By Jove," he repeated, more emphatically, "if that's the kind of God there is, who lets His creatures suffer so, I don't think much of Him. The Devil himself couldn't do any worse."
The little nurse made no reply. Though quite orthodox in her religious beliefs, she could not reconcile what she had seen with the concept of Divinity that she had been taught. Her Christian Deity, the loving Father of Man, had nothing in common with that living horror she had left a few moments since.
Arriving at her street, she snatched up her scattered effects and fled, leaving a hasty good-by and a faint odor of perfume behind her. The date which they had both confidently expected to make for that evening was forgotten—an omission, however, which was presently adjusted by phone. For they, too, were alive.
France—a small village, not far from what had been the Front during the Great War—on the crest of a low hill a wooden cross, formed of the broken blades of a propeller, standing stark and grim against the dainty blue of a warm summer sky. Its shadow falls possessively, with extended arms, on the mound of a grave—an unusually long grave—at its foot. Near by lies the moldering wreckage of a half-burned airplane; beside it, polished and glittering in the sunlight, a car of an expensive American make, a chauffeur, a courier and a couple—a Mother, still erect and beautiful in her sorrow, and a Father, bent by grief if not by years.
"My boy—my beloved—my so tall, so handsome boy! Here you sleep, under the soil of France—forever gone, yet we remain, your Father and I, to mourn over all that is left of you.
"No more to hear your car roar up the silent drive at night—no more to see your tall form bending over me—no more your kiss, your touch, your breath upon my cheek, the laughter sparkling in your eyes as you look down to me. My darling boy—no more!
France—you who are called the beautiful one—you are hideous to me. You got my boy, you keep my boy—my tall, my handsome boy.
"Oh, God! Why? Why had that to be? Would it have cost so very much, that costs so much to me? A few days more—oh! Where is God? Is there a God——"
So flashed the frightening thought, unuttered, behind the pale, still face of the Mother, to vanish as quickly as it came. A sudden wrench of the will, a remembrance of what the Church had taught her, and her proud head sank in submission to that which she thought was the Will of God. Sternly she quenched the crying revolt in her heart, that Mother heart which never could forget; and, composed again, though infinitely sad with a sorrow tangled in the very roots of her life, the Mother of the American lad drove away with her husband.
A story sad, yet not uncommon. Son of wealthy parents, heir to millions, intelligent, handsome, full of generous impulses, inspired by high ideals of life and led by the spirit of adventure, embodying in himself all that is finest and best in human nature, he had gladly responded to the call to fight for right. Long before America entered the World War, he had enlisted as a driver in the American Ambulance, later joining the Aviation as a member of the Lafayette Escadrille.
And there he perished. The idol of his parents, the friend of his friends, he in whom all the noblest of life came to a head, rode forth to battle in the clouds. A fight of eagles in the sky, wheeling and dipping amid the unseen streams of Death; a burst of flame, a trail of fire, blazing its way to the ground like a shooting star. At the end, a smoldering heap of rubbish, marking the spot where that bright meteor fell—and a golden star, still burning, burning, upon the black silk of his Mother's dress.
So died a bold American eagle, killed fighting for a country that was not even his own. A young and glorious life, brimming with high hopes and great ambitions, animated by a desire to help his fellow beings, on the verge of a brilliant Future—stamped out like a wind-blown ember under the iron heel of War. He who could have lived life so completely in every way, to whom Fate had given all that the human heart could wish to possess, lies buried under a few feet of ground, the cold gray ground of La Belle France.
"Nurse—Nurse! I don't want to die. Think what will happen to my baby, if I should die. I'm all he has in this World, you know. I've got to live, I will live—for him—the child of my love."
But the nurse of the maternity ward said nothing. With tired, pitying eyes she watched the pale young face on the pillow dream audibly on.
“I'll work—oh, I'll work—and bring him up, make him a splendid man. I'm so glad he isn't a girl. Men always have more of a chance in life than women do. I'm sorry I'm a woman myself. Couldn't help it—I was born that way. I didn't ask to be born a girl. I didn't ask to be born at all, for that matter. I wish I never had been. Why was I, do you suppose?”
“My Mother often used to tell me she wished I'd never been born. Well, I wish now my boy had never been born. Yet—I don't know. I'm so happy that he is, too. See—nurse! Did you ever see such a wonderful baby before? Think what I'd have missed—never to feel his sweet little face pressing close to my breast, his tiny body cuddled up to mine. Such a mite of a thing—and so strong already. He'll be just as tall and good looking as his Father, I guess.”
“I wonder if Fred would be glad to know that he has a son. He always liked boys more than girls. I wish I could see Fred now—just for a few moments.”
“He married another girl, I know. I believe he couldn't help it. She had money, he had none. So they married. I wonder if he's happy with her. As happy as we were, once.”
“It's like a dream, those days—so far away, so long ago. Yet it's only a little over a year since I met Fred for the first time. It was in the subway. I was so tired, after all day on my feet in the store. And the train was jammed. I felt dizzy, a little sick. It showed on my face, I guess, because Fred got up and gave me his seat. Then he offered to see me home. I was glad he did. He looked such a gentleman, strong and kind and pleasant. Like the kind you read about in books. And that night I dreaded to go down my street alone. I always did—so bare and dark and still—and feeling the way I did, it just seemed I'd die on the way. But with him beside me—why, I was sorry it ever ended.”
“The next Sunday he called on me. Mother and Dad were in. Mother liked his looks and nice manners, but Dad said he didn't think much of those white-collar guys.”
“After that we always used to meet at the subway station and go home together. He lived in Flatbush, too. And sometimes he took me to the movies. Especially if there was a wild-west thriller on the program. Fred liked that kind, and of course I liked anything he liked. A couple of times we went to Coney Island to have some real fun. Oh, that was great.”
“Sh-h—see, nurse—how quietly my Fred sleeps. I'm going to call him Fred, after his Father. Don't you think it's a wonderful name? Short—but something in it that catches you. It does me, anyway.”
“Yes, we were happy, those days. So happy! It was like a marvelous, marvelous dream, and I hoped I never would wake up.”
“One night—how well I remember it!—we were caught by a thunderstorm on the way home. The rain came down in floods, all at once, and the thunder was awful. We were passing Fred's place at the time—he rented a ground-floor room from a Jewish family there—and we ducked into the shelter of the doorway. I didn't want to go in, but he insisted—just until the rain should stop.”
“Well—I went in. And I stayed and stayed—long after the rain had stopped. It wasn't his fault; it wasn't mine. We just couldn't help it. Something stronger than both of us swept us away—into a happiness that crowded out the storm, the world, everything. I remember how surprised I was later, to notice the lamplight flooding in the window, clear and still, just as if nothing had happened. Yet everything was new, different. Fred had told me that he would marry me as soon as he got a raise in salary, and that he'd never stop loving me.”
“Hush, baby. Don't cry. Mother loves you—will love you always.”
“We went to Fred's place again and again after that. We didn't need the rain then. And each time Fred loved me more than before.”
“But one day, I remember, I suddenly felt sick and fainted in the store. They took me to the infirmary. The doctor there didn't say what was the matter with me—just shook his head when I asked. Next day I was discharged. They couldn't keep a girl in my condition, they said, because of the moral effect.”
“I cried all the way home. I was so frightened. I told Mother what had happened and she said it served me right, that I was a fool after all. Dad cussed. When Fred got back that evening I told him, asked him to marry me at once instead of later on, as he said he would.”
“Well, he didn't. He married another girl, who had money. Dad threw me out of the house, and the neighbors all laughed at me, so I had to go away. I tried to get work—any job I could pick up—and I've worked hard ever since. But the time came when I couldn't work any more.”
“One night I broke down. It was at a Salvation Army meeting on the street. I had nowhere to go——
“Nurse, please give me something to drink. I'm so hot—just like burning up inside.—Thanks.”
“They tell me a Salvation Army lass took charge of me and brought me here to the Maternity Hospital. I wonder what my neighbors would think of her. And—well, here I am, and here my baby was born.”
“I wonder, nurse, why was I given all that happiness only to have it snatched away? My grandmother used to tell me that God always takes care of His children except when they're bad. Do you think it was bad of me to have loved Fred?”
“Don't say, nurse, that it wasn't right. Neither of us thought anything wrong when we loved each other. We couldn't help it. Fred often used to say, 'I thank God for the day that brought us together on the subway, dear little one,' and I thanked God, too, from the bottom of my heart for having met Fred!”
“I was so grateful to God, nurse. Every night I prayed for Fred, asked God to let the happiness He had given us last forever. Just as I'm praying Him now to make me well again. Do you know, nurse, every night before I go to sleep, I ask the good God to give me back my strength, so I can live. Not for myself, you see, but for my baby's sake—for my little Fred. It isn't much to ask, after all that's happened, is it? Do you think God will hear me this time? It seems as if He ought—if only for my baby.”
"How dark it's getting! Nurse, is the night here so soon? I think—I'll sleep—tonight—oh! God——"
A stab of pain in the side, a cry, a sigh—and the Girl-Mother slept the night-long sleep for which there would be no morning.
One of the millions, snatched too soon into the delirium of her Moment, cast aside when the fancy is finished, when the man's flare of desire is dead. And she was sixteen years old that day.
“Did the Soul of the Girl-Mother, free at last, perhaps look back on that too frail habitation of flesh from which it had departed, and wonder to itself? Why had it been given a body to feel and to suffer? Why had it cherished unknown the fire of a passion destined to destroy it, a human passion placed in the breast of everyone born into this World? Why had it been lifted to the heights, only to be dashed more violently into the depths of anguish and despair? Why must it have bought even the release of Death at the price of a tiny morsel of life doomed at the outset to a career no less uninviting?”
And, as the marveling Spirit winged its way to some unimagined destination, it must have asked itself, "Is there any Justice, any real Happiness? Is there, after all, a God?"
But perhaps the question was never asked, even as it was never answered; for who knows if there was a Soul to vex itself with speculations of that kind?
Son of a Russian peasant, a bright, energetic youngster, he had early left his home. His parents were poor—serfs, in that old, enslaved Russia. He wanted Freedom; he felt free. So he left that cottage, to him a place of bondage, and set out on his quest.
Rugged and colorful was his life. Many thousands of miles crept under his wandering feet. City and woodland and plain, they drifted slowly behind him. Winters, he trapped in the forest; summers, he worked in the fields. Wild berries, helped out with a piece of rye bread, were his food, water from spring or brook his drink. At night he slept in the open, his face to the stars.
His vision, also, perhaps caught its far focus from the stars. Though often tired and worn from the dreary distances he covered, his eyes burned with a bright and eager fire. A Purpose took definite shape in his thoughts—a Purpose backed by a steadfast confidence in himself and his destiny, a clear and simple faith in God. He wanted to reach Siberia, the land of cold—but also the land of Gold.
Gold was his aim. Such gold as he beheld at night, strewn richly through the glowing deeps above him. Gold that held locked in its glistening heart all that he most desired—Freedom, Power, Opportunity to test the strength he felt stirring within him. And with the bright Vision before him, he passed over the lovely green slopes of the Ural Mountains, the Gates of Asia, and entered Siberia, at last the field of his quest.
Years sped by. The awkward boy who had set out from his peasant home became a sturdy young man, straightforward, direct, contemptuous of weakness and fearless of strength. Capable, resourceful, his intelligence sharpened by adversity and made the spearpoint of an invincible ambition, he thrust his way among that motley throng of gold seekers who, like himself, had willingly exiled themselves in this dread country of exile, Siberia, for its precious metal's sake.
His hands were his tools. He worked hard, alone, digging and panning the gold-bearing sands. But he used his brains also. What his hands won for him he kept, or used to advantage. His reward was a fortune, wrought from virgin gold.
Yet, to his ambitious mind, this first success was but an earnest of greater things to come, a means to a remoter and far ampler end. He turned his energies to placer mining, washing the gold from its bed in the hills on a scale more suited to his new power.
And the hills opened their treasures lavishly to his knock. His hands no longer sufficed to control the streams of wealth that poured in on him. He built up a stronger instrument for his use, a Company, far-reaching, powerful, of a size and strength to obey the dictates of his restless ambition. Owner and President of this Company, he gained the title of "King of Gold.''
Still he was not content. Young, vigorous, at the high noon of his powers, confident of his larger destiny and in the full tide of his unbroken success, he went back to Old Russia. Not to his home village, that wretched scene of his poverty; his eyes were fixed boldly on nobler fields. The Capital, Imperial Petrograd itself, held the prize to which he now aspired. A wife, of the best, the finest, the fairest and most talented, in all that glittering treasury of feminine charm and loveliness. He would pluck the fruit that sat highest on the tree, sunning itself above the shadows in the light of royal favor.
And, true to his habit of victory, he achieved his aim. The loveliest girl in the Capital, of the bluest of blue blood, became the wife of the son of a serf. More; she brought him what he least expected—Love. The strong, pure love of a broad-minded, truly noble-hearted woman, who looked behind the screen of outer appearances and saw within that which she, as a woman, wanted and dared to claim for her own.
He, who in his days of struggle had learned to despise love as a luxury, even a weakness—he met love with love. With all the strength of his impetuous nature, he loved the woman who was his wife.
As if to bless their union, the riches pouring in upon them swelled to a veritable torrent of gold—a torrent which, once started with so much labor and difficulty, now seemed impossible to stop. The yellow metal acclaimed its Master, its King; like Midas, whatever he touched with the exploring finger of his mind turned to gold.
One day he awoke to find himself the richest man in Russia. His problem, instead of acquiring wealth, was to discover a use for it.
Under his directing touch, the golden flood broke out through the humbler districts of the City in the form of popular restaurants, where healthful food was almost given away. It took the shape of Hospitals for the poor, lavishly endowed. It erected colleges, where education was put within reach of all. It built churches, financed organizations for the relief of suffering, established libraries, drained into the thirsty channels of countless charities; yet, in spite of all, the King of Gold found a surplus piling up faster than he could spend it.
Vaster and nobler became his projects. Still in his prime, master of untold wealth, doing good in numberless ways, honored, envied, flattered, feared, loved, he was at the apex of human powers. Great social reforms sprang up in his thoughts to be achieved in his beloved Russia.
Suddenly the Great World War burst like a destroying flame over Europe. All his flourishing plans withered in the blast of a more commanding emergency. He transformed his beautiful residence in Petrograd into an Ambulance, where he lived with his wife in two rooms of their own vast palace. She became a nurse and took charge of that Ambulance, which his money supported. And there, in those lofty marble halls which so recently had echoed to the laughter and the wit of brilliant companies, lay row upon endless row of shattered bodies in clean white cots, debris swept up from the battle front and sent back to be made as nearly whole as might be, against their further need. Groans and nameless agonies prevailed in place of song and dancing, and Death paraded grimly where Life had lately sparkled at its best.
In the train of war came Revolution, and after Revolution the Terror. The corrupt Empire dissolved in a smoking welter of blood. As the dregs boiled to the surface, those who had been on top suddenly found themselves at the bottom, while those who had been at the bottom swam to the top. And he, who had clambered to the topmost peak of power, abruptly found himself tumbled in the dust.
Separated from his beloved wife, fleeing for his life, trapped by those who had shorn him of his wealth, with a price on his head, he sped across Siberia toward the Pacific, with the red crest of the Revolution towering at his heels. After terrific hardships, he succeeded in reaching Japan in disguise.
There, sick and broken-hearted, his energy drained away by what he had gone through, stripped of everything he valued in life, alone, and suddenly very old, he died of starvation in a Tokio slum.
Dying, he longed for peace and quiet. The harsh clangor of the City beat pitilessly in upon him through the broken entrance, and fat flies droned heavily through the sticky atmosphere, buzzing against foul walls. Watching them, gorged parasites of Poverty, he recalled the popular restaurants he had built for the poor and envied those whom his bounty had once fed.
The Hospitals he had so richly endowed—they sprang to mind. So clean and cool and light, with the white-clad nurses in silent attendance. Yet here he was, dying alone and untended, in a crazy shack, in a foreign land.
The churches he had erected grew in majestic procession through the deepening twilight of his thoughts. Imposing, beautiful, they were worthy temples to the God he had trusted and loved. Would people pray for him to God in those churches? He wondered, dimly. And, remembering, the ghost of a bitter smile tugged at his lips as the night descended upon him, for the thought came: "Suppose they pray; is there a God to hear?"
Thus perished one whose heart was generous, his success proverbial, his wealth beyond counting—one who believed in God.
And far away, the theme of his dying thoughts found an echo in the mind of a weary char-woman, who scrubbed slowly and methodically at the floor of a Popular Restaurant which her husband's money had once built—a very broken and wrinkled woman who, not long since, had shone resplendent for beauty and wealth amid all the collected beauty and wealth of the richest Capital in the world.
Only two among millions of victims of the War and Revolution, suffering untold agonies, in silence, without relief and without hope, under the very eyes of the God they so devoutly trusted—and wondering, as so many among those wretched millions have wondered ere they died:
"Is there a God?"
"What a wonderful day—so bright, and pleasant, and cheerful. It scarcely seems possible that the world is convulsed with war, that the enemy is less than twenty-five miles from Paris."
So ran the thoughts of the young man in khaki, with the emblem of the Red Cross on his cap, who leisurely made his way along one of the crowded streets of Old Paris. It was a very ancient street, overhung with crumbling houses which had perhaps looked down on the changing pageant of many wars, and it led into an old-fashioned square, brimming with sunlight and shadow, where women sat on benches under the trees and kept languid watch over the children who played at their feet. A faint breeze stirred among the blossoms of the locusts, which were in full bloom, and carried their fragrance everywhere, so that it seemed to shed a luster of life over the old, gray, time-worn houses dozing round about.
Yet under the Sabbath stillness that hung in the air, the young man was aware of a rich and generous tide of life flowing through the great body of the city—a deeply moving tide unknown in that fashionable district of the Bois de Boulogne where he lived. It rippled and glowed against his senses, washing into sharp relief details that would usually have escaped his notice. Trifles took on a fresh interest, a different meaning,—a kitten dabbing at a fly in the window, two women quarreling in a doorway, a child playfully teasing a dog in the middle of the square. It was all in such vivid contrast to the Death muttering ominously just over the horizon to the North.
A church bell pealed suddenly. The Mother of the child rose from her bench, caught her unwilling offspring by the hand and drew him, still protesting, after her toward the open door of the nearby church. Other women followed her example. The square emptied itself quickly—Mothers, wives, sisters, sweethearts, all converging on that dim, cool archway to pray for those they loved, fighting on the battlefield.
He, too, moved toward the church. A sudden desire awoke in him to commune with God, in a place especially dedicated to that purpose. He did not have much confidence in the power of prayer to turn aside the questing bullet, or parry the bayonet thrust, but at least it could do no harm, either to himself or to his friends at the Front. Young, wealthy, energetic, he had always relied on his own resources to get what he wanted. God and Religion were for those who had favors to ask, things beyond their own strength to take for themselves. Yet he was not an atheist; simply he had never felt the need of prayer to a higher Power, and so was not interested. It would be a novel experience to him, as would a religious service be also.
So thinking, he mounted the steps to the entrance and looked in. A long, deep twilight, with flames of many candles sparkling at the far end and shedding a soft golden luster over a white altar, a gilded cross, a Priest, resplendent in laced gown and glittering vestments, standing with arms extended over the heads of the kneeling throng. Thick bars of sunlight slanted from lofty windows of stained glass and splashed in pools of glowing colors on the stone floor. The rich, melting notes of an organ throbbed like the beating of a great heart through the church, lifting to God the chanted supplications of those who breathed to Him their prayers.
Foot on the threshold, he paused. The atmosphere of that dim, vaulted hall gushed into his face—a breath laden with incense, but stale and chill, such as might have issued from the mouth of a tomb. Behind him he felt the warm sunlight flooding the street, caught the pure fragrance of the locust trees, saw the green leaves flash and twinkle as they danced in the breeze. Life—fresh, urgent, buoyant, abounding with joy and movement—tugged him almost against his will away from that dark sepulcher, with its odor of decay and sadness. With a sense of relief and thankfulness he resumed his interrupted way toward home.
But his thoughts still turned on the kneeling suppliants in the church. What unvoiced agonies hid behind those moving lips, those downcast eyes? How many of those for whom they prayed would ever come back to them? And those other women, in the land of the enemy, beseeching the mercy of this same God on lovers, husbands, sons. How could the utter faith and trust of both be rewarded? Yet they tried; prayers were rising everywhere for the warring men. He felt suddenly ashamed that a mere puff of cold air should have turned him from his purpose and, struck with a firm resolve, wheeled about to go back.
And now the warmth, the blazing sunlight, the fragrance, the quick life of the street, were all forgotten. From a distance he saw through the still open doors the glimmer of the candles, the altar, and the Priest with his hand raised in benediction. He hastened his steps; he wanted to share that blessing. Abruptly the air sang aloud, as if cleft by the stroke of a mighty sword. The sound soared to a shriek and burst in a deafening crash. The church heaved and shuddered; its roof vanished; its walls toppled inward and dissolved in a belching cloud of dust and smoke. On the spot where the stately Temple of God, with its candles, its Priest, its kneeling multitude, had stood an instant before, boiled up now only a thick and sullen vapor, smothering the cries and moans of those who yet lived underneath the ruins and spreading through the sweet air the acrid, bitter smell of burnt explosive.
"My God!—Is it possible?—Women, innocent children—in the House of God—praying to Him!—Where is God, to let such a hideous injustice—such a wanton cruelty—take place in His own House?"
Such were the horrified thoughts rioting in the young man's brain as he rushed to the stricken spot. At their heels reeled another, insidious, compelling, striking like a hate-driven dagger to the very roots of his heart—"There is—there can be—no such thing as God! Blind Fate alone decides the Destiny of Man!"
He turned away, sick and dazed, from that reeking hell. But he could not run from the utter, empty despair in his own heart. He, who had never cared for God, preferring to depend upon himself, was suddenly appalled to discover that he had been right. There was no God.
He was just an ordinary man—one of millions. Born into a family of many children, he felt lost in the midst of all his brothers and sisters. Impressed with his own unimportance, he was yet quiet, unassuming, always considerate and thoughtful of other people. His tastes were simple; he asked very little of life. Yet even that little he did not seem to get.
The World blandly accepted his own estimate of himself, and met him with a not unkindly tolerance, a smile vacant of either understanding or interest. He said nothing of this, though he felt it keenly. As unassuming as his character was his appearance—neither tall nor short, neither handsome nor ugly—one of those gray, intermediate beings who pass through the streets and through life equally unnoticed, whose faces even vanish from memory as from a glass, so little is any force of character outlined there.
He did not go to college, as did the rest of his brothers. All in all, it would be only a waste of time and money, his father decided. And he, far from rebelling against the injustice of it, considered such a decision quite natural. They were such a fine, lively lot, his brothers.
He went to work in a bank as soon as he could leave the public schools. As he was by nature honest, thorough and industrious, he was promoted more quickly than usual until he attained the position of cashier. Most of his salary he gave to his mother, to be absorbed in turn by his brothers in college. His sisters, also, though they were earning, could not seem to squeeze any surplus out of what they required for dress and living to add to the family quota. His salary alone kept the household running.
One day, at a party, he met a girl. The moment he saw her, he knew that he loved her. She was as ordinary a girl as he was a man, but lively and laughing, and she was kind to him. That touched him deeply, for he was of a very impressionable, loving nature and apt to exaggerate his sensations.
He worked now with a happier purpose, and in time managed to save some money. Not much, but enough to justify the hope that was in him, and still growing.
One evening his youngest brother, the merriest of them all, came home frowning and sulky. That day he had lost his third position inside of a month. To keep up with the fast crowd he ran around with he needed money; he had long ago exhausted all his reserves of both cash and credit.
The older brother was taking his girl to the movies that evening, but he took the worried youngster along also.
The next day he obtained for his brother a position as assistant cashier in the bank where he worked.
For some time the current of life ran smoothly. There was a heavy run of work, and long hours in the bank broke into the time the lovers would have spent together. He was glad that the youngster did not have his own responsibilities and could get away to his fun at night.
Toward the end of the rush he ran into shortages in his accounts which no amount of work could seem to unravel. Puzzled, he made up the missing sums from his own pocket and set himself to discover the cause. The shortages recurred, becoming more frequent and more imposing. Eventually he found the reason. He caught his brother red-handed in the act of pocketing some large bills from the cash drawer.
The shock of finding his own brother a thief was great. He was so thoroughly honest himself that the thought of such a taint in one so close to him in every bond of blood and gratitude was almost intolerable. A common thief—that carefree, jolly youngster so dear to his heart.
All his savings went to cover the loss and hide the shame that had descended on his blood. The carefully built works and plans and dreams of years were swept away in a moment through no fault of his own. Despairing, embittered at the unfair treatment Life had dealt him, he dragged his aching head and heart to bed.
The task of breaking the news to the girl appalled him. But he was saved that trouble. A messenger came with a note early the next morning. She told him that she had eloped with his younger brother and begged him to forgive her. The brother he had saved from prison and disgrace!
So he saw at last that he had spent his life in vain. The fruit of his honesty and toil went only to give to an idler, a clever cheat, the love for which he would gladly have surrendered his Soul.
He said nothing; his grief was too vast. As usual he went quietly to his cage in the bank and performed his duties with the same painstaking thoroughness. But his spirit was broken.
By closing time a gray, sleety rain had turned the snow to an ankle-deep slush on the city streets. It was unbelievably cold, with a wet chill that crept through the very marrow of his bones and burned like a hot coal in his chest. Yet there was so much pain already there, what did one ache more or less matter?
The next day an ambulance carried him away to the hospital, tossing and moaning in a delirium of fever. A bad case of flu, said the doctors, and held out no hope for his recovery. No chance, was the verdict—no chance to live, even as always there had been no chance for him to live.
Calling in his distraction for his girl, for his brother, alone and in utter despair, he cried out to God to give him a chance—at least one chance—to live. And then, consistent to the end, he died.
A strange chance, if there is a God to listen to a mortal's prayers, thought one who watched the sheet drawn quietly, like a final curtain, over the tragedy that had played itself out.
A policeman was trying to disperse the crowd of curious women who clustered about the doorway in which he stood. His efforts were unregarded; the fascination of something within that gloomy interior was stronger than the prestige of the law. Recognizing this, the officer turned his back, content that the crowd should merely keep its distance, and stood blocking the entrance with his burly form as he too eyed the scene inside.
A woman was sitting quietly there, as if resting. Her face, pillowed against the back of the chair, still bore traces of a past loveliness which care and trouble had not been able wholly to blot out. Beside her, on the table, lay an unfinished letter.
She was dead—a suicide. The letter, mute witness of her crime against herself, was just the last cry of a breaking heart.
"When I look back"—so read the letter—“to the days of my youth, those happy, carefree days which are gone forever, they seem like yesterday to me. I can hardly believe that twenty-five years have passed since I was married to the man I loved, the man who gave me during our short (alas! so short) life together all the happiness I could ever wish!”
“He was a young civil engineer. He worked in a great chemical plant, a position with prospects for one so strong, so big-hearted, so clever as my engineer. We had our home near by, and there my boy was born,—a beautiful baby, strong and sturdy like his father. We were so happy together, we three, that often I had to wonder if such happiness could last.”
“One day—how well I remember it! Such a beautiful, balmy spring day! All Nature was beaming with life, and life seemed to sing in our hearts. I was just about to take my baby out into it, when suddenly the doorbell rang.”
“When I opened the door a man came in, and others followed. Before he spoke, I knew. My husband had been killed by the explosion of a boiler, they said, and they had come to tell me of his death.”
“Of that day and the days that followed—how could you ever understand? They were kind to me in their clumsy way; I see that now, though it did not seem so at the time. One official of the Company came to me; he brought a check. For a long time it lay on the table where he left it. Blood money—in trade for my husband's life. I could not bring myself to touch it. Could money replace my loss? I wanted to tear that hideous slip of paper to pieces and throw it in the fire.”
“But I thought of the little one crying at my knees, and I took the check. It kept us for the months and months that I could not think, could not feel. I was a living automaton. Had it not been for my boy I would have died—gladly.”
“He used to look at me with his big, questioning eyes, and in them I saw the same kind, loving look of his father. And it seemed to me that my beloved husband lived again in my boy—his boy. Our child became the living link between him gone and me whom he had left behind.”
“That gave me courage, and in the end it gave me back my life. And often I vowed, as I looked into the bright eyes of my son, that I would make of him as fine a man as his father. But not an engineer; my husband's death was too fresh in my mind for that. I would make our boy a Doctor.”
“Education costs, though. All that was left me was the house now. So I took boarders, and invested my little profits carefully, and worked and schemed and prayed for my boy.”
“Knowing nothing of business matters myself, I naturally had to ask advice from others. A friend of ours suggested that I invest my money in a certain deal that a friend of his was promoting. It was bound to be a success, with such a capable man handling it, and the dividends it would pay would be very big. A wonderful opportunity, he said, for a woman in my position to draw heavy interest and at the same time increase my capital.”
“My head believed him, but my heart doubted, so I invested only half of what I had. For several months things went so well that I regretted my caution. The dividends that came in were larger than I could ever have hoped. So when the chance came to put more in the same scheme, I invested all I had.”
“Next thing I knew my money was gone, together with the man who had swindled me and thousands of other poor widows. It was a hard blow, but it didn't make me lose my courage. I couldn't afford to lose my courage. I had my boy to consider.”
“I started again from the beginning. I still had my house and my boarders and I found work to take home. I sewed far into the night, and when the stitches would reel from the weariness that was in me, I could always clear my vision and steady my hand with a glance toward my sleeping boy.”
“The years slipped by like that, and my boy became a big, fine looking fellow, so like what his father had been in appearance, but oh! how different in character. He hated work; all he wanted was to have a good time. I tried my best to get him to see things rightly, but it was no use. He drifted into bad company, began to drink and frequent gambling dens, and one day, when he came home drunk and demanded money which I would not give him, he beat me. He—my boy—for whom I had given all my youth, all my energy, all my love,—he beat me until I was black and blue, and then he left me.”
“For weeks and weeks I did not see him again, and when at length I did see him I could have wished him decently dead instead; for he was behind prison bars, sentenced to die on the gallows for a murder he had committed in a hold-up.”
“Today he was hanged. I am alone, and this has been my life. I do not care to go on with it. I shall make an end to such a life.”
“I would ask God to forgive me for what I am about to do, if I still believed there was a God. A God who could give happiness only to sharpen the bitter edge of grief, who could heap sorrow on sorrow, shame on shame, disaster on all, in answer to prayers and works and trust and faith. First the husband of my heart, snatched from me in the ripening glory of his glorious manhood. Then our son, the fruit of our truest love, harried along the path of crime to a felon's death.”
“No! There can be no God, no Being so omniscient as to number the hairs on every beggar's head, yet allow such things to be. Chance—blind Chance—is all that rules our destinies in this World. And knowing this, I am content, for I find peace at last.”
So read the lieutenant of police, who had looked on Death too many times and in too many guises to be impressed by it any longer. Yet the leathery, lined check beneath the visor of his cap (which he had not troubled to remove when he came in) gleamed wet in the light from the open doorway as he put the letter in his pocket. For here he had looked on Life.
And she who had borne to the bitter end her sad lot in the game of Life, looked up to him with a soft, sad smile on her pale face—the pale, trusting face of the dead woman in the chair.
Silence—a tense, breathless silence. A mighty Nation, a waiting world, quiver on the verge of a tremendous event, their attention locked on one slender, frightened girl.
She kneels on the broad steps of an altar in an old—a very old—cathedral. Above her stands a man in a diamond crown and an imperial mantle, whose deep voice and moving hands weave over her the spell of the greatest Power within the gift of humankind. Her pale face is a delicate fountain of loveliness above her coronation robe of rarest metaled cloth, lined with ermine, which cascades like a golden, foam-flecked river down the steps behind her. To the brilliant multitude thronging the spacious aisles below, it is a precious shell enclosing that on which all the threads of their lives, their hopes, their loyalties converge, their future Ruler, their Queen. To her, on whose drooping head will descend the title of Tsaritza, it is the crushing burden of an Authority, a Trust, too great for the shoulders of the shy, timid girl from a foreign country to bear. They see its majestic splendor; she feels its relentless weight.
For her heart is appalled before the immensity of her task. Too much—too much of everything; she did not ask or want so much. She did not even dream it. Her tastes were simple, her aims quite modest—love, husband, children, happiness, a home and Peace. But now—Oh, God! Will that ordeal never end?
A sudden heaviness falls on her brow—so cold, so like an ache, that her hand half rises as if to brush the pain aside. But glimpsing her own pallid features in the polished surface of the step, she stops; for on her head, a blazing glory, sparkles and burns a Crown, the Diamond Crown—the Imperial Crown of Russia. With its splendor, its power, its oppressive load of responsibilities, it presses her down, down, closer to that reflected visage whose wide eyes peer up at her from the mirror of stone beneath,—the only understanding companion in all that glittering assemblage of earthly pomp and prestige.
Firm hands lift her gently to her feet. No longer a forlorn and shrinking girl, but an Empress, she rises beside her Emperor, erect before the altar, the Nation and her God.
A crash, like that of breakers toppling on the shore, bursts from the ancient cathedral as the wild thunder of acclaim rolls out over the Capital, gathering volume from cannon and trumpet blast and the roar of shouting men. To the farthest corners of the vast Empire echo the joyous tidings, while from every remote hamlet and city, from cottage and palace, by wire, by messenger and by word of mouth, surges back the glad, welcoming cheer—''Our Tsar and Tsaritza are crowned! God bless them both, and give them a long and happy reign!"
Pale and motionless, she stands there in all that vaulted magnificence, silent amid the storm of prayers and good wishes that beat in upon her from two hundred millions of willing subject souls. She feels upon her the solemn gaze of countless saints, painted on the bright walls and huge, soaring pillars; she is conscious of the countenance of God Himself, gigantic amid His angels, looking down upon her from the great gilt dome overhead. And as her glance drops again to the people, banked in shimmering drifts at her feet, she forms a vow in her heart to be true to the Trust reposed in her, to make them happy—happy at any price.
Buoyed up by this resolve, she descends the steps of the altar on the arm of her Emperor. A lane opens through the solid, living ranks below. Like a moving flame she seems to float, rather than walk, toward the ponderous doors which swing open at her approach. And like a pale golden flame, bright and clear, she breaks suddenly on the vision of those massed tens of thousands who wait outside to greet their new Ruler, a glorious Star framed in the vast stone arch of the Cathedral doorway.
"Hail to our Tsaritza! Hail to our Tsar! Hail!" The passionate cry rolls up in a renewed thunder of adoration. Men are swept to their knees like grass before a wind, joyously weeping women make the sign of the Cross, all touched to tears by the sheer beauty and majesty of Her to whom their hearts go out as one. And the tribute of the Capital, the love of the people, blows like an incense into her lifted face,—a finer, better incense than that in the old Cathedral, because a living one.
It is overwhelming, unbearable—an impossible dream. Can so much of everything be crowded into one human life? Earth's greatest powers are gathered into her delicate hands. Hers the love of a great Nation and a devoted husband. Hers Youth, hers Beauty, hers Intelligence and a tender heart. Hers the World's most famous Palaces; hers priceless gems and treasures beyond counting; hers the satisfaction of every desire, of every silent wish. And what is not yet hers—will be hers some day.
She reels on that dizzy peak of Power to which she has been lifted—that Power of which God has given her too much. But the young spring day is so lovely, the air so balmy, the sun so bright, that new strength floods in upon her. A soft breeze glows like a caress against her upraised face, wafting away the sadness that has lingered in her heart, and leaves her for the first time on that fateful day happy and grateful to God.
Years flash by.
Again a Silence, heavy, ominous, trembles to the verge of its unborn Moment. It breaks in a ragged volley of shots, and through the rift boils up a tumult of voices—cries of children, moans of women, hoarse shouts of drunken men.
Night, choked with storm, crowds thickly in upon a small city lost amid snow-covered mountains. It all but blots out a house on the outskirts behind whose shuttered windows unspeakable things are taking place.
There stands an imprisoned Empress, alone. Her face, as she watches the closed door of her chamber, is pale and very calm, her glance steady. But it is as if the flesh slept above a frenzied dream of horror. Within it she lives, over and over again, the agonies of this past hour. Her husband, once the Tsar, snatched from her to an unguessed but long expected doom. Her daughters—torn from her arms by lust-inflamed, drink-maddened fiends, abused, raped, stabbed with bayonets—their screams will ring forever in her shuddering Soul. And her son——
The door bursts open, belching a flood of savage, exultant faces in upon her. She scarcely feels the brutal hands that thrust her down the hallway; her body has long since lost its power to suffer further. She goes with closed eyes; she no longer wishes to see. So much of horror have those eyes beheld of late.
Stumbling on a threshold, she is jerked to a halt. A blast of icy wind scorches through the mists of her stupor. The clamor suddenly stops; a stillness thickens like a pestilence around her. But in that strange, remote refuge to which her spirit has withdrawn, she knows only that she is very weary—weary for the end. God! God! Will it never come?
Fingers, twining in her hair, wrench her sunken head erect. A rough voice commands "Look!" Obediently, incurious and indifferent, her tired lids drift up.
Once more she is standing in a doorway, so mean, so low, that it seems almost to crush her. Before her, torches flare redly on the snow and scoop a vast cavern of light out of the black night, illumining an open space from whose borders flushed and evil faces leer up at her. In the center of this space rises a great mound of wood, spouting dark jets of smoke which curl up around a still dreadfully stirring heap of human bodies on the top. Her husband, her daughters, all that was dear to her in life, all that she loved, all that she had thought mercifully dead, still living to suffer, to be burned alive. And yet—not all. She does not see there the body of her boy.
A sudden, savage thrill of hope leaps in her breast. For him, perhaps, the incredible, the impossible, has come to pass. Escape—some secret helping hand stretched boldly forth from the midst of this bloody mob—
She reels aside from a violent blow on the shoulder. A drunken figure lurches past her, down the steps and out across the snow toward the smoking pyre. Cuddled softly in his clumsy arms, as if asleep, rests her beautiful boy, his upturned face streaked with blood that still oozes, in a sluggish crimson stream, from a dark hole in his forehead.
The monster swings the corpse outward by one heel and heaves it sprawling into the flames, which are beginning to spurt up in a bright, hungry torrent over the crest of the pile. Then, rocking on widespread legs, he roars his exultation, while he wipes the blood from his hairy hands on a corner of his coat.
And the Mother, looking up to the sullen, wintry sky, starless and threatening above her, thinks, in those last lucid moments of her earthly life, of the God who has sent this answer to her prayers. She thinks of her Coronation Day, that Day of boundless hopes and joys, of power, splendor, love and happiness, of faith and trust and measureless gratitude to God for all He seemed to have given her. She thinks of the many hours she has spent since then in daily communion with Him, of her sacred vows and supplications for His help—she, whose simple faith in God was always so bright, so living, so supreme.
Gone—all lost in life—husband, children, empire, hope and even faith in God. God? She knows now that there is no God.
And with that last crushing thought, the Empress turns from the despair in her Soul to the more welcome blaze. Firmly, courageously, even a little gladly, she walks down the stairs, across the trampled snow, past the grim form of the murderer and, without a pause, mounts the burning pyre. For an instant the soaring flames surround her with a halo of unearthly glory; then the smoke, boiling upward, veils her forever from human eyes.
She, too, has gone—perhaps to find her God.
And from the Four Corners of the Earth, from countless faltering hearts, from tired lips, ascend toward the Sky, the glorious blue Sky, the prayers of suffering Humanity.
Will Divinity hear the despairing cries of Its suffering Children, will It ever answer the bitter Need from which they spring? For countless Ages those supplications have risen upwards to the distant Stars—an endless, sorrowful murmur pulsing out into the Mysterious Void—yet no answering Voice has come to quell the surging Tide of Evil, Blood and Woe. Cold and distant remained the Heavens—cold as the bright Stars which glittered unmoved upon the Earth, swept time and again by Wars and Pestilences, Flood, Fire and Famine, an endless procession ravaging the ranks of Mankind from Beginning until Now, with never a forbidding word from Above to check their mad course.
As moans rise from under the lash, so rose the prayers of Humanity from under the scourge of Evil; but Divinity remained deaf and dumb. Still Faith has lived, and Hope has prevailed even against hope. Still the hearts and tongues of Humanity send out their prayers to this unresponsive God; still Temples rise to testify to His Glory and Power; still His servants seek to justify His strange neglect.
And still the Heavens remain as silent, as remote and indifferent as before, leaving Mankind in utter despair what to do, what to believe, which way to turn. Afraid to lose their last hope in God, despairing ever to receive any answer, they still plead and pray and call on Him.
But in their hearts, the dark shadow of their hopeless hopes, dwells the question "Is there a God to call upon." That Great Question of Today, the greatest question of All Time, is rising now, shaking the very Powers of Heaven and threatening the Foundations of Life Itself.