The Lily’s Quest by Nathaniel Hawthorne


Two lovers once upon a time had planned a little summer-house in the form of an antique temple which it was their purpose to consecrate to all manner of refined and innocent enjoyments. There they would hold pleasant intercourse with one another and the circle of their familiar friends; there they would give festivals of delicious fruit; there they would hear lightsome music intermingled with the strains of pathos which make joy more sweet; there they would read poetry and fiction and permit their own minds to flit away in day-dreams and romance; there, in short—for why should we shape out the vague sunshine of their hopes?—there all pure delights were to cluster like roses among the pillars of the edifice and blossom ever new and spontaneously.

So one breezy and cloudless afternoon Adam Forrester and Lilias Fay set out upon a ramble over the wide estate which they were to possess together, seeking a proper site for their temple of happiness. They were themselves a fair and happy spectacle, fit priest and priestess for such a shrine, although, making poetry of the pretty name of Lilias, Adam Forrester was wont to call her “Lily” because her form was as fragile and her cheek almost as pale. As they passed hand in hand down the avenue of drooping elms that led from the portal of Lilias Fay’s paternal mansion they seemed to glance like winged creatures through the strips of sunshine, and to scatter brightness where the deep shadows fell.

But, setting forth at the same time with this youthful pair, there was a dismal figure wrapped in a black velvet cloak that might have been made of a coffin-pall, and with a sombre hat such as mourners wear drooping its broad brim over his heavy brows. Glancing behind them, the lovers well knew who it was that followed, but wished from their hearts that he had been elsewhere, as being a companion so strangely unsuited to their joyous errand. It was a near relative of Lilias Fay, an old man by the name of Walter Gascoigne, who had long labored under the burden of a melancholy spirit which was sometimes maddened into absolute insanity and always had a tinge of it. What a contrast between the young pilgrims of bliss and their unbidden associate! They looked as if moulded of heaven’s sunshine and he of earth’s gloomiest shade; they flitted along like Hope and Joy roaming hand in hand through life, while his darksome figure stalked behind, a type of all the woeful influences which life could fling upon them.

But the three had not gone far when they reached a spot that pleased the gentle Lily, and she paused.

“What sweeter place shall we find than this?” said she. “Why should we seek farther for the site of our temple?”

It was indeed a delightful spot of earth, though undistinguished by any very prominent beauties, being merely a nook in the shelter of a hill, with the prospect of a distant lake in one direction and of a church-spire in another. There were vistas and pathways leading onward and onward into the green woodlands and vanishing away in the glimmering shade. The temple, if erected here, would look toward the west; so that the lovers could shape all sorts of magnificent dreams out of the purple, violet and gold of the sunset sky, and few of their anticipated pleasures were dearer than this sport of fantasy.

“Yes,” said Adam Forrester; “we might seek all day and find no lovelier spot. We will build our temple here.”

But their sad old companion, who had taken his stand on the very site which they proposed to cover with a marble floor, shook his head and frowned, and the young man and the Lily deemed it almost enough to blight the spot and desecrate it for their airy temple that his dismal figure had thrown its shadow there. He pointed to some scattered stones, the remnants of a former structure, and to flowers such as young girls delight to nurse in their gardens, but which had now relapsed into the wild simplicity of nature.

“Not here,” cried old Walter Gascoigne. “Here, long ago, other mortals built their temple of happiness; seek another site for yours.”

“What!” exclaimed Lilias Fay. “Have any ever planned such a temple save ourselves?”

“Poor child!” said her gloomy kinsman. “In one shape or other every mortal has dreamed your dream.” Then he told the lovers, how—not, indeed, an antique temple, but a dwelling—had once stood there, and that a dark-clad guest had dwelt among its inmates, sitting for ever at the fireside and poisoning all their household mirth.

Under this type Adam Forrester and Lilias saw that the old man spake of sorrow. He told of nothing that might not be recorded in the history of almost every household, and yet his hearers felt as if no sunshine ought to fall upon a spot where human grief had left so deep a stain—or, at least, that no joyous temple should be built there.

“This is very sad,” said the Lily, sighing.

“Well, there are lovelier spots than this,” said Adam Forrester, soothingly—”spots which sorrow has not blighted.”

So they hastened away, and the melancholy Gascoigne followed them, looking as if he had gathered up all the gloom of the deserted spot and was bearing it as a burden of inestimable treasure. But still they rambled on, and soon found themselves in a rocky dell through the midst of which ran a streamlet with ripple and foam and a continual voice of inarticulate joy. It was a wild retreat walled on either side with gray precipices which would have frowned somewhat too sternly had not a profusion of green shrubbery rooted itself into their crevices and wreathed gladsome foliage around their solemn brows. But the chief joy of the dell was in the little stream which seemed like the presence of a blissful child with nothing earthly to do save to babble merrily and disport itself, and make every living soul its playfellow, and throw the sunny gleams of its spirit upon all.

“Here, here is the spot!” cried the two lovers, with one voice, as they reached a level space on the brink of a small cascade. “This glen was made on purpose for our temple.”

“And the glad song of the brook will be always in our ears,” said Lilias Fay.

“And its long melody shall sing the bliss of our lifetime,” said Adam Forrester.

“Ye must build no temple here,” murmured their dismal companion.

And there again was the old lunatic standing just on the spot where they meant to rear their lightsome dome, and looking like the embodied symbol of some great woe that in forgotten days had happened there. And, alas! there had been woe, nor that alone. A young man more than a hundred years before had lured hither a girl that loved him, and on this spot had murdered her and washed his bloody hands in the stream which sang so merrily, and ever since the victim’s death-shrieks were often heard to echo between the cliffs.

“And see!” cried old Gascoigne; “is the stream yet pure from the stain of the murderer’s hands?”

“Methinks it has a tinge of blood,” faintly answered the Lily; and, being as slight as the gossamer, she trembled and clung to her lover’s arm, whispering, “Let us flee from this dreadful vale.”

“Come, then,” said Adam Forrester as cheerily as he could; “we shall soon find a happier spot.”

They set forth again, young pilgrims on that quest which millions—which every child of earth—has tried in turn.

And were the Lily and her lover to be more fortunate than all those millions? For a long time it seemed not so. The dismal shape of the old lunatic still glided behind them, and for every spot that looked lovely in their eyes he had some legend of human wrong or suffering so miserably sad that his auditors could never afterward connect the idea of joy with the place where it had happened. Here a heartbroken woman kneeling to her child had been spurned from his feet; here a desolate old creature had prayed to the evil one, and had received a fiendish malignity of soul in answer to her prayer; here a new-born infant, sweet blossom of life, had been found dead with the impress of its mother’s fingers round its throat; and here, under a shattered oak, two lovers had been stricken by lightning and fell blackened corpses in each other’s arms. The dreary Gascoigne had a gift to know whatever evil and lamentable thing had stained the bosom of Mother Earth; and when his funereal voice had told the tale, it appeared like a prophecy of future woe as well as a tradition of the past. And now, by their sad demeanor, you would have fancied that the pilgrim-lovers were seeking, not a temple of earthly joy, but a tomb for themselves and their posterity.

“Where in this world,” exclaimed Adam Forrester, despondingly, “shall we build our temple of happiness?”

“Where in this world, indeed?” repeated Lilias Fay; and, being faint and weary—the more so by the heaviness of her heart—the Lily drooped her head and sat down on the summit of a knoll, repeating, “Where in this world shall we build our temple?”

“Ah! have you already asked yourselves that question?” said their companion, his shaded features growing even gloomier with the smile that dwelt on them. “Yet there is a place even in this world where ye may build it.”

While the old man spoke Adam Forrester and Lilias had carelessly thrown their eyes around, and perceived that the spot where they had chanced to pause possessed a quiet charm which was well enough adapted to their present mood of mind. It was a small rise of ground with a certain regularity of shape that had perhaps been bestowed by art, and a group of trees which almost surrounded it threw their pensive shadows across and far beyond, although some softened glory of the sunshine found its way there. The ancestral mansion wherein the lovers would dwell together appeared on one side, and the ivied church where they were to worship on another. Happening to cast their eyes on the ground, they smiled, yet with a sense of wonder, to see that a pale lily was growing at their feet.

“We will build our temple here,” said they, simultaneously, and with an indescribable conviction that they had at last found the very spot.

Yet while they uttered this exclamation the young man and the Lily turned an apprehensive glance at their dreary associate, deeming it hardly possible that some tale of earthly affliction should not make those precincts loathsome, as in every former case. The old man stood just behind them, so as to form the chief figure in the group, with his sable cloak muffling the lower part of his visage and his sombre hat overshadowing his brows. But he gave no word of dissent from their purpose, and an inscrutable smile was accepted by the lovers as a token that here had been no footprint of guilt or sorrow to desecrate the site of their temple of happiness.

In a little time longer, while summer was still in its prime, the fairy-structure of the temple arose on the summit of the knoll amid the solemn shadows of the trees, yet often gladdened with bright sunshine. It was built of white marble, with slender and graceful pillars supporting a vaulted dome, and beneath the centre of this dome, upon a pedestal, was a slab of dark-veined marble on which books and music might be strewn. But there was a fantasy among the people of the neighborhood that the edifice was planned after an ancient mausoleum and was intended for a tomb, and that the central slab of dark-veined marble was to be inscribed with the names of buried ones. They doubted, too, whether the form of Lilias Fay could appertain to a creature of this earth, being so very delicate and growing every day more fragile, so that she looked as if the summer breeze should snatch her up and waft her heavenward. But still she watched the daily growth of the temple, and so did old Walter Gascoigne, who now made that spot his continual haunt, leaning whole hours together on his staff and giving as deep attention to the work as though it had been indeed a tomb. In due time it was finished and a day appointed for a simple rite of dedication.

On the preceding evening, after Adam Forrester had taken leave of his mistress, he looked back toward the portal of her dwelling and felt a strange thrill of fear, for he imagined that as the setting sunbeams faded from her figure she was exhaling away, and that something of her ethereal substance was withdrawn with each lessening gleam of light. With his farewell glance a shadow had fallen over the portal, and Lilias was invisible. His foreboding spirit deemed it an omen at the time, and so it proved; for the sweet earthly form by which the Lily had been manifested to the world was found lifeless the next morning in the temple with her head resting on her arms, which were folded upon the slab of dark-veined marble. The chill winds of the earth had long since breathed a blight into this beautiful flower; so that a loving hand had now transplanted it to blossom brightly in the garden of Paradise.

But alas for the temple of happiness! In his unutterable grief Adam Forrester had no purpose more at heart than to convert this temple of many delightful hopes into a tomb and bury his dead mistress there. And, lo! a wonder! Digging a grave beneath the temple’s marble floor, the sexton found no virgin earth such as was meet to receive the maiden’s dust, but an ancient sepulchre in which were treasured up the bones of generations that had died long ago. Among those forgotten ancestors was the Lily to be laid; and when the funeral procession brought Lilias thither in her coffin, they beheld old Walter Gascoigne standing beneath the dome of the temple with his cloak of pall and face of darkest gloom, and wherever that figure might take its stand the spot would seem a sepulchre. He watched the mourners as they lowered the coffin down.

“And so,” said he to Adam Forrester, with the strange smile in which his insanity was wont to gleam forth, “you have found no better foundation for your happiness than on a grave?”

But as the shadow of Affliction spoke a vision of hope and joy had its birth in Adam’s mind even from the old man’s taunting words, for then he knew what was betokened by the parable in which the Lily and himself had acted, and the mystery of life and death was opened to him.

“Joy! joy!” he cried, throwing his arms toward heaven. “On a grave be the site of our temple, and now our happiness is for eternity.”

With those words a ray of sunshine broke through the dismal sky and glimmered down into the sepulchre, while at the same moment the shape of old Walter Gascoigne stalked drearily away, because his gloom, symbolic of all earthly sorrow, might no longer abide there now that the darkest riddle of humanity was read.

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