I remember the night I thought was to be my last night on this Earth. The streets were wet with the bitter rain of a waning winter. I remember the sounds of New York that night. I remember the sound of tires on the asphalt like the long drawn out sound of striking a kitchen match. I remember the screeching whistles in the subterranean bellow of the subway. I remember the horns sounding wetly in the north and south traffic on 6th Avenue, and the empty echo of voices between the buildings on 44th Street. I remember the unperturbed traffic lights, red and green beacons in the cold rain. And I remember lonely yellow windows, dim above me in the murk, where other lonely souls toiled the night away.
It was such a weary time ago that I sat in that room in New York, and heard those fatal words that sullen night. Their very memory has blurred now, but I remember them.
The door opened and Arnold closed it again quietly, and stood for a moment silently against it. I remember how he did not look at me, how he stood there a moment in the thick, sickroom silence. I remember I could not rise from my chair even when his voice trod on the silence of that ghastly place.
"We must be brave, it's a terrible thing."
I knew what he was saying, but his voice seemed to come from a long way off and his face was unclear in the dim light.
"We did everything we could, Wayne."
The pulse began to beat in my temples and it was the dreadful truth that beat upon my head. I would not believe what he was saying.
"Elizabeth is dead." I would not acknowledge it. "Elizabeth is dead."
Still the pulse hammered in my temples and I said to myself 'He's not saying it! I will not believe it!'
"Dead," Arnold finished. The word echoed thunderously in my mind for minutes before it finally faded.
There was silence again. In the silence I heard a little small sound. At last I knew it was my own voice, and the keening of the women in the farther room rose above my own voice. For many hours after, I was alone, and there was no light.
Arnold returned and spoke gently. "There is small comfort in speaking to you of the hereafter at this time, Wayne."
"Let me alone," I said.
"There is some comfort perhaps to remember that her last hours were peaceful. There was no pain, and she died in her sleep, unknowing."
"Next Saturday was to be our wedding day."
"I am sorry for you, Wayne," he offered.
"I am beyond sorrow," I replied.
"It will pass. Time is a great healer, Wayne. Time will--"
"Time will not heal these wounds," I interrupted him firmly. "Time nor anything. This is the end of my life."
"You mustn't talk that way."
"This is the end," I resolved solemnly. "I was a fool to think it was the beginning."
"I know how you feel, Wayne."
"You know how I feel?" I scoffed. "How can you know? You didn't love Elizabeth. You knew her and she was another woman, another patient to stand over and to give medicine to, and to let die as you let her die."
"I didn't mean that, Arnold," I sighed. "You did all you could, but she died. Elizabeth died. Oh, no. No, no, no!"
"Wayne, you mustn't."
"Shall I tell you about Elizabeth?" I began. "Shall I tell you of the dark hair of her flung wild in the wind of a summer's afternoon when we stood on the hill together? Shall I speak of her laughter, like minted gold in the long morning light beside the sea? Did you know her blue eyes in the candle flame at midnight in the old high house where the road turns? I have held her hands in mine and marveled at her voice in the gloaming. Elizabeth has said she loves me. You say to me I must not? What is there left for me without Elizabeth? How shall I live without her?"
"Life goes on," he insisted.
"I will not live without her!" I protested. "No. You can't hold me here, Arnold."
The streets were wet, and the streets were dark, and the sounds of New York I still remember. What man is there who could not remember his last night on Earth? I heard the muted roar of the town, and the dark hurrying figures of people were in my consciousness too, but it was not the night to care for earthly things. The cold rain descended, and the sodden streets gave back the echo wetly of my aimless footsteps.
Do the oily ripples of the ebbing tide still finger the timbers of the ancient piers along the river? Does the mournful sound of the fog horn haunt your dreams of a rainy night in March, when the rain and the fog conspire to teach us what blackness there was once on all the Earth? Do all the sad boats still ply across the bay in the night, and all the people on them huddle into the lighted places and think uneasily of what lies deep in the waters below?
There above the river I made my peace with the city that lay behind the swirling fog and the rain, the tall backdrop against which I played my final scene. I stood composing myself, thinking sad last thoughts, all but forgetting lost Elizabeth in the grandeur of my own final gesture.
Presently, a figure came away from the shadows and walked slowly toward me. Like an actor who has lost his cue, I paused irresolutely on the rain-soaked edge of the dock. When he came closer I turned impatiently. My footing was insecure in the wet and the dark and I all but fell into the swirl below.
"Have a care, man!" he shouted.
"Let me be," I implored him.
"You'd have fallen into the water," he said as he grabbed my arm to pull me away from the edge. "The tide being at the ebb, you'd have struggled in vain and there'd be no one about to hear you choking and screaming in the dark. You'd be drowned, you see?"
"Let go of me!" I demanded. "Will you let me alone?!"
"Drowning yourself in the river will not bring Elizabeth back."
"What did you-- who are you?"
"Elizabeth wants you to live, Wayne."
"Live," I repeated. "What's there to live for?"
"Come with me then, and maybe I'll show you."
I cannot say now what was the compulsion that led me to follow his steps down the dockside and out to the end of the wharf in the darkness. I cannot say. I followed him in the soaking cold rain, to a ladder at the end. He paused and took my arm again, and pointed down.
"You were not afraid of the water a moment ago, Wayne."
I looked at him. In the gloom it seemed that I could see the glow of the little lantern at the end of the dock, though he stood between me and the light.
"Down the ladder to the boat, Wayne."
The ladder was wet and clammy to my hands and I could hear the wooden rungs creak beneath my weight. I did not know why I followed him for I could see no boat in the water below. I have spoken of a compulsion. Though he spoke quietly enough in the night, I followed him.
Was there ever such a scene? The bereaved man, the lorn lover, the grief-stricken man about to take his own life for a lost love and foiled at it by an utter stranger in the dark -- and setting off in the windy waters of a March night with the same total stranger?
I said to him: "Where are we going?" And I could feel that he was smiling though he didn't answer. I said again: "Do you know where you're going?"
"For a young man who was about to take his own life a few minutes ago," the man observed, "you show overmuch concern."
"We'll be run down by a boat!"
"We will not. But if we are, you will drown and die, and is that not what you want?"
"Well, I..." I trailed off.
"You want to choose your own way of dying, is that it?"
I couldn't answer him. I asked again, more calmly: "Where are we going?"
"You're forgetting Elizabeth in your concern for yourself, Wayne."
"I've not forgotten Elizabeth," I sighed.
"Do not forget her, Wayne. Be silent, and think of Elizabeth."
The waves rose higher and higher, the wind came down about my ears and we seemed to be going faster and ever faster through the night. Always the silent man sat over against me in the little boat, and though the waves grew mountain high in the wild night still he plied his oars and still we traveled on upon the face of the deep. There was no light to be seen and the flying scud all but smothered me. I grew desperately cold in the open boat.
Yet again I asked him: "Where are we going?"
"Be still," he replied.
My thoughts would not compose, and at last I fell into a kind of restless sleep, cold and wet, entirely unhappy there in the boat. Through my sleep I seemed to hear strange music, and the voice of my companion in the boat. There was poetry in his words.
"Out of the glowing west, as the sun was dying behind them, up from the sea in the night by the light of the moon, dark were the boats, and dark were the men in the darkness. Seeking the shore of the sea, as they chanted their song in the night. Seeking the Shan Van Vocht, the undying sorrowful mother. Seeking the Shan Van Vocht, on the shore where the Shannon descends. Stretch out your arms, oh Shan Van Vocht! Stand on the headlands, and show us the way. Weep for your sons, oh sorrowful mother. The black boats are sailing, bring us the day."
When I opened my eyes, the first rays of the sun sped across the waters toward me. The broad land lay before us and there was a great lazy river that came down out of the hills. A fresh wind was blowing at our backs and we rushed along on the calm breast of the sea. I rubbed my eyes and I asked my companion in amazement: "Where are we?"
He smiled and shook his head and did not answer. The shore drew nearer and nearer, and I remembered the poetry in my dreams and I leaned over to him and I said "Answer me!"
"Oh, have you forgotten Elizabeth in all your curiosity then?"
"I've not forgotten Elizabeth. Where are you taking me?"
"You'll know in a moment."
"I don't understand."
He shook his head and laid on the oars again, and the little black boat headed toward the mouth of the great, gentle river. There grew higher land on either side and the green hills stretched away beyond... and I saw a woman standing on the beach at the estuary as we drew closer. For a moment my heart leaped in me for her hair was dark like Elizabeth's and she had the figure that I remembered so well. Then I knew sharp despair again, for Elizabeth was dead.
I think my companion must have seen the gathering tears in my eyes, for he spoke very gently: "You remember Elizabeth again."
"I have not forgotten Elizabeth. I will not forget Elizabeth."
"That is well, my son."
We were in the very mouth of the river, and the blue of the sea had turned now to a kind of golden green from the silt that the river brings down from the hills far beyond. The low hills stretched away as far as I could see, and the sun shone on a scene of peace, and I fancied I could hear birds singing.
The keel of the little boat graded to the shore, and I stood up and stepped out. When I looked back, my companion had vanished from sight.
I thought perhaps that I had come to those isles of the blessed that are spoken of in the old books. I thought in my heart for a moment that I might find Elizabeth here, for I was not sure what this place was and it seemed the heaven I had heard of could not possibly be fairer. I may say to this day that as yet I have had no foretaste, no view of heaven yet vouchsafed to me... yet if heaven shall be fairer than this land set down in a shining sea, then it will be heaven indeed.
In the long days of spring I wandered by myself along the shore. The sun was good and the sea was endless. When the night came there were the stars, and the night breeze was sweet, and then the thoughts of Elizabeth came back again to haunt me. Always my wonder grew. Had I indeed taken my life, and was this the Elysian field, was this the limbo for unjudged souls? Was I wandering until the judgment day?
I looked up and the woman was standing there by the waterside, and she was dressed in a green flowing gown and her hair was dark like I've heard is the wing of a raven. Her face was peaceful to look upon, though ravaged with tears. She approached me and spoke.
"It is a true land," she assured me. "Feel the grass beneath your feet, hearken to the sound of the waves, and be sure it is all real."
"I'm lost," I told her.
"You weep for your lost Elizabeth," she stated.
"I shall never cease to weep for her."
"A day'll come, Wayne," she insisted softly. "A day comes when grief is forgotten."
"No day for me," I countered.
"A day when you know Dark Rosaleen."
"No," I said. "But who is Dark Rosaleen? Who are you?"
"I have found much to weep for, wherefore they call me the sorrowful mother. But in these latter days I do not always weep for grief."
"Tell me," I implored her. "I was about to die for the love of a lost one. Is she here? Is Elizabeth here?"
"Dark Rosaleen is here."
And then, when I looked up at her from the ground, there was another woman standing where she had stood. This one was young and fair and her hair was dark and her eyes were blue, and she smiled upon me. For a moment my heart stopped, for she spoke in Elizabeth's voice.
"Céad míle fáilte, my love."
I sprung to my feet and my voice shook as I took her hand in mine, for the hand was the hand of my lost love.
"Elizabeth," I exclaimed. "My lost Elizabeth!"
"You look on me, and you find in me whatever love you have lost. I will be in your heart forever, and you will never cease to love me. I am Dark Rosaleen, and you will die for me if the time comes, as so many have died for love of me before. I will never die, I live forever, and you are mine, you will be faithful to me forever."
"Who are you?"
"I am called Dark Rosaleen... and sometimes I am called Shan Van Vocht. I am also called Erin, and by that name am I loved in every quarter of the globe. It is my harp that you hear in the night, my kisses that the soft breeze of midday brings to you. In me is Elizabeth. I am every woman every man of Erin has ever loved."
Hear my vow: whether I walk the sands of the desert, or whether I shall sail the seven seas, whether I prosper or whether I beg in the streets, whether I be living or though I die -- I swear I will remember Dark Rosaleen, to her eternal honor.