/*bootstrap*/ My Maugham Collection Concordance Library: The Image of the Virgin (1901)

The Image of the Virgin (1901)

Short Stories >
It was Easter day; the bells were ringing peal upon peal to announce the heavenly tidings of Resurrection. And with the sad time of the Passion had passed the winter. The new life of the Redeemer had burst the grey winding-cloths of Nature and the breezes of the spring filled the air with fresh odours and men's hearts with happiness. They walked with springing step, eager for the joy of living; some of them sobbed in the ecstasy which they could not understand.

An old man stood on the cathedral steps between the two great doors; and he looked upon the crowd below. The square was filled with the people who had gathered together to hear the Easter Mass. Fine ladies with sweeping trains went with downcast eyes, accompanied by their servants, and the gallants pointed out to one another the beauties as they passed, to the ladies of their acquaintances making low bows. Rich merchants walked in twos and threes, talking gravely, conscious of the bulging purses in their girdles. The wives and daughters of the tradesfolk were arrayed in all their best, with white-starched head-dresses, carrying books of devotion in their hands; and the ’prentice boys filled the square with clamour, laughing, shouting, singing. The old man saw the sparkle of jewels on the gorgeous raiment and the glittering dyes; green, which was the colour of the hope which he had lost, and yellow, which was the colour of the envy that he felt for all that was strong and beautiful; red, the colour of blood, the colour of youth and power, of the brave endeavour, the colour of the feast of the Body of Christ; and purple was the colour of women beautiful; and grey was the colour of his life, of human sorrow, of tears, of death. Above all was the blue sky, milky and soft; and blue and white are the colours of the Virgin. A white bird flew through the summer air, and many bared their heads and crossed themselves, thinking it was the Holy Ghost. The old man heard the glad noises, the shouts of the 'prentices, the Easter greeting which one gave to another, the ringing of a hundred bells. And he was quite alone. He had outlived love and friendship, he had outlived the joy of life, he had outlived even the desire for knowledge. The very earth had shaken off its age and was young again, there was delight in every heart, and his was as heavy as lead. The warm sunshine had brought him from his house for the first time since many months; and at first he thought that the springtime had to him also given new strength, but now he was a-weary, weary to death; and he leaned heavily against the carved pilasters of the porch.

He thought that life was a wonderful thing. He looked at the young men that passed him with proud carriage, gay and careless in their insolent felicity; and he looked at himself, at his hands, which were thin and wrinkled, with no fair roundness or strength of muscle, with the veins showing blue through the wax-like skin; he thought of his dull and sunken eyes, his bended back, his tottering gait, and the coldness which was over everything like a forewarning of the Hand of Death.

He groaned in pity for himself. “I cannot look upon their life; I hate it.”

He wandered back into the church, away from the light. Leaning on his stick he walked through the aisle and restfully the incense came towards him. A woman was kneeling on the stones, and sobs shook her as she prayed.

“What has she to trouble for?” he said. “She is young, and youth has no sorrows....”

He turned aside, down the transept, and he came to the Chapel of the Mother of Sorrows. On that glad day of rejoicing it seemed to have been overlooked, for no candles burned, and only dimly could one see the image. Wearily the old man sank on a seat, thinking of his woe.

But gradually his eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom and he looked at the holy image. Almost unconsciously his lips moved to form words, and slowly he spoke the words of an old hymn. The image stood above the altar in a niche; and the Mother of Sorrows held her hands against her bare heart, which bled great tears of blood; on her long flaxen hair was a crown of gold and from her shoulders fell a damask cloak. In her eyes and in her mouth was the woe for which there is no consolation, and her face was strangely lifelike.

In his madness the old man whispered to her, “O, Mother, Mother, give me my youth.”

Then he uttered a cry, in his fear he clenched his fists. Great God, what was it! The image had moved. He started from his seat, faltering forward, and fell to his knees on the altar steps.

“O Blessed Virgin,” he cried passionately, and the tears ran down his wrinkled cheeks. “O, Blessed Virgin, art thou alive? What is it? A miracle; O, God, it is a miracle! O, Mother, Virgin Mother, thou who art all-powerful, hear me. Give me back my youth, my youth!”

There was a movement in the painted lips, and a gentle voice spoke from them.

“My son, has thy life been so happy that thou wouldst have given back to thee thy youth?”

“O, Mother, Holy Mother, thou canst give me back my life, my happiness. All my days have I been true and loyal servitor to thee. I pray thee, do this thing for me, for thy dear Son’s sake, who rose this day.”

“My son, thou knowest not what it is thou askest; but yet, as thou hast been all thy days true and loyal servitor to me, and for my dear Son’s sake, who rose this day—thou shalt have thy wish.”

“O, Heaven!”

“I will give thee back thy youth. But thou must live thy life as before thou livedst it; everything shall be repeated to thee as it happened aforetime. Dost thou accept?”

“Yes! Yes!”

“And I cannot take away thy recollection; for memory is the curse of Satan and Satan in this world is as strong as God.”

“Give me back my life again, just as it was, with the joy of youth and the joy of love. O, Heaven, how shall I endure the happiness of it!”

Then he felt a hand pass over his eyes and he fell asleep.

He woke with a start, and instinctively put his hand to his head; something was different! His slumber was still heavy upon him, he passed his hand slowly down his face. The wrinkles had disappeared, the skin was smooth and soft. He took in his fingers a lock of his hair; he saw that it was rich brown, and hung in luxuriant curls about his shoulders. He stretched out a hand: it was round and strong and beautiful. He sprang to his feet and felt in him the glorious vigour of youth. Then he understood that his wish had been granted, and he was young again. Falling on his knees before the altar he gave fervent thanks to the Blessed Virgin for her gift, and then strode out.

He stood once more on the cathedral steps, between the two great doors, looking upon the crowd below, but now he hated them no longer; his heart beat with pleasure as he realised that he was one of them again, that he could join in their loves and sports, and live their life. He rejoiced in their merriment, for it seemed to him that they were joyful to share his joy; and there rose up in him suddenly intense love for his fellow-men.

He mused, smiling with pleasure. The great clock of the belfry struck two. Dimly his mind began to work, something occurred to him; it was in his brain a strange confusion. He put his hand to his head, frowning. “Ah, of course, how stupid of me! I am dining with the Burgomaster.” A mysterious influence, stronger than himself, impelled him to walk through the narrow street till he came to the house of his friend. He smiled as he knocked at the door, for his host had been dead since thirty years; but it was the Burgomaster in person, exactly as he had known him, who opened and welcomed him,

“Come in, friend Hugh. I began to think you had forgotten us.”

The words seemed strangely familiar, and he had a dim recollection of the conversation that followed, as if he had lately lived through it in a dream. At last the Burgomaster made mention of his daughter, and it flashed through the youth’s mind that it was the very day on which, forty years back, he had been betrothed to his old love, Anne the beautiful, the ideal, the never forgotten. His heart throbbed at the thought of seeing her again. How often in his loneliness had he thought of the first meeting after long absence! He had left her a child, but now she was a woman with the peach-like skin and the dove’s eyes of the Mater Dolorosa in the cathedral, with the same long flaxen hair. Love flew from her eyes to his, and like the strange liquids of necromancers, descended to the very depths of his heart. All praise to the Blessed Virgin who had brought him back to the happiest day of his life; he silently vowed candles to her altar.

“Why does not Anne come in?” he asked. “She has forgotten me in seven years.”

At that moment the door was opened by a young girl; she stood a moment on the threshold in bashfulness before the stranger, and went to her father’s side.

“Why, Anne,” said the Burgomaster, “don’t you recognise your old playfellow; and Hugh, my boy, don’t you recognise your old sweetheart?” Hugh laughed and blushed.

“It is so long since I saw her, and she has altered. I did not know she was so beautiful.”

Was this Anne? This was not how he remembered her during all those years that he had kept her portrait in his heart.

“I did not know she was so beautiful,” he thought. But what was it that tore his heart-strings like a devil unchained? Was it disillusion, bitter disillusion? “I did not know she was so beautiful.”

Anne bade them come to dinner, and Hugh remembered the meal as it had happened aforetime when he gazed passionately upon the maiden, while now and then she raised her eyes, and, catching his, blushed, so that he was filled with unspeakable joy. And this time he gazed and the maiden looked and blushed, but his heart was cold and sad....

After dinner, when the Burgomaster began to snore, Anne invited the young man to come with her into the garden, and they walked beneath the trees just bursting into bud, talking gently of the days they had only spent together as children; then they grew tired and sat in the summer-house. And now Hugh felt that his eyes were insufficient to tell his love, and he began tremblingly to express himself in words. He remembered the first kiss he had ever given her as distinctly as if it had been yesterday. Ah, perhaps at first he had been disappointed; but now for certain he could not be; he had thought of that kiss so often; such bliss could hardly be felt in Paradise! He panted with excitement as he took her hand; she blushed like a rose, but resisted not; he drew her to him and placed his arms around her, and gave her the long sweet kiss which had remained on his lips for ever. O, Blessed Virgin, this was not the kiss he had dreamed of! The woman was there, smiling and blushing as of yore, but the kiss was not the same; so cold, so passionless, beside the one of his imagination! He looked into her face; and then—O, the horror of it!—through her languorous eyes, the dove’s eyes of the Virgin, he saw the hollow orbs of death; the peach-like skin was drawn and yellow; the rounded cheeks were sunken, and the pearly teeth, which smiled upon him, broken and discoloured.... He would have uttered a cry of terror, but the sound could not come from his throat; he tried to tear himself from the girl’s embrace, but he could not, for he had to live his life as he had lived it before, in everything do as he had done before; and passionately he kissed the face of death. It might be that Anne was in the fulness of her beauty, just as on that other Easter day, which Hugh was re-living; but ineradicable before his mind was the likeness of her which he had seen on the bed of death. He could not get the hideous picture from him, and still he thrilled with the delight of holding her in his arms.

They went into the house, and shyly Anne told her father what had happened; but as she spoke, blushing with the new delight of love, her lover could only see the hideous face of death. At last he rose to go, for he was to meet his bosom friend that evening; but the Burgomaster urged him not to leave them, bidding him send a messenger to his friend and let him come to them. Hugh consented. He was delighted with the prospect of seeing his friend again; love might not be what he had thought it, but friendship could not alter, and all his disappointment would be counteracted by reunion with the trusty comrade who had been dead so long. But, then, he remembered something else: he called to mind horrible suffering which had been caused him by this same friend. He had supposed that his wife and his friend were deceiving him, and he had spent years tortured by frightful jealousy. After, when they were both dead, he had learned that his suspicions were groundless, and in the joy of his discovery had forgotten the previous misery. But now he remembered it all: he remembered how he had made his wife unhappy with his thoughts, and how he became cruel to her in his unreason; he remembered the gradual coldness that had arisen between him and his friend—the dear friend with whom he had shared all trouble and pleasure. Must all this happen again? This was not the delight he had expected. Could he not alter anything, but must everything be gone through precisely as it had been gone through before, and must he make two lives miserable again by his cursed stupidity? He cursed himself for the unhappiness that he had caused; he groaned as he thought that it must all be gone through again; and it would be ten times worse, for all the time he would know that the pain was fruitless, and yet must be endured, that he was acting wrongly, wickedly, and yet must act so. O! what had he done in thus begging for his youth?

And when late at night he left the Burgomaster’s house he strode through the silent streets thinking of all this. Last time he had thought of Anne and his own ecstatic joy; but there was no joy now, only blackest woe.

One by one the events stood out clearly in his mind, and he remembered now exactly what the future had in store. To-morrow he would quarrel with his brother and there would be bitter enmity between them: true, at last they would come together, and the reconciliation Hugh had always looked upon as one of the happiest incidents of his life; but so much pain had to be gone through to give that moment’s happiness! And as he went over each successive step of his manhood, the joys and pleasures of it dwindled to nothingness, and the woes and miseries grew into mighty things, terrifying to think of. How could he suffer them all again, those forty mortal years, during which he must endure all horror. And he had thought his life a happy one, poor fool! He laughed at himself; this was not a blessing that the Virgin had given him, but a curse—a ghastly curse. And as he pictured it all he worked himself into a frenzy of despair, and in agony he cried aloud.

He ran to the cathedral, and went along the dark aisle to the chapel in which was the Image of the Virgin. But this time it was not to offer thanks for his betrothal. He fell on his knees at the altar and opened his mouth to cry out; but there came from it only the dead words of the past—words of praise and gratitude. He struggled against the power within him, piteously he touched the hem of the Virgin’s damask cloak, he struggled with all his might; and at last his soul won the battle and his agony burst the bonds of the flesh.

“No, no,” he cried, “I will not have my youth again. O, Blessed Virgin, take back thy gift—I cannot bear it—I am afraid.”

A light shone from the face of the Image and showed the movement of the lips.

“Why, son, twelve hours have not passed since I gave thee thy youth, which thou hadst so greatly desired.”

“Ah, Mother, I did not know what I asked. I thought my life had been happy, happier than most men’s. O, Blessed Virgin, give me back my age, my old age with its hopelessness, its solitude, its coldness, its weakness. I pray thee—as I have ever been good and loyal servitor to thee, for thy dear Son’s sake who rose again this day.”

“Yet didst thou enjoy great happiness, my son. Who tastes great happiness in this world, tastes also bitter woe.”

“I cannot bear it.”

“And thy life was indeed happier than most men’s—yet it was not happy. But as thou hast ever been good and loyal servitor to me, and for my dear Son’s sake, who rose again this day, I will take back my gift; and I will give thee the only happiness of this world which is unalloyed.”

Then he felt a gentle hand pass over his eyes, and suddenly he knew that his youth had left him. Over him came again the weakness of old age, and he felt a delicious languor—as the huntsman feels when he lays himself to rest after the day. He sank on the marble pavement. A strange voluptuous feeling came upon him, and with a sigh of delight he fell asleep; and the sleep was Death.

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