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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Iron Tomb

By Hendrik Conscience (1812–1883)

IT would be difficult to describe to you the strange life I led at Bodeghem. I wandered daily along the walks of the uninhabited country-houses, in the woods and shady groves, my mind enveloped as it were in a dream, which like a thick cloud held me aloof from the outer world. It was useless to call to my assistance all my energy and will to dissipate the fog that thus covered my intellect; it was trouble lost. I could only see Rose and her pitiful look; I could only feel the worm of sorrow that gnawed at my heart and only heard the terrible words—“Do you know the news? Rose is going to be married”—that followed me everywhere, without giving me one moment’s peace. The violence of passion, the bitterness of despair, had left me entirely. I hated no one, accused no one, not even my cruel fate; not even the future husband, my rival. An intense sorrow, a dreamy resignation, a species of quiet sympathy with my anguish, took the place of all violent emotion in my heart.

Convinced that I was never destined to experience real happiness in this world, I recalled one by one all the recollections of my past life, and with these reminiscences I created for myself an imaginary world, wherein my soul could find a source of peace and consolation.

In walking through the garden I would stop on the bridge and gaze into the water, then returning to less sad thoughts I would contemplate for hours together the lawn that stretched itself before me. I saw in imagination a delicate little girl, pretty as an angel; by her side was a little boy who could not talk, but his eyes at the least word or smile from the little girl would lighten with admiration, gratitude, and pride. I followed these happy children; I trembled with heartfelt emotion when I perceived upon the little girl’s face a smile of friendship for the poor boy. I shared in their games as they traced out a bed of flowers in the grass; I ran behind them as they chased the butterflies—I listened to their childish chatterings and each beating of their little hearts, and I recognized with cruel satisfaction that even then a fatal power dominated over these innocent creatures and had already sown in their hearts a seed of a future love. I spoke to the trees, the flowers, the birds, to revive again the memory of my lost happiness, until nightfall and the weary throbbings of my heart warned me that it was time to return home. On other days I would wander in the woods and try to find out those trees to whom I had confided my sorrows and hopes. I recognized the old places where I had once sat, and I thought I could see glittering among the grass the tears I had shed some eight long years ago.

Then I used to weep from pure happiness; the sun of hope inundated my heart with its light. Now I had none; my life was closed by the dark wall of the impossible—it was on that account I had no more tears. Tears are both a prayer and an intercession for help and pity. Why should I complain or implore?—I, to whom no earthly power could give back to my heart what it desired; whose sorrows by their very nature were to be life-lasting.

Again at other times I would sit down on the hedge-side, where the dumb child had worked for weeks carving wooden figures—loved treasures with which he hoped to win a smile. I saw again the spot where the child rolled on the ground, a prey to convulsions of despair, because his tongue refused to utter any intelligible sounds. I saw the white poplar-trees whose bark still bore the mysterious signs with which he tried to make himself understood. The cows that were grazing in the fields, the cracking of the shepherd’s whip, the silvery dew arising from the running brook, the splendor of the rising sun, all recalled the memory of my childhood and helped me to forget my mournful sadness, recalling to my mind a picture of happiness that had been, but could never return.