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Terborg possessed in a remarkable degree the gift of conversation. He knew how to raise the most common-place topics into some lofty sphere of intellectual interest, and thus differed as completely from the usual society talkers as pure gold from brass. My sole desire was to listen to him ; but he was free from the weakness which leads many really clever men to monopolize the conversation wherever they are; he, on the contrary, made every effort to elicit my opinions. He listened to them with an attention rarely vouchsafed to a young man by one who is older and incomparably superior. I accounted for this afterwards by observing that in him youth and age seemed to be combined ; his was a humanity that was independent of time. Never before had I met with anyone possessed of such perfect confidence in his own way of thinking, united to such gentleness and ready indulgence for the opinions of other people. Though much that he said was new and very abstruse, it appeared to me quite familiar; for he clothed all he said in such simple language as convinced me that it did but naturally flow from the deepest depths of knowledge, and the fullest and clearest comprehension of human life and its needs.
The question occurred to me, by what course of training had he obtained this clear and comprehensive conception of things, this serene and lofty freedom from all the vain delusions which men in general so eagerly pursue ; but he avoided all allusion to himself; only once to a passing remark he rejoined:
'The young are themselves scarcely to be held responsible for what they become, and are entitled to receive the most considerate and lenient judgment. But for that it would have fared ill with me, for I was a wild, ungovernable lad.'
And thus the minutes flew on as they had never done with me before.
I could scarcely believe it was so late when the hammer of a little timepiece struck at last, with its shrill tinkling bell, the hour of twelve. With reluctance I took the warning and rose to go. But Holding Terborg said :
‘Don't go away on my account; I am accustomed to midnight hours. Then, turning his face towards me, he added : “You have not yet explained how you came to leave the company to follow me.'
He looked at me inquiringly with those eyes which had before recalled to me my singular dream, and at the same time
they reminded me of some other eyes that I had seen but recently, though I could not recall where. Somewhat embarrassed, I replied:
The cause was in truth somewhat strange--it was a dream.' He gave me a little nod. 'Ay, a dream may have an extraordinary influence. I mean, whimsical as it may sound, that we ourselves create the dreains, and they often serve to show us plainly, in some strange guise, that which before existed confusedly in our mind. For underlying their capricious, impossible transitions may not unfrequently be traced a man's unconscious cerebration and state of feeling. Your dream seems to have been of this description.'
This seemed an invitation to confide in him the somewhat fantastic cause of my late conduct, so I related to him briefly how I had dreamt of wandering at nightfall over the dreary, spectre-haunted strand. He listened with his wonted air of perfect calm, but as I described the three great runic rocks beside the shore, his mien suddenly changed, and I perceived for the first time his eyes fixed on me with a look of astonishment. He remained thus for perhaps half a minute, until I had ended my tale. Then the words came slowly, as though he were speaking to himself:
'Strange! And you have seen them too—the mystic three ?'
He arose, went to the window, and gazed for awhile at the starlit sky.
I did not understand what he meant; but as he turned and spoke to me again, his voice had a joyous intonation that made me feel we were drawn together by some mysterious power into still closer sympathy. He expressed the same feeling when he said :
'So it really was ordained that this night should not leave us strangers to one another any longer? Would you like to meet again, in your waking moments, those three Sister-Watchers, not where they rest immovable, but there where, as the bird proclaimed to you, "they wage their endless strife”??
He stretched out his hand towards the writing-table, and took up the manuscript with the singular inscription. I saw then that two others lay beneath it with similar and equally mysterious mottoes. I asked their meaning.
* All my observations of human actions,' he replied, 'I have been in the habit of classing under three heads, according as
they spring from a sense of the endlessness, of the emptiness, or of the shortness of life. Each of these three conceptions, if earnest and sincere, necessarily involves a judgment concerning human events, often irreconcilable with the other two. These papers contain descriptions of precisely the same events, but with different results, according as human actions may be classified : “ Sub specie æternitatis,” “ Sub specie vanitatis," or “ Sub specie brevitatis." These are your three “Watchers," who have left the spectre-haunted shore to mingle in the everyday affairs of life—the Endlessness, the Emptiness, the Shortness of life; or say, if you will, Faith in Immortality, Conviction of Life's aimlessness and barrenness and the warm Impulse to make everyone we meet as happy as we can in this our short span of earthly life.'
Holding Terborg was about to give me the manuscripts, but he changed his mind, laid them back on the table, and, taking a much thicker packet from a drawer, continued :
'Or would you rather meet the three all together? These pages contain no mere theory, but an account of events that have really happened, and that have a singular connection with
He handed me the packet. It was more a feeling than a thought that revealed to me the source of the sympathy which for the last few moments had drawn us so closely together. A something intangible—a dreamy vision-had had the power to bind us with a link forged by the mystic gleaming stars. The clear-toned bell of the little timepiece struck again many times before I left the room that had grown so homelike to me. I awoke, however, quite early the next morning, and immediately took up the story 'of Holding Terborg. It filled many pages,
' but I did not put it down until I reached the end.
In the last decade of the eighteenth, and the first of this nineteenth, century, whilst the storms of the French Revolution and of the Napoleonic wars raged nearly over the whole of the European Continent, the little islands of East Friesland were more than ever cut off from the rest of the world. They were never visited by strangers, for in those days there was no steamboat service, nor did railroads intersect the interminable moors of the opposite low-lying coast. No one ever dreamed that their rugged monotony would one day be associated with the names of sea-side watering-places of world-wide renown. No eye ever glanced towards these barren shores with the slightest desire to make their acquaintance. Even the State to which they nominally belonged took scarcely any notice of them.
In the restless whirl of an age busied with transformation, the ruling Powers had something else to occupy them than the care of a few sandy islets and their sparse inhabitants, whose poverty allowed of no taxation, or, at least, would not repay the expense of its collection. So, no tolls being exacted of these poor islanders, no protection was accorded to them. Indeed, for many years these islands were all but forgotten, or, at all events, were abandoned to their own resources.
With the exception, perhaps, of Norderney, their very names were scarcely known in Germany. No one heard of them in school, and they did not possess a history—that is, any record of events interesting to the world at large. As far back as tradition reached, these islands and their occupants had known no changes; the very seasons, in their phenomena, varied as little as the ages.
Once upon a time some fisher-folk had settled on the islands, and their descendants had remained in possession without any question of their right. Neither individual greed nor foreign ambition had ever laid claim to these islands. They were islands in the original sense of the wordeinland ; that is, lone-lying land.
They were, too, as much like each other as are the spotted gulls' eggs in the sand-nests that covered the ground. All presented the same long-extended, treeless, barren plains, nearly encircled by a chain of downs, over which the wind waved and fluttered the gray-green, flexible, sedge-like grass. Wind and fog were here at home, the sun only a rare visitor; steering wide aloof from the dangerous shore, the sails of the world's commerce passed by on the far-off horizon. It was always sore against the will or wish of the ship's crew if, on some foggy day or pitch-dark night, they chanced to be hurled, not carried, by the high, white-crested waves on to this inhospitable shore. Thousands of waterfowl, however, with their jubilant screech,
were always to be heard and seen, either as they came inland with the rolling tide or followed it in its retreat. mingled with the murmur of the waves, now loud, now low, but never wholly hushed, rose up from the isles in one harmonious chord that seemed to interweave the heavens and earth. The ear, once accustomed to it, lost all perception of the sound. Other noise, however, was rarely to be heard ; one of the most striking peculiarities of these island-downs was the prevailing silence. Horses and carriages were as little to be seen as highroads and paved streets.
The soil afforded no pasture for cattle, so their lowing was never heard. No noisy handicrafts were carried on, and the people were laconic in their speech, both the well-to-do and the poor, the merry and the sad. Even the young never poured forth their joy, or gave vent to the exuberance of their animal spirits in song—' Frisia non cantat.' That they left to the lark, which in springtime found joy here, as elsewhere, amid the spare streaks of grass between the sandhills. Here and there, indeed, might be seen blue-eyed lads or little maids squatted among the lonely white sand-hills, their flaxen hair blowing over their forehead as they let the finegrained sand play round their bare legs, whilst they listened to the lark carolling above them. But even children never dreamt of imitating his trills. The proverb was doubly verified, for, as the old people never sang, so their young never tried to chirp.
The islands, about a dozen in number, might be classified as large and small. These latter were the true islands, the lone lands shunned altogether by man. On the inhabited islands the houses were all precisely of the same kind. More or less widely scattered, they formed villages, and the largest of them all had a growing population of more than a thousand. The others had scarcely a fifth, or even sixth, of this number. About half of the villages possessed a church, but it was a very unpretentious one, with a low spire capped by a hood shaped like those the fishermen wear when they put out to sea.
Nearly the whole of the population was engaged in fishing. In this employment they supplied their families with food, which consisted mainly of the produce of the salt waters-cod, shell-fish, herrings—supplemented by their home-baked bread. The flour for this, together with a little salted and smoke-dried meat and bacon, the fishermen brought back with them when they visited the mainland to dispose of the fish not required for household use.