Not Lost, But Gone Before
"I WONDER what becomes of the Frog, when he climbs up out of this world, and disappears, so that we do not see even his shadow; till, plop! he is among us again, when we least expect him. Does anybody know where he goes to? Tell me, somebody, pray!"
Thus chattered the Grub of a dragon-fly, as he darted about with his numerous companions, in and out among the plants at the bottom of the water, in search of prey.
The water formed a beautiful pond in the centre of a wood. Stately trees grew around it and reflected themselves on its surface, as on a polished mirror; and the bulrushes and forget-me-nots which fringed its sides seemed to have a twofold life, so perfect was their image below.
"Who cares what the Frog does?" answered one of those who overheard the Grub's enquiry; "what is it to us?"
"Look out for food for yourself," cried another, "and let other people's business alone."
"But I have a curiosity on the subject," expostulated the first speaker. "I can see all of you when you pass by me among the plants in the water here; and when I don't see you any longer, I know you have gone further on. But I followed a Frog just now as he went upwards, and all at once he went to the side of the water, and then began to disappear, and presently he was gone. Did he leave this world, do you think? And what can there be beyond?"
"You idle, talkative fellow," cried another, shooting by as he spoke, "attend to the world you are in, and leave the 'beyond,' if there is a 'beyond,' to those that are there. See what a morsel you have missed with your wonderings about nothing." So saying, the saucy speaker seized an insect which was flitting right in front of his friend.
The curiosity of the Grub was a little checked by these and similar remarks, and he resumed his employment of chasing prey for a time.
But, do what he would, he could not help thinking of the curious disappearance of the Frog, and presently began to tease his neighbors about it again, What becomes of the Frog when he leaves this world? being the burden of his enquiry.
The minnows eyed him askance and passed on without speaking, for they knew no more than he did of the matter, and yet were loth to proclaim their ignorance; and the eels wriggled away in the mud out of hearing, for they could not bear to be disturbed.
The Grub got impatient, but he succeeded in inspiring several of his tribe with some of his own curiosity, and then went scrambling about in all directions with his followers, asking the same unreasonable questions of all the creatures he met.
Suddenly there was a heavy splash in the water, and a large yellow Frog swam down to the bottom among the grubs.
"Ask the Frog himself," suggested a Minnow, as he darted by overhead, with a mischievous glance of his eye. And very good advice it seemed to be, only the thing was much easier said than done. For the Frog was a dignified sort of personage, of whom the smaller inhabitants of the water stood a good deal in awe. It required no common amount of assurance to ask a creature of his standing and gravity, where he had been to, and where he had come from. He might justly consider such an enquiry as a very impertinent piece of curiosity.
Still, such a chance of satisfying himself was not to be lost, and after taking two or three turns round the roots of a water lily, the Grub screwed up his courage, and approaching the Frog in the meekest manner he could assume, he asked—
"Is it permitted to a very unhappy creature to speak?"
The Frog turned his gold-edged eyes upon him in surprise, and answered—
"Very unhappy creatures had better be silent. I never talk but when I am happy."
"But I shall be happy if I may talk," interposed the Grub, as glibly as possible.
"Talk away then," cried the Frog; "what can it matter to me?"
"Respected Frog," replied the Grub, "but it is something I want to ask you."
"Ask away," exclaimed the Frog, not in a very encouraging tone, it must be confessed; but still the permission was given.
"What is there beyond the world?" enquired the Grub, in a voice scarcely audible from emotion.
"What world do you mean?" cried the Frog, rolling his goggle eyes round and round.
"This world, of course, our world," answered the Grub.
"This pond, you mean," remarked the Frog, with a contemptuous sneer.
"I mean the place we live in, whatever you may choose to call it," cried the Grub pertly. "I call it the world."
"Do you, sharp little fellow?" rejoined the Frog. "Then what is the place you don't live in, the 'beyond' the world, eh?"
And the Frog shook his sides with merriment as he spoke.
"That is just what I want you to tell me," replied the Grub briskly.
"Oh, indeed, little one!" exclaimed the Froggy, rolling his eyes this time with an amused twinkle. "Come, I shall tell you then. It is dry land."
There was a pause of several seconds, and then, "Can one swim about there?" enquired the Grub, in a subdued tone.
"I should think not," chuckled the Frog. "Dry land is not water, little fellow. That is just what it is not."
"But I want you to tell me what it is," persisted the Grub.
"Of all the inquisitive creatures I ever met, you certainly are the most troublesome," cried the Frog. "Well, then, dry land is something like the sludge at the bottom of this pond, only it is not wet, because there is no water."
"Really!" interrupted the grub, "what is there then?"
"That's the difficulty," exclaimed Froggy. "There is something, of course, and they call it air; but how to explain it I don't know. My own feeling about it is, that it's the nearest approach to nothing, possible. Do you comprehend?"
"Not quite," replied the Grub, hesitating.
"Exactly; I was afraid not. Now just take my advice, and ask no more silly questions. No good can possibly come of it," urged the Frog.
"Honoured Frog," exclaimed the Grub, "I must differ from you there. Great good will, as I think, come of it, if my restless curiosity can be stilled by obtaining the knowledge I seek. If I learn to be contented where I am, it will be something. At present I am miserable and restless under my ignorance."
"You are a very silly fellow," cried the Frog, "who will not be satisfied with the experience of others. I tell you the thing is not worth your troubling yourself about. But, as I rather admire your spirit, (which, for so insignificant a creature, is astonishing,) I will make you an offer. If you choose to take a seat on my back, I will carry you up to dry land myself, and then you can judge for yourself what there is there, and how you like it. I consider it a foolish experiment, mind, but that is your own look-out. I make my offer, to give you pleasure."
"And I accept it with a gratitude that knows no bounds," exclaimed the enthusiastic Grub.
"Drop yourself down on my back, then, and cling to me as well as you can. For, remember, if you go gliding off, you will be out of the way when I leave the water."
The Grub obeyed, and the Frog, swimming gently upwards, reached the bulrushes by the water's side.
"Hold fast," cried he, all at once, and then, raising his head out of the pond, he clambered up the bank, and got upon the grass.
"Now then, here we are," exclaimed he. "What do you think of dry land?"
But no one spoke in reply.
"Halloo! gone?" he continued. "that's just what I was afraid of. He has floated off my back, stupid fellow, I declare. Dear, dear, how unlucky! but it cannot be helped. And, perhaps, he may make his way to the water's edge here after all, and then I can help him out. I will wait about and see."
And away went Froggy, with an occasional jaunty leap, along the grass, by the edge of the pond, glancing every now and then among the bulrushes, to see if he could spy the dark, mailed figure of the dragon-fly Grub.
But the Grub, meanwhile? Ah, so far from having floated off the Frog's back through carelessness, he had clung to it with all the tenacity of hope, and the moment came when the mask of his face began to issue from the water.
But the same moment sent him reeling from his resting-place into the pond, panting and struggling for life. A shock seemed to have struck his frame, a deadly faintness succeeded, and it was several seconds before he could recover himself.
"Horrible!" cried he, as soon as he had rallied a little. "Beyond this world there is nothing but death. The Frog has deceived me. He cannot go there, at any rate."
And with these words, the Grub moved away to his old occupations, his ardour for enquiry grievously checked, though his spirit was unsubdued.
He contented himself for the present, therefore, with talking over what he had done, and where he had been, with his friends. And who could listen unmoved to such a recital? The novelty, the mystery, the danger, the all but fatal result, and the still unexplained wonder of what became of the Frog—all invested the affair with a romantic interest, and the Grub had soon a host of followers of his own race, questioning, chattering, and conjecturing, at his heels.
By this time the day was declining, and the active pursuit of prey was gradually becoming suspended for a time; when, as the inquisitive Grub was returning from a somewhat protracted ramble among the water-plants, he suddenly encountered, sitting pensively on a stone at the bottom of the pond, his friend the yellow Frog.
"You here!" cried the startled Grub; "you never left this world at all, then, I suppose. What a deception you must have practised upon me! But this comes of trusting to strangers, as I was foolish enough to do."
"You perplex me by your offensive remarks," replied the Frog, gravely. "Nevertheless, I forgive you, because you are so clumsy and ignorant, that civility cannot reasonably be expected from you, little fellow. It never struck you, I suppose, to think what my sensations were, when I landed this morning on the grass, and discovered that you were no longer on my back. Why did you not sit fast as I told you? But this is always the way with you foolish fellows, who think you can fathom and investigate everything. You are thrown over by the first practical difficulty you meet."
"Your accusations are full of injustice," exclaimed the indignant Grub.
It was clear they were on the point of quarrelling, and would certainly have done so, had not the Frog, with unusual magnanimity, desired the Grub to tell his own story, and clear himself from the charge of clumsiness if he could.
It was soon told; the Frog staring at him in silence out of those great goggle eyes, while he went through the details of his terrible adventure.
"And now," said the Grub, in conclusion, "as it is clear that there is nothing beyond this world but death, all your stories of going there yourself must be mere inventions. Of course, therefore, if you do leave this world at all, you go to some other place you are unwilling to tell me of. You have a right to your secret, I admit; but as I have no wish to be fooled by any more travellers' tales, I will bid you a very good evening."
"You will do no such thing, till you have listened as patiently to my story as I have done to yours," exclaimed the Frog.
"That is but just, I allow," said the Grub, and stopped to listen.
Then the Frog told how he had lingered by the edge of the pond, in the vain hope of his approach, how he had hopped about in the grass, how he had peeped among the bulrushes. "And at last," continued he, "though I did not see you yourself, I saw a sight which has more interest for you, than for any other creature that lives," and there he paused.
"And that was?" asked the inquisitive Grub, his curiosity reviving, and his wrath becoming appeased.
"Up the polished green stalk of one of those bulrushes," continued the Frog, "I beheld one of your race slowly and gradually climbing, till he had left the water behind him, and was clinging firmly to his chosen support, exposed to the full glare of the sun. Rather wondering at such a sight, considering the fondness you all of you show for the shady bottom of the pond, I continued to gaze, and observed presently,—but I cannot tell you in what way the thing happened,—that a rent seemed to come in your friend's body, and by degrees, gradually and after many struggles, there emerged from it one of those radiant creatures who float through the air I spoke to you of, and dazzle the eyes of all who catch glimpses of them as they pass,—a glorious Dragon-fly!
"As if scarcely awakened from some perplexing dream, he lifted his wings out of the carcase he was forsaking; and though shrivelled and damp at first, they stretched and expanded in the sunshine, till they glistened as if with fire.
"How long the strange process continued, I can scarcely tell, so fixed was I in astonishment and admiration; but I saw the beautiful creature at last poise himself for a second or two in the air before he took flight. I saw the four gauzy pinions flash back the sunshine that was poured on them. I heard the clash with which they struck upon the air; and I beheld his body give out rays of glittering blue and green as he darted along, and away, away, over the water in eddying circles that seemed to know no end. Then I plunged below to seek you out, rejoicing for your sake in the news I brought."
The Frog stopped short, and a long pause followed.
At last—"It is a wonderful story," observed the Grub, with less emotion than might have been expected.
"A wonderful story, indeed," repeated the Frog; "may I ask your opinion upon it?"
"It is for me to defer mine to yours," was the Grub's polite reply.
"Good! you are grown obliging, my little friend," remarked the Frog. "Well then, I incline to the belief, that what I have seen accounts for your otherwise unreasonable curiosity, your tiresome craving for information about the world beyond your own."
"That were possible, always provided your account can be depended upon," mused the Grub with a doubtful air.
"Little fellow," exclaimed the Frog, "remember that your distrust cannot injure me, but may deprive yourself of a comfort."
"And you really think, then, that the glorious creature you describe, was once a——"
"Silence," cried the Frog; "I am not prepared with definitions. Adieu! the shades of night are falling on your world. I return to my grassy home on dry land. Go to rest, little fellow, and awake in hope."
The Frog swam close to the bank, and clambered up its sides, while the Grub returned to his tribe, who rested during the hours of darkness from their life of activity and pursuit.
"Promise," uttered an entreating voice.
"I promise," was the earnest answer.
"Faithfully?" urged the first speaker.
"Solemnly," ejaculated the second.
But the voice was languid and weak, for the dragon-fly Grub was sick and uneasy. His limbs had lost their old activity, and a strange oppression was upon him.
The creatures whom he had been accustomed to chase, passed by him unharmed; the water-plants, over which he used to scramble with so much agility, were distasteful to his feet; nay, the very water itself into which he had been born, and through which he was wont to propel himself with so much ingenuity, felt suffocating in its weight.
Upwards he must go now, upwards, upwards! That was the strong sensation which mastered every other, and to it he felt he must submit, as to some inevitable law. And then he thought of the Frog's account, and felt a trembling conviction that the time had come, when the riddle of his own fate must be solved.
His friends and relations were gathered around him, some of his own age, some a generation younger, who had only that year entered upon existence. All of them were followers and adherents, whom he had inspired with his own enthusiastic hopes; and they would fain have helped him, if they could, in this hour of weakness. But there was no help for him now, but hope, and of that he possessed, perhaps, even more than they did.
Then came an earnest request, and then a solemn promise, that, as surely as the great hopes proved true, so surely would he return and tell them so.
"But, oh! if you should forget!" exclaimed one of the younger generation, timid and uneasy.
"Forget the old home, my friend?" ejaculated the sick Grub, "forget our life of enjoyment here, the ardour of the chase, the ingenious stratagems, the triumph of success? Forget the emotions of hope and fear we have shared together, and which I am bound, if I can, to relieve? Impossible!"
"But if you should not be able to come back to us," suggested another.
"More unlikely still," murmured the half exhausted Grub. "To a condition so exalted as the one in store for us, what can be impossible? Adieu, my friends, adieu! I can tarry here no longer. Ere long you may expect to see me again in a new and more glorious form. Till then, farewell!"
Languid, indeed, was the voice, and languid were the movements of the Grub, as he rose upwards through the water to the reeds and bulrushes that fringed its bank. Two favourite brothers, and a few of his friends, more adventurous than the rest, accompanied him in his ascent, in the hope of witnessing whatever might take place above; but in this they were, of course, disappointed.
From the moment when, clinging with his feet to the stem of a bulrush, he emerged from his native element into the air, his companions saw him no more.
Eyes fitted only for the watery fluid, were incapable of the upward glance and power of vision which would have enabled them to pierce beyond it; and the little coterie of discoverers descended, mortified and sorrowful, to the bed of the pond.
The sun was high in the heavens when the dragon-fly Grub parted from his friends, and they waited through the long hours of the day for his return; at first, in joyful hope, then in tremulous anxiety, and, as the shades of evening began to deepen around, in a gloomy fear, that bordered at last on despair. "He has forgotten us," cried some. "A death from which he never can awake, has overtaken him," said others. "He will return to us yet," maintained the few who clung to hope.
But in vain messenger after messenger shot upwards to the bulrushes, and to various parts of the pond, hoping to discover some trace of the lost one. All who went out, returned back dispirited from the vain and weary search, and even the most sanguine began to grow sick at heart.
Night closed at last upon them, bringing a temporary suspension of grief; but the beams of the next rising sun, while it filled all Nature beside with joy and hopefulness, awakened them, alas! to a sense of the bitterest disappointment, and a feeling of indignation at the deception which had been practised upon them.
"We did very well without thinking of such things," said they; "but to have hopes like those held out, and to be deceived after all—it is more than we can be expected to bear in patience."
And bear it in patience they did not. With a fierceness which nothing could restrain, they hurried about in the destructive pursuit of prey, carrying a terrible vengeance in all directions.
And thus passed on the hours of the second day, and before night a sort of grim and savage silence was agreed upon among them, and they ceased to bewail either the loss of him they had loved, or their own uncertain destiny.
But on the morning of the third day, one of the Grub's favourite brothers came sailing into the midst of a group who were just rousing up from rest, ready to commence the daily business of their life.
There was an unnatural brilliancy about his eyes, which shone as they had never done before, and startled all who looked at them, so that even the least observant had their attention arrested as he spoke.
"My friends," said he, "I was, as you know, one of our lost relation's favourite brothers. I trusted him, as if he had been a second self, and would have pledged myself a thousand times for his word. Judge, then, what I have suffered from his promise remaining still unfulfilled. Alas! that he has not yet returned to us!"
The favourite brother paused, and a little set in a corner by themselves murmured out, "How could he? The story about that other world is false."
"He has not returned to us," recommenced the favourite brother. "But, my friends, I feel that I am going to him, wherever that may be, either to that new life he spoke about, or to that death from which there is no return. Dear ones! I go, as he did, upwards, upwards, upwards! An irresistible desire compels me to it; but before I go, I renew to you—for myself and him—the solemn promise he once made to you. Should the great hopes be true, we will come back and tell you so. If I return not—but rely on me; my word is more to me than life. Adieu!"
The Grub rose upwards through the water followed by the last of the three brothers, and one or two of the younger ones; but on reaching the brink of the pond, he seized on a plant of the forget-me-not, and clinging to its firm flower-stalk, clambered out of the water into the open air.
Those who accompanied him, watched him as he left the water; but, after that, they saw no more. The blank of his departure alone remained to them, and they sank down, sad and uneasy, to their home below.
As before, the hours of the day passed on, and not a trace of the departed one was seen. In vain they dwelt upon the consoling words he had spoken. The hope he had for a time re-awakened, died out with the declining sun, and many a voice was raised against his treachery and want of love. "He is faithless," said some. "He forgets us, like his brother, in his new fortune," cried others. "The story of that other world is false," muttered the little set in the corner by themselves. Only a very few murmured to each other, "We will not despair."
One thing alone was certain, he did not return; and the disappointed crowds took refuge from thought as before, in the fiercest rapine and excitement, scattering destruction around them, wherever they moved.
Another day now elapsed, and then, in the early dawn following, the third and last brother crept slowly to a half-sleepy knot of his more particular friends, and roused them up.
"Look at my eyes," said he; "has not a sudden change come over them? They feel to me swelled and bursting, and yet I see with a clouded and imperfect vision. Doubtless it is with me now, as it was with our dear ones before they left us. I am oppressed, like them. Like them, an invisible power is driving me upwards, as they were driven. Listen, then; for on my parting words you may depend. Let the other world be what it will, gorgeous beyond all we can fancy of it, blissful beyond all we can hope of it, do not fear in me an altered or forgetful heart. I dare not promise more. Yet if it be possible, I will return. But, remember, there may well be that other world, and yet we, in ours, may misjudge its nature. Farewell, never part with hope. With your fears I know you never can part now. Farewell!"
And he too went upwards, through the cool water to the plants that bordered its side; and from the leaf of a golden king-cup he rose out of his native element into that a๋rial world, into which water-grub's eye never yet could pierce.
His companions lingered awhile near the spot where he had disappeared, but neither sign nor sound came to them. Only the dreary sense of bereavement reminded them that he once had been.
Then followed the hours of vain expectation, the renewed disappointment, the cruel doubts, the hope that struggled with despair.
And after this, others went upwards in succession; for the time came to all when the lustrous eyes of the perfect creature shone through the masked face of the Grub, and he must needs pass forward to the fulfilment of his destiny.
But the result among those who were left was always the same. There were ever some that doubted and feared, ever some that disbelieved and ridiculed, ever some that hoped and looked forward.
Ah! if they could but have known, poor things! If those eyes, fitted for the narrow bounds of their water world, could have been endued with a power of vision into the purer element beyond, what a life-time of anxiety would they not have been spared! What ease, what rest would have been theirs!
But belief would, in that case, have been an irresistible necessity, and hope must have changed her name.
And the Dragon-fly, meanwhile, was he really faithless, as they thought? When he burst his prison-house by the water side, and rose on glittering wings into the summer air, had he indeed no memory for the dear ones he had so lately left? No tender concern for their griefs and fears? No recollection of the promise he had made?
Ah! so far from it, he thought of them amidst the transports of his wildest flights, and returned ever and ever to the precincts of that world which had once been the only world to him. But in that region also, a power was over him superior to his own, and to it his will must submit. To the world of waters he could never more return.
The least touch upon its surface, as he skimmed over it with the purpose of descent, brought on a deadly shock, like that which, as a water-grub, he had experienced from emerging into air, and his wings involuntarily bore him instantly back from the unnatural contact.
"Alas! for the promise made in ignorance and presumption, miserable Grub that I was," was his bitter, constantly repeated cry.
And thus, divided and yet near, parted yet united by love, he hovered about the barrier that lay between them, never quite, perhaps, without a hope that some accident might bring his dear ones into sight.
Nor was his constancy unrewarded, for as, after even his longest roamings, he never failed to return to the old spot, he was there to welcome the emancipated brother, who so soon followed him.
And often, after that, the breezy air by the forest pond would resound in the bright summer afternoons, with the clashing of Dragon-flies' wings, as, now backwards, now forwards, now to one side, now to another, without turn or intermission, they darted over the crystal water, in the rapture of the new life.
It might be, on those occasions, that some fresh arrival of kindred from below, added a keener joy to their already joyous existence. Sweet assuredly it was to each new-comer, when the riddle of his fate was solved, to find in the new region, not a strange and friendless abode, but a home rich with the welcomes of those who had gone before.
Sweet also it was, and strange as sweet, to know that even while they had been trembling and fearing in their ignorant life below, gleams from the wings of those they lamented, were dropping like star-rays on their home, reflected hither and thither from the sun that shone above. Oh! if they could but have known!
Beautiful forest pond, crowded with mysterious life, of whose secrets we know so little, who would not willingly linger by your banks for study and for thought? There, where the beech-tree throws out her graceful arms, glorying in the loveliness that is reflected beneath. There, where in the nominal silence the innocent birds pour out their music of joy. There, where the blue forget-me-not tells its tale of old romance, and the long grasses bend over their pictured shadows. There, where the Dragon-flies still hover on the surface of the water, longing to reassure the hearts of the trembling race, who are still hoping and fearing below.