The Light of Truth
"D ETESTABLE phantom!" cried the traveller, as his horse sank with him into the morass; "to what a miserable end have you lured me by your treacherous light!"
"The same old story for ever!" muttered the Will-o'-the-Wisp in reply. "Always throwing blame on others for troubles you have brought upon yourself. What more could have been done for you, unhappy creature, than I have done? All the weary night through have I danced on the edge of this morass, to save you and others from ruin. If you have rushed in further and further, like a headstrong fool, in spite of my warning light, who is to blame but yourself?"
"I am an unhappy creature, indeed," rejoined the traveller: "I took your light for a friendly lamp, but have been deceived to my destruction."
"Yet not by me," cried the Will-o'-the-Wisp, anxiously. "I work out my appointed business carefully and ceaselessly. My light is ever a friendly lamp to the wise. It misleads none but the headstrong and ignorant."
"Headstrong! ignorant!" exclaimed the Statesman, for such the traveller was. "How little do you know to whom you are speaking! Trusted by my King—honoured by my country—the leader of her councils—ah, my country, my poor country, who will take my place and guide you when I am gone?"
"A guide who cannot guide himself! Misjudging, misled, and—though wise, perhaps, in the imperfect laws of society—ignorant in the glorious laws of Nature and of Truth—who will miss you, presumptuous being? You have mistaken the light that warned you of danger for the star that was to guide you to safety. Alas for your country, if no better leader than you can be found!"
The Statesman never spoke again, and the Will-o'-the-Wisp danced back to the edge of the black morass; and as he flickered up and down, he mourned his luckless fate—always trying to do good—so often vilified and misjudged. "Yet," said he to himself, as he sent out his beams through the cheerless night, "I will not cease to try; who knows but that I may save somebody yet! But what an ignorant world I live in!"
"Cruel monster!" shrieked the beautiful Girl in wild despair, as her feet plunged into the swamp, and she struggled in vain to find firmer ground, "you have betrayed me to my death!"
"Ay, ay, I said so! It is always some one else who is to blame, and never yourself, when pretty fools like you deceive themselves. You call me 'monster'—why did you follow a 'monster' into a swamp?" cried the poor Will-o'-the-Wisp angrily.
"I thought my betrothed had come out to meet me. I mistook your hateful light for his. Oh, cruel fiend, I know you now! Must I die so young, so fair? Must I be torn from life, and happiness, and love? Ay, dance! dance on in your savage joy."
"Fool as you are, it is no joy to me to see you perish," answered the Will-o'-the-Wisp. "It is my appointed law to warn and save those who will be warned. It is my appointed sorrow, I suppose, that the recklessness and ignorance of such as you, persist in disregarding that law, and turning good into evil. I shone bright and brighter before you as you advanced, entreating you, as it were, to be warned. But, in wilfulness, you pursued me to your ruin. What cruel mother brought you up, and did not teach you to distinguish the steady beam that guides to happiness, from the wandering brilliancy that bodes destruction?"
"My poor mother!" wept the Maiden; "what words are these you speak of her? But you, in your savage life, know nothing of what she has done for me, her only child. Mistress of every accomplishment that can adorn and delight society, my lightest word, my very smile, is a law to the world we move in."
"Even so! Accomplished in fleeting and fantastic arts that leave no memorial behind them—unacquainted with the beauty and purposes of the realities around you, which work from age to age in silent mercy for gracious ends, and put to shame the toil that has no aim or end. Oh that you had but known the law by which I live!"
The Maiden spoke no more, and then she ceased to struggle. The Will-o'-the-Wisp danced back yet another time to the edge of the black morass: "For," said he, "I may save somebody yet. But what a foolish world I live in!"
"The old Squire should mend these here roads," observed Hobbinoll the Farmer to his son Colin, as they drove slowly home from market in a crazy old cart which shook about with such jerks, that little Colin tried in vain to keep curled up in a corner. It was hard to say whether the fault was most in the roads,—though they were rather rutty, it must be owned,—or in the stumbling old pony who went from side to side, or in the not very sober driver, who seemed unable at times to distinguish the reins apart, so that he gave sudden pulls, first one way and then the other. But through all these troubles it comforted the Farmer's heart to lay all the blame on the Squire for the bad roads that led across the boggy moor.
Colin, however, took but little interest in the matter; but at length, when a more violent jerk than usual threw him almost sprawling on the bottom of the cart, he jumped up, laid hold of the side planks, and began to look around him with his half-sleepy eyes, trying to find out where they were. At last he said, "She's coming, father."
"Who's coming?" shouted Hobbinoll.
"T' mother," answered Colin.
"What's she coming for, I wonder," said Hobbinoll; "we've enough in the cart without her."
"But you're going away from her, father," expostulated Colin, half crying. "I see her with the lanthorn, and she'll light us home. You can't see, father; let me have the reins." But Hobbinoll refused to give up the reins, though he was not very fit to drive. In the struggle, however, he caught sight of the light which Colin took for his mother's lanthorn.
"And is that the fool's errand you'd be going
cried he, pointing with his whip to the light. "It's
lucky for you, young one, you have not had the driving
of us home
With these words the Farmer struck the pony so harshly with his heavy whip, twitching the reins convulsively at the same time, at the mere memory of his adventure in the bog, that little Colin was thrown up and down like a ball, and the cart rolled forward in and out of the ruts at such a pace, that Hobbinoll got home to his wife sooner than she ever dared to hope for on market evenings.
"They are safe," observed the Will-o'-the-Wisp, as the cart moved on, "and that is the great point gained! Nevertheless, such wisdom is mere brute experience. In their ignorance they would have struck the hand that helped them. Nevertheless, I will try again, for I may yet save some one else. But what a rude and ungrateful world I live in!"
"I see a light at last, papa!" shouted a little Boy on a Shetland pony, as he rode by his Father's side along the moor. "I am so glad! There is either a cottage or a friendly man with a lanthorn who will help us to find our way. Let me go after him; I can soon overtake him." And the little boy touched his pony with a whip, and in another minute would have been cantering along after the light, but that his Father laid a sudden and a heavy hand upon the bridle.
"Not a step further in that direction, at any rate, if you please, my darling."
"Oh, papa!" expostulated the child, pointing with his hand to the light.
And, "Oh, my son, I see!" cried the Father, smiling; "and well is it for you that I not only see, but know the meaning of what I see at the same time. That light is neither the gleam from a cottage, nor yet a friendly man with a lanthorn, as you think, though, for the matter of that, the light is friendly enough to those who understand it. It shines there to warn us from the dangerous part of the bog. Kind old Will-o'-the-Wisp!" pursued the Father, raising his voice, as if calling through the darkness into the distance—"Kind old Will-o'-the-Wisp, we know what you mean; we will not come near your deathly swamps. The Old Naturalist knows you well—good-night, and thank you for the warning."
So saying, the Naturalist turned the reins of his son's pony the other way, and they both trotted along, keeping the beaten road as well as they could by the imperfect light.
"After all, it was more like a lanthorn than those pictures of the nasty Will-o'-the-Wisp, papa," murmured the little Boy, reluctantly urging his pony on.
"Our friend is not much indebted to you for the pretty name you have called him," laughed the Father. "You are of the same mind as the poet, who, with the licence of his craft, said—
"Yes, papa, and so he does," interposed the Boy.
"But, indeed, he does no such thing, my dear—on the contrary, he spends all his life in shining brightly to warn travellers of the most dangerous parts of the swamp."
"But the shining seems as if he was inviting them to go after him, papa."
"Only because you choose to think so, my dear, and do not inquire. Does the sailor think the shining of the lighthouse invites him to approach the dangerous rocks on which it is built?"
"Oh, no, papa, because he knows it is put there on purpose to warn him away."
"He only knows by teaching and inquiry, Arthur; and so you also, by teaching and inquiry will learn to know that this Will-o'-the-Wisp is made to shine for us in swamps and marshes as a land-beacon of danger. The laws of Nature, which are the acted will of God, work together in this case, as in all others, for a good end. And it is given to us as both a privilege and a pleasure to search them out, and to avail ourselves of the mercies, whilst we admire the wonders of the great Creator. Can you think of a better employment?"
The fire was very bright, and the tea was warm and good, that greeted the travellers, Father and Son, on their arrival at home that night. Many a joke, too, passed with Mamma as to the sort of tea they should have tasted, and the kind of bed they should have laid down in, had they only gone after the Will-o'-the-Wisp, as young Arthur had so much wished to do.
And for just a few days after these events—not more,
for children's wisdom seldom does, or ought to, last
much longer—Arthur had every now and then a wise and
philosophical fit, and on the principle, that, however
much appearances might be to the contrary, the laws of
Nature were always working to some good and beneficent
end, he sagely and gravely reproved his little sister
for crying when a shower of hailstones fell; "For
surely," said he, "though we cannot go out
It was a blessed creed! though it cost him a struggle to adhere to it, when the lightning flashed round him, and the thunder roared in the distance, and he saw from the windows dark clouds hanging over the landscape. When someone said the storm had been very grand, he thought—yes, but it was grander still to think that all these laws of Nature, as they are called,—this acted will of God—was for ever working night and day, in darkness and in light, recognised or unheeded, for some wise and beneficent end.
Yes! when he was older he would try and trace out these ends—a better employment could not be found. And it may be, that in long after years, when the storms and the clouds that gathered round him were harder yet to look through, because they were mental troubles—it may be, that then, from amidst the tender recollections of his infancy, the gleaming of the Will-o'-the-Wisp would suddenly rise and shine before him with comfort. For the Student of Nature who had traced so many blessed ends out of dark and mysterious beginnings, held fast to the humility and faith of childhood; and where his mind was unable to penetrate, his heart was contented to believe.
Meanwhile the Will-o'-the-Wisp had heard the kind good-night that greeted him as the travellers passed by on that dark evening. And his light shone brighter than ever, as he said: "I am happy now. I have saved the life of one who not only is thankful for it, but knows the hand that saved him." With these words he cheerily danced back again to his appointed post.