For the life of me, as I was sitting here this sunny, late-October morning, I could not write, a distressing condition, truly, for one who lives by writing.
Outside the windows of this quiet country house lay the lean fields of New England, soberly beautiful enough in their fading autumnal colorings, but somehow yielding no inspiration—forgive the pretentious and convenient word—no inspiration for my pen.
All around me my neighbors were busy; soberly engaged, each man of them, in safe-guarding himself, his body, soul, and his possessions, against the accidents of life and death. They too, somehow, failed to inspire that sluggish bit of pointed gold. Neither do your sober neighbors, friend, as I think of them. In all essentials they might be my own. For we are all a care-worn people, we of this young West, moving always circumspectly, hedging ourselves round with a tenfold wall against surprises, with creeds and codes and philosophies innumerable, all warranted Hell-proof and Heaven-kissing.
We count him wisest who lives and loves and dies most by rule. And the rule is that rule of our Tory Grecian forbears, "Never too much." "We may be a wise people and a happy people," said I to myself, "but we are quite too prudent to be counted young, in anything but years." And so that bit of gold hung uninspired as when it left the shop. It waited for livelier, more zestful topics than the daily grind of sober middle age.
Then all at once, it seemed, familiar voices called to me from that East we deem so old, and I was back there. A street stretched beneath me, such a street as only the Far East knows, and there only in one enchanted city. It was a wide street, and a long one, all aquiver with hot, stinging sunlight. It was walled with solid, four-square houses, and above them roofs and pinnacles rose in a hundred fantastic, airy shapes for which our Western architecture has no names, and the fronts of the houses flashed with decorations of barbaric red and gold. The street flamed with them. And all down the spacious, sun-flooded length of it, filling it from brim to brim, like a river, poured a current of tumultuous life.
From out the crowd eyes met mine, just as they used to do. Eyes of men intent on conquest, of goods, perhaps, or power, or pleasure, the eyes of men who sought, not soberly. Mocking, inviting, smiling, fathomless, straightforward eyes of women, who, forgetting, or unknowing Heaven and Hell, still knew that they were women, mistresses of a woman's joys and sorrows. Eyes of losers at the game, unhopeful but uncowed. Thousands of eyes glanced up at me, and not one solitary pair of them were like the eyes that look out soberly from your neighbor's head, or mine.
As my eyes questioned theirs, it seemed to me again, just as it used to do, that there in the old East, where life began, it still throbs most strongly, tingles most with the hot blood of youth; that there men, eternally young, are still most unafraid, grasp with least hesitation all life offers them, and accept the outcome of their choice with most sincerity.
As I was thinking that, it seemed to me that I went down into the life and stinging sunshine of the street, and mingled with it, till at last my steps led me down an alley and across a drawbridge that spanned a green and pestilential moat, and I approached the low gateway of a gray Walled City which was old when History was young. I passed under the cavern of the gate—and my feet rang on the worn flagstones as I passed—and came into a narrow street between low, sombre houses without windows, and so presently to a temple which in that city bears an unpleasant reputation. Not that scandal hangs about it—it takes Christian tongues to make libertines and guzzlers of Christian priests. But it is said that for some few centuries experiments in—in Psychical Research, let us say—have been going on in that old temple of Tzin Piaôu, with results that are not always reassuring to a lay beholder. I was in too careless a mood to care for that, that morning, and the porter let me pass, barbarian that I was, and I crossed the great courtyard and came to a little cell built in the thickness of the walls.
Inside the cell I saw an old, old man, a priest, though but a heathen one, half reclining on a hollowed slab of stone.
He was a very gaunt old man, but a very tall and strong one, and his face was like a mask of yellow parchment, seamed with a multitude of tiny wrinkles, and his eyes were two slits set slantwise in it. But as he heard my step and looked up, they widened, and the spark of a smile glimmered in them.
"It is you again, my son?" said that old heathen priest to me in greeting, though I did not remember having seen him before that day. "What is it now?"
Suddenly I knew why I had come. "My father," I said, though he was but a heathen, "I want to see Life through your eyes."
He looked into me, and through me, and beyond me into vacancy, and as he looked the spark of laughter in his eyes danced, and flickered up into a tiny fire. "You are older now," said he. "Sit down. I will tell you first of the Game of the Little Gods, and then you shall see Life through my eyes."
"The Little Gods?" I asked, squatting on the floor. It was the only seat he had to offer me.
"The Great God," my heathen priest explained, unheeding me and smiling into vacancy, "the Great God created us men in his own image—and soon found us, as objects of His constant contemplation, distinctly wearisome. If He could have laughed, it would not have mattered much, but Amusement is beneath the ken of a Great God. Therefore our inconsistencies, our pettinesses, our hopeless contradictions, quickly wearied Him, as they would us if we had to take them seriously, forever. And so," drawled my heathen tutor, "the Great God, at last, in self-defense, created some Little Gods to take charge of the everyday affairs of men. So far as they are Gods, of course, these Little Gods are Eternal and Impartial, far raised above Love and Aversion, Pity and Scorn, Admiration and Derision, and all our other small emotions. To them all things are equal. But so far as they are Little, and not Great, they are capable of Amusement. And so," said he, "those lucky Little Gods while away Eternity by playing games, wherein we men are counters. But we men too," he added, smiling through me into vacancy, "if we are wise, can gain amusement by looking on at the games we're part of."
"I," said I, "have never noticed anything which looked like games—"
"No?" he said, half mockingly. "You never watched a strong man strive his utmost and grasp at last what he strove for, a handful of ashes and dry leaves? Never saw a woman love with all her heart, till she broke it, loving? Never saw Tragedy or Comedy or Farce wherein the players were not actors? Have all Life's contradictions—"
"But they've always taught me," I objected, "that in those seeming contradictions, an inscrutable Wisdom was working for the ultimate good of those—"
"My son," said my old heathen priest, stretching his old legs out on his stony slab, "go and see for yourself. This is the hour when I take one of my naps. See for yourself."