The Story of St. Cecile
M. Sears Brooks

The Path, September, 1889.

In a picture gallery in one of the large cities that border upon the Ohio River there is a group of figures painted in oils and set in a massive copper frame.

The artist's name is unknown, but it is said that upon the overthrow of Maximilian this picture was seized and brought to this country from Mexico.

The painting represents a young and beautiful woman rising from the harp which stands beside her, its strings seeming almost to vibrate from the touch of her fingers. Her rich draperies fall in marvelous folds of sheen and splendor, her golden hair floats like an aureole round her fair shoulders, while her face wears a rapt, seraphic expression as she gazes upon an angel faintly outlined holding a crown above her head. Kneeling at the feet of the woman is a youth in Spanish costume, who is overwhelmed, it would seem, by her glorious beauty. Many, many years ago this painting, reaching from floor to ceiling, stood against the wall of a miserable apartment overlooking the busy streets of the Mexican capital. The sun and air streamed in unhindered through its open windows, and at night the ghostly moonlight fell in mirror-like patches on the bare uneven floor. The brilliant coloring of the picture, now softened and mellowed by time, contrasted strangely with the dinginess and poverty of the room. There were brushes and an easel and all the necessary paraphernalia of an artist's studio, but none of its elegancies; indeed, the room served as lodging room, kitchen, and atelier combined.

Its occupant, the artist, was a Spaniard by birth, of middle age, once handsome, now worn and wasted with disease. He was called a miser by some, by others a spendthrift. A miser because it was known that his work had sold for great sums, yet he lived so meanly; a spendthrift because he gave gold coins to little ragged urchins who climbed the uncertain staircase to look at this wonderful picture of Ste. Cecile. His ambition seemed to have burned itself out in the accomplishment of this his last work, yet no offer, however large, could tempt him to part with it. One bright morning a troop of ragged children clambered up the steps to look at Ste. Cecile and to gather the coin that might be their reward. They crept softly along the gallery that ran outside, and peeped in at the open door, but no sound welcomed them. Then they entered on tiptoe - no one was there. Turning to scamper down again, a groan frightened them out of their wits, until they discovered their benefactor, the painter, lying in one corner upon a couch whose draperies he had torn away in his struggles for air.

Seeing that help was needed, the children clattered hastily down to call assistance. The first person they encountered was a doctor upon his daily rounds. He was familiar with this quarter of the city and knew something of the poor artist.

Persons noting his eccentricities had said the painter was mad, that his love for a beautiful woman had turned his poor brain. He was sane enough to execute wonderful sketches with palette and brush, he passed in and out silent and alone, he harmed no one, he shunned the world, therefore the world passed by on the other side.

Aware that the painter had not many hours to live, the doctor out of sheer sympathy for his lonely condition tarried by the bedside after having administered restoratives.

Panting for breath the patient turned suddenly and said, "Doctor, do you doubt that souls are created eternal, immortal? Is there any who think that from nothing we came and unto nothing we return?" A shiver ran through his worn frame as he pressed this inquiry. The doctor placed his finger upon his own lip to enjoin silence, fearing that even so slight an exertion would hasten dissolution.

Not heeding the caution the man continued: -

"I must tell you, doctor, I must tell you. I cannot carry this secret with me. Listen! this is not the only existence that I have known." The doctor smiled.

"Ah, you do not believe this? You think I rave? Doctor, I never saw things clearer than at this moment."

Partly rising he looked wildly around and then whispered, "I was born upon another planet! Sometimes the remembrance of that life is wafted to me in vague whispers, fleeting as a breath, intangible as a dream."

"Yes," said the doctor, "we all have such fancies."

"It is no fancy, doctor. In that land I had a twin soul who had power to bring forth music from reeds and shells, entrancing all with the power of song. The chief condition of existence in that realm is self-abnegation. The penalty for its infringement is banishment to this planet called Earth for a longer or shorter period according to the enormity of the offense."

The incredulous smile of the doctor seemed to urge the man to further confession.

"You wonder, do you not, doctor, that the fairest of earth's beings are soonest blighted? Ah, you do not know that the cleaner the soul upon its arrival here, the less reason has it to become purified by earthly affection. You cannot know what terrible sins are expiated here upon earth in long, useless, unhappy lives, or, failing in this, are still farther doomed. Oh that I did not know!"

He clasped his thin transparent hands over his piercing black eyes, and then whispered -

"In that land whence I came I yielded to the tempter and dragged down my twin soul into the abyss! Think of that, doctor! A double transgression! Do you wonder they think me mad? She and I forgot the penalty, and we defied the Power that had created us."

He paused and pushed back the damp locks that clustered upon his forehead, and his breathing grew painfully hurried. Soon he resumed: "So aggravated was my offense in thus assisting in the downfall of my twin soul, that upon me was imposed not only the pang of exile but that of remembrance also. This is rarely inflicted upon transgressors, and only when one has involved another soul in ruin. I found after a time that the earth was very beautiful. There was much in it to remind me of my former home in its waving trees, its green meadows and chattering streams, its singing birds and glorious sky. But, alas! I knew that its inhabitants were doomed, even as myself; to become purified through mortal suffering because of the sin of self-love. I knew that the constant warring of these people in accomplishing their own selfish purposes was the blight and bane of their existence. So blind were they that when one of their number, exalted through suffering, rose to a higher life, they lamented, and often rejoiced when one hopelessly given over to evil passed out of sight. It was the old demon of self, always seeking each his own individual happiness."

The doctor again lifted a warning finger, for the painter was growing weaker and his small store of vital force was rapidly passing away. The look and gesture seemed to nerve the dying man to greater effort.

"Let me finish, doctor," he said plaintively. "I had lived upon the earth three or four years as time is reckoned, when I began to feel stirring within me a power which I had possessed in my former existence - that of portraying surrounding objects. My earthly parents were astonished at this extraordinary gift.

Knowing nothing of its source, and thinking its exercise could lead only to the dwarfing of my other and, as they believed, more useful powers which they hoped to turn to their own and to my profit, they denied me every opportunity. They called me indolent, lacking in force and ambition, and sure to come to want. Then I began to work in secret, stealing away and hiding my productions; working under every possible disadvantage through lack of knowing how to use the crude material appointed to the work of this life.

Finally, one who was also doomed to earth and who had likewise struggled to give expression to the divine power within him came to my aid. Shall I ever forget his tender glance, his approving smile? His words of encouragement were as the dews of heaven to the parched and arid desert. He took me gently by the hand, for he was then a gray-haired old man, almost purified from the taint of self, and his skill as a painter was known throughout every royal household in Christendom. He taught me the use of earthly compounds and revealed to me the rules of art, and bidding me to rely not upon the praise of men, he left me.

Instantly a sense of my great power came upon me. At that time I was a boy of barely twelve years. My parents, won by the words of my venerable friend, no longer hindered my life-work. Was I therefore secure? Alas, no. Other and fiercer struggles I must yet endure. Men reviled my work. Jealousy and envy cast their poison over my fairest creations. Among my detractors were those who said boldly that the work was not mine, that it was that of my master, that a boy could not possibly accomplish what I claimed as my own. I was looked upon as an impostor, and my parents as the abettors of my scheme. Yet having begun, I could not but go on. Nothing else prospered under my hand. Men looked coldly on, yet I wrought when others slept - only in the exercise of my gift did I find one ray of comfort.

In all this weary life not once had I met my twin soul. Never had she who was condemned to this life with me crossed my path. Where, or in what country, was her home I knew not. I wandered from place to place hoping somewhere to hear her sweet voice, to look into those liquid eyes. I listened at church doors and beneath the windows of the rich and to the voices of the street singers, always hoping to hear that divine voice among the floating melodies, but all in vain.

Hope seemed dead within me. What I regarded as my masterpieces remained in my studio unsold. Starvation came and sat by my side, adding its pangs to my already wretched condition.

Then came the wonderful tales of a new world; a new hope was born within me. I crossed the sea, facing shipwreck and disaster with the thought that possibly in this land of gold and gems I might find the eyes of my beloved.

I knelt at shrines, I prayed to the Mother of God, I kissed the crucifix, I applied my art to the adornment of sacred places, and so began to feel a peace that I had never known. It seemed that so doing I was nearer to her unseen presence.

I was told of a beautiful woman drawing crowds nightly to listen to her marvelous power of song. I was too poor to gain admission to the brilliantly lighted theatre, but I stood without and I heard the ravishing strains. Then, joy of all joy, I knew without beholding her face that the singer was my long-lost twin soul! I stood so close that I could touch her garments when she entered her carriage. I looked into her eyes, but she only shuddered and drew away from me. The perfume of her breath floated around me. No word did she vouchsafe to me. Oh what anguish I then endured! Still I haunted her presence, I would not be denied, until people said that I was mad! I kissed the ground where her rich robes trailed, I gathered the petals that fell from the flowers at her bosom. I painted pictures of her beautiful face, and threw all my skill into the portrayal of her divine form. She was pure as she was beautiful. Men gazed upon the portraits which I painted and offered fabulous sums. Could I sell them? Could such perfection be counted with gold? Listen, doctor, they tried to buy her soul! They were devils! When they could not do this they turned upon her and crushed her with calumny. The earthly vesture of her white soul was too frail to withstand the stroke, and one bright morning the word was wildly circulated that the Queen of Song was dead! Dead? her probation was ended. She had entered upon that sphere where envy, malice, and self-love could no more enter. I gave thanks upon my knees that this was so: now I looked forward to my own release.

I painted more diligently than before. I scattered with a lavish hand my brightest inspirations, caring not for the gold which now flowed toward me in abundance. Men wondered at my facility; they said that it could not last, that I was burning out my very life. Yet while they talked I threw to them new and startling proofs of what they were now pleased to call my genius.

I could feel that my body was growing weaker while my power increased. They offered me a palace in which to exhibit my art and to carry on my work. I would not accept. My garret was near the sky, and by that much nearer to my twin-soul. I became almost insensible of the needs of the body - my only desire was to complete what I felt was my greatest work, the embodiment of music in its divinest form.

To this I gave unweariedly every faculty of my being. It was not fame, it was not the hope of reward that spurred me on, it was the overwhelming sense that I possessed the power to produce something that would add to the delight of mortals. It was the rekindled flame of unselfish endeavor, the divine spark, and you, doctor, call it Genius!"

Something like a glorified smile broke over the wan features at this point in his story. A youthful look took the place of the painful expression, and his breath became less hurried and gasping.

Stretching forth his long thin arm, he pointed to the picture which covered one side of the miserable apartment, saying:

"Day and night I plied the brush, touching and retouching until I saw my beautiful twin-soul receiving the crown of life upon the canvas before me: almost breathing it seemed, the trembling harp-strings touched by her fingers answering to the breeze that swept my lonely garret. Then I slept.

Exhausted nature had her way. I awoke not until the next day's sun was sinking behind the low hills. My first waking thought was the picture. There it stood - not as I had left it - but with another figure added to the group in which I recognized myself; now kneeling at her feet - as you see, doctor." He paused a moment and then asked, "Do you think, doctor, that I in the hours of sleep could have added this? I cannot tell; but above our heads still smiled the angel ready to crown my beloved. My work was done. An angel pressed my eyelids, the earthly clogs fell from my wearied limbs, and my soul, free and untrammeled, stood face to face with her whom I loved. Doctor, do not say I was mad; this was real. It was no delusion." The dying man ceased speaking. Gazing long and earnestly with upturned eyes, he at last slowly whispered,

"I behold thy towers, O land of my heart! Sweet are the murmurs of thy streams, but dearer than aught beside is the voice of the Daughter of Song."

Then a Great Shadow passed by, and the earthly tabernacle was dissolved.

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