Not, indeed, that the formless regret has been connected with any illusions as to the mysterious quality of the dinner that I have thus foregone. I have been well enough aware that the only actual opportunity thus evaded has been most probably that of an unusually bad dinner, exorbitantly paid for. The dinner itself has had nothing to do with my feeling, which, indeed, has come of a suggestiveness in the cry beyond the occasion, a sense conveyed by the words, in combination with the swift speeding along of the train, of the inexorable swift passage and gliding away of all things. Ah! so soon it will be the last call—for so many pleasant things—that we would fain arrest and enjoy a little longer in a world that with tragic velocity is flowing away from us, each moment, “like the waters of the torrent.” O yes, all too soon it will be the “last call” in dead earnest—the last call for the joy of life and the glory of the world. The grass is already withering, the flower already fading; and that bird of time, with so short a way to flutter, is relentlessly on the wing.
Now some natures hear this call from the beginning of their lives. Even their opulent spendthrift youth is “made the more mindful that the sweet days die,” by every strain of music, by every gathered flower. All their joy is haunted, like the poetry of William Morris, with the wistful burden of mortality. Even the summer woodlands, with all their pomp and riot of exuberant green and gold, are anything but safe from this low sweet singing, and in the white arms of beauty, pressed desperately close as if to imprison the divine fugitive moment, the song seems to come nearest. Who has not held some loved face in his hands, and gazed into it with an almost agonizing effort to realize its reality, to make eternally sure of it, somehow to wrest possession of it and the transfiguring moment for ever, all the time pierced with the melancholy knowledge that tomorrow all will be as if this had never been, and life once more its dull disenchanted self?
Too soon shall morning take
the stars away,
And all the world be up and open-eyed,
This magic night be turned to common day—
Under the willows on the riverside.
Youth, however, can afford to enjoy even its melancholy; for the ultimate fact of which that melancholy is a prophecy is a long way off. If one enchanted moment runs to an end, it may be reasonably sure for a long time yet of many more enchanted moments to come. It has as yet only taken a bite or two into the wonderful cake. And, though its poets may warn it that “youth’s a stuff does not endure,” it doesn’t seriously believe it. Others may have come to an end of their cake, but its cake is going to last for ever. Alas, for the day when it is borne in upon us with a tragic suddenness, like a miser who awakens to find that he has been robbed of his hoard, that unaccountably the best part of the cake has been eaten, that perhaps indeed only a few desperate crumbs remain. A bleak laughter blends now with that once luxurious melancholy. There is a song at our window, terribly like the mockery of Mephistopheles. Our blood runs cold. We listen in sudden fear. It is life singing out its last call.