Read PREFACE of The Unknown Quantity A Book of Romance and Some Half-Told Tales , free online book, by Henry van Dyke, on

There is a chain of little lakesa necklace of lost jewelslying in the forest that clothes the blue Laurentian Mountains in the Province of Quebec.

Each of these hidden lakes has its own character and therefore its own charm. One is bright and friendly, with wooded hills around it, and silver beaches, and red berries of the rowan-tree fringing the shores. Another is sombre and lonely, set in a circle of dark firs and larches, with sighing, trembling reeds along the bank. Another is only a round bowl of crystal water, the colour of an aquamarine, transparent and joyful as the sudden smile on the face of a child. Another is surrounded by fire-scarred mountains, and steep cliffs frown above it, and the shores are rough with fallen fragments of rock; it seems as if the setting of this jewel had been marred and broken in battle, but the gem itself shines tranquilly amid the ruin, and the lichens paint the rocks, and the new woods spring[viii] bright green upon the mountains. There are many more lakes, and all are different. The thread that binds them together is the little river flowing from one to another, now with a short, leaping passage, now with a longer, winding course.

You may follow it in your canoe, paddling through the still-waters, dropping down the rapids with your setting-pole, wading and dragging your boat in the shallows, and coming to each lake as a surprise, something distinct and separate and personal. It seems strange that they should be sisters; they are so unlike. But the same stream, rising in unknown springs, and seeking an unknown sea, runs through them all, and lives in them all, and makes them all belong together.

The thread which unites the stories in this book is like that. It is the sign of the unknown quantity, the sense of mystery and strangeness, that runs through human life.

We think we know a great deal more about the processes and laws and conditions of life than men used to know. And probably that is true; though it is not quite certain, for it is hard to say[ix] precisely how much those inscrutable old Egyptians and Hebrews and Chaldans and Hindus knew and did not tell.

But granting that we have gone beyond them, we have not gone very far, we have not come to perfect knowledge. There is still something around us and within that baffles and surprises us. Events happen which are as mysterious after our glib explanations as they were before. Changes for good or ill take place in the heart of man for which his intellect gives no reason. There is the daily miracle of the human will, the power of free choice, for which no one can account, and which sometimes flashes out the strangest things. There is the secret, incalculable influence of one life on another. There is the web of circumstance woven to an unseen pattern. There is the vast, unexplored land of dreams in which we spend one-third of our lives without even remembering most of what befalls us there.

I am not thinking now of the so-called "realm of the occult," nor of those extraordinary occurrences which startle and perplex the world from time to time, nor of those complicated and subtle problems of crime which are set to puzzle us. I am thinking of much more human and familiar things, quite natural and inevitable as it seems, which make us feel that life is threaded through and through by the unknown quantity.

This is the thread that I have followed from one to another of these stories. They are as different as my lakes in the North Country; some larger and some smaller; some brighter and some darker; for that is the way life goes. But most of them end happily, even after sorrow; for that is what I think life means.

Four of the stories have grown out of slight hints, for which I return thanks. For the two Breton legends which appear in "The Wedding-Ring" and "Messengers at the Window," I am indebted to my friend, M. Anatole Le Braz; for an incident which suggested "The Night Call," to my friend, Mrs. Edward Robinson; and for the germ of "The Mansion," to my friend, Mr. W. D. Sammis. If the stories that have come from their hints are different from what my friends thought they[xi] would be, that is only another illustration of the theme.

Between the longer stories there are three groups of tales that are told in a briefer and different manner. They are like etchings in which more is suggested than is in the picture. For this reason they are called Half-Told Tales, in the hope that they may mean to the reader more than they say.

Without the unknown quantity life would be easier, perhaps, but certainly less interesting. It is not likely that we shall ever eliminate it. But we can live with it and work with it bravely, hopefully, happily, if we believe that after all it means goodinfinite good, passing comprehensionto all who live in love.


June 1, 1912.