"'Oh!' I said, 'in another moment it would have had us'.
"He looked at me gloomily.
"'Johnson', he said, 'I'm not to be frighted or coerced. He may dance, but he shall dance alone. Get a screwdriver and some screws and fasten up this trap. No one from this time looks into this cell.'
"I did as he bid me, sweatin'; and I swear all the time I wrought I dreaded a hand would come through the trap and clutch mine.
"On one pretex' or another, from that day till the night you meddled with it, he kep' that cell as close shut as a tomb. And he went his ways, discardin' the past from that time forth. Now and again a over-sensitive prisoner in the next cell would complain of feelin' uncomfortable. If possible, he would be removed to another; if not, he was damd for his fancies. And so it might be goin' on to now, if you hadn't pried and interfered. I don't blame you at this moment, sir. Likely you were an instrument in the hands of Providence; only, as the instrument, you must now take the burden of the truth on your own shoulders. I am a dying man, but I cannot die till I have confessed. Per'aps you may find it in your hart some day to give up a prayer for me—but it must be for the Major as well.
"Your obedient servant,
* * * * *
What comment of my own can I append to this wild narrative? Professionally, and apart from personal experiences, I should rule it the composition of an epileptic. That a noted journalist, nameless as he was and is to me, however nomadic in habit, could disappear from human ken, and his fellows rest content to leave him unaccounted for, seems a tax upon credulity so stupendous that I cannot seriously endorse the statement.
Yet, also—there is that little matter of my personal experience.
On a day early in the summer of the present year Miss Dinah Groom was found lying dead off a field-path of the little obscure Wiltshire village which she had named her "rest and be thankful." At the date of her decease she was not an old woman, though any one marking her white hair and much-furrowed features might have supposed her one. The hair, however, was ample in quantity, the wrinkles rather so many under-scores of energy than evidences of senility; and until the blinds were down over her soul, she had looked into and across the world with a pair of eyes that seemed to reflect the very blue and white of a June sky. No doubt she had thought to breast the hills and sail the seas again in some renaissance of vigour. No doubt her "retreat," like a Roman Catholic's, was designed to be merely temporary. She aped the hermit for the sake of a sojourn in the hermitage. She came to her island of Avalon to be restored of her weary limbs and her blistered feet, so to speak; and there her heart, too weak for her spirit, failed her, and she fell amongst the young budding poppies, and died.
I use the word "heart" literally, and in no sentimental sense. To talk of associations of sentiment in connection with this lady would be misleading. She herself would not have repudiated any responsibility for the term as applied to her; she would have simply failed to understand the term itself. There was no least affectation in this. Throughout her life of sixty years, as I gather, she acted never once upon principle. Impulse and inclination dominated her, and she would indulge many primitive instincts without a thought of conventions. Yet she was not selfish; or, at least, only in the self-contained and self-protective meaning of the word. She was a perfect animal, conscious of her supreme brute caste, shrewd, resourceful, and the plain embodiment of truth.
Miss Groom had, I think, a boundless feeling of fellowship with beauty of whatever description; but no least touch of that sorrow of affection which, in its very humanity, is divine. Her unswerving creed was that woman was the inheritrix of the earth, the reversion of which she had wilfully mortgaged to an alien race, and that she had bartered her material immortality for a sensation. For man she had no vulgar and jealous contempt; but she feared and shrank from him as something moved by scruples with which she had no sympathy. She understood the world of Nature, and could respond to its bloodless caresses and passions. She could not understand the moodiness that dwells upon a grievance, or that would sell its birthright of joy for a pitiful memory.
Yet (and here I must speak with discretion, for I have no sufficient data to go upon) there was that of contradictoriness in her character that, I have reason to believe, she had borne children, and had even been right and particular as to their temporal welfare until such time as, in the nature of things, they were of an age to make shift for themselves. This, virtually, I know to be the case; and that, once quit of the primitive maternal responsibility, she gave no more thought to them than a thrush gives to its fledglings when she has educated them to their first flights, and to the useful knack of cracking a snail on a stone.
My own feeling about Dinah Groom was that she had "thrown back" a long way over the heads of heredity, and that, in her fearlessness, in her undegenerate physique, in the animal regularity of her face and form, she presented to modern days a startling aboriginal type.
Beautiful—save in the sense of symmetry—she can never have been to the ordinary man; inasmuch as she would subscribe to no arbitrary standard of his dictating. She had a high, rich colour; but her complexion must always have been rough, and a pronounced little moustache crossed her upper lip, like an accent to the speech that was too distinct and uncompromising to be melodious. Her every limb and feature, however, was instinct with capability, and, in her presence, one must always be moved to marvel over that indescribable worship of disproportion that has grown to be the religion of a shapely race.
* * * * *
How I first became acquainted with Miss Groom it is unnecessary to explain. During the last three years of her life I was fortunate to be her guest in the Wiltshire retreat for an aggregate of many months. She took a fancy to me—to my solitariness and moroseness, perhaps—and she not only liked to have me with her, but, after a time, she fell into something of a habit of recalling for my benefit certain passages and experiences of her past life. In doing this, there was no suggestion of confidence; and I am breaking no faith in alluding to them. She was a fine talker—rugged, unpicturesque, but with an instinctive capacity of selection in words. If I quote her, as I wish to do, I cannot reproduce her style; and that, no doubt, would appear bald on paper. But, at least, the matter is all her own.
Now, I must premise that I arrogate to myself no exhibitory rights in this lady. She was familiar with and to many from the foremost ranks of those who "follow knowledge like a sinking star"; those great and restless spirits to whom inaction reads stagnation. To such, in all probability, I tell, in speaking of Dinah Groom, a twice-told tale; and, therefore—inasmuch as I make it my business only to print what is hitherto unrecorded—to them I give the assurance that I do not claim to have "discovered" their friend.
* * * * *
On a wall of the little embowered sitting-room hung a queer picture, by Ernest Griset, of the "Overwhelming of the Mammoths in the Ice." From the first this odd conception had engaged my curiosity,—purely for its fanciful side,—and one evening, in alluding to it, I made the not very profound remark that Imagination had no anatomy.
"They are true beasts," said Dinah.
"They are the mastodons of Cuvier, no doubt; but, then, Cuvier never saw a mastodon, you know."
"But I have; and I tell you Griset and Cuvier are very nearly right."
I expressed no surprise.
"In what were they astray?" I asked.
"The mammoth, as I saw it, had a huge hump—like the steam-chest of an enormous engine—over its shoulders."
"And where did you see it, and when?"
"You are curious to know?"
"Yes, I think I am; and there is a quiet of expectancy abroad. I hear the ghost of my dead brother walking in the corridor, Dinah; and we are all waiting for you to speak."
She smiled, and said, "Push me over the cigarettes."
She struck a match, kindled the little crackling tube, and threw the light out into the shrubbery. It traced a tiny arc of flame and vanished. The sky was full of the mewing of lost kittens, it seemed. The sound came from innumerable peewits, that fled and circled above the slopes of the darkening meadows below.
"What an uncomfortable seer you are!" she said, "to people this dear human night with your fancies. No doubt, now, you will read between the lines of that bird speech down there?" (She looked at me curiously, but with none of the mournful speculativeness of a soul struggling against the dimness of its own vision.) "To me it is articulate happiness—nothing more abstruse. Yes, I have seen a mastodon; and I was as glad to happen on the beast as a naturalist is glad to find a missing link in a chain of evidence. From the moment, I knew myself quite clearly to be the recovered heir to this abused planet."
She paused a moment, and contracted her brows, as if regretfully and in anger. "If I had only seen it sooner!" she cried, low; "before I had, in my pride of strength, tested the poison that has bewildered the brains of my sisters!"
Her general reserve was her self-armour against the bolts of the Philistines. What worldling would not have read mania in much that was spoken by this sane woman? Yet, indeed, if we were all to find the power to give expression to our inmost thoughts, madness and sanity would have to change places in the order of affairs.
"Once," said Dinah—"and it was when I was a young woman—a man in whom I was interested shipped as passenger on a whaling vessel. This friend was what is called a degenerate. Physically and morally he had yielded his claim to any share in that province of the sun, that his race had conquered and annexed only to find it antipathetic to its needs. Combative effort was grown impossible to him, as in time it will grow to you all. You drop from the world like dead flies from a wall. He could not physic his soul with woods, and groves, and waters. To his perceptions, life was become an abnormality—a disease of which he sickened, as you all must when the last of the fever of aggression has been diluted out of your veins. You die of your triumph, as the bee dies of his own weapon of offence; and you can find no antidote to the poison in the nature you have inoculated with your own virus.
"This man contemplated self-destruction as the only escape. He had sought distraction of his moral torments in travel long and varied. Many of the most beautiful, of the historically interesting places of the world, he had visited and sojourned in—without avail. His haunting feeling, he said, was that he did not belong to himself. Pursued by this Nemesis, he came home to end it all. He still proclaimed his spiritual independence; but it was immeshed, and he must tear the strands. This was wonderfully perplexing to me, and, out of my curiosity, I must persuade him to make one more attempt. His late efforts, I assured him, were nothing but an endeavour to cure nausea with sweet syrups. He would not get his change out of nature by such pitiful wooing. Let him, rather, emulate, if he could not feel, the spirit of his remote forbears, and rally his nerves to an expedition into the harsh and awful places of the earth. I would accompany him, and watch with and for him, and supply that of the fibre he lacked.
"He consented, and, after some difficulty (for there is an economy of room in whalers), we obtained passage in a vessel and sailed into the unknown. Our life and our food were simple and rugged; but the keen air, the relief from luxury, the novelty and the wonder, wrought upon my companion and renewed him, so that presently I was amused to note in him signs of a moral preening—some smug resumption of that arrogant air of superiority that is a tradition with your race."
Miss Groom here puckered her lips, and breathed a little destructive laugh upon her cigarette ash.
"It did not last long," she said. "We encountered very bad weather, and his nerves again went by the board. That was in the 60th longitude, I think (where whales were still to be found in those years), and seven hundred miles or so to the east of Spitzbergen. On the day—it was in August—that the storm first overtook us, the boats were out in pursuit of a 'right' whale, as, I believe, the men called it—a great bull creature, and piebald like a horse; and I saw the spouting of his breath as if a water main had burst in a London fog. The wind came in a sudden charge from the northwest, and the whale dived with a harpoon in its back; and in the confusion a reel fouled, and one of the boats was whipt under in a moment—half a mile down, perhaps—and its crew drawn with it, and their lungs, full of air, burst like bubbles. We had no time to think of them. We got the other boat-load on board, and then the gale sent us crashing down the slopes of the sea. I have no knowledge of how long we were curst of the tempest and the sport of its ravings. I only know that when it released us at last, we had been hurled a thousand miles eastwards. The long interval was all a hellish jangle in which time seemed obliterated. Sometimes we saw the sun—a furious red globe; and we seemed to stand still while it raced down the sky and ricocheted over the furthermost waves like a red-hot cannon ball. Sometimes in pitch darkness the wild sense of flight and expectation was an ecstasy. But through all my friend lay in a half-delirious stupor.
"At length a morning broke, full of icy scud, but the sea panting and exhausted of its rage. As a child catches its breath after a storm of tears, so it would heave up suddenly, and vibrate, and sink; and we rocked upon it, a ruined hulk. We were off a flat, vacant shore—if shore you could call it—whose margin, for miles inland, it seemed, undulated with the lifting of the swell. It was treeless desolation manifest; and on our sea side, as far as the eye could reach, the water bobbed and winked with countless spars of ice.
"I will tell you at once, my friend,—we were brought to opposite an inhuman swamp on the coast of Siberia, fifty miles or more to the west of North-east Cape; and there what remained of the crew made shift to cast anchor; and for a day and night the ragged ship curtsied to the land, like a blind beggar to an empty street, and we only dozed in our corners and wondered at the silence.
"By-and-by the men made a raft, and that took us all ashore. There was something like a definite coast-line, then; but for long before we touched it the undersides of the planks were scraping and hissing over vegetation. This was the winter fur of the land—thick, coarse tundra moss; and on that we pitched a camp, and on that we remained for long weeks while the ship was mending. It was a weird, lonely time. Once or twice strange, wandering creatures came our way—little, belted men, with hairless faces, who rode up on strong horses, and liked to exhibit their skilful management of them. They talked to us in their chirpy jargon (Toongus, I think it was called); but jargon it must needs remain to us.
"Well, we made a patch of the hulk, and we shipped in her again. We were fortunate to be able to do that, for, with every stiffish wind blowing inshore, we had feared she would drag her moorings and ground immovably on the swamps. The land, indeed, was so flat and low that, whenever the sea rose at all, it threshed the very plains and crackled in the moss; and we were glad, despite the risk, to leave so lifeless a place."
Dinah paused to light another cigarette, and to inhale the ecstasy of the first puff or so before she continued. Up through the still evening, from a curve of the main road that crooked an elbow to her front garden, came what sounded like the purring of a great cat—the wind in the telegraph wires.
"And I am now to tell you," she said, "about the mastodon?"
"As you please," I answered.
"I do please; for why should I keep it to myself? It makes no difference; only I warn you, if you quote me, you will be writ down a fool or a maniac. This relation lacks witnesses, for the whaler—that I subsequently quitted for another homing vessel—was never heard of in port any more."
She looked at me with some serious scrutiny before she went on.
"For these regions, it had been an extraordinarily hot summer—phenomenally hot, I understand; and to this—to the melting and breaking away of the ice from hitherto century-locked fastnesses, the captain attributed the wonderful experience that befell us. The sea was strewn with blocks and bergs, all hurrying onwards in the strong currents, as if in haste to escape the pursuing demon of frost that should re-fetter them; and their multitude kept the steersman's arms spinning till the man would fall half-fainting over the spoke-handles.
"Now, one morning early in September, a dense bright fog dropped suddenly upon the waters. We were making what sail we could—with our crippled spars and stunted trees of masts—and this it were useless to shorten, and so invite a rearward bombardment from the chasing hummocks. So we kept our course by the compass, and trailed on through a blind mist while fear drummed in our throats. The demoralization of my friend was by this time complete. For myself, I seldom had a thought but that Nature would sheathe her claws when she played with me.
"'This cannot last long!' said the captain.
"The words were on his lips when we struck with a noise like the splintering of glass. We were all thrown down, and my companion screamed like a mad thing. The captain rose and ran to the bows; and in a moment he came back and his beard was shaking.
"'God save us!' he cried, 'and fetch aft the rum!'
"There you have man in his invincible moods. They drank till they were in a condition to face death; and then they found that our situation was rather improved than otherwise by the collision. For—so it appeared—we had run full tilt for a perpendicular fissure in a huge block, and into that our bows were firmly wedged, the nature of the impact distributing the shock, and the berg itself carrying us along with it and protecting us.
"Now the dipping motion of the vessel was exchanged for a heavy regular wash along its stern quarters; for the bows were so much raised as that I felt a little strain on my knees as I went forward to satisfy my curiosity with a view of the icy mass into which we were penetrated. I waited, indeed, until the crew were come aft again from looking, and my friend crept timidly at my shoulder; but when we reached the stem, there was one of the hands, a little soberer than his fellows, sprawled over the bulwarks, and staring with all his eyes into the green lift of the wall against him.
"'Is it a mermaid you see, Killigrew?' I asked.
"The man shifted his gaze to me slowly and solemnly.
"'Nowt, nowt,' said he; 'but a turble monster, like a pram stuck in jelly.'
"I laughed, and went to his side. The fog, as I have said, was dense and bright, and one could see into it a little way, as into a milky white agate. But now and again a film of it would pull thin, and then sunlight came through and made a dim radiance of the ice.
"'I can make out nothing,' I said.
"He cocked an eye and leered up at me. 'Look steady and sober,' he said, 'and you'll make en owut like as in a glass darkly.'
"I gave a little gasp and my friend a cry before the words were issued from the man's mouth. Drawn by some current of air, the fog at the moment blew out of the cleft, like smoke from a chimney; and there, before our gaze, was a great curved tusk coming up through the ice and inside it.
"Now I clapped my hands in an agony, lest the fog should close in again, and the vision fade before my eyes; for, following the sweep of the tusk, I was aware of the phantom presentment of some monster creature lying imbedded within the ice, its mighty carcase prostrate as it had fallen; the conformation of its enormous forehead presented directly to our gaze. Its little toffee-ball eyes—little proportionately, that is to say—squinted at us, it seemed, through half-closed lids, and a huge, hairy trunk lay curled, like the proboscis of a dead moth, between its tree-like fore-legs. Away beyond, the great red-brown drum of its hide bellied upward on ribs as thick as a Dutch galliot's, and sprouting from its shoulders was the hump I have mentioned, but here, from its position, sprawled abroad and lying over in a shapeless mass.
"There was something else—horribly nauseating but for its strangeness. The brute had been partly disembowelled, as there was ample evidence to show, for the ice had preserved all.
"Suddenly my companion gave a high nervous shriek.
"'Look!' he cried—'the hand! the hand sticking out of the side!'
"I saw in a moment; turned, and called excitedly to the captain. He—all the crew—came tumbling forward up the slippery deck. I seized him by the shoulder.
"'Do you see?' I screamed—'the human hand beckoning to us from that great body!'
"He gazed stupidly, swaying where he stood.
"'One o' them bloomin' pre-hadymite cows!' he muttered; 'caught in the cold nip, by thunder! and some unfortnit crept into her for warmth.'
"I believed the creature's rude intuition had flown true.
"'Cannot you get at it?' I gasped.
"He stared at me. All in an instant a little paltry demon of avarice blinked out of his eye-holes.
"'Why,' he said slowly, 'who knows but it mayn't be a gal a-jingling from top to toe with gold curtain rings!'
"He was a furious dare-devil immediately, and quick, and savage, and peremptory. His spirit entered into his men. They went over the side with pikes and axes, and, scrambling for any foothold, set to work on the ice like maniacs. In the lust of cupidity they did not even think how they wrought against their own safety and that of the ship.
"The point of the uppermost tusk came to within a foot of the ice-surface. This they soon reached, and, prising frantically with crowbars, flaked off and rolled away half-ton blocks of the superincumbent mass. I need not detail the fierce process. In half an hour they had laid bare a great segment of that part of the trunk whence the hand protruded, and then they paused, and at a word flung down their tools.
"I was leaning over the bulwarks watching them. I could contain my excitement no longer.
"'Come,' I said to my friend, 'help me down, for I must go.'
"He climbed over, trembling, and assisted me to a standing on the ice. We scrambled along the track of debris left by the crew. At the moment half a dozen of the latter were rolling back a broad flap of the hide, in which they had found a long L-shaped rent revealed. Then a hoarse cry broke from them, and I stumbled forward and looked down, and saw.
"They lay beneath the mighty ribs as in a cage, of which the intercostal spaces were a foot in width, and the bars of a strength to maintain the enormous pressure of that which had surrounded and entombed them; they lay in one close group, their naked limbs smeared with the stain of their prison—a man, a woman, and a tiny child. From their faces, and their unfallen flesh, they might have been sleeping; but they were not; they were come down to us, a transfixture of death—prehistoric people in a prehistoric brute, and their eyes—their eyes!"
Dinah's voice trailed off into silence. Some expression that I could not interpret was on her face. There was regret in it, but nothing of pathos or mysticism. Suddenly she breathed out a great sigh and resumed her narrative.
"You will want to know how they looked, these lifeless survivors of a remote race from a remote time? I will try to tell you. The men hacked away the ribs with their axes, and laid bare the group lying in the hollow scooped out of the fallen beast. They were little people, and the man, according to your modern canons of taste, was by far the most beautiful of the three. He sat erect, with one uplifted arm projected through the ribs; as if, surprised by the frost-stroke, he had started to escape, and had been petrified in the act. His face, wondering and delicate as a baby's, was hairless; and his head only a pretty infantile down covered—a curling floss as radiant as spun glass. His wide-open eyes glinted yet with a hyacinth blue, and it was difficult to realize that they were dead and vacant.
"The woman was of coarser mould, ruddy, vigorous, brown-haired and eyed. She looked the very hamadryad of some blossoming tree, a sweet capricious daughter of the blameless earth. Everything luxuriated in her—colour, hair, and lusty flesh; and the child she held to her bosom with a manner that indescribably commingled contempt, and resentment, and a passion of proprietorship.
"This baby—joining the prominent characteristics of the two—was the oddest little mortal I have ever seen. What did its expression convey to me? 'I am fairly caught, and must brazen out the situation!' There! that was what it was; I cannot put it more lucidly. Only the thing's wee face was animal conscious for the first time of itself, and inclined to rejoice in that primitive energy of knowledge.
"Now, my friend, I must tell you how the sight operated upon me and upon my companion. For myself, I can only say that, looking upon that fine, independent fore-mother of my race, I felt the sun in my veins and the winy fragrance of antique woods and pastures. I laughed; I clapped my hands; I danced on the ice-rubbish, so that they thought me mad. But, for the other—the man—he was in a different plight. He was transfigured; his nervousness was gone in a flash. He cast himself down upon his knees, and gazed and gazed, his hands clasped, upon that sleek, mild progenitor of his, that pure image of gentle self-containment, whose very meekness suggested an indomitable will.
"Suddenly he, my friend, cried out: 'This is one caught in the process of materialization! It is not flesh; my God, no!'
"It seemed, indeed, as if it were as he said. I stopped in my capering and looked down. The tarry hinds standing by grinned and jeered.
"On the instant there came a splintering snap, and the floe rocked and curtsied.
"'Back!' yelled the captain. 'She's breaking through by the head!'
"He shrieked of the ship. She was clearing herself, had already shaken her prow free of the ice.
"There was a wild scamper for safety. I was carried with the throng. It was not until I was hauled on board once more that I thought of my friend. He still knelt where we had fled from him, a wrapt, strange expression on his face.
"'Come back!' I screamed. 'You will be lost!'
"Now at that he turned his head and looked at me; but he never moved, and his voice came to me quiet and exultant.
"'Lost!' he said, 'ay, for forty-three years: and here, here I find myself!'
"We dipped, and the wash of the water came about our bows. The block of ice swerved, made a sluggish half-pirouette and dropped astern.
"'Come!' I shrieked again faintly.
"With the echo of my cry he was a phantom, a blot, had vanished in the rearward fog; and thereout a little joyous laugh came to me.
"And that was a queer good-bye for ever, wasn't it?"
THE BLACK REAPER
"Sinner, sinner, whence do you come?" "From the bitter earth they called my home."
"Sinner, sinner, why do you wait?" "I fear to knock at the golden gate:
"My crimes were heavy; my doom is sure, And I dread the anguish I must endure."
"Had you ever a child down there?" "One—but it died, and I learnt despair."
"Here you will find it, behind the gate." "God forbid! for it felt my hate—
"Shrunk in the frost of my cruelties. More than the Judge's I fear its eyes."
"Hist! At the keyhole place your ear. Sinner, what is the sound you hear?
"Is it ten thousand babes at play? Heaven's nursery lies that way.
"Through it to judgment all must fare It was God's pity placed it there."
The gate swung open; the sinner past; Little hands caught and held him fast.
"While you wait the call of the Nameless One, There's time for a game at 'Touch-and-Run'!"
He played with them there in that shining place, With the hot tears scorching his furrowed face—
Played, till the voice rang dread and clear: "Where is the sinner? I wait him here!"
Then shouting with laughter one and all They pushed him on to the Judgment Hall;
Stood by him; swarmed to the dais steps, A jumble of gleeful eyes and lips.
The Judge leaned stern from His Judgment Throne: "I gave thee—where is thy littte one?"
Wildly the culprit caught his breath: "Lord, I have sinned. My doom be death."
He hung his head with a broken sob. There sprang a child from the rosy mob—
"Daddy!" it cried, with a joyful shriek; Leapt to his arms and kissed his cheek.
But he put it from him with bursting sighs, And looked on the Judge with swimming eyes;
Stood abashed in his bitter shame, Waiting the sentence that never came.
From the Throne spoke out the thundered Word: "This be thy doom!" No more he heard,
For a chime of laughter from baby throats Took up those crashing organ notes,
Mixed with; silenced them; made them void— And the children's laughter was unalloyed,
"This be thy doom," came a little squeak, "To play with us here at 'hide-and-seek'!"
Thrice did the Judge essay to frown; Thrice did the children laugh Him down—
Till at the last, He caught and kissed The maddest of all and the merriest;
Turned to the sinner, with smiling face: "These render futile the Judgment Place.
"Sunniest rascals, imp and elf, Who think they can better the Judge Himself.
"Sinner—whatever thy sins may be, Theirs is the sentence—go from Me!"
THE BLACK REAPER
TAKEN FROM THE Q—— REGISTER OF LOCAL EVENTS, AS COMPILED FROM AUTHENTIC NARRATIVES
Now I am to tell you of a thing that befell in the year 1665 of the Great Plague, when the hearts of certain amongst men, grown callous in wickedness upon that rebound from an inhuman austerity, were opened to the vision of a terror that moved and spoke not in the silent places of the fields. Forasmuch as, however, in the recovery from delirium a patient may marvel over the incredulity of neighbours who refuse to give credence to the presentments that have been ipso facto to him, so, the nation being sound again, and its constitution hale, I expect little but a laugh for my piety in relating of the following incident; which, nevertheless, is as essential true as that he who shall look through the knot-hole in the plank of a coffin shall acquire the evil eye.
For, indeed, in those days of a wild fear and confusion, when every condition that maketh for reason was set wandering by a devious path, and all men sitting as in a theatre of death looked to see the curtain rise upon God knows what horrors, it was vouchsafed to many to witness sights and sounds beyond the compass of Nature, and that as if the devil and his minions had profited by the anarchy to slip unobserved into the world. And I know that this is so, for all the insolence of a recovered scepticism; and, as to the unseen, we are like one that traverseth the dark with a lanthorn, himself the skipper of a little moving blot of light, but a positive mark for any secret foe without the circumference of its radiance.
Be that as it may, and whether it was our particular ill-fortune, or, as some asserted, our particular wickedness, that made of our village an inviting back-door of entrance to the Prince of Darkness, I know not; but so it is that disease and contagion are ever inclined to penetrate by way of flaws or humours where the veil of the flesh is already perforated, as a kite circleth round its quarry, looking for the weak place to strike: and, without doubt, in that land of corruption we were a very foul blot indeed.
How this came about it were idle to speculate; yet no man shall have the hardihood to affirm that it was otherwise. Nor do I seek to extenuate myself, who was in truth no better than my neighbours in most that made us a community of drunkards and forswearers both lewd and abominable. For in that village a depravity that was like madness had come to possess the heads of the people, and no man durst take his stand on honesty or even common decency, for fear he should be set upon by his comrades and drummed out of his government on a pint pot. Yet for myself I will say was one only redeeming quality, and that was the pure love I bore to my solitary orphaned child, the little Margery.
Now, our Vicar—a patient and God-fearing man, for all his predial tithes were impropriated by his lord, that was an absentee and a sheriff in London—did little to stem that current of lewdness that had set in strong with the Restoration. And this was from no lack of virtue in himself, but rather from a natural invertebracy, as one may say, and an order of mind that, yet being no order, is made the sport of any sophister with a wit for paragram. Thus it always is that mere example is of little avail without precept,—of which, however, it is an important condition,—and that the successful directors of men be not those who go to the van and lead, unconscious of the gibes and mockery in their rear, but such rather as drive the mob before them with a smiting hand and no infirmity of purpose. So, if a certain affection for our pastor dwelt in our hearts, no title of respect was there to leaven it and justify his high office before Him that consigned the trust; and ever deeper and deeper we sank in the slough of corruption, until was brought about this pass—that naught but some scourging despotism of the Church should acquit us of the fate of Sodom. That such, at the eleventh hour, was vouchsafed us of God's mercy, it is my purpose to show; and, doubtless, this offering of a loop-hole was to account by reason of the devil's having debarked his reserves, as it were, in our port; and so quartering upon us a soldiery that we were, at no invitation of our own, to maintain, stood us a certain extenuation.
It was late in the order of things before in our village so much as a rumour of the plague reached us. Newspapers were not in those days, and reports, being by word of mouth, travelled slowly, and were often spent bullets by the time they fell amongst us. Yet, by May, some gossip there was of the distemper having gotten a hold in certain quarters of London and increasing, and this alarmed our people, though it made no abatement of their profligacy. But presently the reports coming thicker, with confirmation of the terror and panic that was enlarging on all sides, we must take measures for our safety; though into June and July, when the pestilence was raging, none infected had come our way, and that from our remote and isolated position. Yet it needs but fear for the crown to that wickedness that is self-indulgence; and forasmuch as this fear fattens like a toadstool on the decomposition it springs from, it grew with us to the proportions that we were set to kill or destroy any that should approach us from the stricken districts.
And then suddenly there appeared in our midst he that was appointed to be our scourge and our cautery.
Whence he came, or how, no man of us could say. Only one day we were a community of roysterers and scoffers, impious and abominable, and the next he was amongst us smiting and thundering.
Some would have it that he was an old collegiate of our Vicar's, but at last one of those wandering Dissenters that found never as now the times opportune to their teachings—a theory to which our minister's treatment of the stranger gave colour. For from the moment of his appearance he took the reins of government, as it were, appropriating the pulpit and launching his bolts therefrom, with the full consent and encouragement of the other. There were those, again, who were resolved that his commission was from a high place, whither news of our infamy had reached, and that we had best give him a respectful hearing, lest we should run a chance of having our hearing stopped altogether. A few were convinced he was no man at all, but rather a fiend sent to thresh us with the scourge of our own contriving, that we might be tender, like steak, for the cooking; and yet other few regarded him with terror, as an actual figure or embodiment of the distemper.
But, generally, after the first surprise, the feeling of resentment at his intrusion woke and gained ground, and we were much put about that he should have thus assumed the pastorship without invitation, quartering with our Vicar; who kept himself aloof and was little seen, and seeking to drive us by terror, and amazement, and a great menace of retribution. For, in truth, this was not the method to which we were wont, and it both angered and disturbed us.
This feeling would have enlarged the sooner, perhaps, were it not for a certain restraining influence possessed of the new-comer, which neighboured him with darkness and mystery. For he was above the common tall, and ever appeared in public with a slouched hat, that concealed all the upper part of his face and showed little otherwise but the dense black beard that dropped upon his breast like a shadow.
Now with August came a fresh burst of panic, how the desolation increased and the land was overrun with swarms of infected persons seeking an asylum from the city; and our anger rose high against the stranger, who yet dwelt with us and encouraged the distemper of our minds by furious denunciations of our guilt.
Thus far, for all the corruption of our hearts, we had maintained the practice of church-going, thinking, maybe, poor fools! to hoodwink the Almighty with a show of reverence; but now, as by a common consent, we neglected the observances and loitered of a Sabbath in the fields, and thither at the last the strange man pursued us and ended the matter.
For so it fell that at the time of the harvest's ripening a goodish body of us males was gathered one Sunday for coolness about the neighbourhood of the dripping well, whose waters were a tradition, for they had long gone dry. This well was situate in a sort of cave or deep scoop at the foot of a cliff of limestone, to which the cultivated ground that led up to it fell somewhat. High above, the cliff broke away into a wide stretch of pasture land, but the face of the rock itself was all patched with bramble and little starved birch-trees clutching for foothold; and in like manner the excavation beneath was half-stifled and gloomed over with undergrowth, so that it looked a place very dismal and uninviting, save in the ardour of the dog-days.
Within, where had been the basin, was a great shattered hole going down to unknown depths; and this no man had thought to explore, for a mystery held about the spot that was doubtless the foster-child of ignorance.
But to the front of the well and of the cliff stretched a noble field of corn, and this field was of an uncommon shape, being, roughly, a vast circle and a little one joined by a neck and in suggestion not unlike an hour-glass; and into the crop thereof, which was of goodly weight and condition, were the first sickles to be put on the morrow.
Now as we stood or lay around, idly discussing of the news, and congratulating ourselves that we were featly quit of our incubus, to us along the meadow path, his shadow jumping on the corn, came the very subject of our gossip.
He strode up, looking neither to right nor left, and with the first word that fell, low and damnatory, from his lips, we knew that the moment had come when, whether for good or evil, he intended to cast us from him and acquit himself of further responsibility in our direction.
"Behold!" he cried, pausing over against us, "I go from among ye! Behold, ye that have not obeyed nor inclined your ear, but have walked every one in the imagination of his evil heart! Saith the Lord, 'I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto Me, I will not hearken unto them.'"
His voice rang out, and a dark silence fell among us. It was pregnant, but with little of humility. We had had enough of this interloper and his abuse. Then, like Jeremiah, he went to prophesy:—
"I read ye, men of Anathoth, and the murder in your hearts. Ye that have worshipped the shameful thing and burned incense to Baal—shall I cringe that ye devise against me, or not rather pray to the Lord of Hosts, 'Let me see Thy vengeance on them'? And He answereth, 'I will bring evil upon the men of Anathoth, even the year of their visitation.'"
Now, though I was no participator in that direful thing that followed, I stood by, nor interfered, and so must share the blame. For there were men risen all about, and their faces lowering, and it seemed that it would go hard with the stranger were he not more particular.
But he moved forward, with a stately and commanding gesture, and stood with his back to the well-scoop and threatened us and spoke.
"Lo!" he shrieked, "your hour is upon you! Ye shall be mowed down like ripe corn, and the shadow of your name shall be swept from the earth! The glass of your iniquity is turned, and when its sand is run through, not a man of ye shall be!"
He raised his arm aloft, and in a moment he was overborne. Even then, as all say, none got sight of his face; but he fought with lowered head, and his black beard flapped like a wounded crow. But suddenly a boy-child ran forward of the bystanders, crying and screaming,—
"Hurt him not! They are hurting him—oh, me! oh, me!"
And from the sweat and struggle came his voice, gasping, "I spare the little children!"
Then only I know of the surge and the crash towards the well-mouth, of an instant cessation of motion, and immediately of men toiling hither and thither with boulders and huge blocks, which they piled over the rent, and so sealed it with a cromlech of stone.
That, in the heat of rage and of terror, we had gone farther than we had at first designed, our gloom and our silence on the morrow attested. True we were quit of our incubus, but on such terms as not even the severity of the times could excuse. For the man had but chastised us to our improvement; and to destroy the scourge is not to condone the offence. For myself, as I bore up the little Margery to my shoulder on my way to the reaping, I felt the burden of guilt so great as that I found myself muttering of an apology to the Lord that I durst put myself into touch with innocence. "But the walk would fatigue her otherwise," I murmured; and, when we were come to the field, I took and carried her into the upper or little meadow, out of reach of the scythes, and placed her to sleep amongst the corn, and so left her with a groan.
But when I was come anew to my comrades, who stood at the lower extremity of the field—and this was the bottom of the hour-glass, so to speak—I was aware of a stir amongst them, and, advancing closer, that they were all intent upon the neighbourhood of the field I had left, staring like distraught creatures, and holding well together, as if in a panic. Therefore, following the direction of their eyes, and of one that pointed with rigid finger, I turned me about, and looked whence I had come; and my heart went with a somersault, and in a moment I was all sick and dazed.
For I saw, at the upper curve of the meadow, where the well lay in gloom, that a man had sprung out of the earth, as it seemed, and was started reaping; and the face of this man was all in shadow, from which his beard ran out and down like a stream of gall.
He reaped swiftly and steadily, swinging like a pendulum; but, though the sheaves fell to him right and left, no swish of the scythe came to us, nor any sound but the beating of our own hearts.
Now, from the first moment of my looking, no doubt was in my lost soul but that this was him we had destroyed come back to verify his prophecy in ministering to the vengeance of the Lord of Hosts; and at the thought a deep groan rent my bosom, and was echoed by those about me. But scarcely was it issued when a second terror smote me as that I near reeled. Margery—my babe! put to sleep there in the path of the Black Reaper!
At that, though they called to me, I sprang forward like a madman, and running along the meadow, through the neck of the glass, reached the little thing, and stooped and snatched her into my arms. She was sound and unfrighted, as I felt with a burst of thankfulness; but, looking about me, as I turned again to fly, I had near dropped in my tracks for the sickness and horror I experienced in the nearer neighbourhood of the apparition. For, though it never raised its head, or changed the steady swing of its shoulders, I knew that it was aware of and was reaping at me. Now, I tell you, it was ten yards away, yet the point of the scythe came gliding upon me silently, like a snake, through the stalks, and at that I screamed out and ran for my life.
I escaped, sweating with terror; but when I was sped back to the men, there was all the village collected, and our Vicar to the front, praying from a throat that rattled like a dead leaf in a draught. I know not what he said, for the low cries of the women filled the air; but his face was white as a smock, and his fingers writhed in one another like a knot of worms.
"The plague is upon us!" they wailed. "We shall be mowed down like ripe corn!"
And even as they shrieked the Black Reaper paused, and, putting away his scythe, stooped and gathered up a sheaf in his arms and stood it on end. And, with the very act, a man—one that had been forward in yesterday's business—fell down amongst us yelling and foaming; and he rent his breast in his frenzy, revealing the purple blot thereon, and he passed blaspheming. And the reaper stooped and stooped again, and with every sheaf he gathered together one of us fell stricken and rolled in his agony, while the rest stood by palsied.
But, when at length all that was cut was accounted for, and a dozen of us were gone each to his judgment, and he had taken up his scythe to reap anew, a wild fury woke in the breasts of some of the more abandoned and reckless amongst us.
"It is not to be tolerated!" they cried. "Let us at once fire the corn and burn this sorcerer!"
And with that, some fire or six of them, emboldened by despair, ran up into the little field, and, separating, had out each his flint and fired the crop in his own place, and retreated to the narrow part for safety.
Now the reaper rested on his scythe, as if unexpectedly acquitted of a part of his labour; but the corn flamed up in these five or six directions, and was consumed in each to the compass of a single sheaf: whereat the fire died away. And with its dying the faces of those that had ventured went black as coal; and they flung up their arms, screaming, and fell prone where they stood, and were hidden from our view.
Then, indeed, despair seized upon all of us that survived, and we made no doubt but that we were to be exterminated and wiped from the earth for our sins, as were the men of Anathoth. And for an hour the Black Reaper mowed and trussed, till he had cut all from the little upper field and was approached to the neck of juncture with the lower and larger. And before us that remained, and who were drawn back amongst the trees, weeping and praying, a fifth of our comrades lay foul, and dead, and sweltering, and all blotched over with the dreadful mark of the pestilence.
Now, as I say, the reaper was nearing the neck of juncture; and so we knew that if he should once pass into the great field towards us and continue his mowing, not one of us should be left to give earnest of our repentance.
Then, as it seemed, our Vicar came to a resolution, moving forward with a face all wrapt and entranced; and he strode up the meadow path and approached the apparition, and stretched out his arms to it entreating. And we saw the other pause, awaiting him; and, as he came near, put forth his hand, and so, gently, on the good old head. But as we looked, catching at our breaths with a little pathos of hope, the priestly face was thrown back radiant, and the figure of him that would give his life for us sank amongst the yet standing corn and disappeared from our sight.
So at last we yielded ourselves fully to our despair; for if our pastor should find no mercy, what possibility of it could be for us!
It was in this moment of an uttermost grief and horror, when each stood apart from his neighbour, fearing the contamination of his presence, that there was vouchsafed to me, of God's pity, a wild and sudden inspiration. Still to my neck fastened the little Margery—not frighted, it seemed, but mazed—and other babes there were in plenty, that clung to their mothers' skirts and peeped out, wondering at the strange show.
I ran to the front and shrieked: "The children! the children! He will not touch the little children! Bring them and set them in his path!" And so crying I sped to the neck of meadow, and loosened the soft arms from my throat, and put the little one down within the corn.
Now at once the women saw what I would be at, and full a score of them snatched up their babes and followed me. And here we were reckless for ourselves; but we knelt the innocents in one close line across the neck of land, so that the Black Reaper should not find space between any of them to swing his scythe. And having done this, we fell back with our hearts bubbling in our breasts, and we stood panting and watched.
He had paused over that one full sheaf of his reaping; but now, with the sound of the women's running, he seized his weapon again and set to upon the narrow belt of corn that yet separated him from the children. But presently, coming out upon the tender array, his scythe stopped and trailed in his hand, and for a full minute he stood like a figure of stone. Then thrice he walked slowly backwards and forwards along the line, seeking for an interval whereby he might pass; and the children laughed at him like silver bells, showing no fear, and perchance meeting that of love in his eyes that was hidden from us.
Then of a sudden he came to before the midmost of the line, and, while we drew our breath like dying souls, stooped and snapped his blade across his knee, and, holding the two parts in his hand, turned and strode back into the shadow of the dripping well. There arrived, he paused once more, and, twisting him about, waved his hand once to us and vanished into the blackness. But there were those who affirmed that in that instant of his turning, his face was revealed, and that it was a face radiant and beautiful as an angel's.
Such is the history of the wild judgment that befell us, and by grace of the little children was foregone; and such was the stranger whose name no man ever heard tell, but whom many have since sought to identify with that spirit of the pestilence that entered into men's hearts and confounded them, so that they saw visions and were afterwards confused in their memories.
But this I may say, that when at last our courage would fetch us to that little field of death, we found it to be all blackened and blasted, so as nothing would take root there then or ever since; and it was as if, after all the golden sand of the hour-glass was run away and the lives of the most impious with it, the destroyer saw fit to stay his hand for sake of the babes that he had pronounced innocent, and for such as were spared to witness to His judgment. And this I do here, with a heart as contrite as if it were the morrow of the visitation, the which with me it ever has remained.
A VOICE FROM THE PIT
"Signor, we are arrived," whispered the old man in my ear; and he put out a sudden cold hand, corded like melon rind, to stay me in the stumbling darkness.
We were on a tilted table-land of the mountain; and, looking forth and below, the far indigo crescent of the bay, where it swept towards Castellamare, seemed to rise up at me, as if it were a perpendicular wall, across which the white crests of the waves flew like ghost moths.
We skirted a boulder, and came upon a field of sleek purple lava sown all over with little lemon jets of silent smoke, which in their wan and melancholy glow might have been the corpse lights of those innumerable dead whose tombstone was the mountain itself.
Far away to the right the great projecting socket of the crater flickered intermittently with a nerve of fire. It was like the glinting of the watchful eye of some vast Crustacean, and in that harsh and stupendous desolation seemed the final crown and expression of utter inhumanity.
I started upon hearing the low whisper of my companion at my ear.
"In the bay yesterday the Signor saved my life. I give the Signor, in return, my life's secret."
He seized my right hand in his left with a sinewy clutch, and pointed a stiff finger at the luminous blots.
"See there, and there, and there," he shrilled. "One floats and wavers like a spineless ribbon of seaweed in the water; another burns with a steady radiance; a third blares from its fissure like a flame driven by the blowpipe. It is all a question of the under-draught, and some may feel it a little, and some a little more or a little less. Ah! but I will show you one that feels it not at all—a hole, a narrow shaft that goes straight down into the pit of the great hell, and is cold as the mouth of a barbel."
The bones of his face stood out like rocks against sand, and the pupils of his maniac eyes were glazed or fell into shadow as the volcano lightnings fluttered.
Suddenly he drew me to a broken pile of sulphur rock lying tumbled against a ridge of the mountain that ran towards the crater. It lay heaped, a fused and fantastic ruin; and in a moment the old man leapt from me, and was tugging by main strength a vast fragment from its place.
I leaned over his shoulder, and looked down upon the hollow revealed by the displaced boulder. It was like the bell of a mighty trumpet, and in the middle a puckered opening seemed to suck inwards, as it were the mouth of some subterranean monster risen to the surface of the world for air.
"Quick! quick!" muttered Paolo. "The Signor must place his ear to the hole."
With a little odd stir at my heart, I dropped upon my knees and leaned my head deep into the cup. I must have stayed thus for a full minute before I drew myself back and looked up at the old mountaineer. His eyes gazed down into mine with mad intensity.
"Si! si!" he whispered. "What didst thou hear?"
"I heard a long surging thunder, Paolo, and the deep shrill screaming of many gas jets."
He bent down, with livid face.
"Signor, it is the booming of the everlasting fire, and thou hast heard the voices of the damned."
"No, my friend, no. But it is a marvellous transmission of the uproar of hidden forces."
He leapt to the shallow pit.
"Listen and believe!" he cried; and funnelling his hands about his lips, he stooped over the central hole.
"Marco! Marco!" he screeched, in a piercing voice.
Something answered back. What was it? A malformed and twisted echo? A whistle of imprisoned steam tricked into some horrible caricature of a human voice?
"Paolo!" it seemed to wail, weak and faint with agony. "L'arqua, l'arqua, Paolo!"
The old man sprang to his feet and, looking down upon me in a sort of terrible triumph, unslung a water-flask from his belt, and, pulling out the cork, poured the cold liquid down into the puckered orifice. Then I felt his clutch on my arm again.
"He drinks!" he cried. "Listen and thou wilt understand."
I rose with a ghost of a laugh, and once more addressed my ear to the opening.
From unthinkable depths came up a strange, gloating sound, as from a ravenous throat made vibrant with ecstasy.
"Paolo," I cried, as I rose and stood before him—and there was an admonitory note in my voice—"a feather may decide the balance. Beware meddling with hidden thunders, or thou mayst set rolling such another tombstone as that on which these corpse fires are yet flaming."
And he only answered me, set and deathly,—
"We of the mountains, Signor, know more things than we may tell of."