AFTER leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapesth, the Danube
enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread
away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp
for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes. On the big
maps this deserted area is painted in a fluffy blue, growing fainter in colour
as it leaves the banks, and across it may be seen in large straggling letters
the word Sumpfe, meaning marshes.
In high flood this great acreage of sand, shingle-beds, and willow-grown
islands is almost topped by the water, but in normal seasons the bushes bend and
rustle in the free winds, showing their silver leaves to the sunshine in an
ever-moving plain of bewildering beauty. These willows never attain to the
dignity of trees; they have no rigid trunks; they remain humble bushes, with
rounded tops and soft outline, swaying on slender stems that answer to the least
pressure of the wind; supple as grasses, and so continually shifting that they
somehow give the impression that the entire plain is moving and alive. For the
wind sends waves rising and falling over the whole surface, waves of leaves
instead of waves of water, green swells like the sea, too, until the branches
turn and lift, and then silvery white as their under-side turns to the sun.
Happy to slip beyond the control of the stern banks, the Danube here wanders
about at will among the intricate network of channels intersecting the islands
everywhere with broad avenues down which the waters pour with a shouting sound;
making whirlpools, eddies, and foaming rapids; tearing at the sandy banks;
carrying away masses of shore and willow-clumps; and forming new islands
innumerably which shift daily in size and shape and possess at best an
impermanent life, since the flood-time obliterates their very existence.
Properly speaking, this fascinating part of the river's life begins soon
after leaving Pressburg, and we, in our Canadian canoe, with gipsy tent and
frying-pan on board, reached it on the crest of a rising flood about mid-July.
That very same morning, when the sky was reddening before sunrise, we had
slipped swiftly through still-sleeping Vienna, leaving it a couple of hours
later a mere patch of smoke against the blue hills of the Wienerwald on the
horizon; we had breakfasted below Fischeramend under a grove of birch trees
roaring in the wind; and had then swept on the tearing current past Orth,
Hainburg, Petronell (the old Roman Carnuntum of Marcus Aurelius), and so under
the frowning heights of Thelsen on a spur of the Carpathians, where the March
steals in quietly from the left and the frontier is crossed between Austria and
Racing along at twelve kilometres an hour soon took us well into Hungary, and
the muddy waters -- sure sign of flood -- sent us aground on many a shingle-bed,
and twisted us like a cork in many a sudden belching whirlpool before the towers
of Pressburg (Hungarian, Poszony) showed against the sky; and then the canoe,
leaping like a spirited horse, flew at top speed under the grey walls,
negotiated safely the sunken chain of the Fliegende Brucke ferry, turned the
corner sharply to the left, and plunged on yellow foam into the wilderness of
islands, sand-banks, and swamp-land beyond -- the land of the willows.
The change came suddenly, as when a series of bioscope pictures snaps down on
the streets of a town and shifts without warning into the scenery of lake and
forest. We entered the land of desolation on wings, and in less than half an
hour there was neither boat nor fishing-hut nor red roof, nor any single sign of
human habitation and civilisation within sight. The sense of remoteness from
the world of human kind, the utter isolation, the fascination of this singular
world of willows, winds, and waters, instantly laid its spell upon us both, so
that we allowed laughingly to one another that we ought by rights to have held
some special kind of passport to admit us, and that we had, somewhat
audaciously, come without asking leave into a separate little kingdom of wonder
and magic -- a kingdom that was reserved for the use of others who had a right
to it, with everywhere unwritten warnings to trespassers for those who had the
imagination to discover them.
Though still early in the afternoon, the ceaseless buffetings of a most
tempestuous wind made us feel weary, and we at once began casting about for a
suitable camping-ground for the night. But the bewildering character of the
islands made landing difficult; the swirling flood carried us in shore and then
swept us out again; the willow branches tore our hands as we seized them to stop
the canoe, and we pulled many a yard of sandy bank into the water before at
length we shot with a great sideways blow from the wind into a backwater and
managed to beach the bows in a cloud of spray. Then we lay panting and laughing
after our exertions on the hot yellow sand, sheltered from the wind, and in the
full blaze of a scorching sun, a cloudless blue sky above, and an immense army
of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing in from all sides, shining with
spray and clapping their thousand little hands as though to applaud the success
of our efforts.
"What a river!" I said to my companion, thinking of all the way we had
travelled from the source in the Black Forest, and how he had often been obliged
to wade and push in the upper shallows at the beginning of June.
"Won't stand much nonsense now, will it?" he said, pulling the canoe a little
farther into safety up the sand, and then composing himself for a nap.
I lay by his side, happy and peaceful in the bath of the elements -- water,
wind, sand, and the great fire of the sun -- thinking of the long journey that
lay behind us, and of the great stretch before us to the Black Sea, and how
lucky I was to have such a delightful and charming travelling companion as my
friend, the Swede.
We had made many similar journeys together, but the Danube, more than any
other river I knew, impressed us from the very beginning with its aliveness.
From its tiny bubbling entry into the world among the pinewood gardens of
Donaueschingen, until this moment when it began to play the great river-game of
losing itself among the deserted swamps, unobserved, unrestrained, it had seemed
to us like following the grown of some living creature. Sleepy at first, but
later developing violent desires as it became conscious of its deep soul, it
rolled, like some huge fluid being, through all the countries we had passed,
holding our little craft on its mighty shoulders, playing roughly with us
sometimes, yet always friendly and well-meaning, till at length we had come
inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage.
How, indeed, could it be otherwise, since it told us so much of its secret
life? At night we heard it singing to the moon as we lay in our tent, uttering
that odd sibilant note peculiar to itself and said to be caused by the rapid
tearing of the pebbles along its bed, so great is its hurrying speed. We knew,
too, the voice of its gurgling whirlpools, suddenly bubbling up on a surface
previously quite calm; the roar of its shallows and swift rapids; its constant
steady thundering below all mere surface sounds; and that ceaseless tearing of
its icy waters at the banks. How it stood up and shouted when the rains fell
flat upon its face! And how its laughter roared out when the wind blew upstream
and tried to stop its growing speed! We knew all its sounds and voices, its
tumblings and foamings, its unnecessary splashing against the bridges; that
self-conscious chatter when there were hills to look on; the affected dignity of
its speech when it passed through the little towns, far too important to laugh;
and all these faint, sweet whisperings when the sun caught it fairly in some
slow curve and poured down upon it till the steam rose.
It was full of tricks, too, in its early life before the great world knew it.
There were places in the upper reaches among the Swabian forests, when yet the
first whispers of its destiny had not reached it, where it elected to disappear
through holes in the ground, to appear again on the other side of the porous
limestone hills and start a new river with another name; leaving, too, so little
water in its own bed that we had to climb out and wade and push the canoe
through miles of shallows.
And a chief pleasure, in those early days of its irresponsible youth, was to
lie low, like Brer Fox, just before the little turbulent tributaries came to
join it from the Alps, and to refuse to acknowledge them when in, but to run for
miles side by side, the dividing line well marked, the very levels different,
the Danube utterly declining to recognize the newcomer. Below Passau, however,
it gave up this particular trick, for there the Inn comes in with a thundering
power impossible to ignore, and so pushes and incommodes the parent river that
there is hardly room for them in the long twisting gorge that follows, and the
Danube is shoved this way and that against the cliffs, and forced to hurry
itself with great waves and mush dashing to and fro in order to get through in
time. And during the fight our canoe slipped down from its shoulder to its
breast, and had the time of its life among the struggling waves. But the Inn
taught the old river a lesson, and after Passau it no longer pretended to ignore
This was many days back, of course, and since then we had come to know other
aspects of the great creature, and across the Bavarian wheat plain of Straubing
she wandered so slowly under the blazing June sun that we could well imagine
only the surface inches were water, while below there moved, concealed as by a
silken mantle, a whole army of Undines, passing silently and unseen down to the
sea, and very leisurely too, lest they be discovered.
Much, too, we forgave her because of her friendliness to the birds and
animals that haunted the shores. Cormorants lined the banks in lonely places in
rows like short black palings; grey crows crowded the shingle-beds; storks stood
fishing in the vistas of shallower water that opened up between the islands, and
hawks, swans, and marsh birds of all sorts filled the air with glinting wings
and singing, petulant cries. It was impossible to feel annoyed with the river's
vagaries after seeing a deer leap with a splash into the water at sunrise and
swim past the bows of the canoe; and often we saw fawns peering at us from the
underbrush, or looked straight into the brown eyes of a stag as we charged full
tilt round a corner and entered another reach of the river. Foxes, too,
everywhere haunted the banks, tripping daintily among the driftwood and
disappearing so suddenly that it was impossible to see how they managed it.
But now, after leaving Pressburg, everything changed a little, and the Danube
became more serious. It ceased trifling. It was half-way to the Black Sea,
within seeming distance almost of other, stranger countries where no tricks
would be permitted or understood. It became suddenly grown-up, and claimed our
respect and even our awe. It broke out into three arms, for one thing, that
only met again a hundred kilometres farther down, and for a canoe there were no
indications which one was intended to be followed.
"If you take a side channel," said the Hungarian officer we met in the
Pressburg shop while buying provisions, "you may find yourselves, when the flood
subsides, forty miles from anywhere, high and dry, and you may easily starve.
There are no people, no farms, no fishermen. I warn you not to continue. The
river, too, is still rising, and this wind will increase."
The rising river did not alarm us in the least, but the matter of being left
high and dry by a sudden subsidence of the waters might be serious, and we had
consequently laid in an extra stock of provisions. For the rest, the officer's
prophecy held true, and the wind, blowing down a perfectly clear sky, increased
steadily till it reached the dignity of a westerly gale.
It was earlier than usual when we camped, for the sun was a good hour or two
from the horizon, and leaving my friend still asleep on the hot sand, I wandered
about in desultory examination of our hotel. The island, I found, was less than
an acre in extent, a mere sandy bank standing some two or three feet above the
level of the river. The far end, pointing into the sunset, was covered with
flying spray which the tremendous wind drove off the crests of the broken waves.
It was triangular in shape, with the apex up stream.
I stood there for several minutes, watching the impetuous crimson flood
bearing down with a shouting roar, dashing in waves against the bank as though
to sweep it bodily away, and then swirling by in two foaming streams on either
side. The ground seemed to shake with the shock and rush, while the furious
movement of the willow bushes as the wind poured over them increased the curious
illusion that the island itself actually moved. Above, for a mile or two, I
could see the great river descending upon me; it was like looking up the slope
of a sliding hill, white with foam, and leaping up everywhere to show itself to
The rest of the island was too thickly grown with willows to make walking
pleasant, but I made the tour, nevertheless. From the lower end the light, of
course, changed, and the river looked dark and angry. Only the backs of the
flying waves were visible, streaked with foam, and pushed forcibly by the great
puffs of wind that fell upon them from behind. For a short mile it was visible,
pouring in and out among the islands, and then disappearing with a huge sweep
into the willows, which closed about it like a herd of monstrous antediluvian
creatures crowding down to drink. They made me think of gigantic sponge-like
growths that sucked the river up into themselves. They caused it to vanish from
sight. They herded there together in such overpowering numbers.
Altogether it was an impressive scene, with its utter loneliness, its bizarre
suggestion; and as I gazed, long and curiously, a singular emotion began to stir
somewhere in the depths of me. Midway in my delight of the wild beauty, there
crept, unbidden and unexplained, a curious feeling of disquietude, almost of
A rising river, perhaps, always suggests something of the ominous; many of
the little islands I saw before me would probably have been swept away by the
morning; this resistless, thundering flood of water touched the sense of awe.
Yet I was aware that my uneasiness lay deeper far than the emotions of awe and
wonder. It was not that I felt. Nor had it directly to do with the power of
the driving wind -- this shouting hurricane that might almost carry up a few
acres of willows into the air and scatter them like so much chaff over the
landscape. The wind was simply enjoying itself, for nothing rose out of the
flat landscape to stop it, and I was conscious of sharing its great game with a
kind of pleasurable excitement. Yet this novel emotion had nothing to do with
the wind. Indeed, so vague was the sense of distress I experienced, that it was
impossible to trace it to its source and deal with it accordingly, though I was
aware somehow that it had to do with my realisation of our utter insignificance
before this unrestrained power of the elements about me. The huge-grown river
had something to do with it too -- a vague, unpleasant idea that we had somehow
trifled with these great elemental forces in whose power we lay helpless every
hour of the day and night. For here, indeed, they were gigantically at play
together, and the sight appealed to the imagination.
But my emotion, so far as I could understand it, seemed to attach itself more
particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows,
crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach,
pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile
after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting, listening. And, apart quite from
the elements, the willows connected themselves subtly with my malaise, attacking
the mind insidiously somehow by reason of their vast numbers, and contriving in
some way or other to represent to the imagination a new and mighty power, a
power, moreover, not altogether friendly to us.
Great revelations of nature, of course, never fail to impress in one way or
another, and I was no stranger to moods of the kind. Mountains overawe and
oceans terrify, while the mystery of great forests exercises a spell peculiarly
its own. But all these, at one point or another, somewhere link on intimately
with human life and human experience. They stir comprehensible, even if
alarming, emotions. They tend on the whole to exalt.
With this multitude of willows, however, it was something far different, I
felt. Some essence emanated from them that besieged the heart. A sense of awe
awakened, true, but of awe touched somewhere by a vague terror. Their serried
ranks, growing everywhere darker about me as the shadows deepened, moving
furiously yet softly in the wind, woke in me the curious and unwelcome
suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world, a
world where we were intruders, a world where we were not wanted or invited to
remain -- where we ran grave risks perhaps!
The feeling, however, though it refused to yield its meaning entirely to
analysis, did not at the time trouble me by passing into menace. Yet it never
left me quite, even during the very practical business of putting up the tent in
a hurricane of wind and building a fire for the stew-pot. It remained, just
enough to bother and perplex, and to rob a most delightful camping-ground of a
good portion of its charm. To my companion, however, I said nothing, for he was
a man I considered devoid of imagination. In the first place, I could never
have explained to him what I meant, and in the second, he would have laughed
stupidly at me if I had.
There was a slight depression in the centre of the island, and here we
pitched the tent. The surrounding willows broke the wind a bit.
"A poor camp," observed the imperturbable Swede when at last the tent stood
upright, "no stones and precious little firewood. I'm for moving on early
to-morrow -- eh? This sand won't hold anything."
But the experience of a collapsing tent at midnight had taught us many
devices, and we made the cosy gipsy house as safe as possible, and then set
about collecting a store of wood to last till bed-time. Willow bushes drop no
branches, and driftwood was our only source of supply. We hunted the shores
pretty thoroughly. Everywhere the banks were crumbling as the rising flood tore
at them and carried away great portions with a splash and a gurgle.
"The island's much smaller than when we landed," said the accurate Swede.
"It won't last long at this rate. We'd better drag the canoe close to the tent,
and be ready to start at a moment's notice. I shall sleep in my clothes."
He was a little distance off, climbing along the bank, and I heard his rather
jolly laugh as he spoke.
"By Jove!" I heard him call, a moment later, and turned to see what had
caused his exclamation. But for the moment he was hidden by the willows, and I
could not find him.
"What in the world's this?" I heard him cry again, and this time his voice
had become serious.
I ran up quickly and joined him on the bank. He was looking over the river,
pointing at something in the water.
"Good heavens, it's a man's body!" he cried excitedly. "Look!"
A black thing, turning over and over in the foaming waves, swept rapidly
past. It kept disappearing and coming up to the surface again. It was about
twenty feet from the shore, and just as it was opposite to where we stood it
lurched round and looked straight at us. We saw its eyes reflecting the sunset,
and gleaming an odd yellow as the body turned over. Then it gave a swift,
gulping plunge, and dived out of sight in a flash.
"An otter, by gad!" we exclaimed in the same breath, laughing.
It was an otter, alive, and out on the hunt; yet it had looked exactly like
the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current. Far below it came
to the surface once again, and we saw its black skin, wet and shining in the
Then, too, just as we turned back, our arms full of driftwood, another thing
happened to recall us to the river bank. This time it really was a man, and
what was more, a man in a boat. Now a small boat on the Danube was an unusual
sight at any time, but here in this deserted region, and at flood time, it was
so unexpected as to constitute a real event. We stood and stared.
Whether it was due to the slanting sunlight, or the refraction from the
wonderfully illumined water, I cannot say, but, whatever the cause, I found it
difficult to focus my sight properly upon the flying apparition. It seemed,
however, to be a man standing upright in a sort of flat-bottomed boat, steering
with a long oar, and being carried down the opposite shore at a tremendous pace.
He apparently was looking across in our direction, but the distance was too
great and the light too uncertain for us to make out very plainly what he was
about. It seemed to me that he was gesticulating and making signs at us. His
voice came across the water to us shouting something furiously, but the wind
drowned it so that no single word was audible. There was something curious about
the whole appearance -- man, boat, signs, voice -- that made an impression on me
out of all proportion to its cause.
"He's crossing himself!" I cried. "Look, he's making the sign of the Cross!"
"I believe you're right," the Swede said, shading his eyes with his hand and
watching the man out of sight. He seemed to be gone in a moment, melting away
down there into the sea of willows where the sun caught them in the bend of the
river and turned them into a great crimson wall of beauty. Mist, too, had begun
to ruse, so that the air was hazy.
"But what in the world is he doing at nightfall on this flooded river?" I
said, half to myself. "Where is he going at such a time, and what did he mean
by his signs and shouting? D'you think he wished to warn us about something?"
"He saw our smoke, and thought we were spirits probably," laughed my
companion. "These Hungarians believe in all sorts of rubbish; you remember the
shopwoman at Pressburg warning us that no one ever landed here because it
belonged to some sort of beings outside man's world! I suppose they believe in
fairies and elementals, possibly demons, too. That peasant in the boat saw
people on the islands for the first time in his life," he added, after a slight
pause, "and it scared him, that's all."
The Swede's tone of voice was not convincing, and his manner lacked something
that was usually there. I noted the change instantly while he talked, though
without being able to label it precisely.
"If they had enough imagination," I laughed loudly -- I remember trying to
make as much noise as I could -- "they might well people a place like this with
the old gods of antiquity. The Romans must have haunted all this region more or
less with their shrines and sacred groves and elemental deities."
The subject dropped and we returned to our stew-pot, for my friend was not
given to imaginative conversation as a rule. Moreover, just then I remember
feeling distinctly glad that he was not imaginative; his stolid, practical
nature suddenly seemed to me welcome and comforting. It was an admirable
temperament, I felt; he could steer down rapids like a red Indian, shoot
dangerous bridges and whirlpools better than any white man I ever saw in a
canoe. He was a grand fellow for an adventurous trip, a tower of strength when
untoward things happened. I looked at his strong face and light curly hair as
he staggered along under his pile of driftwood (twice the size of mine!), and I
experienced a feeling of relief. Yes, I was distinctly glad just then that the
Swede was -- what he was, and that he never made remarks that suggested more
than they said.
"The river's still rising, though," he added, as if following out some
thoughts of his own, and dropping his load with a gasp. "This island will be
under water in two days if it goes on."
"I wish the wind would go down," I said. "I don't care a fig for the river."
The flood, indeed, had no terrors for us; we could get off at ten minute's
notice, and the more water the better we liked it. It meant an increasing
current and the obliteration of the treacherous shingle-beds that so often
threatened to tear the bottom out of our canoe.
Contrary to our expectations, the wind did not go down with the sun. It
seemed to increase with the darkness, howling overhead and shaking the willows
round us like straws. Curious sounds accompanied it sometimes, like the
explosion of heavy guns, and it fell upon the water and the island in great flat
blows of immense power. It made me think of the sounds a planet must make,
could we only hear it, driving along through space.
But the sky kept wholly clear of clouds, and soon after supper the full moon
rose up in the east and covered the river and the plain of shouting willows with
a light like the day.
We lay on the sandy patch beside the fire, smoking, listening to the noises
of the night round us, and talking happily of the journey we had already made,
and of our plans ahead. The map lay spread in the door of the tent, but the
high wind made it hard to study, and presently we lowered the curtain and
extinguished the lantern. The firelight was enough to smoke and see each
other's faces by, and the sparks flew about overhead like fireworks. A few
yards beyond, the river gurgled and hissed, and from time to time a heavy splash
announced the falling away of further portions of the bank.
Our talk, I noticed, had to do with the far-away scenes and incidents of our
first camps in the Black Forest, or of other subjects altogether remote from the
present setting, for neither of us spoke of the actual moment more than was
necessary -- almost as though we had agreed tacitly to avoid discussion of the
camp and its incidents. Neither the otter nor the boatman, for instance,
received the honour of a single mention, though ordinarily these would have
furnished discussion for the greater part of the evening. They were, of course,
distinct events in such a place.
The scarcity of wood made it a business to keep the fire going, for the wind,
that drove the smoke in our faces wherever we sat, helped at the same time to
make a forced draught. We took it in turn to make some foraging expeditions
into the darkness, and the quantity the Swede brought back always made me feel
that he took an absurdly long time finding it; for the fact was I did not care
much about being left alone, and yet it always seemed to be my turn to grub
about among the bushes or scramble along the slippery banks in the moonlight.
The long day's battle with wind and water -- such wind and such water! -- had
tired us both, and an early bed was the obvious programme. Yet neither of us
made the move for the tent. We lay there, tending the fire, talking in
desultory fashion, peering about us into the dense willow bushes, and listening
to the thunder of wind and river. The loneliness of the place had entered our
very bones, and silence seemed natural, for after a bit the sound of our voices
became a trifle unreal and forced; whispering would have been the fitting mode
of communication, I felt, and the human voice, always rather absurd amid the
roar of the elements, now carried with it something almost illegitimate. It was
like talking out loud in church, or in some place where it was not lawful,
perhaps not quite safe, to be overheard.
The eeriness of this lonely island, set among a million willows, swept by a
hurricane, and surrounded by hurrying deep waters, touched us both, I fancy.
Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay there beneath he moon, remote
from human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world
tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows. And we, in our rashness, had
dared to invade it, even to make use of it! Something more than the power of
its mystery stirred in me as I lay on the sand, feet to fire, and peered up
through the leaves at the stars. For the last time I rose to get firewood.
"When this has burnt up," I said firmly, "I shall turn in," and my companion
watched me lazily as I moved off into the surrounding shadows.
For an unimaginative man I thought he seemed unusually receptive that night,
unusually open to suggestion of things other than sensory. He too was touched
by the beauty and loneliness of the place. I was not altogether pleased, I
remember, to recognise this slight change in him, and instead of immediately
collecting sticks, I made my way to the far point of the island where the
moonlight on plain and river could be seen to better advantage. The desire to
be alone had come suddenly upon me; my former dread returned in force; there was
a vague feeling in me I wished to face and probe to the bottom.
When I reached the point of sand jutting out among the waves, the spell of
the place descended upon me with a positive shock. No mere "scenery" could have
produced such an effect. There was something more here, something to alarm.
I gazed across the waste of wild waters; I watched the whispering willows; I
heard the ceaseless beating of the tireless wind; and, one and all, each in its
own way, stirred in me this sensation of a strange distress. But the willows
especially; for ever they went on chattering and talking among themselves,
laughing a little, shrilly crying out, sometimes sighing -- but what it was they
made so much to-do about belonged to the secret life of the great plain they
inhabited. And it was utterly alien to the world I knew, or to that of the wild
yet kindly elements. They made me think of a host of beings from another plane
of life, another evolution altogether, perhaps, all discussing a mystery known
only to themselves. I watched them moving busily together, oddly shaking their
big bushy heads, twirling their myriad leaves even when there was no wind. They
moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable
method, my own keen sense of the horrible.
There they stood in the moonlight, like a vast army surrounding our camp,
shaking their innumerable silver spears defiantly, formed all ready for an
The psychology of places, for some imaginations at least, is very vivid; for
the wanderer, especially, camps have their "note" either of welcome or
rejection. At first it may not always be apparent, because the busy
preparations of tent and cooking prevent, but with the first pause -- after
supper usually -- it comes and announces itself. And the note of this
willow-camp now became unmistakably plain to me; we were interlopers,
trespassers; we were not welcomed. The sense of unfamiliarity grew upon me as I
stood there watching. We touched the frontier of a region where our presence was
resented. For a night's lodging we might perhaps be tolerated; but for a
prolonged and inquisitive stay -- No! by all the gods of the trees and
wilderness, no! We were the first human influences upon this island, and we
were not wanted. The willows were against us.
Strange thoughts like these, bizarre fancies, borne I know not whence, found
lodgment in my mind as I stood listening. What, I thought, if, after all, these
crouching willows proved to be alive; if suddenly they should rise up, like a
swarm of living creatures, marshalled by the gods whose territory we had
invaded, sweep towards us off the vast swamps, booming overhead in the night --
and then settle down! As I looked it was so easy to imagine they actually
moved, crept nearer, retreated a little, huddled together in masses, hostile,
waiting for the great wind that should finally start them a-running. I could
have sworn their aspect changed a little, and their ranks deepened and pressed
more closely together.
The melancholy shrill cry of a night-bird sounded overhead, and suddenly I
nearly lost my balance as the piece of bank I stood upon fell with a great
splash into the river, undermined by the flood. I stepped back just in time,
and went on hunting for firewood again, half laughing at the odd fancies that
crowded so thickly into my mind and cast their spell upon me. I recalled the
Swede's remark about moving on next day, and I was just thinking that I fully
agreed with him, when I turned with a start and saw the subject of my thoughts
standing immediately in front of me. He was quite close. The roar of the
elements had covered his approach.
"You've been gone so long," he shouted above the wind, "I thought something must
have happened to you."
But there was that in his tone, and a certain look in his face as well, that
conveyed to me more than his usual words, and in a flash I understood the real
reason for his coming. It was because the spell of the place had entered his
soul too, and he did not like being alone.
"River still rising," he cried, pointing to the flood in the moonlight, "and
the wind's simply awful."
He always said the same things, but it was the cry for companionship that
gave the real importance to his words.
"Lucky," I cried back, "our tent's in the hollow. I think it'll hold all
right." I added something about the difficulty of finding wood, in order to
explain my absence, but the wind caught my words and flung them across the
river, so that he did not hear, but just looked at me through the branches,
nodding his head.
"Lucky if we get away without disaster!" he shouted, or words to that effect;
and I remember feeling half angry with him for putting the thought into words,
for it was exactly what I felt myself. There was disaster impending somewhere,
and the sense of presentiment lay unpleasantly upon me.
We went back to the fire and made a final blaze, poking it up with our feet.
We took a last look round. But for the wind the heat would have been
unpleasant. I put this thought into words, and I remember my friend's reply
struck me oddly: that he would rather have the heat, the ordinary July weather,
than this "diabolical wind".
Everything was snug for the night; the canoe lying turned over beside the
tent, with both yellow paddles beneath her; the provision sack hanging from a
willow-stem, and the washed-up dishes removed to a safe distance from the fire,
all ready for the morning meal.
We smothered the embers of the fire with sand, and then turned in. The flap
of the tent door was up, and I saw the branches and the stars and the white
moonlight. The shaking willows and the heavy buffetings of the wind against our
taut little house were the last things I remembered as sleep came down and
covered all with its soft and delicious forgetfulness.
Suddenly I found myself lying awake, peering from my sandy mattress through
the door of the tent. I looked at my watch pinned against the canvas, and saw
by the bright moonlight that it was past twelve o'clock -- the threshold of a
new day -- and I had therefore slept a couple of hours. The Swede was asleep
still beside me; the wind howled as before; something plucked at my heart and
made me feel afraid. There was a sense of disturbance in my immediate
I sat up quickly and looked out. The trees were swaying violently to and fro
as the gusts smote them, but our little bit of green canvas lay snugly safe in
the hollow, for the wind passed over it without meeting enough resistance to
make it vicious. The feeling of disquietude did not pass, however, and I
crawled quietly out of the tent to see if our belongings were safe. I moved
carefully so as not to waken my companion. A curious excitement was on me.
I was half-way out, kneeling on all fours, when my eye first took in that the
tops of the bushes opposite, with their moving tracery of leaves, made shapes
against the sky. I sat back on my haunches and stared. It was incredible,
surely, but there, opposite and slightly above me, were shapes of some
indeterminate sort among the willows, and as the branches swayed in the wind
they seemed to group themselves about these shapes, forming a series of
monstrous outlines that shifted rapidly beneath the moon. Close, about fifty
feet in front of me, I saw these things.
My first instinct was to waken my companion, that he too might see them, but
something made me hesitate -- the sudden realisation, probably, that I should
not welcome corroboration; and meanwhile I crouched there staring in amazement
with smarting eyes. I was wide awake. I remember saying to myself that I was
They first became properly visible, these huge figures, just within the tops
of the bushes -- immense, bronze-coloured, moving, and wholly independent of the
swaying of the branches. I saw them plainly and noted, now I came to examine
them more calmly, that they were very much larger than human, and indeed that
something in their appearance proclaimed them to be not human at all. Certainly
they were not merely the moving tracery of the branches against the moonlight.
They shifted independently. They rose upwards in a continuous stream from earth
to sky, vanishing utterly as soon as they reached the dark of the sky. They were
interlaced one with another, making a great column, and I saw their limbs and
huge bodies melting in and out of each other, forming this serpentine line that
bent and swayed and twisted spirally with the contortions of the wind-tossed
trees. They were nude, fluid shapes, passing up the bushes, within the leaves
almost -- rising up in a living column into the heavens. Their faces I never
could see. Unceasingly they poured upwards, swaying in great bending curves,
with a hue of dull bronze upon their skins.
I stared, trying to force every atom of vision from my eyes. For a long time
I thought they must every moment disappear and resolve themselves into the
movements of the branches and prove to be an optical illusion. I searched
everywhere for a proof of reality, when all the while I understood quite well
that the standard of reality had changed. For the longer I looked the more
certain I became that these figures were real and living, though perhaps not
according to the standards that the camera and the biologist would insist upon.
Far from feeling fear, I was possessed with a sense of awe and wonder such as
I have never known. I seemed to be gazing at the personified elemental forces
of this haunted and primeval region. Our intrusion had stirred the powers of the
place into activity. It was we who were the cause of the disturbance, and my
brain filled to bursting with stories and legends of the spirits and deities of
places that have been acknowledged and worshipped by men in all ages of the
world's history. But, before I could arrive at any possible explanation,
something impelled me to go farther out, and I crept forward on the sand and
stood upright. I felt the ground still warm under my bare feet; the wind tore
at my hair and face; and the sound of the river burst upon my ears with a sudden
roar. These things, I knew, were real, and proved that my senses were acting
normally. Yet the figures still rose from earth to heaven, silent,
majestically, in a great spiral of grace and strength that overwhelmed me at
length with a genuine deep emotion of worship. I felt that I must fall down and
worship -- absolutely worship.
Perhaps in another minute I might have done so, when a gust of wind swept
against me with such force that it blew me sideways, and I nearly stumbled and
fell. It seemed to shake the dream violently out of me. At least it gave me
another point of view somehow. The figures still remained, still ascended into
heaven from the heart of the night, but my reason at last began to assert
itself. It must be a subjective experience, I argued -- none the less real for
that, but still subjective. The moonlight and the branches combined to work out
these pictures upon the mirror of my imagination, and for some reason I
projected them outwards and made them appear objective. I knew this must be the
case, of course. I took courage, and began to move forward across the open
patches of sand. By Jove, though, was it all hallucination? Was it merely
subjective? Did not my reason argue in the old futile way from the little
standard of the known?
I only know that great column of figures ascended darkly into the sky for
what seemed a very long period of time, and with a very complete measure of
reality as most men are accustomed to gauge reality. Then suddenly they were
And, once they were gone and the immediate wonder of their great presence had
passed, fear came down upon me with a cold rush. The esoteric meaning of this
lonely and haunted region suddenly flamed up within me, and I began to tremble
dreadfully. I took a quick look round -- a look of horror that came near to
panic -- calculating vainly ways of escape; and then, realising how helpless I
was to achieve anything really effective, I crept back silently into the tent
and lay down again upon my sandy mattress, first lowering the door-curtain to
shut out the sight of the willows in the moonlight, and then burying my head as
deeply as possible beneath the blankets to deaden the sound of the terrifying
As though further to convince me that I had not been dreaming, I remember
that it was a long time before I fell again into a troubled and restless sleep;
and even then only the upper crust of me slept, and underneath there was
something that never quite lost consciousness, but lay alert and on the watch.
But this second time I jumped up with a genuine start of terror. It was
neither the wind nor the river that woke me, but the slow approach of something
that caused the sleeping portion of me to grow smaller and smaller till at last
it vanished altogether, and I found myself sitting bolt upright -- listening.
Outside there was a sound of multitudinous little patterings. They had been
coming, I was aware, for a long time, and in my sleep they had first become
audible. I sat there nervously wide awake as though I had not slept at all. It
seemed to me that my breathing came with difficulty, and that there was a great
weight upon the surface of my body. In spite of the hot night, I felt clammy
with cold and shivered. Something surely was pressing steadily against the
sides of the tent and weighing down upon it from above. Was it the body of the
wind? Was this the pattering rain, the dripping of the leaves? The spray blown
from the river by the wind and gathering in big drops? I thought quickly of a
Then suddenly the explanation leaped into my mind: a bough from the poplar,
the only large tree on the island, had fallen with the wind. Still half caught
by the other branches, it would fall with the next gust and crush us, and
meanwhile its leaves brushed and tapped upon the tight canvas surface of the
tent. I raised a loose flap and rushed out, calling to the Swede to follow.
But when I got out and stood upright I saw that the tent was free. There was
no hanging bough; there was no rain or spray; nothing approached.
A cold, grey light filtered down through the bushes and lay on the faintly
gleaming sand. Stars still crowded the sky directly overhead, and the wind
howled magnificently, but the fire no longer gave out any glow, and I saw the
east reddening in streaks through the trees. Several hours must have passed
since I stood there before watching the ascending figures, and the memory of it
now came back to me horribly, like an evil dream. Oh, how tired it made me
feel, that ceaseless raging wind! Yet, though the deep lassitude of a sleepless
night was on me, my nerves were tingling with the activity of an equally
tireless apprehension, and all idea of repose was out of the question. The
river I saw had risen further. Its thunder filled the air, and a fine spray
made itself felt through my thin sleeping shirt.
Yet nowhere did I discover the slightest evidence of anything to cause alarm.
This deep, prolonged disturbance in my heart remained wholly unaccounted for.
My companion had not stirred when I called him, and there was no need to
waken him now. I looked about me carefully, noting everything; the turned-over
canoe; the yellow paddles -- two of them, I'm certain; the provision sack and
the extra lantern hanging together from the tree; and, crowding everywhere about
me, enveloping all, the willows, those endless, shaking willows. A bird uttered
its morning cry, and a string of duck passed with whirring flight overhead in
the twilight. The sand whirled, dry and stinging, about my bare feet in the
I walked round the tent and then went out a little way into the bush, so that
I could see across the river to the farther landscape, and the same profound yet
indefinable emotion of distress seized upon me again as I saw the interminable
sea of bushes stretching to the horizon, looking ghostly and unreal in the wan
light of dawn. I walked softly here and there, still puzzling over that odd
sound of infinite pattering, and of that pressure upon the tent that had wakened
me. It must have been the wind, I reflected -- the wind bearing upon the loose,
hot sand, driving the dry particles smartly against the taut canvas -- the wind
dropping heavily upon our fragile roof.
Yet all the time my nervousness and malaise increased appreciably.
I crossed over to the farther shore and noted how the coast-line had altered
in the night, and what masses of sand the river had torn away. I dipped my
hands and feet into the cool current, and bathed my forehead. Already there was
a glow of sunrise in the sky and the exquisite freshness of coming day. On my
way back I passed purposely beneath the very bushes where I had seen the column
of figures rising into the air, and midway among the clumps I suddenly found
myself overtaken by a sense of vast terror. From the shadows a large figure
went swiftly by. Someone passed me, as sure as ever man did. . . .
It was a great staggering blow from the wind that helped me forward again,
and once out in the more open space, the sense of terror diminished strangely.
The winds were about and walking, I remember saying to myself, for the winds
often move like great presences under the trees. And altogether the fear that
hovered about me was such an unknown and immense kind of fear, so unlike
anything I had ever felt before, that it woke a sense of awe and wonder in me
that did much to counteract its worst effects; and when I reached a high point
in the middle of the island from which I could see the wide stretch of river,
crimson in the sunrise, the whole magical beauty of it all was so overpowering
that a sort of wild yearning woke in me and almost brought a cry up into the
But this cry found no expression, for as my eyes wandered from the plain
beyond to the island round me and noted our little tent half hidden among the
willows, a dreadful discovery leaped out at me, compared to which my terror of
the walking winds seemed as nothing at all.
For a change, I thought, had somehow come about in the arrangement of the
landscape. It was not that my point of vantage gave me a different view, but
that an alteration had apparently been effected in the relation of the tent to
the willows, and of the willows to the tent. Surely the bushes now crowded much
closer -- unnecessarily, unpleasantly close. They had moved nearer.
Creeping with silent feet over the shifting sands, drawing imperceptibly
nearer by soft, unhurried movements, the willows had come closer during the
night. But had the wind moved them, or had they moved of themselves? I
recalled the sound of infinite small patterings and the pressure upon the tent
and upon my own heart that caused me to wake in terror. I swayed for a moment
in the wind like a tree, finding it hard to keep my upright position on the
sandy hillock. There was a suggestion here of personal agency, of deliberate
intention, of aggressive hostility, and it terrified me into a sort of rigidity.
Then the reaction followed quickly. The idea was so bizarre, so absurd, that
I felt inclined to laugh. But the laughter came no more readily than the cry,
for the knowledge that my mind was so receptive to such dangerous imaginings
brought the additional terror that it was through our minds and not through our
physical bodies that the attack would come, and was coming.
The wind buffeted me about, and, very quickly it seemed, the sun came up over
the horizon, for it was after four o'clock, and I must have stood on that little
pinnacle of sand longer than I knew, afraid to come down to close quarters with
the willows. I returned quietly, creepily, to the tent, first taking another
exhaustive look round and -- yes, I confess it -- making a few measurements. I
paced out on the warm sand the distances between the willows and the tent,
making a note of the shortest distance particularly.
I crawled stealthily into my blankets. My companion, to all appearances,
still slept soundly, and I was glad that this was so. Provided my experiences
were not corroborated, I could find strength somehow to deny them, perhaps.
With the daylight I could persuade myself that it was all a subjective
hallucination, a fantasy of the night, a projection of the excited imagination.
Nothing further came in to disturb me, and I fell asleep almost at once,
utterly exhausted, yet still in dread of hearing again that weird sound of
multitudinous pattering, or of feeling the pressure upon my heart that had made
it difficult to breathe.
The sun was high in the heavens when my companion woke me from a heavy sleep
and announced that the porridge was cooked and there was just time to bathe.
The grateful smell of frizzling bacon entered the tent door.
"River still rising," he said, "and several islands out in mid-stream have
disappeared altogether. Our own island's much smaller."
"Any wood left?" I asked sleepily.
"The wood and the island will finish to-morrow in a dead heat," he laughed,
"but there's enough to last us till then."
I plunged in from the point of the island, which had indeed altered a lot in
size and shape during the night, and was swept down in a moment to the
landing-place opposite the tent. The water was icy, and the banks flew by like
the country from an express train. Bathing under such conditions was an
exhilarating operation, and the terror of the night seemed cleansed out of me by
a process of evaporation in the brain. The sun was blazing hot; not a cloud
showed itself anywhere; the wind, however, had not abated one little jot.
Quite suddenly then the implied meaning of the Swede's words flashed across
me, showing that he no longer wished to leave post-haste, and had changed his
mind. "Enough to last till to-morrow" -- he assumed we should stay on the
island another night. It struck me as odd. The night before he was so positive
the other way. How had the change come about?
Great crumblings of the banks occurred at breakfast, with heavy splashings
and clouds of spray which the wind brought into our frying-pan, and my
fellow-traveller talked incessantly about the difficulty the Vienna-Pesth
steamers must have to find the channel in flood. But the state of his mind
interested and impressed me far more than the state of the river or the
difficulties of the steamers. He had changed somehow since the evening before.
His manner was different -- a trifle excited, a trifle shy, with a sort of
suspicion about his voice and gestures. I hardly know how to describe it now in
cold blood, but at the time I remember being quite certain of one thing -- that
he had become frightened?
He ate very little breakfast, and for once omitted to smoke his pipe. He had
the map spread open beside him, and kept studying its markings.
"We'd better get off sharp in an hour," I said presently, feeling for an
opening that must bring him indirectly to a partial confession at any rate. And
his answer puzzled me uncomfortably: "Rather! If they'll let us."
"Who'll let us? The elements?" I asked quickly, with affected indifference.
"The powers of this awful place, whoever they are," he replied, keeping his
eyes on the map. "The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world."
"The elements are always the true immortals," I replied, laughing as
naturally as I could manage, yet knowing quite well that my face reflected my
true feelings when he looked up gravely at me and spoke across the smoke:
"We shall be fortunate if we get away without further disaster."
This was exactly what I had dreaded, and I screwed myself up to the point of
the direct question. It was like agreeing to allow the dentist to extract the
tooth; it had to come anyhow in the long run, and the rest was all pretence.
"Further disaster! Why, what's happened?"
"For one thing -- the steering paddle's gone," he said quietly.
"The steering paddle gone!" I repeated, greatly excited, for this was our
rudder, and the Danube in flood without a rudder was suicide. "But what --"
"And there's a tear in the bottom of the canoe," he added, with a genuine
little tremor in his voice.
I continued staring at him, able only to repeat the words in his face
somewhat foolishly. There, in the heat of the sun, and on this burning sand, I
was aware of a freezing atmosphere descending round us. I got up to follow him,
for he merely nodded his head gravely and led the way towards the tent a few
yards on the other side of the fireplace. The canoe still lay there as I had
last seen her in the night, ribs uppermost, the paddles, or rather, the paddle,
on the sand beside her.
"There's only one," he said, stooping to pick it up. "And here's the rent in
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that I had clearly noticed two
paddles a few hours before, but a second impulse made me think better of it, and
I said nothing. I approached to see.
There was a long, finely made tear in the bottom of the canoe where a little
slither of wood had been neatly taken clean out; it looked as if the tooth of a
sharp rock or snag had eaten down her length, and investigation showed that the
hole went through. Had we launched out in her without observing it we must
inevitably have foundered. At first the water would have made the wood swell so
as to close the hole, but once out in mid-stream the water must have poured in,
and the canoe, never more than two inches above the surface, would have filled
and sunk very rapidly.
"There, you see an attempt to prepare a victim for the sacrifice," I heard
him saying, more to himself than to me, "two victims rather," he added as he
bent over and ran his fingers along the slit.
I began to whistle -- a thing I always do unconsciously when utterly
nonplussed -- and purposely paid no attention to his words. I was determined to
consider them foolish.
"It wasn't there last night," he said presently, straightening up from his
examination and looking anywhere but at me.
"We must have scratched her in landing, of course," I stopped whistling to say.
"The stones are very sharp."
I stopped abruptly, for at that moment he turned round and met my eye
squarely. I knew just as well as he did how impossible my explanation was.
There were no stones, to begin with.
"And then there's this to explain too," he added quietly, handing me the
paddle and pointing to the blade.
A new and curious emotion spread freezingly over me as I took and examined
it. The blade was scraped down all over, beautifully scraped, as though someone
had sand-papered it with care, making it so thin that the first vigorous stroke
must have snapped it off at the elbow.
"One of us walked in his sleep and did this thing," I said feebly, "or -- or
it has been filed by the constant stream of sand particles blown against it by
the wind, perhaps."
"Ah," said the Swede, turning away, laughing a little, "you can explain
"The same wind that caught the steering paddle and flung it so near the bank
that it fell in with the next lump that crumbled," I called out after him,
absolutely determined to find an explanation for everything he showed me.
"I see," he shouted back, turning his head to look at me before disappearing
among the willow bushes.
Once alone with these perplexing evidences of personal agency, I think my
first thoughts took the form of "One of us must have done this thing, and it
certainly was not I." But my second thought decided how impossible it was to
suppose, under all the circumstances, that either of us had done it. That my
companion, the trusted friend of a dozen similar expeditions, could have
knowingly had a hand in it, was a suggestion not to be entertained for a moment.
Equally absurd seemed the explanation that this imperturbable and densely
practical nature had suddenly become insane and was busied with insane purposes.
Yet the fact remained that what disturbed me most, and kept my fear actively
alive even in this blaze of sunshine and wild beauty, was the clear certainty
that some curious alteration had come about in his mind -- that the was nervous,
timid, suspicious, aware of goings on he did not speak about, watching a series
of secret and hitherto unmentionable events -- waiting, in a word, for a climax
that he expected, and, I thought, expected very soon. This grew up in my mind
intuitively -- I hardly knew how.
I made a hurried examination of the tent and its surroundings, but the
measurements of the night remained the same. There were deep hollows formed in
the sand I now noticed for the first time, basin-shaped and of various depths
and sizes, varying from that of a tea-cup to a large bowl. The wind, no doubt,
was responsible for these miniature craters, just as it was for lifting the
paddle and tossing it towards the water. The rent in the canoe was the only
thing that seemed quite inexplicable; and, after all, it was conceivable that a
sharp point had caught it when we landed. The examination I made of the shore
did not assist this theory, but all the same I clung to it with that diminishing
portion of my intelligence which I called my "reason". An explanation of some
kind was an absolute necessity, just as some working explanation of the universe
is necessary -- however absurd -- to the happiness of every individual who seeks
to do his duty in the world and face the problems of life. The simile seemed to
me at the time an exact parallel.
I at once set the pitch melting, and presently the Swede joined me at the
work, though under the best conditions in the world the canoe could not be safe
for travelling till the following day. I drew his attention casually to the
hollows in the sand.
"Yes," he said, "I know. They're all over the island. But you can explain
them, no doubt!"
"Wind, of course," I answered without hesitation. "Have you never watched
those little whirlwinds in the street that twist and twirl everything into a
circle? This sand's loose enough to yield, that's all."
He made no reply, and we worked on in silence for a bit. I watched him
surreptitiously all the time, and I had an idea he was watching me. He seemed,
too, to be always listening attentively to something I could not hear, or
perhaps for something that he expected to hear, for he kept turning about and
staring into the bushes, and up into the sky, and out across the water where it
was visible through the openings among the willows. Sometimes he even put his
hand to his ear and held it there for several minutes. He said nothing to me,
however, about it, and I asked no questions. And meanwhile, as he mended that
torn canoe with the skill and address of a red Indian, I was glad to notice his
absorption in the work, for there was a vague dread in my heart that he would
speak of the changed aspect of the willows. And, if he had noticed that, my
imagination could no longer be held a sufficient explanation of it.
At length, after a long pause, he began to talk.
"Queer thing," he added in a hurried sort of voice, as though he wanted to
say something and get it over. "Queer thing. I mean, about that otter last
I had expected something so totally different that he caught me with
surprise, and I looked up sharply.
"Shows how lonely this place is. Otters are awfully shy things --"
"I don't mean that, of course," he interrupted. "I mean -- do you think --
did you think it really was an otter?"
"What else, in the name of Heaven, what else?"
"You know, I saw it before you did, and at first it seemed -- so much bigger
than an otter."
"The sunset as you looked up-stream magnified it, or something," I replied.
He looked at me absently a moment, as though his mind were busy with other
"It had such extraordinary yellow eyes," he went on half to himself.
"That was the sun too," I laughed, a trifle boisterously. "I suppose you'll
wonder next if that fellow in the boat --"
I suddenly decided not to finish the sentence. He was in the act again of
listening, turning his head to the wind, and something in the expression of his
face made me halt. The subject dropped, and we went on with our caulking.
Apparently he had not noticed my unfinished sentence. Five minutes later,
however, he looked at me across the canoe, the smoking pitch in his hand, his
face exceedingly grave.
"I did rather wonder, if you want to know," he said slowly, "what that thing
in the boat was. I remember thinking at the time it was not a man. The whole
business seemed to rise quite suddenly out of the water."
I laughed again boisterously in his face, but this time there was impatience,
and a strain of anger too, in my feeling.
"Look here now," I cried, "this place is quite queer enough without going out
of our way to imagine things! That boat was an ordinary boat, and the man in it
was an ordinary man, and they were both going down-stream as fast as they could
lick. And that otter was an otter, so don't let's play the fool about it!"
He looked steadily at me with the same grave expression. He was not in the
least annoyed. I took courage from his silence.
"And, for Heaven's sake," I went on, "don't keep pretending you hear things,
because it only gives me the jumps, and there's nothing to hear but the river
and this cursed old thundering wind."
"You fool!" he answered in a low, shocked voice, "you utter fool. That's just
the way all victims talk. As if you didn't understand just as well as I do!" he
sneered with scorn in his voice, and a sort of resignation. "The best thing you
can do is to keep quiet and try to hold your mind as firm as possible. This
feeble attempt at self-deception only makes the truth harder when you're forced
to meet it."
My little effort was over, and I found nothing more to say, for I knew quite
well his words were true, and that I was the fool, not he. Up to a certain
stage in the adventure he kept ahead of me easily, and I think I felt annoyed to
be out of it, to be thus proved less psychic, less sensitive than himself to
these extraordinary happenings, and half ignorant all the time of what was going
on under my very nose. He knew from the very beginning, apparently. But at the
moment I wholly missed the point of his words about the necessity of there being
a victim, and that we ourselves were destined to satisfy the want. I dropped
all pretence thenceforward, but thenceforward likewise my fear increased
steadily to the climax.
"But you're quite right about one thing," he added, before the subject
passed, "and that is that we're wiser not to talk about it, or even to think
about it, because what one thinks finds expression in words, and what one says,
That afternoon, while the canoe dried and hardened, we spent trying to fish,
testing the leak, collecting wood, and watching the enormous flood of rising
water. Masses of driftwood swept near our shores sometimes, and we fished for
them with long willow branches. The island grew perceptibly smaller as the
banks were torn away with great gulps and splashes. The weather kept
brilliantly fine till about four o'clock, and then for the first time for three
days the wind showed signs of abating. Clouds began to gather in the
south-west, spreading thence slowly over the sky.
This lessening of the wind came as a great relief, for the incessant roaring,
banging, and thundering had irritated our nerves. Yet the silence that came
about five o'clock with its sudden cessation was in a manner quite as
oppressive. The booming of the river had everything in its own way then; it
filled the air with deep murmurs, more musical than the wind noises, but
infinitely more monotonous. The wind held many notes, rising, falling always
beating out some sort of great elemental tune; whereas the river's song lay
between three notes at most -- dull pedal notes, that held a lugubrious quality
foreign to the wind, and somehow seemed to me, in my then nervous state, to
sound wonderfully well the music of doom.
It was extraordinary, too, how the withdrawal suddenly of bright sunlight
took everything out of the landscape that made for cheerfulness; and since this
particular landscape had already managed to convey the suggestion of something
sinister, the change of course was all the more unwelcome and noticeable. For
me, I know, the darkening outlook became distinctly more alarming, and I found
myself more than once calculating how soon after sunset the full moon would get
up in the east, and whether the gathering clouds would greatly interfere with
her lighting of the little island.
With this general hush of the wind -- though it still indulged in occasional
brief gusts -- the river seemed to me to grow blacker, the willows to stand more
densely together. The latter, too, kept up a sort of independent movement of
their own, rustling among themselves when no wind stirred, and shaking oddly
from the roots upwards. When common objects in this way be come charged with
the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of
unusual appearance; and these bushes, crowding huddled about us, assumed for me
in the darkness a bizarre grotesquerie of appearance that lent to them somehow
the aspect of purposeful and living creatures. Their very ordinariness, I felt,
masked what was malignant and hostile to us. The forces of the region drew
nearer with the coming of night. They were focusing upon our island, and more
particularly upon ourselves. For thus, somehow, in the terms of the
imagination, did my really indescribable sensations in this extraordinary place
I had slept a good deal in the early afternoon, and had thus recovered
somewhat from the exhaustion of a disturbed night, but this only served
apparently to render me more susceptible than before to the obsessing spell of
the haunting. I fought against it, laughing at my feelings as absurd and
childish, with very obvious physiological explanations, yet, in spite of every
effort, they gained in strength upon me so that I dreaded the night as a child
lost in a forest must dread the approach of darkness.
The canoe we had carefully covered with a waterproof sheet during the day,
and the one remaining paddle had been securely tied by the Swede to the base of
a tree, lest the wind should rob us of that too. From five o'clock onwards I
busied myself with the stew-pot and preparations for dinner, it being my turn to
cook that night. We had potatoes, onions, bits of bacon fat to add flavour, and
a general thick residue from former stews at the bottom of the pot; with black
bread broken up into it the result was most excellent, and it was followed by a
stew of plums with sugar and a brew of strong tea with dried milk. A good pile
of wood lay close at hand, and the absence of wind made my duties easy. My
companion sat lazily watching me, dividing his attentions between cleaning his
pipe and giving useless advice -- an admitted privilege of the off-duty man. He
had been very quiet all the afternoon, engaged in re-caulking the canoe,
strengthening the tent ropes, and fishing for driftwood while I slept. No more
talk about undesirable things had passed between us, and I think his only
remarks had to do with the gradual destruction of the island, which he declared
was not fully a third smaller than when we first landed.
The pot had just begun to bubble when I heard his voice calling to me from
the bank, where he had wandered away without my noticing. I ran up.
"Come and listen," he said, "and see what you make of it." He held his hand
cupwise to his ear, as so often before.
"Now do you hear anything?" he asked, watching me curiously.
We stood there, listening attentively together. At first I heard only the
deep note of the water and the hissings rising from its turbulent surface. The
willows, for once, were motionless and silent. Then a sound began to reach my
ears faintly, a peculiar sound -- something like the humming of a distant gong.
It seemed to come across to us in the darkness from the waste of swamps and
willows opposite. It was repeated at regular intervals, but it was certainly
neither the sound of a bell nor the hooting of a distant steamer. I can liken
it to nothing so much as to the sound of an immense gong, suspended far up in
the sky, repeating incessantly its muffled metallic note, soft and musical, as
it was repeatedly struck. My heart quickened as I listened.
"I've heard it all day," said my companion. "While you slept this afternoon
it came all round the island. I hunted it down, but could never get near enough
to see -- to localise it correctly. Sometimes it was overhead, and sometimes it
seemed under the water. Once or twice, too, I could have sword it was not
outside at all, but within myself -- you know -- the way a sound in the fourth
dimension is supposed to come."
I was too much puzzled to pay much attention to his words. I listened
carefully, striving to associate it with any known familiar sound I could think
of, but without success. It changed in the direction, too, coming nearer, and
then sinking utterly away into remote distance. I cannot say that it was
ominous in quality, because to me it seemed distinctly musical, yet I must admit
it set going a distressing feeling that made me wish I had never heard it.
"The wind blowing in those sand-funnels," I said determined to find an
explanation, "or the bushes rubbing together after the storm perhaps."
"It comes off the whole swamp," my friend answered. "It comes from
everywhere at once." He ignored my explanations. "It comes from the willow
bushes somehow -- "
"But now the wind has dropped," I objected. "The willows can hardly make a
noise by themselves, can they?"
His answer frightened me, first because I had dreaded it, and secondly,
because I knew intuitively it was true.
"It is because the wind has dropped we now hear it. It was drowned before.
It is the cry, I believe, of the -- "
I dashed back to my fire, warned by the sound of bubbling that the stew was
in danger, but determined at the same time to escape further conversation. I
was resolute, if possible, to avoid the exchanging of views. I dreaded, too,
that he would begin about the gods, or the elemental forces, or something else
disquieting, and I wanted to keep myself well in hand for what might happen
later. There was another night to be faced before we escaped from this
distressing place, and there was no knowing yet what it might bring forth.
"Come and cut up bread for the pot," I called to him, vigorously stirring the
appetising mixture. That stew-pot held sanity for us both, and the thought made
He came over slowly and took the provision sack from the tree, fumbling in
its mysterious depths, and then emptying the entire contents upon the
ground-sheet at his feet.
"Hurry up!" I cried; "it's boiling."
The Swede burst out into a roar of laughter that startled me. It was forced
laughter, not artificial exactly, but mirthless.
"There's nothing here!" he shouted, holding his sides.
"Bread, I mean."
"It's gone. There is no bread. They've taken it!"
I dropped the long spoon and ran up. Everything the sack had contained lay
upon the ground-sheet, but there was no loaf.
The whole dead weight of my growing fear fell upon me and shook me. Then I
burst out laughing too. It was the only thing to do: and the sound of my
laughter also made me understand his. The stain of psychical pressure caused it
-- this explosion of unnatural laughter in both of us; it was an effort of
repressed forces to seek relief; it was a temporary safety-valve. And with both
of us it ceased quite suddenly.
"How criminally stupid of me!" I cried, still determined to be consistent and
find an explanation. "I clean forgot to buy a loaf at Pressburg. That
chattering woman put everything out of my head, and I must have left it lying on
the counter or -- "
"The oatmeal, too, is much less than it was this morning," the Swede
Why in the world need he draw attention to it? I thought angrily.
"There's enough for to-morrow," I said, stirring vigorously, "and we can get
lots more at Komorn or Gran. In twenty-four hours we shall be miles from here."
"I hope so -- to God," he muttered, putting the things back into the sack,
"unless we're claimed first as victims for the sacrifice," he added with a
foolish laugh. He dragged the sack into the tent, for safety's sake, I suppose,
and I heard him mumbling to himself, but so indistinctly that it seemed quite
natural for me to ignore his words.
Our meal was beyond question a gloomy one, and we ate it almost in silence,
avoiding one another's eyes, and keeping the fire bright. Then we washed up and
prepared for the night, and, once smoking, our minds unoccupied with any
definite duties, the apprehension I had felt all day long became more and more
acute. It was not then active fear, I think, but the very vagueness of its
origin distressed me far more that if I had been able to ticket and face it
squarely. The curious sound I have likened to the note of a gong became now
almost incessant, and filled the stillness of the night with a faint, continuous
ringing rather than a series of distinct notes. At one time it was behind and
at another time in front of us. Sometimes I fancied it came from the bushes on
our left, and then again from the clumps on our right. More often it hovered
directly overhead like the whirring of wings. It was really everywhere at once,
behind, in front, at our sides and over our heads, completely surrounding us.
The sound really defies description. But nothing within my knowledge is like
that ceaseless muffled humming rising off the deserted world of swamps and
We sat smoking in comparative silence, the strain growing every minute
greater. The worst feature of the situation seemed to me that we did not know
what to expect, and could therefore make no sort of preparation by way of
defence. We could anticipate nothing. My explanations made in the sunshine,
moreover, now came to haunt me with their foolish and wholly unsatisfactory
nature, and it was more and more clear to us that some kind of plain talk with
my companion was inevitable, whether I liked it or not. After all, we had to
spend the night together, and to sleep in the same tent side by side. I saw
that I could not get along much longer without the support of his mind, and for
that, of course, plain talk was imperative. As long as possible, however, I
postponed this little climax, and tried to ignore or laugh at the occasional
sentences he flung into the emptiness.
Some of these sentences, moreover, were confoundedly disquieting to me,
coming as they did to corroborate much that I felt myself; corroboration, too --
which made it so much more convincing -- from a totally different point of view.
He composed such curious sentences, and hurled them at me in such an
inconsequential sort of way, as though his main line of thought was secret to
himself, and these fragments were mere bits he found it impossible to digest.
He got rid of them by uttering them. Speech relieved him. It was like being
"There are things about us, I'm sure, that make for disorder, disintegration,
destruction, our destruction," he said once, while the fire blazed between us.
"We've strayed out of a safe line somewhere."
And, another time, when the gong sounds had come nearer, ringing much louder
than before, and directly over our heads, he said as though talking to himself:
"I don't think a gramophone would show any record of that. The sound doesn't
come to me by the ears at all. The vibrations reach me in another manner
altogether, and seem to be within me, which is precisely how a fourth
dimensional sound might be supposed to make itself heard."
I purposely made no reply to this, but I sat up a little closer to the fire
and peered about me into the darkness. The clouds were massed all over the sky,
and no trace of moonlight came through. Very still, too, everything was, so
that the river and the frogs had things all their own way.
"It has that about it," he went on, "which is utterly out of common
experience. It is unknown. Only one thing describes it really; it is a
non-human sound; I mean a sound outside humanity."
Having rid himself of this indigestible morsel, he lay quiet for a time, but
he had so admirably expressed my own feeling that it was a relief to have the
though out, and to have confined it by the limitation of words from dangerous
wandering to and fro in the mind.
The solitude of that Danube camping-place, can I ever forget it? The feeling
of being utterly alone on an empty planet! My thoughts ran incessantly upon
cities and the haunts of men. I would have given my soul, as the saying is, for
the "feel" of those Bavarian villages we had passed through by the score; for
the normal, human commonplaces; peasants drinking beer, tables beneath the
trees, hot sunshine, and a ruined castle on the rocks behind the red-roofed
church. Even the tourists would have been welcome.
Yet what I felt of dread was no ordinary ghostly fear. It was infinitely
greater, stranger, and seemed to arise from some dim ancestral sense of terror
more profoundly disturbing than anything I had known or dreamed of. We had
"strayed", as the Swede put it, into some region or some set of conditions where
the risks were great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some
unknown world lay close about us. It was a spot held by the dwellers in some
outer space, a sort of peep-hole whence they could spy upon the earth,
themselves unseen, a point where the veil between had worn a little thin. As
the final result of too long a sojourn here, we should be carried over the
border and deprived of what we called "our lives", yet by mental, not physical,
processes. In that sense, as he said, we should be the victims of our adventure
-- a sacrifice.
It took us in different fashion, each according to the measure of his
sensitiveness and powers of resistance. I translated it vaguely into a
personification of the mightily disturbed elements, investing them with the
horror of a deliberate and malefic purpose, resentful of our audacious intrusion
into their breeding-place; whereas my friend threw it into the unoriginal form
at first of a trespass on some ancient shrine, some place where the old gods
still held sway, where the emotional forces of former worshippers still clung,
and the ancestral portion of him yielded to the old pagan spell.
At any rate, here was a place unpolluted by men, kept clean by the winds from
coarsening human influences, a place where spiritual agencies were within reach
and aggressive. Never, before or since, have I been so attacked by
indescribable suggestions of a "beyond region", of another scheme of life,
another revolution not parallel to the human. And in the end our minds would
succumb under the weight of the awful spell, and we should be drawn across the
frontier into their world.
Small things testified to the amazing influence of the place, and now in the
silence round the fire they allowed themselves to be noted by the mind. The
very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every
indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making signs,
the shifting willows, one and all had been robbed of its natural character, and
revealed in something of its other aspect -- as it existed across the border to
that other region. And this changed aspect I felt was now not merely to me, but
to the race. The whole experience whose verge we touched was unknown to
humanity at all. It was a new order of experience, and in the true sense of the
"It's the deliberate, calculating purpose that reduces one's courage to
zero," the Swede said suddenly, as if he had been actually following my
thoughts. "Otherwise imagination might count for much. But the paddle, the
canoe, the lessening food -- "
"Haven't I explained all that once?" I interrupted viciously.
"You have," he answered dryly; "you have indeed."
He made other remarks too, as usual, about what he called the "plain
determination to provide a victim"; but, having now arranged my thoughts better,
I recognised that this was simply the cry of his frightened soul against the
knowledge that he was being attacked in a vital part, and that he would be
somehow taken or destroyed. The situation called for a courage and calmness of
reasoning that neither of us could compass, and I have never before been so
clearly conscious of two persons in me -- the one that explained everything, and
the other that laughed at such foolish explanations, yet was horribly afraid.
Meanwhile, in the pitchy night the fire died down and the wood pile grew
small. Neither of us moved to replenish the stock, and the darkness
consequently came up very close to our faces. A few feet beyond the circle of
firelight it was inky black. Occasionally a stray puff of wind set the willows
shivering about us, but apart from this not very welcome sound a deep and
depressing silence reigned, broken only by the gurgling of the river and the
humming in the air overhead.
We both missed, I think, the shouting company of the winds.
At length, at a moment when a stray puff prolonged itself as though the wind
were about to rise again, I reached the point for me of saturation, the point
where it was absolutely necessary to find relief in plain speech, or else to
betray myself by some hysterical extravagance that must have been far worse in
its effect upon both of us. I kicked the fire into a blaze, and turned to my
companion abruptly. He looked up with a start.
"I can't disguise it any longer," I said; "I don't like this place, and the
darkness, and the noises, and the awful feelings I get. There's something here
that beats me utterly. I'm in a blue funk, and that's the plain truth. If the
other shore was -- different, I swear I'd be inclined to swim for it!"
The Swede's face turned very white beneath the deep tan of sun and wind. He
stared straight at me and answered quietly, but his voice betrayed his huge
excitement by its unnatural calmness. For the moment, at any rate, he was the
strong man of the two. He was more phlegmatic, for one thing.
"It's not a physical condition we can escape from by running away," he
replied, in the tone of a doctor diagnosing some grave disease; "we must sit
tight and wait. There are forces close here that could kill a herd of elephants
in a second as easily as you or I could squash a fly. Our only chance is to
keep perfectly still. Our insignificance perhaps may save us."
I put a dozen questions into my expression of face, but found no words. It
was precisely like listening to an accurate description of a disease whose
symptoms had puzzled me.
"I mean that so far, although aware of our disturbing presence, they have not
found us -- not 'located' us, as the Americans say," he went on. "They're
blundering about like men hunting for a leak of gas. The paddle and canoe and
provisions prove that. I think they feel us, but cannot actually see us. We
must keep our minds quiet -- it's our minds they feel. We must control our
thoughts, or it's all up with us."
"Death, you mean?" I stammered, icy with the horror of his suggestion.
"Worse -- by far," he said. "Death, according to one's belief, means either
annihilation or release from the limitations of the senses, but it involves no
change of character. You don't suddenly alter just because the body's gone.
But this means a radical alteration, a complete change, a horrible loss of
oneself by substitution -- far worse than death, and not even annihilation. We
happen to have camped in a spot where their region touches ours, where the veil
between has worn thin" -- horrors! he was using my very own phrase, my actual
words -- "so that they are aware of our being in their neighbourhood."
"But who are aware?" I asked.
I forgot the shaking of the willows in the windless calm, the humming
overhead, everything except that I was waiting for an answer that I dreaded more
than I can possibly explain.
He lowered his voice at once to reply, leaning forward a little over the
fire, an indefinable change in his face that made me avoid his eyes and look
down upon the ground.
"All my life," he said, "I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another
region -- not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different
in kind -- where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible
personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly
affairs, the rise and fall of nations, the destinies of empires, the fate of
armies and continents, are all as dust in the balance; vast purposes, I mean,
that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with more expressions of
the soul -- "
"I suggest just now -- " I began, seeking to stop him, feeling as though I
was face to face with a madman. But he instantly overbore me with his torrent
that had to come.
"You think," he said, "it is the spirit of the elements, and I thought
perhaps it was the old gods. But I tell you now it is -- neither. These would
be comprehensible entities, for they have relations with men, depending upon
them for worship or sacrifice, whereas these beings who are now about us have
absolutely nothing to do with mankind, and it is mere chance that their space
happens just at this spot to touch our own."
The mere conception, which his words somehow made so convincing, as I
listened to them there in the dark stillness of that lonely island, set me
shaking a little all over. I found it impossible to control my movements.
"And what do you propose?" I began again.
"A sacrifice, a victim, might save us by distracting them until we could get
away," he went on, "just as the wolves stop to devour the dogs and give the
sleigh another start. But -- I see no chance of any other victim now."
I stared blankly at him. The gleam in his eye was dreadful. Presently he
"It's the willows, of course. The willows mask the others, but the others
are feeling about for us. If we let our minds betray our fear, we're lost, lost
utterly." He looked at me with an expression so calm, so determined, so
sincere, that I no longer had any doubts as to his sanity. He was as sane as
any man ever was. "If we can hold out through the night," he added, "we may get
off in the daylight unnoticed, or rather, undiscovered."
"But you really think a sacrifice would -- "
That gong-like humming came down very close over our heads as I spoke, but it
was my friend's scared face that really stopped my mouth.
"Hush!" he whispered, holding up his hand. "Do not mention them more than
you can help. Do not refer to them by name. To name is to reveal; it is the
inevitable clue, and our only hope lies in ignoring them, in order that they may
"Even in thought?" He was extraordinarily agitated.
"Especially in thought. Our thoughts make spirals in their world. We must
keep them out of our minds at all costs if possible."
I raked the fire together to prevent the darkness having everything its own
way. I never longed for the sun as I longed for it then in the awful blackness
of that summer night.
"Were you awake all last night?" he went on suddenly.
"I slept badly a little after dawn," I replied evasively, trying to follow
his instructions, which I knew instinctively were true, "but the wind, of course
"I know. But the wind won't account for all the noises."
"Then you heard it too?"
"The multiplying countless little footsteps I heard," he said, adding, after
a moment's hesitation, "and that other sound -- "
"You mean above the tent, and the pressing down upon us of something
He nodded significantly.
"It was like the beginning of a sort of inner suffocation?" I said.
"Partly, yes. It seemed to me that the weight of the atmosphere had been
altered -- had increased enormously, so that we should have been crushed."
"And that," I went on, determined to have it all out, pointing upwards where
the gong-like note hummed ceaselessly, rising and falling like wind. "What do
you make of that?"
"It's their sound," he whispered gravely. "It's the sound of their world,
the humming in their region. The division here is so thin that it leaks through
somehow. But, if you listen carefully, you'll find it's not above so much as
around us. It's in the willows. It's the willows themselves humming, because
here the willows have been made symbols of the forces that are against us."
I could not follow exactly what he meant by this, yet the thought and idea in
my mind were beyond question the thought an idea in his. I realised what he
realised, only with less power of analysis than his. It was on the tip of my
tongue to tell him at last about my hallucination of the ascending figures and
the moving bushes, when he suddenly thrust his face again close into mine across
the firelight and began to speak in a very earnest whisper. He amazed me by his
calmness and pluck, his apparent control of the situation. This man I had for
years deemed unimaginative, stolid!
"Now listen," he said. "The only thing for us to do is to go on as though
nothing had happened, follow our usual habits, go to bed, and so forth; pretend
we feel nothing and notice nothing. It is a question wholly of the mind, and
the less we think about them the better our chance of escape. Above all, don't
think, for what you think happens!"
"All right," I managed to reply, simply breathless with his words and the
strangeness of it all; "all right, I'll try, but tell me one more thing first.
Tell me what you make of those hollows in the ground all about us, those
"No!" he cried, forgetting to whisper in his excitement. "I dare not, simply
dare not, put the thought into words. If you have not guessed I am glad. Don't
try to. They have put it into my mind; try your hardest to prevent their
putting it into yours."
He sank his voice again to a whisper before he finished, and I did not press
him to explain. There was already just about as much horror in me as I could
hold. The conversation came to an end, and we smoked our pipes busily in
Then something happened, something unimportant apparently, as the way is when
the nerves are in a very great state of tension, and this small thing for a
brief space gave me an entirely different point of view. I chanced to look down
at my sand-shoe -- the sort we used for the canoe -- and something to do with
the hole at the toe suddenly recalled to me the London shop where I had bought
them, the difficulty the man had in fitting me, and other details of the
uninteresting but practical operation. At once, in its train, followed a
wholesome view of the modern sceptical world I was accustomed to move in at
home. I thought of roast beef, and ale, motor-cars, policemen, brass bands, and
a dozen other things that proclaimed the soul of ordinariness or utility. The
effect was immediate and astonishing even to myself. Psychologically, I
suppose, it was simply a sudden and violent reaction after the strain of living
in an atmosphere of things that to the normal consciousness must seem impossible
and incredible. But, whatever the cause, it momentarily lifted the spell from
my heart, and left me for the short space of a minute feeling free and utterly
unafraid. I looked up at my friend opposite.
"You damned old pagan!" I cried, laughing aloud in his face. "You
imaginative idiot! You superstitious idolator! You -- "
I stopped in the middle, seized anew by the old horror. I tried to smother
the sound of my voice as something sacrilegious. The Swede, of course, heard it
too -- the strange cry overhead in the darkness -- and that sudden drop in the
air as though something had come nearer.
He had turned ashen white under the tan. He stood bolt upright in front of
the fire, stiff as a rod, staring at me.
"After that," he said in a sort of helpless, frantic way, "we must go! We
can't stay now; we must strike camp this very instant and go on -- down the
He was talking, I saw, quite wildly, his words dictated by abject terror --
the terror he had resisted so long, but which had caught him at last.
"In the dark?" I exclaimed, shaking with fear after my hysterical outburst,
but still realising our position better than he did. "Sheer madness! The
river's in flood, and we've only got a single paddle. Besides, we only go deeper
into their country! There's nothing ahead for fifty miles but willows, willows,
He sat down again in a state of semi-collapse. The positions, by one of
those kaleidoscopic changes nature loves, were suddenly reversed, and the
control of our forces passed over into my hands. His mind at last had reached
the point where it was beginning to weaken.
"What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?" he whispered with the awe
of genuine terror in his voice and face.
I crossed round to his side of the fire. I took both his hands in mine,
kneeling down beside him and looking straight into his frightened eyes.
"We'll make one more blaze," I said firmly, "and then turn in for the night.
At sunrise we'll be off full speed for Komorn. Now, pull yourself together a
bit, and remember your own advice about not thinking fear!"
He said no more, and I saw that he would agree and obey. In some measure,
too, it was a sort of relief to get up and make an excursion into the darkness
for more wood. We kept close together, almost touching, groping among the
bushes and along the bank. The humming overhead never ceased, but seemed to me
to grow louder as we increased our distance from the fire. It was shivery work!
We were grubbing away in the middle of a thickish clump of willows where some
driftwood from a former flood had caught high among the branches, when my body
was seized in a grip that made me half drop upon the sand. It was the Swede.
He had fallen against me, and was clutching me for support. I heard his breath
coming and going in short gasps.
"Look! By my soul!" he whispered, and for the first time in my experience I
knew what it was to hear tears of terror in a human voice. He was pointing to
the fire, some fifty feet away. I followed the direction of his finger, and I
swear my heart missed a beat.
There, in front of the dim glow, something was moving.
I saw it through a veil that hung before my eyes like the gauze drop-curtain
used at the back of a theatre -- hazily a little. It was neither a human figure
nor an animal. To me it gave the strange impression of being as large as
several animals grouped together, like horses, two or three, moving slowly. The
Swede, too, got a similar result, though expressing it differently, for he
thought it was shaped and sized like a clump of willow bushes, rounded at the
top, and moving all over upon its surface -- "coiling upon itself like smoke,"
he said afterwards.
"I watched it settle downwards through the bushes," he sobbed at me. "Look,
by God! It's coming this way! Oh, oh!" -- he gave a kind of whistling cry.
"They've found us."
I gave one terrified glance, which just enabled me to see that the shadowy
form was swinging towards us through the bushes, and then I collapsed backwards
with a crash into the branches. These failed, of course, to support my weight,
so that with the Swede on top of me we fell in a struggling heap upon the sand.
I really hardly knew what was happening. I was conscious only of a sort of
enveloping sensation of icy fear that plucked the nerves out of their fleshly
covering, twisted them this way and that, and replaced them quivering. My eyes
were tightly shut; something in my throat choked me; a feeling that my
consciousness was expanding, extending out into space, swiftly gave way to
another feeling that I was losing it altogether, and about to die.
An acute spasm of pain passed through me, and I was aware that the Swede had
hold of me in such a way that he hurt me abominably. It was the way he caught
at me in falling.
But it was the pain, he declared afterwards, that saved me; it caused me to
forget them and think of something else at the very instant when they were about
to find me. It concealed my mind from them at the moment of discovery, yet just
in time to evade their terrible seizing of me. He himself, he says, actually
swooned at the same moment, and that was what saved him.
I only know that at a later date, how long or short is impossible to say, I
found myself scrambling up out of the slippery network of willow branches, and
saw my companion standing in front of me holding out a hand to assist me. I
stared at him in a dazed way, rubbing the arm he had twisted for me. Nothing
came to me to say, somehow.
"I lost consciousness for a moment or two," I heard him say. "That's what
saved me. It made me stop thinking about them."
"You nearly broke my arm in two," I said, uttering my only connected thought
at the moment. A numbness came over me.
"That's what saved you!" he replied. "Between us, we've managed to set them
off on a false tack somewhere. The humming has ceased. It's gone -- for the
moment at any rate!"
A wave of hysterical laughter seized me again, and this time spread to my friend
too -- great healing gusts of shaking laughter that brought a tremendous sense
of relief in their train. We made our way back to the fire and put the wood on
so that it blazed at once. Then we saw that the tent had fallen over and lay in
a tangled heap upon the ground.
We picked it up, and during the process tripped more than once and caught our
feet in sand.
"It's those sand-funnels," exclaimed the Swede, when the tent was up again
and the firelight lit up the ground for several yards about us. "And look at
the size of them!"
All round the tent and about the fireplace where we had seen the moving
shadows there were deep funnel-shaped hollows in the sand, exactly similar to
the ones we had already found over the island, only far bigger and deeper,
beautifully formed, and wide enough in some instances to admit the whole of my
foot and leg.
Neither of us said a word. We both knew that sleep was the safest thing we
could do, and to bed we went accordingly without further delay, having first
thrown sand on the fire and taken the provision sack and the paddle inside the
tent with us. The canoe, too, we propped in such a way at the end of the tent
that our feet touched it, and the least motion would disturb and wake us.
In case of emergency, too, we again went to bed in our clothes, ready for a
It was my firm intention to lie awake all night and watch, but the exhaustion
of nerves and body decreed otherwise, and sleep after a while came over me with
a welcome blanket of oblivion. The fact that my companion also slept quickened
its approach. At first he fidgeted and constantly sat up, asking me if I "heard
this" or "heard that". He tossed about on his cork mattress, and said the tent
was moving and the river had risen over the point of the island, but each time I
went out to look I returned with the report that all was well, and finally he
grew calmer and lay still. Then at length his breathing became regular and I
heard unmistakable sounds of snoring -- the first and only time in my life when
snoring has been a welcome and calming influence.
This, I remember, was the last thought in my mind before dozing off.
A difficulty in breathing woke me, and I found the blanket over my face. But
something else besides the blanket was pressing upon me, and my first thought
was that my companion had rolled off his mattress on to my own in his sleep. I
called to him and sat up, and at the same moment it came to me that the tent was
surrounded. That sound of multitudinous soft pattering was again audible
outside, filling the night with horror.
I called again to him, louder than before. He did not answer, but I missed
the sound of his snoring, and also noticed that the flap of the tent was down.
This was the unpardonable sin. I crawled out in the darkness to hook it back
securely, and it was then for the first time I realised positively that the
Swede was not here. He had gone.
I dashed out in a mad run, seized by a dreadful agitation, and the moment I
was out I plunged into a sort of torrent of humming that surrounded me
completely and came out of every quarter of the heavens at once. It was that
same familiar humming -- gone mad! A swarm of great invisible bees might have
been about me in the air. The sound seemed to thicken the very atmosphere, and
I felt that my lungs worked with difficulty.
But my friend was in danger, and I could not hesitate.
The dawn was just about to break, and a faint whitish light spread upwards over
the clouds from a thin strip of clear horizon. No wind stirred. I could just
make out the bushes and river beyond, and the pale sandy patches. In my
excitement I ran frantically to and fro about the island, calling him by name,
shouting at the top of my voice the first words that came into my head. But the
willows smothered my voice, and the humming muffled it, so that the sound only
travelled a few feet round me. I plunged among the bushes, tripping headlong,
tumbling over roots, and scraping my face as I tore this way and that among the
Then, quite unexpectedly, I came out upon the island's point and saw a dark
figure outlined between the water and the sky. It was the Swede. And already
he had one foot in the river! A moment more and he would have taken the plunge.
I threw myself upon him, flinging my arms about his waist and dragging him
shorewards with all my strength. Of course he struggled furiously, making a
noise all the time just like that cursed humming, and using the most outlandish
phrases in his anger about "going inside to Them", and "taking the way of the
water and the wind", and God only knows what more besides, that I tried in vain
to recall afterwards, but which turned me sick with horror and amazement as I
listened. But in the end I managed to get him into the comparative safety of
the tent, and flung him breathless and cursing upon the mattress where I held
him until the fit had passed.
I think the suddenness with which it all went and he grew calm, coinciding as
it did with the equally abrupt cessation of the humming and pattering outside --
I think this was almost the strangest part of the whole business perhaps. For
he had just opened his eyes and turned his tired face up to me so that the dawn
threw a pale light upon it through the doorway, and said, for all the world just
like a frightened child:
"My life, old man -- it's my life I owe you. But it's all over now anyhow.
They've found a victim in our place!"
Then he dropped back upon his blankets and went to sleep literally under my
eyes. He simply collapsed, and began to snore again as healthily as though
nothing had happened and he had never tried to offer his own life as a sacrifice
by drowning. And when the sunlight woke him three hours later -- hours of
ceaseless vigil for me -- it became so clear to me that he remembered absolutely
nothing of what he had attempted to do, that I deemed it wise to hold my peace
and ask no dangerous questions.
He woke naturally and easily, as I have said, when the sun was already high
in a windless hot sky, and he at once got up and set about the preparation of
the fire for breakfast. I followed him anxiously at bathing, but he did not
attempt to plunge in, merely dipping his head and making some remark about the
extra coldness of the water.
"River's falling at last," he said, "and I'm glad of it."
"The humming has stopped too," I said.
He looked up at me quietly with his normal expression. Evidently he
remembered everything except his own attempt at suicide.
"Everything has stopped," he said, "because -- "
He hesitated. But I knew some reference to that remark he had made just
before he fainted was in his mind, and I was determined to know it.
"Because 'They've found another victim'?" I said, forcing a little laugh.
"Exactly," he answered, "exactly! I feel as positive of it as though -- as
though -- I feel quite safe again, I mean," he finished.
He began to look curiously about him. The sunlight lay in hot patches on the
sand. There was no wind. The willows were motionless. He slowly rose to feet.
"Come," he said; "I think if we look, we shall find it."
He started off on a run, and I followed him. He kept to the banks, poking
with a stick among the sandy bays and caves and little back- waters, myself
always close on his heels.
"Ah!" he exclaimed presently, "ah!"
The tone of his voice somehow brought back to me a vivid sense of the horror of
the last twenty-four hours, and I hurried up to join him. He was pointing with
his stick at a large black object that lay half in the water and half on the
sand. It appeared to be caught by some twisted willow roots so that the river
could not sweep it away. A few hours before the spot must have been under
"See," he said quietly, "the victim that made our escape possible!"
And when I peered across his shoulder I saw that his stick rested on the body
of a man. He turned it over. It was the corpse of a peasant, and the face was
hidden in the sand. Clearly the man had been drowned, but a few hours before,
and his body must have been swept down upon our island somewhere about the hour
of the dawn -- at the very time the fit had passed.
"We must give it a decent burial, you know."
"I suppose so," I replied. I shuddered a little in spite of myself, for
there was something about the appearance of that poor drowned man that turned me
The Swede glanced up sharply at me, an undecipherable expression on his face,
and began clambering down the bank. I followed him more leisurely. The
current, I noticed, had torn away much of the clothing from the body, so that
the neck and part of the chest lay bare.
Half-way down the bank my companion suddenly stopped and held up his hand in
warning; but either my foot slipped, or I had gained too much momentum to bring
myself quickly to a halt, for I bumped into him and sent him forward with a sort
of leap to save himself. We tumbled together on to the hard sand so that our
feet splashed into the water. And, before anything could be done, we had
collided a little heavily against the corpse.
The Swede uttered a sharp cry. And I sprang back as if I had been shot.
At the moment we touched the body there rose from its surface the loud sound
of humming -- the sound of several hummings -- which passed with a vast
commotion as of winged things in the air about us and disappeared upwards into
the sky, growing fainter and fainter till they finally ceased in the distance.
It was exactly as though we had disturbed some living yet invisible creatures at
My companion clutched me, and I think I clutched him, but before either of us
had time properly to recover from the unexpected shock, we saw that a movement
of the current was turning the corpse round so that it became released from the
grip of the willow roots. A moment later it had turned completely over, the
dead face uppermost, staring at the sky. It lay on the edge of the main stream.
In another moment it would be swept away.
The Swede started to save it, shouting again something I did not catch about
a "proper burial" -- and then abruptly dropped upon his knees on the sand and
covered his eyes with his hands. I was beside him in an instant.
I saw what he had seen.
For just as the body swung round to the current the face and the exposed
chest turned full towards us, and showed plainly how the skin and flesh were
indented with small hollows, beautifully formed, and exactly similar in shape
and kind to the sand-funnels that we had found all over the island.
"Their mark!" I heard my companion mutter under his breath. "Their awful
And when I turned my eyes again from his ghastly face to the river, the
current had done its work, and the body had been swept away into mid-stream and
was already beyond our reach and almost out of sight, turning over and over on
the waves like an otter.
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