Famous Modern Ghost Stories, a collection of ghost stories written by Dorothy Scarborough and published in 1920. 'Modern' is retained in the title of this book out of respect for Dorothy Scarborough's work in writing and editing, even though many of the stories are now over 100 years old. The collection, however, is notable as a collection of many of the best ghost stories of the time, written by an author who pioneered in the field. Dorothy Scarborough (1878-1935), an American writer of folk culture, cotton farming, and ghost stories, graduated from Baylor University, studied at the University of Chicago and Oxford University and received a doctorate of literature from Columbia University in 1917, where she taught until her death in 1935. Her dissertation The Supernatural in Modern English, regarded as a basic information source was published in 1917 and remains in print today. In addition to teaching and writing she edited Famous Modern Ghost Stories and several other collections of ghost stories.
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INTRODUCTION. THE IMPERISHABLE GHOST
THE SHADOWS ON THE WALL
THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS
THE MASS OF SHADOWS
WHAT WAS IT?
THE MIDDLE TOE OF THE RIGHT FOOT
THE SHELL OF SENSE
THE WOMAN AT SEVEN BROTHERS
AT THE GATE
THE HAUNTED ORCHARD
Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION. THE IMPERISHABLE GHOST
THE SHADOWS ON THE WALL
THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS
THE MASS OF SHADOWS
WHAT WAS IT?
THE MIDDLE TOE OF THE RIGHT FOOT
THE SHELL OF SENSE
THE WOMAN AT SEVEN BROTHERS
AT THE GATE
THE HAUNTED ORCHARD
Ghosts are the true immortals, and the dead grow more alive all the time. Wraiths have a greater vitality to-day than ever before. They are far more numerous than at any time in the past, and people are more interested in them. There are persons that claim to be acquainted with specific spirits, to speak with them, to carry on correspondence with them, and even some who insist that they are private secretaries to the dead. Others of us mortals, more reserved, are content to keep such distance as we may from even the shadow of a shade. But there's no getting away from ghosts nowadays, for even if you shut your eyes to them in actual life, you stumble over them in the books you read, you see them on the stage and on the screen, and you hear them on the lecture platform. Even a Lodge in any vast wilderness would have the company of spirits. Man's love for the supernatural, which is one of the most natural things about him, was never more marked than at present. You may go a-ghosting in any company to-day, and all aspects of literature, novels, short stories, poetry, and drama alike, reflect the shadeless spirit. The latest census of the haunting world shows a vast increase in population, which might be explained on various grounds.
Life is so inconveniently complex nowadays, what with income taxes and other visitations of government, that it is hard for us to have the added risk of wraiths, but there's no escaping. Many persons of to-day are in the same mental state as one Mr. Boggs, told of in a magazine story, a rural gentleman who was agitated over spectral visitants. He had once talked at a séance with a speaker who claimed to be the spirit of his brother, Wesley Boggs, but who conversed only on blue suspenders, a subject not of vital interest to Wesley in the flesh. "Still," Mr. Boggs reflected, "I'm not so darn sure!" In answer to a suggestion regarding subliminal consciousness and dual personality as explanation of the strange things that come bolting into life, he said, "It's crawly any way you look at it. Ghosts inside you are as bad as ghosts outside you." There are others to-day who are "not so darn sure!"
One may conjecture divers reasons for this multitude of ghosts in late literature. Perhaps spooks are like small boys that rush to fires, unwilling to miss anything, and craving new sensations. And we mortals read about them to get vicarious thrills through the safe medium of fiction. The war made sensationalists of us all, and the drab everydayness of mortal life bores us. Man's imagination, always bigger than his environment, overleaps the barriers of time and space and claims all worlds as eminent domain, so that literature, which he has the power to create, as he cannot create his material surroundings, possesses a dramatic intensity, an epic sweep, unknown in actuality. In the last analysis, man is as great as his daydreams—or his nightmares!
Ghosts have always haunted literature, and doubtless always will. Specters seem never to wear out or to die, but renew their tissue both of person and of raiment, in marvelous fashion, so that their number increases with a Malthusian relentlessness. We of to-day have the ghosts that haunted our ancestors, as well as our own modern revenants, and there's no earthly use trying to banish or exorcise them by such a simple thing as disbelief in them. Schopenhauer asserts that a belief in ghosts is born with man, that it is found in all ages and in all lands, and that no one is free from it. Since accounts vary, and our earliest antecedents were poor diarists, it is difficult to establish the apostolic succession of spooks in actual life, but in literature, the line reaches back as far as the primeval picture writing. A study of animism in primitive culture shows many interesting links between the past and the present in this matter. And anyhow, since man knows that whether or not he has seen a ghost, presently he'll be one, he's fascinated with the subject. And he creates ghosts, not merely in his own image, but according to his dreams of power.
The more man knows of natural laws, the keener he is about the supernatural. He may claim to have laid aside superstition, but he isn't to be believed in that. Though he has discarded witchcraft and alchemy, it is only that he may have more time for psychical research; true, he no longer dabbles with ancient magic, but that is because the modern types, as the ouija board, entertain him more. He dearly loves to traffic with that other world of which he knows so little and concerning which he is so curious.
Perhaps the war, or possibly an increase in class consciousness, or unionization of spirits, or whatever, has greatly energized the ghost in our day and given him both ambition and strength to do more things than ever. Maybe "pep tablets" have been discovered on the other side as well! No longer is the ghost content to be seen and not heard, to slink around in shadowy corners as apologetically as poor relations. Wraiths now have a rambunctious vitality and self-assurance that are astonishing. Even the ghosts of folks dead so long they have forgotten about themselves are yawning, stretching their skeletons, and starting out to do a little haunting. Spooky creatures in such a wide diversity are abroad to-day that one is sometimes at a loss to know what to do "gin a body meet a body." Ghosts are entering all sorts of activities now, so that mortals had better look alive, else they'll be crowded out of their place in the shade. The dead are too much with us!
Modern ghosts are less simple and primitive than their ancestors, and are developing complexes of various kinds. They are more democratic than of old, and have more of a diversity of interests, so that mortals have scarcely the ghost of a chance with them. They employ all the agencies and mechanisms known to mortals, and have in addition their own methods of transit and communication. Whereas in the past a ghost had to stalk or glide to his haunts, now he limousines or airplanes, so that naturally he can get in more work than before. He uses the wireless to send his messages, and is expert in all manner of scientific lines.
In fact, his infernal efficiency and knowledge of science constitute the worst terror of the current specter. Who can combat a ghost that knows all about a chemical laboratory, that can add electricity to his other shocks, and can employ all mortal and immortal agencies as his own? Science itself is supernatural, as we see when we look at it properly.
Modern literature, especially the most recent, shows a revival of old types of ghosts, together with the innovations of the new. There are specters that take a real part in the plot complication, and those that merely cast threatening looks at the living, or at least, are content to speak a piece and depart. Some spirits are dumb, while others are highly elocutionary.
Ghosts vary in many respects. Some are like the pallid shades of the past, altogether unlike the living and with an unmistakable spectral form—or lack of it. They sweep like mist through the air, or flutter like dead leaves in the gale—a gale always accompanying them as part of the stock furnishings. On the other hand, some revenants are so successfully made up that one doesn't believe them when they pridefully announce that they are wraiths. Some of them are, in fact, so alive that they don't themselves know they're dead. It's going to be a great shock to some of them one of these days to wake up and find out they're demised!
Ghosts are more gregarious than in the past. Formerly a shade slunk off by himself, as if ashamed of his profession, as if aware of the lack of cordiality with which he would be received, knowing that mortals shunned and feared him, and chary even of associating with his fellow-shades. He wraithed all by himself. The specters of the past—save in scenes of the lower world,—were usually solitary creatures, driven to haunt mortals from very lonesomeness. Now we have a chance to study the mob psychology of ghosts, for they come in madding crowds whenever they like.
Ghosts at present are showing an active interest not only in public affairs, but in the arts as well. At least, we now have pictures and writing attributed to them. Perhaps annoyed by some of the inaccuracies published concerning them—for authors have in the past taken advantage of the belief that ghosts couldn't write back—they have recently developed itching pens. They use all manner of utensils for expression now. There's the magic typewriter that spooks for John Kendrick Bangs, the boardwalk that Patience Worth executes for Mrs. Curran, and innumerable other specters that commandeer fountain pens and pencils and brushes to give their versions of infinity. There's a passion on the part of ghosts for being interviewed just now. At present book-reviewers, for instance, had better be careful, lest the wraiths take their own method of answering criticism. It isn't safe to speak or write with anything but respect of ghosts now. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, indeed! One should never make light of a shade.
Modern ghosts have a more pronounced personality than the specters of the past. They have more strength, of mind as well as of body, than the colorless revenants of earlier literature, and they produce a more vivid effect on the beholder and the reader. They know more surely what they wish to do, and they advance relentlessly and with economy of effort to the effecting of their purpose, whether it be of pure horror, of beauty, or pathos of humor. We have now many spirits in fiction that are pathetic without frightfulness, many that move us with a sense of poetic beauty rather than of curdling horror, who touch the heart as well as the spine of the reader. And the humorous ghost is a distinctive shade of to-day, with his quips and pranks and haunting grin. Whatever a modern ghost wishes to do or to be, he is or does, with confidence and success.
The spirit of to-day is terrifyingly visible or invisible at will. The dreadful presence of a ghost that one cannot see is more unbearable than the specter that one can locate and attempt to escape from. The invisible haunting is represented in this volume by Fitz-James O'Brien's What Was It? one of the very best of the type, and one that has strongly influenced others. O'Brien's story preceded Guy de Maupassant's Le Horla by several years, and must surely have suggested to Maupassant as to Bierce, in his The Damned Thing, the power of evil that can be felt but not seen.
The wraith of the present carries with him more vital energy than his predecessors, is more athletic in his struggles with the unlucky wights he visits, and can coerce mortals to do his will by the laying on of hands as well as by the look or word. He speaks with more emphasis and authority, as well as with more human naturalness, than the earlier ghosts. He has not only all the force he possessed in life, but in many instances has an access of power, which makes man a poor protagonist for him. Algernon Blackwood's spirits of evil, for example, have a more awful potentiality than any living person could have, and their will to harm has been increased immeasurably by the accident of death. If the facts bear out the fear that such is the case in life as in fiction, some of our social customs will be reversed. A man will strive by all means to keep his deadly enemy alive, lest death may endow him with tenfold power to hurt. Dark discarnate passions, disembodied hates, work evil where a simple ghost might be helpless and abashed. Algernon Blackwood has command over the spirits of air and fire and wave, so that his pages thrill with beauty and terror. He has handled almost all known aspects of the supernatural, and from his many stories he has selected for this volume The Willows as the best example of his ghostly art.
Apparitions are more readily recognizable at present than in the past, for they carry into eternity all the disfigurements or physical peculiarities that the living bodies possessed—a fact discouraging to all persons not conspicuous for good looks. Freckles and warts, long noses and missing limbs distinguish the ghosts and aid in crucial identification. The thrill of horror in Ambrose Bierce's story, The Middle Toe of the Right Foot, is intensified by the fact that the dead woman who comes back in revenge to haunt her murderer, has one toe lacking as in life. And in a recent story a surgeon whose desire to experiment has caused him needlessly to sacrifice a man's life on the operating table, is haunted to death by the dismembered arm. Fiction shows us various ghosts with half faces, and at least one notable spook that comes in half. Such ability, it will be granted, must necessarily increase the haunting power, for if a ghost may send a foot or an arm or a leg to harry one person, he can dispatch his back-bone or his liver or his heart to upset other human beings simultaneously in a sectional haunting at once economically efficient and terrifying.
The Beast with Five Fingers, for instance, has a loathsome horror that a complete skeleton or conventionally equipped wraith could not achieve. Who can doubt that a bodiless hand leaping around on its errands of evil has a menace that a complete six-foot frame could not duplicate? Yet, in Quiller-Couch's A Pair of Hands, what pathos and beauty in the thought of the child hands coming back to serve others in homely tasks! Surely no housewife in these helpless days would object to being haunted in such delicate fashion.
Ghosts of to-day have an originality that antique specters lacked. For instance, what story of the past has the awful thrill in Andreyev's Lazarus, that story of the man who came back from the grave, living, yet dead, with the horror of the unknown so manifest in his face that those who looked into his deep eyes met their doom? Present-day writers skillfully combine various elements of awe with the supernatural, as madness with the ghostly, adding to the chill of fear which each concept gives. Wilbur Daniel Steele's The Woman at Seven Brothers is an instance of that method.
Poe's Ligeia, one of the best stories in any language, reveals the unrelenting will of the dead to effect its desire,—the dead wife triumphantly coming back to life through the second wife's body. Olivia Howard Dunbar's The Shell of Sense is another instance of jealousy reaching beyond the grave. The Messenger, one of Robert W. Chambers's early stories and an admirable example of the supernatural, has various thrills, with its river of blood, its death's head moth, and the ancient but very active skull of the Black Priest who was shot as a traitor to his country, but lived on as an energetic and curseful ghost.
The Shadows on the Wall, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman,—which one prominent librarian considers the best ghost story ever written,—is original in the method of its horrific manifestation. Isn't it more devastating to one's sanity to see the shadow of a revenge ghost cast on the wall,—to know that a vindictive spirit is beside one but invisible—than to see the specter himself? Under such circumstances, the sight of a skeleton or a sheeted phantom would be downright comforting.
The Mass of Shadows, by Anatole France, is an example of the modern tendency to show phantoms in groups, as contrasted with the solitary habits of ancient specters. Here the spirits of those who had sinned for love could meet and celebrate mass together in one evening of the year.
The delicate beauty of many of the modern ghostly stories is apparent in The Haunted Orchard, by Richard Le Gallienne, for this prose poem has an appeal of tenderness rather than of terror. And everybody who has had affection for a dog will appreciate the pathos of the little sketch, by Myla J. Closser, At the Gate. The dog appears more frequently as a ghost than does any other animal, perhaps because man feels that he is nearer the human,—though the horse is as intelligent and as much beloved. There is an innate pathos about a dog somehow, that makes his appearance in ghostly form more credible and sympathetic, while the ghost of any other animal would tend to have a comic connotation. Other animals in fiction have power of magic—notably the cat—but they don't appear as spirits. But the dog is seen as a pathetic symbol of faithfulness, as a tragic sufferer, or as a terrible revenge ghost. Dogs may come singly or in groups—Edith Wharton has five of different sorts in Kerfol—or in packs, as in Eden Phillpotts's Another Little Heath Hound.
An illuminating instance of the power of fiction over human faith is furnished by the case of Arthur Machen's The Bowmen, included here. This story it is which started the whole tissue of legendry concerning supernatural aid given the allied armies during the war. This purely fictitious account of an angel army that saved the day at Mons was so vivid that its readers accepted it as truth and obstinately clung to that idea in the face of Mr. Machen's persistent and bewildered explanations that he had invented the whole thing. Editors wrote leading articles about it, ministers preached sermons on it, and the general public preferred to believe in the Mons angels rather than in Arthur Machen. Mr. Machen has shown himself an artist in the supernatural, one whom his generation has not been discerning enough to appreciate. Some of his material is painfully morbid, but his pen is magic and his inkwell holds many dark secrets.
In this collection I have attempted to include specimens of a few of the distinctive types of modern ghosts, as well as to show the art of individual stories. Examples of the humorous ghosts are omitted here, as a number of them will be brought together in Humorous Ghost Stories, the companion volume to this. The ghost lover who reads these pages will think of others that he would like to see included—for I believe that readers are more passionately attached to their own favorite ghost tales than to any other form of literature. But critics will admit the manifest impossibility of bringing together in one volume all the famous examples of the art. Some of the well-known tales, particularly the older ones on which copyright has expired, have been reprinted so often as to be almost hackneyed, while others have been of necessity omitted because of the limitations of space.
From The Listener, by Algernon Blackwood. Published in America by E.P. Dutton, and in England by Everleigh Nash, Ltd. By permission of the publishers and Algernon Blackwood.
After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Buda-Pesth, 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 color as it leaves the banks, and across it may be seen in large straggling letters the word Sümpfe, 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 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 innumerable 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 Theben on a spur of the Carpathians, where the March steals in quietly from the left and the frontier is crossed between Austria and Hungary.
Racing along at twelve kilometers 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, Poszóny) showed against the sky; and then the canoe, leaping like a spirited horse, flew at top speed under the gray walls, negotiated safely the sunken chain of the Fliegende Brücke 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 civilization 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 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 traveled from the source in the Black Forest, and how we 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 traveling 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 growth 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 new-comer. 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 much 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 new arrivals.
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; gray 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 halfway to the Black Sea, within scenting 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 kilometers 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 upstream.
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 sun.
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 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 alarm.
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 realization 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 center 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 bedtime. 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 sunlight.
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 rise, 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 minutes' 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 honor 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 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 program. 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 the 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 recognize 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 attack.
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 the 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, marshaled 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.
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