“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood abridged

.ODT: The Willows

.DOC: The Willows

THE WILLOWS

Algernon Blackwood
(1907)
I
After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube
enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where the country
becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low
willow-bushes.

In high flood this great acreage of sand, and willow-grown islands is almost topped by the water, but in normal seasons the bushes bend showing its bewildering beauty. These willows never attain to the dignity of trees; they remain humble bushes, continually shifting, giving the impression that the entire plain is moving and alive.

The Danube here wanders about at will among the intricate network of channels intersecting the islands everywhere; making whirlpools, eddies, and foaming rapids; tearing at the sandy banks; and forming new islands innumerably which shift daily in size and shape.

Properly speaking, this fascinating part of the river’s life begins soon
after leaving Pressburg, and we, in our canoe, 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.

Racing along at twelve kilometers an hour soon took us well into Hungary
into the wilderness of islands, sandbanks, 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 civilization within sight. The sense of remoteness from the world of humankind, the fascination of this singular world of willows, winds, and waters, instantly laid its spell upon us both.

“What a river!” I said to my companion.

“Won’t stand much nonsense now, will it?” he said, pulling the canoe a
little farther into safety up the sand.

I lay by his side, happy and peaceful, thinking of the long journey that lay behind us, and how lucky I was to have such a delightful 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,
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, holding our little craft on its mighty shoulders.

“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.

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. It was triangular in shape, with the apex up stream.

I stood there for several minutes, watching the impetuous crimson flood
dashing in waves against the bank. The furious movement of the willow bushes as the wind poured over them gave the curious illusion that the island itself actually moved. The rest of the island was too thickly grown with willows. From the lower end the river looked dark and angry.

Altogether it was an impressive scene, with its utter loneliness; and as I gazed, 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 alarm.

My emotion seemed to attach itself more particularly to the willow bushes, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it.

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
tomorrow–eh? This sand won’t hold anything.”

We made the cozy gipsy house as safe as possible, and then set
about collecting a store of wood to last till bed-time. 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, “What in the world’s this?”, 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. 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.

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 being carried down the opposite shore at a tremendous pace. He apparently was looking in our direction, but the distance was too great for us to make out very plainly what he was about. It seemed to me that he was 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.

“Look, he’s making the sign of the Cross!” I cried.

“I believe you’re right,” the Swede said. 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.

“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.

“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 subject dropped and we returned to our stew-pot.

“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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

The scarcity of wood made it a business to keep the fire going. We took it in turn to make some foraging expeditions into the darkness. 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, 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.

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.

I gazed across the waste of wild waters; I watched the whispering willows;
I heard the ceaseless beating of the tireless wind; it 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. 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.

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. For a night’s lodging we might perhaps be tolerated; but for a prolonged and inquisitive stay–No! 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, 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. I could have sworn their aspect changed a little, and they pressed more closely together.

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. The roar of the elements had covered his approach.
II
“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, 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.”.

“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.

We went back to the fire and made a final blaze. We took a last look round.
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 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. The Swede was asleep still beside me; the wind howled as before; something plucked at my heart and made me feel afraid.

I sat up quickly and looked out. The trees were swaying violently to and
fro as the gusts smote them. I crawled quietly out of the tent to see if our belongings were safe.

I was half-way out, 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 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.

My first instinct was to waken my companion, that he too might see them,
but something made me hesitate–the sudden realization, probably, that I
should not welcome corroboration; and meanwhile I crouched. I was wide awake.

They first became properly visible, these huge figures, immense, bronze-colored, moving. Certainly they were not merely the moving branches. 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. Their faces I never could see.

Far from feeling fear, I was possessed with a sense of awe and wonder such
as I have never known. These things, I knew, were real. Yet the figures still rose from earth to heaven, silent, majestically, in a great spiral of grace and strength that overwhelmed me. 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.

I only know that great column of figures ascended darkly into the sky. Then suddenly they were gone!

And, once they were gone and the immediate wonder of their great presence
had passed, fear came down upon me with a cold rush and I began
to tremble dreadfully. I took a quick look round calculating vainly ways of escape; and then, realizing how helpless I was, I crept back
silently into the tent, first lowering the door-curtain to shut out the sight of the willows.

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.
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?

But when I got out and stood upright I saw that the tent was free. There was no rain or spray; nothing. Nowhere did I discover the slightest evidence of anything to cause alarm.

I walked round the tent and then went out a little way into the bush. 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.
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. 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.

For a change, I thought, had somehow come about in the arrangement of the
landscape. 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?
The idea was so bizarre, so absurd.

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 tomorrow in a dead heat,” he laughed,
“but there’s enough to last us till then.” –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?

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. Had he 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.”

He looked up gravely at me and spoke across the smoke: “We shall be fortunate if we get away without further disaster.”

“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.

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.

“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.

“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.

“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
everything.”

“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.

“I see,” he shouted back, turning his head to look at me before
disappearing among the willow bushes.

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 traveling 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. Sometimes he even put his hand to his ear and held it there for
several minutes. And meanwhile, he mended that torn canoe with the skill and
address of a red Indian.

III
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
night.”

“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.

“It had such extraordinary yellow eyes,” he went on half to himself.

“That was the sun too,” I laughed. “I suppose you’ll wonder next if that fellow in the boat–”

I suddenly decided not to finish the sentence. 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.”

“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.”

“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. 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.

“But you’re quite right about one thing,” he added, “and that is that we’re wiser not to talk about it, or even to think about it, because what one says, happens.”

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. The island grew perceptibly smaller as the banks were torn away with great gulps and splashes.

With this general hush of the wind–though it still indulged in occasional
brief gusts– the willows to stand more densely together.

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.

The canoe we had carefully covered with a waterproof sheet, and the one remaining paddle had been securely tied to the base of a tree. 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 flavor. My companion sat lazily watching me.

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. 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 from the waste of swamps and willows opposite.

“I’ve heard it all day,” said my companion. “I hunted it down, but could never get near enough to see–to localize it correctly. Sometimes it was overhead, and
sometimes it seemed under the water. Once or twice, too, I could have sworn
it was not outside at all, but within myself.”

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.

“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. There was another night to be faced before we escaped from this distressing place.

“Come and cut up bread for the pot,” I called to him, vigorously stirring
the appetizing mixture.

He came over slowly and took the provision sack from the tree.

“Hurry up!” I cried; “it’s boiling.”

The Swede burst out into a roar of laughter that startled me.

“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
interrupted.

Why in the world need he draw attention to it? I thought angrily.

“There’s enough for tomorrow,” 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.

Our meal was beyond question a gloomy one, and we ate it almost in silence,
avoiding one another’s eyes. Then we washed up and prepared for the night.

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 defense. We could anticipate nothing.

“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.”

The clouds were massed all over the sky, and no trace of moonlight came through.

“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.

We had “strayed,” as the Swede put it, into some region 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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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. 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. He 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. Our only chance is to keep perfectly still. Our insignificance perhaps may save us. I mean that so far, although aware of our disturbing presence, they have not found us–not ‘located’ us,” 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.

“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. We happen to have camped in a spot where their region touches ours. They are aware of our being in their
neighborhood.”

“But who are aware?” I asked.

“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.”

“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
continued.
IV
“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–”

“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 ignore us.”

“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
tremendous, gigantic?”

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.”

I could not follow exactly what he meant by this, yet the thought and idea
in my mind were beyond question the thought and idea in his.

“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.”

“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 sand-funnels?”

“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. We smoked our pipes busily in silence.

Then something happened, something unimportant apparently. 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. 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–”

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. 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
river.”

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 realizing 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, willows!”

He sat down again in a state of semi-collapse. 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.

We were grubbing away in the middle of a thickish clump of willows, when
my body was seized in a grip. It was the Swede. He had fallen against me, and was clutching me for support.

“Look! By my soul!” he whispered pointing to the fire, some fifty feet away. I followed the direction of his finger.

There, in front of the dim glow, something was moving.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.

“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.

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.

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. He himself, he says, actually swooned at the same moment.
“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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I called again to him, louder than before. He did not answer, 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 realized positively that the Swede was not here. He had gone.

I dashed out in a mad run.

The dawn was just about to break. No wind stirred. 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. I plunged among the bushes, tripping headlong, tumbling over roots, and scraping my face.

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, using the most outlandish phrases in his anger about “going inside to Them,” and “taking
the way of the water and the wind”. But in the end I managed to get him
into the tent.

I think the suddenness with which it all went and he grew calm and saidbjust 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 when the sunlight woke him three hours
later–it became so clear to me that he remembered absolutely nothing of what he had attempted to do.

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.

“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. “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.

“Ah!” he exclaimed presently, “ah!”

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 water.

“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.

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.

Halfway 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. We tumbled together on to the hard sand so that our feet splashed into the water, 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 work.

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. It lay on the
edge of the main stream. In another moment it would be swept away.

The Swede started to save it and then abruptly dropped upon his knees and covered his eyes with his hands. 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! Their awful mark!”

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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