Vengeance is Mine
An active, vigorous man in Holy orders, yet compelled
by heart trouble to resign a living in Kent
before full middle age, he had found suitable work with
the Red Cross in France; and it rather pleased a strain of
innocent vanity in him that Rouen, whence he derived
his Norman blood, should be the scene of his activities.
He was a gentle-minded soul, a man deeply read and
thoughtful, but goodness perhaps his out-standing quality,
believing no evil of others. He had been slow, for instance,
at first to credit the German atrocities, until the evidence
had compelled him to face the appalling facts. With acceptance,
then, he had experienced a revulsion which other
gentle minds have probably also experienced—a burning
desire, namely, that the perpetrators should be fitly punished.
This primitive instinct of revenge—he called it a lust—he
sternly repressed; it involved a descent to lower levels
of conduct irreconcilable with the progress of the race he
so passionately believed in. Revenge pertained to savage
days. But, though he hid away the instinct in his heart,
afraid of its clamour and persistency, it revived from
time to time, as fresh horrors made it bleed anew. It
remained alive, unsatisfied; while, with its analysis, his
mind strove unconsciously. That an intellectual nation
should deliberately include frightfulness as a chief item
in its creed perplexed him horribly; it seemed to him
conscious spiritual evil openly affirmed. Some genuine
worship of Odin, Wotan, Moloch lay still embedded in
the German outlook, and beneath the veneer of their pretentious
culture. He often wondered, too, what effect the
recognition of these horrors must have upon gentle minds
in other men, and especially upon imaginative minds.
How did they deal with the fact that this appalling thing
existed in human nature in the twentieth century? Its
survival, indeed, caused his belief in civilization as a whole
to waver. Was progress, his pet ideal and cherished
faith, after all a mockery? Had human nature not advanced...?
His work in the great hospitals and convalescent camps
beyond the town was tiring; he found little time for recreation,
much less for rest; a light dinner and bed by ten
o’clock was the usual way of spending his evenings. He
had no social intercourse, for everyone else was as busy as
himself. The enforced solitude, not quite wholesome, was
unavoidable. He found no outlet for his thoughts. First-hand
acquaintance with suffering, physical and mental, was
no new thing to him, but this close familiarity, day by day,
with maimed and broken humanity preyed considerably on
his mind, while the fortitude and cheerfulness shown by
the victims deepened the impression of respectful, yearning
wonder made upon him. They were so young, so fine and
careless, these lads whom the German lust for power had
robbed of limbs, and eyes, of mind, of life itself. The sense
of horror grew in him with cumulative but unrelieved
With the lengthening of the days in February, and
especially when March saw the welcome change to summer
time, the natural desire for open air asserted itself. Instead
of retiring early to his dingy bedroom, he would stroll out
after dinner through the ancient streets. When the air
was not too chilly, he would prolong these outings, starting
at sunset and coming home beneath the bright mysterious
stars. He knew at length every turn and winding of the
old-world alleys, every gable, every tower and spire, from
the Vieux Marché, where Joan of Arc was burnt, to the
busy quays, thronged now with soldiers from half a dozen
countries. He wandered on past grey gateways of crumbling
stone that marked the former banks of the old tidal
river. An English army, five centuries ago, had camped
here among reeds and swamps, besieging the Norman capital,
where now they brought in supplies of men and material
upon modern docks, a mighty invasion of a very different
kind. Imaginative reflection was his constant mood.
But it was the haunted streets that touched him most,
stirring some chord his ancestry had planted in him. The
forest of spires thronged the air with strange stone flowers,
silvered by moonlight as though white fire streamed from
branch and petal; the old church towers soared; the cathedral
touched the stars. After dark the modern note, paramount
in the daylight, seemed hushed; with sunset it
underwent a definite night-change. Although the darkened
streets kept alive in him the menace of fire and death, the
crowding soldiers, dipped to the face in shadow, seemed
somehow negligible; the leaning roofs and gables hid them
in a purple sea of mist that blurred their modern garb,
steel weapons, and the like. Shadows themselves, they entered
the being of the town; their feet moved silently; there
was a hush and murmur; the brooding buildings absorbed
Ancient and modern, that is, unable successfully to
mingle, let fall grotesque, incongruous shadows on his
thoughts. The spirit of mediæval days stole over him,
exercising its inevitable sway upon a temperament already
predisposed to welcome it. Witchcraft and wonder, pagan
superstition and speculation, combined with an ancestral
tendency to weave a spell, half of acceptance, half of
shrinking, about his imaginative soul in which poetry and
logic seemed otherwise fairly balanced. Too weary for
critical judgment to discern clear outlines, his mind, during
these magical twilight walks, became the playground of
opposing forces, some power of dreaming, it seems, too
easily in the ascendant. The soul of ancient Rouen, stealing
beside his footsteps in the dusk, put forth a shadowy
hand and touched him.
This shadowy spell he denied as far as in him lay,
though the resistance offered by reason to instinct lacked
true driving power. The dice were loaded otherwise in
such a soul. His own blood harked back unconsciously to
the days when men were tortured, broken on the wheel,
walled up alive, and burnt for small offences. This
shadowy hand stirred faint ancestral memories in him,
part instinct, part desire. The next step, by which he saw
a similar attitude flowering full blown in the German
frightfulness, was too easily made to be rejected. The
German horrors made him believe that this ignorant
cruelty of olden days threatened the world now in a modern,
organized shape that proved its survival in the human
heart. Shuddering, he fought against the natural desire
for adequate punishment, but forgot that repressed emotions
sooner or later must assert themselves. Essentially
irrepressible, they may force an outlet in distorted fashion.
He hardly recognized, perhaps, their actual claim, yet it
was audible occasionally. For, owing to his loneliness, the
natural outlet, in talk and intercourse, was denied.
Then, with the softer winds, he yearned for country
air. The sweet spring days had come; morning and evening
were divine; above the town the orchards were in
bloom. Birds blew their tiny bugles on the hills. The
midday sun began to burn.
It was the time of the final violence, when the German
hordes flung like driven cattle against the Western line
where free men fought for liberty. Fate hovered dreadfully
in the balance that spring of 1918; Amiens was
threatened, and if Amiens fell, Rouen must be evacuated.
The town, already full, became now over-full. On his
way home one evening he passed the station, crowded
with homeless new arrivals. “Got the wind up, it seems,
in Amiens!” cried a cheery voice, as an officer he knew
went by him hurriedly. And as he heard it the mood of
the spring became of a sudden uppermost. He reached
a decision. The German horror came abruptly closer. This
further overcrowding of the narrow streets was more than
he could face.
It was a small, personal decision merely, but he must
get out among woods and fields, among flowers and wholesome,
growing things, taste simple, innocent life again.
The following evening he would pack his haversack with
food and tramp the four miles to the great Forêt Verte—delicious
name!—and spend the night with trees and stars,
breathing his full of sweetness, calm and peace. He was too
accustomed to the thunder of the guns to be disturbed by
it. The song of a thrush, the whistle of a blackbird, would
easily drown that. He made his plan accordingly.
The next two nights, however, a warm soft rain was
falling; only on the third evening could he put his little
plan into execution. Anticipatory enjoyment, meanwhile,
lightened his heart; he did his daily work more competently,
the spell of the ancient city weakened somewhat.
The shadowy hand withdrew.
Meanwhile, a curious adventure intervened.
His good and simple heart, disciplined these many
years in the way a man should walk, received upon its imaginative
side, a stimulus that, in his case, amounted to a
shock. That a strange and comely woman should make
eyes at him disturbed his equilibrium considerably; that
he should enjoy the attack, though without at first responding
openly—even without full comprehension of its
meaning—disturbed it even more. It was, moreover, no
He saw her first the night after his decision when, in
a mood of disappointment due to the rain, he came down
to his lonely dinner. The room, he saw, was crowded with
new arrivals, from Amiens, doubtless, where they had “the
wind up.” The wealthier civilians had fled for safety to
Rouen. These interested and, in a measure, stimulated
him. He looked at them sympathetically, wondering what
dear home-life they had so hurriedly relinquished at the
near thunder of the enemy guns, and, in so doing, he
noticed, sitting alone at a small table just in front of his
own—yet with her back to him—a woman.
She drew his attention instantly. The first glance
told him that she was young and well-to-do; the second,
that she was unusual. What precisely made her unusual
he could not say, although he at once began to study her
intently. Dignity, atmosphere, personality, he perceived
beyond all question. She sat there with an air. The becoming
little hat with its challenging feather slightly
tilted, the set of the shoulders, the neat waist and slender
outline; possibly, too, the hair about the neck, and the faint
perfume that was wafted towards him as the serving girl
swept past, combined in the persuasion. Yet he felt it as
more than a persuasion. She attracted him with a subtle
vehemence he had never felt before. The instant he set
eyes upon her his blood ran faster. The thought rose passionately
in him, almost the words that phrased it: “I
wish I knew her.”
This sudden flash of response his whole being certainly
gave—to the back of an unknown woman. It was both vehement
and instinctive. He lay stress upon its instinctive
character; he was aware of it before reason told him why.
That it was “in response” he also noted, for although he
had not seen her face and she assuredly had made no sign,
he felt that attraction which involves also invitation. So
vehement, moreover, was this response in him that he felt
shy and ashamed the same instant, for it almost seemed he
had expressed his thought in audible words. He flushed,
and the flush ran through his body; he was conscious of
heated blood as in a youth of twenty-five, and when a man
past forty knows this touch of fever he may also know,
though he may not recognize it, that the danger signal
which means possible abandon has been lit. Moreover, as
though to prove his instinct justified, it was at this very
instant that the woman turned and stared at him deliberately.
She looked into his eyes, and he looked into hers.
He knew a moment’s keen distress, a sharpest possible discomfort,
that after all he had expressed his desire audibly.
Yet, though he blushed, he did not lower his eyes. The embarrassment
passed instantly, replaced by a thrill of
strangest pleasure and satisfaction. He knew a tinge of
inexplicable dismay as well. He felt for a second helpless
before what seemed a challenge in her eyes. The eyes were
too compelling. They mastered him.
In order to meet his gaze she had to make a full turn
in her chair, for her table was placed directly in front of
his own. She did so without concealment. It was no mere
attempt to see what lay behind by making a half-turn and
pretending to look elsewhere; no corner of the eye business;
but a full, straight, direct, significant stare. She
looked into his soul as though she called him, he looked
into hers as though he answered. Sitting there like a
statue, motionless, without a bow, without a smile, he returned
her intense regard unflinchingly and yet unwillingly.
He made no sign. He shivered again.... It was perhaps
ten seconds before she turned away with an air as if she
had delivered her message and received his answer, but in
those ten seconds a series of singular ideas crowded his
mind, leaving an impression that ten years could never
efface. The face and eyes produced a kind of intoxication
in him. There was almost recognition, as though she said:
“Ah, there you are! I was waiting; you’ll have to come, of
course. You must!” And just before she turned away she
He felt confused and helpless.
The face he described as unusual; familiar, too, as with
the atmosphere of some long forgotten dream, and if beauty
perhaps was absent, character and individuality were supreme.
Implacable resolution was stamped upon the features,
which yet were sweet and womanly, stirring an emotion
in him that he could not name and certainly did not
recognize. The eyes, slanting a little upwards, were full
of fire, the mouth voluptuous but very firm, the chin and
jaw most delicately modelled, yet with a masculine strength
that told of inflexible resolve. The resolution, as a whole,
was the most relentless he had ever seen upon a human
countenance. It dominated him. “How vain to resist the
will,” he thought, “that lies behind!” He was conscious
of enslavement; she conveyed a message that he must obey,
admitting compliance with her unknown purpose.
That some extraordinary wordless exchange was registered
thus between them seemed very clear; and it was
just at this moment, as if to signify her satisfaction, that
she smiled. At his feeling of willing compliance with
some purpose in her mind, the smile appeared. It was
faint, so faint indeed that the eyes betrayed it rather than
the mouth and lips; but it was there; he saw it and he
thrilled again to this added touch of wonder and enchantment.
Yet, strangest of all, he maintains that with the
smile there fluttered over the resolute face a sudden arresting
tenderness, as though some wild flower lit a granite
surface with its melting loveliness. He was aware in the
clear strong eyes of unshed tears, of sympathy, of self-sacrifice
he called maternal, of clinging love. It was this
tenderness, as of a soft and gracious mother, and this implacable
resolution, as of a stern, relentless man, that left
upon his receptive soul the strange impression of sweetness
yet of domination.
The brief ten seconds were over. She turned away as
deliberately as she had turned to look. He found himself
trembling with confused emotions he could not disentangle,
could not even name; for, with the subtle intoxication of
compliance in his soul lay also a vigorous protest that included
refusal, even a violent refusal given with horror.
This unknown woman, without actual speech or definite
gesture, had lit a flame in him that linked on far away and
out of sight with the magic of the ancient city’s mediæval
spell. Both, he decided, were undesirable, both to be resisted.
He was quite decided about this. She pertained to forgotten
yet unburied things, her modern aspect a mere disguise,
a disguise that some deep unsatisfied instinct in him
pierced with ease.
He found himself equally decided, too, upon another
thing which, in spite of his momentary confusion, stood
out clearly: the magic of the city, the enchantment of the
woman, both attacked a constitutional weakness in his
blood, a line of least resistance. It wore no physical aspect,
breathed no hint of ordinary romance; the mere male and
female, moral or immoral touch was wholly absent; yet
passion lurked there, tumultuous if hidden, and a tract of
consciousness, long untravelled, was lit by sudden ominous
flares. His character, his temperament, his calling in life
as a former clergyman and now a Red Cross worker, being
what they were, he stood on the brink of an adventure not
dangerous alone but containing a challenge of fundamental
kind that involved his very soul.
No further thrill, however, awaited him immediately.
He left his table before she did, having intercepted no
slightest hint of desired acquaintanceship or intercourse.
He, naturally, made no advances; she, equally, made no
smallest sign. Her face remained hidden, he caught no
flash of eyes, no gesture, no hint of possible invitation.
He went upstairs to his dingy room, and in due course
fell asleep. The next day he saw her not, her place in
the dining-room was empty; but in the late evening of the
following day, as the soft spring sunshine found him prepared
for his postponed expedition, he met her suddenly
on the stairs. He was going down with haversack and in
walking kit to an early dinner, when he saw her coming
up; she was perhaps a dozen steps below him; they must
meet. A wave of confused, embarrassed pleasure swept
him. He realized that this was no chance meeting. She
meant to speak to him.
Violent attraction and an equally violent repulsion
seized him. There was no escape, nor, had escape been
possible, would he have attempted it. He went down four
steps, she mounted four towards him; then he took one
and she took one. They met. For a moment they stood
level, while he shrank against the wall to let her pass. He
had the feeling that but for the support of that wall he
must have lost his balance and fallen into her, for the
sunlight from the landing window caught her face and lit
it, and she was younger, he saw, than he had thought, and
far more comely. Her atmosphere enveloped him, the
sense of attraction and repulsion became intense. She
moved past him with the slightest possible bow of recognition;
then, having passed, she turned.
She stood a little higher than himself, a step at most,
and she thus looked down at him. Her eyes blazed into
his. She smiled, and he was aware again of the domination
and the sweetness. The perfume of her near presence
drowned him; his head swam. “We count upon you,”
she said in a low firm voice, as though giving a command;
“I know ... we may. We do.” And, before he knew
what he was saying, trembling a little between deep pleasure
and a contrary impulse that sought to choke the utterance,
he heard his own voice answering. “You can count
upon me....” And she was already half-way up the
next flight of stairs ere he could move a muscle, or attempt
to thread a meaning into the singular exchange.
Yet meaning, he well knew, there was.
She was gone; her footsteps overhead had died away.
He stood there trembling like a boy of twenty, yet also
like a man of forty in whom fires, long dreaded, now blazed
sullenly. She had opened the furnace door, the draught
rushed through. He felt again the old unwelcome spell;
he saw the twisted streets ’mid leaning gables and shadowy
towers of a day forgotten; he heard the ominous murmurs
of a crowd that thirsted for wheel and scaffold and fire;
and, aware of vengeance, sweet and terrible, aware, too,
that he welcomed it, his heart was troubled and afraid.
In a brief second the impression came and went; following
it swiftly, the sweetness of the woman swept him:
he forgot his shrinking in a rush of wild delicious pleasure.
The intoxication in him deepened. She had recognized
him! She had bowed and even smiled; she had spoken,
assuming familiarity, intimacy, including him in her secret
purposes! It was this sweet intimacy cleverly injected,
that overcame the repulsion he acknowledged, winning
complete obedience to the unknown meaning of her words.
This meaning, for the moment, lay in darkness; yet it
was a portion of his own self, he felt, that concealed it
of set purpose. He kept it hid, he looked deliberately another
way; for, if he faced it with full recognition, he knew
that he must resist it to the death. He allowed himself
to ask vague questions—then let her dominating spell confuse
the answers so that he did not hear them. The challenge
to his soul, that is, he evaded.
What is commonly called sex lay only slightly in his
troubled emotions; her purpose had nothing that kept
step with chance acquaintanceship. There lay meaning,
indeed, in her smile and voice, but these were no hand-maids
to a vulgar intrigue in a foreign hotel. Her will
breathed cleaner air; her purpose aimed at some graver,
mightier climax than the mere subjection of an elderly
victim like himself. That will, that purpose, he felt certain,
were implacable as death, the resolve in those bold
eyes was not a common one. For, in some strange way,
he divined the strong maternity in her; the maternal instinct
was deeply, even predominantly, involved; he felt
positive that a divine tenderness, deeply outraged, was a
chief ingredient too. In some way, then, she needed him,
yet not she alone, for the pronoun “we” was used, and
there were others with her; in some way, equally, a part
of him was already her and their accomplice, an unresisting
slave, a willing co-conspirator.
He knew one other thing, and it was this that he kept
concealed so carefully from himself. His recognition of
it was sub-conscious possibly, but for that very reason true:
her purpose was consistent with the satisfaction at last of
a deep instinct in him that clamoured to know gratification.
It was for these odd, mingled reasons that he stood trembling
when she left him on the stairs, and finally went
down to his hurried meal with a heart that knew wonder,
anticipation, and delight, but also dread.
The table in front of him remained unoccupied; his
dinner finished, he went out hastily.
As he passed through the crowded streets, his chief desire
was to be quickly free of the old muffled buildings and
airless alleys with their clinging atmosphere of other days.
He longed for the sweet taste of the heights, the smells of
the forest whither he was bound. This Forêt Verte, he
knew, rolled for leagues towards the north, empty of houses
as of human beings; it was the home of deer and birds
and rabbits, of wild boar too. There would be spring
flowers among the brushwood, anemones, celandine, oxslip,
daffodils. The vapours of the town oppressed him, the
warm and heavy moisture stifled; he wanted space and
the sight of clean simple things that would stimulate his
mind with lighter thoughts.
He soon passed the Rampe, skirted the ugly villas of
modern Bihorel and, rising now with every step, entered
the Route Neuve. He went unduly fast; he was already
above the Cathedral spire; below him the Seine meandered
round the chalky hills, laden with war-barges, and across a
dip, still pink in the afterglow, rose the blunt Down of
Bonsecours with its anti-aircraft batteries. Poetry and
violent fact crashed everywhere; he longed to top the hill
and leave these unhappy reminders of death behind him.
In front the sweet woods already beckoned through the twilight.
He hastened. Yet while he deliberately fixed his
imagination on promised peace and beauty, an undercurrent
ran sullenly in his mind, busy with quite other
thoughts. The unknown woman and her singular words,
the following mystery of the ancient city, the soft beating
wonder of the two together, these worked their incalculable
magic persistently about him. Repression merely added
to their power. His mind was a prey to some shadowy,
remote anxiety that, intangible, invisible, yet knocked with
ghostly fingers upon some door of ancient memory....
He watched the moon rise above the eastern ridge, in the
west the afterglow of sunset still hung red. But these did
not hold his attention as they normally must have done.
Attention seemed elsewhere. The undercurrent bore him
down a siding, into a backwater, as it were, that clamoured
He thought suddenly, then, of weather, what he called
“German weather”—that combination of natural conditions
which so oddly favoured the enemy always. It had
often occurred to him as strange; on sea and land, mist,
rain and wind, the fog and drying sun worked ever on
their side. The coincidence was odd, to say the least. And
now this glimpse of rising moon and sunset sky reminded
him unpleasantly of the subject. Legends of pagan
weather-gods passed through his mind like hurrying
shadows. These shadows multiplied, changed form, vanished
and returned. They came and went with incoherence,
a straggling stream, rushing from one point to
another, manœuvring for position, but all unled, unguided
by his will. The physical exercise filled his brain with
blood, and thought danced undirected, picture upon picture
driving by, so that soon he slipped from German weather
and pagan gods to the witchcraft of past centuries, of its
alleged association with the natural powers of the elements,
and thus, eventually, to his cherished beliefs that humanity
Such remnants of primitive days were grotesque superstition,
of course. But had humanity advanced? Had
the individual progressed after all? Civilization, was it
not the merest artificial growth? And the old perplexity
rushed through his mind again—the German barbarity and
blood-lust, the savagery, the undoubted sadic impulses, the
frightfulness taught with cool calculation by their highest
minds, approved by their professors, endorsed by their
clergy, applauded by their women even—all the unwelcome,
undesired thoughts came flocking back upon him,
escorted by the trooping shadows. They lay, these questions,
still unsolved within him; it was the undercurrent,
flowing more swiftly now, that bore them to the surface.
It had acquired momentum; it was leading somewhere.
They were a thoughtful, intellectual race, these Germans;
their music, literature, philosophy, their science—how
reconcile the opposing qualities? He had read that
their herd-instinct was unusually developed, though betraying
the characteristics of a low wild savage type—the
lupine. It might be true. Fear and danger wakened this
collective instinct into terrific activity, making them blind
and humourless; they fought best, like wolves, in contact;
they howled and whined and boasted loudly all together to
inspire terror; their Hymn of Hate was but an elaboration
of the wolf’s fierce bark, giving them herd-courage; and
a savage discipline was necessary to their lupine type.
These reflections thronged his mind as the blood
coursed in his veins with the rapid climbing; yet one and
all, the beauty of the evening, the magic of the hidden
town, the thoughts of German horror, German weather,
German gods, all these, even the odd detail that they revived
a pagan practice by hammering nails into effigies
and idols—all led finally to one blazing centre that nothing
could dislodge nor anything conceal; a woman’s voice and
eyes. To these he knew quite well, was due the undesired
intensification of the very mood, the very emotions, the
very thoughts he had come out on purpose to escape.
“It is the night of the vernal equinox,” occurred to him
suddenly, sharp as a whispered voice beside him. He had
no notion whence the idea was born. It had no particular
meaning, so far as he remembered.
“It had then ...” said the voice imperiously, rising,
it seemed, directly out of the under-current in his soul.
It startled him. He increased his pace. He walked
very quickly, whistling softly as he went.
The dusk had fallen when at length he topped the
long, slow hill, and left the last of the atrocious straggling
villas well behind him. The ancient city lay far below
in murky haze and smoke, but tinged now with the silver
of the growing moon.
He stood now on the open plateau. He was on the
heights at last.
The night air met him freshly in the face, so that he
forgot the fatigue of the long climb uphill, taken too fast
somewhat for his years. He drew a deep draught into
his lungs and stepped out briskly.
Far in the upper sky light flaky clouds raced through
the reddened air, but the wind kept to these higher strata,
and the world about him lay very still. Few lights showed
in the farms and cottages, for this was the direct route of
the Gothas, and nothing that could help the German hawks
to find the river was visible.
His mind cleared pleasantly; this keen sweet air held
no mystery; he put his best foot foremost, whistling still,
but a little more loudly than before. Among the orchards
he saw the daisies glimmer. Also, he heard the guns, a
thudding concussion in the direction of the coveted
Amiens, where, some sixty miles as the crow flies, they
roared their terror into the calm evening skies. He cursed
the sound, in the town below it was not audible. Thought
jumped then to the men who fired them, and so to the
prisoners who worked on the roads outside the hospitals
and camps he visited daily. He passed them every morning
and night, and the N.C.O. invariably saluted his Red
Cross uniform, a salute he returned, when he could not
avoid it, with embarrassment.
One man in particular stood out clearly in this memory;
he had exchanged glances with him, noted the expression
of his face, the number of his gang printed on coat
and trousers—“82.” The fellow had somehow managed
to establish a relationship; he would look up and smile or
frown; if the news, from his point of view, was good, he
smiled; if it was bad, he scowled; once, insolently enough—when
the Germans had taken Albert, Péronne, Bapaume—he
Something about the sullen, close-cropped face, typically
Prussian, made the other shudder. It was the visage
of an animal, neither evil nor malignant, even good-natured
sometimes when it smiled, yet of an animal that could be
fierce with the lust of happiness, ferocious with delight.
The sullen savagery of a human wolf lay in it somewhere.
He pictured its owner impervious to shame, to normal human
instinct as civilized people know these. Doubtless he
read his own feelings into it. He could imagine the man
doing anything and everything, regarding chivalry and
sporting instinct as proof of fear or weakness. He could
picture this member of the wolf-pack killing a woman or
a child, mutilating, cutting off little hands even, with the
conscientious conviction that it was right and sensible to
destroy any individual of an enemy tribe. It was, to him,
an atrocious and inhuman face.
It now cropped up with unpleasant vividness, as he
listened to the distant guns and thought of Amiens with
its back against the wall, its inhabitants flying——
Ah! Amiens...! He again saw the woman staring
into his obedient eyes across the narrow space between
the tables. He smelt the delicious perfume of her dress
and person on the stairs. He heard her commanding voice,
her very words: “We count on you.... I know we
can ... we do.” And her background was of twisted
streets, dark alley-ways and leaning gables....
He hurried, whistling loudly an air that he invented
suddenly, using his stick like a golf club at every loose
stone his feet encountered, making as much noise as possible.
He told himself he was a parson and a Red Cross
worker. He looked up and saw that the stars were out.
The pace made him warm, and he shifted his haversack
to the other shoulder. The moon, he observed, now cast
his shadow for a long distance on the sandy road.
After another mile, while the air grew sharper and
twilight surrendered finally to the moon, the road began to
curve and dip, the cottages lay farther out in the dim
fields, the farms and barns occurred at longer intervals. A
dog barked now and again; he saw cows lying down for
the night beneath shadowy fruit-trees. And then the scent
in the air changed slightly, and a darkening of the near
horizon warned him that the forest had come close.
This was an event. Its influence breathed already a
new perfume; the shadows from its myriad trees stole out
and touched him. Ten minutes later he reached its actual
frontier cutting across the plateau like a line of sentries
at attention. He slowed down a little. Here, within sight
and touch of his long-desired objective, he hesitated. It
stretched, he knew from the map, for many leagues to the
north, uninhabited, lonely, the home of peace and silence;
there were flowers there, and cool sweet spaces where the
moonlight fell. Yet here, within scent and touch of it,
he slowed down a moment to draw breath. A forest on the
map is one thing; visible before the eyes when night has
fallen, it is another. It is real.
The wind, not noticeable hitherto, now murmured towards
him from the serried trees that seemed to manufacture
darkness out of nothing. This murmur hummed
about him. It enveloped him. Piercing it, another sound
that was not the guns just reached him, but so distant that
he hardly noticed it. He looked back. Dusk suddenly
merged in night. He stopped.
“How practical the French are,” he said to himself—aloud—as
he looked at the road running straight as a ruled
line into the heart of the trees. “They waste no energy,
no space, no time. Admirable!”
It pierced the forest like a lance, tapering to a faint
point in the misty distance. The trees ate its undeviating
straightness as though they would smother it from sight, as
though its rigid outline marred their mystery. He admired
the practical makers of the road, yet sided, too, with
the poetry of the trees. He stood there staring, waiting,
dawdling.... About him, save for this murmur of the
wind, was silence. Nothing living stirred. The world lay
extraordinarily still. That other distant sound had died
He lit his pipe, glad that the match blew out and the
damp tobacco needed several matches before the pipe drew
properly. His puttees hurt him a little, he stooped to
loosen them. His haversack swung round in front as he
straightened up again, he shifted it laboriously to the
other shoulder. A tiny stone in his right boot caused
irritation. Its removal took a considerable time, for he
had to sit down, and a log was not at once forthcoming.
Moreover, the laces gave him trouble, and his fingers had
grown thick with heat and the knots were difficult to
“There!” He said it aloud, standing up again. “Now
at last, I’m ready!” Then added a mild imprecation, for
his pipe had gone out while he stooped over the recalcitrant
boot, and it had to be lighted once again. “Ah!” he gasped
finally with a sigh as, facing the forest for the third time,
he shuffled his tunic straight, altered his haversack once
more, changed his stick from the right hand to the left—and
faced the foolish truth without further pretence.
He mopped his forehead carefully, as though at the
same time trying to mop away from his mind a faint
anxiety, a very faint uneasiness, that gathered there. Was
someone standing near him? Had somebody come close?
He listened intently. It was the blood singing in his ears,
of course, that curious distant noise. For, truth to tell,
the loneliness bit just below the surface of what he found
enjoyable. It seemed to him that somebody was coming,
someone he could not see, so that he looked back over his
shoulder once again, glanced quickly right and left, then
peered down the long opening cut through the woods in
front—when there came suddenly a roar and a blaze of
dazzling light from behind, so instantaneously that he
barely had time to obey the instinct of self-preservation
and step aside. He actually leapt. Pressed against the
hedge, he saw a motor-car rush past him like a whirlwind,
flooding the sandy road with fire; a second followed it;
and, to his complete amazement, then, a third.
They were powerful, private cars, so-called. This struck
him instantly. Two other things he noticed, as they dived
down the throat of the long white road—they showed no
tail-lights. This made him wonder. And, secondly, the
drivers, clearly seen, were women. They were not even in
uniform—which made him wonder even more. The occupants,
too, were women. He caught the outline of toque
and feather—or was it flowers?—against the closed windows
in the moonlight as the procession rushed past him.
He felt bewildered and astonished. Private motors
were rare, and military regulations exceedingly strict; the
danger of spies dressed in French uniform was constant;
cars armed with machine guns, he knew, patrolled the
countryside in all directions. Shaken and alarmed, he
thought of favoured persons fleeing stealthily by night,
of treachery, disguise and swift surprise; he thought of
various things as he stood peering down the road for ten
minutes after all sight and sound of the cars had died
away. But no solution of the mystery occurred to him.
Down the white throat the motors vanished. His pipe had
gone out; he lit it, and puffed furiously.
His thoughts, at any rate, took temporarily a new direction
now. The road was not as lonely as he had imagined.
A natural reaction set in at once, and this proof of practical,
modern life banished the shadows from his mind
effectually. He started off once more, oblivious of his former
hesitation. He even felt a trifle shamed and foolish,
pretending that the vanished mood had not existed. The
tobacco had been damp. His boot had really hurt
Yet bewilderment and surprise stayed with him. The
swiftness of the incident was disconcerting; the cars arrived
and vanished with such extraordinary rapidity; their
noisy irruption into this peaceful spot seemed incongruous;
they roared, blazed, rushed and disappeared; silence resumed
its former sway.
But the silence persisted, whereas the noise was gone.
This touch of the incongruous remained with him as
he now went ever deeper into the heart of the quiet forest.
This odd incongruity of dreams remained.
The keen air stole from the woods, cooling his body
and his mind; anemones gleamed faintly among the brushwood,
lit by the pallid moonlight. There were beauty,
calm and silence, the slow breathing of the earth beneath
the comforting sweet stars. War, in this haunt of ancient
peace, seemed an incredible anachronism. His thoughts
turned to gentle happy hopes of a day when the lion and
the lamb would yet lie down together, and a little child
would lead them without fear. His soul dwelt with peaceful
longings and calm desires.
He walked on steadily, until the inflexible straightness
of the endless road began to afflict him, and he longed for
a turning to the right or left. He looked eagerly about
him for a woodland path. Time mattered little; he could
wait for the sunrise and walk home “beneath the young
grey dawn”; he had food and matches, he could light a
fire, and sleep—— No!—after all, he would not light a
fire, perhaps; he might be accused of signalling to hostile
aircraft, or a garde forestière might catch him. He would
not bother with a fire. The night was warm, he could enjoy
himself and pass the time quite happily without artificial
heat; probably he would need no sleep at all....
And just then he noticed an opening on his right, where a
seductive pathway led in among the trees. The moon, now
higher in the sky, lit this woodland trail enticingly; it
seemed the very opening he had looked for, and with a
thrill of pleasure he at once turned down it, leaving the
ugly road behind him with relief.
The sound of his footsteps hushed instantly on the
leaves and moss; the silence became noticeable; an unusual
stillness followed; it seemed that something in his mind
was also hushed. His feet moved stealthily, as though
anxious to conceal his presence from surprise. His steps
dragged purposely; their rustling through the thick dead
leaves, perhaps, was pleasant to him. He was not sure.
The path opened presently into a clearing where the
moonlight made a pool of silver, the surrounding brushwood
fell away; and in the centre a gigantic outline rose.
It was, he saw, a beech tree that dwarfed the surrounding
forest by its grandeur. Its bulk loomed very splendid
against the sky, a faint rustle just audible in its myriad
tiny leaves. Dipped in the moonlight, it had such majesty
of proportion, such symmetry, that he stopped in admiration.
It was, he saw, a multiple tree, five stems springing
with attempted spirals out of an enormous trunk; it was
immense; it had a presence, the space framed it to perfection.
The clearing, evidently, was a favourite resting
place for summer picknickers, a playground, probably, for
city children on holiday afternoons; woodcutters, too, had
been here recently, for he noticed piled brushwood ready
to be carted. It indicated admirably, he felt, the limits of
his night expedition. Here he would rest awhile, eat
his late supper, sleep perhaps round a small—— No!
again—a fire he need not make; a spark might easily set
the woods ablaze, it was against both forest and military
regulations. This idea of a fire, otherwise so natural, was
distasteful, even repugnant, to him. He wondered a little
why it recurred. He noticed this time, moreover, something
unpleasant connected with the suggestion of a fire,
something that made him shrink; almost a ghostly dread
lay hidden in it.
This startled him. A dozen excellent reasons, supplied
by his brain, warned him that a fire was unwise; but the
true reason, supplied by another part of him, concealed
itself with care, as though afraid that reason might detect
its nature and fix the label on. Disliking this reminder
of his earlier mood, he moved forward into the clearing,
swinging his stick aggressively and whistling. He approached
the tree, where a dozen thick roots dipped into
the earth. Admiring, looking up and down, he paced
slowly round its prodigious girth, then stood absolutely
still. His heart stopped abruptly, his blood became congealed.
He saw something that filled him with a sudden
emptiness of terror. On this western side the shadow lay
very black; it was between the thick limbs, half stem, half
root, where the dark hollows gave easy hiding-places, that
he was positive he detected movement. A portion of the
trunk had moved.
He stood stock still and stared—not three feet from the
trunk—when there came a second movement. Concealed
in the shadows there crouched a living form. The movement
defined itself immediately. Half reclining, half
standing, a living being pressed itself close against the
tree, yet fitting so neatly into the wide scooped hollows,
that it was scarcely distinguishable from its ebony background.
But for the chance movement he must have
passed it undetected. Equally, his outstretched fingers
might have touched it. The blood rushed from his heart,
as he saw this second movement.
Detaching itself from the obscure background, the
figure rose and stood before him. It swayed a little, then
stepped out into the patch of moonlight on his left. Three
feet lay between them. The figure then bent over. A
pallid face with burning eyes thrust forward and peered
straight into his own.
The human being was a woman. The same instant he
recognized the eyes that had stared him out of countenance
in the dining-room two nights ago. He was petrified.
She stared him out of countenance now.
And, as she did so, the under-current he had tried to
ignore so long swept to the surface in a tumultuous flood,
obliterating his normal self. Something elaborately built
up in his soul by years of artificial training collapsed like
a house of cards, and he knew himself undone.
“They’ve got me...!” flashed dreadfully through
his mind. It was, again, like a message delivered in a
dream where the significance of acts performed and language
uttered, concealed at the moment, is revealed much
“After all—they’ve got me...!”
The dialogue that followed seemed strange to him only
when looking back upon it. The element of surprise again
was negligible if not wholly absent, but the incongruity
of dreams, almost of nightmare, became more marked.
Though the affair was unlikely, it was far from incredible.
So completely were this man and woman involved in some
purpose common to them both that their talk, their meeting,
their instinctive sympathy at the time seemed natural.
The same stream bore them irresistibly towards the same
far sea. Only, as yet, this common purpose remained concealed.
Nor could he define the violent emotions that
troubled him. Their exact description was in him, but
so deep that he could not draw it up. Moonlight lay upon
his thought, merging clear outlines.
Divided against himself, the cleavage left no authoritative
self in control; his desire to take an immediate decision
resulted in a confused struggle, where shame and
pleasure, attraction and revulsion mingled painfully. Incongruous
details tumbled helter-skelter about his mind:
for no obvious reason, he remembered again his Red Cross
uniform, his former holy calling, his nationality too; he
was a servant of mercy, a teacher of the love of God; he
was an English gentleman. Against which rose other details,
as in opposition, holding just beyond the reach of
words, yet rising, he recognized well enough, from the
bed-rock of the human animal, whereon a few centuries
have imposed the thin crust of refinement men call civilization.
He was aware of joy and loathing.
In the first few seconds he knew the clash of a dreadful
fundamental struggle, while the spell of this woman’s
strange enchantment poured over him, seeking the reconciliation
he himself could not achieve. Yet the reconciliation
she sought meant victory or defeat; no compromise
lay in it. Something imperious emanating from her already
dominated the warring elements towards a coherent
whole. He stood before her, quivering with emotions he
dared not name. Her great womanhood he recognized,
acknowledging obedience to her undisclosed intentions.
And this idea of coming surrender terrified him. Whence
came, too, that queenly touch about her that made him
feel he should have sunk upon his knees?
The conflict resulted in a curious compromise. He
raised his hand; he saluted; he found very ordinary words.
“You passed me only a short time ago,” he stammered,
“in the motors. There were others with you——”
“Knowing that you would find us and come after. We
count on your presence and your willing help.” Her voice
was firm as with unalterable conviction. It was persuasive
too. He nodded, as though acquiescence seemed the only
“We need your sympathy; we must have your power
He bowed again. “My power!” Something exulted
in him. But he murmured only. It was natural, he felt;
he gave consent without a question.
Strange words he both understood and did not understand.
Her voice, low and silvery, was that of a gentle,
cultured woman, but command rang through it with a
clang of metal, terrible behind the sweetness. She moved
a little closer, standing erect before him in the moonlight,
her figure borrowing something of the great tree’s majesty
behind her. It was incongruous, this gentle and yet sinister
air she wore. Whence came, in this calm peaceful
spot, the suggestion of a wild and savage background to
her? Why were there tumult and oppression in his heart,
pain, horror, tenderness and mercy, mixed beyond disentanglement?
Why did he think already, but helplessly,
of escape, yet at the same time burn to stay? Whence
came again, too, a certain queenly touch he felt in her?
“The gods have brought you,” broke across his turmoil
in a half whisper whose breath almost touched his face.
“You belong to us.”
The deeps rose in him. Seduced by the sweetness and
the power, the warring divisions in his being drew together.
His under-self more and more obtained the mastery
she willed. Then something in the French she used
flickered across his mind with a faint reminder of normal
“Belgian——” he began, and then stopped short, as
her instant rejoinder broke in upon his halting speech and
petrified him. In her voice sang that triumphant tenderness
that only the feminine powers of the Universe may
compass: it seemed the sky sang with her, the mating
birds, wild flowers, the south wind and the running
streams. All these, even the silver birches, lent their fluid,
feminine undertones to the two pregnant words with which
she interrupted him and completed his own unfinished sentence:
“—— and mother.”
With the dreadful calm of an absolute assurance, she
stood and watched him.
His understanding already showed signs of clearing.
She stretched her hands out with a passionate appeal, a
yearning gesture, the eloquence of which should explain
all that remained unspoken. He saw their grace and symmetry,
exquisite in the moonlight, then watched them fold
together in an attitude of prayer. Beautiful mother hands
they were; hands made to smooth the pillows of the world,
to comfort, bless, caress, hands that little children everywhere
must lean upon and love-perfect symbol of protective,
This tenderness he noted; he noted next—the strength.
In the folded hands he divined the expression of another
great world-power, fulfilling the implacable resolution of
the mouth and eyes. He was aware of relentless purpose,
more—of merciless revenge, as by a protective motherhood
outraged beyond endurance. Moreover, the gesture held
appeal; these hands, so close that their actual perfume
reached him, sought his own in help. The power in himself
as man, as male, as father—this was required of him
in the fulfillment of the unknown purpose to which this
woman summoned him. His understanding cleared still
The couple faced one another, staring fixedly beneath
the giant beech that overarched them. In the dark of his
eyes, he knew, lay growing terror. He shivered, and the
shiver passed down his spine, making his whole body
tremble. There stirred in him an excitement he loathed,
yet welcomed, as the primitive male in him, answering the
summons, reared up with instinctive, dreadful glee to shatter
the bars that civilization had so confidently set upon
its freedom. A primal emotion of his under-being, ancient
lust that had too long gone hungry and unfed, leaped
towards some possible satisfaction. It was incredible; it
was, of course, a dream. But judgment wavered; increasing
terror ate his will away. Violence and sweetness, relief
and degradation, fought in his soul, as he trembled before
a power that now slowly mastered him. This glee and
loathing formed their ghastly partnership. He could have
strangled the woman where she stood. Equally, he could
have knelt and kissed her feet.
The vehemence of the conflict paralysed him.
“A mother’s hands ...” he murmured at length, the
words escaping like bubbles that rose to the surface of a
seething cauldron and then burst.
And the woman smiled as though she read his mind
and saw his little trembling. The smile crept down from
the eyes towards the mouth; he saw her lips part slightly;
he saw her teeth.
But her reply once more transfixed him. Two syllables
she uttered in a voice of iron:
The sound acted upon him like a Word of Power in
some Eastern fairy tale. It knit the present to a past that
he now recognized could never die. Humanity had not
advanced. The hidden source of his secret joy began to
glow. For this woman focused in him passions that life
had hitherto denied, pretending they were atrophied, and
the primitive male, the naked savage rose up, with glee in
its lustful eyes and blood upon its lips. Acquired civilization,
a pitiful mockery, split through its thin veneer and
“Belgian ... Louvain ... Mother ...” he whispered,
yet astonished at the volume of sound that now left
his mouth. His voice had a sudden fullness. It seemed
a cave-man roared the words.
She touched his hand, and he knew a sudden intensification
of life within him; immense energy poured
through his veins; a mediæval spirit used his eyes; great
pagan instincts strained and urged against his heart,
against his very muscles. He longed for action.
And he cried aloud: “I am with you, with you to the
Her spell had vivified beyond all possible resistance
that primitive consciousness which is ever the bed-rock of
the human animal.
A racial memory, inset against the forest scenery,
flashed suddenly through the depths laid bare. Below a
sinking moon dark figures flew in streaming lines and
groups; tormented cries went down the wind; he saw torn,
blasted trees that swayed and rocked; there was a leaping
fire, a gleaming knife, an altar. He saw a sacrifice.
It flashed away and vanished. In its place the woman
stood, with shining eyes fixed on his face, one arm outstretched,
one hand upon his flesh. She shifted slightly, and
her cloak swung open. He saw clinging skins wound closely
about her figure; leaves, flowers and trailing green hung
from her shoulders, fluttering down the lines of her triumphant
physical beauty. There was a perfume of wild
roses, incense, ivy bloom, whose subtle intoxication drowned
his senses. He saw a sparkling girdle round the waist, a
knife thrust through it tight against the hip. And his
secret joy, the glee, the pleasure of some unlawful and
unholy lust leaped through his blood towards the abandonment
The moon revealed a glimpse, no more. An instant
he saw her thus, half savage and half sweet, symbol of
primitive justice entering the present through the door
of vanished centuries.
The cloak swung back again, the outstretched hand
withdrew, but from a world he knew had altered.
To-day sank out of sight. The moon shone pale with
terror and delight on Yesterday.
Across this altered world a faint new sound now
reached his ears, as though a human wail of anguished
terror trembled and changed into the cry of some captured
helpless animal. He thought of a wolf apart from the
comfort of its pack, savage yet abject. The despair of a
last appeal was in the sound. It floated past, it died away.
The woman moved closer suddenly.
“All is prepared,” she said, in the same low, silvery
voice; “we must not tarry. The equinox is come, the tide
of power flows. The sacrifice is here; we hold him fast.
We only awaited you.” Her shining eyes were raised to
his. “Your soul is with us now?” she whispered.
“My soul is with you.”
“And midnight,” she continued, “is at hand. We use,
of course, their methods. Henceforth the gods—their old-world
gods—shall work on our side. They demand a
sacrifice, and justice has provided one.”
His understanding cleared still more then; the last veil
of confusion was drawing from his mind. The old, old
names went thundering through his consciousness—Odin,
Wotan, Moloch—accessible ever to invocation and worship
of the rightful kind. It seemed as natural as though he
read in his pulpit the prayer for rain, or gave out the
hymn for those at sea. That was merely an empty form,
whereas this was real. Sea, storm and earthquake, all
natural activities, lay under the direction of those elemental
powers called the gods. Names changed, the principle
“Their weather shall be ours,” he cried, with sudden
passion, as a memory of unhallowed usages he had thought
erased from life burned in him; while, stranger still, resentment
stirred—revolt—against the system, against the
very deity he had worshipped hitherto. For these had
never once interfered to help the cause of right; their
feebleness was now laid bare before his eyes. And a two-fold
lust rose in him. “Vengeance is ours!” he cried in
a louder voice, through which this sudden loathing of the
cross poured hatred. “Vengeance and justice! Now bind
the victim! Bring on the sacrifice!”
“He is already bound.” And as the woman moved
a little, the curious erection behind her caught his eye—the
piled brushwood he had imagined was the work of
woodmen, picnickers, or playing children. He realized its
It now delighted and appalled him. Awe deepened in
him, a wind of ice passed over him. Civilization made one
more fluttering effort. He gasped, he shivered; he tried
to speak. But no words came. A thin cry, as of a frightened
child, escaped him.
“It is the only way,” the woman whispered softly. “We
steal from them the power of their own deities.” Her head
flung back with a marvellous gesture of grace and power;
she stood before him a figure of perfect womanhood, gentle
and tender, yet at the same time alive and cruel with the
passions of an ignorant and savage past. Her folded hands
were clasped, her face turned heavenwards. “I am a
mother,” she added, with amazing passion, her eyes glistening
in the moonlight with unshed tears. “We all”—she
glanced towards the forest, her voice rising to a wild and
poignant cry—“all, all of us are mothers!”
It was then the final clearing of his understanding
happened, and he realized his own part in what would
follow. Yet before the realization he felt himself not
merely ineffective, but powerless. The struggling forces
in him were so evenly matched that paralysis of the will
resulted. His dry lips contrived merely a few words of
confused and feeble protest.
“Me!” he faltered. “My help——?”
“Justice,” she answered; and though softly uttered, it
was as though the mediæval towers clanged their bells.
That secret, ghastly joy again rose in him; admiration,
wonder, desire followed instantly. A fugitive memory of
Joan of Arc flashed by, as with armoured wings, upon the
moonlight. Some power similarly heroic, some purpose
similarly inflexible, emanated from this woman, the savour
of whose physical enchantment, whose very breath, rose to
his brain like incense. Again he shuddered. The spasm
of secret pleasure shocked him. He sighed. He felt alert,
Her words went down the wind between them:
“You are so weak, you English,” he heard her terrible
whisper, “so nobly forgiving, so fine, yet so forgetful. You
refuse the weapon they place within your hands.” Her
face thrust closer, the great eyes blazed upon him. “If we
would save the children”—the voice rose and fell like wind—“we
must worship where they worship, we must sacrifice
to their savage deities....”
The stream of her words flowed over him with this
nightmare magic that seemed natural, without surprise.
He listened, he trembled, and again he sighed. Yet in
his blood there was sudden roaring.
“... Louvain ... the hands of little children ...
we have the proof,” he heard, oddly intermingled with
another set of words that clamoured vainly in his brain
for utterance; “the diary in his own handwriting, his
gloating pleasure ... the little, innocent hands....”
“Justice is mine!” rang through some fading region
of his now fainting soul, but found no audible utterance.
“... Mist, rain and wind ... the gods of German
Weather.... We all ... are mothers....”
“I will repay,” came forth in actual words, yet so low
he hardly heard the sound. But the woman heard.
“We!” she cried fiercely, “we will repay!”...
“God!” The voice seemed torn from his throat. “Oh
“Our gods,” she said steadily in that tone of iron, “are
near. The sacrifice is ready. And you—servant of mercy,
priest of a younger deity, and English—you bring the
power that makes it effectual. The circuit is complete.”
It was perhaps the tears in her appealing eyes, perhaps
it was her words, her voice, the wonder of her presence;
all combined possibly in the spell that finally then struck
down his will as with a single blow that paralysed his last
resistance. The monstrous, half-legendary spirit of a
primitive day recaptured him completely; he yielded to
the spell of this tender, cruel woman, mother and avenging
angel, whom horror and suffering had flung back upon
the practices of uncivilized centuries. A common desire,
a common lust and purpose, degraded both of them. They
understood one another. Dropping back into a gulf of
savage worship that set up idols in the place of God, they
prayed to Odin and his awful crew....
It was again the touch of her hand that galvanized
him. She raised him; he had been kneeling in slavish
wonder and admiration at her feet. He leaped to do the
bidding, however terrible, of this woman who was priestess,
queen indeed, of a long-forgotten orgy.
“Vengeance at last!” he cried, in an exultant voice that
no longer frightened him. “Now light the fire! Bring
on the sacrifice!”
There was a rustling among the nearer branches, the
forest stirred; the leaves of last year brushed against advancing
feet. Yet before he could turn to see, before even
the last words had wholly left his lips, the woman, whose
hand still touched his fingers, suddenly tossed her cloak
aside, and flinging her bare arms about his neck, drew
him with impetuous passion towards her face and kissed
him, as with delighted fury of exultant passion, full upon
the mouth. Her body, in its clinging skins, pressed close
against his own; her heat poured into him. She held him
fiercely, savagely, and her burning kiss consumed his modern
soul away with the fire of a primal day.
“The gods have given you to us,” she cried, releasing
him. “Your soul is ours!”
She turned—they turned together—to look for one
upon whose last hour the moon now shed her horrid silver.
This silvery moonlight fell upon the scene.
Incongruously he remembered the flowers that soon
would know the cuckoo’s call; the soft mysterious stars
shone down; the woods lay silent underneath the sky.
An amazing fantasy of dream shot here and there.
“I am a man, an Englishman, a padre!” ran twisting
through his mind, as though she whispered them to emphasize
the ghastly contrast of reality. A memory of his own
Kentish village with its Sunday school fled past, his dream
of the Lion and the Lamb close after it. He saw children
playing on the green.... He saw their happy little
Justice, punishment, revenge—he could not disentangle
them. No longer did he wish to. The tide of violence was
at his lips, quenching an ancient thirst. He drank. It
seemed he could drink forever. These tender pictures
only sweetened horror. That kiss had burned his modern
The woman waved her hand; there swept from the
underbrush a score of figures dressed like herself in skins,
with leaves and flowers entwined among their flying hair.
He was surrounded in a moment. Upon each face he noted
the same tenderness and terrible resolve that their commander
wore. They pressed about him, dancing with enchanting
grace, yet with full-blooded abandon, across the
chequered light and shadow. It was the brimming energy
of their movements that swept him off his feet, waking the
desire for fierce rhythmical expression. His own muscles
leaped and ached; for this energy, it seemed, poured into
him from the tossing arms and legs, the shimmering bodies
whence hair and skins flung loose, setting the very air
awhirl. It flowed over into inanimate objects even, so that
the trees waved their branches although no wind stirred—hair,
skins and hands, rushing leaves and flying fingers
touched his face, his neck, his arms and shoulders, catching
him away into this orgy of an ancient, sacrificial ritual.
Faces with shining eyes peered into his, then sped away;
grew in a cloud upon the moonlight; sank back in
shadow; reappeared, touched him, whispered, vanished.
Silvery limbs gleamed everywhere. Chanting rose in a
wave, to fall away again into forest rustlings; there were
smiles that flashed, then fainted into moonlight, red lips
and gleaming teeth that shone, then faded out. The secret
glade, picked from the heart of the forest by the moon,
became a torrent of tumultuous life, a whirlpool of passionate
emotions Time had not killed.
But it was the eyes that mastered him, for in their
yearning, mating so incongruously with the savage grace—in
the eyes shone ever tears. He was aware of gentle
women, of womanhood, of accumulated feminine power
that nothing could withstand, but of feminine power in
majesty, its essential protective tenderness roused, as by
tribal instinct, into a collective fury of implacable revenge.
He was, above all, aware of motherhood—of mothers. And
the man, the male, the father in him rose like a storm to
From the torrent of voices certain sentences emerged;
sometimes chanted, sometimes driven into his whirling
mind as though big whispers thrust them down his ears.
“You are with us to the end,” he caught. “We have the
proof. And punishment is ours!”
It merged in wind, others took its place:
“We hold him fast. The old gods wait and listen.”
The body of rushing whispers flowed like a storm-wind
A lovely face, fluttering close against his own, paused
an instant, and starry eyes gazed into his with a passion
of gratitude, dimming a moment their stern fury with a
mother’s tenderness: “For the little ones ... it is necessary,
it is the only way.... Our own children....”
The face went out in a gust of blackness, as the chorus rose
with a new note of awe and reverence, and a score of
throats uttered in unison a single cry: “The raven! The
White Horses! His signs! Great Odin hears!”
He saw the great dark bird flap slowly across the clearing,
and melt against the shadow of the giant beech; he
heard its hoarse, croaking note; the crowds of heads bowed
low before its passage. The White Horses he did not see;
only a sound as of considerable masses of air regularly
displaced was audible far overhead. But the veiled light,
as though great thunder-clouds had risen, he saw distinctly.
The sky above the clearing where he stood, panting and
dishevelled, was blocked by a mass that owned unusual outline.
These clouds now topped the forest, hiding the moon
and stars. The flowers went out like nightlights blown.
The wind rose slowly, then with sudden violence. There
was a roaring in the tree-tops. The branches tossed and
“The White Horses!” cried the voices, in a frenzy of
adoration. “He is here!”
It came swiftly, this collective mass; it was both apt
and terrible. There was an immense footstep. It was
Then panic seized him, he felt an answering tumult in
himself, the Past surged through him like a sea at flood.
Some inner sight, peering across the wreckage of To-day,
perceived an outline that in its size dwarfed mountains, a
pair of monstrous shoulders, a face that rolled through a
full quarter of the heavens. Above the ruin of civilization,
now fulfilled in the microcosm of his own being, the menacing
shadow of a forgotten deity peered down upon the
earth, yet upon one detail of it chiefly—the human group
that had been wildly dancing, but that now chanted in
solemn conclave about a forest altar.
For some minutes a dead silence reigned; the pouring
winds left emptiness in which no leaf stirred; there was
a hush, a stillness that could be felt. The kneeling figures
stretched forth a level sea of arms towards the altar; from
the lowered heads the hair hung down in torrents, against
which the naked flesh shone white; the skins upon the
rows of backs gleamed yellow. The obscurity deepened
overhead. It was the time of adoration. He knelt as well,
arms similarly outstretched, while the lust of vengeance
burned within him.
Then came, across the stillness, the stirring of big
wings, a rustling as the great bird settled in the higher
branches of the beech. The ominous note broke through
the silence; and with one accord the shining backs were
straightened. The company rose, swayed, parting into
groups and lines. Two score voices resumed the solemn
chant. The throng of pallid faces passed to and fro like
great fire-flies that shone and vanished. He, too, heard
his own voice in unison, while his feet, as with instinctive
knowledge, trod the same measure that the others trod.
Out of this tumult and clearly audible above the chorus
and the rustling feet rang out suddenly, in a sweetly
fluting tone, the leader’s voice:
“The Fire! But first the hands!”
A rush of figures set instantly towards a thicket where
the underbrush stood densest. Skins, trailing flowers,
bare waving arms and tossing hair swept past on a burst
of perfume. It was as though the trees themselves sped
by. And the torrent of voices shook the very air in answer:
“The Fire! But first—the hands!”
Across this roaring volume pierced then, once again,
that wailing sound which seemed both human and non-human—the
anguished cry as of some lonely wolf in
metamorphosis, apart from the collective safety of the pack,
abjectly terrified, feeling the teeth of the final trap, and
knowing the helpless feet within the steel. There was
a crash of rending boughs and tearing branches. There
was a tumult in the thicket, though of brief duration—then
He stood watching, listening, overmastered by a diabolical
sensation of expectancy he knew to be atrocious.
Turning in the direction of the cry, his straining eyes
seemed filled with blood; in his temples the pulses throbbed
and hammered audibly. The next second he stiffened into
a stone-like rigidity, as a figure, struggling violently yet
half collapsed, was borne hurriedly past by a score of eager
arms that swept it towards the beech tree, and then proceeded
to fasten it in an upright position against the trunk.
It was a man bound tight with thongs, adorned with
leaves and flowers and trailing green. The face was hidden,
for the head sagged forward on the breast, but he saw
the arms forced flat against the giant trunk, held helpless
beyond all possible escape; he saw the knife, poised and
aimed by slender, graceful fingers above the victim’s wrists
laid bare; he saw the—hands.
“An eye for an eye,” he heard, “a tooth for a tooth!”
It rose in awful chorus. Yet this time, although the words
roared close about him, they seemed farther away, as if
wind brought them through the crowding trees from far
“Light the fire! Prepare the sacrifice!” came on a
following wind; and, while strange distance held the voices
as before, a new faint sound now audible was very close.
There was a crackling. Some ten feet beyond the tree a
column of thick smoke rose in the air; he was aware of
heat not meant for modern purposes; of yellow light that
was not the light of stars.
The figure writhed, and the face swung suddenly sideways.
Glaring with panic hopelessness past the judge and
past the hanging knife, the eyes found his own. There
was a pause of perhaps five seconds, but in these five seconds
centuries rolled by. The priest of To-day looked
down into the well of time. For five hundred years he
gazed into those twin eyeballs, glazed with the abject terror
of a last appeal. They recognized one another.
The centuries dragged appallingly. The drama of civilization,
in a sluggish stream, went slowly by, halting,
meandering, losing itself, then reappearing. Sharpest
pains, as of a thousand knives, accompanied its dreadful,
endless lethargy. Its million hesitations made him suffer
a million deaths of agony. Terror, despair and anger, all
futile and without effect upon its progress, destroyed a
thousand times his soul, which yet some hope—a towering,
indestructible hope—a thousand times renewed. This despair
and hope alternately broke his being, ever to fashion
it anew. His torture seemed not of this world. Yet hope
survived. The sluggish stream moved onward, forward....
There came an instant of sharpest, dislocating torture.
The yellow light grew slightly brighter. He saw the eyelids
It was at this moment he realized abruptly that he
stood alone, apart from the others, unnoticed apparently,
perhaps forgotten; his feet held steady; his voice no longer
sang. And at this discovery a quivering shock ran through
his being, as though the will were suddenly loosened into
a new activity, yet an activity that halted between two terrifying
It was as though the flicker of those eyelids loosed a
Two instincts, clashing in his being, fought furiously
for the mastery. One, ancient as this sacrifice, savage as
the legendary figure brooding in the heavens above him,
battled fiercely with another, acquired more recently in
human evolution, that had not yet crystallized into permanence.
He saw a child, playing in a Kentish orchard
with toys and flowers the little innocent hands made living
... he saw a lowly manger, figures kneeling round it, and
one star shining overhead in piercing and prophetic beauty.
Thought was impossible; he saw these symbols only, as
the two contrary instincts, alternately hidden and revealed,
fought for permanent possession of his soul. Each strove
to dominate him; it seemed that violent blows were struck
that wounded physically; he was bruised, he ached, he
gasped for breath; his body swayed, held upright only, it
seemed, by the awful appeal in the fixed and staring eyes.
The challenge had come at last to final action; the
conqueror, he well knew, would remain an integral portion
of his character, his soul.
It was the old, old battle, waged eternally in every
human heart, in every tribe, in every race, in every period,
the essential principle indeed, behind the great world-war.
In the stress and confusion of the fight, as the eyes of
the victim, savage in victory, abject in defeat—the appealing
eyes of that animal face against the tree stared with
their awful blaze into his own, this flashed clearly over
him. It was the battle between might and right, between
love and hate, forgiveness and vengeance, Christ and the
Devil. He heard the menacing thunder of “an eye for
an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” then above its angry volume
rose suddenly another small silvery voice that pierced with
sweetness:—“Vengeance is mine, I will repay ...” sang
through him as with unimaginable hope.
Something became incandescent in him then. He
realized a singular merging of powers in absolute opposition
to each other. It was as though they harmonized.
Yet it was through this small, silvery voice the apparent
magic came. The words, of course, were his own in memory,
but they rose from his modern soul, now reawakening....
He started painfully. He noted again that he stood
apart, alone, perhaps forgotten of the others. The woman,
leading a dancing throng about the blazing brushwood, was
far from him. Her mind, too sure of his compliance, had
momentarily left him. The chain was weakened. The
circuit knew a break.
But this sudden realization was not of spontaneous
origin. His heart had not produced it of its own accord.
The unholy tumult of the orgy held him too slavishly in
its awful sway for the tiny point of his modern soul to
have pierced it thus unaided. The light flashed to him
from an outside, natural source of simple loveliness—the
singing of a bird. From the distance, faint and exquisite,
there had reached him the silvery notes of a happy thrush,
awake in the night, and telling its joy over and over again
to itself. The innocent beauty of its song came through
the forest and fell into his soul....
The eyes, he became aware, had shifted, focusing now
upon an object nearer to them. The knife was moving.
There was a convulsive wriggle of the body, the head
dropped loosely forward, no cry was audible. But, at the
same moment, the inner battle ceased and an unexpected
climax came. Did the soul of the bully faint with
fear? Did the spirit leave him at the actual touch
of earthly vengeance? The watcher never knew. In that
appalling moment when the knife was about to begin the
mission that the fire would complete, the roar of inner
battle ended abruptly, and that small silvery voice drew
the words of invincible power from his reawakening soul.
“Ye do it also unto me ...” pealed o’er the forest.
He reeled. He acted instantaneously. Yet before he
had dashed the knife from the hand of the executioner,
scattered the pile of blazing wood, plunged through the
astonished worshippers with a violence of strength that
amazed even himself; before he had torn the thongs apart
and loosened the fainting victim from the tree; before
he had uttered a single word or cry, though it seemed to
him he roared with a voice of thousands—he witnessed a
sight that came surely from the Heaven of his earliest
childhood days, from that Heaven whose God is love and
whose forgiveness was taught him at his mother’s knee.
With superhuman rapidity it passed before him and
was gone. Yet it was no earthly figure that emerged from
the forest, ran with this incredible swiftness past the
startled throng, and reached the tree. He saw the shape;
the same instant it was there; wrapped in light, as though
a flame from the sacrificial fire flashed past him over the
ground. It was of an incandescent brightness, yet brightest
of all were the little outstretched hands. These were
of purest gold, of a brilliance incredibly shining.
It was no earthly child that stretched forth these arms
of generous forgiveness and took the bewildered prisoner
by the hand just as the knife descended and touched the
helpless wrists. The thongs were already loosened, and the
victim, fallen to his knees, looked wildly this way and that
for a way of possible escape, when the shining hands were
laid upon his own. The murderer rose. Another instant
and the throng must have been upon him, tearing him
limb from limb. But the radiant little face looked down
into his own; she raised him to his feet; with superhuman
swiftness she led him through the infuriated concourse as
though he had become invisible, guiding him safely past
the furies into the cover of the trees. Close before his eyes,
this happened; he saw the waft of golden brilliance, he
heard the final gulp of it, as wind took the dazzling of its
fiery appearance into space. They were gone....
He stood watching the disappearing motor-cars, wondering
uneasily who the occupants were and what their
business, whither and why did they hurry so swiftly
through the night? He was still trying to light his pipe,
but the damp tobacco would not burn.
The air stole out of the forest, cooling his body and
his mind; he saw the anemones gleam; there was only
peace and calm about him, the earth lay waiting for the
sweet, mysterious stars. The moon was higher; he looked
up; a late bird sang. Three strips of cloud, spaced far
apart, were the footsteps of the South Wind, as she flew
to bring more birds from Africa. His thoughts turned to
gentle, happy hopes of a day when the lion and the lamb
should lie down together, and a little child should lead
them. War, in this haunt of ancient peace, seemed an
He did not go farther; he did not enter the forest; he
turned back along the quiet road he had come, ate his food
on a farmer’s gate, and over a pipe sat dreaming of his
sure belief that humanity had advanced. He went home
to his hotel soon after midnight. He slept well, and next
day walked back the four miles from the hospitals, instead
of using the car. Another hospital searcher walked with
him. They discussed the news.
“The weather’s better anyhow,” said his companion.
“In our favour at last!”
“That’s something,” he agreed, as they passed a gang
of prisoners and crossed the road to avoid saluting.
“Been another escape, I hear,” the other mentioned.
“He won’t get far. How on earth do they manage it?
The M.O. had a yarn that he was helped by a motor-car.
I wonder what they’ll do to him.”
“Oh, nothing much. Bread and water and extra work,
The other laughed. “I’m not so sure,” he said lightly.
“Humanity hasn’t advanced very much in that kind of
A fugitive memory flashed for an instant through the
other’s brain as he listened. He had an odd feeling for
a second that he had heard this conversation before somewhere.
A ghostly sense of familiarity brushed his mind,
then vanished. At dinner that night the table in front of
him was unoccupied. He did not, however, notice that it