any definite duties, the apprehension I had felt all day long became more
and more acute. It was not then active fear, I think, but the very
vagueness of its origin distressed me far more that if I had been able to
ticket and face it squarely. The curious sound I have likened to the note
of a gong became now almost incessant, and filled the stillness of the
night with a faint, continuous ringing rather than a series of distinct
notes. At one time it was behind and at another time in front of us.
Sometimes I fancied it came from the bushes on our left, and then again
from the clumps on our right. More often it hovered directly overhead like
the whirring of wings. It was really everywhere at once, behind, in front,
at our sides and over our heads, completely surrounding us. The sound
really defies description. But nothing within my knowledge is like that
ceaseless muffled humming rising off the deserted world of swamps and
We sat smoking in comparative silence, the strain growing every minute
greater. The worst feature of the situation seemed to me that we did not
know what to expect, and could therefore make no sort of preparation by way
of defense. We could anticipate nothing. My explanations made in the
sunshine, moreover, now came to haunt me with their foolish and wholly
unsatisfactory nature, and it was more and more clear to us that some kind
of plain talk with my companion was inevitable, whether I liked it or not.
After all, we had to spend the night together, and to sleep in the same
tent side by side. I saw that I could not get along much longer without the
support of his mind, and for that, of course, plain talk was imperative. As
long as possible, however, I postponed this little climax, and tried to
ignore or laugh at the occasional sentences he flung into the emptiness.
Some of these sentences, moreover, were confoundedly disquieting to me,
coming as they did to corroborate much that I felt myself; corroboration,
too - which made it so much more convincing - from a totally different point
of view. He composed such curious sentences, and hurled them at me in such
an inconsequential sort of way, as though his main line of thought was
secret to himself, and these fragments were mere bits he found it
impossible to digest. He got rid of them by uttering them. Speech relieved
him. It was like being sick.
"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
"I don't think a gramophone would show any record of that. The sound
doesn't come to me by the ears at all. The vibrations reach me in another
manner altogether, and seem to be within me, which is precisely how a
fourth dimensional sound might be supposed to make itself heard."
I purposely made no reply to this, but I sat up a little closer to the fire
and peered about me into the darkness. The clouds were massed all over the
sky, and no trace of moonlight came through. Very still, too, everything
was, so that the river and the frogs had things all their own way.
"It has that about it," he went on, "which is utterly out of common
experience. It is unknown. Only one thing describes it really; it is a
non-human sound; I mean a sound outside humanity."
Having rid himself of this indigestible morsel, he lay quiet for a time,
but he had so admirably expressed my own feeling that it was a relief to
have the thought out, and to have confined it by the limitation of words
from dangerous wandering to and fro in the mind.
The solitude of that Danube camping-place, can I ever forget it? The
feeling of being utterly alone on an empty planet! My thoughts ran
incessantly upon cities and the haunts of men. I would have given my soul,
as the saying is, for the "feel" of those Bavarian villages we had passed
through by the score; for the normal, human commonplaces; peasants drinking
beer, tables beneath the trees, hot sunshine, and a ruined castle on the
rocks behind the red-roofed church. Even the tourists would have been
Yet what I felt of dread was no ordinary ghostly fear. It was infinitely
greater, stranger, and seemed to arise from some dim ancestral sense of
terror more profoundly disturbing than anything I had known or dreamed of.
We had "strayed," as the Swede put it, into some region or some set of
conditions where the risks were great, yet unintelligible to us; where the
frontiers of some unknown world lay close about us. It was a spot held by
the dwellers in some outer space, a sort of peep-hole whence they could spy
upon the earth, themselves unseen, a point where the veil between had worn
a little thin. As the final result of too long a sojourn here, we should be
carried over the border and deprived of what we called "our lives," yet by
mental, not physical, processes. In that sense, as he said, we should be
the victims of our adventure - a sacrifice.
It took us in different fashion, each according to the measure of his
sensitiveness and powers of resistance. I translated it vaguely into a
personification of the mightily disturbed elements, investing them with the
horror of a deliberate and malefic purpose, resentful of our audacious
intrusion into their breeding-place; whereas my friend threw it into the
unoriginal form at first of a trespass on some ancient shrine, some place
where the old gods still held sway, where the emotional forces of former
worshippers still clung, and the ancestral portion of him yielded to the
old pagan spell.
At any rate, here was a place unpolluted by men, kept clean by the winds
from coarsening human influences, a place where spiritual agencies were
within reach and aggressive. Never, before or since, have I been so
attacked by indescribable suggestions of a "beyond region," of another
scheme of life, another revolution not parallel to the human. And in the
end our minds would succumb under the weight of the awful spell, and we
should be drawn across the frontier into their world.
Small things testified to the amazing influence of the place, and now in
the silence round the fire they allowed themselves to be noted by the mind.
The very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every
indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making
signs, the shifting willows, one and all had been robbed of its natural
character, and revealed in something of its other aspect - as it existed
across the border to that other region. And this changed aspect I felt was
now not merely to me, but to the race. The whole experience whose verge we
touched was unknown to humanity at all. It was a new order of experience,
and in the true sense of the word unearthly.
"It's the deliberate, calculating purpose that reduces one's courage to
zero," the Swede said suddenly, as if he had been actually following my
thoughts. "Otherwise imagination might count for much. But the paddle, the
canoe, the lessening food - "
"Haven't I explained all that once?" I interrupted viciously.
"You have," he answered dryly; "you have indeed."
He made other remarks too, as usual, about what he called the "plain
determination to provide a victim"; but, having now arranged my thoughts
better, I recognized that this was simply the cry of his frightened soul
against the knowledge that he was being attacked in a vital part, and that
he would be somehow taken or destroyed. The situation called for a courage
and calmness of reasoning that neither of us could compass, and I have
never before been so clearly conscious of two persons in me - the one that
explained everything, and the other that laughed at such foolish
explanations, yet was horribly afraid.
Meanwhile, in the pitchy night the fire died down and the wood pile grew
small. Neither of us moved to replenish the stock, and the darkness
consequently came up very close to our faces. A few feet beyond the circle
of firelight it was inky black. Occasionally a stray puff of wind set the
willows shivering about us, but apart from this not very welcome sound a
deep and depressing silence reigned, broken only by the gurgling of the
river and the humming in the air overhead.
We both missed, I think, the shouting company of the winds.
At length, at a moment when a stray puff prolonged itself as though the
wind were about to rise again, I reached the point for me of saturation,
the point where it was absolutely necessary to find relief in plain speech,
or else to betray myself by some hysterical extravagance that must have
been far worse in its effect upon both of us. I kicked the fire into a
blaze, and turned to my companion abruptly. He looked up with a start.
"I can't disguise it any longer," I said; "I don't like this place, and the
darkness, and the noises, and the awful feelings I get. There's something
here that beats me utterly. I'm in a blue funk, and that's the plain truth.
If the other shore was - different, I swear I'd be inclined to swim for it!"
The Swede's face turned very white beneath the deep tan of sun and wind. He
stared straight at me and answered quietly, but his voice betrayed his huge
excitement by its unnatural calmness. For the moment, at any rate, he was
the strong man of the two. He was more phlegmatic, for one thing.
"It's not a physical condition we can escape from by running away," he
replied, in the tone of a doctor diagnosing some grave disease; "we must
sit tight and wait. There are forces close here that could kill a herd of
elephants in a second as easily as you or I could squash a fly. Our only
chance is to keep perfectly still. Our insignificance perhaps may save us."
I put a dozen questions into my expression of face, but found no words. It
was precisely like listening to an accurate description of a disease whose
symptoms had puzzled me.
"I mean that so far, although aware of our disturbing presence, they have
not found us - not 'located' us, as the Americans say," he went on. "They're
blundering about like men hunting for a leak of gas. The paddle and canoe
and provisions prove that. I think they feel us, but cannot actually see
us. We must keep our minds quiet - it's our minds they feel. We must control
our thoughts, or it's all up with us."
"Death, you mean?" I stammered, icy with the horror of his suggestion.
"Worse - by far," he said. "Death, according to one's belief, means either
annihilation or release from the limitations of the senses, but it involves
no change of character. You don't suddenly alter just because the body's
gone. But this means a radical alteration, a complete change, a horrible
loss of oneself by substitution - far worse than death, and not even
annihilation. We happen to have camped in a spot where their region touches
ours, where the veil between has worn thin" - horrors! he was using my very
own phrase, my actual words - "so that they are aware of our being in their
"But who are aware?" I asked.
I forgot the shaking of the willows in the windless calm, the humming
overhead, everything except that I was waiting for an answer that I dreaded
more than I can possibly explain.
He lowered his voice at once to reply, leaning forward a little over the
fire, an indefinable change in his face that made me avoid his eyes and
look down upon the ground.
"All my life," he said, "I have been strangely, vividly conscious of
another region - not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly
different in kind - where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and
terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which
earthly affairs, the rise and fall of nations, the destinies of empires,
the fate of armies and continents, are all as dust in the balance; vast
purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with
more expressions of the soul - "
"I suggest just now - " I began, seeking to stop him, feeling as though I
was face to face with a madman. But he instantly overbore me with his
torrent that had to come.
"You think," he said, "it is the spirit of the elements, and I thought
perhaps it was the old gods. But I tell you now it is - neither. These would
be comprehensible entities, for they have relations with men, depending
upon them for worship or sacrifice, whereas these beings who are now about
us have absolutely nothing to do with mankind, and it is mere chance that
their space happens just at this spot to touch our own."
The mere conception, which his words somehow made so convincing, as I
listened to them there in the dark stillness of that lonely island, set me
shaking a little all over. I found it impossible to control my movements.
"And what do you propose?" I began again.
"A sacrifice, a victim, might save us by distracting them until we could
get away," he went on, "just as the wolves stop to devour the dogs and give
the sleigh another start. But - I see no chance of any other victim now."
I stared blankly at him. The gleam in his eye was dreadful. Presently he
"It's the willows, of course. The willows mask the others, but the others
are feeling about for us. If we let our minds betray our fear, we're lost,
lost utterly." He looked at me with an expression so calm, so determined,
so sincere, that I no longer had any doubts as to his sanity. He was as
sane as any man ever was. "If we can hold out through the night," he added,
"we may get off in the daylight unnoticed, or rather, undiscovered."
"But you really think a sacrifice would - "
That gong-like humming came down very close over our heads as I spoke, but
it was my friend's scared face that really stopped my mouth.
"Hush!" he whispered, holding up his hand. "Do not mention them more than
you can help. Do not refer to them by name. To name is to reveal; it is the
inevitable clue, and our only hope lies in ignoring them, in order that
they may 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
He nodded significantly.
"It was like the beginning of a sort of inner suffocation?" I said.
"Partly, yes. It seemed to me that the weight of the atmosphere had been
altered - had increased enormously, so that we should have been crushed."
"And that," I went on, determined to have it all out, pointing upwards
where the gong-like note hummed ceaselessly, rising and falling like wind.
"What do you make of that?"
"It's their sound," he whispered gravely. "It's the sound of their world,
the humming in their region. The division here is so thin that it leaks
through somehow. But, if you listen carefully, you'll find it's not above
so much as around us. It's in the willows. It's the willows themselves
humming, because here the willows have been made symbols of the forces that
are against us."
I could not follow exactly what he meant by this, yet the thought and idea
in my mind were beyond question the thought and idea in his. I realized
what he realized, only with less power of analysis than his. It was on the
tip of my tongue to tell him at last about my hallucination of the
ascending figures and the moving bushes, when he suddenly thrust his face
again close into mine across the firelight and began to speak in a very
earnest whisper. He amazed me by his calmness and pluck, his apparent
control of the situation. This man I had for years deemed unimaginative,
"Now listen," he said. "The only thing for us to do is to go on as though
nothing had happened, follow our usual habits, go to bed, and so forth;
pretend we feel nothing and notice nothing. It is a question wholly of the
mind, and the less we think about them the better our chance of escape.
Above all, don't think, for what you think happens!"
"All right," I managed to reply, simply breathless with his words and the
strangeness of it all; "all right, I'll try, but tell me one more thing
first. Tell me what you make of those hollows in the ground all about us,
"No!" he cried, forgetting to whisper in his excitement. "I dare not,
simply dare not, put the thought into words. If you have not guessed I am
glad. Don't try to. They have put it into my mind; try your hardest to
prevent their putting it into yours."
He sank his voice again to a whisper before he finished, and I did not
press him to explain. There was already just about as much horror in me as
I could hold. The conversation came to an end, and we smoked our pipes
busily in silence.
Then something happened, something unimportant apparently, as the way is
when the nerves are in a very great state of tension, and this small thing
for a brief space gave me an entirely different point of view. I chanced to
look down at my sand-shoe - the sort we used for the canoe - and something to
do with the hole at the toe suddenly recalled to me the London shop where I
had bought them, the difficulty the man had in fitting me, and other
details of the uninteresting but practical operation. At once, in its
train, followed a wholesome view of the modern skeptical world I was
accustomed to move in at home. I thought of roast beef, and ale,
motor-cars, policemen, brass bands, and a dozen other things that
proclaimed the soul of ordinariness or utility. The effect was immediate
and astonishing even to myself. Psychologically, I suppose, it was simply a
sudden and violent reaction after the strain of living in an atmosphere of
things that to the normal consciousness must seem impossible and
incredible. But, whatever the cause, it momentarily lifted the spell from
my heart, and left me for the short space of a minute feeling free and
utterly unafraid. I looked up at my friend opposite.
"You damned old pagan!" I cried, laughing aloud in his face. "You
imaginative idiot! You superstitious idolater! You - "
I stopped in the middle, seized anew by the old horror. I tried to smother
the sound of my voice as something sacrilegious. The Swede, of course,
heard it too - the strange cry overhead in the darkness - and that sudden
drop in the air as though something had come nearer.
He had turned ashen white under the tan. He stood bolt upright in front of
the fire, stiff as a rod, staring at me.
"After that," he said in a sort of helpless, frantic way, "we must go! We
can't stay now; we must strike camp this very instant and go on - down the
He was talking, I saw, quite wildly, his words dictated by abject
terror - the terror he had resisted so long, but which had caught him at
"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. The positions, by one of
those kaleidoscopic changes nature loves, were suddenly reversed, and the
control of our forces passed over into my hands. His mind at last had
reached the point where it was beginning to weaken.
"What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?" he whispered with the awe
of genuine terror in his voice and face.
I crossed round to his side of the fire. I took both his hands in mine,
kneeling down beside him and looking straight into his frightened eyes.
"We'll make one more blaze," I said firmly, "and then turn in for the
night. At sunrise we'll be off full speed for Komorn. Now, pull yourself
together a bit, and remember your own advice about not thinking fear!"
He said no more, and I saw that he would agree and obey. In some measure,
too, it was a sort of relief to get up and make an excursion into the
darkness for more wood. We kept close together, almost touching, groping
among the bushes and along the bank. The humming overhead never ceased, but
seemed to me to grow louder as we increased our distance from the fire. It
was shivery work!
We were grubbing away in the middle of a thickish clump of willows where
some driftwood from a former flood had caught high among the branches, when
my body was seized in a grip that made me half drop upon the sand. It was
the Swede. He had fallen against me, and was clutching me for support. I
heard his breath coming and going in short gasps.
"Look! By my soul!" he whispered, and for the first time in my experience I
knew what it was to hear tears of terror in a human voice. He was pointing
to the fire, some fifty feet away. I followed the direction of his finger,
and I swear my heart missed a beat.
There, in front of the dim glow, something was moving.
I saw it through a veil that hung before my eyes like the gauze
drop-curtain used at the back of a theater - hazily a little. It was neither
a human figure nor an animal. To me it gave the strange impression of being
as large as several animals grouped together, like horses, two or three,
moving slowly. The Swede, too, got a similar result, though expressing it
differently, for he thought it was shaped and sized like a clump of willow
bushes, rounded at the top, and moving all over upon its surface - "coiling
upon itself like smoke," he said afterwards.
"I watched it settle downwards through the bushes," he sobbed at me. "Look,
by God! It's coming this way! Oh, oh!" - he gave a kind of whistling cry.
"They've found us."
I gave one terrified glance, which just enabled me to see that the shadowy
form was swinging towards us through the bushes, and then I collapsed
backwards with a crash into the branches. These failed, of course, to
support my weight, so that with the Swede on top of me we fell in a
struggling heap upon the sand. I really hardly knew what was happening. I
was conscious only of a sort of enveloping sensation of icy fear that
plucked the nerves out of their fleshly covering, twisted them this way and
that, and replaced them quivering. My eyes were tightly shut; something in
my throat choked me; a feeling that my consciousness was expanding,
extending out into space, swiftly gave way to another feeling that I was
losing it altogether, and about to die.
An acute spasm of pain passed through me, and I was aware that the Swede
had hold of me in such a way that he hurt me abominably. It was the way he
caught at me in falling.
But it was the pain, he declared afterwards, that saved me; it caused me to
forget them and think of something else at the very instant when they were
about to find me. It concealed my mind from them at the moment of
discovery, yet just in time to evade their terrible seizing of me. He
himself, he says, actually swooned at the same moment, and that was what
I only know that at a later date, how long or short is impossible to say, I
found myself scrambling up out of the slippery network of willow branches,
and saw my companion standing in front of me holding out a hand to assist
me. I stared at him in a dazed way, rubbing the arm he had twisted for me.
Nothing came to me to say, somehow.
"I lost consciousness for a moment or two," I heard him say. "That's what
saved me. It made me stop thinking about them."
"You nearly broke my arm in two," I said, uttering my only connected
thought at the moment. A numbness came over me.
"That's what saved you!" he replied. "Between us, we've managed to set them
off on a false tack somewhere. The humming has ceased. It's gone - for the
moment at any rate!"
A wave of hysterical laughter seized me again, and this time spread to my
friend too - great healing gusts of shaking laughter that brought a
tremendous sense of relief in their train. We made our way back to the fire